Tag Archives: theology

Do the Ten Commandments Support Gun Rights, Private Property and Capitalism?

Ten CommandmentsI have a problem with people turning the Ten Commandments around, changing negatives statements (“Do not…”) into positive ones. Humans instinctively shrink away from “Do not” statements, and often modern humans wonder why God would’ve phrased his commands in such a negative way. But then I see the way people restate the commands in a positive way, and it starts to become clearer why God set them out the way he did. There are harmful human behaviours he meant to prevent, but he did not narrow the walls of Christian living so tightly that we are only allowed to “do” one (or ten!) things.

If you’re interested, the positive command is the summary of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 22: 37-38)

So, here’s what many Christian bloggers insist on. These are often stated with the assumption the reader knows what they are talking about, and has heard these arguments before, but don’t worry if you’re like me and are surprised to see these premises:

The eighth commandment (“Do not steal”) demands private property.

The sixth commandment (“Do not kill”) demands gun ownership.

The ninth commandment (“Do not covet”) makes socialism invalid.

In other words, current issues like private property, gun rights and anti-socialism get read into the Ten Commandments. Now, just because guns weren’t even dreamed of by anyone at the time the Ten Commandments were given doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t address such issues. We do use principles found in the Bible to address many modern issues (“Do not kill” is one principle we still apply often). But many of these claims certainly seem to push the interpretation of these commands to the furthest extreme that can be managed.

In fact, it seems to me that an opinion is first formed (“socialism is evil”) and then the commandments are made to fit it. For example, “do not steal” certainly implies that private property exists if one is told not to take it, but to say it means private property is therefore always required to exist in every society at any time in history is stretching it. In other words, if someone owns something, don’t take it away. But if a group of people own something collectively, are we required to divide it up so it is owned privately instead? I’d argue no.

To live as humans does mean we have to do certain things in groups. Some activities are just too big to carry out as individuals. I’m not arguing there is no tension between individual and group priority—pretty much all of human history illustrates there is tension between these two. But to decide to do certain major undertakings together, like the healthcare of own society, is not outlawed by the eighth commandment, just because we do it together rather than individually. Of course, supporters of this idea would argue that a group represented by government is totally different from a group represented by private business, but to explore this is beyond the scope of this post. This post is about initial impressions of such arguments, and why they fail to convince.

The most surprising assertion to me is that “Do not kill” requires gun ownership. The logic goes like this: since we’re not supposed to kill each other, we are required to defend ourselves and our fellow humans, and therefore we should own guns in order to carry out this defense against anyone who wants to kill us. Now, I do find this an interesting sequence of logical arguments, but I can’t say I buy them all. I do think killing in self-defense is permissible, but I don’t think we should be eager to do it—if we kill in self-defense it seems to be more of a symptom of a sinful world rather than an ideal Christian way of living. This interpretation seems to pull so far away from the original commandment that it almost reduces the commandment to mean the opposite of what it says.

“Do not covet” is often applied to socialism, of course, because only people who desire what other (rich) people have want socialism, according to this theory. Now, everyone can have evil motives for whatever system they advocate. Socialists constantly accuse capitalists of greed, so it’s not a surprise supporters of capitalism would shoot back a similar accusation at supporters of socialism (we’re all greedy humans at heart!) But is covetousness therefore the foundation of socialism? It seems plausible that a highly equal society could decide to implement socialism, and that this would not suddenly cease be socialism due to a lack of coveting. Of course, much could be said about all the arguments made about Christianity and economic systems, but it’s not my plan to go into all of that here.

This is a very cursory glimpse at how these commandments are marshalled in internet articles about Christianity! This was a very strange observation to me, so I had to make a few comments. I’ve heard the Ten Commandments repeated to me weekly all my life, and none of the arguments about guns, property and economic systems ever occurred to me until I saw other people bring them up. It was never taught to me in church, school or seminary, so it surprised me to hear this was the “orthodox” interpretation. As you can see above, my initial inclination is to disagree with that.

Appendix: The Ten Commandments as Explained by the Heidelberg Catechism

It’s good to examine the ways fellow Christians have interpreted the Ten Commandments in the past. The church I attend uses the Heidelberg Catechism as one summary of our beliefs, and I double-checked to see if these modern debates are mentioned in the Catechism. If you’re curious about how the commandments are applied, here’s some further background:

Do not kill: This command is expanded to disallow hating, injuring or dishonouring others by thoughts, words or gestures–just as Jesus taught this command in his Sermon on the Mount. Hatred, jealousy and so on are the “roots of murder.” Interestingly, the Catechism includes self-harm under this commandment. This implies that we should take care of ourselves, but self-defense in not addressed here.

Do not steal: This is expanded to include “false weights and measures, deceptive merchandising, counterfeit money, and usury.” We’re not supposed to be greedy, defraud our neighbour, or waste the blessings God gives us. This last point is nice–we should use all of the wonderful things that we’re given well.

Do not covet: This interpretation is interesting–we’re not supposed to have “even the slightest thought or desire contrary to any of God’s commandments should ever arise in our heart.” It’s seen as a summary of the Ten Commandments as a whole.

Check out the links if you’re interested in the prooftexts, and more on the background to the Heidelberg Catechism.

Lots more could be said on this topic, but I’ll leave this here!

 

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Is Science Superior to Art? (Is That Why Kuyper Wants Theology to be ‘Science’?)

It’s easy to bemoan the fall of Theology, from being the ‘Queen of Sciences’ to merely being a subsection of the Religious Studies department (if it has a place at universities at all). For example, R. C. Sproul laments, “in the classical curriculum, theology is the queen of the sciences and all other disciplines are her handmaidens. In the modern curriculum man is king and the former queen is relegated to a peripheral status of insignificance.”*

Now, why lament this? Is it because ‘science,’ as we conceive of it today, is so distinguished that we want to associate theology with it, and more than that, assert theology’s dominance over it?

No one should assert theology as the queen of science because they want to rescue theology from falling into the realm of ‘art.’ ‘Science’ is not superior to ‘art.’ It is of a fundamentally different character. Theology falls into the realm of science (according to the older, more full definition of science–science as ‘knowledge orderly arranged’) not because science is superior, but because of the character of theology.

Obviously, Kuyper has a quote on this: (Yep, still reading his Principles of Sacred Theology):

The theologians who, depressed by the small measure of respect cherished at present by public opinion for theological study, seeks favor with public opinion by loudly proclaiming that what he studies is science too, forfeits thereby his right to the honourable name of theologian.

Suppose it were demonstrated that Theology is no science, but that, like the study of music, it is called to enrich our spiritual life, and the consciousness of that life, in an entirely different way, what would this detract from its importance? Does Mozart rank lower than Edison, because he did not work enchantments, like Edison, with the data of the exact sciences?

The oft-repeated attempt to exclude Theology from the company of the science, and to coordinate it, as something mystical, rather like the world of sounds, was in itself entirely praiseworthy, and has commanded more respect from public opinion in general than the scholastic distinctions. If thus it should be shown that Theology has no place in the organism of science, it would not lower it in the least, even as, on the other hand, Theology would gain no merit whatever from the fact (if it be proved) that it has its rank among the sciences.

In no case may Theology begin with renouncing its own self-respect. And those theologians who are evidently guilty of this, and who, being more or less ashamed of Theology, have tried, by borrowing the scientific brevet, to put it forth in new forms, have been punished for their cowardice. For the non-theological science has compelled them to cut out the heart of Theology, and to transform it into a department of study which shall fit into the framework of naturalistic science.

Hence we definitely declare that our defense of the scientific character of Theology has nothing in common with this questionable effort. No Calvinist takes part in the renunciation of our character as theologians. And now to the point.

Oh, Kuyper! Wasn’t that already your point? 😀

In other words, we can bemoan the demotion of theology to a lowly sub-discipline in academia, but not because it has been categorized under the heading of “the arts.” The heading is not the problem. Arts are not less important.

For Kuyper theology is science because science is the study of order, and the very character of theology is knowledge of an orderly God. That’s it. Art uses materials–words, clay, paint, etc–to generate something new. This is legitimate and absolutely wonderful, and human beings were created to do this. But the character of this art is incredibly different from the character of theology. In theology you study what’s already there.

I love how theology gains no rank in Kuyper’s thought from being either art or science. Neither art nor science has to prove its own worth, nor do they grant more value to theology by including theology under its umbrella. No, theology has its own self-respect.

So we have the freedom to just let theology be what it is. And the freedom to respect both art and science, without elevating the contributions of Mozart over Edison, or Edison over Mozart, as if that was the controversy that really mattered.

 

*The Heart of Reformed Theology, by R.C. Sproul

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Kuyper Encounters Difficulties – Subjectivity Weighs In…

Principles of Sacred Theology continues to fascinate me, despite the reality of heavy schoolwork weighing in.

In my last post I explained the amazing claim that Abraham Kuyper made about theology–that out of the chaos of theological knowledge, order could be found. A unified order. In fact, it is the responsibility of people to find this order, and to work out this framework to rest theological knowledge in.

The obvious objection to any claim that a study of theology would discover an objective system rising up is–well, if an objective system of theology is so obvious, why on earth do we have thousands of competing systems of theology? Hasn’t practically every church, and every era of history, come up with their own opinion on how it all ‘works’?

Now, I half-expected Kuyper to just skate over this difficulty. The system shows itself to anyone who just looks at the chaos of knowledge systematically enough, he might have said. But no. He faces it head on. He treats his study of theology with thoroughness. And as a reader, I follow him half-expecting to fall into gaping theoretical holes in his thought, and discover he has seen the holes before me and wants to build guardrails around them.

Having read too many popular theological works, the peace of mind of being guided by an experienced hand is too reassuring for me to be able to put it into words.

Kuyper grants that thousands of streams of theologies exist. He grants that subjectivity so underlies all of our ideas of what we’re actually studying that any communal One Theology is impossible.

But does this subjectivity completely remove any hope for discerning any objective truth? That is what he explores next.

Now, for any postmodern thinkers out there who believe the twentieth century was, in fact, the first one to take seriously the perils of subjectivity–well, Kuyper certainly knows what effect subjectivity has on his work:

“Every theologian, therefore, knows that neither he himself, nor the stream of history in which he moves, are able to make an all-sided and complete exhibition of the object of his investigation.”

Ah, so subjectivity does exist then? The context of the writer’s history may actually impact his work–impact any hope of finding a ‘neutral’ theology?

Kuyper then, astonishingly, goes on to describe his viewpoint. I say astonishingly because I’ve always assumed laying out one’s viewpoint was a recent development, stemming from postmodernism. To talk about one’s perspective is important because one takes for granted that one’s perspective does, in fact, affect one’s work. However, Kuyper also lays out his individual perspective right there for the reader to see, long before academics insisted it was a requirement to do so.*

What does this mean, then? Has Kuyper given up on objectivity in the study of theology altogether? No, rather, he lays it out because he wants to argue this background is exactly what leads him to discovering order in theology. What he really means is that he’s separating objectivity from neutrality.

He’s not going to try sum up every theological opinion under the sun, because to do so he would inevitably be bringing his own opinion to his summary. He’s not going to dig around in every theological system to find fundamental truths common to all of them, because whatever he came up with would not, in fact, be a common system but rather ANOTHER system (his own system), ready to continue to compete endlessly with the others. No. He believes an objective order exists, but it not to be found by remaining neutral.

So he lays out his viewpoint. And he’s not neutral about how it leads to truth.

He unapologetically believes his viewpoint–Reformed Theology–has, as one of its inherent strengths, the ability to frame theology in such a way that it can be studied systematically and ‘scientifically’:

“[Kuyper’s declaration of his viewpoint] intends to make it clearly known, that he himself cannot stand indifferently to his personal faith, and to his consequent confession concerning the object of Theology, and therefore does not hesitate to state it as his conviction that the Reformed Theology with respect to this has grasped the truth most firmly.”

Now, I know enough about Kuyper to know a little about what he’s getting at (and which I’ll need to read the rest of the book to understand more fully)–what Kuyper will argue for is the necessity of first starting from a starting point of faith when studying theology, and secondly, starting from the Scriptures as the fundamental principle for studying theology. In this quote, he is declaring that he is unapologetic about his Reformed viewpoint because he knows the Reformed viewpoint values learning about theology in faith from Scripture. And he is convinced that starting with faith and learning from scripture is the only way to find the order that must exist in the chaos of theological knowledge.

Now, there may be quibbles about these two points he makes. I still have to read more, so I’ll leave them lie there for now.

Anyway, Kuyper talks about his subjective background because he believes that this system is the one that possesses the values that will lead to objective order. Ah, maybe there’s something in that. Maybe if we believe in the existence of objective truth (out there somewhere–in our humanness incredibly difficult to find and articulate), we could also believe in the existence of an objective viewpoint. And while it might be right to say an objective viewpoint can never be achieved by a human, there may in fact be a sliding scale of ‘better’ viewpoints in contrast to ‘worse’ ones.

This sounds incredibly audacious–to line up viewpoints according to how objective they are. How would they be judged? But maybe this is an idea to wrestle with for a while.

 

Appendix: Kuyper himself on how he ended up with Reformed Theology as his viewpoint:

“The author does not hesitate to say frankly that in the writing of this work he occupies the Calvinistic view-point… He is no Calvinist by birth. Having received his training in a conservative-supernaturalistic spirit, he broke with faith in every form when a student at Leyden, and then cast himself into the arms of the barest radicalism. At a later period, perceiving the poverty of this radicalism, and shivering with the chilling atmosphere which it created in his heart, he felt attracted first to Determinism, and then to the warmth of the Vermittelungs-theologie. But if this warmed his heart, it provided no rest for his thought. In this Vermittelungs-theologie there is no stability of starting-point, no unity of principle, and no harmonious life-interpretation on which a world-view, based on coherent principles,
can be erected. In this state of mind and of heart he came in contact with those descendants of the ancient Calvinists, who in the Netherlands still honor the traditions of the fathers; and it astonished him to find among these simple people a stability of thought, a unity of comprehensive insight, in fact a world-view based on principles which needed but a scientific treatment and interpretation to give them a place of equal significance over against the dominant views of the age.”

 

 

*This assumption is based on my education–I don’t mind seeing evidence to the contrary if there’s any.

 

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Bringing Order to Chaos–Can Human Achieve Actual True Knowledge?

You may’ve expected my next post to continue with Augustine, and I certainly would like to get back to Augustine, but since I currently am attending seminary to sort out the tangle of thoughts in my head about theology, I may blog about several different Christian classics first, before getting back to dear Augustine.

Now consider theology–would you consider it crazy, or maybe presumptuous, to argue there are basic underlying principles of the subject that naturally appear if you investigate it enough?

It’s utterly outdated to talk like that in the modern world. After all, are there not thousands of denominations, each with their own strongly held beliefs that they argue are deeply rooted in the Bible? How can anyone argue for any principles of theology at all? Are we not all groping in the dark, all equally as likely to be correct about some things and wrong about others, and all equally without hope of putting our beliefs into any kind of concrete order?

Ah, this is why it is so refreshing to read a book that says no, no, no. There is not chaos, only order, and it is the mission of humanity to seek it out. This is what Abraham Kuyper argues in his classic Principles of Sacred Theology, written in 1898.*

Now, the date gives a strong clue about the reason for his confidence. He belonged to the modernist era, when academics in general believed they could categorize all of human knowledge, and one day we’d achieve a full knowledge of our world. As the world revealed itself to be more and more complex, more and more people fell away from this idea. And as the disputes about the fundamental nature of reality multiplied, many people came to the conclusion that we cannot really ever know… And thus postmodernism entered the picture.

However, back to Kuyper, who was writing with confidence before postmodernism was born. He is the very exemplar of C.S. Lewis’s charge to read old books, because where can you find such confidence in humanity’s ability to gather knowledge, except in someone untainted by our atmosphere of postmodernist thought? There’s no explanations for why relativism doesn’t work. He doesn’t even consider anyone would argue for relativism. He just gets right to the point.

And his point is–humans should assume order is present in creation. If you accept a theology that states all creation is created by an orderly God, it naturally follows that we can find our way through the chaos of knowledge that lies before us. More than that, it is part of our goal as humans to bring order to chaos. Anything which first presents itself to us as chaos will possess an underlying order upon inspection.

Now, this still sounds kind of crazy, so I’ll let him expand on this thought:

“Here we merely state that in our bringing about of Encyclopedic order in the chaotic treasure of our knowledge, we are governed in two respects by a compulsory order which is separable from our thinking. First, because the treasure of knowledge which we obtain by our thinking does not originate first by our thinking, but exists before we think; and, on the other hand, because the knowledge to be arranged in order stands in relation to a world of phenomena which is independent of our thought…. Thus our human spirit is not to invent a certain order for our knowledge, but to seek out and to indicate the order which is already there.”

Astounding. As someone deeply bathed in postmodern thinking (which I truly do not regret, by the way), this is mind-blowing to hear. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. It turns my brain around down an avenue of thinking I could have never entered otherwise. What if I did accept that we can bring a system to our knowledge? How would it change everything?

Because I have to admit, order does arises from nature, consistently. Not always the order we expect–when science discovers the planets rotating around the sun, for instance, or the crazy calculations involved in the theory of relativity (yet it can be described with equations, for some reason). Having our own previous fixed ideas about the order we should find does interfere with our ability to see what is already there, but even the craziness of what we discover fits into a framework. We can categorize knowledge of creation. We can quibbled about the interference of our subjectivity, our human bias, and its effect on categorization of knowledge, but to dismiss any scrap of information humans have ever arranged as a pretense of order is to give up on attaining knowledge entirely.

In other words, while postmodernism is incredibly useful to critique systems of knowledge, it is really only useful for tearing down, and not offering any solutions to replace what it has destroyed.

Then it occurred to me how chaotic our modern knowledge is–how Wikipedia is a maze compared to the encyclopedias of old, and how the internet (perhaps our greatest repository of human knowledge) is a sprawling mass of contradictory streams of information. Our guide through this mess is usually Google, but Google cannot be conceived as bringing true order to our chaos. We’ve allowed our enthusiasm for gathering knowledge to result in a sprawl we know how to wade into, but not how to organize it.

I’m not arguing we should return to the days of printed encyclopedias, which were out-of-date the day they hit the store shelves. However, as humanity, we should start the discussion about the nature of knowledge. We should consider bringing order to it. We reinvented how we stored knowledge, so maybe we can reinvent a new way to lay it all out. We might draw out connections between different disciplines that we gloss over right now. We might have ideas about what should be done, and start acting instead of just reacting the first search result on our screen.

Anyway. Just a thought.

 

*Note: In case you’ve never heard of Abraham Kuyper, or Principles of Sacred Theology, and do not believe it to be a classic–as far as I know, it is more well-known in European systematic theology studies, rather than North American ones, and originally was written in Dutch. Hope that helps! It’s fully available online here.

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