Monday, October 31, 2011

"Reformation Day: Why We Don't Owe the Bible to the Church"

         Because "Bible" equals "whatever book or books God inspired," and not "whatever book or books one church or another church recognizes as Scripture," no church is above the Bible.  Nor is the Bible dependent upon the church, any church, for its existence.  No church produced the Bible or brought the Bible to us.  What makes the Bible the Word of God (and therefore authoritative) is divine inspiration, not ecclesiastical recognition.
The various books of the Bible are divinely inspired and authoritative even if no church ever recognized that fact -- or even if all churches recognized that fact.  Ecclesiastical recognition is not what makes the Bible the Bible. The Bible is what it is because God inspired it, not because we did or did not recognize His work.  In other words, if any books are inspired, they are inspired not because a church affirms it but because they come from the Holy Spirit Himself.  If they come from the Holy Spirit, they are inspired, authoritative, and canonical.  Their authenticity and authority come from the Holy Spirit, not from a church.  We do not owe divinely inspired books to a church, but to God. 
         To put a point on it, some of the books recognized by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) as canonical are not inspired and are therefore not properly part of the Bible, and here I refer specifically to the Apocrypha.  That is, when it comes to recognizing the proper canon, not only is the RCC not necessary, but the RCC got it wrong.  Neither the books of the Old nor of the New Testament depend for their existence, for their inspiration, or therefore for their canonicity and authority, upon the RCC.
         To be specific, the Old Testament canon does not depend for its existence or its authority upon the RCC.  Jesus Himself, and ancient Jews all the way back to well before the time of David, had a recognizable and authoritative Hebrew canon.  For example, David loved to meditate on God's word and law so intensely that he wrote a long and impressive song of praise in honor of the practice in Psalm 119.  In that psalm, David clearly has in mind an inspired and authoritative Hebrew canon, which he called the word of God and the law of God.  He wrote his psalm many centuries before there ever was a Roman Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox) church in existence to claim credit for it.  Judging from the content of David's psalm, he obviously expected his readers to understand what he meant by his many references to God's word and to God's law, and he expected them to agree with him about it.
         Even though the Hebrew canon was still in a state of partial flux in his day, Jesus, in particular, and the ancient Jews, in general, recognized a pre-existing canon, a canon that antedates the RCC by many centuries.  That is, Jesus of Nazareth was born into a religion that already had a Bible when He arrived.  He Himself recognized and accepted that Hebrew Bible.  He lived according to it; He preached from it; He faced down Satan by it; and He refuted his Jewish opponents with it.  He also uttered statements that delineate which books He considered canonical (and therefore also those that He did not).  Indeed, even Satan seems to have recognized that pre-existing canon because he quotes from it as well.
         If we consider Jesus a reliable teacher of doctrine -- and I do -- then we ought to accept as ours the Hebrew canon He accepted.  In Matthew 23: 35, for example, Jesus refers to the persecution of holy persons, beginning with Abel (Gen 4:8) and ending with Zacharias (2 Chron. 24: 20 ff.).  His recounting follows the ordering and historical limits of the Hebrew canon, which did not include the Apocrypha.  In Luke 24: 44, He re-states his view of the canon, and to the same effect.  In that passage, He again delineates what He considers Scripture:  the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (namely, the books of Moses, the books of the prophets, and the wisdom literature).  By so speaking, Jesus employed a common three-fold delineation of Scripture, one that did not include the Apocryphal books within its three over-arching categories.
         Perhaps Jesus and the Jews of his day were wrong about the canon, but I will not argue against Him or them.  If they were right, then I do not see how it follows that we need the RCC in order to have a recognizable and authoritative Hebrew canon.  Jesus and the Jews had one without it, and therefore so do we.  Apparently we do not need the RCC, or any church, to have or to recognize a divinely inspired Hebrew text.  We need a historically active and text-inspiring God, one whose actions and intentions are recognized and authenticated for us by Christ.
         The Hebrew Bible antedates the church.  The earliest generation of Christians had a Bible.  It was the Bible Jesus Himself had.
         The Hebrew Bible did not come to the world via the RCC or the EOC.  It came to the world via the inspiration and guidance of God.  Therefore, our task is to identify, always in light of Christ, which books bear the marks of inspiration and which do not.  Whether we do a good job of it or a bad one, the books God inspired are the Bible, the authoritative Word of God.  We ought not try to determine which books do or do not bear the marks of inspiration simply by taking recourse to this or that church's conclusions on the matter unless we have something like a message from God that told us we ought to do so.  That message would have to come from God Himself, it seems to me, and not from the church in question.  If it came from the church in question, then the church in question would have to verify its authority by asserting its authority, which is both circular and unconvincing.  I, for one, will not suspect, much less accuse, God of that kind of circular reasoning or irrational pedagogy.  We cannot know if God has designated any church to establish the canon unless we have a way of establishing His authoritative pronouncement on the point without begging the question by appealing to that church's self-promoting assertions or to its version of the canon, and thereby assuming its authority -- which is the very thing we were trying to ascertain in the first place.
         By arguing in this way, I am not making an argument from my own alleged authority -- I claim none -- but an argument from history.  Historically, the ancient Jews already had an inspired canon, one that was in place for many centuries before the RCC, the EOC, or any other allegedly canon-making Christian church, existed.  We have abundant historical documentation by which to determine what books were and were not normally considered Scripture by Jewish believers of Jesus' day and before, in general, and by Jesus Himself, in particular, which militates strongly against the Apocrypha, and therefore against the RCC and its alleged canon-making authority.  When Jesus explicitly identifies which books do or do not belong to the canon, He carefully excludes some that Rome leaves in.  Between those two options, I go with Christ.
Every believer makes his or her own choice regarding the Bible, whether they elect to go along with the canon of the RCC or not.  If they consent to let the RCC choose for them, it still is they who make the fundamental choice.  They consent, or not, to the canon recognized by that church. They subject the church's canon making results to their own scrutiny.  Choosing to go along with the church on the issue of canon is, obviously, a choice, as is choosing to reject it.  We all must choose; we all must consent to the RCC's canon or not.  Catholics do; Protestants do not.  Either way, we all choose for ourselves.  When Catholics choose a church, they choose a canon.  For Catholics to criticize Protestants for choosing a canon without any ecclesiastical authority for doing so is self-refuting because that is precisely how they choose the church that chose their canon.  The various churches stand before them for approval or rejection, and then they themselves make the choice of which one, if any, to follow.  When they do, they make a canon choice as well.  We all must choose one canon or another.  We all must recognize our own canon, even if we accept a canon accepted first by someone else.  We all are canon recognizers, even if we do it thoughtlessly, as so many do.  Because we must do it, we ought do it well, which means following the lead of Christ.
         Here is the fundamental principle:  Proper canon recognition is Christo-centric, not ecclesio-centric -- Christ centered, not church centered.  We want the Old Testament Christ accepted, and (because He Himself did not directly write a book), we want the books that come from those whom He taught or from their extended circle.  We do not need a church to figure out which books that might be.  Indeed, we might entertain legitimate doubt about some of the books so recognized by one church or another church, like Hebrews, 2 Peter, Jude, James, or Revelation -- generally the same books some of the ancients held in question for so long, a group of books some of them called the antilougomena, or the "spoken against" texts.  We might also consider including one or two books, perhaps the letter of Clement to the church in Corinth, primarily because he seems to have been a companion of Paul (Phil. 4: 3) and because to some (me included) he seems to be the author of Hebrews, a book that was eventually accepted.  Some portions of the early church accepted and read Clement's letter to Corinth as Scripture.  Others did not.  I would not.  But whichever choices we make regarding inclusion and exclusion, or whichever choices we permit others to make for us, the proper measure of canonicity is not a church, but Christ, and through Him the apostles and their extended circle.  If we must choose -- and we must -- we do best to center our choices as closely around Him as we can, which is not the same as centering our choices around the RCC and the allegedly Biblical basis it claims for itself.  Canon recognition (not canon making, which God Himself performed) is a task best pursued by accepting the Old Testament that it seems Christ accepted, and the New Testament that came from those whom He taught and from the extended apostolic circle.
         In other words, what brought about the Old Testament also brought about the New, namely the work of the Holy Spirit, which we recognize best by deferring to Jesus.
         In short, the church is neither logically nor chronologically prior to the Bible. 

An Aside:  Thumpers
         Bible thumpers are often roundly criticized by Catholics, and sometimes justly so, though not always.  The Bible-thumpers' well-intentioned but under-informed quotation of Bible verses sometimes does not accomplish what they hope and think it does.  Quoting the Bible verbatim is not the same as properly understanding it or as forming a telling theological argument.  Verbatim quotation is not the same as either correct exegesis or true theology.
         But thumping a creed or a catechism is not any better.  Being a creed or catechism thumper simply makes you a fundamentalist of a different sort.  If proof-texting from an inspired and infallible Bible is not a convincing tactic, then proof-texting from creeds and catechisms is no better.  Just as those who quote from the Bible sometimes misunderstand the Bible and disagree among themselves as to what the Bible means, so those who quote from creeds and catechisms sometimes misunderstand the creeds and catechism, and they disagree among themselves as to what those creeds and catechisms mean and how they properly apply to the situation at hand -- a confusion and chaos I have heard frequently with my own ears and seen frequently with my own eyes.  Of course, the presence of such disagreements does not prove that the texts in question (whether Bible, creed, or catechism) are false, or that they have no relevant or discernible meaning, or that they cannot be trusted.  But it does show that merely quoting a text often gets us precisely nowhere.  Verbatim quotation is almost never enough.  Taken together, careful exegesis, sound synthesis, and prudent application, is the only place to begin; not superficial recitation, whether of Scripture or of creeds and catechisms.
         Of course, Catholics thump their Bibles too, and I contend that their understanding of many of the Biblical texts they thump is unsound. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

“Taxing the Rich and Other Forms of the Robin Hood Delusion”

Taxing the Rich
According to the prevailing leftist worldview, in order to cure the nation’s debilitating debt disease, and in order to aid the nation’s poor, we ought to raise taxes on the rich so that they begin to pay their “fair share.”
It’s a futile remedy.
If you took every penny from every person in America who made a million dollars or more last year, you could run the government for only a few weeks.  Taxing millionaires, even at 100%, won’t fix the problem.  Our problem is that we spend many hundreds of billions of dollars each year that we simply do not have.
But when conservatives try to keep an out-of-control government from driving the entire nation over a cliff into the gaping maw of economic destruction, liberals claim conservatives lack compassion.  They do not.  They are trying to avoid scuttling the ship of state.  Avoiding a shipwreck is not lack of compassion because, when the ship sinks, all who are aboard -- the poor and the wealthy alike -- are set adrift in the open sea, a result that benefits no one except the Marxist sharks patrolling the waters of international dissolution.
The problem in America is not that taxes for some folks are too low, but that spending by government is suicidally high. That’s why, if you want to tax the rich at a higher rate in order to cure American ills, you are looking in the wrong direction.  The solution cannot possibly be found in higher taxes, no matter how high you make them, and no matter what percentage you think is "fair."
Think about it:  Even if you tax the wealthy at 100%, not only you will not have enough money to do what liberals want to do via government, but you will have succeeded only in creating many more poor -- those who once were rich but who now have nothing.  And once you have taken all their money, and run the government for only a few weeks with it, from whom will you get money to run the government when that handful of weeks has passed?  You can’t get it from the poor because they don’t have it.  The only option left is the middle class, who then will be destroyed in short order.  Taxing the rich even at 100% will not work.  And if you do not tax the rich at 100%, you will have even less money to do what you think ought to be done via government, and that money will run out even quicker.  Once the money of the rich is gone, and you still wish to do what leftists want government to do, you must take the money of the middle class.  At that point, everyone is poor.   In short, you cannot fix what’s wrong by means of tax increases.  It’s simply impossible. 

Fair Share
A moment ago, I mentioned the liberal meme of making the wealthy pay their “fair share.”   You hear it often.  But if you listen carefully, you’ll notice that while liberals are big on making the wealthy pay their “fair share,” they are not big on telling you by what mysterious calculus they determine exactly what percentage of taxation is “fair,” or even how, in this context, the word “fair” is being defined.  I, for one, would like to know:  Precisely what does the word “fair” mean; what percentage of government confiscation is “fair;” and how do liberals know it?  When it comes to the government targeting a specific group of individuals, I am utterly unwilling to leave it all to unarticulated leftist intuition.  I want numbers, meanings, and facts.

Robin Hood
Another way that liberals talk about making the wealthy among us pay their “fair share” is to talk about “economic inequality” and “social justice,” by which terms they mean government-sponsored redistribution of wealth, a scheme whereby government plays the role of Robin Hood:  It takes from the rich and it gives to the poor.
But, of course, Robin Hood was a thief, even if he meant his thievery to serve a good end.  Good intentions don’t mend the matter at all.   Stealing is wrong even if you do it for what you consider a good reason.  Ends do not justify means.
Here’s the rule: “Thou shalt not steal.”  Stealing is taking someone else’s personal property.  Thieves have no right to seize other folks’ property, even if they want to do allegedly good things with it.  That’s why we ought to fight against the over-weaning evils of confiscatory tax policy which, under threat of government force, takes from those whose possessions the government covets, and gives to others whom the government favors.  This is one of the most blatant and egregious forms of discrimination I have yet seen, and it is advocated without embarrassment -- as if the equal protection clause of the Constitution did not apply to the successful.  This discriminatory policy targets some citizens for extra burden and other citizens for extra benefit.  It is wrong to discriminate via government, even if you think your chosen victims can sustain the attack.  Their ability to be targeted and to survive is no justification for targeting.   This economic targeting is but one dimension, or application, of a widespread discrimination against the wealthy, who are presumed to be evil and oppressive money grubbers intent upon sheering the sheep in the marketplace, rather than being virtuous, hard working persons who made their money by providing, at great risk to themselves and their families, the goods and services that their neighbors needed or wanted at prices those neighbors could afford.

Economic Inequality
Sensible persons don’t really think that our tax dollars have actually reduced the differences in income in America.  That’s not what happens.  Tax dollars go to raise the level of the bureaucrats, the lobbyists, and the politicians, and to create an enormous increase in the financial gap between the rich and the poor in places like Washington, DC.
Although leftists complain about income inequality and insist upon a government-enforced redistribution of wealth, they ignore the staggering inequality of income they have produced in Washington, the very place from where they expect the remedy for economic inequality to come, a place where the richest and poorest rub shoulders every day, an inequality the left has created but neither notices nor decries.
It is no accident that the two richest counties in America happen to be the counties in Maryland and Virginia that border Washington, DC.  Average annual income for Federal employees there is more than $126,000.  By comparison, almost 11 percent of the city’s population qualifies not only as poor, but as “very poor,” meaning they earn at less than half the official poverty rate, or about $11,025 a year for a family of four.  Tax money goes to Washington, but that doesn’t mean it decreases the level of economic disparity. 
It reminds me of the comment made by my old friend Stan Evans, a former Indianapolis newspaper editor who went to Washington to begin The National Journalism Center: “Why did you go to Washington?” he was asked. “I wanted to be near my money.”
Yes, that’s exactly where so much of it ends up, and not in the pockets of the poor.  And if Washington, DC doesn’t convince you that leftist schemes of government-sponsored redistribution of wealth cannot work and have not worked, then take a look at Detroit, which has had an unbroken string of Democratic mayors for more than 50 years, and was chosen to be a “Model City” for government renewal projects, in addition to which it had in its own backyard perhaps the most remarkable industrial powerhouse in history in the “Big Three” Detroit automakers.  Yet, with all that, Detroit now looks like nothing so much as World War II Dresden, block upon block of (literally) burned out houses.

Social Justice (vs. Jesus and the Parable of the Talents)
To many contemporary leftists, the battle cry is “Social Justice!” by which they mean leveling the economic playing field so that the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is greatly shrunk.  To level that field, they say, means we must take from those who have more and give it to those who have less, as if “equality” and “justice” were synonymous.
Jesus seems not to agree.  You might recall his parable of the talents in Matt. 25: 14-30.  (To avoid confusion, a talent is not, as it is in modern English usage, an ability or skill, but a unit of money worth about 3 or 4 weeks wages.)  In that parable, Jesus mentions three workers, or stewards, to whom their master gave five, two, and one talent respectively.  The first two, those with five and two talents, invested the money he gave them so wisely and well that they each produced a 100% profit.  The third, however, was afraid that he might lose the money in a faulty investment, so he simply buried it in order to keep it safe.  He produced no profit at all.
When the master asked for an accounting, the third steward simply gave him back all he had -- one talent.  Deeply displeased with this worker’s production, the master decided to  “take from him who has one and give it to him who has ten" (v. 28).
Although modern leftists might think Jesus’ procedure unjust, perhaps even completely backward and evil, because it takes from those with little and gives to those with much, Jesus does not.  That procedure is Jesus' way of saying that what goes by the name of "social justice" is not actually justice at all, social or otherwise.  While justice is getting whatever you deserve, “social justice" is getting the same as everybody else, whether you earned it or not, and whether you deserve it or not.  If justice is getting what you deserve, then, except in circumstances where two or all persons deserve exactly the same, justice is not getting the same as everyone else.  That's not justice, that's equality.   Justice and equality are very different concepts -- concepts the left, with its confused and conflated political and economic notions, frequently gets wrong.
If “justice” and “equality” really were the same thing, then by saying what He said in Matt 25, Jesus was unjust.  He didn't take from the one with ten and give to the one with less, as the "social justice" crowd would demand.  He took from the unfaithful steward with the least and gave it to the wise steward with the most.  It was Jesus’ way of teaching the importance of faithful and productive service, which he rewarded (vv. 21, 23).  Egalitarians, those who advocate redistribution under the false name of "social justice," don't understand that equalizing outcomes is often the very embodiment of injustice itself.  Because it is, we must not to do what the advocates of so-called “social justice” demand because we oppose injustice, even when some call it by its opposite name.  We must not perpetrate injustice; we must give to others what they deserve, which is neither oppression nor lack of mercy.  Here’s Paul’s way of saying it:  “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).
Nobody, especially Jesus, is talking here about kissing up to the rich.  Nobody is saying that this parable justifies rich people (or poor) when they do evil.  Nobody is defending predatory practices.  We are saying that justice is not the same as government-coerced redistribution of wealth by means of the tax code irrespective of one’s deserving or one’s contribution.  This parable is not about loving money.  The man with little was unfaithful and full of fear, and because he was unfaithful and full of fear, what little he had was given to the man who did the best and had the most.  This parable is about deserving and undeserving workers, which is a point lost on the so-called "social justice" crowd.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

2012 Oxford Summer School on CS Lewis and the Inklings

I am pleased to announce that we now are taking applications for the 2012 Oxford summer school on CS Lewis and the Inklings.
The course runs from May 29-June 24 and is worth five college credit hours.  Those hours normally transfer as either an English or a Religion/Theology course, whichever you select.  In some cases, I have seen colleges divide the credit as 3 hours English and 2 hours Religion — or vice versa. The credit hours come from Oxford.  But if for some reason you need American accreditation, they come from University of the Pacific.  The same holds true for your tutorial, if you elect to take one, except that it is 2 hours and reflects the nature of the course you select -- politics, history, sociology, etc.
Because the summer school organizers want to you have the experience of living in Oxford itself, and not in a dorm room, they put you in apartments around the city centre.  For example, students often are located in apartments on a street called Venneit Close, which is right along the Thames walkway.  Or you might be in beautiful multi-story brick homes in old North Oxford, or in apartments in the trendy Jericho area.
         Your classes are normally held either in the OSAP offices, in the St. Mary the Virgin church library, in New College, or in Trinity College.  The location varies day by day so that you can get inside more Oxford buildings.  Your formal meal, with academic gowns, is in New College.  You can see some earlier students in gowns in the pictures provided on the poster.  In addition to the lectures by me and by my wife, we will have guest lecturers from Oxford itself, like Rev. Walter Hooper, Lewis’s personal secretary, and Rev. Michael Ward, who has written the fine book Planet Narnia.
The costs cover 5 hours tuition, lodging for three weeks (plus a free fourth week in your rooms after the course is over, if you’d like to stay on), all the field trips, and the formal dinner in New College.  It does not cover your meals or your travel.  If you want to take an additional tutorial course, it will cost $300 for the two hours of college credit.  In other words, you get half a semester’s credit, four weeks in Oxford, several field trips, and membership in New College and the Bodleian library for about $6200, tutorial included.
If you wish to apply, simply let me know your intentions, and have your official transcripts sent to me at:

Dr. Michael Bauman
Hillsdale College
Hillsdale, MI 49242

Please let me know if you have any additional questions.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Understanding Eschatology (2)

        I have taken a lesson from the emphases of economists like Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek and applied it to the study of eschatology.  I have deliberately chosen to focus my attention on the individual rather than on the collective.  I have turned from macro-eschatology (God's plan for the nations and the world) to micro-eschatology (God's plan for individual people), not only because it is, in my view, a more profitable study, one more suitable for a theological pilgrimage, but because it is a subject upon which Scripture is more clear and accessible.  Young theologians, I am convinced, would be better served if they sought to master the Bible's teachings on personal destiny rather than global destiny.  And, with regard to micro-eschatology, nature is a far better model than is a bus schedule.
     When Paul, for example, explains the coming resurrection to the Corinthians, he resorts to agricultural imagery, to seeds planted in the ground now and to the coming harvest.  What is planted (or buried) a material body is harvested (or resurrected) a spiritual one.  Jesus does the same.  When He teaches micro-eschatology, He also employs natural, or agricultural, images, such as farmers at work separating sheep from goats and wheat from chaff.  Even when He addresses Himself to macro-eschatology, nature images predominate, as when He introduces lessons drawn from fig trees or from the atmospheric conditions that precede a storm.
     In that sense, because nature is a fertile source of images and analogies, it can be a useful means of prophetic pedagogy.  It also can help to decipher some of the more puzzling micro-eschatological phenomena in Scripture.  One such puzzling detail concerning which nature can be an aid actually occurs at least three times in the New Testament:  why Mary could not recognize the resurrected Jesus while standing at His empty tomb; why the disciples, fishing from their boat, could not recognize the resurrected Jesus, beckoning them from the nearby shore; and why the disciples on the road to Emmaus could not recognize the resurrected Jesus, the very man about whom they were speaking and to whom they spoke.
     Imagine, if you will, a caterpillar and a butterfly, one crawling, the other perched, upon the same twig.  Even had he a mind able to do so, the caterpillar would not recognize in his winged companion the same friend with whom he used to share a tasty leaf.  The transformation wrought in the cocoon would have masked his friend's true identity.  Nor would the caterpillar recognize in his companion his own destiny, even though it stood before his very eyes in all its Monarch splendor.  But something in the way that butterfly moved, or something in the way it nibbled at its food in the bright sunlight would stir the caterpillar deeply, would make his heart burn within him.  It would awaken the memory of twigs he'd travelled and leaves he'd tasted in the past, and of those with whom he'd shared summer days.  The welcome and revered image of his old friend's homely, wormlike countenance would cross his mind, and for an instant, for one brief but electric moment, charged with expectation and softened by nostalgia, he would catch a glimpse of both past and future, and he would understand.
     But moments of such transcending significance and insight are rare.  Only the keen-sighted or the visionary among us can see the seed that once was in the rose that now is.  In the oak trees towering above them they can see the destiny of humble acorns lying in the dirt.  They see in the green stalks of corn that sway in the breezes of a warm August morning, while they stand in an Indiana cornfield that fills their vision on every side all the way to the horizon, the very same kernels they buried in the earth just months before.  And if, like the caterpillar, they are blessed with a moment of insight, they will see their own destiny.  They will learn what graveyards really are:  not long lines of weathered headstones standing as silent testimonials to broken dreams or to separation without remedy, but  rows and rows of planted seeds, await­ing the harvest of the last day.  They will understand that what is harvested far ex­ceeds that which they laid in the ground.  They will see that caterpillar and butterfly, acorn and oak, kernel and stalk, bulb and tulip, and egg and rooster, are merely two stages in the development of the same life.  They will see that the transformation wrought in the unseen darkness behind the veil of death is so magnificent that what they themselves will become is hardly recognizable in what they now are.
     But they have a clue:  they know that they shall be like Christ.  And they know that some have actually seen the resurrected Jesus and have left behind an account of that amazing sight.  Then, the next time they read the inspired description of the awesome Christ in John's vision, they will understand why even Jesus' best friends did not recognize Him at first.  And they will catch a glimpse, at the same time, of their own Monarch destiny.
     And what will that world be like?                                 
     I don't know.  But I imagine it will be as startlingly and breathtakingly different from the one we now enjoy as the one we now enjoy is from the dark wetness of the womb we once inhabited, or as the brilliant blue skies and fresh warm breezes in which the violets now bloom are different from the dirt and darkness of the flower bed from which they arose.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Understanding Eschatology (1)

      Not long after my conversion, I was given, in rapid succession, J. Dwight Pentecost's Things to Come, Salem Kirban's 666, and Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth, which I dutifully read cover-to-cover.  Had I not been given C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity earlier, I would have acquired, at the very outset, a radically distorted view of Christian life and thought.
     Except for one, my well-meaning spiritual mentors served to nourish only a taste for the sensational, not my new hunger for God and godliness.  While even now I appreciate their zeal and their good intentions, I realize, in a way I did not (indeed could not) realize then, that their conception of Christian nurture and of eschatology were truncated and stifling.  They apparently had never learned, and therefore could not impart to me, that eschatology is no beginner's subject.  I know now that it is not.  I sympathize, for example, with the Protestant reformers' re­luctance to address Biblical texts like John's Apocalypse -- a book upon which even Calvin himself refused to write a commentary and which both Luther and Zwingli (and St. Jerome before them) rejected as non-canonical.
     Evangelical theologians typically pursue their study of eschatology under one of two controlling images:  they see it as analogous either to a railroad timetable or else to nature and to natural processes.  While I (and the New Testament) generally prefer the latter, the books I was given to read focused almost entirely upon the former.  Nor is the choice insignificant.  Very much depends upon the controlling images we employ.  As a timetable devotee I was reading Matthew 24 and Revelation 6 as if they were tomorrow's newspaper headlines and reading the New York Times as if it were a biblical commentary by F. F. Bruce or B. F. Westcott.
     Only later did I learn the hard and humbling lesson that virtually every generation in Christian history thought of itself as the last, and that in every instance they were wrong.  How could I escape their fate?
     Only later did I discover the changing face of Antichrist and the many different names from history that well-informed theologians had assigned him -- Pope Julius, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, and John Kennedy among them.  Either those theologians were flatly mistaken or else the Evil One is very much like George Burns in the movie Oh God!:  he can do any face, any voice.
     Only later did I question (and then disavow) the facile identifications I had made between biblical motifs and texts, on the one hand, and current events, on the other.  On what demonstrable basis, after all, did I so blithely assume that the political entity produced by United Nations fiat in the late 1940s was the very same entity as that created by God when He called Abram out of Ur millennia earlier, or that was crushed and dispersed by foreign powers in 70 A.D.?  As Russell Kirk observed in a different context, “The twentieth-century democracy of Israel, with its secular parties and western parliamentary structure, bears no resemblance to the Kingdom or to post-exilic theocracy.”  Don't get me wrong -- I don't oppose the modern state of Israel.  It is our best friend in that deeply troubled corner of the world, and we ought to support it vigorously and consistently.  But eschatology has nothing to do with it.
     I had overlooked the cryptic, almost cynical, nature of the answers given by Jesus to any question posed to Him about the timing of the eschaton.  He told his questioners that the end would come when people were engrossed in buying and selling, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage; and his listeners (not to mention some of his modern evangelical readers) seemed to act as if they had actually been told something.  He would tell them that the end would come when there were earthquakes, wars, and rumors of wars -- a not too helpful reply given that in the 2,000 years since He spoke only 44 have been free of military combat of some sort, on the one hand, and that during those war-laden years we have witnessed thousands upon thousands of earthquakes.  The language of theophany, I was slow to learn, is picturesque, not perspicuous.  At other times Jesus became far less oblique:  He told his questioners that “the kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed” (Luke 17: 20).  But they seemed not to get his point.  At least once, He flatly told his listeners that He simply did not know (Matt. 24: 36).  Only the Father knows the time, Jesus told them, and concerning it the Father has said precisely nothing.
     Timetables, in other words, are out.  Global eschatology remains what it always has been, a mystery. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why Study History? Four Reasons

      I have heard it said that the trouble with the younger generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting.  As a college history professor, I can attest to the fundamental truth of this observation.  When I ask my students to justify this disabling neglect, however, or to explain to me why they have not acquired a mastery of, or even a taste for, history, I am frequently answered with another question: "Why should we?"  I answer them this way.
     First, we study history because, as Carl Becker noted, one of our highest duties is not to be duped.  Among other things, the history of mankind is a narrative of frauds and deceits.  A detailed knowledge of the past often carries with it, therefore, an acquaintance with the ways of evil, and this acquaintance, in turn, engenders for us a protection.  Knowing what we know from history, we need not fall prey to the same old ploys our fathers did.  Providence, in other words, has vouchsafed to us a treasure trove of wisdom, gleaned from thousands of years of experience and thoughtful reflection.  We are the privileged heirs of a tradition of insight formed in the crucible of our collective past.  This tradition is our hedge against transitory circumstances, imperfect knowledge, and narrow perspective.  Or, to put it the other way around, “deficiency in historical perspective leads to the ruinous blunders of ideologues.” To study history is to gain personal access to that invaluable legacy.  Historical study properly pursued has the beneficial effect of granting a person the experience and wisdom of age without its accompanying infirmities or inconveniences.  In that sense, historical study can serve as an indispensable aid both in living well and in living freely.  History can be both a protection and a liberation.
     Second, the study of history enables us to make informed predictions about the likely outcome of various possible courses of action.  By noting the differing approaches to past problems in situations that closely parallel our own, and by assessing the results of each, we can predict, within limits, the likely consequences of any particular approach to current difficulties.  I say "within limits" because I bear in mind Wordsworth's observation that "we see but darkly, even when we look behind us."2  Therefore, while historical study, of its own, can never be an infallible guide for tomorrow and does not enable us to prophesy concerning the future, it can enable us to make knowledgeable and mature short-term predictions.  More than two hundred years ago, in his address to the Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry made this same point:  "I know of no way to judge the future," he said, "but by the past."  Or, as the White Queen explained to Alice:  "It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards."  In that light, then, history serves to equip us to deal intelligently and vigorously with the future.
     Third, not only do we study the past in order to see something of the future, we study the past in order to understand the present.  That is, we study the past because someone ought to be interested in (and committed to) finding out the truth about things.  Because ideological truth, if it is truth, is not new, and because error is usually old and unoriginal, a thoughtful mastery of the debates of the past serves as a foundation for untangling and resolving contemporary quarrels.  Most current philosophical and theological disagreements stem from presuppositions that reach far back into the history of ideas.  In that light, Albert Einstein once said that he had only one original idea in his entire life.  If true, the implications of that statement are profound.  Regardless of how modern we think our problems are, and regardless of how novel we believe our stance toward them might be, the odds are that these arguments, or ones very much like them, have all been argued before, and in much the same way.  A great deal of effort has already been expended in solving such problems, and a significant amount of valuable insight has already been expressed on "modern" issues.  The ideological expertise of some of the finest minds of the past has been brought to bear on either the very problems that plague us today or on their near relatives.  Thus, by schematizing the old debates we not only clarify the current ones, we also enjoy the inestimable privilege of encountering the formative thinkers who shaped the Western World.  Of this tremendous deposit of wisdom the Pilgrim Theologian must make the fullest possible use.  To do so is not only advisable, it is an inestimable privilege. 
     Finally, if for no other reason, we study history because it has entertainment value.  Unlike some other academic pursuits, history has its own peculiar fascination.  People everywhere seem to be buying it, reading it, writing it, and enjoying it.  History affords both the excitement of discovery and the satisfaction of acquired mastery.  Because of its character as a narrative social science, history can combine in an interesting fashion both the scientist's precision and the storyteller's art.  The result of such a union frequently is captivating.  Only the incorrigibly obtuse can fail to delight in Huizinga's graphic delineation of the harvest of medieval culture, or in Boswell's Johnson and Bainton's Luther.  An almost unavoidable sense of reverence and respect attaches to fondling carefully a delicate 400-year-old book, or to walking where one's grandfather and great grandfather (or even their ancestors) walked and talked, lived and died.  The sensitive mind is profoundly moved when it comes face to face with its own roots.  The discovery of one's own spiritual heritage or intellectual pedigree is of supreme importance in helping to develop and to define one's identity.  This link to the past, which history supplies, allows us also to move back across time and to traverse vast distances in order to experience, however momentarily, something of life in an ancient and otherwise irretrievable world.  History is the closest thing to transcendence that most of us will ever enjoy.
     But in this fascination and escape lies one of history's dangers.  We are not called to live in the past, romantic though it might seem to us.  Nor are we granted leave to sit idly by, wistfully longing for some previous age, allegedly golden.  Whenever we do so, we have turned from history to nostalgia -- and nostalgia is a failure of nerve.  By it we flinch from a daunting present and shrink from an imposing future.  Unless our study of history and the wisdom and entertainment it affords can be used to help us deal intelligently and vigorously with our present world, our study has degenerated from an academic discipline to mere sentimentality.  Of that there is already enough.
     These, then, are the reasons I tell my students we ought to study history.  I also tell them that there is one thing better to do with history than to study it, and that is to make it.


     1Russell Kirk, The Conservative Constitution (Washington:  Regnery Gateway, 1990), p. 31.
     2William Wordsworth, The Prelude, III, 482-483.