Robert McNamara Has Passed Away

I just learned that Robert McNamara has died. McNamara was Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, who is blamed for America’s deep involvement in the Vietnam War. I want to write a fuller post, but that will have to wait, since I’m busy right now.

Stay tuned!

Published in: on July 6, 2009 at 5:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Calvin on Daniel 4:27: Alms and Atonement

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 358.

Cyprian was an African bishop in the third century. He states the following about God’s forgiveness of sins:

As in the laver of saving water the fire of hell is extinguished, so by almsgiving and works of righteousness the flame is subdued. And because in baptism remission of sins is granted once for all, constant and ceaseless good works, following the likeness of baptism, once again bestow the mercy of God…those who after the grace of baptism became foul, may once more be cleansed.

Cyprian affirms that alms and good works can atone for a Christian’s sins. His view was not radical, for other early Christian authors make this same claim. The apocrypha/deuterocanonical writings also present alms as a path to atonement. See my post, Legalistic Christians?

I say in that post: “And, to the Protestants who will say, ‘That’s one reason we don’t like the apocrypha–it promotes salvation by works,’ take a look at what Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:27: ‘atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged’ (NRSV). I do believe that Daniel is part of the Protestant canon.”

On my Christian dating site, I once got into a discussion about Daniel 4:27 with some Protestant believers. Actually, I was the one who brought the verse up. A lady was saying that the apocrypha is bad because it promotes false doctrines, like alms atoning for sin. That went against her Protestant belief that we receive forgiveness only by trusting in Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead (sola fide, sola gratia, etc.). So I pointed out the Daniel passage to show her that atonement through alms is also in the Protestant canon.

In response, a Calvinist brother posted a link to John Calvin’s lengthy interaction with Daniel 4:27. I much prefer for people to speak in their own words than to refer me to a book or article, but I guess I should get used to the latter, being in academia. In this post, I want to discuss John Calvin’s treatment of Daniel 4:27, largely because July 10 will be the 500th anniversary of his birth.

Here’s the passage: Daniel 4:27.

Calvin is all over the map in his treatment of Daniel 4:27. He does not agree with Catholics, who appeal to this passage to argue that good works can atone for sin. And so he offers the following alternatives:

1. Calvin treats the word translated as “atone” (peruq) as “break off,” which is one meaning of the word. In this interpretation, Daniel is exhorting the king to free himself from his wrongdoing by performing good deeds. “Cease doing evil, and learn to do good” is what Calvin interprets this passage to mean. This is consistent with the Protestant view, which wants sinners to make a clean break from their sinful lifestyles. This may be what the King James Version has in mind when it translates the phrase, “break off thy sins.”

Regarding the phrase that the NRSV translates “so that your prosperity may be prolonged,” Calvin renders it as “this medicine may be suitable for the error.” Calvin interprets this to mean that practicing righteousness is a cure for habitual evildoing. I have no idea where Calvin is getting this understanding of the phrase. The Aramaic reads “and they will be length for your prosperity” (or so my BibleWorks translates the words). Calvin states that the Greek carries the idea of “cure,” but what I see in the Greek is this: “so that kindness may be given to you and you may be many days on the throne of your kingdom…” I have difficulty translating the rest of the passage, and I can’t find any English translation of the LXX for it, since most translations seem to use another manuscript. But I can’t find anything about “cure” as I put my mouse over the Greek words.

2. Another possibility that Calvin raises: Daniel is basically saying to Nebuchadnezzar, “Repent, and God will forgive you.” True repentance occurs in the heart, and yet it is made manifest in good works. According to Calvin, the Hebrew prophets often describe repentance in terms of doing good for one’s fellow human being, so Daniel is following that custom. One thing is evident, as far as Calvin is concerned: the “good works” that Daniel promotes are not the sorts of things that Catholics promote as means of atonement (i.e., fasting, rituals, pilgrimages); rather, they are acts of genuine righteousness.

3. In his third interpretation, Calvin acknowledges that peruq can mean “redeem,” but he denies that the redemption is God’s forgiveness of sins, which cannot be earned by good works. Rather, Calvin applies peruq to Nebuchadnezzar’s forgiveness by human beings: Nebuchadnezzar makes restitution to those he hurt, thereby receiving their forgiveness.

I’m not sure what to do with Calvin’s interpretations. When I first read them a while back, they looked like a stretch, but now they seem fairly reasonable. Overall, I think that Daniel was telling Nebuchadnezzar to start a new kind of life: one that was humble and kind rather than proud, selfish, and harmful to others. Then, God would take notice and grant Nebuchadnezzar long life and prosperity. Whether that accords better with the Protestant or Catholic view of forgiveness, I have no idea.

Published in: on July 6, 2009 at 5:06 pm  Comments (3)  

The “Me” and the “We” in Church

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Systems of the Hellenistic Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985) 403.

B. Farrington (The Faith 18) notes that “Epicurus was more a prophet than a philosopher, more a saint than a prophet. The establishment of the Garden was his response to the evil of this world. His spiritual authority is revealed in the fact that he wisely led the brothers, as did, for example, Saint Bernard of Clairveux, who took with him into the monastic life his whole family.”

This quote slightly startled me, since I never put “prophet” and “Epicurean” in the same sentence. A prophet denounces evil and promotes societal justice. An Epicurean, however, is more concerned about the internal happiness of the individual. Can a prophet be an Epicurean?

I don’t know what B. Farrington meant when he made this statement, but it reminds me of some of my thoughts yesterday as I watched Bill Moyers’ Journal. Bill had on three guests: Cornel West of Princeton, Serene Jones of Union Theological Seminary, and Gary Dorrien, also of UTS. They were talking about the relevance of Christianity to current problems (click here for the transcript).

All three of them acknowledged the existence of original sin, pointing out that greed is what led us to our current economic mess. Dorrien said that the solution was for people to be part of a “community…that continually remind[s] us that, in fact, we don’t understand everything and we are not the center of the universe.”

Cornel West remarked that the prosperity gospel (the message of “God wants you to be rich”) is obsolete because “the prosperity’s gone.” When Bill Moyers pointed out that the prosperity gospel is actually “spreading like wildfire to the rest of the world,” West replied: “But that’s part of the escapism. If they define success by how the world conceives of prosperity, rather than greatness. In the biblical text the greatness says what? He or she is greatest among you be your servant. There’s a clash here. A very important clash.” For West, the message in many churches of “God loves you and wants you to prosper” conflicts with the Gospel imperative to pursue social justice for the “least of these.”

I wondered what a dialogue between Cornel West and Joel Osteen would look like. Joel Osteen is a renowned pastor of Lakewood in Houston, Texas, and he is practically a poster-child for the prosperity Gospel. But he does not polarize his message of “God loves you and wants you to prosper” with the Gospel imperative to help the poor. Granted, he doesn’t exactly promote the social gospel or liberation theology, but he does affirm that God blesses those who give. He tries to offer people advice on how to get out of debt and wisely manage their finances. In his congregation are people from all sorts of races and economic backgrounds, and Joel tells about those who thank him for helping them turn around their lives. Joel preaches a Gospel of prosperity, faith, and hope, but, surprisingly, it’s popular even among the “least of these.”

And, conversely, I don’t think that Cornel West is really for a religion that totally talks about altruism, without offering people the hope that they can prosper. He promoted unions in the program, which help workers to have a decent standard of living. That’s an important element of social justice: for even the poor to be able to enjoy the blessings of life.

I asked myself through the course of the program if American churches really teach people that they are not the center of the universe. There are plenty of people who go to church, yet they turn right around and engage in shady business deals, or they obsess over the great American dollar, or they relish the “dog-eat-dog” atmosphere of American politics. I can think of prominent figures like this who are conservative evangelicals! Don’t they learn anything in church? Ellen White once said that by beholding Christ we become changed. How can devout Christians go into church and walk out of it only to act just like the world?

Does any of the problem relate to what they’re being taught in church? If the message they continually get is “God loves you and wants to bless you, plus homosexuality and liberals are bad,” and that’s it, are they going to walk out transformed in a positive sense? Or maybe they actually are learning about service in their churches, but it goes into one ear and out the other. I don’t know.

Epicurus believed that he was promoting a positive society by encouraging individuals to be happy. Maybe encouraging people that God loves them is an important aspect of social justice. I don’t think that sermons should be entirely about social activism or serving in soup kitchens, since the Bible is also about us prospering and being happy. But there should be a balance between the “me” and the “we” in Christian churches. Yes, God loves me and wants me to be happy, but he also desires the same for my neighbor, especially those among the “least of these.”

Published in: on July 6, 2009 at 3:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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