7 Quick Takes Friday

Another Friday, another 7 Quick Takes.  Get ’em while they’re hot.  The theme this week is various tidbits I found interesting out of the latest issue of Christianity Today

Counting Controversy
(p.17).  A blurb discussing the hope of Miguel Rivera, chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, that he will be able to sway the 22,000 evangelical churches that are part of this organization to urge their members to boycott the upcoming 2010 US Census.  Rivera hopes that this will spur immigration reform, but I find it a highly suspect tactic in light of Romans 13.  Fortunately, it seems as though many other Hispanic leaders also disagree with Rivera’s tactic.

Seminary Plants
(p.18).  An interesting blurb on the increasing trend of large congregations with well-known pastors creating church-based seminaries.  “The church-based theological seminaries like ours are more intent on offering a theological and philosophical world view that is consistent with the teachings and writings of the well-known pastor-theologian with whom the seminary is affiliated,” says Tim tomlinson, president of Bethlehem College and Seminary – which is affiliated with Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, and pastor John Piper

As a product of a more traditional seminary, I share the concerns of some of the folks in the article about the depth of grounding that these church-based seminaries will offer.  How heavily will these seminaries ground their candidates in the depth of Christian history and doctrinal development?  How heavily will homiletical style be emphasized, if the draw for the seminaries is a notable personality?

I do believe that – at the very least my – seminary is in need of some updating.  I think that church-based seminaries will probably be much better at producing pastors with the pastoral hearts to deal with congregational issues and dynamics.  But is the ultimate goal of seminary simply to produce a pastor capable of emulating the particular style and approach of a notable luminary, or is the goal of seminary to produce theologians capable of independent – but not isolated – theological inquiry and examination?  And ultimately, why do these two things have to be separated?

The appointment of Francis Collins to head the National Institute of Health is a decision that has riled many in the scientific community.  Not because of his scientific chops – Collins was head of the Human Genome Project and his credentials academically and professionally are impeccable.  Rather, it’s the fact that he is an evangelical Christian who insists that faith and scientific theories can be reconciled that irritates his detractors.  Obama’s choice of Collins’ seems to be a shrewd calculated move.  Collins’ religious credentials are likely to make him seem like a friendly appointment to Christians, and yet his research views on embryonic stem cells are harder to pin down.  It may turn out to be a valuable lesson that simply being a Christian is not always commensurate with being a Christian in terms of how the faith has been explicated historically.  My previous musings on this topic are here.

The fallout from the Episcopal and now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s decisions in the past months and weeks (respectively) to ordain and validate practicing homosexuals as clergy will begin to snowball, I believe.  Not that you’ll hear about it in the popular media.  The real excitement were the decisions themselves, not the follow-up and the emphasis on how Christians in both bodies are and will be rejecting the blatantly unBiblical stances their church bodies have chosen.  But it will happen, and these folks will be looking for church bodies that adhere more closely to the Biblical witness and 2000 years of Christian history and tradition.  This was the first news that I saw about such transitions.  This is loosely related to the news brief on page 21 of the magazine noting the Episcopal Church’s decision in July to allow homosexual clergy and facilitate same-sex marriage services.  While the ELCA is apt to point out that their resolutions last week stopped short of pushing for gay marriage, they logically have no choice but to do exactly that.  To indicate that homosexual couples can live together outside of marriage in a committed relationship that is not marriage, while forbidding their heterosexual peers from doing so would be a rather ugly double-standard, which I’m sure they’ll move to eliminate as soon as possible.

While I skimmed Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical in July, Caritas in Veritate, I didn’t really read it very closely.  I may have to rectify that after reading the editorial on page 25 entitled A Unifying Vocation, which paints a picture of vocation that strikes a chord in light of my recent beginning efforts on a book on the topic of vocation.  Benedict, quoting Pope Paul VI, says “Progress, in its origin and essence, is first and foremost a vocation“.  I’m not sure I agree with that fully in the way it’s stated here.  It results in a theology that states “development as a vocation“, to quote Benedict.  It would depend a great deal on how one define’s progress, and the editorial leads one to believe that it is defined very broadly by Benedict.  One more for the reading queue!

Backtracking to a blurb on page 20, there’s a note about how a Swedish government report may further endanger theological education in that country.  The report indicated that it seemed more appropriate that state money and support be used to assist schools and students involved in religious studies, rather than more narrow (and traditional)  theological education.  Stefan Gustavsson, general secretary of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance hits the nail on the head: “The underpinning perspective seems to be old-fashioned Enlightenment thinking that theology is not real science and therefore eventually should not be a part of the university.”  It also reflects the more post-modern emphasis on relative truth, encouraging broad study across a variety of religions as a comparative exercise, rather than discerning truth in a particular religion.

Is a profit anti-Christian?  An ancient question contextualized anew by the decision of some Christian universi
ties to transition themselves into for-profit institutions in order to keep tuition as affordable as possible for their students.  While that may sound like an oxymoron, the model for this appears to be Grand Canyon University located in Phoenix, Arizona.  The profit component is driven primarily by online education, where there are not the hard limitations of a specific number of chairs or classrooms to be dealt with.  Adding classroom capacity is a matter of adding instructors and server space and bandwidth – far cheaper than adding a new wing to a physical campus.  The article notes that critics of this move feel that it causes the university to lose “Christ-centeredness”. 

Having developed and delivered collegiate coursework online for close to 15 years, I can vouch for the fact that quality education
can be delivered effectively online.  It’s not for everyone, but it is very effective for some folks.  And students are paying tuition one way or the other – whether the university is non-profit or for-profit.  While at first blush it would seem that there’s a greater incentive to drive tuition in a for-profit university up in order to increase shareholder return (I used to work for the University of Phoenix), is it a necessity?  Time will tell, I suppose.

18 Responses to “7 Quick Takes Friday”

  1. Marie Says:

    I’d be curious your take on Romans 13. I have a very, very, very hard time understanding that one.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    As alluded to in this post, I take Romans 13 to be an injunction about obedience to earthly powers and authorities.  And yes, it’s a challenging passage for pretty much anyone educated in the West.  It strikes at our Enlightenment cherishment of individual liberties – even at the expense of the State.  In this particular situation, I see the effort of this gentleman is attempting to thwart a relatively legitimate law in hopes of spurring some sort of ill-defined change.  His argument seems to be that since the government uses this data on Hispanics – whether legal or illegal – for it’s own benefits, it ought not to benefit from that information until it has taken better/more/greater responsibility for dealing with the concerns of Hispanics, whether legal or illegal.  I take issue with this because nobody forced these people to come here.  Circumstances may have – and I can completely and totally empathize with the monumental sacrifices someone would make to feed their family or escape injustice and violence.  I don’t fault them for their decisions to come here, but they came here with the understanding that, while things would be difficult here, they are better off here than they were where they came from.  In other words, benefit has already been realized, immigration reform notwithstanding.  This isn’t an argument to say immigration reform isn’t warranted on a variety of grounds.  But I feel it’s a violation of the spirit of Romans 13 to encourage people to short-circuit the very system from which they are already benefiting and receiving – directly and indirectly – protection.  He seems to be denying that perhaps God is already at work in the fact that there is even a place like America for these people to flee to.  I think this is the problem with denominations and traditions that place a heavier emphasis on social justice than on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Eventually, religion becomes a means towards temporal ends.  If we can manipulate a group of believers to ignore what we seem to be called to do and be as Christians, then life will be better for some group of people.   Any time the good news of Jesus becomes a means to someone else’s ends – no matter how laudable those ends might be – we have entered into extremely dangerous territory.  Territory our Enemy is far more at home in than we should be.Does this help?  Counterpoints?  Perspectives? 

  3. Marie Says:

    It helps, but you point to the legitimacy of the census law itself. If you get a chance, I’d love to get your read on the application of the passage re: legitimacy. It does seem easy to use the Bible to worldly ends with the caveat that the state has illegitimate authority in any one case — I’d be tempted to it myself. How do you avoid that?Thanks for the post.

  4. Paul Nelson Says:

    Can you clarify your question a little further, Marie?  Ultimately, I’d say that I’m a poor judge of whether the State has power legitimately or illegitimately – at least in a theological sense.  I can better determine whether the State is living up to it’s own standards, following the laws that it has laid out (in the case of the US, with at least the nominal approval of the People).  But to determine whether the state is acting legitimately or illegitimately in terms of God’s purposes?  That’s much tougher – I’d say impossible without clear Scriptural guidance.  We have the benefit of that guidance when we read some of the prophets and their discussions of God using the Assyrians and the Babylonians as tools – tools that God Himself raised up to chastise His people, and tools that God could destroy again once they had served His purposes.  Did it look and feel that way to the Israelites?  Probably not until hindsight kicked in.  But, I’m not sure if I’m addressing what you’re getting at.  If you can clarify a little more, I’ll try to be more on target

  5. Marie Says:

    I guess my question is, you refer to Paul telling us to obey authority. But then even during that referral, you refer to your belief that the law itself seems legit. Without discussing any law in particular, clearly there are states that have authority that ask their citizens to do wrong things. So do we take it on a case by case basis — this law is not *wrong* to obey, therefore I need to obey it because I need to obey the authority of the governement? And what if we believe the government will do wrong with what we give them through our obedience?I have never understood how to approach this particular admonition to obedience. Sorry to be so unclear. Thanks for the thoughts.

  6. Paul Nelson Says:

    Thanks for the clarification, and sorry for my confusion!You (and initially I) refer to two different issues when submitting to authority.  There is our Scriptural mandate to respect the authorities that God has put into place to govern His creation, and then there is the issue of what to do when such an authority asks us to do something that contradicts the Word of God.  I didn’t necessarily mean to draw both of these issues together initially, but on second thought, it might have been an inadvertent stroke of genius   I guess we’ll find out if that’s the case as we continue talking!I think these two things do coincide.  Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 doesn’t indicate what to do if the State should attempt to force people to do or say things that are contrary to Scripture.  It would seem to say though, that even if the government is not doing what you feel is right, if you are able to live honorably in that society without personally violating your faith as a Christian, you should do so.  In other words, the Roman Empires is hardly what one might call a friendly environment to Christians – particularly as Paul is writing.  And yet Paul in writing to citizens in Rome suffering persecution urges them not to seek to rebel and overthrow the State, but to endure the State, and to remain true to their faith.  If there is a conflict of interest – which Paul does not go into here – I have always assumed that the mandate is to suffer, if necessary, for your faith.  In other words, my personal comfort is not an adequate reason for me to seek the undoing of the state.  I must be as faithful as I can in living out my Christian witness, even in a State that is hostile to my faith.  And if I am faced with the choice of violating my faith or suffering – even to death – I need to be prepared to suffer.A lot of that goes beyond the words of Romans 13:1-7.  A lot of it borrows from Jesus’ admonitions in Matthew 5:38-48.  And it is these teachings that separate us from others who claim to serve the same God, namely Muslims.  To address your specific questions:1.  Yes, there are clearly states that have authority that ask their citizens to do wrong things.  The Roman Empire.  Nazi Germany.  Communist China all come to mind as very real examples of this reality.  The delegated power of God to oversee creation can certainly be abused and misused.2.  Case by case basis – I guess so.  If a law does not require me to violate my Christian faith, then I obey it.  If it does require me to violate it, I must disobey.  Not necessarily through leading some sort of armed revolt, but simply in refusing to comply with the particular request.  The case in Daniel 3 with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego seems to be informative here.  They served a nation that had destroyed their own nation, and they served with distinction.  When they were required to violate their faith, they refused.  Not ostentatiously, not with fanfare and not with gunfire.  They just didn’t obey.  They were caught for it.  They didn’t resist arrest.  Rather, they gave witness to their faith in God as being incompatible with the demand that they worship the golden statue.  And I think that their response in Daniel 3:16-18 is beautiful, and I pray will be my own statement of faith some day (though I pray that I never need to make this sort of statement, either!).  “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O King.  But even if He does not, we want you to know, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”  Note the respectfulness in their voices even as they are preparing for execution!  Amazing faith – under amazing circumstances.  3. ” What if we believe the government will do wrong with what we give them through our obedience?”  What do you mean by “wrong”, would seem to be a key issue.  And then we have to seriously evaluate whether our determination of it’s wrongness is adequate to justify disobedience.  And I’d have to say that in most cases, it probably wouldn’t.  Unless the “wrong” in question is clearly a Biblical “wrong”.    But even the above considerations don’t really clarify the issue for us much.  We look for justifications to take a stance, but I’m not sure how much leeway Scripture leaves us in this regard.  If you have some texts that you find helpful, I’d love to be reminded of them!I blogged on this a while back here.  Bonhoeffer’s decision would seem to be an example of bound conscience – a term that has come back into visibility recently because of the ELCA’s gross misuse of this term to justify their human desire to validate homosexuality.  The idea of bound conscience goes back (at least!) to Luther’s stand before the Emperor, basically insisting that he was in search of the truth, but could not be compelled to violate his conscience if he remained convinced of a particular truth.  Bonhoeffer basically argued that his decision to violate a Biblical commandment (thou shalt not kill) was a matter of conscience.  He could not in good faith stand by idly and allow Hitler to continue.  He felt compelled to try and stop it.  Even if it meant that he was clearly sinning – and clearly seemed to understand that he was sinning in this decision.  He doesn’t attempt to justify his decisions, or to recast sin as virtue.  Rather, he accepts the moral guilt for his actions, and goes ahead  with them.  I think most of us would commend his decision, and many of us would struggle to condemn him based on Scripture.  Yet it also seems clear that Scripture does condemn his decisions.  And therefore, how certain are we that our decisions to resist or disobey a government that we felt was going to be harmful could be justified in light of Romans 13 and Matthew 5?  Probably not many.  Not that we  have to like everything the State does.  Not that we aren’t free to use whatever legally available means are at our disposal for influencing the decisions of the State.  But to outright disobey, that’s a more challenging concept – and it remains challenging without regard to the potential good that could be gained by disobedience.Clear as mud?!  I look forward to your thoughts and clarifications!

  7. Marie Says:

    Thanks, this is what I’m looking for, and the Daniel passages are ones I’m passing on to a friend today. However. . . . I have a problem with the Bonhoefer example — it is never moral to commit even a “small” sin in order to gain a “greater” good. I can’t read the obedience scriptures from the point of view of “it’s a sin to disobey civil authority, but it’s a sin I should commit and accept the punishment for if there is a greater sin to be avoided or a greater good to be achieved through my actions”. That’s not what your suggesting as the only way out, is it? Had the folks in Daniel (I can spell their Veggie Tales names. . . . sigh) lived post-New Testament, would they have been sinning by their disobedience, but the sin would have been permissible because they would have sinned more deeply by obeying? I have never run into a situation where God places before you two options only, each of which is wrong and you must choose the lesser evil. So, in a world where there are Hitlers, are we to read Paul that we obey as long as the authority it legit (which seems hinky considering the whole Roman occupation thing), or as long as each specific act of obedience doesn’t contradict the rule of God (more solid, but then open to that interpretation thing you talk about — if I disagree with a war, does that make it against God’s will? How about funding abortions? Executions? What if the government some day made it a hard requirement that I send my kid to a government boarding school — nothing specifically about that in Scripture, right?)? Or are we to read it that we obey all of that, and let God sort it out? I guess I’ve always looked at those lines from Paul, and the slavery lines, as just a way of saying “look beyond this daily stuff” — don’t get hung up on trying to change this world when this world is ending. But that doesn’t entirely cut it, I think. Thanks for the commentary, it has been very helpful, I’ll keep trudging along and I’ll check back in case you have more answers.

  8. Paul Nelson Says:

    Thanks for the great response, Marie.I’m headed out of town for a few weeks, so I’ll respond to this at greater length as I’m able to.  Needless to say, this is a sticky wicket if ever there were one.  I pray that God grant us both wisdom as we continue!

  9. Barbara C Says:

    Actually, Pope Benedict addresses profit in Caritas in Veritate. He talks about how profit in itself is not bad, but it becomes bad when profit in and of itself becomes the ultimate goal. If the pursuit profits interferes with human compassion and just treatment or the profits are not used for higher purposes, then profit become suspect. Really good read!!

  10. Paul Nelson Says:

    Thanks, Barbara!  I need to go back and give it the thorough read it deserves.  And his comments make sense.  Profit isn’t inherently evil, just as no object can be inherently evil, but rather can be put to either good or evil use.  Any object pursued for it’s own sake becomes ripe for – if not already evidence of – idolatry, which takes us back to the first commandment.  Thanks for the comment – I look forward to reading Caritas in the coming weeks!

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