Blog Archives

Why Augustine’s “City of God” is still relevant today

How can a book written by a North African bishop nearly 1,600 years ago possibly have any relevance today? As Jason Goroncy points out, that’s precisely the question that ABC’s Encounter program sought to answer as it brought in a panel of experts to discuss the contemporary relevance of Augustine’s City of God.

The ABC’s  recently aired a worthwhile discussion about the contemporary relevance of Augustine’s The program, titled ‘Grace and the City’ can be read here, listened to via a stream here, or downloaded here.

The guests on the program include Charles Mathewes (Associate Professor in Religious Studies, University of Virginia), John von Heyking (Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Lethbridge, Alberta), Lawrence Cross (Associate Professor, Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Australian Catholic University), John Milbank (Professor in Religion, Politics and Ethics, The University of Nottingham) and Thomas Smith (Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Villanova University).

 

Greg Boyd on Constantine’s influence on Christianity

Thanks to Richard Beck for directing my attention to Greg Boyd‘s 4th of July sermon, in which he decries the pagan influence that Constantine had on Christianity. Watch the video and then check out my comments below.

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Now, the main thing that you need to know about this video is that Boyd is wrong. Could I make that any more clear?

To develop that assertion a little more, let me offer  few additional comments:

  1. The church was not all pure and innocent before Constantine, and it wasn’t all corrupt and guilty after. Any time you hear somebody setting their narrative up with such clean distinctions, they are almost certainly wrong.
  2. Christians did not suddenly move from images of the crucified Jesus to the victorious Jesus at the time of Constantine. You can find both images before and after Constantine.
  3. Boyd’s claim that God would “rather be slain by his enemies than slay his enemies” is a great portrayal of God’s love and grace on the cross, but fails to take into account the rest of the biblical narrative in which God clearly demonstrates that he will not allow the rebellious to undermine his plans for the world (cf. Revelation).
  4. Boyd draws way too simplistic a distinction between the church before Constantine, which lived a beautiful, countercultural lifestyle of love, and the church after Constantine, which was all about power and coercion. Again, that simply is not historically accurate. At the very least, it fails to take into account the fact that the church was beginning to develop a more nuanced understanding of the church/state relationship even before Constantine came along. And, more importantly, it fails to consider the ways in which the church continued to resist and reject a simplistic wedding of church and state even after Constantine. Boyd’s narrative simply does not hold up to historical scrutiny.
  5. I’m not even going to comment on Boyd’s claim that the church “didn’t mind” being slaughtered because this life is “just a prelude to the real thing.”
  6. I could go on, but I won’t.

Now, to be fair (even though I don’t want to be), I should acknowledge that some of Boyd’s points are legitimate. I think the church absolutely should strive to imitate the love and grace of God as demonstrated on the cross. Although God will come and defeat his enemies in the end – ushering in his Kingdom and accomplishing his purposes – the Church is never called to accomplish any of these things for him. We are ambassadors of the Gospel, not “soldiers” of the Kingdom. And, the Church was unquestionably faced with temptations and challenges after Constantine that were new and that it was relatively unprepared to handle. But, it did not simply capitulate to the challenges nor did it surrender its distinct identity anywhere along the way. Did the Church make mistakes? Yes. And, it always will. But God remains faithful.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/28)

The date is important for Christianity because Constantine went on to end imperial persecution of Christians (with the Edict of Milan in 313). He also converted to Christianity personally, and empowered and enriched the church in countless ways, from copying Bible texts, to gathering the first ecumenical council, to beginning Christian architecture. What’s not to love?

… when He became incarnate, and was made man, He recapitulated in himself the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam–namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God–that we might recover in Christ Jesus. (Against Heresies III.18.1)

Samuel, this seven pound two ounce wonder, represents, no less than other children, what Jürgen Moltmann once named ‘metaphors of God’s hope for us’, that with every child, a new life – original, unique, incomparable – begins. And that while we typically ask, who does this or that child look like…, we also encounter the entirely different, the entirely dissimilar and unique in each child. It is, Moltmann suggests, precisely these differences that we need to respect if we want to love life and allow an open future. Moltmann also recalls that with every beginning of a new life, the hope for the reign of peace and justice is given a new chance….Every new life is also a new beginning of hope for a homeland in this unredeemed world. If it were not, we would have no reason to expect anything new from a beginning.

Be suspicious of statistics, especially those that seem too good or too bad or too surprising to be true.

You’re two years into your administration and the question that arises in my mind is, Are we the people that we were waiting for? Or, are those people are still out there and we don’t have their number?

Patriotism, nationalism, and Christian worship (a roundup)

The last few days have seen quite a number of posts on the question of whether nationalistic symbols (e.g. flags) should be displayed in worship services and/or whether Christian churches should celebrate/recognize national holidays like the 4th of July. Here are some of the more interesting posts:

I’m sure there will be other posts over the next couple of days, but this seems like more than enough for now.

Should we celebrate national holidays in church?

Since the Fourth of July falls on a Sunday this year, it raises the question even more pointedly than normal about whether (or how) churches should recognize national holidays in their worship services. For some, celebrating the Fourth of July is an important (almost vital) expression of the fact that we are still in the world and our gratitude for the blessings that come from living in a country like America. For others, this serves as yet another manifestation of the church’s captivity to nationalistic ideals and its inability to realize fully that the Kingdom of God and America are not the same thing. And, I’m sure that many fall somewhere in between.

I got into an interesting discussion with some of the other faculty yesterday about what their respective churches would be doing. The answers spanned a pretty wide range. In one church, the pastor will be preaching on “freedom” from Galatians 5 and will be using the Fourth of July as a segue into that topic. Otherwise, the holiday will not be addressed in the service. In another church, the holiday won’t come up at all. But, several large churches in the Portland area make a very big day out of the Fourth , with services complete with flags, uniforms, and patriotic music.

This also connects with the issue of whether Christian churches should display national flags in their services. Mike Bird blogged on this a couple of weeks ago, calling for n annual “remove flags from your church sanctuary day” and arguing that this is akin to idolatry.  Nick Norelli, on the other hand, has argued that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with flags in church and that it’s not idolatry as long as you don’t worship them.

In both cases, the question seems to be about the extent to which churches should or should not participate in public displays of patriotism and/or nationalism. (I think Nick is right that we should be much more careful about throwing around the word “idolatry” in this context.)

What do you think? Are flags and national holidays legitimate in a Christian assembly, should they be banished entirely, or do you have a via media? And, what will your church be doing on Sunday? (Or, if you don’t know, what do you hope that your church will do on Sunday?)

Flotsam and jetsam (6/4)

Remembering the Barmen Declaration

On May 31, 1934 the leaders of the German Confessing Church movement issued a statement denouncing the theology and practice of the German Christians and articulating a set of theological convictions that they felt needed to be the driving factors in determining the relationship between Christian churches and the German state. Although the declaration itself, largely written by Karl Barth, is too long to post in its entirety (you can read it here), I thought I would highlight the specific doctrines they were rejecting. Several of them bear an unfortunate resemblance to our modern context:

  • 8.12 We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
  • 8.15 We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
  • 8.18 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
  • 8.21 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers.
  • 8.24 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.
  • 8.27 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.

Atheists and baptists agree?

I know that a couple of you are pretty interested in issues of church/state relationships, theologies of state, and social/civic engagement. So, I’d thought this post from Exploring Our Matrix might interest you. McGrath is basically arguing that atheists and baptists have (or should have) the same basic attitude on the relationship between church and state. Take a look at it and let us know what you think. There are really two questions here: (1) Do you think he is right about baptists and atheists have the same general take on this issue? And, (2) Do you think this is the correct stance that we should have toward church/state relations?