The Refugee Crisis and Christian Hope


Over the past week, the refugee crisis facing Europe has been a matter of intense discussion here in the UK and around the world. While the facts, figures, and politics have long received attention on the news, pictures of the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach pressed the tragic situation of Syrian refugees upon the public consciousness with a visceral intensity. Those images spread on social media, along with hashtags such as #refugeeswelcome, spurring popular outcry against the UK’s asylum policies and a call for us to follow the example of countries such as Germany.
Christians have been among the most vocal of those calling for action, the voices of church leaders being buoyed upon a vast swell of moral sentiment, especially online. People have appealed to the teaching of Jesus, expressed in such parables as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). In a widely shared piece, the left-wing cleric Giles Fraser castigated politicians who campaign on the basis of Christian morality for their supposed hypocritical response to the crisis, maintaining that only the most radical action would suffice:
[W]hy not all of them? Surely that’s the biblical answer to the “how many can we take?” question. Every single last one. Let’s dig up the greenbelt, create new cities, turn our Downton Abbeys into flats and church halls into temporary dormitories, and reclaim all those empty penthouses being used as nothing more than investment vehicles. Yes, it may change the character of this country. Or maybe it won’t require anything like such drastic action – who knows? But let’s do whatever it takes to open the door of welcome.
The Church should have a peculiar affinity with displaced persons. Displaced persons and refugees are disproportionately represented in the Scriptures–Abraham, Jacob and his family, Moses, David, and Christ were all displaced or refugees at points in their lives. The early Church spread in part through the diasporic movement of refugees escaping persecution in Jerusalem. The people of God, in Old Testament as in New, are called to think of themselves as ‘aliens and strangers’ (Leviticus 25:23; 1 Chronicles 29:15; 1 Peter 2:11), as those thrown upon the hospitality of the world’s polities, or to emulate the apostle as cosmopolitan selves (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). As Luke Bretherton observes, much as the foetus or the suffering and dying, the refugee is a test of our preparedness ‘to recognize bare life as human life worthy of respect and to be afforded dignity as a potential or existent participant in a particular human community.'[1]

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Theses on Natural Theology

Scott Swain:

Recent Reformed theology has not held natural theology in high esteem, and that for understandable reasons. Enlightenment thinkers (Catholic, Protestant, and secular) often treated natural theology as a pre-dogmatic discipline, i.e., as a discipline that could and should be established independently of biblical revelation before turning to biblical revelation to establish the truths of dogmatic theology. In many cases, such an approach also failed to acknowledge the noetic effects of sin for the possibility of natural theology.

Turning to Reformed discussions of natural theology in the early modern period, however, one discovers a platypus. Discussions of natural theology from this period do not fit the categories of Enlightenment natural theology and therefore are less susceptible to recent Reformed criticisms. Here natural theology is not treated as a pre-dogmatic discipline but as a discipline that is dependent upon dogmatic theology for its success. Indeed, the terms of early Protestant natural theology are largely set by biblical commentary on texts such as Romans 1-2 (e.g., Philip Melanchthon, Peter Martyr Vermigli). Here we also discover an acute awareness of the noetic effects of sin upon natural theology, effects which require assistance from the epistemological principles of dogmatics (i.e., Holy Scripture, the Holy Spirit) if they are to be overcome.

Based upon earlier Protestant treatments of natural theology (especially those of Vermigli, Franciscus Junius, Gisbertus Voetius, and Bernardus de Moor), I have come to see the importance of natural theology for a number of spheres of Christian intellectual and practical inquiry. Moreover, I have come to the conclusion that, far from detracting from revealed theology, it is only in giving natural theology its due that we can fully appreciate the true honor and dignity of revealed theology. In partial payment of that debt, I offer the following nine theses on natural theology.

Laudato Si’ Roundup

Here is the text of Pope Francis’s new encyclical.

Dreher, predictably, loves it:

I have been struggling to know what to say about Pope Francis’s new encylical,Laudato Si. As my friend Frank Beckwith (who created the above graphic) notes, it really and truly hits the sweet spot for me — so much so that I have been stymied even knowing where to begin. So, like Francis, I’ll just start writing, with no idea where I’m going to stop.

Laudato Si (hereafter, “LS”) is sprawling, messy, wild, and visionary. It’s bizarre to consider that American conservatives were freaking out in advance about the prospect that the Pope was going to weigh in against climate change in this encyclical. He does, but to act as if that were the main thrust of the document is like judging Thanksgiving dinner by the quality of the cranberry sauce.

It is tempting to call LS a traditionally conservative document, but there is plenty in it that will unnerve free-market individualists, who generally call themselves conservative — and liberals will be just as challenged by it. What Francis has written is an encyclical that celebrates life as harmony, communion, and incarnation. He calls on all persons to revere nature as gift, and to think not as atomized individuals, but as stewards who owe a debt to others, as well as to the past and to the future.

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Kevin Vanhoozer Profiled in CT

From CT:

When Kevin Vanhoozer returned to the United States after a year of ministry in France, he did something characteristically imaginative. He wanted to go to seminary. He already had an undergraduate transcript full of Bible and theology credits; the only problem was that it was already August, and classes would begin in a matter of days. Vanhoozer needed a way to convince a seminary to admit him, quickly.

A classically trained pianist, Vanhoozer and others with Greater Europe Mission had spent a calendar year talking to unchurched audiences about how “the joy of music” pointed to Christ. Flush from the success of the mission, he decided, “I don’t have time to apply to seminaries, I want them to apply to me.” So he designed “an inversion or parody of the recommendation form,” he says, with questions such as, “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the seminary?” He promptly dispatched 60 forms.

John Webster’s Doctrine of Creation

Fred Sanders:

In another one of his recent creation essays (“Non ex aequo: God’s Relation to Creatures,” found in the Paul Fiddes festschrift Within the Love of God), Webster goes further than naming the symptoms of the disorder; he identifies its cause. The problem is the idea that God and the world are somehow a dyad, a pair of concepts that go together and should be handled symmetrically. It seems self-evident to many theologians that God and the world have a mutually conditioning relationship, a “real relation” in the scholastic sense, one that runs both directions and means that each term needs the other.

The world without God wouldn’t be itself; and (we naturally tend to say) God without the world wouldn’t be himself. But that second part is what must be denied. So Thomas Aquinas and others said that the God-world relation was a mixed one: the world stands in a real (constitutive) relation to God, but God in a “relation of reason” to world.

Webster’s project in the essay is to rehabilitate a conviction which Thomas Aquinas stated classically, but which has come through a phase of unpopularity. He does it well, sharing numerous insights that could only have emerged from a patient elaboration of the doctrine of God’s inherent perfection: “Precisely because God’s relation to created things has no effect on the divine integrity, it is the outward enactment of his goodness.”

The Politics of the King’s Shepherd

From Alastair:

Of all of the biblical psalms, perhaps Psalm 23 is the most familiar. I memorized this psalm as a child of approximately three years of age. Its words now move upon my lips with a sort of muscle memory born of much silent repetition, recalling me to the truth of God’s loving providential concern for me. Words that are so deeply sedimented in our consciousness are easily dulled to us on account of such familiarity, yet these words can still stir, revealing surprising truths that had hitherto crossed the threshold of our mouths unrecognized.

John Goldingay suggests the possibility that the opening line of the psalm, rather than being principally a statement about YHWH, is a claim that the psalmist is making about himself: ‘My shepherd is YHWH.’[1] Read in such a manner, the psalm comes into sharper relief as a powerful declaration of the speaker’s own confidence and trust in YHWH—it responds to the implicit question ‘who is your shepherd?’ In contrast to the various other gods, rulers, or resources that other people may trust to shepherd them through life’s dangerous times, the psalmist’s trust is in YHWH.

Reconstructing the Pooh Community

This is wonderful (HT to Alastair):

New Testament research is a field which has much to learn from comparative study—
from observing the trends and results of research in parallel fields of study. So I begin
my lecture this evening with an excursion into just such a parallel field—an excursion
from which we may be able to return to recent trends in research on the Gospel of
John with a fresh angle of vision.

Probably most of you will be familiar with the Winnie-the-Pooh stories—the
popular children’s books traditionally attributed to A A Milne. But you may not all be
familiar with recent developments in Winnie-the-Pooh scholarship, which has been
revolutionized in recent years as a result of one major methodological breakthrough
which virtually all Pooh scholarship now takes for granted. This is the seminal insight
that the Winnie-the-Pooh stories can be read on more than one level. Ostensibly, of
course, they are the story of a group of animals living in a forest, who are in some
sense identified with the soft toys belonging to Christopher Robin. But on another level
they are the story of the community behind the books, that community of children for
which the books were written. In the Winnie-the-Pooh books one specific community
of English children early this century—now generally known to scholars as the Pooh
community—has encoded for us a wonderfully revealing account of itself. With this
methodological key it is possible to a large extent to reconstruct that community: its
character, its history, its passions, its factions. For example, this community of children
is clearly situated in a rural and rather isolated context—a small English village, one
should assume. All the action of the story takes place in a forest, and the small caste
of characters seems to live entirely in a world of its own. The outside world never
impinges. Awareness that other children exist beyond the inward-looking circle of
the Pooh community is indicated only by the very generalized and vague references
to Rabbit’s friends and relations.

Beyond Creation and Natural Law Toward an Evangelical Political Theology

Jamie Smith:

A lot that traffics under the banner of “Christian” public theology has little to do with the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our imaginations have been sufficiently disciplined by the assumptions of liberalism to be uncomfortable and embarrassed by forthrightly Christian hopes for temporal government.

What, then, to make of Augustine’s encomium for the emperor Theodosius who “was more glad to be a member of that Church than to be ruler of the world” (City of God, 5.26). Augustine celebrates not primarily his power or accomplishments but rather his Christ-like humility:

Nothing could be more wonderful than the religious humility he showed after the grievous crime committed by the people of Thessalonica. On the intercession of the bishops he had promised a pardon; but then the clamour of certain of his close supporters drove him to avenge the crime. But he was constrained by the discipline of the Church to do penance in such a fashion that the people of Thessalonica, as they prayed for him, wept at seeing the imperial highness thus prostrate, with an emotion stronger than their fears of the emperor’s wrath at their offense.

Our allegedly “Christian” public theologies appeal to creation order and natural law, invoking norms restricted to general revelation and the dictates of “reason.” But where does reason dictate penance? And where does the natural law commend forgiveness and mercy? Did creation order ever drive us to our knees in a passionate prayer of confession? And are not such practices and virtues germane to the image-bearing task of governing?

This scene from the City of God suggests a more integral link between the church and politics without simply conflating or identifying them. It suggests that the practices of the church as an outpost of the heavenly city are integral to the political goods of even the earthly city—that the liturgy of the body of Christ bears up those worshipers who are then sent to take up the vocation of earthly rule. This suggests a Christian political theology that is rooted in the substance of the Gospel and the specific practices of the cruciform community that is the church. The public task of the church is not just to remind the world of what it (allegedly) already knows (by “natural” reason), but to proclaim what it couldn’t otherwise know—and to do so as a public service for the sake of the common good.

This vision is one of the key contributions of British theologian Oliver O’Donovan. In contrast to the various political deisms on offer, O’Donovan articulates a properly evangelical political theology. Rejecting the moral minimalism of the “natural law” project as a sub-Christian expression of political theology, O’Donovan also has important lessons to teach those of us Kuyperians whose “Christian” public theology too often settles for “creation order.”

Five Questions with Oliver O’Donovan


What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring theologians?

It is the idiom of Christian thought that it proceeds in respectful dialogue with a canonical text. The theologian must be able to handle that text intelligently. “Exegesis, exegesis, exegesis!” Barth told his students, when he was driven out of Germany in the thirties. One has to learn enough from the professional exegetes to be able to make some crucial judgments for oneself. Yet theology needs more than exegesis; it needs questions formed and re-formed by constant reading of the Bible. My advice to a theologian who does not find that happening quite spontaneously, is to go and do something else. The opportunities for further thought should fly open like doors from the reading of Scripture. Not allthe questions you will ever ask are there, of course, and they are not framed in the ways that you will come to frame them; but there are the openings, the questions that will build up in the end into the questions you will ask much later. The dutiful doctoral student will, of course, be told to forget the questions. “Don’t try to talk about God and beauty! Just compare Nicholas Wolterstorff and Synesius of Cyrene’s views on God and beauty!” Good advice for an apprentice, who has to pick up some technique before painting the Mona Lisa. But when the apprentice days are over, the questions must still be there.

And then there are the skills, linguistic skills, above all, of reading and writing, whether in English or any other language. I ought, of course, to insist that to read a text properly you must read it in the original language. But since nobody can do that for all texts, and to spend one’s life trying to would leave no time to read or think, there is a compromise to be reached on that. But thinking itself is a linguistic skill. Few people can think effectively in a language with which they are not natively at home. But how much at home is the average native? In any language we learn, but supremely in our own, we ought to make a practice ofreading aloud, to get the music, the vocabulary, the modes of logical structuring deeply within our instinctive responses. I could never be a good horseman, not because I could not (in the end) learn how to stay on, but because I could never interest myself in the grooming and the feeding and the messing-out; the horse would always know I didn’t love it. Language, too, needs constant loving by those who expect to be able to ride it on long journeys to great ends; otherwise it will refuse to produce its turn of speed, will head off onto the wrong road, will perhaps throw them from its back.

How Silence Works

From the Awl:

About two months ago I started reaching out by email to a group of people whose lives I wanted to know about and understand: The Trappist monks of Oka Abbey, in Quebec. Oka Abbey is the oldest Trappist monastery in North America. A century ago, it was a powerhouse; but in recent decades, the community haddwindled to a fraction of what it used to be. After leaving the Abbey to a heritage group, to be preserved as an historical site, the remaining monks relocated to a smaller retreat in the mountains north of Montreal.

Even if you’re not Catholic, you may have heard of the Trappists. They’re the monks that make those impeccably crafted beers. And the Trappist monks of Oka created a cheese worth drooling overthat’s still widely sold today (though now it’s made by a Quebec dairy company). The Trappists are known for one other thing as well: they’re the only Western-based monastic order that still actively practices the “vow” of silence. (I put quotes there because neither the Rule of St. Benedict nor the practice of the Order actually contains a specific vow of silence. As I understand it, it’s an edict, a practice that’s a part of their lives that the monks happily follow.) It was this element of their lives, their dedication to the enshrinement of silence, that drew me to them. Not really knowing how one goes about approaching monks, I located list of monasteries in addition to the former Oka group and started emailing. It took a few weeks of very slow introductions to find the right people, but I ended up in conversation with four monks, two in America and two in Canada.