Celebrating a Reformed Church

I saw a story today about the U.S. bishops having to calculate the uprightness of the Republican tax plan:

After Paul Ryan told an audience at Georgetown University that his legislative work conforms to Catholic social teaching “as best I can make of it,” he homed in on the importance of reducing the federal deficit. “The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt,” he said. “The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are `living at the expense of future generations’ and `living in untruth.’”

That was in 2012—a smart (if incomplete) retort to scholars, bishops, and commentators who argued that Ryan’s budget priorities ran afoul of Catholic social doctrine. But on October 25, House Republicans under the Wisconsin congressman’s leadership approved a budget blueprint that would bring about an alarming increase in federal debt to achieve tax cuts weighted to benefit the rich. Even in the annals of federal budgeting, an additional gap of $1.5 trillion or more over ten years is a lot of money. When the Senate put forth this plan, which the large majority of Ryan’s caucus rubber-stamped, the Congressional Budget Office warned that “the high and rising debt that is projected would have serious negative consequences for the budget and the nation.” . . .

To give Ryan the benefit of the doubt, there is still time to work out a more principled budget. But, like just about every American politician who claims support in Catholic teaching, he needs to go beyond cherry-picking. He’ll need to consider factors beyond the deficit—especially distributive justice, which, as Pope Benedict wrote in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate, the church has highlighted “unceasingly.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops highlighted this facet of Catholic teaching in an October 25 letter on “moral criteria to assist Congress during deliberations on possible tax reform.” The letter said that the tax burden should not be shifted from the rich to the poor, and noted that the Republicans’ “Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code” states that a revised tax code “would be at least as progressive as the existing tax code.” . . .

The bishops’ moral criteria also include concern for the poor; strengthening families; “adequate revenue for the sake of the common good”; avoiding cuts to poverty programs to finance tax reform; and encouraging charitable giving.

I don’t know what Ryan would make of this list, which was part of a letter to all members of Congress from Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. But these are points the bishops have made time and again as they advance the notion that a budget is a moral document. Before the House vote on October 25, the bishops’ conference took the step of posting a notice online saying that “Christ teaches that we should find Him the `the least of these,’ (Matthew 25). Call on your Representatives to not forget the poor as they debate and vote on the budget resolution.”

On Reformation Day 2017 I’m so thankful for pastors who actually attend to God’s word and leave politics to politicians.

I’m also glad for reformers who created a separate realm for the church so that secular society could be secular.

I’m especially glad that Orthodox Presbyterian pastors and elders, as gifted as they are, don’t feel responsible for explaining tax policy to Congress.

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27 thoughts on “Celebrating a Reformed Church

  1. So politics and tax plans have nothing to do with the Scriptures that speak about all of life? What if tax laws oppress the poor or cause them to be neglected?

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  2. 1.5trillion over 10yrs sounds like a big number, but we are really only talking about 3% of federal spending and less than 1% of the gdp. If we can get rid of the mortgage, charitable giving, and state/local tax deductions in the process, then its a small price to pay.

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  3. @CD Do the scriptures tell me to change my oil with synthetic or conventional oil? If the scriptures don’t tell me, then the scriptures don’t speak to all of life. If scriptures don’t speak to all of life, then perhaps the question of whether one should support a particular level of taxation isn’t a necessary consequence of Scripture either? Perhaps the level of taxation doesn’t *cause* the poor to be neglected. Perhaps the notion that it is the government’sjob to care for the pooris the problem. How many foster kids, inlaws, and poor single moms do you have staying at your house? All told I had seven. Am I sinning because I didn’t support Bernie too?

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  4. D.G.

    I have to ask about the photo. At first I didn’t pay much attention to it. But is this a photo of the OPC General Assembly?

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  5. @CD Yes. Now explain how that connects to the question of whether I should use synthetic or conventional oil in my minivan. Then perhaps you can explain how scripture commands my vote, how many foster kids we take in, how I should divide my charitable giving, and how to divvy up my volunteer time.

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  6. D.G.,
    If you own a minivan and the engine works better with one oil than the other or is harmed by one of those oils, then isn’t the answer to your question obvious?

    the reasoning is similar in answering your other questions.

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  7. @CD No. Are you saying that the scriptures tell me that I have to use the one that makes the engine work better? What if it is only slightly better and the cost difference is big. What if it is only slightly better and the cost difference is small. What is the *scriptural* basis for deciding? I’m not seeing it. Perhaps the scriptures tell us what to believe about God and what duty he requires about us and leave the light of nature to guide us in deciding what kind of oil to you use in our car, who to vote for, how to tax, whether to go to war, and what to set the speed limit at.

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  8. SDB,

    Perhaps the scriptures tell us what to believe about God and what duty he requires about us and leave the light of nature to guide us in deciding what kind of oil to you use in our car, who to vote for, how to tax, whether to go to war, and what to set the speed limit at.

    I’m sympathetic to this, but how confident can we be that the light of nature alone is sufficient for these issues?

    For instance, if there is a rapidly anti-Christian candidate who is otherwise clearly superior on issues such as foreign policy, taxation, etc. but who is pledging to curtail individual liberties of Christians and even outlaw Christian worship running against a candidate who is an ignoramus on foreign policy, etc. but who promises to leave Christians alone, how does the light of nature alone help me choose who to pick?

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  9. Robert, if you’re suggesting that special revelation needs to supplement general revelation wrt general life then I don’t see how it helps solve your hypothetical. There’s an awful lot about enduring persecution, but does the Bible say something about voting for or against against persecutors? But if general revelation’s purpose is to govern general life, why the doubt on whether it’s sufficient to do its work? It might get pretty difficult given that it turns on sinful agents to employ it, but how does turning to the book designed to govern spiritual life to help govern general life really help anything when 1. it wasn’t designed for that and 2. it still requires sinful agents to interpret it?

    So if your doctor can’t figure out your medical problem and neither can the specialists, do you want them to consult the Bible, or are you convinced the answer lies somewhere in general revelation and to keep mining that field?

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  10. Curt:If you own a minivan and the engine works better with one oil than the other or is harmed by one of those oils, then isn’t the answer to your question obvious?

    Not at all.

    In my younger days, I drove Hans the Honda. He was a Good Boy. But at 135k, he started eating oil because of leaky valve seals. It would have been *better for the engine* to have replaced the valve seals, at a cost of about $500. But it was a whole lot cheaper — on a teacher’s salary — to feed him oil at $2/qt.

    One day, he (briefly) died while I was on a date with the future Mrs. C. That was the day that the costs of feeding oil outweighed the benefits, and he was traded in the next day (for Lex the Honda, who lasted 240k before freezing a cylinder on the highway).

    We weigh costs and benefits. Obedience to God’s word is nothing like that. I don’t, or shouldn’t, weigh the costs and benefits of idolatry or murder or adultery; or of honoring father and mother or of keeping the Sabbath. I should just obey.

    The reasoning in the one case is nothing like the reasoning in the other.

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  11. @Robert
    I can’t be certain that general revelation is sufficient to guarantee the optimal solution. That doesn’t entail that scripture addresses the question. Some questions maybe unanswerable. This isn’t to say that scripture can never bear on any political action. Rather it is not at all clear to me how scripture bears on the political questions we face today. Nor do I see how scripture bears on political philosophy questions.

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  12. Zrim,

    But if the Bible was not designed to govern “general life,” then why the Proverbs? Why the civil law?

    I’m not saying that I have all the answers, but I’m not sure the neat bifurcation between spiritual life and general life is possible. My general answer would be to apply when you can apply. Scripture may not tell me how to vote in my scenario, but it tells me to do good to the brethren and love my neighbor. That, I would think, inform me not to vote for the anti-church candidate or to vote for neither. How would I derive that from general revelation, or would it even be possible to do so?

    It just seems that we can overreact. Does the Bible comprehensively address everything some people think it does? Of course not. Does it have nothing to say about how Christians should vote? Seems like that’s going too far in the other direction.

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  13. SDB,

    Rather it is not at all clear to me how scripture bears on the political questions we face today.

    That’s a fair point. And it may very well not bear that directly on specific policy positions. So wisdom, general revelation, etc. will be key.

    Nor do I see how scripture bears on political philosophy questions.

    Paul says that slaves should be content but also that they should change their status and gain freedom if they have the opportunity. Seems to me that could have some application to Christians living under tyranny, for example.

    Scripture seems awfully clear that work is a good thing. Seems to me that could have some application about political systems that encourage and reward work and do not reward sloth are better than those that do the opposite.

    But maybe general revelation has something similar to say about both those examples.

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  14. Robert, but what one finds in special revelation’s wisdom and law literature can also be found in other non-sacred sources, which would seem to undermine any notion that the Bible is needed for general life. Not that it can’t be referenced for general life, but why when general revelation is sufficient? Can’t find anything about eternal life anywhere but the Bible. Not sure if that’s an overly “neat bifurcation,” but unless you’re willing to say the gospel can be found in nature, call it what you will but that’s just how it is.

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  15. Zrim – I agree that the Bible doesn’t give us a detailed set of guidelines for how to respond to every possible scenario in general life (including politics), but I agree with Augustine that it does give us principles of justice (true God-ordered justice), and those principles can be applied to specific general life situations when appropriate. Special revelation may give us broad concepts of justice and righteousness, which are unchanging, but the application of justice and righteousness may vary depending on the specific time, culture, circumstance, etc. For the Christian, special revelation should be the basis for how we live all of life, but general revelation can aid us in applying special revelation to specific life circumstances.

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  16. VV, what I always wonder about is the idea that Robert seems to suggest, namely that general revelation may be insufficient to govern general life, thus special revelation is somehow needed to supplement things. My point isn’t so much that special revelation is irrelevant to general life but to wonder how general revelation is lacking. Isn’t God the author of general revelation? So why suggest it’s insufficient? The law is written on the human heart and its sufficient to eternally condemn. If it’s sufficient to eternally condemn, why not sufficient to temporally govern?

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  17. @ Zrim:

    So why do Proverbs and Ecclesiastes exist?

    I can’t see, on the “general revelation is entirely sufficient” model, why Solomon needs to instruct his sons in an inspired manner.

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  18. Zrim – no, general revelation is not sufficient for the Christian. A person cannot “do all to the glory of God” through general revelation alone. Only through the special revelation of God through the Holy Spirit can one be truly obedient in a way that honors Him. Tim Keller said it well in a tweet yesterday:

    “Wisdom is knowing the right thing to do in the 80% of life situations in which moral rules don’t provide clear answers.” I would consider true wisdom to be special revelation, since it begins in the “fear of the Lord.”

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  19. Jeff, if Jesus is Lord over all creation then it would seem to make sense that he would provide divine word on it. But why also write it on the universal human heart if it’s an insufficient way for men to govern themselves?

    VV, you’re changing the goal posts. I never said GR alone was sufficient for the believer to glorify God. I’m saying it’s sufficient for un/believer alike to govern general life.

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  20. Zrim – I understand, but my point is that a believer should glorify God in all of life, including general life. In that case the Christian should rely on special revelation to navigate life in a way that glorifies Him. General revelation may be sufficient for both a Christian farmer and a non-Christian farmer to know when to plant and harvest their crops, but it is insufficient to tell them the true and ultimate reasons for how and why they harvest their crops. So sure, general revelation may be sufficient for mere survival, but insufficient for living life the way it should be lived.

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  21. VV, if GR correlates to the law then it’s hard to see how GR is for “mere survival” and insufficient for living life the way it should be lived. The law is useless to obtain eternal life, but it still does more for provisional life than you seem to give it credit for. When you talk the way you do I suspect you’re trying to apply eternal principles to temporal life, i.e. the law can’t obtain eternal life therefore it’s of only mediocre use in this life.

    That’s not how the Reformed have historically thought of the law in relation to this life. They’ve always had a higher view. Calvin says in part wrt to the second use:

    “Nevertheless, this forced and extorted righteousness is necessary for the good of society, its peace being secured by a provision but for which all things would be thrown into tumult and confusion…” That doesn’t sound like “mere survival” or “insufficient for living life the way it should be lived.” Your neo-Cal is showing.

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  22. @ Zrim:

    Hm. Trying to identify the different pieces to this puzzle. On the one hand, GR is “sufficient” to govern daily life. On the other, it makes sense for God the creator to provide divine word (as in, SR) on it.

    What’s unclear is why it would make sense to provide SR, if indeed GR is sufficient. I mean, the general point of SR is to provide an understanding of “what must I do to be saved”, and it is explicitly needed because GR is insufficient for that question.

    So the logic here is of a different kind.

    I would propose two candidates for the missing term in the syllogism.

    (1) “It makes sense for God to provide SR on daily life, because although GR is sufficient for living per se, God wants believers to have additional information in order to glorify Himself in their daily lives by obedience to his revealed will.”

    (2) “It makes sense for God to provide SR on daily life, because although GR is sufficient (all of the information is there), it is hard to read (because the information is obscured).”

    Is one of these two what you have in mind?

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  23. Zrim – I’m not sure we can correlate GR with the Law – the Law is a mixture of both GR and SR, especially with regard to the third use, no? And I would argue that the second use IS largely about survival as a society: without that wouldn’t we descend into anarchy according to Calvin and Augustine? And GR surely extends beyond the Law into basics of survival (back to the farming example).

    Anyway, I agree with Jeff’s first statement above: SR is necessary in daily life because even though we could physically survive with GR alone, God calls us to glorify Him in all things, and that requires SR.

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  24. Jeff, #1 seems reasonable.

    VV, I’m satisfied with “…we could physically survive with GR alone…” It was Robert who initially suggested something lesser of GR with: “…how confident can we be that the light of nature alone is sufficient for these issues [what kind of oil to you use in our car, who to vote for, how to tax, whether to go to war, and what to set the speed limit at]?”

    I get what both you and Jeff are saying about SR needed for believers, but that really wasn’t in my purview. I was concerned with this suggestion that GR is insufficient to govern civil life and SR is somehow needed to buttress GR to that end. It’s not needed, human societies have gotten along and even thrived without one iota of SR.

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