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  • November 9, 2010 by jhood

    SAET Interviews in Politics and Theology #11: Peter Leithart

    I am an advocate of Christendom.  That doesn’t mean that I believe that Western Christian civilization was perfect.  It wasn’t even close to perfect.  A lot of evil was done in the name of Jesus.  But I advocate Christendom as a principle, goal, and program.  Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings.  That’s what the church is supposed to tell rulers, as it calls them to submit to the Lord Jesus, both in their personal lives and in their political conduct.  Whether or not we believe that they’ll listen, we have to call them to “kiss the Son,” or we are being unfaithful to the gospel . . . . If we are calling rulers to trust and obey Jesus, then we are in principle advocating Christendom – the rule of Christ over the nations.

    Peter Leithart is Senior Fellow of Theology at New St. Andrew’s College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church, both in Moscow, Idaho.  He earned a PhD from Cambridge and has published many books and articles, some of which he references below.  Leithart blogs regularly, chiefly presenting readers with detailed exegetical observations and excerpts and commentary on serious academic studies.

    1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

    PL:  I have addressed church-state questions in many of my books, though obliquely rather than directly.  I have explored those themes in various books – The Kingdom and the Power, Against Christianity, and more recently my historical study, Defending Constantine, where I address church-state relations more directly.

    But I am convinced that political concerns are inherent in theology.  Political theology is not some specialized branch of theology, but a dimension of all theology.  Politics is not simply about passing this legislation or electing that candidate.  Politics addresses questions about the distribution of power, and more broadly questions about the shape and future of a group.  Theology cannot help but address those questions, and do it all the time.  The Bible certainly deals with political questions like this.

    So, even when I am not doing political theology, I am doing political theology.  Let me given a couple of examples of what I mean.  Ecclesiology has been a major focus of my work, and, as I see it, that bumps directly up against political questions.  The intimate connection between ecclesiology and politics has been obscured in modernity because the church has been marginalized and has allowed itself to be transformed into a sociologically invisible and politically innocuous religious group.  Scripture, by contrast, treats the church as a political entity in itself, each individual congregation as an outpost of the heavenly empire of a heavenly Emperor.   That means that the church and its claims about Jesus, sin, and salvation are political claims, necessarily.  I’ve also written a lot on sacramental theology, and I have had the same concerns in view.  Sacraments ritualize and represent the kind of community that the church is and aspires to be, and that again means that the sacraments inevitably have a political dimension.  I think in fact that the eclipse of sacramental consciousness and sacramental theology is one of the great political tragedies of the past several centuries of church history.  The Eucharist has been privatized and individualized, and that means it lacks the political edge – as the table of the kurios, the Lord – that it has in the New Testament.  How many wars among Christian nations would have been avoided if our sense of community had been shaped by being table fellows with one another?

    2.  Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers.  Do you agree or disagree?

    PL:  Yes, I think that is fairly obvious.  An individual believer might be a judge who sentences someone to prison or to death; the church as an institution can never do that. As always, though, the devil is in the details.  I don’t take that distinction to imply that the church as an institution has only an “indirect” political role, that it can never intervene in political affairs as the church.  Over the centuries, the church as an institution, or representatives of the church, have addressed political issues directly, without overstepping the bounds of churchly authority.  Ambrose rebukes Theodosius and denies him communion because of a rash and bloody military episode. During the middle ages, the church disciplined nobles who defied the truce and peace of God. I think it’s entirely proper for the church to speak as church to political injustices.

    3.  Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

    PL:  Negative first.  When I address political or social questions, I am nearly always responding to the various forms of secularism to which the church has succumbed in the modern era.  That can take all kinds of forms – in Presbyterianism, it’s the “spirituality of the church”; in Lutheran and some Reformed circles it takes the form of law/gospel schemes; in Catholic theology, and it seems increasingly in Protestantism, it takes the form of natural law theory.  Each of these ends up treating the political sphere as to some degree an autonomous sphere, a religion-free zone that the church is not allowed to address.  Or, if the church or Christians address issues in this secular political sphere, we have to translate into generic terms and categories.  Biblical political claims like “Jesus is Lord” and biblical political demands like “Kiss the Son” (addressed to rebellious rulers in Psalm 2) are ruled out.

    Positively, I am an advocate of Christendom.  That doesn’t mean that I believe that Western Christian civilization was perfect.  It wasn’t even close to perfect.  A lot of evil was done in the name of Jesus.  But I advocate Christendom as a principle, goal, and program.  Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings.  That’s what the church is supposed to tell rulers, as it calls them to submit to the Lord Jesus, both in their personal lives and in their political conduct.  Whether or not we believe that they’ll listen, we have to call them to “kiss the Son,” or we are being unfaithful to the gospel.  The good news is the good news of God’s reign – of God’s reign, the good news that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, and that He, not Caesar or Stalin or Jupiter, rules the earth.  If we are calling rulers to trust and obey Jesus, then we are in principle advocating Christendom – the rule of Christ over the nations.

    4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

    PL:  The first thing I’d want to emphasize is that Christians are engaged in political action just by being part of the church.  Worship is the leading political activity of Christians.  In worship, we sing Psalms that call on God to judge the wicked and defend the oppressed, and God hears our Psalms; we pray for rulers to rule in righteousness; we hear the word of God that lays out our alternative way of life, and we sit at the table where we who are many are formed into one body, an alternative Christian polis, by sharing in the one loaf.  The problem is that in many churches those things don’t happen.  Churches don’t sing Psalms, and especially don’t sing the hard Psalms that call on God to judge the wicked.  More churches are having weekly Eucharist, but in evangelicalism that is still more the exception than the rule.  The first political agenda for American Christians is to get worship more into line with Scriptural requirements.

    In saying this, I’m questioning the premise of the question: Christians never have limited political capital.  We worship the King; we can appeal to Him; He hears us and acts on our behalf.  We have more political capital than anybody, but we often don’t act as if we believed that.

    The second thing I’d emphasize is that America has a limited place in God’s plan.  Everyone agrees with that in principle, I suppose, but the notion that America is a “redeemer nation” dies hard.  The US is a great place to live, and has achieved a great deal of good.  But we need to have a more modest idea of America.  We need to make sure that we are not in any way confusing Americanism or patriotism with the gospel.

    The third thing I’d emphasize is that, beyond voting and staying informed about political issues, politics is a calling.  Not every Christian is called into political activism, and certainly not every Christian is called to hold political office.  Some are, and they need prayer and support and encouragement from other believers, because our political system is corrupt and corrupting.

    The modern world has made an idol of politics and power, and Christians who throw themselves into activism are sometimes unwittingly buying into that idolatry.  We cannot act as if political action can “save America,” which the rhetoric of the religious right has often suggested.  We need to find ways to cut the roots of statist idolatry, rather than nibbling at its fruit.

    5.  How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

    [[ed. note:  see above.]]

    6.  How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?  Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

    PL:  All Scripture is breathed of God, and is useful for training the man of God for every good work.  Thus far Paul (paraphrased).  If political action is a good work, and it is, then all Scripture is relevant.  Deuteronomy and Proverbs are two of the most relevant, I think.  We can make the point Christologically too: All Scripture is about Christ; we are in Christ; therefore, all Scripture is about our responsibilities as the body of Christ.

    Proverbs largely consists of Solomon’s instruction to his son, the prince.  It is political theology through and through, a biblical “mirror of magistrates.”  Deuteronomy, like the other books of the Pentateuch, also has a lot to tell us about political ethics.  I recently wrote an essay on the strategy of bombing civilian targets, which has been used by the US since World War II.  Deuteronomy 20, I think, addresses that strategy quite directly when it prohibits Israel from waging war against fruit trees.  Scripture does not permit total war.  Even hot topics like the Pentateuch’s treatment of slavery provide political wisdom for us.  In ancient Israel, enslavement of fellow Israelites served a dual purpose in crimes against property: restitution and rehabilitation.  An Israelite who could not, for instance, pay back what he stole would become a slave of his victim for six years.  During that time, he would be working off the value of what he stole, but if his master was conscientious, he would also be learning skills that would perhaps help him live a productive life in the future.  If someone is caught embezzling, why not make him work without pay for the victim, or with low pay, for a designated period, so that he can both pay back what he owes and also get back on his feet?  That would be far preferable to imprisonment.

    Obviously, in interpreting any part of Scripture, we need to take the historical and, more importantly, the redemptive-historical context into account.  Deuteronomy instructs Israel to have no pity on Canaanites as they take the land; it gives instruction on herem warfare.  That is not a prescription for modern states to engage in genocide.  So, Deuteronomy has to be taken in the light of the whole Bible, and especially in the light of what Jesus did.  But, we need to do the work, think through the implications, figure out how to apply all of Scripture to our political situation.

    7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

    PL:  I do think that the mix of these three postures varies depending on the political circumstances, and depending on the person involved.   And Scripture indicates that men and women can work faithfully even under the worst of rulers – think of Obadiah during the days of Ahab.  In thinking through this, my thoughts again gravitate to ecclesiological issues.  Daniel was able to serve, but also maintain a critical distance, because he was a member of another community, of Israel.  It seems that Christians today have difficulty maintaining that complex stance, or doing that complicated dance, because we don’t have an alternative home.  When Christians enter political life deeply conscious of the fact that they are members of the church, Christians first and foremost, that gives them a place to stand when they critique and when they serve.

    8.  If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics.  This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work.  But am I doing the right thing?  Should I be bolder?”  How would you respond?  Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

    PL:  As I’ve said, I don’t think political questions are avoidable.  Since the Bible addresses political concerns so frequently, we can’t avoid politics without avoiding the Bible.  Since the church is a polis, we cannot avoid being political without avoiding Christian faith itself.

    I imagine that the question is more particular, though: Should a pastor preach against Obamacare?  Should he address the budget deficit in a sermon?  Here, as the scholastics said, distinguo: Some issues are so blatantly unjust and unbiblical that a pastor shouldn’t sidestep them.  I’m thinking of abortion for instance; this is a massive, global, organized, well-funded movement to slaughter the most defenseless members of the human race.  It’s hard to imagine something more hideous, and a pastor who turns a blind eye is not being faithful.  Sodomy is another example.  Sodomy is sinful, but in itself, it is no more a cutting-edge issue than adultery.  But of course in our time sodomy has been pushed to the forefront by homosexual activist groups.  Both abortion and the widespread acceptance and promotion of sodomy are symptoms of deep moral and spiritual decay in our culture, and I find no reasons for avoiding them.  I can imagine situations when a pastor should take a stand against a particular ruler – as Bonhoeffer did – or oppose particular governmental actions – the prosecution of an unjust war, for example.  And I can also imagine times when it would be appropriate for an entire denomination to declare its opposition to some policy or program.  But those have to be chosen with care.  Preaching is not punditry.

    On a host of other issues, pastors can and should preach more generally.  Instead of addressing specific budget proposals, a pastor can point to biblical patterns of prudence, modest of desires and wants, avoidance of debt, etc.  Instead of addressing the specifics of Obamacare (which few understand, even those who voted for it!), a pastor should address more general questions about the proper role of government, the place of individual or family responsibility, the role of the church in providing care for its members, etc.

    9.  What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology?  The best book?

    PL:  The best essay is an old essay by John Milbank, “An Essay Against Secular Order.”  One of William Cavanaugh’s essays on the post-Reformation “religious” wars would also be on my short list.

    On political theology directly, I’ve not read a better book ever than Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of Nations.  [Ed. note:  See our interview with O'Donovan.] He attempts to reconstruct political categories from Scripture, from the ground up.  He rethinks the basic concepts of political theory from Scripture, in very illuminating ways.  I also believe that the reconstructionsts, especially R.J. Rushdoony, have some profoundly important things to say about politics, especially in Politics of Guilt and Pity and Foundations of Social Order.  But I’d also encourage a young pastor to recognize that all of theology is infused with political concerns, and to think about the political import of theology as a whole, and the political import of pastoral labors – marriage counseling, preaching, vocational guidance, pastoral oversight.  Those are all significant political activities, provided we recognize that politics is much bigger than we typically think.

    Categories: General | Interviews on Politics and Theology | Jason Hood | Political Theology

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  • November 2, 2010 by jhood

    SAET Interviews in Politics and Theology #9: Carl Trueman

    “ . . . the tight link which often exists in American culture between conservative (very conservative!) politics and conservative theology is neither necessary nor desirable …”

    “[O]ur understanding of the kingdom of God should keep us from a naïve belief that political processes and action will bring about heaven on earth, and thereby lead us to understand that good politics is about good stewardship, not some form of utopianism.”

    Carl Trueman is Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.  He blogs at Reformation 21.  Trueman refers often to the fact that he is British, so much so that one wonders that he does not burn the American flag publicly and be done with it.  An interview with him can be found here; Trueman has a fair bit of audio available at the WTS website for free (provided one signs up).

    1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

    CT:  My scholarly interests lie in the development of sixteenth and seventh century Reformed theology, so I am very much an amateur in the field of Christianity and politics.  I recently wrote a short book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, which is a series of reflections on the current state of Christian attitudes to politics, at a popular level, in the USA.  The basic burden of the book is to show that the tight link which often exists in American culture between conservative (very conservative!) politics and conservative theology is neither necessary nor desirable.   It is also an attempt to model a type of critical engagement with the current political culture in the Christian world in which I operate (confessional Reformed).  For this reason, I asked my good friend (and boss) Peter Lillback, a self-proclaimed ‘conservative’s conservative,’ to write the introduction, in an attempt to show that Christians of radically different political persuasion can engage each other.

    2.  Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers.  Do you agree or disagree?

    CT:  I agree.  The church’s task is to preach the gospel and, while the gospel may well have political implications, those implications are not, in and of themselves, the gospel.  The church is to teach her people to be good citizens, to be engaged in the political sphere as citizens, but it is not to engage directly in electoral politics.

    3.  Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

    CT:  George Orwell has been a huge influence on me.   His anti-totalitarian works, 1984 and, even more, Animal Farm, profoundly shaped my thinking when I was younger and made the whole notion of freedom of speech central to my thinking about what constitutes a free society.  Then, his work, The Road to Wigan Pier, part narrative, part political analysis, is rather dated now, but it brought home to me both the hopelessness of real, abject poverty, and the bankruptcy of radical leftist politics.

    On the opposite side, I find the blithe confidence exhibited by many conservatives in the connection between capitalism, property and liberty to be not only naïve but increasingly far-fetched, at least if one wishes to maintain a close connection between liberty and democracy.  It is a staple of conservative thinking, at both popular and sophisticated levels, but the phenomenon of China, with its authoritarian capitalism, raises very serious questions about the necessity of the connection and rather calls into doubt blithe and naïve assertions in this area.

    4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

    CT:  The average American Christian should make every effort to be as well-informed on the key issues – moral, economic, social – which face society, and then vote according to their informed consciences.   They should also realize that politics is not limited to, nor does it terminate at, the ballot box.  There are many ways in which citizens can and should be politically engaged.

    5.  How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

    CT:  In this passage, Paul clearly teaches that civil government is established by God and that Christians are required to honour it as such.  In a modern democratic state, this does not mean that we have to simply sit back and take anything that the government throws at us; but it does mean that any protests we make must be done in a manner that respects law, civil order, and the status of the magistrate as appointed by God.  That means we should not be parading around with pictures of the President mocked up as Adolf Hitler, or inciting violence against the state.

    6.  How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?  Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

    CT:  I do not think that Deuteronomy speaks directly to how the state should be organized today.  Its role in redemptive history is specifically connected to ancient Israel. Of course, the law reflects the character of God, and, to the extent that these parallel codes in other ancient cultures, I believe they reflect a certain common ground among human beings (whether one roots that in common grace or in natural law).  Thus, the basic moral principles articulated there should shape Christian ethical thinking which, in turn, will impact the political convictions of Christians as they operate in the civil sphere.

    Proverbs is, of course, one of the more difficult books to interpret in the Old Testament.  One thing its very form teaches, however, is that the act of thinking through a whole host of issues is complicated, takes time, and, given the complex nature of most specific instances, requires the untangling, and the balancing, of various moral imperatives.   Life is complicated; we should not always expect easy answers.

    Both books address issues of justice, however, and on this point as well deserve careful attention from Christians.

    7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

    CT:  Daniel is an important paradigmatic figure for Christians.  He is an exile in a foreign land which is hostile to his faith.  That is the kind of language one finds in the New Testament applied to believers.

    The example of Daniel teaches that Christians should always respect and serve the civil authorities as good members of society.  Yet he did not seek to ‘Judaise’ the society.  I do not believe that we should seek to ‘Christianise’ the societies in which we find ourselves.  That is not our calling as Christians.

    Further, our understanding of the kingdom of God should keep us from a naïve belief that political processes and action will bring about heaven on earth, and thereby lead us to understand that good politics is about good stewardship, not some form of utopianism.   That inevitably involves a constant critical evaluation of the claims of politicians, and demands that the church preach the gospel, pointing individuals beyond this world and its agendas to the kingdom that is to come.  I think Daniel embodies all three.

    8.  If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics.  This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work.  But am I doing the right thing?  Should I be bolder?”  How would you respond?  Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

    CT:  I think the basic instinct here is right.  The church should not be setting up more-or-less arbitrary political criteria for membership or fellowship.  Of course, church planters are also a member of civil society; in that realm, of course they have a role to play.  If your neighbourhood needs cleaning up, be involved; if your neighbours need help, then help them.  Galatians 6:10.

    9.  What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology?  The best book?

    CT: The classic is, of course, Augustine’s City of God. Of more recent works, I have found Francis Beckwith’s  Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft and David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms to be stimulating, well-written and helpful.

    Categories: Carl Trueman | General | Interviews on Politics and Theology | Jason Hood | Political Theology

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  • November 1, 2010 by jhood

    SAET Interviews in Politics and Theology #8: John Frame

    “ . . . in a well-planted church, people should eventually be taught what Scripture says about politics (above). The first church planters of the Book of Acts did not stress politics (except for the Kingdom of God, a very political concept). But eventually, as in Rom. 13, they dealt with the political implications of the Gospel.”

    John Frame is professor of philosophy and systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL).  A number of his shorter and fuller works on a wide variety of topic can be found at a website established to host his writings and those of his former colleague at Westminster Seminary, Vern Poythress.

    1. For readers who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

    JF:  In my Doctrine of the Christian Life, a major work on ethics, I discuss the nature of the state and the Christian’s obligation to it in the context of the Fifth Commandment. I argue there that the state rules the family of Adam, while the church rules of the family of Christ. I believe with the Reformed tradition that the Christian should obey the civil officers unless their commands conflict with God’s, or unless the state itself has become lawless and there is the prospect of replacing it with a better authoritative rule.

    2.  Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers.  Do you agree or disagree?

    JF:  I would agree in general. The church should not tell a Christian artist what pictures to paint. But the church should exercise discipline over all its members in all aspects of their lives concerning their obedience or disobedience to God’s law.

    3.  Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

    JF:  I tend to respond positively to Kuyper and his followers (though some of these have gone on to the wrong track), negatively to followers of Anabaptism and the extreme “two kingdom” viewpoint. I value Kuyper for his view that all things are under the Lordship of Christ and that we should seek to apply God’s word to every area of life. I think that Anabaptism devalues the state, even sometimes regarding it as Satanic, contrary to Scripture. The two kingdom view tends to discourage Christians from applying biblical principles to culture and politics, drawing a distinction between church and culture that is sharper than Scripture warrants.

    4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

    JF:  He should try to gain some knowledge of political issues, because he is part of the political process, in effect a ruler, and therefore commissioned to rule wisely. He should then vote. And he should do what he can to change government, or to encourage leaders, as he thinks appropriate.

    5.  How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

    JF:  Rom. 13 does not say much if anything about the church as church. It counsels “every person” (verse 1) to be subject to the ruling authorities since they are God’s ministers. He should also pay taxes (verse 7). Rom. 13 also gives us a picture of what the state should be: a terror to bad, not good conduct (3), a body that reliably punishes evil (verse 4).

    6.  How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?  Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

    JF:  It does not matter to what extent they agree or don’t with other ANE cultures. Deut., Prov., and other books are authoritative because they are the word of God. Of course, the word of God must be applied to current situations, and these books give us examples of how to apply God’s word to a particular culture. As for politics, both of these books speak of kingship. In Deut. 17, God warns against the king trying to enrich himself and to gain more personal power through marriage or through weaponry. He is to be subject to God’s law and to serve his people. The many references to kings in Proverbs are more difficult to summarize. Perhaps the main emphasis is that the king is consequential. Although he is subject to the same ethic as everybody else, his good and evil actions have more momentous consequences for the nation than those of private citizens.

    7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

    JF:  I think that all three of these can be legitimate, but they are more appropriate at some times than at others. (1) Service is always appropriate. (2) Criticism is often needed, but constant criticism can be counterproductive. (3) As for announcing divine judgment, I believe that God does still judge evil societies, but unless we have special revelation we should hesitate to claim that a particular event of the past, present, or (anticipated) future is a divine judgment. It is difficult to predict if or when God will judge a nation before the final judgment.

    8.  If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics.  This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work.  But am I doing the right thing?  Should I be bolder?”  How would you respond?  Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

    JF:  The emphasis one places on different biblical themes can legitimately vary from situation to situation. But in a well-planted church, people should eventually be taught what Scripture says about politics (above). The first church planters of the Book of Acts did not stress politics (except for the Kingdom of God, a very political concept). But eventually, as in Rom. 13, they dealt with the political implications of the Gospel.

    9.  What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology?  The best book?

    JF:  Kuyper’s inaugural lecture at the Free University of Amsterdam [ed. note: Kuyper's manifesto of his influential view on Sphere Sovereignty]; Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible.

    Categories: Interviews on Politics and Theology | Jason Hood | John Frame | Political Theology

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  • November 1, 2010 by jhood

    SAET Interviews in Politics and Theology #7: Will Willimon

    “I think the NT doesn’t give us much guidance in being engaged with the state, other than to keep our heads down.  For too long mainline Protestant Christians told ourselves we live in a democracy so the biblical problem with ‘Caesar’ really isn’t our problem.

    Will Willimon is a United Methodist Bishop (North Alabama Conference) and former dean of the chapel at Duke Divinity School. His books have sold over one million copies.  Willimon also contributes frequently to his popular blog.  His best known work remains the book he co-authored with fellow SAET-interviewee Stan Hauerwas, Resident Aliens.

    1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

    WW: The omnipresent modern nation state is a real challenge for us Christians. I think the NT doesn’t give us much guidance in being engaged with the state, other than to keep our heads down.  For too long mainline Protestant Christians told ourselves “we live in a democracy so the biblical problem with ‘Caesar’ really isn’t our problem.”  This is an illusion.  I think Christians can vote, can be involved in the apparais of the modern state but should do so carefully, critically, and not be surprised by how frequently we say, “I’m sorry.  I’m a follower of Jesus Christ and can’t support the state in this regard.”

    2.  Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers.  Do you agree or disagree?

    WW:  Not sure what they mean by that. You know more about their thought than I.  While I’m not much on “the church” making prononcements about political issues (though my church does it all the time) I think it’s fine for Christians to speak up and speak out whenever they feel God has given them some light on some subject.  However, knowing the “Christian” approach to something can be a contentious matter.  I also think that sometimes evangelicals have made too radical a distinction between individual believers and corporate responsibilities.  When Christians think “corporate responsibilities” we are not to think primarily “state” we are to think “church.”  Our first “political’ responsibility is to be the church.  If we can be helpful to America in the process, that’s fine, but that’s not our primary concern.

    3.  Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

    WW: Negatively to Reinhold Niebuhr, who I think has been the source of much mischief and some good.  His biggest problem is that he is not a theologian – God in Christ doesn’t seem to play any formative role in his thought.

    I’m very attracted to Yoder (and by implication Hauerwas) though sometimes I don’t know what do with their thought other than to think that it sounds faithful to the gospel.

    4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

    WW: I’m suspicious of the word “responsibility” these days.  Great harm has been done to the gospel and the church by saying, “we have a responsibility to be responsible.”  I think it’s fine to vote, but I don’t know that it really changes things.  I think it’s fine to have a government job, just know that the government, for all its good, is a chief source of violence and evil in the modern world.

    5.  How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

    WW:  I interpret that passage as putting limits on Caesar and the state, not on the church and believers.  Caesar, in whatever form he takes is a servant of, and is answerable to, almighty God.  If that doesn’t place some limits of Caesar, I don’t know what does.  I really believe with the Psalmist that the “earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” therefore Caesar is not nearly as omnipotent as Caesar thinks.

    6.  How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?  Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

    WW I don’t think much about Deut. Or Proverbs.  Not quite sure of your point.  I love the way the bible is both a product of a culture and yet, thanks be to God, is often that culture’s most severe critic.  I also think that the “goal” of Deuternonomy is not the formation of a just state but is the formation of a peculiar people who know how to worship a true and living God.

    7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

    WW Seems fine to me, except of course the devil is in the details, the specifics of that service..

    8.  If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics.  This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work.  But am I doing the right thing?  Should I be bolder?”  How would you respond?  Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

    WW:  Lots of luck, avoiding controversial topics.  Again, when the church says “politics” we mean primarily “church” so I would think it’s lots easier to have political opinions (even Glen Beck can do that) than it is to form a faithful congregation.  So I guess I see your friend’s point.

    9.  What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology?  The best book?

    WW:  I still love Yoder’s, The Politics of Jesus.  I also like our Resident Aliens, but I’m prejudiced.

    Categories: Interviews on Politics and Theology | Jason Hood | Mainline Protestantism | Political Theology

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  • November 1, 2010 by jhood

    SAET Interviews in Politics and Theology #6: Amy L. Sherman

    I think it’s wise to focus on at least two issues, preferably one that is more focused on personal morality and one that is focused on social righteousness/social justice. . . . I sometimes take time, as part of my morning devotions, to write a short email to my elected representatives if there is a piece of legislation pending that I’m following.  I deliberately do that during this time because I see it as part of my act of worship of the God of justice.

    Amy Sherman is a noted speaker, author, and expert on faith-based charities and frequently advises churches on ministries to their communities.  Her many positions of service have included posts as Senior Fellow for International Justice Mission and Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, where she directs the Center on Faith in Communities.

    Sherman has published five books (including volumes with Oxford University Press, Crossway, and Eerdmans), the latest of which is The Relentless Pursuit: Stories of God’s Hope, Love and Grace in the Neighborhood; and a host of articles in publications such as The Public Interest, Policy Review, First Things, Christianity Today, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, The American Enterprise, World, the Christian Century, The Washington Times, Philanthropy, Christian Scholar’s Review, Reason, and Books & Culture.  I would especially note her valuable short resource, Sharing God’s Heart for the Poor: Meditations for Worship, Prayer and Service, which many churches and ministries have found helpful.

    Most of our respondents have chosen to answer all of our questions; Sherman chose to answer one question related to her area of expertise in which she offers very practical advice.

    4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

    [Many of the questions are] not inside my “bulls-eye” vocationally; I will share a few thoughts about Q4 as that relates a bit more closely to some of my own work and writing…

    I think the average American Christian needs to be more politically engaged…by which I mean, more willing to attend to key issues that God cares about and then to carve out deliberate time for prayer and action. They need to ground their overall approach in the theology of God’s heart for justice and the Gospel of the Kingdom. God is about the restoration of all things and so our circle of concern must be quite broad. I am troubled by “one issue” voting among Christians and the failure to think more deeply and theologically about our engagement in the public square. I think, given the amazing privilege it is to live in a free society under the rule of law, Christians are obligated to better educate themselves. This doesn’t mean becoming an expert on every political issue but it does mean things like:

    1. voting in an informed way…take the time to read over the candidates’ websites and position papers and get help with “thinking Christianly” about politics by reading at least one or two books at some point in your life on that topic
    2. asking God to lead you by way of your passions and interests to a few issues that you can focus more particular action on…perhaps this will be immigration reform and abortion or human trafficking and the persecuted Church or healthcare and international trade or the problem of predatory lending and fighting pornography….I think it’s wise to focus on at least two issues, preferably one that is more focused on personal morality and one that is focused on social righteousness/social justice. The Bible calls us to a righteousness that is both about individual morality and social consciousness–think of Job’s example.
    3. Having selected a couple issues, read opposing groups’ websites on the issue to try to understand a bit about the two sides. There is a good site with transcripts and audio files of thoughtful debates on various contemporary issues called Intelligence Squared; The Center for Public Justice also offers some good short overview sheets on various issues (go to www.cpjustice.org and select “Guidelines”). [ed. note: an interview with CPJ co-founder Jim Skillen kicked off this series of interviews.]

    Then with a focus on those issues, get involved in at least small ways, like….signing up for the newsletter of a group advocating on the issue; pray on at least a once/week basis about the issue; and perhaps give financially to that cause. By being on a newsletter list you will likely get info you may need in terms of actions you can take…protests to join or legislation to be aware of and to email your congressman about. I sometimes take time, as part of my morning devotions, to write a short email to my elected representatives if there is a piece of legislation pending that I’m following. I deliberately do that during this time because I see it as part of my act of worship of the God of justice.

    The particular issues I’ve chosen to “track” are immigration reform, abortion, and human trafficking. I try to check in on the site, Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, to follow that movement. I also pray regularly for a friend, a ministry director in Phoenix working with Latino families, as she and her son are on the frontlines of community organizing around the issue. Whenever a vote comes up related to the DREAM Act, I send an email to my Senators and Congressmen. I also keep informed on trafficking through my relationship with the International Justice Mission. I give financially monthly to them and am on their weekly prayer newsletter. This gives me specific things to be praying about and alerts to me to when there is legislation up in Washington that I ought to know about. I also get the e-Pistle, a weekly enewsletter from the editorial staff of PRISM magazine. It has a short public policy section that alerts me to pro-life updates (among other topics).

    Basically, I think the call to do justice/ask justly means that we need to see actions like those described above as spiritual disciplines. We practice spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, fasting, and corporate worship attendance. These exercises help us grow in character, keep us close to God, and help us “be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” They require deliberate thought, energy, discipline, time. We will not naturally become people who “do justice”, as Micah 6:8 calls us to, without similar intentionality and effort. Becoming people who “do justice” requires putting some specific disciplines, specific rhythms, into our lives. Since we all have limited time, it can be helpful to PLAN these activities.

    So, as mentioned, as a part of my morning time with God, I sometimes use some of that time for prayer on these issues and/or for writing an elected official. (I pray about the issues probably on a weekly basis or more and write elected officials perhaps a half dozen times in a year.) A person might consult with his/her small group about taking a chunk of time, say one month’s worth of meetings, and instead of doing straightforward Bible study together for that month, read together a book on a public policy issue written from a Christian perspective…or better, an edited volume with essays on the issue from a variety of Christians sharing their thoughts. I.e., some of the disciplines I’m mentioning can be woven into our schedules rather than added on.

    I also think that picking a few topics and sticking with those over the long term is the best route, better than trying to learn a little about a lot of things. With a more narrow focus, God may work in us over time to get even more deeply engaged (beyond the minimal things I’ve mentioned about reading, prayer, financial support etc). He may lead us to become very committed prayer partners for a Christian person working fulltime on the issue we’ve chosen. He may show us ways that we can volunteer our time on behalf of the cause or go a short-term missions trip related to it or attend a weekend conference. He may make it possible for us to develop some kind of personal relationship with the real human beings affected by the issue we’re “tracking” — like befriending a teen mom or volunteering time in an ESL program with immigrants.

    Such opportunities and relationships can be used by God then to deepen our heart concern for the issue in question, deepen our understanding of it,and thus inflame our prayers and move us to greater sacrifice financially on behalf of the issue or greater sacrifice of time in working to make a difference on that issue…whether that includes political action (e.g., passing legislation) or other public actions such as helping to establish a safe house locally for victims of trafficking.

    Categories: Interviews on Politics and Theology | Jason Hood | Political Theology

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  • October 29, 2010 by jhood

    SAET Interviews in Politics and Theology #5: Oliver O’Donovan

    “Political discernment is not a gift of the Spirit promised to an ordained minister with the laying on of hands . . . . What the preacher can do is to assist a Christian evaluation of such facts as are generally known.”

    “We cannot be too alert to the fact that the realm of politics is inhabited by principalities and powers that would command our worship in place of Christ.”

    Oliver O’Donovan is Professor of Chrisitan Ethics and Practical Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh.  He taught at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford; Wyclife College, Toronto; and at Oxford University from 1982-2006, serving as Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and Canon of Christ Church.

    He has held a host of distinguished visiting positions at institutions including Cambridge, Durham, Fuller Seminary, Gregorian University in Rome, McMaster University, and the University of Hong Kong.

    He and his wife (Joan Lockwood O’Donovan) wrote two books on the history of Christian political thought, and his Resurrection and Moral Order: an Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Eerdmans, 1985) and The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1999) are widely regarded as very important texts on their respective topics.

    1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

    OO’D: I cannot claim to have made a personal contribution to the discussion of this question, but to have tried to recall the contributions which were made in Christian tradition and suggested that they may shed some light on our situation. On the distinction between the individual Christian and the Church I make some remarks below, which I shall not anticipate. So what about the State? The important thing to grasp is that this is a modern construct, and not a wholly clear one at that, since there are conflicting concepts of the State in the English-speaking political tradition and that common to continental Europe. What Christian Scripture and tradition has taught about is the significance of the activity of government, a human function serving a human need, which has taken many historical forms of which our modern State structures are only one, and which assures an order of civility and neighbourhood. They have spoken of the preparatory character of this function in history, its significance as a foreshadowing of the ordered and ruled community of redeemed mankind under God and his Christ. They have spoken of its provisional character, preserving society from violence and self-destruction until the ultimate questions of worship and obedience to God have been brought to the point of decision. And they have spoken of its potentially idolatrous character as a focus of human pride and rebellion. It is important to see that this idolatrous pretention is not a monopoly of the immediate agents of government, “the State” as we describe them; it is a temptation which pervades the whole sphere of politically ordered society.

    2. Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers. Do you agree or disagree?

    OO’D: Which individual believers? Those with a vocation to take part actively in political organisations, to run for office, and so on? Certainly, the Church as a whole has no corporate responsibility for the way they fulfil their vocations, any more than it does for the way its teachers teach or its surgeons make incisions. This does not mean that the Church has no interest in its members’ vocations, especially where moral issues arise within them. It undertakes to uphold its members in their vocations with pastoral support, and to give such moral counsel as may be relevant to their tasks; yet the vocation is theirs, not the Church’s. But it is not responsible directly for the way this vocation is fulfilled. But I am wary of a suggestion (if it is intended) that all believers, as individuals, have political responsibilities which the Church as such cannot share. There is voting, of course, which the constitutional arrangements of a democratic polity assign uniquely to individuals and not to corporations – though a polity is perfectly imaginable in which political office-holders would be selected by corporations, including the church, so that this distinction is not a matter of theological principle. The Church may have political opinions, and discuss them, as individuals may; and the Church is bound to obey the law – where it is lawful law – as individuals are. The Church is Christians approaching and fulfilling their tasks together in common worship and mutual help; Christians are the Body of Christ distributed in its members’ lives. Any further distinction than that would savour, I think, of an institutional definition of the Church that is too closed off against the catholic life of the Body of Christ and perhaps too clerical. It may be indicative that the theologians mentioned here are both from the Reformed tradition; my response is, perhaps, a characteristically Anglican one.

    3. Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

    OO’D: Serious thinkers can very rarely be dismissed in toto, for even when misguided they have something worthwhile to teach us, while superficial thinkers are not worth drawing attention to. So I excuse myself the task of adducing a negative example! On positive influences I could go on a long time. I had my first introduction to Christian political thought through the teaching of the American ethicist Paul Ramsey, whose work on the morality of war remains for me a landmark. From him I found my way back to the thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which was a high period of Christian political thought, and among these I treasure especially the Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius. A millennium earlier, Augustine, of course, on this as on so much else, posed the questions in ways that the Western tradition has sometimes forgotten but never been able to escape. My wife and I spent five years collecting Christian texts on politics from the beginning to the middle of the seventeenth century, and published them in a book called From Irenaeus to Grotius. Our interest was not antiquarian. Their authors, we believed, could refresh contemporary Christian political service.

    I am also reluctant to name a political concept which I respond positively or negatively. It is too easy to reduce the concept to the word, and putting buzz-words and boo-words into common currency is not something any thinker can contemplate with satisfaction. The essence of the concept always lies in the reasoning that it generates. I have written a great deal, however, about “judgment”, and engaged in some controversy as to whether the Christian content of this notion is adequately captured and expressed in contemporary language about “rights”.

    4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

    OO’D: The essential political duties we owe to our neighbours are those of living together with them peacefully under the law, and of giving proper support to the institutions of government that uphold the law. It is very unglamorous, and very necessary. To this essential basis a democratic polity has added the specific responsibility of voting in elections. To perform that democratic task well is quite difficult. It means listening carefully to political debates and sifting the true from the false in a self-questioning way, aware of the subtle influences of prejudice upon ourselves as well as upon others. It means to be open to persuasion, ready to change one’s mind. It means achieving a clear sense of the difference between what we can and must decide and what we cannot and should not try to decide. I should mention, perhaps, that the medieval political theologian, John Wyclif, stated at the beginning of his massive work “On Lordship” that any discussion of political relations must begin from 1 Corinthians 13, where everything essential was to be found.

    The “average American in the pew” seems not uncommonly to be told (or so it appears to us as we listen in across the Atlantic Ocean) that she or he has much larger political responsibilities than this: to make the Gospel heard in public life, to bring in the Kingdom of God and to make a better world, and so on. Some of these tasks are indeed tasks of the Church, which all Christians share, but not distinctively political. Some are political, but not tasks of the Church so much as promises of the work of the Spirit of God, for which we must pray and wait – while fulfilling our mission and doing the work that comes to our hand – humbly and without pompous pretensions. We cannot be too alert to the fact that the realm of politics is inhabited by principalities and powers that would command our worship in place of Christ.

    There is, of course, such a thing as a specific vocation to serve in politics. But the question did not ask about. Indeed, none of the questions have asked about that. And that, perhaps, is one of the things that most strike the European onlooker about the way American Christians think about politics: the “professional” politician, though always present in the background, is never a topic of discussion. Is there, we sometimes wonder, a condition of general denial in the USA about the professionalisation of modern politics?

    5. How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

    OO’D: I am always struck by the spareness and sharpness of focus of the description of “the authority” in Romans 13, in which the role of government is made to focus wholly upon judgment. Nothing is said about political identity, nothing about territory and nothing about political community, great and dominant themes in ancient political discourse as well as in our own. Even the concept of power is only indirectly present behind the notion of authority. There are plenty of commentators, of course, who are quick to pull aside the veil of Paul’s reticence and supply what they suppose he must have meant to say, or suggest, about all these topics. But I tend not to get round to them! I am too fascinated by the words themselves, and by what they say and do not say. So the first limit I detect in Romans 13 is not a limit on the church and/or the individual believer, but a limit on the authority itself, which is better conceived as a focus that defines its task.

    And the limit that that imposes on the rest of us – not only the church and the Christian but all members of society, is to be “subject” (yes, notice Paul’s term! Americans, I find, are prone to be distressed by it!) to the operations of this ordered and lawful maintenance of justice, and to maintain it cheerfully with our taxes. Order is no kind of slavery. It is a way of being free, but one which requires us to adapt ourselves consciously to it.

    Within a Western Christian tradition this subjection has become largely depersonalised and a matter of obeying laws. There are enormous benefits in that, the chief of which is that the reasons for laws can be understood, and obedience can be intelligent and thoughtful, not unthinking and slavish. But there are also problems, not least with what has become of the institution of law in later modernity, the ease with which laws are made and unmade, challenged and set aside. I expect Christians who have meditated on the implications of Romans 13 to be supportive of the rule of law, but also to understand the difference between deep lawfulness and shallow legality. Subjection to the law must be subjection to the purpose and the intention of law, and conscientious refusal, should that unhappy case ever arise, must be because it is the only way left to us of offering that critical support which the principle of law demands of us.

    6. How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

    OO’D: Kierkegaard famously argued that St. Paul did not have authority in the church because he was the most profound or original thinker – or, he added, the best upholsterer of tents! – but because he was Christ’s apostle. Deuteronomy and Proverbs, similarly, demand our attention not because they are highly original and distinctive in their Near-Eastern context, but because they are the voice of ancient Israel, the elect people through whom the Holy Spirit spoke to the world.

    Let me concentrate on Deuteronomy. This book, too, is law – and to understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to us through it, we must understand what law is, how it is made, how it relates to the society which it serves, and so on. Law is a political artefact, and we don’t have to search for politics in it – because law is politics in itself. But further, Deuteronomy is an act of legislative consolidation and publication; its own self-commentary, which is very elaborate, tells us of its ambitions in making Israel a society that lives under law. To learn from it, we have to grasp what it can reveal to us of the society it addressed, its problems and needs. Only if we use our historical imaginations in this way can we see what much of it hopes to attain.

    Can we understand God’s perspectives on politics from it? God’s perspective on ancient Israel’s politics, certainly. But to understand that is to be willing to stand back from our urgent demand for something “political” in the modern sense. Deuteronomy is from first to last political, yet its historical setting doesn’t fit in with our ideas of what the political should be like. Nonsensical traditions of commentary about the “ideal” character of the debt law in Dt. 15 or the “anti-monarchical” character of the law of the king in Dt. 17, for example, illustrate how difficult it is for readers to take the text as they find it rather than try to squeeze modern lessons out of it. So the question we are left with is: are we capable of being instructed by God out of a political project which belongs essentially to the ancient world and its conditions?

    7. Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment. Are all three of these to be implemented by believers? Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

    OO’D: I am uncomfortable at the distinctions that this observation implies – suggesting that service, critique and a sense of divine judgment are all rather different postures, which may perhaps be combined or perhaps represented separately.

    I am uncomfortable, in the first place, at the idea of a Christian political critique that is something other than the message of divine judgment. Do we have either the authority or ability to frame political critique on a purely immanent, secular basis? May I approach a tyrant and tell him that killing his opponents is ultimately an inefficient way of making his writ run, or tell big business that care for the welfare of employees is profitable? And then add something about God’s judgment as an afterthought? Any warning I can take on my lips I must have learned by listening to the word of God pronounced against sinners. There is no other place to stand.

    I am uncomfortable, in the second place, at the idea of a “service” that did not have a critical perspective within it. Criticism means careful evaluation, not simple opposition. Opposition is an accident that may befall criticism, but not the heart of the matter. To serve at all one must be able to assess how one may be of service; one must know the difference between true service and mere acquiescence.

    Let me try to rephrase what I think these theologians may discern in the narratives of Daniel’s role in Babylon. The path of political action has to be discovered at the point where recognition and affirmation of the political good that God will do through government is thoroughly tempered by a recognition of the moral dangers that befall every exercise of human power. The path of political action is always a narrow one, always liable in a moment to be cut off by human stupidity and cruelty, always to be received afresh, and on new terms, from God.

    8. If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics. This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work. But am I doing the right thing? Should I be bolder?” How would you respond? Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

    OO’D: Preachers ought not, I think, constantly to be preaching on political topics. As a student at an American University during the troubled Presidency of Richard Nixon, I recall a University chaplain who repeatedly made use of the pulpit for personal attacks upon the President. I don’t know what effect this had on the congregation in general; on me it merely created a disposition (unjustified, as it turned out) to give the President the benefit of the doubt. It also instilled in me a strong distrust of political preaching as such, and for the first ten years of my ministry I never once undertook it. When, however, I found myself in a position responsible for teaching Christian political thought, I judged that it was not possible to make the kind of separation between the classroom and the pulpit that this entailed, and must be prepared sometimes to venture further. Looking back over the last quarter-century now, I am astonished how often I have made political references, sometimes merely glancing and allusive, more rarely at the centre of a sermon. I have sometimes done it well, sometimes badly. I think I have learned the do’s and dont’s. To start with, here are three dont’s:

    (i) Political discernment is not a gift of the Spirit promised to an ordained minister with the laying on of hands. It is more than probable that a congregation will contain some who are better informed and have better judgment than their clergy. It is ridiculous for a minister to assume the role of pundit, making pronouncements on what is really going on like a journalist with an inside source. What the preacher can do is to assist a Christian evaluation of such facts as are generally known.

    (ii) Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.

    (iii) The preacher who expects to say something in Christ’s name about politics had better master a few basic concepts of Christian political thought. Few Christian interventions into political debate display any kind of conceptual sophistication. They sound naïve – not in the sense of being too idealistic, but simply by using words without appreciating their meaning. Every political term carries a complex freight: “rights”, “democracy”, “freedom”, “equality”, “the state”, “law”, and so on. Such an elementary blunder as using “democratic” to mean “fair” betrays a level of incompetence that disqualifies the speaker as a guide to others. No preacher can introduce such ideas effectively without a basic sense of their relation to each other and to the Gospel: how does civil freedom relate to evangelical freedom? how do human rights relate to the righteousness of God? Nothing is contributed if the church merely echoes the current buzz-words.

    With these warnings in mind, how may we preach on politics? The pulpit may only rightly be used for addressing the church’s own concerns. Those concerns are the truth of the Gospel and all that follows from it for Christian action. The justification for preaching on politics is exactly the same as that for preaching on the family or on money or on any secular concern: it assists Christians to bring an evangelical mind to bear on their responsibilities. Political deliberation is a responsibility of the members of the church inasmuch as they participate in a political society. But how one speaks will be determined by what is in view, which is to assist authentic Christian deliberation. One should not go on as though one were a statesman oneself, trying to get a certain decision taken, using every argument in its favour, good or bad, that might appeal to somebody: “the measure the government has brought forward is required by simple justice, is highly advantageous economically, and anyone who opposes it is hand in glove with right-wing extremism” etc. etc. The whole point is that the argument should be a Christian one that commends itself to any Christian conscience.

    It is less important that those who hear you should concur in your conclusions than that they should respond positively to the principles from which you reason. When I address political questions I almost always adopt an exegetical form of sermon-structure, follow my text and the argument that arises from it, until it points irresistibly to some theologico-political principle. Then, in the lightest way possible, I give concreteness to the principle by showing how it bears on the public issue in question. Usually I do not bother to indicate my own view; it will be evident enough from the argument. If anyone disagrees with me, I hope that person will have been helped to articulate a more authentically Christian response, one which will take seriously the issues of principle I have raised. Everyone needs to come out with a clearer sense of what is unnegotiable for Christian conscience, and what, by contrst, is merely a matter of differing emphasis or differing interpretation of a given situation.

    I do not trouble you with the useless advice that you should not be partisan. That says too much and too little. The notion that political deliberation is basically about the rival claims of competing parties is one which the church must do everything it can to challenge. Political deliberation is about understanding our situation truthfully. The whole emphasis has to fall on articulating the truths at issue. If there are no issues of truth, if it all comes down to which party will (let us say) manage the economy more skilfully, then there is no call for the church’s ministers to address the question in the first place. But if there is an issue of truth, it must be faced squarely. Truth demands partisanship; there is no impartiality between the claims of truth and error. Our success will depend on isolating the question of truth that demands our partisanship, and not confusing it with matters on which differing opinions are possible. To do this, we must avoid prejudging who is a friend of error, who a friend of truth. We must not assume that the truth is the privileged possession of one party. Truth is liberation for all, and demands repentance of all. It must be commended as available at once to the poor and to the tax collector. Its demand must not be addressed in one direction only – as though one party needed to do all the repenting, while the other could watch – and decide when they had done enough!
    The authority of the prophet derives from a discernment of the concern which the Spirit lays upon the church at that moment. There is no reason to suppose that this concern will often be political, in the narrower sense of that word. (More broadly, it will always be political, since the church’s own life is the founding political reality.) But there is no reason to be alarmed if, on any occasion, the concern of the church opens into a critical perspective on secular political events. “To convince of sin, righteousness and judgment” is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), which must sometimes, surely, take the form of defining a position in relation to such evils as abortion, nuclear deterrence, unemployment, North-South inequities and so on. We would be less than faithful preachers of the Gospel if we made our minds never to venture onto such terrain. But to do it usefully we have to risk controversy. We will be of little use to the Holy Spirit if we save our denunciations for those evils on which we can be sure there will be little difference of opinion among our hearers. Controversy may be healthy or unhealthy. It will be unhealthy if we announce our conclusions and declare, “Take them or leave them!” It will be healthy if we lead the church through the task of Christian deliberation from first principles, so helping those who differ to find the Christian ground on which they stand and building up the church’s unity in the Gospel. In that way the judgment of the Spirit proves itself authentic, drawing the line between the Gospel and despair, between belief and unbelief, obedience and rebellion, and lighting the way for the confession of Christ in the centre of each new situation.

    9. What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology? The best book?

    OO’D: Anyone who thinks of getting away with a single article or a single book, had better think again. Politics is a discussion. “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring!” As for where to start, that depends on where one happens to be. Nobody starts from nowhere. But, at the risk of being too insistent on the past, let me suggest: wherever you are, wherever you have come from, the next piece of reading could very profitably be the nineteenth book of Augustine’s City of God.

    Categories: Augustine | Interviews on Politics and Theology | Jason Hood | Political Theology

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  • October 27, 2010 by jhood

    SAET Interviews on Politics and Theology #1: James Skillen

    I am critical of those (whether Christian or not) who work largely within a liberal/conservative framework of individual autonomy as the foundation/source of political authority, and of those who see the “Church” as a counter-”polis” or alternative political community over against the state, thought of as outside Christian identity because it is recognized as legitimately using political force.

    Our first SAET Interview on Politics and Theology is with James Skillen, a co-founder of the Center for Public Justice and its executive director from 1981 to 2000 and president from 2000 to his retirement in September 2009, and a long-time respected voice among Christians involved in politics.  (Incidentally, while our interviews are not posted in any particular order, Skillen is an appropriate starting point given that several of our respondents have connections with CPJ, which includes in its board members and advisors right-leaning and left-leaning evangelicals and Roman Catholics.)  A bibliography of Skillen’s works, many of which touch on politics and theology, can be found by clicking here, and there are many weblinks to his work at that site.

    1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

    JS: My view of the Church is the broader one of the New Testament—that it is the body of Christ, the people of God, the bride of Christ, the household of faith, etc. I do not view “individual Christians” as existing except as part of the body of Christ, and thus it is as that body that they need to decide how to fulfill civic responsibility, familial responsibility, educational responsibility, economic responsibility, etc.  The modern state (in which most people live today) is one of many institutional arenas of human responsibility in which the people of God exercise a distinct type of responsibility, which must be in accord with their discipleship in allegiance to Christ.

    2. Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers.  Do you agree or disagree?

    JS: Mouw and Henry, I think you are suggesting, refer to the “church” as an institution that is separate from (not coterminus with) other institutions and organizations (such as family, school, state, business enterprise).  If that is what you mean, then I agree with them.  But I would not phrase the distinction as one of “the church” over against “individual believers.”  I would distinguish organized church congregations (and larger conglomerates of congregations) from the other institutions and organizations of which Christians as the body of Christ are members/participants.

    3.  Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

    JS:  I am positively sympathetic to the tradition fostered by Abraham Kuyper and the distinctions of various “spheres of responsibility,” among which is civic responsibility in political community.  I am critical of those (whether Christian or not) who work largely within a liberal/conservative framework of individual autonomy as the foundation/source of political authority, and of those who see the “Church” as a counter-”polis” or alternative political community over against the state, thought of as outside Christian identity because it is recognized as legitimately using political force.

    4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

    JS:  The Body of Christ in any age, living in any kind of political community (or anti-community) bears full civic responsibility, which is one that calls for the nurturing and promotion of political/public justice.  That means more than simply voting and paying taxes, but for some people in some societies it may be impossible for them to do even that.

    Where possible, some members of the Body of Christ ought to be pursuing political/governmental work full time as legislators, mayors, judges, policy developers, public servants in diverse agencies, etc., etc.  The vision for that kind of public service may be weak or strong in different societies and communities.

    But if Christians are not exercising and promoting that kind of service among their members when it is possible to do so, they are failing to fulfill some of the obligations entailed in serving God with all our hearts, souls, strengths, and minds, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

    5.  How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

    JS:  Romans 13 must be read in its full context (at least beginning with chapter 12 and continuing to the end of 13) as Paul’s explanation of an important dimension of the love command.  I do not see the biblical text placing limits on us that would restrain the fulfillment of the love command in the direction of fulfilling civic responsibility, which includes giving honor to whom honor is due, paying taxes to whom taxes are do, etc., etc., and both recognizing and seeking to promote the exercise of just governance, which belongs to political authorities by divine ordination.  The passage does not say much about what that entails (encouraging the good and punishing the evil doer), but that is what we have to work out in the arenas of our current civic obligations, just as spouses need to work out in their marriages the meaning of the great love command for husbands and wives.

    6.  How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?  Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

    JS: Deuteronomy needs to be read in its full covenantal context of God’s dealings with Israel and the nations, and Proverbs and other wisdom-literature texts need to be mined for how those who fear God will seek to be good stewards of one another and their neighbors in God’s world.  Israel did not exist in a vacuum and there is a great amount offered in the whole of the bible about how God is dealing with all nations and how he is holding them accountable.  The Old Testament is highly relevant to our contemporary lives as long as we read it in the context of the whole Bible (including the New Testament) and do not read it anachronistically.

    7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

    JS: The word “implemented” is the stumbling block in this question.  Daniel was called to serve God in the context of Israel’s judgment by god and exile in Babylon.  There was a particular setting in which he did what God called, and allowed, him to do. among other things, God enabled him to become the “prime minister” of Babylon.  Those were not actions of service or critique that any believer can simply decide or intend to do.  But we can learn much from how Daniel conducted himself to illumine the distinctive paths on which we walk today—some of us as preachers, some as teachers, some as public officials, some as providers of hospitality, and all of us as citizens.

    8.  If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics.  This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work.  But am I doing the right thing?  Should I be bolder?”  How would you respond?  Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

    JS:  If what the young “planter” means is that he/she should not (in that capacity) be trying to direct  a community of believers in all of their family responsibilities, all of their educational (and business, and political, etc.) responsibilities, then I am sympathetic with the statement.

    But if he/she means that in order to focus on the gospel it is necessary not to let the Bible speak to the full social/political/economic/cultural context in which those believers function, then the statement is an ungodly, extra-biblical decision to ignore the word of God and to decide how he/she best thinks should be done to nurture belief (which will undoubtedly be a belief contrary to the good news of Christ).

    9.  What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or politicaltheology?  The best book?

    JS:  I cannot suggest a single best article or book.  Sorry.

    Categories: Interviews on Politics and Theology | Jason Hood | Political Theology

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  • September 24, 2010 by jhood

    Political Theology: Things to Click

    Continuing to tease about a forthcoming series where we interview theological figures on politics and Scripture, here are a few notable links:

    James K. A. Smith interviews James Davison Hunter after reviewing Hunter’s book, To Change the World in considerable detail.

    Doug Wilson, who in some respects represents Hunter’s prey, responds without resorting to camouflage.

    Finally, an interesting perspective from Robert Joustra in Canada (“The Economic Social Justice Ship: Full Steam Ahead or Teetering Titanic?”), who puts a Kuyperian spin on economics.  His opening line:  “Saying that Christ claims every square inch is not the same as saying that your church tradition has authority to pronounce on all those inches.”

    Categories: General | Jason Hood | Political Theology

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  • September 23, 2010 by jhood

    Deuteronomy and Politics

    First, a teaser:  we’re about to announce what I trust will be an exciting series of interviews on politics and theology, featuring interviews with a variety of thinkers.

    I was preparing for some OT lectures recently and came across some commentary on politics in Gordon McConville’s commentary on Deuteronomy (from pages 42-50).

    McConville notes that “prophetic critique of the abuse of power,” is a built-in feature of the way in which Deuteronomy subordinates authority to Torah, God’s spoken word, not least by creating a vision of an ideal order functioning as an alternative (“cultural critique, or counter-culture”) to what is on offer among the nations.  It is this vision by which Israel, her king, and even the nations may be judged as idolatrous or tyrannical.

    The paradox of the book is that it aims to regulate the life of communities in reality, yet ever directs the attention of hearer and reader to an ideal that exposes the faults of the status quo.  This is the lasting contribution of the book.  It is capable of informing practical thinking about the organization of societies, while maintaining a vision of the kingdom of God.  The kingdom is now and not yet.

    It is instructive to note the way in which McConville has interpreted Deuteronomy not just as Law, but as something close to wisdom literature:  “The book offers training in the right way to live, and in this respect is closer to Proverbs than to anything else.”  Neither book is as wooden in its interpretation of the good life as sometimes thought, as they articulate the vision that “what is right is also useful, because of the claim that there is order in the universe, moral as well as natural.”  “[P]eople are called to be trained in what is right, not merely to avoid retribution, but because a full and joyful human experience depends on the acknowledgment that life is a gift to God.”

    Thus Deuteronomy becomes a vital arrow in the prophet’s quiver, capable of piercing idolatrous and tyrannical social, political, and economic structures.  (The connection to wisdom has been particularly intriguing as I’ve had discussions on this topic with his former students, and as I’ve tried to distill their brilliance for myself and laity.  For a start, see pages 43-45 in McConville.)

    Categories: Commentaries | Political Theology

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