Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

30 October 2010

October snippets

  • A few days ago I saw a parhelion in the evening sky, commonly known as a sun dog. Apparently they are more frequent on the Canadian prairies and less so in Ontario. The ancient Greeks must have known it too, judging from its name.

  • Though I have lived most of my life in the Great Lakes region of North America, I had not known until recently that, from an hydrological point of view, Lakes Michigan and Huron are a single lake, with water levels rising and falling together. The "two" lakes come together at the Mackinac Bridge, which opened in 1957 and connects the two peninsulas of Michigan.

  • The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology has posted several interviews "on Christian political responsibility and the significance (or lack thereof!) of various biblical texts." Among those interviewed are James W. Skillen, yours truly, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Land and Oliver O'Donovan, with more coming from Amy Sherman, William Willimon and John Frame.

  • Tolerance, like inclusivity, is one of those buzz words used in some circles as an unmitigated good, but generally without much reflection on its implications for specific communities. I have just posted something on the topic at First Things: Evangel: Normed tolerance, which is an expansion of something I posted here a few years ago.

  • I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this:



  • Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the luminaries of the Social Gospel movement of a century ago. While we might justifiably applaud the Social Gospel's emphasis on the corporate character of redemption, we should certainly disagree with its tendency to identify redemption with social reform. My own thesis is that the Social Gospel, liberation theology and similar movements are rooted in a conflation of the cultural mandate, given to man at creation (Genesis 1:28), with the redemptive focus of history as accomplished in Jesus Christ. In short, it improperly makes us our own redeemers. I hope to expand on this thesis at some point.

  • Municipal elections were held across Ontario this past week. Hamilton's new mayor, Bob Bratina, won the election with only 37.3% of the vote. With only 39.9% turnout, that means he received the support of a grand total of 14.9% of eligible voters. Am I the only one to think something's badly amiss here? A runoff election or instant runoff voting would be more appropriate than simply relying on such a small plurality to fill the mayoral spot.

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    22 October 2010

    CPJ: Capital Commentary revamp

    The Center for Public Justice was founded in 1977 and since then has undertaken to articulate a Christian vision for public policy in the United States based on the principle of what I would call societal pluriformity. Recently its long time president, James W. Skillen, retired and was replaced by my friend and sometime colleague Gideon Strauss, who is now overseeing its activities.

    Among the changes that Strauss has effected is to revamp CPJ’s Capital Commentary series, making it an online magazine with its own website. In today’s issue Strauss, who served as an interpreter on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, writes on Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope, the second instalment of a series on the Psalms that grows out of this difficult experience.

    I am pleased to be playing a small part in the new Capital Commentary. Every other week for the next six months, Michael Gerson, former speech writer to President Bush, will be analyzing a political issue of significance from the previous two weeks under the general title, The Decision. The following week I will post a response to Gerson called Deliberation. Gerson’s first contribution appeared a week ago today: Fighting Disease in the Developing World. Today my response appears: Making Tough Decisions. Stay tuned. There’s more to come.

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    13 October 2010

    Another milestone

    This fourth printing comes only 14 months after it went into a third. I am, of course, gratified that readers continue to find my book of value.

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    09 October 2010

    Yet another English Bible . . .


    . . . to fill what some persist in believing to be a desperate need for good translations of the Good Book. This one’s called the Common English Bible, which is an improvement over existing translations because of . . . what? I’m not sure, except that it appears to use more contractions than most other versions. Which prompts me to ask: after so many decades, is the runaway proliferation of bible translations in English still about making the Word of God more comprehensible to ordinary people? Or is it by now about niche marketing?

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    04 October 2010

    On the Brink of pluralism

    The Center for Public Justice continues its series on pluralism with this contribution from my esteemed protégé, Dr. Paul Brink: On Dreams of Justice and Cups of Cool Water.

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    01 October 2010

    From Wellhausen to 'God's politics'?

    Several years ago my friend and former colleague Paul Marshall wrote a review of Jim Wallis' God's Politics for The Review of Faith & International Affairs: Jim Wallis’ Politics — or Lack Thereof. Marshall's paragraph below is worth rereading:
    Obviously, no popular book should be weighed down with ponderous theological reflection, but it should show some sign of having considered such reflection. For example, Wallis writes, “The place to begin to understand God is with the prophets.” There is no wisp of an argument justifying this unusual contention. He never asks why the Bible does not begin with the prophets, but with Genesis. He never mentions that the majority of Christian reflection on politics has begun with Genesis. He never carefully relates what the prophets say to the Torah, hence acknowledging that they challenge their rulers on the basis of God’s law, not on their own feelings of injustice. Maybe most of the church has been wrong for two millennia on how it addresses politics; it has certainly been wrong on other things. But Wallis never says why. He simply asserts a novel doctrine as indubitable fact.

    This critique seemed obviously right to me when I read it. Of course the prophets were calling the people of Israel back to obey God's law. How could anyone doubt it?

    Since reading this review, however, I've come to wonder whether there might be something else behind Wallis' "unusual contention" — one related to some of the more contestable assumptions of modern biblical scholarship. Since Julius Wellhausen and others articulated the Documentary Hypothesis on the origin of the Pentateuch more than a hundred years ago, it has generally been thought that the first five books of the Bible were written long after Moses. Indeed there are indications of later authorship embedded in the text itself (e.g., Genesis 36:31–43, Deuteronomy 34:5–10), as Spinoza pointed out already in the 17th century.



    The Documentary Hypothesis ascribes the bulk of the Torah's legal code to the priestly source (or P), who ostensibly wrote around 500 BC during the Babylonian exile. Deuteronomy is similarly thought to have been written around the time of King Josiah, who is assumed to have instructed Hilkiah to "find" this in the temple to justify his reforms (2 Kings 22). These late dates are crucial because they imply that the law, so extolled in Psalm 119, was written well after such prophets as Isaiah and Amos had railed against the wickedness and injustices committed by the peoples of Israel and Judah. If so, then perhaps there was no actual law at that time to which the prophets could refer their hearers. Yet the prophets managed to demand forcefully that the people do justice, especially to the widow, the orphan and the sojourner — something that came to resonate with the people who codified these precepts a century or two later.

    It is entirely possible that I am off base here, but I do wonder whether the Documentary Hypothesis might in part account for Wallis' "novel" approach of beginning his discussion with the prophets. If, on the other hand, one accepts the tradition that the bulk of the material in the Pentateuch is Mosaic in origin, one is more likely to start one's reflections on "God's politics" where the Bible itself starts: with Genesis.

    Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

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