Saturday, August 29, 2009

Original Understanding

When I was young, the King James version of the Bible was the standard. I memorized enough verses in AWANA (a Bible study for children) so that other translations' sentence formations still seem awkward, when it comes to those "Greatest Hits" of memory verses. However I have a new-found appreciation of what my colleagues call "the proper" version: the New American Standard. Not to be confused with the Catholic New American Bible, nor the NIV...all of which I feel comfortable with. I'm still enjoying my year-long journey reading the Chronological Bible, in New Living Translation, (although I am running about two months behind.) Regardless of what naysayers who don't actually read the Bible may tell you, I haven't seen THAT much difference between versions, especially when it comes to the most important of issues, like the saving blood of Christ. Different sentence structure, sure, but essentially the SAME meaning.

Now onto current events. There seems no end to debate regarding whether the Constitution should be considered with the Founders' intent, or whether it is a "living, breathing document," which can basically mean whatever you want it to. We are seeing changes which drastically alter the meaning of the Constitution. I posit that one reason the soul of "America" is in its death-throes, regardless of how well the United States are doing, is due to a lack of interest in our governing documents. Imagine a Christian who said he or she didn't really care what the Bible actually said, because it's just the spirit of the text that matters. That's what's happening with the Constitution today. Certain members of Congress actually want to change its meaning, and say that the original intent matters not.

Amazing bibliography there, for getting a sense of the climate in which the Constitution was written. Here are a few excerpts:

It also requires taking account of heavy influence of Latin on eighteenth-century English. This influence existed partly because the Founders were temporally closer to widespread Latin usage than we are and partly because boys from the influential classes customarily were immersed in Latin from an early age and were expected to be fully competent before they enrolled in college. It is difficult to do effective originalist research without a fair knowledge of Latin, and some serious textual misconstructions have arisen from trying to do so.

The founding generation tended to look at the world through a classical lens, not merely because of their immersion in Latin, but because Greco-Roman writings comprised such a large part of their education. Many of the founders retained a love of classics throughout their entire lives. (It was said, for example, that Patrick Henry – not someone thought of as a particularly bookish figure – annually re-read Livy’s Roman history.) Therefore, the originalist scholar needs at least a cursory knowledge of the history of ancient Greece and Rome, particularly of the Roman Republic. Especially important are the histories of Rome written by Livy and Polybius, Aristotle’s Politics, and Cicero’s De Officiis (“On Duties”) and Cicero’s more important orations.

Although the Founders didn’t talk much about it, they also were influenced by the Bible, long passages from which children learned by heart.

A clear super-majority of the leading Founders, including many, if not most, of the leading Anti-Federalists, were lawyers. Moreover, legal knowledge was very widespread among educated non-lawyers, and legal arguments were common public fare in the debate over ratification. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that much of what passes for originalist scholarship treats legal sources skimpily – often relying on little more than Coke and Blackstone.

It's sad today's Congress presumes to know better than the Founders.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

500th anniversary of grace and glory

It's the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth, and whether you agree with his theology or not, this is a biggie. It's been suggested that the Protestant Reformation, and Calvin's teachings in specific, were fundamental to the rise of capitalism (see "Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism" by Max Weber). Of course the spirit of America, too, owes a great debt to this man and these philosophies. Some would say the spirit of America is dead, and only the United States remain, but I'll let that go for now...

If you've been reading so far, you'll note we're challenged by attending to the politics of the age, since we wish to maintain America's freedoms--which defend the practice of our religions--and yet, we want not to be "of this world." Here's a recent essay on Calvin which poignantly speaks to this dilemma:

Calvin understood that we must remake worship. Everything else is icing. To put it another way, Calvin understood that we must seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, not so that we might have all these things added to us, but so that we might have the one needful thing -- the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

We, the heirs of Calvin, have forgotten this lesson. We, if we think about worship at all, see it as a means to the end. The end we have in mind is the power and the glory. We want to build political coalitions that we might change the world. We want to overcome the powers of the Hollywood elite that we might change the world. We want to remake the economic landscape that we might change the world. What God wants is that we would bow down in repentance and give glory to His name. What God wants is what Calvin did.

When Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, He wasn't telling us: "Now when you go about your life, when you pursue your goals, don't forget the big picture. Don't lose sight of why you do what you do." Instead Jesus was telling us: "Seek this. Seek this alone. Forget about everything else. Have a single-minded passion and leave the rest alone. It is in my hands anyway."

We, on the other hand, have it all upside down and backwards. We will, especially this year, look at the glory that once was Geneva because of the ministry of Calvin. We will, especially this year, look out at all the nations that felt the ripples of Calvin, moving from Geneva, to England, to these United States, then back out across the globe through the modern missionary movement. We will, especially this year, remember the great economic power that was unleashed with the spread of liberty that likewise redounds to Calvin. What we will miss is the true glory, the real story. What we will miss is the unvarnished beauty of a single congregation in one neighborhood of Geneva, bowing in prayer to the living God, lifting up their voices, singing the Psalms of God, receiving the Word preached, and receiving the Word as bread and wine. There is where the glory is found.