Friday, April 18, 2014

A Replacement Hermeneutic & An Individualist Soteriology: Parts I & II

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Justice and Faith: Surveying the Lay of the Land 

The Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics, the Centre for Community Based Research, and the Christian Reformed Church of Canada, are currently partnering in an exciting research project entitled, “Justice and Faith: Individual Spirituality and Social Responsibility in the Christian Reformed Church of Canada.” This article is a contribution to the project's literature review, a collective document where researchers compile findings from recent scholarship, trace emerging themes, and highlight points of dialogue between different authors. Through the review of academic and popular sources, the research team has already shed light on issues that are defining trends. This is the third of three articles (see the first and second) written by three graduate research assistants working on the project, which contains some preliminary reflections on the literature reviewed to date.

by Isaiah Boronka

In the Literature Review two biblical/theological themes surfaced in an attempt to explain the bifurcation of faith and justice, especially in contemporary North American evangelicalism. These two themes are:
  1. An individualist soteriology 
  2. A replacement hermeneutic for the Old Testament 
The first theme, an individualist soteriology, suggests a view of salvation where the focus is on the individual and their relationship (often construed as legal - condemned or acquitted) with God. Here Jesus dies and rises again to save individuals as individuals from the consequences of sin. This kind of soteriology makes all sorts of social issues - stretching from church community, neighbourhood, civil society or the international community - not only secondary but incidental or even accidental.

It could be pictured like this:

In this view human community and the relationships therein are not intrinsic or essential to the gospel. Because of this, concerns about social justice, even when taken seriously, are always then treated as less important or as a peripheral issue precisely because of the way we think about the nature of the gospel.

The second theme, a replacement hermeneutic for the Old Testament, concerns how the relationship between Old and New Testaments is talked about. This hermeneutic suggests that the New Testament’s ‘Spiritual Message’ (salvation from slavery to sin, by grace apart from works) replaces the Old Testament’s ‘Social Message’ (salvation from actual slavery, exodus from egypt, jubilee and sabbath year, prophets).

It could be pictured like this:

Thus a replacement hermeneutic furthers a bifurcation between faith and justice by suggesting that the New Testament message of salvation is opposed to and replaces the Old Testament concerns for social justice (which are central to its presentation of YHWH as saviour and deliverer).

By its very structure the replacement hermeneutic also furthers an individualist soteriology, for, when a social message is exchanged for a spiritual message, then individual salvation replaces social salvation. This kind of connection may not be spelled out systematically or in detail but it is implied.

Replacing Replacement: A Different Hermeneutic for A Different Soteriology

Christopher Wright, in his book The Mission of God, deals extensively with this replacement hermeneutic. The exodus is key to his discussion. That event was “actual deliverance out of real, earthy injustice, oppression and violence” (Wright, pg. 276). Unfortunately Christians often play loose with this reality and instead use the story typologically - Israel’s freedom from actual slavery foreshadows our freedom from spiritual slavery, as if this exhausted its meaning.

We need to affirm what this foreshadowing affirms - the importance of freedom from sin offered through Christ. Yet we must omit what it omits when it disregards “the actual deliverance out of real, earthy injustice, oppression and violence.”

Wright powerfully negates this use of typology. He argues “it is not that the New Testament exchanges a social message for a spiritual one but that it extends the Old Testament teaching to the deepest understanding of and the most radical and final answer to the spiritual dimension of our human predicament” (pg. 279). This freedom from the slavery to sin becomes the root of freedom from actual slavery, and spiritual wholeness becomes the foundation for social wholeness.

This does not mean that social wholeness and social liberation are only incidental, by no means. They are still integral but integral in an odd and peculiar way, one not easily grasped by imaginations dominated by the binary opposition between the spiritual and the social, between faith and justice. We are so used to thinking of these things as separate, as different, that it might be difficult to hold social and spiritual concerns together.

Wright quotes Walter Brueggemann, who urges against choosing one side over the other, especially in our interpretation of the Bible: “Either side of such dualism distorts true human bondage and misreads Israel’s text” (pg 288). Thus human beings are oppressed - both by each other, unjust structures, and by sin and death.

This extension hermeneutic could also reframe an individualist soteriology that contributes to the bifurcation of faith and justice. If social concerns are recovered alongside a recovery of the Old Testament, so too a social dimension of the gospel can be recovered. All this could be pictured this way:

This understanding of salvation, based in part on a new appreciation for the Old Testament, only begins to answer questions. Despite this new integration, questions remain concerning how to frame this extension hermeneutic in a more theologically robust way, and how, realistically, to put it into practice.

Isaiah Boronka is doing an internship at the Centre for Community Based Research in Kitchener. He is a graduate of Emmanuel Bible College, lives in Waterloo, and is completing a Masters of Theological Studies at Conrad Grebel, University of Waterloo.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On the Question of Whether Evangelical Christianity is Worth Defending: Defend, Critique, Reform, or Jump Ship?

The last few weeks have been tumultuous and painful for many evangelical Christians. As you have probably heard, World Vision announced in March that they would change their policy to allow for the hiring of those in same-sex marriages. But after a shocking 2,000 evangelical supporters withdrew their child sponsorships, totaling a loss of about $800,000 that had supported children living in poverty across the globe, World Vision took back the policy change two days later. What’s most disturbing about this sequence of events is that the children whose supporters ditched World Vision after the original announcement were caught in the middle and used as leverage in a protest.

The events of last month left many feeling embarrassed of evangelical Christianity (or at least its loudest voices), and there is now, more than ever, talk of jumping ship. Some feel that we need “new wineskins”—we need to abandon evangelicalism and re-imagine the Christian faith. Evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans, who is a long time defender of evangelicalism and critic of it (but always from the inside), writes of her disappointment and a loss of faith in evangelicalism. In a heartbreaking response to the World Vision controversy, she considers leaving, raising the question of whether or not evangelicalism is worth defending anymore. It seems that this was something of a last straw for Rachel Held Evans, and she plans to take a break from her blog and consider what might be the best way forward for evangelical Christianity.

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about why “millenials” (i.e. twenty-somethings) have been leaving organized religion. Some blame it on the LGBTQ issue specifically, pointing to events like what happened at World Vision as the cause of a loss of faith in evangelicalism. Others feel that the more general problem is that millenials are tired of people telling them how to live their lives. I think there might be something to both of these, but perhaps what’s underneath all this is a growing distrust in certain types of institutional authority. When all that’s holding an institution together is doctrinal agreement, any strong disagreement can make it brittle at best.

Alongside the issue of why millenials are leaving the church, some are raising the question of why millenials are attracted to liturgical traditions. Many young evangelicals who have grown disillusioned with evangelical Christianity have gravitated toward Anglican or Catholic traditions, longing for liturgy and a kind of robustness in authority structure that evangelical Christianity tends to lack. Some evangelicals turn to the deeply historical Eastern Orthodox tradition, longing for a historical continuity that can seem thin in evangelical Christianity.

One of the core issues at stake here concerns what ought to be the basis for Christian unity. Is it doctrine? Structural authority? Tradition?

But the question that haunts us today and has haunted Christianity since the first century church, through the East-West Schism of 1054, and on through church splits and the events of last month boils down to this: (how) can there be unity at all when disagreements run so deep? 

Matthew E. Johnson is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing his philosophical studies on hermeneutics, aesthetics, discourse, and issues surrounding individual and group identity.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The World Map Turns Out to Be Wrong, Heidegger’s Nazism, and the Selfie Becomes the “Sealfie”

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Links for April 9, 2014

For a break from your end of semester studying, writing, and stressing, here is a guide to some interesting happenings over the last couple of weeks in the world wide web world.

Here’s something that will (literally) turn your world upside down. Every map of the world you’ve ever seen is a distorted representation of what the earth (and especially Africa) is actually like. After hearing that the maps I use grow out of our cultural biases more than out of the pursuit of accurate cartography, I realized that even if there was ever a global flood it doesn’t matter because I don’t even know what the earth looks like anymore. So I decided to pass up seeing the Noah movie and went to the new Captain America one instead. It was an excellent choice.

Nevertheless, Noah sparked a good deal of controversy among Christians who felt that it misrepresentated the biblical narrative. Biblical scholar Peter Enns isn’t worried because he thinks that (1) nobody ever gets the story right anyway and (2) the Gospel isn’t at stake.

Before going to drown your sorrows about the Noah movie by buying an authentic Stradivarius violin from 1719 for $45 million, just be aware that a new study shows that original Strads are actually not better than new violins.

Speaking of big letdowns, after the March publication of Martin Heidegger’s “black notebooks,” there is no longer any question about his anti-Semitism. In the wake of this publication, Jewish philosopher Elliott R. Wolfson reflects on the undeniable and ongoing importance of Heidegger’s thought for Jewish philosophy. For a taste of what Heidegger actually said in his so-called “black notebooks,” preliminary translations of excerpts are featured on Counter-Currents Publishing’s blog.

If you’re in the mood for some solid debate, make sure to check out three views on how to talk about God by John Caputo, Louise Antony, and Alvin Plantinga. Also, this recently posted email dialogue between ICS Junior Member Dean Dettloff and Matthew David Segall is a fascinating study of creation, the problem of evil, and cosmology. If that’s not enough philosophical exchange for you, take a look at this video of a panel with John Searle, Hilary Lawson, and Michael Potter on the linguistic turn. Or if you just want a primer in the philosophy of Alan Badiou here the first in a series of ten articles that will crack open the political aspects of his thought.

Even though you’ve now been primed on some serious philosophy and theology and have found all the answers, hold off stamping your “seal” of approval on Ellen Degeneres’ campaign to stop seal hunting in Canada. Consider this interview with the group of Inuit women who instituted the “sealfie”, where they speak up about the importance of seal hunting for their culture and survival in northern Canada.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Whose Reformed Tradition? Which Kuyper?

Justice and Faith: Surveying the Lay of the Land 

The Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics, the Centre for Community Based Research, and the Christian Reformed Church of Canada, are currently partnering in an exciting research project entitled, “Justice and Faith: Individual Spirituality and Social Responsibility in the Christian Reformed Church of Canada.” This article is a contribution to the project's literature review, a collective document where researchers compile findings from recent scholarship, trace emerging themes, and highlight points of dialogue between different authors. Through the review of academic and popular sources, the research team has already shed light on issues that are defining trends. This is the second of three articles (see the first here) written by three graduate research assistants working on the project, which contains some preliminary reflections on the literature reviewed to date.

by Joshua Harris 

One of the clear advantages of understanding problems of social justice from a position of faith is the relative solidarity that comes with a common recognition of certain intellectual figures and traditions as, in some sense, authoritative. Aristotle warned us long ago that politics “is not an exact science,” so simple “scientific” appeals to non-personal authorities such as conclusions reached from deductive reasoning or empirical facts cannot by themselves settle debates about complicated questions such as “What is the role of the State in issues of social justice?” For this reason, among many others, Christians do well to consult the intellectual figures that have helped shape the faith tradition to which they belong. If we are products of our forefathers and mothers, then contemporary Christian leaders have a responsibility to interpret them with faithful, critical rigor. 

When it comes to questions about the integration of social justice and faith in the Reformed tradition in particular, few names mean as much as the Dutch social philosopher and theologian Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, who inaugurated the energetic theological movement known as “neo-Calvinism,” also founded the Free University of Amsterdam and was even Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905. These accomplishments and others give remarkable credence to perhaps his most famous theological commitment: namely, the oft-quoted line, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Kuyper’s legacy offers more than a few practical and theoretical resources for contemporary issues surrounding the relationship between social justice and faith. It should come as no surprise, then, that answers beginning with “Kuyper said/thought/taught…” tend to demand more attention than others. 

Along with the blessings that come with inheriting the imagination of such powerful figures, however, come some inevitable curses—at least one of which includes prickly disagreements about what Kuyper did, in fact, say/think/teach. Indeed, our humble Justice and Faith research team is identifying these kinds of disagreements as a primary theme arising from the many ways in which Christian Reformed congregations understand the relationship between social justice and faith. Tradition matters, but it is not univocal. 

Perhaps the most consistent interpretive disagreement in this context among Reformed intellectuals is the aforementioned question about the role of the State in matters of social justice. For Kuyper, does the State have a positive role in enacting justice in our communities? Or, by contrast, is the great Dutch theologian a champion of a limited State that preserves justice in our communities by refusing, when at all possible, to act coercively? 

Among some of the most prominent advocates of the latter interpretation of Kuyper are researchers associated with the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hunter Baker, Jordan Ballor and Catholic conservative Michael Novak draw attention to passages like the following from Kuyper’s The Problem of Poverty (quotes courtesy of the Acton blog): 
Socialists constantly invoke Christ in support of their utopias, and continually hold before us important texts from the Holy Word. Indeed, socialists have so strongly felt the bond between social distress and the Christian religion that they have not hesitated to present Christ himself as the great prophet of socialism.[1] 
The socialists so flatly reverse [this] when they preach it: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33). For both rich and poor, Jesus’ teaching simultaneously cuts to the root of sin in our human heart.[2]  
The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.[3] 
In these cases, Kuyper does indeed seem to be concerned with what he perceives to be a dangerous conflation between Christ’s salvific power and the State’s power to distribute resources created in the economic sphere of society according to the needs of those who are less fortunate. These strong words warn Reformed Christians that bloated welfare programs—even if they are born out of good intentions—are symptomatic of an overreach of the State’s power. These sentiments seem to square rather nicely with a “classical liberal” understanding of the role of the State in regards to social justice matters: namely, that private individuals and institutions of voluntary cooperation are primarily responsible for addressing such issues—not the centralized concentration of coercive power that constitutes the State. 

Despite these clear proclamations, however, many other contemporary interpreters of Kuyper seem to have at least comparable grounds for reading him as a strong proponent of a State with an active role in addressing issues of social justice. Influential Reformed intellectuals such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, James K.A. Smith, Richard Mouw and Bob Goudzwaard tend to draw attention to alternative passages in Kuyper’s impressive oeuvre (quoted from an article in Markets and Morality by Goudzwaard): 
In earlier days a law on labor should not have been possible, because … every relationship (of labor) with other social groupings did not exist in a way which is relevant for public justice.… But since then the situation in Europe has changed to such a high extent, that one may ask with very good reason (alleszins met recht): Why deny any longer to labor its own rights and legal forms of life, which are demanded by the very character of its nature?[4]  
The root principle of the French Revolution is its God-provoking cry “neither God nor master”—the ideal of humanity emancipated from God and his established order. From this principle extend two lines, not just one. The first is the [liberal] line along which you move in making up your mind to break down the established order of things, leaving nothing but the individual with his own free will and imaginary supremacy. Alongside this runs another line, at the end of which you are tempted not only to push aside God and his order, but also, now deifying yourself, to sit on God’s throne, as the prophet said, and to create a new order of things out of your own brain. The last is what social democracy wants to create.[5] 
Here, Kuyper urges his readers to consider the changing climate of Europe—one that has forgotten the contingency of the individual not only in her immediate society, but also before God himself. While still not an advocate of a large, impersonal State apparatus, Kuyper is equally critical of liberal individualism. Thus, according to this alternative reading, the kind of classical liberal society championed by the Acton Institute is not at all what Kuyper advocates. Indeed, actively ensuring “public justice” is the primary task entrusted to the State. 

While these kinds of interpretive disagreements can be frustrating for those who fall on either side of such debates, what projects like Justice and Faith can offer is a renewed perspective on the importance of rigorous, sustained dialogue about the tradition of which Christian Reformed congregations are a part. At least one side is wrong, and it is important to work towards understanding the reasons why.

[1] Abraham Kuyper, The Problem of Poverty (Sioux City, IA: Dordt College Press, 2011), 27.
[2] Ibid., 39-40.
[3] Ibid., 78.
[4] Abraham Kuyper, Architectonische critiek, fragmenten uit de sociaal-politike geschriften van dr A. Kuyper, translated by Bob Goudzwaard (Amsterdam: Paris, 1956), 115.
[5] Kuyper, Problem of Poverty, 120.

Joshua Harris holds an MA in Philosophy from Trinity Western University, where he defended a thesis exploring the possibility of understanding Thomas Aquinas as a mediator in contemporary debates arising from the so-called "analytic-continental divide" in the twentieth century. As a PhD candidate in Phlosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies, his research interests include philosophy of language, philosophical theology and Christian social thought.

Image in the public domain, used from