Government: Mandate of Justice, Not Religion

Justice scales

The supreme mandate of the state government is justice.  This must be stated with conviction in the light of the megashift that has happened in political philosophy where the state has been turned primarily into a welfare state from what it is supposed to be – a law state.  In a welfare state, the major task of government is seen as provision for the deprived and poor.  And there is nothing wrong with this as a noble goal. Individual morality and philanthropy, together with charitable institutions, do good works pertaining to this goal.  But the government’s role to secure such provision for the poor is to carry out the mandate of enforcing the law.  In brief, the task of the government is to make sure that justice is done for every man.

 

The signatories to the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 affixed their signatures under this solemn oath:

And for the support of this declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Penned by Thomas Jefferson, and assisted by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, they produced one of the most important documents that established a philosophy of government.  Unlike European nations which founded their states upon state religions, here is a nation that is not built on religion, without being irreligious.  As Carolyn Kennedy puts it:

Building upon the ideas of the enlightenment philosopher John Locke, and English and colonial declarations of rights, Jefferson wrote for the world and for the ages.  For the first time in history, principles of freedom and equality became the political foundations for a nation.[i]

The supreme mandate of the state government is justice.  This must be stated with conviction in the light of the megashift that has happened in political philosophy where the state has been turned primarily into a welfare state from what it is supposed to be – a law state.  In a welfare state, the major task of government is seen as provision for the deprived and poor.  And there is nothing wrong with this as a noble goal. Individual morality and philanthropy, together with charitable institutions, do good works pertaining to this goal.  But the government’s role to secure such provision for the poor is to carry out the mandate of enforcing the law.  In brief, the task of the government is to make sure that justice is done for every man.  One of the great modern theoreticians of justice, John Rawls, said, “Justice is the first virtue of of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”[ii]

That it is clear in the Old Testament may be expected as the covenant community happened to be the nation of Israel.  Their covenant laws and rules strictly safeguards the application of justice to all.  But there is a special warning against actuations of magistrates who simply follow the popular sentiment that militate against justice.

You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice.        Exodus 23:2

Interestingly, even the easy sentiment of favoring the poor just because they are poor is also cautioned against magistrates.

Nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.     Exodus 23:3

You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit.     Exodus 23:6

By the same interest of justice, there is also a strong concern that justice be rendered to the poor. In this regard, the prohibition against taking bribe, since it is presumably the rich who is able to give such a bribe, is deemed as prejudicial against the poor.

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.  He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.       Deuteronomy 10:17-18

That much of detailed instructions were integrated in the laws of Israel as a nation which is coevally the kingdom of Yahweh.  Much more relevant to our situation are New Testament references that pertain to the divinely appointed functions of the government, pagan or secular.  And two passages in the New Testament are pertinent to this.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.      Romans 13:1-6

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.      1 Peter 2:13, 14

 Both passages teach that the institution of government is a divine appointment:  “instituted by God,” says Paul; and “sent by him,” says Peter. And this is so even if  most of these governments may not acknowledge it to be so.  But the christian believes this divine mandate.  And both passages also teach that the purpose of God in appointing government is for justice to be done.  For this assertion to be underscored, it is necessary to negate alternatives. 

The mandate of government is not religion. 

This was the defect of the philosophy of government since the Edict of Milan in 313 when Constantine the Great elevated the Christian church into a recognized religion in the Roman Empire.  So much persecution was conducted and wars waged in the interest of the Christian religion, let alone Islam and other religions.  Countless number of lives were wasted because government pursued the interest of religion only to compromise the mandate of justice.

The mandate of government is not primarily that of charity or welfare. 

The change in the concept of government in the direction of providing welfare shifted after the Second World War.  Bob Goudzwaard notes this when he said,

Until the Second World War politicians viewed the state as a law state.  The state was seen as the institution necessary for protecting the rights of its citizens… Around World War 2, however, that view enlarged.  Material welfare in society as a whole had increased.  This gave government the possibility of expanding its legal concern for society toward the financially weak.  Government created a system of social guarantees…

Economic growth kept rising, and as it rose so rose the persuasiveness of arguments by people who thought they deserved a bigger piece of the pie.  It is important to see that they formulated their demands as rights…  Economic rights are naturally different from the rights guaranteed by the law state.  Rights of acquisition were added to the earlier rights of protection, and soon they demanded most of the government’s attention.[iii]

 This is certainly not saying that the government may not intervene where the interest of justice has an economic and material component.  This certainly falls within the ambit of justice which government is mandated to watch.  But this must not be deemed as the government’s primary vocation.  Charity is a matter within the responsibility of individuals, of families, and of communities. 

 When a matter of charity is elevated to a government obligation, it transforms a voluntary act (charity) to an issue of legal right which government is required to provide.  When this happens, it proves disruptive.  It distorts the distinction between social privileges and human rights.  It distorts the primary responsibility of the family and transfers the same to the government.  A case in point for this is the care of the widows which was clearly put as a matter of family responsibility, and not of the church (1 Timothy 5:3ff).  The same may be said of the aged and the widows in society. They are not primarily the government’s responsibility, but the family’s.

 This distinction is not merely of theoretical interest.  It affects the moral mood of society.  Acts of charity are received with gratitude for the kindness of the benefactors.  But when such acts are seen as a legal right to be provided by the government, gratitude becomes demands, and demands easily erode into complaints against and denunciation of government.  And this is exactly what is happening in the moral fiber of the social order.

 The government is in place to safeguard justice in society.  Justice in society can be understood as two kinds:

 Justice of Law

This includes what is called rectoral justice, which pertains to rules and laws for the interest of public order; and penal justice, which pertains to the system of just penalty against offenders of the law.  The basic principle upheld to maintain the justice of law is stated in Deuteronomy 16:19,

 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous.

 Not to show partiality is lo’ takiyr phâniym which literally means, “do not look on the face of men.”  This is consistent with our concept of “blind justice.”  The image of Lady Justice who is blindfolded holding forth a balance scale is meant to depict the application of justice equally to everyone without fear or favor with only the evidences to guide decisions. 

Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.      Deuteronomy 16:20

In criminal justice, the central issue is the infliction of punishment on criminal offenders.  It is in this regard that the State is told to not bear the sword in vain (Rom 13:4).  Those who have oversight of this are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  But the purpose of this punishment is stated positively in 1 Timothy 2:2, that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”     

One can appreciate the essential place of justice of law in society.  Where the institutions of justice are deemed defective, victims of crime and wrongdoing lose hope of being vindicated.  Such victims may turn to criminal elements to seek such vindication, which is vigilantism, a perversion of justice.  The biblical doctrine of human depravity supplies the christian a solid underpinning for his high view of the justice system in society.  It is God’s common grace for the restraint of sin, for the punishment of the offender, and the vindication of the victim. John Calvin puts it in the simplest way possible, “Without the sword, laws are dead.”[iv]

Justice of Sharing

Also called social justice,  this rests on the premise that there are certain commodities that are meant to be shared, and would be injustice if monopolized privately.  As the OT Wisdom of Qoheleth puts it, “The profit of the land is for all”     (Ecclesiastes 5:9, NKJ).  Perhaps, the New Jerusalem Bible captures the sense well, “But what the land yields is for the benefit of all.”

This is certainly not to say that government may forcibly take away private property in the name of common use ~ the flaw of communism.  But precisely because, in a sinful community, there will be anomalies in the system, that government intervention is warranted to maintain fairness for honest traders and workers.  Wayne Grudem explains this very well:

There is some need for government-supported welfare programs to help cases of urgent need (for example, to provide a ‘safety net’ to keep people from going hungry or without clothing or shelter).

I also think it appropriate for government to provide enough funding so that everyone is able to gain enough skills and education to earn a living.  So with regard to some basic necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter, and some education) I think it is right for government to ‘take from everybody else and give to the poor,’  Such assistance can be provided from the general tax revenues.

Those convictions are based on the purpose of government to promote the general well-being of society… That includes enabling every citizen to live adequately in the society.  It is not based on any vague instinct that it would be ‘more just’ to reduce the differences between rich and poor.

But apart from those basic requirements for government, I cannot find any justification in Scripture for thinking that government, as a matter of policy, should attempt to take from the rich and give to the poor.  I do not think that government has the responsibility or the right to attempt to equalize the differences between rich and poor in society.  When it attempts to do so, significant harm is done to the economy and to the society.[v]

What government must do is to perform its main mandate of enforcing the laws so that those who have more wealth will not use the same to oppress those who have less.  God has expressed Himself strongly against this form of injustice.

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the ruin that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth?    Isa 10:1-3 

They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth.  Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.  For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins– you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.  Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time.  Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said.  Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate.     Amos 5:10-15 

It has been asserted by some that God is biased for the poor, and society should follow that model.  But I have a different take on this.  What is wrong is that human society is so biased against the poor that the very impartiality of God appears to it as a bias for the poor.  God is so impartial that He takes into account those who, by virtue of their weakness, are most prone to injustice.  What appears as God’s bias is simply justice! 

Conclusion

It is good to remember one of the woe’s of Jesus directed at the religious leaders of His day.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.     Matthew 23:23

This should ring loud to those in our churches who have become complacent in the comfort zone of their worship liturgy, but are callous on issues of justice in society.  Certainly, being salt and light of the world must include showing forth justice in our treatment of our fellowmen, and being an influence to let justice roll down like waters (Amos 5:24).  The truly righteous man listens to God’s requirement:

What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?   Micah 6:8

An ancient saying in the justice system of the Roman Empire goes, “Let justice be done though the heavens fall!  The Christian can put it quite differently, “Heaven has come down upon earth in our Lord Jesus Christ; therefore, let us seek justice for all!

[i] Caroline Kennedy, A Patriot’s Handbook (Hyperion, New York 2003): 192

[ii] Quoted from A.C. Grayling, Ideas that Matter: A Personal Guide for the 21st Century (Phoenix, 2009): 283

[iii] Bob Goudzwaard, Idols of our Time: 52f

[iv] Calvin’s Commentaries: Synoptic Gospels, Vol. I: 195

[v] Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Zondervan; 2010): 281-82

God’s Love? What about Wrath?

Rom 5 8

How poor is that appeal to God’s love that erodes into a health-and-wealth gospel.  Or even that which is reduced to a formula decision that ends up with a man-based pronouncement of assurance of going to heaven.

 God’s love is at its most resplendent in the darkest hour of the Cross in the Son’s cry of dereliction: My God!  My God!  why have you forsaken me?  It is a cry whose mystery is only illuminated by the concept of propitiation.  The sinner’s Substitute was drinking to the last dregs the cup of God’s judgment on behalf of His people.

 

This piece was conceived near Valentine’s Day, February 14.  As to the origin of this popular lovers’ day, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes,

The popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on 14 February, i.e. half way through the second month of the year, the birds began to pair.[i]

One need not be a practitioner of this love feast, serious or superstitious, to observe the power of love’s grip of the human heart.  Monarchs have been known to give up their kingdoms for the sake of love.  In 1936, King Edward VIII startled his British subjects and the world when he abdicated his throne to be free to marry a divorcee, the American Wallis Simpson.  In his radio speech to a worldwide audience, the king declared:

You all know the reasons which have impelled me to renounce the throne. But I want you to understand that in making up my mind I did not forget the country or the empire, which, as Prince of Wales and lately as King, I have for twenty-five years tried to serve.

But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.

Demoted as Duke of Windsor, he and his wife were shunned by the British royals.  Only when he died in 1972 was the Duke honoured again by his own country.  A framed message in the Duke’s own handwriting was left for his beloved:

My friend, with thee to live alone,

Methinks were better than to own

A crown, a sceptre and a throne.

Powerful love, a love to the death!  But this is the most of the extent of human love, made sacred in the vow “until death shall part us.”  Indeed, death will part all human lovers.

God’s Love in the Death of Christ

There is another death that seals an eternal bond of love.  The atoning death of Christ secures those in union with Him will never be separated from the love of God.

There is no attribute of God more favored by the religious than that of His love.  Yet few divine attributes are as misunderstood.  Don Carson writes of this in his The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God:

If people believe in God at all today, the overwhelming majority hold that this God is a loving being.  But that is what makes the task of the Christian witness so daunting.  For this widely disseminated belief in the love of God is set with increasing frequency in some matrix other than biblical theology.  The result is that when informed Christians talk about the love of God, they mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture.  Worse, neither side may perceive that this is the case.[ii]

The confusion on this attribute is most pronounced in its connection to God’s wrath.  To the average mind, there is a total disconnect between love and wrath.  Wrath conjures up the picture of a man ventilating his temper out of control.  But this has no semblance with divine wrath.  God’s wrath is a function of His justice and holiness – in His perfect moral purity, He is essentially and necessarily opposed to all that is impure and sinful.  You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong (Habakkuk 1:13).  As such, His wrath is universal and fixed wherever there is sin.  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom 1:18).  Because God’s wrath is out of His justice, its only way of satisfaction is by a just penalty on sinners.  Had it been all wrath and justice, God could have punished all sinners without any violation of His holiness.

This is where God’s love occupies its most indispensable place.  God’s love taking on the demands of His wrath through the death of Christ is called in the Scriptures, propitiation.

In but a few versions, this word is missing in many English translations of the Bible.  In its place, the word expiation is preferred.  Expiation denotes the removal of sin.  The problem is that it is only half of the significance of propitiation.  Left out is the more significant half – the removal of God’s wrath.  But reflecting the rejection of the concept of God’s wrath, whether popular or scholarly, modern construction will only go so far as the removing of sin.  But in the process, they have missed out on the astonishing beauty of God’s love.

The connection of propitiation to God’s love is explicit in 1 John 4:10,

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

With a statement like this, it should be impossible to speak of God’s love in its biblical context without its connection to what Christ did in dying as an act to remove God’s wrath – a propitiation.

Christ’s Death as turning point

 I shall argue that the most magnificent statement of the Scripture on this subject is Romans 3:25, 26 which describes the redemption of sinners through the death of Christ,

whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

The death of Christ as propitiation is presented here as a turning point in the exercise of God’s wrath.  Like any turning point in history, we speak of the period before that, and since that, turning point event; as we may refer to before 9-11, and since 9-11.  Of all the turning points in history, there is none more massive in its effect than the Cross of Christ, understood as a propitiation.

Before the death of Christ, God’s wrath was hanging upon all sinners, and in justice, God could have poured it out in judgment.  But He did not, and the explanation is His forbearance – He passed over former sins.  But with the propitiatory death of Christ, and since, God could demonstrate His righteousness at the present time.  But instead of that righteousness demanding punishment against sinners, and here is the marvellous conclusion, God can be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus!

 God can now fully exercise His justice.  But instead of sinners being punished, those in faith-union with Christ are acquitted, without any injustice, because Christ has taken the wrath of God fully satisfied in the cross.  This is propitiation – the most wonderful provision of God’s love for sinners!

In Christ’s atoning death, the Last Day judgment of wrath has already been decided for his people.  The wrath to have been poured out on sinners on the Judgment Day was poured upon Christ on the Cross.  This leaves for God’s people no more wrath to mete out (Romans 5:9, 10; Eph. 2:3ff; 1Thes. 1:10; 5:9, 10 ).

This passage, had it been really appreciated, should deserve equal footing with the most popular John 3:16.  As New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos explains,

Christ is the means of propitiation appointed by God to the manifestation of his deferred righteousness.  In Christ’s death, the righteousness of God thus reveals itself in the demanding and vindicatory sense of the word.  His blood as atoning blood covers the sin which God until now had passed over, when as yet he kept back the judgment.  All that men wish to detract from the real character of Christ’s propitiatory death signifies a devaluation of the language of Romans 3:25, 26, which is unmistakable in its clarity.[iii]

God’s Love magnified by Propitiation

Only a man convicted of his wrath-deserving sinfulness will appreciate the depth of God’s love in sending His Son as propitiation.  Yes, let us continue to sense God’s love in His benevolent provisions of daily bread.  Let us be thankful for His merciful sustenance of our lives.  But a sinner’s greatest need is how to face the just wrath of God.  For this, God, out of His gracious love, sent His Son as a propitiatory sacrifice for sinners.

The continuing pre-occupation today with God’s love that excludes His wrath only impoverishes.  The enriching contemplation on God’s love has the backdrop of justice and wrath.  Reformed theologian John Murray puts it excellently:

Because of the compatibility of love and wrath as co-existing, the wrath-bearing of the Son of God, the vicarious infliction of the wrath of God against those whom the Father invincibly loved, is not only comprehensible, but belongs to the essence of the doctrine that Christ bore our sins as the supreme manifestation of the Father’s love… The propitiation which God made his own Son is the provision of the Father’s love, to the end that holiness may be vindicated and its demand satisfied.  Thus, and only thus, could the purpose of his love be realized in a way compatible with, and to the glory of the manifold perfections of his character.[iv]

How poor is that appeal to God’s love that erodes into a health-and-wealth gospel.  Or even that which is reduced to a formula decision that ends up with a man-based pronouncement of assurance of going to heaven.

God’s love is at its most resplendent in the darkest hour of the Cross in the Son’s cry of dereliction: My God!  My God!  why have you forsaken me?  It is a cry whose mystery is only illuminated by the concept of propitiation.  The sinner’s Substitute was drinking to the last dregs the cup of God’s judgment on behalf of His people.

That is why when a believer wants an assurance of God’s love to him today, there is no better time and place to point to than that event.  To say that one is assured of God’s love because of material provision reflects the shallowness of our generation.  Is God’s love shortened when our pocket is not full?  Or some see it in physical sustenance, or perhaps in having a nice family.  But is God’s love failing with our failure in health?  Or a misery in the family?  There is still no better way to see the present love of God than in the past provision of propitiation.  I am sure it goes back to the apostle Paul:

God demonstrates His own love towards us [ present tense ] in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. [ past tense ] Romans 5:8

[i] New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (CD-ROM v. 2.1): entry on “Saint Valentine’s Day”

[ii] Don Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Crossway Books): 9-10

[iii] Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology: 189

[iv] John Murray, Collected Writings II. 145, 146

Why Christians should strive for Academic Excellence

Kepler

The godly life is not the monopoly of those who are in the pulpit and mission field.  There is godliness in the shuffle of pages in a book as one does his research; or in working with test tubes in the lab; or analyzing data with his computer program.  There is God’s calling of proclaiming the good news of special revelation.  But it is also God’s calling to scrutinize and systematize general revelation.  Godliness for the Christian student should mean seeking to excel in the latter quest.

 

Nelson  Mandela (1918-2013) is one of the greatest statesmen in history.  He became president of South Africa after spending almost three decades in solitary confinement in prison.  One might expect that a man forged in years of bitter struggle would be full of vindictiveness and use his power to exact vengeance.  Not Mandela.  He used his power to do good to his divided people – both white and black.  And when he had power extension for the asking, he chose to step down when his term was up.  What did he believe to be the most important agent for change in society?  One of the most famous quotes from him is, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

The Christian should heartily agree to the extent that education is not used to violate God’s will, but to serve it.  This is to say that Christians should be foremost in promoting education; and therefore, Christians should be marked for academic excellence.

Why the Hesitation?

Not all Christians are of this conviction.  Sometimes consciously, in most cases, more of an attitude absorbed from untruthful teaching in Christian discourses.  The mind should be disabused of any of these.

There is the false application of the nearness of Christ’s coming.  Regardless of one’s eschatology (teaching about the last things), to use the Second Coming as pretext for lack of academic striving is wrong in a number of serious ways.  But just to point one: It is wrong in its idea of what it means to be ready for Christ’s Coming.  Many think that it means a special kind of preparation that renounces the day-to-day affairs of life.  That is precisely the error that Paul needed to correct of the Thessalonians, some of whom were deserting their work because of a wrong expectation of Christ’s return.  As a result, they were becoming dependent on the benevolence of brethren.  Paul exhorted them, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thess. 4:11-12 ESV).  Our faithfulness when Christ comes will be judged on how we used our opportunities on earth; for it will be a judgment “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10).  Even on the impossible supposition that one knew that Christ is coming again on a Monday, a Christian student should still be attending his scheduled classes!  That is to be ready for Christ – to find the disciple where he ought to be by vocation.

Another thing is a wrong association of knowledge with worldliness.  The world, when used in connection with its sinfulness, is indeed in rebellion against the rule of Christ.  But the world is also used as the theatre of God’s mercy and provision.  The old divines call it Common Grace – the favours of God short of salvation.  As such, one precious favour of God is the advance of knowledge – much of which happens in an academic atmosphere.  Paul cites the wisdom of pagans: the Cretan philosopher Epimenides (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12) and the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus (Acts 17:28).  Even when the source is not patently Christian, good wisdom is still from God.  “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17).

It is true that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1Cor 1:27).  The context clearly is the contrast between proud wisdom that refuses to acknowledge God, and humility that appears to proud wisdom as folly.  This is not an endorsement of folly as such!

Whose Revelation?

A case may be made for pursuing knowledge in the world from the classic doctrine of God’s revelation.  The only way man can know God is for God to reveal Himself.  Man cannot discover God by sheer experiment or deduction.  God chose to give man a piece of His own mind.  But how?  According to classic theology, there are two ways.  There is special revelation by way of special modes in the past (e.g. visions; predominantly through prophets).  At this present time, that special revelation is now deposited in the inspired writings – the Holy Scripture.

But for man’s productive and peaceful life on earth, God also speaks through His creation – the world and humanity.  This is general revelation.  The Old Testament memorable text is Psalm 19:1, 2: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”  This reveals the glory of the universe considered as God’s creation.  God is speaking through nature and creature!  The New Testament text connects this to the inexcusable sinfulness of man.  Paul asserts in Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  Reformed theologian, GC Berkouwer, summarizes it very well:

Man is and remains man confronted with the reality of God’s revelation, confronted with the sovereign working of God in nature, in history, and in human existence.  He is confronted with the reality of God who is never far from any one of us and who never allows himself to be without witness in creaturely reality.[1]

Both the beauty and dignity of the creation, as well as, the sinfulness and inexcusableness of humanity are objects of knowledge.  Therefore the Christian has a basis for pursuing knowledge that is God-oriented.  It was well-stated by that great German scientist and a Christian, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), “Science is the process of thinking God’s thoughts after Him.”  This was a motivation for his formulating the complex Laws of Planetary Motion.  Academic sciences and arts contribute to our understanding of what God is revealing about the earth and about man.  One sees the formulas of God whether they are in the astronomic sizes of galaxies or the sub-atomic realm of quantum physics.  There is truth to Galileo’s assertion: “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.”  Even if one has no predilection for numbers, he should have high regard for the work of calculating and measuring.  Another may choose to dip into the beauty of creation through arts – proportions and colours; representation and symbolism – and they too are noble.

The godly life is not the monopoly of those who are in the pulpit and mission field.  There is godliness in the shuffle of pages in a book as one does his research; or in working with test tubes in the lab; or analyzing data with his computer program.  There is God’s calling of proclaiming the good news of special revelation.  But it is also God’s calling to scrutinize and systematize general revelation.  Godliness for the Christian student should mean seeking to excel in the latter quest.

Delight and Discipline

 I plead to my Christian readers who are students: seek delight and cultivate discipline in your academic studies.

Mould your delight from the thought that you are receiving the speech of God, even if that is not from the inspired writings of Scripture.  What is not inspired by the Holy Spirit, as the original Scriptures are, will not be inerrant and infallible.  But to the extent that it is an expression of God’s general revelation, it is intended for the glory of God and the profit of mankind.  Make your course –  your subject, homework and projects – matters for prayer.  Do not let God’s speech in general revelation become an occasion for proud wisdom.  As you give thanks for your daily food, so give thanks for the feeding of the mind.

Because of the reality of sin, and the anomalies of the world we live in, it is not sensible to expect delight in one’s study at all times.  This is where discipline is necessary.  Discipline is the sense of duty to do what must be done even when delight is not felt.  It is a principle in all Christian works that one must be able to do them with discipline to expect those times to do them with delight.  He who will only perform where there is delight will never be mature.  This is true of prayer – one must pray with discipline, and in the process pray more with delight.  This is true of worship – worship with discipline, and worship with delight will develop.  Make it so in study – study as a discipline, and then delight will grow.

More than three decades ago, I pioneered a church whose first membership was almost all students.  The church was situated in an academic community.  I have seen first hand how it is, not only possible, but a reality and an imperative – that a Christian student serious about his faith will be serious in his academic pursuits.  He seeks to excel.  Those students at the beginning of the church are now accomplished people in various fields.  And they are still robust in their Christian faith.  They took seriously the words of Wisdom, and they are happily reaping the harvest of academic excellence:

Do you see a man who excels in his work?

He will stand before kings;

He will not stand before unknown men. (Prov. 22:29 NKJ)

 

[1] GC Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: General Revelation: (Eerdmans Publishing; 1973): 162

‘I know who holds the future’ of 2018

Ecc 7 14

The Economist issue on “The World in 2018” is summarized succinctly by its editor thus: “It promises to be a nerve-jangling year.”  So it may prove to be.

Futurology is the study of future possibilities based on current trends.  That it uses scientific tools differentiates it from divining out of crystal balls or tarot cards.  There is certainly nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it is responsible to use current patterns – economic, political, demographic; etc. – to extrapolate expectations.  Proper preparations can then be set up.

That conceded, a Christian must be alert to the pride that often attends such prognostications.  The future that experts predict as sure has so often bombed.  We are periodically inconvenienced by a failed weather forecast.  Investments deemed to earn sure profit fall flat.  Stock  markets jitter between bear and bull.  And need we be reminded of who, the polls were sure, to win the last American presidential elections?  Overheard of a crew member trying to assure an anxious passenger of the Titanic were the words, “Madam, even God cannot sink the Titanic!”  Whether or not the story really happened, it is an everyday fact that human pride excludes God from consideration of the future.

While we do our responsible preparations for what the future may bring, it must be in humble spirit.  It is balance that is struck by biblical Wisdom: The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD. (Prov. 21:31 ESV).  Whatever the battle confronting us, there is to be due readiness with all tools and implements at disposal.  This applies to our academic studies, our jobs and commerce, and national plans.  But behind even the most meticulous planning should be the humble recognition that only God’s favour can give success.  So James advises for every human plan, you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’ (Jas. 4:14-15).

James touches the most basic of human limitations: you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  This is true of the tomorrow of the next 24 hours; and that of the next 365 days of 2018.  It calls for humility that casts oneself upon the God who alone knows and holds the future.  The Lord is jealous for His sovereignty over the future.  Against the false gods of Babylon, He claims for Himself: I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’ (Isa. 46:9-10).

But in our generation, to be told that one is unable to shape his future by himself goes against present wisdom.  Bookstores are littered with bestsellers that assure their readers, Your best life now!  It is pride that will laugh at the words of the song, I do not know what lies ahead / The way I cannot see / Yet One stands near to be my Guide / He’ll show the way to me!

Without the assurance of the God who holds the future, anticipating that future will alternate between a fearsome darkness, or a prideful path.  One may face the future like Dylan Thomas, Rage, rage against the dying of the light!  Or else, own the resolve of William Ernest Henley, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul!

Neither is acceptable to the believer who has learned to submit to God in His sovereign control.  That submission will not yield to a fearsome darkness of superstition, nor will it own a prideful path of self-direction.  Instead it confesses in the wise words of biblical Wisdom: In the day of prosperity be joyful; but in the day of adversity consider: Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other, so that man can find out nothing that will come after him (Ecclesiastes 7:14).  The Christian will own every line of that song, adding its plea:

I know who holds the future,

And He’ll guide me with His hand.

With God, things don’t just happen,

Everything by Him is planned.

So as I face tomorrow,

With its problems large and small,

I’ll trust the God of providence,

Give to Him my all.

A God-blessed future for everyday of 2018 to all!

Mystery more than Merriment

Birth of Jesus

Merry Christmas! is the most common greeting heard in these festive days of the season.  Christmas is the Christian ‘festival’ that celebrates the birth of Christ.  In Western Christendom, it falls on December 25; while in the East, it is celebrated on January 7.  Merry is considered an archaic word used mostly for this season’s greeting.  It denotes ‘full of gaiety or high spirits: marked by animation or vivacity.’[i]

What is it that we are urged to be full of gaiety about?  It is the birth of Jesus that is supposedly to be celebrated.  And what a celebration!  Generous gifts and sumptuous dinners; bubbly parties and lavish décor; Santa Claus with reindeers; manger scene and Christmas trees; Nativity plays and endless sales!  If this were any birthday, the celebration may be in order, though the more frugal will cringe at the excess.  Then, it is argued, it is the birthday of the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, therefore the merriment should be to the max.  Never mind that most of those who celebrate have no conviction of sin, and no sense of their need of the Saviour.  After all, as the Jackson Five sings, “It’s that once of year when the world’s sincere.”

Let us pause to reflect.  What should come most to mind as the message of the birth of the Son of God in that lowly manger of Bethlehem?

There is nothing significant from the date.  If there is any scholarly agreement, it is by negation – that Jesus could not be born in December!  We know that the festive celebration merely took over from what it was in pagan Saturnalia celebrated in the same season.  And December 25 perpetuated the festivities that attended the coronation of the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne, on that date in the year 800.  As to the year, it has long been established as certain that the death of Herod the Great was in 4 BC.  Jesus could not be born after that since Herod played a vital role in the birth narratives of the Gospels.  The most current consensus is that Jesus was born in that year of 4 BC – an anomaly to say that Jesus was born 4 years before Christ!  We can only conlude that the providence of God did not intend for the year or date to be made into a feast.

What did the apostles remember most when they think of the birth of Jesus?  Other than the Gospel narratives in Matthew and Luke, there is no looking back to the event of the nativity in the rest of the New Testament.  The astonishment falls on the mystery of, what theology designates as, the Incarnation – the becoming flesh of the Son of God.  This truth is most emphatically asserted in John 1:14, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (ESV).  For the word dwelt, John employs the verb for ‘tabernacle.’  It may literally be rendered tabernacled among us.  This gives a significant insight to the word glory.  In the context of the tabernacle in the Wilderness journey of the Israelites, that pertains to the Shekinah glory that descended upon the tabernacle as a sign of Yahweh’s presence.  Could we imagine the Israelites greeting that glory with merry festivities?  The one time that the Israelites had such festivity was in the offence of the golden calf!  For John, the glory that was most astonishing was that hidden by the lowliness of flesh – the glory of the Son of God, known only to the humble perception of faith.

How should this lowly assumption of humanity by the Son of God impact upon believers?  There is no better passage than what has been called the Carmen Christie (Hymn to Christ) passage of Philippians 2:5-11.  The most significant words are:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:5-7)

Philippians 2 has become a focus of debate surrounding the words, emptied himself.  Since the verb in Greek is ekenôsen, it is given the name kenosis (‘emptying’).  The question that has been debated is What was the Son of God emptied of when He was incarnated?  Was it consciousness of divinity?  Was it some attributes He was deprived of?  Was He any less God during the period of his ministry on earth?  All these questions are missing the point because they take a literal understanding of the emptying.  The usage of the term in the NT is always figurative, never literal; (cf. Rom. 4:14; 1Cor. 1:17; 9:15; 2Cor. 9:3).  A good word in place of the literal ‘empty’ is discount; not self-regarding; or the old KJV “made no reputation.”  The thrust is not what He was less of, but what the Son of God became because of that discounting attitude – He became a Servant, obedient to the death of the Cross.  As Calvin comments, “Christ, indeed, could not divest himself of godhead, but he kept it concealed for a time that it might not be seen, under the weakness of the flesh.  Hence he laid aside his glory in the view of men, not by lessening it, but by concealing it.”

The mystery of this act is succinctly summarized by Augustine: Remaining what He was, He became what He was not.  And in becoming what He was not, there lies the staggering lowliness that the Son of God exercised to be obedient to the Father, and to be an example to His followers of what it means, Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil. 2:4 ESV)  Underpinning this passage is the implied contrast with Adam in Eden.  As one expositor explains, “Adam in Eden ( Gen 3:5–7 ) grasped or sought to seize equality with God. In so doing he sinned and experienced the judgment of God. Unlike Adam, Christ did not think this equality with God was a thing to be seized or snatched. Instead Jesus embraced his humanity, affirming his creatureliness. He did this by emptying himself of his aspirations to be God, and accepting a life of obedient service. This obedience ultimately required his death, even death on a cross.”[ii]

Theology calls this the state of humiliation.  One theologian explains, “Behind it, there lay two great decisions.  The first, pre-temporal, was the decision of the eternal Son to assume the form of a servant and the likeness of men.  The second, taken once he was incarnate, was the decision to humble himself even further.  From this point of view, the humiliation of Christ was not a point, but a line.  Its greatest single step was that by which he became the child in the manger.  The condescension involved in that is beyond imagining.  Yet it was only the beginning of the long downward journey through homelessness, poverty, exhaustion, shame and pain to Gethsemane; and beyond that to Calvary.”[iii]

This reminds us that the singular goal of this humiliation of the Son of God is for the mission of redemption accomplished on the Cross.  Therefore, the object of saving faith is not the manger, at all – it is the Death and Resurrection of Christ.  How many who celebrate Christmas salve their conscience with the thought that they prove themselves good Christians, who have no idea about the saving significance of the Cross?

While the manger birth is not the object of saving faith, it is a model of lowliness for the believer.  Does the season’s tradition of profligacy reflect such lowliness?  This is not to deny one a good conscience if he wishes to celebrate Christmas as a Christian.  It is rather a challenge to the attitude.   Are we seeking the imprint marked by the obscurity and anonymity that attended the birth of Jesus?  This is animated where we emulate its lowliness while yet so amazed at the staggering truth that it is no less God who became a genuine human baby in the manger.  This He did for the even lower humbling that it took to die on the Cross as Substitute to redeem sinners.

Merry?  How about awesome mystery!

Meekness and majesty, manhood and Deity

In perfect harmony, the Man who is God.

Lord of eternity, dwells in humanity;

Kneels in humility, and washes our feet.

O what a mystery, meekness and majesty!

Bow down and worship, for this is your God

 

[i] Merriam-Webster Unabridged (unabridged.merriam-webster.com)

[ii] Paul Feinberg, “The Kenosis and Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Analysis of Phil 2:6-11” from Trinity Journal (Spring 1980) p. 28

[iii] Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ: p. 218

The Most Viral Post

Ninety five theses

This month of October, followers celebrate – opponents lament; otherwise, most ignore – the 500th year of the Reformation.  It began with the most viral post in history.  Except that the author had no social media to post it in.  In 1517, there was the church door – among other places – to make public a notice or an invitation.  But when the German monk, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses on the door of his church in Wittenberg, its result was more viral than any contemporary Facebook post.

The year 1517 was an eventful year in Europe.  Politically, that year saw the rise of Spain as world power as the Habsburg rule became a reality when Charles I made a triumphal entry into Valladolid in Central Spain.  In Egypt, the Ottoman occupied Cairo after defeating the Mamluks.  Perhaps, most important of all – if only to explain productive nights since – it was the year that coffee was introduced into Europe.  So why was a piece of paper on a church door more history-making than anything?

What was it all about?  There are those who see only political conspiracy behind the performance, as German nationalism was emergent.  There was also economic motivation to suspect, as royalties of Europe were jealous of the Church’s wealth; and merchants resented paying taxes to the Church.  Then there is also the suggestion that on that day, Luther had a bad case of constipation!

There was a more reasonable motivation.  And it was not only a debate over the papal indulgences that Johann Tetzel was selling around Europe – though that brought matters into the surface.  Ironically, Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses just seven months after the conclusion of the Fifth Lateran Council in which Pope Leo X confidently declared that all necessary Church reform has been accomplished.  For Luther, it was a question of what was genuine righteousness – or how is one to be regarded as accepted by God; in Reformation language, justification before God.  This appears on the very first thesis of the 95 Theses: When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.  From the point-of-view of the author of that post, the appropriate tag-line is one that is theological.

Even a secular historian acknowledges this theological underpinning.  In John Whitney Hall’s history textbook, History of the World, it is noted: For the next 150 years Germany – and much of Western Europe – would find itself in a turmoil of social unrest, war and insurrection.  The small peak of the indulgence question rested upon a pyramid of Catholic theology and practice whose foundations were centuries old.  Yet the mighty edifice of the medieval Church and society would eventually shatter and plunge Western Europe into a period of bitter religious strife and political confusion.[1]

An Evangelical historian elucidates this further.  Matthew Barret, in his “The Crux of Genuine Reform,” explains: Countless historians have gone to great lengths to explain the Reformation through social, political, and economic causes.  No doubt each of these played a role during the Reformation, and at times a significant role.  Yet most fundamentally, the Reformation was a theological movement, caused by doctrinal concerns.  Though political, social, and economic factors were important, observes Timothy George, ‘we must recognize that the Reformation was essentially a religious event; its deepest concerns, theological.’  What this means, then, is that we must be ‘concerned with the theological self-understanding’ of the Reformers.[2]

 It is the contention of this simple piece that the theology that underpinned the 16th century Reformation is still very much crying out for proclamation seeking contemporary reformation today.

 

Needed by contemporary Roman Catholicism

The response of the Roman Church to the Reformation was a massive consolidation of its own theology.  The Council of Trent was convened and, off-and-on, met in the city of Tridentus from 1545 to 1563.  It gave the most official definition of the doctrines of the Church.  It liberally pronounced anathemas on those who differed from the official definition – they were labelled as heretics.  This response of the Church was fittingly called the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

There are those who will assert that the RCC is now existentially different from the Church of Trent; especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  One should not deny the reality of changes in the Church.  If anything, gone are the anathemas on heretics, but a more welcoming stance on separated brethren.  The most important change, that Evangelicals must welcome, is the new positive policy to the reading of the Scriptures by the laity: Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.[3]

Evangelicals need not see a specious concession on the part of the RCC.  It is beside the point. We can never limit what power of the Word can seize a liberated reader than it would have been possible if the Bible were still forbidden reading.  Behind this is the conviction that the power of God is behind His Word.  So Isaiah 55:11 declares, So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

But that said, one must still underscore that the Roman Church of today is still Tridentine Catholicism in theological essence.  The better spirit of gentleness does not redefine the doctrines espoused and taught by the Catholic clergy.  Indeed, the Vatican II explicitly confesses its loyalty following faithfully the teaching of previous councils.[4]

Beneath the nicety of language and camaraderie, the fight of the Reformation is to persist.  We now have more than church doors to post evangelical conviction.  As Robert Reymond challenges, Such a reformation can and will come only through public doctrinal conflict with Rome, openly pitting both in books, monographs, and pamphlets, and in sermons from the pulpit, first, the carefully exegeted, hermeneutically sound salvific teaching and world-and-life view of Holy Scripture against the superstitions and idolatries of Roman Catholic Tradition, and second, a sound knowledge of Rome’s historical origins against its pretensions. Protestants should not be afraid of such conflict, for the theological genius of the Reformation is really a summons to return to the simplicity of the apostolic gospel.[5]

 

Reformation is needed by contemporary Evangelicalism

While professing to be heirs of the 16th century Reformation, contemporary Evangelicalism is the product of the 20th century compromises, made sophisticated by 21st century technology.  While the Reformation sola’s are professed confessionally, they are compromised in church life and practice.

Professing Sola Scriptura, there is so much evangelical practice that cannot be explained by Scripture.  From rampant decisionism in evangelism, to man-centred entertainment in worship, there is a dictating voice other than the Word of God.  There is a shallowness even in affirming Sola Gratia that is understood no more than a contrast with salvation-by-works.  But the Reformers meant so much more of grace than this.  Sola Fide has suffered from reductionism that transforms it into a formula step, and removes its vital fruit of sanctification.  As to Solus Christus, one can only repeat Luther’s complaint against the teachers of his day, They say Cross! Cross! when there is no Cross!  The Cross of Christ has been distorted and displaced from its centrality and orthodoxy, to yield to marketing the church and therapeutic spirituality.

With all this defection from Reformation sola’s, where can there be Soli Deo Gloria?  One must begin to weep for evangelicalism.  Those that should be most forward in confessing the legacy of the Reformation are leading in the travesty of its most critical content.  There is a need to refresh the conviction that set aglow the Reformation hope: Justificatio articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae – Justification is the article of a standing or falling church!

 

Let the sound of the nail on the door of the Wittenberg Church on that morning of October 31, 1517 awaken yet again today’s churches from their complacent stupor.  As Michael Horton puts it, If we are convinced that the Protestant Reformation was the greatest recovery of the gospel since the time of the apostles and that it left us with a treasure whose riches await rediscovery by a new generation, then surely a new reformation represents a goal for us… We are not only confessional (that is bound to believe, preach, and teach that which our confessions set forth), but confessing.  It is not merely a commitment to a past fidelity, although it is that, but it is also our confession in this time and place.  Our world, surrounded by new fears and false hopes, requires a new confession – not new in its message, but fresh in its delivery.[6]

What the Reformer John Calvin asserted is needed today: The excellence of the Church does not consist in multitude but in purity.

 Fight the good fight of the faith! (1 Timothy 6:12).

 Soli Deo Gloria!

 

[1] John Whitney Hall (ed.), History of the World: From Earliest Times to the Present; (JG Press, 2013): 316

[2] Matthew Barret (ed.), Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary: 44-45

[3] Dei Verbum VI. 22

[4] Lumen Gentium I. 1

[5] Robert Reymond, The Reformation’s Conflict with Rome – Why it must continue: 129

[6] Michael Horton “The Sola’s of the Reformation” from James Boice and Benjamin Sasse (ed.), Here We Stand – A Call from Confessing Evangelicals: 103

Violent Crimes

ViolentCrimes

It is difficult to restrain empathetic tears as one watches the grief of the family of Horatio “Atio” Castillo III – the victim who died from hazing by “welcoming” brods of the Aegis Juris fraternity.  It is more than anomalous that members of this frat are made up of law students, with alumni officers already well ensconced in high legal positions.  These fraternity members will someday constitute defenders and prosecutors, maybe even judges, for the cause of justice in society.  For this thought alone, one may weep for his country.

Violent crime affects everyone – the victims, most obviously; the criminal, the public, whose sense of safety is diminished; and yes, even presidents.  Christians would do well to invoke the Father’s protection; but we all know that Christians are not guaranteed safety from crime.  Yes, in fact, even Christians have fallen victims to violence.  But what explains the incidence of violence in society?[1]  Or to put it in the pained query of German-American psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm (1900-1980), Why is man the only creature who kills and tortures his own without reason?

In his massive A Criminal History of Mankind, Colin Wilson observes,

Most animals feel a specific prohibition about killing their own kind.  If two animals are fighting, and one of them wished to surrender, it only has to roll on its back and show its stomach; the other animal then becomes incapable of continuing to attack.  Man is the only creature who lacks this built-in mechanism.[2]

Some experts explore the answer as lying in the misfortunes of human evolution.  One theory advanced the ‘hunting hypothesis’ propounding that man became man because he lived by killing.  Still another sees it in the ‘romantic theory of evolution’ in which competition for females led to violent show-offs.  And there are more.  But none is remotely acceptable to Christian thinking, however,  for how can the natural selection process from apes to homo erectus explain a Charles Manson?

Today’s criminologists have more plausible causes.  Two of these have become very common explanations for the incidence of violence.  The first treats it as psychological – as lack of self-esteem; the other, as sociological – as an issue of poverty.

The cause of low self-esteem can be anything from childhood ordeal to junk food overload.  What it does is to provide something to blame outside of the offender.  This is the victimization of the violent.  By making the criminal a victim himself, his guilt is expunged.

 

The Violent has Low Self-Esteem?

Since Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) developed his hierarchy of needs, it has become a choice handle for human behaviour.  It provides a much more ‘human’ explanation for action than the old arousal-and-drive theory.  In Maslow’s hierarchy, self-esteem occupies a central place as a step to self-actualization.[3]  Social-learning theorists define self-esteem as a personal worth or worthiness.  It is the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness.  The social bearing of this is deemed obvious.  A person of high self-esteem would want to be respected which he gains by way of reciprocation of respect to others.  Such a person would hardly become criminal material.

The flip side of this is to find in low self-esteem the catch basin explanation for bad behaviour.  Whether the black sheep of the family, or the dimwit of the classroom, they are viewed as having low self-esteem.  And thus, the miscreants and deviants of society must be so – of low self-esteem.  The cause of low self-esteem can be anything from childhood ordeal to junk food overload.  What it does is to provide something to blame outside of the offender.  This is the victimization of the violent.  By making the criminal a victim himself, his guilt is expunged.  John MacArthur, in The Vanishing Conscience, documents cases where the offender, citing victimization, has the case revoked, diminished, or even rewarded![4]

  • A man committing burglary was injured by the store owner. The owner was forced by the jury to pay a large settlement for injuring the burglar who was deemed a victim of his economic disadvantages.
  • Bernard McCummings mugged an elderly New York man in the subway. McCummings was shot while fleeing.  Permanently paralyzed, he sued and won $4.8 million in compensation from the New York Transit Authority
  • A San Francisco City supervisor claimed he murdered a fellow supervisor and Mayor George Moscone because too much junk food – especially Hostess Twinkies – made him act irrationally. His charge was reduced.  Thus was born the famous ‘Twinkie’ defense.
  • Richard Berendzen, president of American University in Washington, D.C., was caught making obscene phone calls to women. Claiming he was a victim of child abuse, he received a suspended sentence, and negotiated a million-dollar severance package from the university.

Low self-esteem is not an acceptable explanation for violence.  Moral accountability is basic in the Christian view of man.  He is responsible for his moral actions for they are exercised by his free agency.  This responsibility translates into the reality of accountability – ultimately to God as Judge.  In the case of violent crimes, there is accountability to the state.

 

What cases like the foregoing reveal is the denial of guilt that criminal actions incur once victimization is successfully marshaled as defense.  This is what the psychological construct of low self-esteem affords.  The Christian must see this as militating against his position on sin and guilt.  Sin must not be dismissed by turning it into a disease; guilt is not a psychological syndrome.  But sadly, this is where many discourses, that claim to be Christian, are going.  MacArthur observes,

These days, when sinners seek help from churches and other Christian agencies, they are likely to be told that their problem is some emotional disorder or psychological syndrome.  They might be encouraged to forgive themselves and told they ought to have more self-love and self-esteem.  They are not as likely to hear that they must repent and humbly seek God’s forgiveness in Christ.  That is such an extraordinary change of direction for the church that even secular observers have noticed it.[5]

As popular as this explanation of violent crime being caused by low self-esteem, no serious study proves the correlation.  Paul Vitz explains,

What is wrong with the concept of self-esteem?  Lots – and it is fundamental in nature.  There have been thousands of psychological studies on self-esteem.  Often the term self-esteem is muddled in confusion as it becomes a label for such various aspects as self-image, self-acceptance, self-worth, self-trust, or self-love.  The bottom line is that no agreed-upon definition or agreed-upon measure of self-esteem exists, and whatever it is, no reliable evidence supports self-esteem scores meaning much at all anyway.  There is no evidence that high self-esteem reliably causes anything – indeed lots of people with little of it have achieved a great deal in one dimension or another.[6]

He cites a 1989 study of mathematical skills which compared students in eight different countries:

American students ranked lowest in mathematical competence and Korean students ranked highest.  But the researchers also asked students to rate how good they were at mathematics.  The Americans ranked highest in self-judged mathematical ability, while Koreans ranked lowest.  Mathematical self-esteem had an inverse relation to mathematical accomplishment!  This is certainly an example of a ‘feel good’ psychology keeping students from an accurate perception of reality.  The self-esteem theory predicts that only those who feel good about themselves will do well – which is supposedly why all students need self-esteem – but in fact feeling good about yourself may simply make you over-confident, narcissistic, and unable to work hard.

This leads Vitz to conclude:

I am not implying that high self-esteem is always negatively related to accomplishment.  Rather, the research shows that measures of self-esteem have no reliable relationship to behavior, either positive or negative.  In part, this is simply because life is too complicated for so simple a notion to be of much use.[7]

To the Christian, low self-esteem is not an acceptable explanation for violence.  Moral accountability is basic in the Christian view of man.  He is responsible for his moral actions for they are exercised by his free agency.  This responsibility translates into the reality of accountability – ultimately to God as Judge.  In the case of violent crimes, there is accountability to the state.  The enforcer of law in the state is considered by Paul as God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4).

The Violent Lacks Money?

Another very common explanation for propensity to violence is poverty.  A hungry stomach knows no law!, so declared former president Joseph Estrada.  Lacking the wherewithal for his basic needs, a man might resort to crime, theft being the most obvious option – and from ordinary crime, erosion into violence becomes a reality.

It must be said that even Scriptures observe the correlation between poverty and theft, in particular.  As Proverbs 6:30, 31 puts it:

People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,

But if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold; he will give all the goods of his house.

 

Compassion to the poor must have with it a respect for their human dignity.  To say that being poor makes one more vulnerable to violence is an unacceptable contempt.  It is an insult to many poor people who earn an honest living in daily grind.  It also overlooks the criminal schemes of the wealthy at the expense of others just because they have the means.

 

Clearly here, while the correlation is acknowledged, but accountability is not removed.  When caught, the penalty of the law applies to the ‘poor’ thief.  But theft by a hungry individual is a far cry from a shooting rampage by a drug-crazed gunman which leaves several fatalities of innocent victims.  Somewhere along the gunman’s erosion to violence, a choice that was free, but immoral, was made – such as the use of drugs.

The Christian must be sensitive to the problem of poverty.  The Church must take seriously its mandate of benevolence to the poor and needy.  This was the one reminder to Paul and his mission team when the Jerusalem apostles extended their hand of fellowship: Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do (Gal 2:10).  We must reflect the compassion of our Saviour to the needy.  See this compassion in our Lord’s words to his disciples in Matthew 15:32:

I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.

But compassion to the poor must have with it a respect for their human dignity.  To say that being poor makes one more vulnerable to violence is an unacceptable contempt.  It is an insult to many poor people who earn an honest living in daily grind.  It also overlooks the criminal schemes of the wealthy at the expense of others just because they have the means.

Certainly, there are those who are poor because of their irresponsibility.  But one big issue that we must not forget is the social structure that creates oppression of the poor.  Many are poor because they are powerless.  Much of poverty, in sum, is an issue of social justice.  John Stott correctly notes:

It was clearly recognized in the OT that poverty does not normally just happen.  Although sometimes it was due to personal sin or national disobedience, and to God’s judgment on them, it was usually due to the sins of others, that is, to a situation of social injustice, which easily deteriorated because the poor were not in a position to change it.  We do not understand the OT teaching on this subject unless we see how frequently poverty and powerlessness were bracketed.[8]

It is not lack of money but love of money that is considered a root of all kinds of evils.  This love of money can be in the heart of a poor man who mugs someone to obtain money; just as much in the heart of a millionaire swindling clients of their precious resources.  It is not poverty that is behind violence; it is covetousness!

 

There is one sense, though, where money is very much related to crime and violence.  Scriptures teach this:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.  1 Timothy 6:9-10

It is not lack of money but love of money that is considered a root of all kinds of evils.  This love of money can be in the heart of a poor man who mugs someone to obtain money; just as much in the heart of a millionaire swindling clients of their precious resources.  It is not poverty that is behind violence; it is covetousness!  This is consistent with James’ indictment of the filthy rich:

You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.         James 5:5-6

 

Capital punishment is society’s total rejection of the violent – forfeiture of life.  It rests on the highest view of the human creation – “in the image of God.”  Combining these two, a God-oriented view of man and a judicial punishment of the offender, the human society can still be decently liveable even in the presence of the violent. God Himself gives the means of checking violence. Unfortunately, on both these counts, human society is in retrogress.

 

Response to Violence

Violence in our generation is not anything new though, definitely the weapons are new; the media coverage, unprecedented.  But violence is the story of world history since time immemorial.  Nero’s cruelty against christians at how he made human torches of them would make the stomach turn.  Rome itself would be at the receiving end of an ancient terror attack from the army of the Visigoths.  The Crusades of the Medieval period that sought to regain control of the Holy City of Jerusalem from the Muslims were littered with atrocities in the name of the christian religion.  Osama Bin Laden is just our generation’s contribution to the Hall of the Infamous that includes Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler.  Different personalities and periods with different motivations – but all notable for their terror and violence.  The record of history reveals a world of violence.

After the very first act of violence when a brother killed his own, the world steadily eroded into a violent planet.  At one point it turned so violent that it needed God’s intervention through the Flood.  “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence” (Genesis 6:11).  The world, in effect, was given a new starting point.  In this new start, God gave Noah an institution that was meant to curb violence in the human community.  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen 9:6).  The strict implementation of this principle holds the secret to preserving justice in society.  Capital punishment is society’s total rejection of the violent – forfeiture of life.  It rests on the highest view of the human creation – “in the image of God.”  Combining these two, a God-oriented view of man and a judicial punishment of the offender, the human society can still be decently liveable even in the presence of the violent. God Himself gives the means of checking violence.

Unfortunately, on both these counts, human society is in retrogress.  Claiming progressive views, many have espoused ideas of humanity that see man basically as biological, or at best, a social function.  A happenstance in a story of survival and evolution.  The view that man is basically religious and made for God is now branded as crude and fundamentalist – equivalent of extremist.  No wonder that out of the same progressive views the implementation of justice as God required has been softened.  Punishment is now too strong a word.  Everything is now remedial and corrective. Nothing about just vindication.  It is a world that has departed from God, and reshaped justice into a soft mold.  In that world, violence thrives.

Violence is part of the depravity of man.  In Paul’s catalogue of human sinfulness, he quotes from the Old Testament to describe sinners: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways” (Romans 3:15, 16).  That violent nature led those terrorists in the horrific sequence of September 11.  But in a much smaller scale, we see the violent nature in daily occurrence.  Murder. . . Cursing. . . Hazing.

The church is sent to such a violent world with a gospel of peace and reconciliation.  It is a call that is first and foremost Godward before it is social for man’s original alienation is from his Creator and God.  Only in the restored relationship with God will the wall of partition that exists between men be broken down.  The Church is the manifestation of this new humanity reconciled to one another because they are reconciled to God.  For as long as the Lord preserves a faithful church on earth, there is hope for the prophetic vision: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Endnotes

1       This article does not intend to treat crime in its legal framework, but to focus on the act of violence

2       Colin Wilson, A Criminal History of Mankind (Mercury Books;2005): p. 106

3       Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality (1954)

4       John MacArthur, Jr., The Vanishing Conscience (Word Pub.; 1995):pp. 21ff

5       MacArthur, 29

6       Paul Vitz, “Leaving Psychology Behind” from Os Guinness & John Seel (ed.), No God But God: 97

7       ibid

8       John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (Marshalls; 1984): p. 218