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How Scripture Speaks to Politics[1]

Cale Horne

During periods of intensified partisanship when political sentiments run high, it is all too easy to lose sight of the freedom the Christian enjoys in our views of norms and forms of government, policy, and political engagement. While contemporary evangelicalism relentlessly presses the bounds of what the Bible says about politics, an appreciation that what the Bible does not say about politics is equally relevant. In fact, I would suggest that inattentiveness to the silence of Scripture—in the political sphere and elsewhere—harms the peace, purity, and witness of the church in ways we are not normally prepared to admit.

What does the Bible say about political things? The answer to this question depends on how we choose to interpret the Bible. If we look at the twentieth century alone, the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition has been pulled in a number of different directions on this question as theological liberalism, fundamentalism, and eventually broad evangelicalism all competed with historic orthodoxy for the soul of the church. Behind this competition stood very different sets of assumptions about the Bible itself. We might think that the only assumption about the Bible that really matters is whether or not we believe it is true: whether or not we believe it is the inerrant and infallible Word of God. After all, in a nut shell, liberalism rejected this assumption while American fundamentalism and evangelicalism upheld it. Yet liberals, fundamentalists and evangelicals have over the past century regularly come to the same conclusions on things political, all claiming justification from the Bible, regardless of what they believe the Bible to be.

An example will clarify what I mean. Patriotic services. Politically-themed messages trumpeting the virtues of the American system. An American flag displayed in one corner of the church auditorium. Sermons on national service and preparedness delivered in times of danger to the country. Perhaps a July Fourth extravaganza paired with an appeal for the spectator to turn to Christ. I could be describing a regular part of the life of today’s conservative, broadly evangelical church where—despite whatever differences we may have—the Bible is believed and presented as God’s Word. Or I could be describing the liberal, mainline church of the early twentieth century, where the Bible was increasingly regarded as an inspiring, if not inspired, text.

For the most part, theological liberalism as it entered the church did not look like liberalism as we think of it today. Ordinarily, sermons did not deny the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, or a literal resurrection from a literal death. Rather, sermons encompassed themes of patriotism, civic virtues, the Golden Rule, and the value of individuals and freedom—and these sermons claimed biblical backing.

As it was preached on Sunday morning from the pulpit, and heard in the pew, this new Christianity was all about hope: hope for the future of individuals and societies, with a heaven that bore a striking resemblance to the American dream. Even the horrors of World War I could not undo this optimism in mankind. If the war made Europeans declare that “God was dead,” Americans—who had come to Europe’s rescue in the eleventh hour—could by contrast say that we have the cure for what ails the world. Our faith would be in ourselves, and mainline, American Presbyterianism—from the wartime, Presbyterian president Woodrow Wilson down—would be right at the center of this cultural exuberance.

However counterintuitive it may seem, theological liberalism’s prescriptions for American politics in the first half of the twentieth century bear the ideological hallmarks and outward symbolism frequently associated with conservative, evangelical churches today. In effect, assumptions about the inerrancy and infallibility of the Scriptures in their original forms, though essential, do not necessarily lead to different thinking about politics.

The point here is not to decry the dangers of patriotism. The point is that regardless of whether pastors and church members believe the Scriptures to be true, these kinds of sermons and church experiences do not require you to believe the Scriptures to be true. Instead, the Bible can be read and preached just like Aesop’s fables—good stories about morality, with a focus on the right behavior of individuals, families, communities, and nations. Christ gave the example of the life well lived, and to emulate it is the road to salvation for individuals as well as cultures and states. Like today’s evangelicals, the well-intentioned and civic-minded liberals of the 1910s, 20s and 30s energetically asked, “What would Jesus do?”

I argue that a set of older assumptions about the Scriptures, rooted in the historic Reformed tradition, offers a more satisfying view of both politics and the Bible. For many of you, these assumptions will not be new. I suspect, though, that few of us have considered how these foundational beliefs about the Scriptures can clarify our understanding of the relationship among our faith, the church, and politics.

Though there are others, for my purposes today, two of these foundational beliefs are most relevant. First, the Bible in all its parts is revealing to us God’s plan of salvation for his people, and second, this revelation of salvation is organic and unfolding. If we accept that the Bible in its entirety is an unfolding of the story of redemption, we are unlikely to be sidetracked by moralistic interpretations of biblical texts, or to go looking in the Bible for policy prescriptions that simply are not there. And if we accept that this salvation story is organic and unfolding, we can begin to understand how biblical texts that might seem to talk about politics actually fit into this long, coherent narrative.

Based on these assumptions, I want to argue to you that Scripture says far less about politics than many of us would wish for it to say. In fact, I want to argue to you that the Bible does not say much about politics at all. The Bible is no more a textbook on politics than it is a textbook on organic chemistry or accounting, and we should resist the temptation to read the Bible in this way. But second—and just as significant—what Scripture does say about politics is extremely important, and in fact far more important than what we might be tempted to conclude about politics from the Bible if we didn’t accept these assumptions about the text’s redemptive and unfolding qualities.

Let’s think about why, based on our assumptions at the outset, Scripture does not say much about political things. This statement flies in the face of much of what is being propagated in Reformed and evangelical circles today. A recent book by one of the most popular evangelical theologians alive—and one with Calvinistic sympathies—works its way through the gamut of contemporary political issues with commentary on how the Bible speaks to each issue.[2] The resulting book is actually a good deal longer than the Bible itself, and the alleged biblical answers to this wide range of political problems and puzzles invariably align with the platform of the political right wing in the United States. And as theological liberals and conservatives have begun to align with the political left and right (which is a story for another day), countless, equally tiresome books have been produced by theological liberals, who employ Scripture to argue for the causes of the political left.

Let’s take models of economic organization as an example of this sort of flawed reasoning. Many political conservatives have looked at the Eighth and Tenth Commandments in Exodus 20 and found a biblical basis for free-market principles. The argument goes like this: The commands “Thou shall not steal” and “Thou shall not covet” presuppose the existence of private property. If there is no private property, there is nothing to steal or covet. And the fact that the theft and even coveting of this private property is condemned in the Decalogue should lead us to conclude that the existence of private property is God-ordained and good. The protection of private property mandated in the Eighth and Tenth Commandments requires laws and institutions designed to preserve the integrity of property. These laws and institutions are exemplified in the Old Testament in the form of rules of restitution. Today, no longer operating under the theocracy, free-market capitalism accompanied by democracy form the soundest institutional basis for the protection of property.

Christians on the political left have not taken this argument lying down. To justify their ideals for economic and social organization they turn to the model of the early church described in Acts 4:32–35:

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

This, many on the left tell us, is the Bible’s model for social and economic organization. Private property is not the economic norm cultivated by followers of Jesus, but a surrender of private property to the collective. The norm upheld is redistribution of wealth: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Based on our assumptions—that the Bible in all its parts is revealing to us God’s plan of salvation for his people, and that this revelation is organic and unfolding—we must conclude that these uses of Exodus 20 and Acts 4 are wide of the mark. This is not to say I don’t believe in private property, or that I don’t think capitalism and democracy are, broadly speaking, good—or at least the best anyone has thought up to-date. But the idea of private property and institutions designed to protect private property can best be thought of as insights of common grace: partial, imperfect, and temporally bound solutions to the problems of social and economic order generated by the Fall.

So, if not bases for biblical models of economic organization, what is going on in Exodus 20 and Acts 4? In the case of Exodus 20, we should remember that the explication of the moral law only becomes necessary in light of the Fall: to show us what we ought to do, our inability to do it and need for grace, and as a norm of conduct for those who are the recipients of this grace. In other words, the moral law is given in large part to impress upon God’s people the immeasurable distance between themselves and God, as a consequence of the Fall. In the case of the Eighth and Tenth Commandments, “Thou shall not steal” and “Thou shall not covet,” the commandments are needed to clarify behavior toward one another because we no longer understand our behavior in reference to God. Before the Fall, Adam is given the mandate to steward the creation. There was no private property; rather, Adam in his innocence understood all things to belong to God! He was commissioned as the caretaker of God’s property! The Eighth and Tenth Commandments are required because, by the entrance of sin, we no longer regard property entrusted to us as articles of our stewardship that are not our own.

In Acts 4, in the unfolding of God’s salvation, we see something of that original consciousness restored in the early church, where believers were giving and taking freely. We are witnessing here something of the Eighth and Tenth Commandment fulfilled because, in a way, the Acts church has returned to the Garden—property is again regarded as a thing entrusted, not a thing owned. But the Acts church (of which you, by the way, are a part!) is also moving beyond the life of the Garden. And this is as it should be, because even before the Fall, the Garden was never intended as the end. Faithful stewardship—tending the Garden—was Adam’s probationary task. The end was always Adam’s possession of God himself, and God’s possession of Adam. Adam failed this probationary task of stewardship because he sought the possession of other things—he coveted and stole. But God’s plan would not be undone, the Second Adam is faithful where the First Adam failed, and in Acts 4 we can almost taste heaven.

Consider the unique place of Acts in the canon: situated at the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New. Strange things are happening. The apostles are still entering the temple and synagogues, miracles are taking place, prophecies, tongues. Everything is in flux in Acts, and we see in its pages aspects of the church’s life under the Old Covenant, in the past, the church’s life in the present, which we experience today, and—every so often—we catch a glimpse of the future, of the perfected and glorified church. I think that’s what we catch a glimpse of—if only a glimpse—in these few verses of Acts 4. (And it is only a glimpse, because Ananias and Sapphira bring us back to the present in the verses that follow.)

Acts 4 is not about economic egalitarianism. We do not even know if there were poor people present in the scene it presents. That can probably be safely inferred from the text, but it is left for us to infer because it isn’t the main point before us. Though some think it quite wooden, I love the language of the old American Standard Version: “and not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own.” I assume there were plenty of materially poor believers present in this scene, but they would have known that they were not being made rich by this redistribution of goods, but because of the apostles’ witness of the resurrection of Jesus. They are rich because they possess God himself. The church’s provision for their material needs flows out of this reality.

These New Testament believers can give and receive so freely because they are beginning to see that this is not the end—a consciousness that stands in stark contrast to the life of God’s people under the law, where they begin to mistake the land as their end—they begin to conflate the possession of Canaan with a Promised Land yet to come.

The Acts church has come to understand the reason behind the imperative of the Eighth and Tenth Commandments: “Thou shall not steal or covet” because “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” We do not steal or covet because of who God is and what he has done for us: he takes us as his possession and, strangely, freely gives himself as our possession. There is no possession that we want—nothing left to covet—other than God himself.

That, I believe, is what is going on in Exodus 20 and Acts 4, in contrast to interpretations that use these texts for political ends. To seek to harness God’s Word to promote one political agenda or another—of the left or right—is to miss the point.

So far I have talked about what assumptions might guide our understanding of the relationship between politics and the Bible, and I have given some suggestions about what the Bible does not say about politics, but what does the Bible say about politics? I do not want you to think that the Bible says nothing about politics, or that what it does say is somehow disconnected from the redemptive, organically unfolding message of Scripture. I will not go so far as to say that this list is exhaustive but, in broad strokes, I believe the Bible speaks critically about the establishment of government, government’s role, and the Christian’s obligation toward government. I will discuss these briefly.

Reformed thinkers differ in understandings of the origin of government. Some, including many Dutch Reformed thinkers as well as the Scottish Covenanters, associate the establishment of government with life in the Garden; as intrinsic to the common mandate given to Adam, and embodied in his kingly role in Eden. Others place the establishment of government after the Fall, usually with that part of the Noahic covenant given in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,” which seems to imply the establishment of a legitimate authority empowered to police, judge, and enforce against capital crimes. Others in the post-Fall camp (a minority position) identify the origins of the state with Babel in Genesis 11, with the scattering of people groups defined by common language. Whatever view we embrace, these all have something in common: it is God who establishes government. In other words, government is not intrinsically bad—though the rhetoric of some libertarians (who, incidentally, have become increasingly popular among the young adult demographic in recent years) seems to come close to saying so.

God’s institution of government is closely related to his purpose for it, and our obligation towards it. Christians on the political left emphasize the New Testament description of a government that “rewards good” to argue for an expansive role for the state, just as Christians on the right emphasize the same text’s description of government as the punisher of evil to make their case for small government. What do these isolated quotes, taken from 1 Peter 2:14, really say? Verses 11–17 provide the immediate context:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Peter addresses God’s people as a pilgrim people—a people who know that their lives are wrapped up in the narrative of Scripture—which is to say that this world is not the end. We submit to government and honor the king—good or bad—because we are a pilgrim people. The same rationale underlies Jesus’s own command to “render unto Caesar.” Peter goes on to explain that submission to earthly authorities is following in the footsteps of Christ: humiliation precedes exaltation. So much for so-called “Christian coalitions” demanding a seat at the table of political power. Indeed, in an age of color revolutions, it seems timely to note that the response of the New Testament church to official persecution was not political revolt in the style of the Maccabees, but perseverance.

I am deeply concerned that many sincere, Bible-believing Christians today are harming themselves and the witness of the church as a whole with unbiblical attitudes toward the state—even if the >policies of the state really do fall far short of the mark. How do we speak about President Obama? Does our tone honor the king and reflect our pilgrim identity? Can you acknowledge him, in Paul’s language from Romans 13, as “a minister of God to you for good”? What if the next president is, for example, a devoted follower and former bishop of a prominent religious cult?[3] Can we honor him in faith, believing that God causes princes to rise and fall as part of the unfolding drama of redemption, mysteriously moving us toward the consummation of all things?

A final thought. Nowhere in the Bible is this honor of the king more poignantly displayed than in the life of the Apostle Paul. When accused by the Jews before the Roman authorities, he makes appeal to be judged by Caesar, which is to say he takes full advantage of his rights as a Roman citizen. Yet if he had not appealed to Caesar, he could have been set free then and there in Caesarea, because he had not violated any Roman law. Eventually Paul’s appeal would result in his death in Rome.

But Paul’s appeal to his Roman citizenship—an appeal he made on more than one occasion—was inspired by the Holy Spirit. He is living out the life-pattern of Christ for the benefit of the fledging and persecuted church. His Roman citizenship is not irrelevant to his pilgrimage, but is purposefully used in service to it. For Paul, Rome was never the end.

If you choose to become involved in government or politics, do so wholeheartedly and without reservation. Take common grace and general revelation seriously! Just as the Bible is not a textbook on politics, prudent and just policymaking is not the special reserve of Christians. But your faith does inform your political engagement. Even if you agree with the unbeliever on particular policy issues, you are not agreeing for the same reasons. For you, exercising the benefits and obligations of earthly citizenship is all done in the service of your citizenship that is in heaven. If the Garden was not the end, nor Canaan nor Rome, surely Washington, DC, is not the end, either.

Endnotes

[1] Originally presented as an address for the “Listening to Scripture” Chapel Series at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia, on 5 September 2012. I thank Bill Dennison and Paul Morton for comments on an earlier draft, and Henry Overos for editorial assistance.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

[3] This address was originally given in the midst of the 2012 United States presidential campaign, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was a campaign issue among politically conservative evangelicals.

Cale Horne is an assistant professor of political studies at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He is a member of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ordained Servant Online, May 2014.

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