Monday, September 1, 2008

Christianity and Self Sacrifice

Jim Babka's recent comment to one of my posts brought to mind just how much Christians -- even those who purport to believe the Bible infallible -- differ on the proper interpretation of specific doctrines. Sometimes the differences don't really matter; sometimes they do. I asserted Christianity teaches self-sacrifice. Babka replied: "Christianity is not about self-sacrifice, but living for a higher cause. The distinction is important." I await his explanation. When you google the terms “Christianity” and “self-sacrifice” you see there is a strong current in biblical Christianity that teaches this is what Christianity is about.

Dr. Gregg Frazer's thesis teaches Christianity is about self sacrifice. Indeed, he sees tension between that and the idea of “enlightened self interest” or “self preservation” as put forth by Locke et al.

I’ve come across a number orthodox Christians who don’t like John MacArthur’s interpretation (which is Dr. Frazer's) of biblical Christianity precisely because it’s so similar to how Rousseau and Nietzsche characterized Christianity (before Marx) as a temporal opiate and hence something where tyrannical rulers can make Christians into good slaves. Yet, I find this interpretation of Christianity to be authentically biblical and well within the tradition of orthodox hermeneutics. After all, Nietzsche and Rousseau weren’t shabby thinkers. And neither is MacArthur.

It's also notable that Gregg Frazer’s PhD thesis is from Claremont Graduate University which school is imbibed in Straussian thought. And the East Coast Straussians (who get the bulk of Frazer’s Straussian citations, though Harry V. Jaffa and the West Coasters get a couple too) tend to follow Rousseau and Nietzsche on authentic Christianity. Indeed they think Rousseau and Nietzsche to be of the most insightful and profound thinkers, albeit ones who teach dangerous truths. They want liberal democracies to follow Locke.

I blogged about something similar in my post entitled "Can One Be A Good Christian and A Good American?" where I quote West Coast Straussian (the ones who don't like Rousseau and Nietzsche) Thomas West quoting Rousseau:

The citizens march readily to combat; . . . they do their duty, but without passion for victory. They know how to die rather than to win. . . . Christianity preaches nothing but servitude and dependence. Its spirit is so favorable to tyranny that tyranny always profits from it. True Christians are made to be slaves” (Masters trans. 129-30).

West then notes how East Coast Straussian Walter Berns follows Rousseau's understanding of Christianity:

Rousseau’s nasty remarks are supported, surprisingly, by respectable conservative scholars such as Walter Berns, who maintains, “The very idea of natural rights is incompatible with Christian doctrine.” According to Berns, if you don’t put your neighbor’s good ahead of your own, you are a bad Christian. But the natural rights doctrine of the founding says that you may put your own preservation first if it conflicts with another’s.

If Berns and other scholars like him are correct, you cannot be a good Christian and a good American. George Washington’s 1789 letter to the Quakers tactfully but firmly criticizes their refusal to serve in the armed forces. Good citizenship, Washington implies, requires that you be willing to kill the enemies of your country.

Now Drs. Frazer & MacArthur obviously don’t agree with the Christian bashing of R & N, however, they do note that the Bible DOES NOT teach political liberty and is entirely compatible with chattel slavery. If you are a chattel slave, what does it matter if you’ve got your salvation? You are still in a better position than the richest unregenerate slave master who owns more slaves and wealth than anyone.

This isn’t an interpretation of Christianity that I personally like. And I know many evangelical libertarians like Jim Babka don’t like it either. But, again, I do see a strong case to be made that THIS IS authentic biblical Christianity.


Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't see the slightest case being made here, except Rousseau's, which is not the best authority.

"Love your neighbor as yourself," sayeth the Book, but it doesn't say love him more.

Many folks quote Luke 18:22 [often in defense of higher taxes and more social programs]:

"...sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me..."

But read the whole chapter. It's about loosening your soul from the possessions of this world. It ain't about the money.

Jon, if you're going to continue this assertion that Christianity is "self-sacrifice," I'd like some more positive arguments from someone a little more sympatico than Rousseau and Nietzsche. I'm with Jim Babka here.

I'd also add that in Protestant theology, if faith alone saves, self-sacrifice/good works don't enter into the salvation equation. You can't redeem yourself, only Christ can.

As for the Bible endorsing chattel slavery, you may enjoy this book from 1862 that argues it certainly does not!

Jonathan Rowe said...


You are right that the assertions I made are contentious and in need of much scholarly explication.

Re chattel slavery & the Bible I might opt for a charitable reading that says it doesn't necessary "endorse it" (though many Christians historically thought it did) but neither does abolish the practice either. Hence the Bible is "compatible" with chattel slavery. It's also compatible with the abolition of slavery (thank God).

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, as usual, from TVD. I'd only add that I find it hard to take seriously the notion that Christianity is about self-sacrifice. Where would it end?

I'd be interested to see how Frazer puts it, but self-sacrifice is nothing other than a method/tool employed in the service of some other purpose.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I'll be digging into Frazer's PhD thesis and other sources on the Internet. However, I would initially remark, it shouldn't be that hard to imagine orthodox Trinitarian Christianity teaches, in principle, self-sacrifice, because that's the whole point of what Jesus Christ did.

The unitarians who believe Jesus never claimed to be God and that an Incarnate God did NOT sacrifice Himself on a cross, of course, differ.

Phil Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Johnson said...

(My deletion of an incomplete post--sorry about that.)

I don't get the opposition to Jon's point at all.
Jesus is the one who sets the example of what it means to be his follower--it is emphatic in his words that, "In as much as you do it unto the least [person] you do it unto [Jesus].", and in his words, "Follow me".
I am fully aware of those people who think it is about winning the main "Stars In Your Crown" event at the final Galactics' Olympics.
But, I was impressed by the way the argument made by the Straussians is framed. These Straussian people are the culmination of a very narrow minded understanding of history and, as such, are a very real danger to our future as a free people. I see that in the article provided by Jon Rowe here.
Even so, there are many who succumb to the I am a floor mat idea of Christianity. Maybe that's what the opposition is upset about?.

Could that be?

Anonymous said...

Forgive me if I'm being pedantic (or preachy) here Jon, but I think there is a distinction here worth noting. What Jesus did on the cross was in the service of the larger idea that God was providing mankind with 'Good News' - the gift of forgiveness and the power to live in conformity with a standard (that all men knew, but were unable to meet).

In this case, the self-sacrifice was necessary, but not as an end in itself. And as Pinky points out, the idea that Christians are to be 'Floor Mats' would be completely foreign to folks like C.S. Lewis. See the following:

According to Berns, if you don’t put your neighbor’s good ahead of your own, you are a bad Christian.

To which Lewis would counter, what good are you doing a man (or anyone else) by allowing him to become a Hitler?

Phil Johnson said...

Maybe as a result of reading Ryn, my mind is being opened to some thinking that goes beyond the black and white (reductionist?) simplification of the questions involved here.
What kind of a God would play the carnival operator's scam game, Three Card Monty*** in the creation of a guessing game as to whether a person remains guilty of their crimes against God or is absolved--agonizes in eternal damnation or exists in eternal euphoria.
I don't think that is the point at all.
How can a person be held responsible for the "sins" of their ancestors? Does anyone have any say regarding the conditions of their birth?
*** Three Card Monty is a card trick in which the operator mixes three cards, one of which is the queen of spades, up face down on the table in front of the mark. The mark is to guess which one is the queen. Throwing The Broad; Which Shell Hides the Pea--are all variations of the same game.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Folks, all I can say is that one can do OK as an amateur historian, but amateur theology is like throwing the Collected Shakespeare into a blender, drinking the juice, and expecting to excrete eloquence.

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

When it comes to defining who is, or is not, a Christian in terms of various doctrines to which do or do not subscribe, I am inclined to agree with the Rev. Dr. William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), who rejected creedal tests of faith, writing:

"It has been the fault of all sects, that they have been too anxious to define their religion. They have labored to circumscribe the infinite."

-- William Ellery Channing, On Creeds

Tom Van Dyke said...

Eric, I don't know whether it's impolitic to argue against such assertions, as they are obviously your personal beliefs. I guess all I can say is thanks for sharing.

Jon, I'm not sure you gave the biblical arguments against chattel slavery a fair go. There's much to it, murder laws, jubilee, man-stealing as the 1862 author put it.

If we're to assert what biblical Christianity says or is, seems we should consult the Bible.

[Neither do I concede that "biblical" Christianity is even a helpful term, but I'm playing along, good sport that I am.]

Jonathan Rowe said...

Babka left a great comment which I'll reproduce over here tonight or tomorrow that addresses the slavery issue in particular. Look for it soon.

Brian Tubbs said...

Well, as a pastor and seminary graduate, I found this article very interesting - as is the discussion.

For what they're worth, here are my thoughts...

1. The theme of self-sacrifice is indeed deeply woven within biblical Christianity. Look at Jesus.

2. However, it's wrong to define Christianity as exclusively about self-sacrifice. I'm not sure Jon is doing this, but it's getting close to that. It's important to acknowledge the theme of sacrifice, but it's also important to keep it in its rightful context.

3. The overall context is that we are to submit to God and let Him live through us. See Galatians 2:20 as well as the two (perhaps three times) in Psalms and Proverbs where it says: "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart." In other words, we must rely on God for happiness and fulfillment, and not our own efforts.

4. Given the above point, we are encouraged to submit to God and trust in God (and specifically that includes embracing Jesus Christ in this NT or post-NT age, depending on which scholar's dispensational category you agree with).

5. ALL THAT HAVING BEEN SAID...the doctrine of self-sacrifice is properly grounded in our spiritual journey. It does NOT mean that human beings shouldn't respect the rights of other human beings. To say that self-sacrifice justifies "chattel slavery" is going WAY TOO FAR. After all, when Paul was beaten, he appealed to its rights as a Roman citizen. When the Israelites were enslaved, they prayed to God for deliverance and relief.

6. What's more, the linking of "chattel slavery" with the Bible and Christianity is a favorite cheap shot taken by critics of Christianity - from Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to a couple contributors right here in American Creation. Now, let me add...Jon Rowe is NOT taking a cheap shot so much as he is genuinely exploring this theme and posing the issue of slavery accordingly. I respect that. But there have been some other comments in the past here that were not appropriate.

There are some distinctions between slavery in the Bible and that which was practiced in the New World from the late 1400s through the 1600s and then the 1800s.

For one thing, early New World slavery was based on the forced enslavement of Native Americans by Spanish explorers and conquistadors. And then African slavery involved the literal kidnapping of innocent men, women, and children in Africa -- transporting them to slave camps and finally auction blocks in America.

In the Bible, while SOME of the slavery covered in the mosaic code involved wartime captives, most of it was indentured servitude. What's more, by the time you get to the New Testament, Paul is making points about servitude and slavery with respect to a system that he had NO CONTROL over. In other words, he was providing counsel as to how Christians (who came in large part from the lower classes initially) should deal with their surroundings and culture. It's not like he was writing policy recommendations to the Roman authorities!

It's as if there's an expectation that Paul should've been a Nat Turner or John Brown -- encouraging an armed insurrection on the part of the Christian slaves against their masters. Anything less than that is seen (by Christianity's critics) as endorsing slavery.

7. What IS true is that Paul gave greater importance to the eternal than the temporal. For Paul (and Jesus and Peter and John and on and on), it was more important that a person have his or her heart right with the Lord than it was for him or her to achieve earthly freedom, earthly wealth, or even earthly health. Some of you may not appreciate or agree with that, but you should at least be fair and courteous enough to acknowledge it - and not simply conclude harshly and mistakenly that the Bible is pro-slavery. Such a conclusion is erroneous at best.

**p.s. Just to clarify, my frustration is more based on what OTHERS (in and outside of American Creation) have said about the Bible, slavery, etc. than what Jon has said. I respect Jon as a very thoughtful expert on these issues.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment Brian. Let me take issue and try to clarify one thing about slavery in the new world.

And then African slavery involved the literal kidnapping of innocent men, women, and children in Africa -- transporting them to slave camps and finally auction blocks in America.

Actually during the Founding era this was illegal under both international law and British & American law. No doubt, it occurred but it was illegal nonetheless. Most African slaves were captured by African tribes as the result of tribal warfare that was endemic to their system then (as it is in some sense today). They were then sold to either Arab middlemen who sold to white westerners. Or sometimes white westerners bought directly from the Africans. But legal slavery under Western law involved the buying of slaves who were already slaves. Kidnapping blacks who lived free in Africa was illegal.

Brian Tubbs said...

Jon, yes, you're right. I understand that. But from the standpoint of the African who was taken into slavery, he/she was either kidnapped or captured - albeit by a tribal enemy, chieftain, European opportunist, or what have you. So, I should've added "captured" to my statement and clarified that I was speaking from the standpoint of the individual African taken into bondage.