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July 02, 2009

A Rabbi on the ’Paradox’ of Evangelicals

At the New York Times, in a symposium on The Most Annoying & Pathetic Governor Ever, and just under our own Chuck Colson's contribution, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach opines thusly:

The paradox of American evangelicals is that they are Christian on the one hand and political conservatives on the other with utterly opposing views of redemption. Christians believe that no one is blameless and all must therefore ride the coattails of a perfect being into heaven. But conservatives espouse the gospel of personal accountability. The state cannot save them. Man must earn his bread by the sweat of his brow and not by welfare alone.

Is he right? I don’t think so.

This notion that those of us who are both evangelical Christians and political conservatives have incompatible views on redemption is to misunderstand redemption. Or so it seems to me. 

Redemption relates to our standing with God, and is the foundation of the discussion about Salvation. If Governor Sanford is indeed a believer, then nothing he has done in this affair—no matter how destructive and stupid—affects his relationship with God. He is saved once and for all. He is redeemed.

But the Christian notion of redemption has nothing to do with one’s qualification for a job or even one's standing in the community. For example, we at Prison Fellowship do not believe that simply because a prisoner has begun a relationship with Christ, they should consequently be released into the community—socially “redeemed”—or given a job—occupationally “redeemed”—for which their behaviors render them disqualified. 

What Rabbi Boteach seems to consider “redemption” to society, and which he places vis-à-vis “personal accountability” has to do, from the Christian perspective, with Sanctification. Which is not “redemption” in the Christian sense of the term.

Now, if he wanted to make things interesting, the good Rabbi could poke at varying Christian perspectives on personal responsibility. Much of the beliefs about sin from the Reformed perspective would say that humans can never do good beyond what God does through them. Others, who emphasize Free Will to a greater degree, perhaps including those from a Wesleyan tradition (Stephen would know better than I), would say that humans *are* capable of good acts on their own, but that those acts cannot save them.

Critics of the former perspective say that this means that there is no personal accountability (Sanford’s not responsible for his actions??). Critics of the latter perspective complain that this improperly elevates man’s nature and decreases his need for God (Sanford can avoid sin through his own striving??).

Me? I don’t know. I’m solidly Perhapsian.

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Diane Singer

I occasionally run into articles by Rabbi Boteach and I usually enjoy them, but this particular statement is simply nonsensical, and more than a little condescending when he blithely describes redemption as riding "the coattails of a perfect being into heaven." Rabbi Boteach obviously doesn't "get" what the Cross cost our Lord, or how grateful Christians are that redemption (salvation) is by grace through faith, not works. If he did, he wouldn't use such a frivolous, dismissive phrase to talk about Jesus.

And, yes, Allen, I think you are right. The real problem for Rabbi Boteach (and, for that matter, anyone who believes in salvation based on good works, such as keeping the law) is that he'll never "get" what being a disciple of Christ really means. Does it require "personal accountability"? You bet. But, then, that's true for every human being, who will either stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ (as Christians will to receive their rewards) or the Great White Throne Judgment (as all non-believers will to hear that their system of good works simply didn't measure up to God's righteous standards).

jason taylor

I wouldn't go that far. While it is true that he may never get what being a disciple of Christ really means it is likely that neither you nor I will in this life either. In any case a given rabbi is as capable of intellectually comprehending the distinction between grace and irresponsibility as any Christian: all it takes is looking it up, which brings a suspicion that he did not do the research.

In any case grace is not as far from Jewish theology then one might think. "I did not choose you because you were a great people because you were the least of peoples"(what a different world if there had been a chosen people of Athens!). One should not complain about the mischaracterizing of one's own religion by doing the same to other. Doctrinal controversy is not mended by exagerration.
In any case one should avoid the danger of making Grace just another affectation. I have heard Christians contrasting Grace with Works enough to convince me that the danger exists. And it would be a highly ironic failing.
One of the best ways to comprehend is intuitively. As often stories help, even non-Christian ones. When Private Ryan is told "earn it" he was not told it was a commercial transaction; Private Ryan was rescued in an act of gloriously arbitrary benevolence(by a bureaucracy no less). Private Ryan was told to show his gratitude precisely because he was rescued even though it is a soldier' fate to be expendable. When River Tam said, "No Simon, you take care of me; always you take care of me, my turn," she was saying that she was rescuing him because he was the only one in the universe that always thought she was still his sister instead of just a robatic weapon. And not the reverse. And when Darth Vader rescues Luke it was largely because Luke became for some odd reason convinced that Darth Vader really was still his father.

All these things are of course cinematic pictures of human love. But even human love can look spectacular under certain circumstances(perhaps those instances are themselves a kind of Grace). Divine love is far greater of course and is not limited by the chances of life. But human love is a reflection and when we praise the moon's beauty we are in a sense praising that of the sun. More to the point we can learn from that. And we can learn from stories about it.
Or who ever would have thought that the Sherpa's of all people's would be given glory, and prosperity even though they were the most obscure in the world? They were picked "because they were there" even though they were just peasants. And if it wasn't exactly grace on the Sahibs part(Sir Edmund certainly thought they had "earned it")it was certainly the grace of fate and as Aslan reminded, there are no accidents. But they were allowed to gain glory(and later prosperity)precisely because they were given the chance to work for it.
You can't fully comprehend the relation between Grace and Works from theological tomes. But when you see it's reflection in earthly things you know it. And the wisdom of thinking about such things has precedent in scripture. It is hard to understand Grace and Works in analytical language. But sometimes you can actually see a glimpse of it.

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