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Archive for October, 2008

As I was on the road a couple nights ago, NPR’s All Things Considered was broadcasting a piece educating Joe the Plumbers like me concerning a major, yet overlooked catalyst contributing to the present economic crisis.  That villain is called the ‘Credit Default Swap.’  Very briefly, what was once a sober mode of obtaining a form of investment insurance degenerated into what professionals concede was nothing less than gambling.  For the full text and/or to listen to the piece, go to How Credit Default Swaps Spread the Financial Rot.

Interestingly, I just came across an insightful quote that bears directly, I think, on this whole financial debacle from an biblical perspective:

We believe that in this speculating world, amid all these risks and ventures which perhaps must be entered into to make business prosperous and to keep pace with the age, it is only a very strong religious spirit, a practical exercise of religion, that can make anyone judge accurately between legitimate and reckless commercial speculation. . . . From the danger we are all in of taking our moral standard from the tone of the common morality of society, we are apt to forget the higher standard of the law of Christ. [But] we are every now and then recalled to a sense of the difference of these two standards by some tremendous commercial failure; in which we see that speculation has been carried so far into the region of uncertainty and risk, that trust and confidence has been abused, and the ruin of one man has invovled in it that of hundreds, who trusted in him.  Now we only see this by reason of the failure of speculation, not from the speculation itself: had that proved successful instead of disastrous, many would not have seen the immorality at all (Anonymous review in The Ecclesiastic and Theologian, vol. XXII, 1860: 261-64).

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I am temporarily putting the review of Parish and Parish Church on hold.  I have another volume on interlibrary loan, here, that is due soon.  So if you are among the small readership, I haven’t forgotten!  And since I am on this side note, if anyone knows any fans of Thomas Chalmers, the history of the Disruption / Free Church of Scotland, and especially those who are interested in the old parish model of church organization and witness, please let them know about this blog.  I am an amateur in these areas and would appreciate any helpful, constructive comments that could help shape my grasp of things.

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Owen Chadwick has a very interesting essay entitled “Chalmers and the State” in A. C. Cheyne’s collection The Practical and the Pious: Essays on Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847). It sheds some more light on Chalmers’ approach to church establishments, a subject which I have recently treated (https://westportexperiment.wordpress.com/2008/08/22/chalmers-on-church-establishments-part-1/).

Chadwick rises to Chalmers’ defense of establishments, clearing him from unjust aspersions cast against him during his day.  He stresses the point more clearly than I think I did previously, that what drove Chalmers to a defense of religious establishments was his largehearted, Christian concern for the poor.

The praise which no one could ever deny him is that he cared about the poor with a compassion which was also the leading passion of his life.  How he cared about the poor, what methods he proposed to care for the poor (some of the methods seem peculiar, and not many of them would b e acceptable to the Welfare State of the 20th century), and also the practical results of the compassion, are in question.  What is not in question is that he cared.  His entrie theory of an established Church rested on this compassion for the poor.  At the Tron Church in Glasgow he learned for the first time the nature of the urban slum, and this experience conditioned the rest of his life.  He saw that no voluntary system could cope.  Chapels supported by their member were chapels of the middle class.  They might be chapels of the lower middle class but they were not chapels of working men and they were not in the right place.  No system of raising money by gifts and bazaars could ever be enough.  Therefore the State must act and supply, or at least must supplement all that voluntary effort could achieve (70).

His 1830 lectures on establishments in London were well-received by the Conservative Party, who continued to view the aristocracy as placed by God to be benevolent patrons of the common people.  In these lectures,

His love for the poor was very evident when he talked of slums, only recently regarded as unsafe for members of the middle class to enter, but now visited by a minister, which had become places of cheerfulness and friendliness and welcome.  When he speaks of the apostolic drive towards a better people and a higher morality and an enlightened education among the once illiterate areas, the lectures, and indeed the whole theory, are stamped with a deep sense of optimism: the Church moving forward powerfully into the new age on behalf of the poorest people.  The lectures were not only strong because they were just what English Tories wanted to hear.  They were strong because the idea of Establishment was so obviously rooted in compassion for suffering humanity (75).

We might think such ideas highbrow.  But they were genuinely benevolent.

Sadly, the Dissenters used their political influence to quash Chalmers’ hopes for the Melbourne government to help the Kirk build more churches in the sprawling, unchurched cities.  They unjustly feared that he and his party aimed at the destruction of Dissent, whereas he only “cared about the poor” and was “friendly to Dissenters as workers in the same field” (71).

These comments of Chadwick’s prompts a related observation.  In terms of policy, Chalmers would have been totally antithetical to the 20th/21st century Welfare State.  He had no time for non-localized charity, managed directly by a central state bureau.  Yet, was Chalmers against the government’s intervention to secure the welfare of the poor?  Of course not.  Rather, he thought that government should subsidize the Christian ministry to evangelize and pastor the poor, caring first for their imperishable souls, and secondarily to assist them materially through responsible face-to-face involvement.  Such a plan, modelled in his St. John’s Experiment and later on in the West Port, tended to preserve the dignity and promote the industry and independence of the poor.  The government certainly ought to intervene in the situation, even if only as a matter of sound fiscal policy.  To establish a Church would be, in Chalmers’ calculations, to save the state huge sums of money.  But the state must intervene for the welfare of the poor indirectly.  To indulge in an anachronism, Chalmers did in a sense believe in the Welfare State – only as outsourced to the Christian ministry.

It is interesting to note that, in Chadwick’s appraisal of the man, Chalmers thought that “it would be relatively easy to reunite the Protestant denominations in a single established Church” (74).  Chalmers was clearly a broad evangelical for his day.  Some have called him ‘the Apostle of Union.’  I don’t doubt that statements in his lectures on establishments tend in the direction of supporting a pan-evangelical establishment.  They are reminiscent of Rabbi Duncan’s quaint credo, “I’m first a Christian, next a Catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a Paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.”  But whether Chalmers thought it would be easy to unite the evangelical denominations under the umbrella of the 1830s Church of Scotland is another thing.  Maybe there is evidence for it in his unpublished manuscripts.

But Chadwick is spot on when he says that, after a broad Protestant consensus, the (secondary) basis for a Church establishment in Chalmers’ thought is the principle of territorialism, not a more nuanced doctrinal stance.  “The idea that you should choose a Church on grounds of polity was not all to his liking” (74).  He had the goal of Christianizing Scotland always uppermost in his mind, and the best way to Christianize is to localize.

Last, I found it quite helpful to have the following points in greater clarity.  Chadwick indicates that the handwriting was on the wall for Church establishments in the 1800s not only because of the huge demographic shift from country to city, but also because of the changing political environment with the push to and the achievement of full political freedoms for Roman Catholics and Dissenters.  The “relation of new quasi-democracy to old oligarchy” was pushing at the seams of the old order (77).  With the political forces shifting, the purse strings from the State were bound to be cut.  The voting blocs were not remaining static.

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A Review with Observations on Parish and Parish Church: Their Place and Influence in History, by P. D. Thompson

Part 1

In Parish and Parish Church, the ‘Baird Lecture for 1935,’ P. D. Thompson traces the origins, development and significance of the parish system in Western Civilization. It is a very useful volume, stimulating a number of interesting observations in my mind on the institution that has become interwoven in the fabric of Medieval and Reformation Church life and mission. And if the old parish model is to be of any contemporary application as I suggest (see About ‘West Port Experiment’), this book will go a long way for modern day pastors and missionaries. To know the past is to have a roadmap for the future.

Thompson’s treatment of the birth of the ecclesiastical parish is very enlightening. His main contention is that the early Church basically took over an organizational unit or division typical within Greco-Roman civilization. The original parish or paroikia in the first place “signified that section of the inhabitants, living within the bounds of a town or city, who were not citizens in the strict sense of the word, but foreigners or sojourners. In the second place, it signified a community living outwith the bounds, either in a detached suburb or in more widely scattered hamlets and villages in the surrounding rural area” (1). Analogous to the first sense are the ethnic ‘quarters’ or ‘districts’ of Industrial and Post-Industrial era cities.
Now, the New Testament Church did not consciously adopt the ancient division. It is not as though Paul drew up a map of the Mediterranean nations and parceled the area out into a nice and tidy parish system. But insofar as he and his associates strategically infiltrated cities first and the outlying rural (‘pagan’) areas second, they did in a way adopt the parish model. They evangelized the cities and countryside in all their pre-existing districts, enclaves, and regions. Paul intentionally went into the Jewish quarters of each city. He sought to leaven them, and from them to leaven the cities. The first district to become Christianized was thus the beachhead into the city, and the city with its several house churches (Acts 2:46, 20:20; arranged by district?) was the beachhead into the countryside.

While Thompson does not particularly reference New Testament passages in support of the concept directly, I would contend that certain verses show that Paul operated on a territorial principle, which is merely the genus to the species of the parish system (Rom. 15:18-24, 2 Cor. 10:14-16; see my treatment of this elsewhere, https://westportexperiment.wordpress.com/2008/06/04/the-settled-ministry-itinerancy).

In any case, I think Thompson is quite correct to say that the New Testament Church properly and wisely took up the territorial organization of the ancient world for its ecclesiastical organization and missionary strategy. This was only natural since the structures lay ready to hand.

It was entirely in keeping with the policy of the Church from the beginning and for many a century that it should have laid hold of such a secular institution as the ancient parish, adapted it to its own purposes, and ended by transforming it into something wholly different from what it originally was. Wherever throughout the long course of its history the Church came across any pagan institution or custom that could by any means be used to advantage or turned to Christian ends, it sought to breathe into it the Christian spirit, impart to it a Christian significance, and shape it accordingly. That was its deliberate and invariable policy and practice. Like its Master, the Church ‘came not to destroy but to fulfil’ (7).

The charter of Christ permitted and even called for His Church to repossess the strong man’s spoils.

I do think, however, that Thompson oversteps biblical warrant when he continues, “in the same way [the Church] adopted pagan popular customs, such as nature festivals and the like, breathed into them the Christian spirit, gave them a Christian stamp and significance, and transformed them into observances of the Faith and allies of the Gospel” (7). Now, there is nothing wrong with taking over indifferent customs and practices into the bosom of the Church’s life and witness. The Puritan divines put it well when they wrote “that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6). But there is a world of difference between indifferent customs and unredeemable ones. Certainly the Ephesian Christians didn’t think that Diana icons should be rededicated to the Blessed Virgin, or that their books of sorcery were useful for any other purpose than for kindling (Acts 19:19)! There is nothing inherently idolatrous in a civic unit of organization; there is in pagan nature festivals. That explains why Calvin and Knox retained the parish system and rid the Church of Christmas, Easter, and the myriad of saints’ days.

Thompson’s sketch of the early Church’s appropriation of preexisting territorial structures does seem quite plausible, fitting with the facts as we have them. First, Thompson notes that there was the practical problem of the administration of charity recorded in Acts 6, which may have lent itself to the adoption of a kind of parochial organization as it certainly did to the emergence of the office of the deacon. Diaconal care had to be centrally organized in the city church, with the resources of the various district or house churches pooled in what he calls the Mother-Church, “so that none should receive preferential treatment and none be neglected” (15). Seven deacons were appointed to superintend the fair distribution of the common resources throughout the church, doubtless as it was organized in its subdivisions.

Even anterior to this contributing development was the logistical problem of meeting places in the context of a burgeoning church. “As the Gospel was preached in the original Mother-Church and propagated by the life and witness of believers, and as the number of believers multiplied and spread throughout the city, there would neither be room for them to worship together in one building, even if they could conveniently reach it, nor would there be facilities for their Christian instruction. As occasion required, therefore, meeting-places, which became churches in their turn, must needs be provided in ward after ward, until the whole city was adequately churched” (15). And with designated meeting-places came the deployment of ministerial manpower for the services, ward by ward.

Just like the parish, the diocese (dioikesis) was also an ancient territorial division. The development of the diocese, however, reflected more the circumstances of a developing episcopacy. As certain bishops were elevated in status and recognition over their peers, “it was [deemed] fitting that the territorial area under the bishop’s supervision and administration should be correspondingly enlarged, and receive an added dignity and importance. This was done by extending the bounds of the episcopal parish, and giving it a lordlier name” (18).

Perhaps it is for this reason that the Reformed Churches took over the parish system, but not the dioceses. The latter went hand in hand with episcopal preeminence from the very beginning. But obviously the Reformers had no qualms with larger territorial units of ecclesiastical organization, provided that they didn’t facilitate or support episcopacy. One thinks of how ‘presbyteries’ and ‘synods’ were used interchangeably for governing bodies as well as for territorial divisions of labor.

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I just started reading Thomas Chalmers’ Discourses on the Application of Christianity to the Commercial and Ordinary Affairs of Life. Here is a profound quote that strikes me as a prophesy fulfilled this week on Wall Street.

“Without offering any demonstration, at present, upon this matter, we simply state it as our opinion, that, though the whole business of the world were in the hands of men thoroughly Christianised, and who, rating wealth according to its real dimensions on the high scale of eternity, were chastened out of all their idolatrous regards to it – yet would trade, in these circumstances be carried to the extreme limit of its being really productive or desirable.  An affection for riches beyond what Christianity prescribes, is not essential to any extension of commerce that is at all valuable or legitimate; and in opposition to the maxim, that the spirit of enterprise is the soul of commercial prosperity, do we hold, that it is the excess of this spirit beyond the moderation of the New Testament, which, pressing on the natural boundaries of trade, is sure, at length, to visit every country, where it operates with the recoil of all those calamities, which in the shape of beggared capitalists, and unemployed operatives [workers], and dreary intervals of bankruptcy and alarm, are observed to follow a season of overdone speculation.”

Once again, Chalmers being dead yet speaketh.

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