Church & World February 2000

Calvin’s Institutes Win Christian Book Award in Russia

Christian Reformed World Literature publishes book that wins praises in St. Petersburg

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Nearly five years ago, Christian Reformed World Literature Ministries began working with Moscow State University for the Humanities to translate Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion into Russian. A team of Russian scholars, including professors, intellectuals and pastors, began the laborious process of translating the foundational work of Reformed theology originally written by John Calvin in 1559.

This year, the project was completed and the third and final volume of Calvin’s Institutes was honored with the 1999 first prize theological book award, presented at the Christian Book Fair in St. Petersburg.

“We had confidence in the people we were working with that we were going to get a really good translation and we’re very happy because this award will elevate the credibility of Calvin’s work,” says John De Jager, director of Christian Reformed World Literature Ministries. “Calvin is still considered a heretic with a non-relative message by many people in that country.”

The Christian Reformed Church has had a presence in former Soviet block since The Back to God Hour began broadcasting (short wave radio about fifteen years ago. The denominatic wanted to find ways to provide a Reformed insight on Biblical Christianity to those who were interested. As interest grew Jeff Busscher, a Russian missionary who lives in Holland, first was appointed Coordinator of CRC Ministries in Russia.

The denomination currently offers several titles publish, in Russian. Busscher works with a variety of Christian organizations in Russia to distribute the books. A Russian distributor who works with the denomination exhibited Calvin’s Institutes at the recent St. Petersburg Christian Book Fair.

“I am reading (Calvin’s Institutes) now. When I am finished, I will give it to my brothers and sisters to read. It will give them great joy to better know and understand God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. John Calvin in the Institutes gives me the opportunity to explain to people more fully and in a detailed manner, how they can come God,” says a reader from the OrJov Region of the former Soviet Union.

In all Russian translation projects, World Literature Ministries works cooperatively with Russian groups by providing project management and funding support. Moscow State University of Humanities agreed to publish Calvin’s Institutes as a work of philosophy, rather than a religious book. Since that time, the Institutes have been read by hundreds of intellectuals in the former Soviet country. New and growing interest for Reformed theology can also be found in Ukraine and Belarus.

“Our hope is that over the next 100–200 years Calvin’s work will be foundational in building a new Russian society, in the same way that it has been foundational in Western society. All of the Reformers have had an effect. but it seems to be Calvin in particular,” say De Jager.

LONDON, England (EP) – The national postal service of Britain has honored John and Charles Wesley by putting their likenesses on the most popular denomination of Christmas postage stamps. The stamp is part of a series titled “The Christian’s Tale,” which celebrates 1,000 years of Christianity in Britain. Texas artist Brody Neuenschwander designed the artwork. The stamp is a tribute to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his brother Charles, who wrote many hymns, including the popular Christmas carol, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

Study Finds Atheists and Agnostics Attending Christian Churches

VENTURA, CA. (EP) – Hundreds of thousands of atheists and agnostics attend Christian churches, according to a new study from the Barna Research Group. The study’S organizers note that their findings could be seen as a cause to rejoice ( because an easily reached “mission field” exists within the nation’s churches) or as a reason for concern (because churchgoers are losing their faith).

Atheists and agnostics are most likely to be seen in church on Easter Sunday, the study found. In a typical weekend, about 2 percent of the nations atheists and agnostics attend Christian church services. On Easter Sunday this year, 12 percent of that segment—about 1.5 million adults—attended a Christian church service.

The study shows that roughly 7 percent of the adult population (approximately 14 million people) describe themselves as atheistic or agnostic. America has more atheists and agnostics than Mormons (by 3 to 1 margin), Jews (by a 4 to 1 margin) or Muslims (by a 14 to 1 margin).

The study also discovered that many of these individuals describe themselves incorrectly. Many atheists are actually agnostics: they believe in some type of deity, but are indifferent about the existence of a divine being. (A significant number believe that humans actually possess the power or qualities of gods.) Likewise, many self-proclaimed agnostics are actually atheists: individuals who contend that there is no deity of any type.

Many atheists and agnostics possess theological perspectives that parallel the beliefs of Christians. This may be due to past involvement in Christian churches or to the influence of the Bible (six out of 10 own one, one out of three read the Bible during the year). Most atheists and agnostics believe that heaven exists—although most of them also contend that one gets there on the basis of good deeds. Some believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches (13 percent); that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life (17 percent); and that Satan is a living force who infl uences people’s lives (15 percent). About one out of five atheists and agnostics (19 percent) pray to God during a typical week.

Demographically, Barna’s research indicates that atheists and agnostics are dominated by men (64 percent), adults under 35 (51 percent), whites (71 percent) and residents of the Northeast and West (56 percent). College graduates are more likely than the norm to reject God (34 percent qualify as atheists or agnostics). Adults who say they are politically liberal were much more likely than conservatives to be atheists or agnostics.

George Barna, president of the company that conducted the research, said, “Church leaders need to understand this group better. They come from two divergent perspectives: those who are indifferent about God’s existence and those who doubt it altogether. Both groups, however, have many who are struggling to find meaning in life, to have significant relationships with other people, to influence the lives of others, and to live a moral life—the very types of issues that Christian churches strive to address.”

Barna added, “The better Christian ministries can help atheists and agnostics understand that the answers they are seeking are ultimately spiritual in nature, the more opportunities those ministries will have to enable them to find meaning through Christianity. Atheists and agnostics often have dormant interest in faith, as evidenced by the 3 out of 10 who say ‘religious faith is very important’ in their life today. The challenge is to make the Christian faith reievant, practical and comprehensive to them.”

Survey results are from telephone interviews in a nationwide random sample of 2,755 adults; 192 described themselves as atheistic or agnostic. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with that segment is plus or minus eight percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

LOUISVILLE, KY – The 27th Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly voted June 17, 1999 to encourage the singing of psalms at each Assembly, Responding to an overture from Central Georgia Presbytery, the court encouraged the General Assembly Arrangements Committee and all involved in planning the Assembly worship services to: “Distribute the Trinity Psalter for use of the Assembly each year” and identify psalms as such when they are used.”

In 1992, Central Georgia had overturned the sembly, asking for a committee to study the use psalms and to encourage their use. Out of that study committee’s report came the recommendation to publish a words-only psalter. In 1994, the Trinity Psalter appeared as a joint effort between the PCA and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, a sister denomination which still maintains the practice of exclusive psalmody.

At the 1994 Assembly, 1,000 copies of the psalter were anonymously given for the use of the Assembly, The PCA Christian Education and Publications bookstore sold out of the 1,000 copies of the psalter it had bought, and took another 800 back orders, A total of 10,000 copies was initially printed, The Trinity Psalter is now in its third printing.

JEFFERSON CITY, MO (EP) – A Missiouri law designed to stop state funding of abortion providers upheld November 9 by a judge who ruled that Planned Parenthood must return money it has already received this year will not be eligible for further funds. Col County Circuit Judge, Byron Kinder, ruled that the Missouri Legislature acted legally when it voted to bar public funding of family planning agencies affiliated with abortion providers. Kinder also ruled that Planned Parenthood’s planning units and abortion service providing units share equipment, salaries, and facilities. Planned Parenthood was ordered to return $105,750 it received for services delivered in July and August, and will not received an additional $697,650 it had anticipated for the rest of the budget year. An appeal is likely.

ANKARA, Turkey (EP) – It’s not the Titanic. It’s even bigger. Undersea explorers funded by the National Geographic Society have discovered new evidence that supports the Biblical account of Noah’s flood. Using sonar, researchers (including the discoverer of the Titanic, Robert Ballard) discovered coastline 550 feet beneath the surface of the Black Sea. Radiocarbon dating of the remains of freshwater mollusks from this coastline placed the age of the beach between 7,500–6,900 BC. The discovery advances a 30-year-old theory that the Black Sea was created when melthing glaciers raised sea levels and flooded large amounts of land in and around Turkey. Researchers who favor this theory believe that the event was so catastrophic that it became a popular subject for storytellers and minstrels in many cultures.

WASHINGTON, DC (EP) – A church-based program designed to strengthen fatherhood and families was approved by the US House of Representatives November 10. The Fathers Count Act gives churches, synagogues and other places of worship, funding for nonreligious programs designed to help fathers and families. Religious organizations may be slow to take advantage of the program due to fears of government regulation. “If it’s federal dollars, you are accountable,” admitted Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT). But if questions of government intrusion can be answered, such programs hold promise, say supporters. “The organizations that are by far the most effective are faith-based,” notes Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN).


Supreme Court Agrees to Rule on Prayer at School Football Games

WASHINGTON, DC (EP) – Ending years of absence from the school prayer battlefield, the US Supreme Court agreed November 15 to rule on the constitutionality of student-led prayers at public high school football games.

The case comes out of Galveston County, Texas, where prayer before high school football games is a long standing tradition. The case will be heard by April, and a decision is expected by the end of June. It will be the first time the Court has directly addressed the question of student-initiated, student-led prayers at public school events.

The High Court has issued a number of school prayer rulings since 1962, when it struck down school-mandated prayer as a violation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. But previous prayer rulings from the Court have dealt with prayers initiated or led by school officials. The most recent such ruling came in 1992, when the court voted 5–4 to forbid graduation ceremony prayers in cases where school officials decided to invite clergy to lead prayers.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, endorsed his state’s legal brief in support of prayer at football games. That brief also sought a ruling on prayer at graduation ceremonies, but the Supreme Court appears to be unwilling to address that question in this case.

Jay Alan Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, believes the Court will restrict itself to a ruling on prayer at sporting events, but adds that the case “could have broader implications. This is putting the issue of student-led prayer directly before the court. I don’t see how they can ignore that distinction.”

Jordan Lorence, a constitutional law attorney who has argued before the Supreme Court, said lawyers with conservative Christian litigation groups are puzzled by the Court’s decision to take the Texas case. “Everybody was betting that the Supreme Court was going to turn it down,” he said. “It is very surprising that they took it.”

The Court’s decision to hear the part of the case about football game prayer while ignoring the graduation question only adds to the confusion, says Lorence, who speculates: “There are probably five votes to do something, but one of the justices has a different perspective on how the case should be resolved, and that fifth vote is therefore controlling how the case is being postured at the court.”

Lorence says he’s not at all confident of the outcome of the case. “These kinds of cases usually bring out the liberal-moderate tendencies in Justices [Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Dayl O’Connor,” he noted, referring to the two justices who are known as “swing votes” on the Court. “This is the first case they’ve taken this year on a big moral or social issue where I’m concerned that they may make a bad decision.”

Even if the decision goes against student prayer at football games, Lorence believes other forms of student religious expression are safe. “I think we’re still safe with student-led Bible studies, See You at the Pole, handing out tracts in the lunchroom…. These are clearly student-initiated student activities in non-classroom time. Justice O’Connor and some of the other justices draw a strong distinction between official events and unofficial events.”