Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

23 June 2012

A partisan party gift?

I prefer to be charitable and assume this is someone's idea of a very bad joke:



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19 June 2012

The True Genius of the U.S. Constitution

An article of mine was published last week in the Center for Public Justice's Capital Commentary:

This year marks the 225th anniversary of the United States Constitution, by far the oldest functioning constitutional document still in effect. It has weathered the vicissitudes of history, including a devastating Civil War that threatened to fragment the nation and its people permanently. By contrast, the German Basic Law dates only from 1949, and the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic from 1958. What is the key to the U.S. Constitution’s remarkable longevity?

One well-known narrative has it that the Founding Fathers were skilled constitutional architects, fashioning a political system whose internal institutions are so perfectly balanced that no one of these could gain the upper hand and suppress the others. The Fathers read Baron Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, in which the author argued that liberty is most likely to thrive under a constitution providing that power check power. Where legislative, executive and judicial powers are not separated, there can be no liberty.

Yet Montesquieu never claimed to have invented this separation of powers. Read more here.

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An enduring legacy: Chuck Colson (1931-2012)

As promised, here is something I wrote about Chuck Colson for Christian Courier. It appeared in the 14 May issue:

As a young man, I cut my political teeth on the Watergate scandal, which brought down a sitting president and led to the conviction and incarceration of several members of his administration. One of these was Charles Wendell Colson, known to everyone as Chuck. As Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon, he gained a deserved reputation for ruthlessness in the conduct of his office. Thus the announcement in 1973 that he had become a Christian was greeted with a general sense of disbelief by many who knew him. Could someone so thoroughly imbued with the ethos of Machiavelli suddenly take on the mantle of evangelist?

Yet Colson’s conversion was the genuine article, and for the next nearly four decades he devoted his life to the cause of Christ in a very public way. After serving time in prison, he founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, an outreach programme to prisoners and their families aimed at turning around lives that might otherwise be wasted within the bowels of America’s criminal justice system. There were a number of elements in this ministry, including Angel Tree, which has enabled prisoners to give Christmas gifts and messages of love to their families on the outside.

Had Colson limited his efforts to assisting prisoners and their families, he would have been justly remembered for having performed a great work for the cause of the gospel. But he went beyond this, focussing further on the domestic justice system, political action and encouraging among ordinary Christians the cultivation of a biblical worldview. This made him a latter-day heir of William Wilberforce, Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer, three Christians whom he admired and whose efforts for the kingdom of God he sought to emulate.

Wilberforce, for whom the think tank arm of Prison Fellowship is named, was the great English statesman who successfully ended the slave trade, laying the groundwork for its eventual abolition in the British Empire just days before his own death in 1833. Kuyper, of course, needs no introduction to readers of Christian Courier. Schaeffer, who along with his wife Edith founded l’Abri in Switzerland, authored several books from the late 1960s until his death in 1984 in which he analyzed art and literature with an eye towards discerning the underlying worldviews therein.

From my perspective one of Colson’s most significant contributions was to raise Kuyper’s profile amongst North American evangelicals to an unprecedented degree. I first became aware of Kuyper’s rich legacy at age 20 through a friend at a Christian university in the States. At that time Kuyper was not at all well unknown outside of Dutch Reformed circles, but this is no longer the case, due in no small measure to Colson and more specifically to his one-time collaborator Nancy Pearcey, who once studied with some of my friends, former teachers and colleagues at the Institute for Christian Studies.

Not surprisingly, Colson was no stranger to controversy. He was castigated for reviewing books and films in his broadcast Breakpoint commentaries which he had not actually read or seen. Such commentaries were apparently written by others for him to read over the air. Colson’s prolific book output was aided by staff writers who, it was charged, did most of the work but for little or no credit. A dispute over who would receive top billing led to a break between him and Pearcey after their successful collaboration on How Now Shall We Live?, with Pearcey making not so veiled allusions to this episode in the final chapter of her own Total Truth a few years later.

Moreover, Colson sometimes made it seem that Christian political involvement was for the purpose of saving America rather than for being faithful to a God who sovereignly works out his purposes throughout the world. Like the Social Gospellers of old, he tended to confuse the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:26-28) with Christ’s redemption of creation, a conflation with potentially troublesome consequences for an orthodox doctrine of salvation.

Nevertheless, he successfully built bridges of co-operation between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, along with his friend Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who preceded him in death by three years. In this too he followed the example of his mentor, Abraham Kuyper, who forged an enduring political alliance with Catholics in the Netherlands a century ago.

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14 June 2012

The papal paradox

Not many people are aware of a remarkable assertion by St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome (c. 540-604), as recounted by Michael Horton:
Ancient Christian leaders of the East gave special honor to the bishop of Rome, but considered any claim of one bishop’s supremacy to be an act of schism. Even in the West such a privilege was rejected by Gregory the Great in the sixth century. He expressed offense at being addressed by a bishop as “universal pope”: “a word of proud address that I have forbidden….None of my predecessors ever wished to use this profane word ['universal']….But I say it confidently, because whoever calls himself ‘universal bishop’ or wishes to be so called, is in his self-exaltation Antichrist’s precursor, for in his swaggering he sets himself before the rest” (Gregory I, Letters; tr. NPNF 2 ser.XII. i. 75-76; ii. 170, 171, 179, 166, 169, 222, 225).

These words are also quoted by Jean Calvin in his Institutes IV.vii.16.

This would seem to raise a logical difficulty similar to the famous Cretan Paradox. St. Gregory is esteemed as an early Pope by the Roman Catholic Church. A decree of the First Vatican Council in 1870 proclaimed the Pope's infallibility when speaking ex cathedra. The Pope claims to be universal head of the Church, set above the other bishops. Yet Gregory himself explicitly repudiated this title for himself. If he did so infallibly, that might mean that the universal head of the Church is nothing of the sort. Or does it? Assuming they are aware of it, how would the current leadership in Rome go about resolving this paradox?

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13 June 2012

Over-reacting to 'creeping sharia'


Matthew Schmitz is dead on in alerting us to the negative impact of Fears of ‘Creeping Sharia’. Several US states, including Kansas, are taking legislative action to stop what they persist in believing to be a domestic threat from muslim sharia law. Such efforts are of dubious constitutionality and are in fact a threat, not only to everyone's religious liberty, but to a robust conception of what I would call legal pluriformity.
Sharia, of course, does not grant all the rights that the U.S. Constitution does; neither does Christian canon law or Jewish Halakhic law (or English or French law, for that matter). But why should this fact prevent a court from honoring a contract made under the provisions of one of these “foreign” legal systems if the contract does not itself violate any U.S. or state regulations, laws, or constitutional provisions? Under one reading of the Kansas law, a contract that makes reference to canon law or sharia — but is otherwise perfectly legal — would be thrown out, while an identical one that makes no such reference would be upheld.

Rarely do laws enacted hurriedly in response to a perceived danger take sufficient care to uphold public justice for all. Indeed, state legislators who have too quickly jumped on this bandwagon should reconsider whether they might inadvertently be paving the way for a general levelling of legitimate legal pluriformity for everyone, muslim and nonmuslim alike.

Legal pluriformity means simply that the state is not the only source of law. Every community possesses a jural aspect and is characterized by an internal law to which members are subject. These include the household rules of a family set by the parents, the bylaws of a business corporation, the syllabus in the classroom, the faculty handbook in the university, and so forth. As Schmitz properly recognizes, legal pluriformity also encompasses canon law of the church and even sharia law in the mosque. The notion, popular in some quarters, that all these types of law owe their ultimate validity to the state is a totalitarian conception that should find no place in a constitutional democracy. Let us hope and pray that saner heads will prevail sooner rather than later.

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12 June 2012

June snippets

  • I really wanted to be at the Christians in Political Science conference at Gordon College last week, but was unable to make it. Fortunately one of the highlights, Miroslav Volf's lecture, was recorded and has been posted on youtube. One of the respondents, Dr. Paul Brink, is a former student of mine.



  • William T. Cavanaugh has written a very helpful article in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, titled, Does Religion Cause Violence? Conventional wisdom in the west today takes it for granted that religion is intrinsically divisive and that an enlightened secularism keeping religion in its proper place better contributes to the public good. But what if that's not the case after all? Cavanaugh draws attention to the reality that those most likely to charge religious believers with fomenting violence, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, detect no inconsistency in their own willingness to excuse a (violent!) pre-emptive strike against those they view as religious fanatics. Here's Cavanaugh:
    We must conclude that there is no coherent way to isolate "religious" ideologies with a peculiar tendency toward violence from their tamer "secular" counterparts. So-called secular ideologies and institutions like nationalism and liberalism can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrational as so-called religion. People kill for all sorts of things. An adequate approach to the problem would be resolutely empirical: under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices—jihad, the "invisible hand" of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the role of the United States as worldwide liberator—turn violent? The point is not simply that "secular" violence should be given equal attention to "religious" violence. The point is that the distinction between "secular" and "religious" violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether.

  • Christianity Today carries an intriguing article that merits wide exposure and thoughtful discussion: Thomas E. Bergler's When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity. The youth rallies of the 1940s and '50s have remade the churches and not always for the good. As the subtitle puts it, "We're all adolescents now."
    Juvenilization happened when no one was looking. In the first stage, Christian youth leaders created youth-friendly versions of the faith in a desperate attempt to save the world. Some hoped to reform their churches by influencing the next generation. Others expected any questionable innovations to stay comfortably quarantined in youth rallies and church basements. Both groups were less concerned about long-term consequences than about immediate appeals to youth.

    In the second stage, a new American adulthood emerged that looked a lot like the old adolescence. Fewer and fewer people outgrew the adolescent Christian spiritualities they had learned in youth groups; instead, churches began to cater to them.

    This regression from adulthood to adolescence is a general phenomenon that others have remarked upon. Could the contemporary tendency to replace worship with litur-tainment be one symptom of this juvenilization of North American Christianity?

  • The standard narrative has it that religious observance is declining in the west. However, David Goodhew reports that Startling academic research shows widespread church growth in Britain. Here are some surprising statistics:
    There are 500,000 Christians in black majority churches in Britain. Sixty years ago there were hardly any. At least 5,000 new churches have been started in Britain since 1980 – and this is an undercount. The true figure is probably higher. There are one million Christians in Britain from black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities. The adult membership of the Anglican Diocese of London has risen by over 70 per cent since 1990.

    Nihilistic secularism is inherently unstable and cannot sustain a civilization over the long term. Perhaps Britons are finally discovering this for themselves.

  • Now we read of this important archaeological discovery: Ancient Bethlehem seal found; first reference to city outside Bible:
    Israeli archaeologists digging near the city of Jerusalem have discovered an ancient clay bulla, about 2,700 years old, bearing the name Bethlehem. The artifact is the only known ancient reference to the city of Jesus' birth found outside the Bible, experts said. The find shows not only that the city existed, but that it probably also had a thriving commercial trade.

  • The Hakka people of Taiwan and China finally have the complete Bible in their own language. Last sunday Dr. Paul McLean spoke at our church about his efforts to produce this treasured edition of God's word in the language of one of Taiwan's minority communities. It's an inspiring story.



    McLean's son Peter bicycled across Canada to raise money for this important project. May God use this new translation to further the advance of his kingdom amongst the Hakka people.

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    10 June 2012

    George Parkin Grant's Lament for Canada

    I somehow managed to miss this episode of Steve Pakin's Agenda devoted to the late George Parkin Grant:

    Go to the 35-minute mark for Grant's expressed reason why, despite his appreciation for social democratic economic policy, he could not bring himself to trust the New Democratic Party. Fascinating stuff. I myself was privileged to meet Grant on two occasions over three decades ago, one of which I recount here: George Grant and the Primacy of Economics.

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    07 June 2012

    William G. Witt on biblical authority

    As a followup to my earlier post, Warning: this bible is loaded, I would like to draw attention to a marvellous paragraph from a piece by William G. Witt with obvious relevance to the issue of biblical authority:

    There is a danger that discussions about the authority of Scripture may turn into exercises in exegetical casuistry. We can use Scripture in the way that lawyers use case precedents either to vindicate or convict a defendant. The focus of concern can become: What can I get away with? What meaning will the text bear? Can it be read to further my cause? A “minimalist” interpretation of Scripture can be as guilty of this as is a Puritan tendency toward “maximalism.” There is a danger of focusing on the texts as documents, and forgetting that the Scriptures are not self-referential. They speak of a reality beyond themselves, namely, God’s creation and redemption of the world and humanity in Jesus Christ. The purpose of exegesis is not only to decipher the grammatical meaning of the text or to find precedents for permissible or impermissible behavior, but to allow oneself to be formed and transformed by the reality to which the Scriptures refer so that one can find oneself within the Bible’s story of creation and redemption. But in order to do this, one must be willing to hand oneself over to the world of the text, to allow oneself to be challenged and even changed by it [emphasis mine].

    Very well said. Witt is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Readers can follow his writings and sermons at his website.

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    02 June 2012

    God Save the Queen

    This weekend we celebrate the Queen's diamond jubilee, a milestone equalled by very few of the world's monarchs. On this occasion, I thought I would tell of my two brushes with our royal family over the decades.

    The first occurred 37 years ago, during my first trip to Europe. I was in London at St. Paul's Cathedral, the impressive baroque structure built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666. While there I happened to see the late Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, accompanied by the Lord Mayor of London and flanked by two lines of Girl Guides, coming out of the cathedral after the end of a worship service (top right photo). I can no longer recall, if I ever knew, what the occasion was. Incidentally, Princess Alice lived a very long time indeed, as she was born in 1901 and died as recently as 2004, thus breaking the royal record for longevity at 102 years.

    My second brush with royalty was with the Queen herself during her visit to Hamilton ten years ago on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee. My wife and daughter and I drove down to Dundurn Castle to view her motorcade as it drove down York Boulevard on its way from Toronto to Copps Coliseum, where she was to present two banners to The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada (Princess Louise's) at a special ceremony. As she was running late, her motorcade sped by quickly, much to the disappointment of the well-wishers who had turned out to greet her. Many people decided to leave after that point. However, our persistence was rewarded on her return trip once the ceremony had ended. Her motorcade passed by more slowly this time. The window of her car was open, and we easily saw the woman who had reigned over Canada for 50 years. She offered us her characteristic wave, much to our delight. The three of us were the last people she saw in Hamilton, for right after that we saw her motorcade pull off on the Highway 403 exit towards Toronto.

    Our daughter Theresa was only three years old at the time and did not quite understand the significance of the woman she had just seen. She was more interested in our planned excursion to the Greek Corner Store and Bakery on King Street East and was looking forward to being treated to a Greek cookie by the doting proprietors.

    Incidentally, the two banners the Queen delivered to the Argylls now hang in the front of our church, Central Presbyterian, which is the group's regimental church.

    Of the two sets of banners, the upper ones were delivered by the Queen in 2002.

    The lower banners have hung in our church for decades.

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    01 June 2012

    Abuse of Parliament

    Andrew Coyne is a generally conservative commentator, but he has been highly critical of Stephen Harper's seeming contempt for Parliament. Here's his most recent broadside: Degradation of Parliament is complete.
    There was a time, after all, when even a prime minister had to mind his backbench - or at any rate, when the caucus had not yet been reduced to a mere appendage of the government. We think of them now as more or less the same thing, but they are not, in principle, and did not use to be in practice. Until the Second World War, before an MP could take up an appointment to cabinet - I mean an MP of the governing party - he had to resign his seat and run in a byelection. The reason? His role had changed. He was no longer a watchdog on the government, as MPs of whatever party are supposed to be, but had become a member of it. As such, he was obliged to seek the permission of his electors - of his bosses, you might say. That is how people thought.

    Compare to today, when MPs, at least on the government side, have long ceased to perform any such watchdog role - when those few, indeed, who have not been made a part of the government in some capacity have been suborned into behaving as if they were, handing out cheques and officiating at ribbon-cutting ceremonies just like real ministers of the Crown.

    As for the current government's omnibus budget bill, C-38, Coyne is right. Such bills are mischievous, as American experience has demonstrated time and again. Perhaps we need an old-fashioned backbench revolt for a change.

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