On Christianity and Politics

Now this is a fetching discussion. In his recent “Public Square” column, R. R. Reno reflects upon the reasons for Christian political involvement.[1] He begins by posing the question: “If we believe in the sure triumph of Christ, why do we allow ourselves to be drawn in to the very unsure world of political conflict?” (p. 3) In response to the question, he notes, “The Lord’s Prayer gives a straightforward answer: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (p. 3) Thus, he encourages Christians to have a “double-mindedness” about our citizenship and thus involvement in the civitas: we are citizens of heaven called to serve the King who owns final victory, yet we serve him here in this world–a world that is still groaning and thus largely (sinfully) opposed to the King’s rule. In the article, he goes on to argue that we should be politically active but only with Christ as the center of our hope; otherwise, our political involvement devolves into a sort of political pornography.

Reno’s article caught my attention for several reasons, but foremost because the winter of 2012 is a particularly good time for Christians to reassess their motivation and strategy for political involvement. As I see it, beginning in the early 20th century, evangelicals pretty much abdicated their responsibilities in many sectors of public life. They withdrew from the public realm and lost most of their ability to be faithfully present in the arts, the sciences, the academy, and to some extent the political realm. In fact, I think one of the major reasons we lost our voice in the political realm is because we did not value other related realms such as the arts, the sciences, and the academy. When we devalue or desert Hollywood (the arts), Harvard (the academy), and MIT (the sciences), we lose any sort of plausibility structure we might have had in the political realm. As a result of the fact that we no longer have any real voice in our culture at large, we have found our political “toolbox” reduced to only one tool: political coercion. And, once we have reduced ourselves to coercive activism, we have almost lost.

In light of this situation in which we find ourselves, what can we affirm about political involvement? For the purposes of this blog, I want to argue that we should focus on a broader topic: Christian cultural involvement (politics is shaped by the broader culture and, in turn, shapes culture itself). At least five principles should guide our cultural involvement. [The text below is pasted from the manuscript of a forthcoming book, Gospel & Mission, which will be released by Baker Academic in 2014.]

The first principle is that culture activity is ordained by God. God created a good world, and followed up his creative activity by giving humanity a good command to bring out the hidden potentials of his creation (Gen 1:26-28; Gen 2:15). This command teaches us that cultural activity is a fundamental aspect of human life and a way in which we image God to the world. In a fallen world, this means that cultural activity is a way that we can promote God and the gospel.

The second principle is that cultural activity is marked by a great antithesis. After the fall, humans have always lived in the midst of a great struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, between Christ and Satan, and between truth and error. The invisible realities, represented by certain principalities and powers, are always manifested in visible, tangible cultural realities. The New Atheism, for example, is certainly underlain by invisible realities, but also makes itself known in tangible human culture. The atheist denial of Christ’s lordship manifests itself sometimes in a false story of science, in which we are told that Christianity historically proven an impediment to scientific knowledge, and other times in an errant epistemology, in which we are told that empirical science is the only reliable avenue for gaining true knowledge about the world. Likewise, destructive postmodernism is underlain by invisible realities, but makes itself public in philosophical treatises that deny the possibility of objective knowledge and promote moral relativism. This great struggle between light and darkness cuts across the entire creation and every human culture. Christians should resist this comprehensive assault on our shared cultural life. We should fight it tooth and nail, not only from the pulpit, but in the arts, the sciences, politics, business, education, scholarship, and sports. We should resist it in an openly and robustly Christian manner.

The third principle is that cultural activity takes place within ordered realms which have their own creational design. Human cultures can be divided into a variety of realms—such as art, science, business, politics, and education—which each have their own creational design and God-given integrity. However, because we live in a fallen world comprised of sinners, these realms will be to some extent corrupted and directed toward wrong ends. The prince of darkness seeks to hijack these realms to use entirely towards his own ends. We as Christians, therefore, seek to redirect these realms towards their proper end and creational design. To the extent that we are able to do so, we glorify God and provide our neighbors a preview of what it might be like when God rules on a renewed and restored creation.

The fourth principle is that cultural activity takes place under the absolute Lordship of Christ. This principle builds upon the others, and emphasizes Christ’s lordship over all aspects of creation and human life. Christ is the creator and King over all things, and one day will restore all things. He is not merely the Lord over my “heart” or my quiet times; he is Lord over my work, my leisure, and my civil life. He is not merely sovereign over local church gatherings; he is the Lord over artistic, scientific, political, entrepreneurial, and scholarly endeavors. No piece of our (“secular”) life is to be sealed off from Christ’s lordship. Every square inch of it belongs to Christ and ought to be made to honor him. Missional Christians not only proclaim the gospel with words, they promote it in their cultural activities.

The fifth principle is that the architecture of a truly Christian cultural mission will involve answers to at least three questions. In any given cultural realm (e.g. art, science, politics, business, sports, homemaking, academics), three questions must be asked. The first question is, “What is God’s creational design for this particular realm of culture? The second question is, “In what ways have God’s designs for this realm been misdirected and corrupted by cultural idolatry?” The third question is, “In what ways can we redirect this realm and work for its healing?” As missional Christians, we should always be seeking to answer these questions, no matter which culture, or realm of culture, we find ourselves in. In so doing, we will be able to live redemptively on this earth, pointing upwards to God the King, backwards to his loving creational design, and forward to his inbreaking kingdom.

In conclusion, missional Christians do not seek to escape from their earthly existence, but to transform it in light of the gospel. “The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and a mythological hope,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is that the Christian hope sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way.”[2] Missional Christians recognize that the gospel is always proclaimed, and the Christian life is always lived, within a cultural context. Instead of chafing against this reality, we may participate in the joyful work of making working out the gospel’s implications in those cultures, allowing the gospel to critique them and bring them under the scrutiny of God’s revelation, and seeking to redirect them toward God’s design. “We await the return of Jesus Christ,” writes D. A. Carson, “the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth, the dawning of the resurrection, the glory of perfection, the beauty of holiness. Until that day, we are a people in tension. On the one hand, we belong to the broader culture in which we find ourselves; on the other, we belong to the culture of the consummated kingdom of God, which has dawned upon us.”[3] God restores his creation instead of trashing it and expects us to promote the gospel within our cultural context rather than attempting to withdraw ourselves from it.


[1] R. R. Reno, “The Public Square,” in First Things (Nov 2012), 3-7.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Reginald Fuller and others, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1967), 176.

[3] Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 64.

 

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (5): Theology Has Everything To Do with Reason, Culture, Experience, and Tradition.

This blog series is based upon the conviction that God can be known. But this conviction raises the question: If we believe that God can be known in a true, trustworthy, and sufficient manner (albeit not comprehensively or univocally), where do we look for such knowledge and how do we speak in such a manner? Upon what sources does a theologian draw when looking for raw material about God? And if there is more than one source for such material, how do we order the sources in priority? “Judgements about sources,” John Webster writes, “go hand-in-hand with acceptance of norms, that is, criteria by which decisions may be reached about which sources furnish the most authentic, reliable, and persuasive Christian teaching.”[1] This post argues that we look first and foremost to Scripture, but always also draw upon reason, experience, culture, and tradition.

Scripture:

As we will note repeatedly throughout this series, faithful Christian theology is built on Christian Scripture as the primary source for theology and the norm above all norms. If Scripture is indeed the very breath of God (2 Tim 3:16-17), and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, we would denigrate Scripture only at the expense of losing theology’s goal altogether. We reject any view of theology that explicitly or implicitly allows tradition (Roman Catholicism), experience (Liberalism), reason (Modernism), or culture (Postmodernism) to subvert the authority and primacy of Scripture. However, our recognition of Scripture’s primacy does not somehow deny the significance of tradition, experience, reason, or culture, each of which is essential to the task of theology.

Reason:

Most theologians agree that reason plays a significant role in the task of theology. However, exactly what type of role is up for debate. David Clark clarifies three senses in which we employ a concept of “reason.”[2] First, one can speak of reason in the sense of autonomous reason, reason which insists on living independently of God. Gerhard von Rad describes this type of reason: “Man has taken leave of the relation of dependence. He has refused to obey and has willed to make himself independent. No longer is obedience the guiding principle of his life, but his autonomous knowledge and will.”[3] Second, one can speak of reason as the totality of our knowledge capacities. In this use, reason denotes the ability to think about anything at all. Third, one can speak of reason in order to denote one facet of our knowledge capacities, the aspect which we use to make valid arguments. Of the three senses of reason, we reject only the first, autonomous reason, because this type of reason subverts sound theology in its attempt to be independent of God (thus subverting God). The second two senses, however, we affirm, as theologians certainly must rely on their God-given rational faculties in order to reflect upon God’s self-revelation in a disciplined manner.

Culture:

Theology is necessarily conceived in a cultural context and articulated in cultural forms. Indeed, one’s culture provides the language, conceptual categories, media, artifacts, and environment in which theology is done.[4] In fact, God’s act of creation explains the God-givenness of culture. God created his imagers to interact with his good creation, tilling the soil, naming the animals, and otherwise practicing loving dominion over his good creation. The result of such interaction is human culture. The theologian cannot escape his cultural context, nor should he want to. Instead, the theologian works hard to properly leverage his cultural context for the task of theology. Proper leverage flows from lashing one’s theology to the Scriptures, conceptualizing and expressing it in appropriate cultural forms (language, conceptual categories, etc.), and continually bringing the results back to Scripture for correction in light of its transcultural authority.[5] Further, culture directly affects the theologian’s use of other sources of theology, in that it affects one’s manner of reasoning and it provides the linguistic categories within which one conceives and articulates one’s experience.[6]

Experience:

In a broad sense, one’s “experience” is anything that arises in one’s life journey. In a more focused and theological sense, “experience” refers to our subjective feelings and emotions. In both senses, experience plays an inescapable role for the Christian theologian. In the broader sense mentioned above, our journey in life is what prepares us to understand the words of Scripture. Scripture teaches us about God, and does so analogically. It draws upon our experience of fatherhood, to teach us about God the Father; it draws upon our experience of love to teach us that God is love; and so forth. In order to understand God, one must be situated in experiential reality. Likewise, in the more focused sense mentioned above, our feelings and emotions can be helpful. They can be an impetus for the theological task in that our feelings and emotions lead us to ask questions of the Scriptures, to vigorously pursue the mind of God (e.g. the Lament Psalms, such as Ps. 42; 69). They also can be a result of the theological task in that Scripture, and its attendant evangelical doctrine, calls forth wonder, delight, fear, and other emotions.[7] In fact, as Alister McGrath and others have noted, “Christian doctrine provides the framework within which we interpret our own experience, thereby nuancing, enriching, and deepening our experience.”[8]

Tradition:

Christian theology is always and necessarily written in historical context. In particular it is written in the context of church history and the historical development of Christian theology. Christian tradition provides the context for, and is a source of, theology. But how so? Three theories vie for acceptance. First, the Catholic Church has recognized a dual-source theory of tradition, in which, “‘tradition’ was understood to be a separate and distinct source of revelation, in addition to Scripture. Scripture, it was argued, was silent on a number of points, but God had providentially arranged for a second source of revelation to supplement this deficiency: a stream of unwritten tradition.”[9] Second, some Anabaptists evidenced a rejection of tradition, arguing that we have the right to interpret Scripture however we please under the guidance of the Spirit. For example, Sebastian Franck rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Christ because he thought (through his private interpretation) they rested on inadequate biblical foundations.[10] Third, this chapter recognizes a single-source theory of tradition. Along with many Patristic and Reformation era theologians, we suggest that “theology is based on Scripture, and ‘tradition’ refers to a ‘traditional way of interpreting Scripture’.”[11] The early church fathers referred to the “rule of faith,” in which they recognized that there is a proper order and connection to the biblical narrative, and if this order and connection is ignored, one will misread texts of Scripture and misconstrue Christian doctrine. The rule of faith, therefore, is a safeguard against misinterpretation and self-serving construals of the text.[12]

Conclusion:

Christian Scripture is the primary source and supreme norm for Christian theology. Scripture, and Scripture alone, is inspired by God and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). As the theologian interprets Scripture, he seeks illumination from the Christian tradition and uses his God-given rational faculties and experience in order to appropriately conceptualize and articulate an evangelical theology within a particular cultural context.


[1] John Webster, “Introduction: Systematic Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook for Theology (Oxford: Oxford University, 2007), 2.

[2] Clark, To Know and Love God, 299-301.

[3] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1973), 78.

[4] Kevin Vanhoozer, in line with his conception of doctrine as drama, puts it this way: “Culture sets the stage, arranges the scenery, and provides the props that supply the setting for theology’s work.” Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 129.

[5] For further reading on this process of contextualization, see Bruce Riley Ashford, “Gospel and Culture,” in Bruce Riley Ashford, ed., Theology and Practice of Mission: God, the Church, and the Nations (Nashville: B&H, 2011), 109-127.

[6] Regarding the relation of culture and reason, we note that one must distinguish between substantive and formal rationality. Formal rationality is built upon basic laws of logic which are transcultural, but substantive rationality is always rooted in a tradition. Substantive reason always operates within a worldview, and worldviews are always religiously oriented. Regarding culture and experience, we note that culture provides categories by which we experience our “experience.” At the heart of culture is language, and one’s linguistic apparatus directly and pervasively affects one’s ability to conceptualize and articulate one’s experience.

[7] This is Karl Barth’s point in his treatment of the theologian’s feelings of wonder, concern, commitment, and faith in relation to the task of theology. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 63-105.

[8] Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 71.

[9] McGrath, Christian Theology, 139.

[10] McGrath, Christian Theology, 140.

[11] McGrath, Christian Theology, 138.

[12] See John Behr, Way to Nicaea, 17-48, for a helpful discussion of the rule of faith and its use by Irenaeus in arguing against the Gnostics.

Q&A 4: Should Christians Obey the Government?

10.4.11

Question: There are multiple Biblical Mandate’s, from Moses onward through Hebrews, regarding a Christian’s responsibility to ‘obey’ the government, rulers, laws, authority, etc. of the State or Country in which the Christian resides. As an American who resides in the United States, the highest authority concerning civil liberties and the role of govt. is the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, however, many leaders, who vow to uphold the Constitution in their oath of office, do the precise opposite and go so far as rejecting it with the laws, ‘orders,’ and mandates, they create, and actions they take forbidden by the Constitution.

As a Christian, what, or whom, do we obey in instances of conflict between the Constitution, and national (and state) leaders?

Reply: I asked my friend Dan Heimbach to help me with this question. The answer provided is almost completely his.

To be clear, this question really involves two parts. The first regards the extent to which Christians have a duty to obey the authority of whatever civil government we live under, and the second regards conflicts that might someday arise between what a civil leader orders and fidelity to the United States Constitution. These questions are related but not the same, and must be handled separately.

First regarding biblically defined obligations to accept and submit to what civil authority requires, the important thing to understand is that while obligation to respect the authority of civil government is unconditional, obligation to obey depends on fidelity to God. This means there is no exception to a Christian’s moral obligation to respect the authority, role and responsibilities of human government no matter how bad it gets. But there are exceptions to what Christian’s can obey. This distinction is made very clear in the response Peter and John gave to the Sanhedrin when they respectfully refused to accept and obey a sinful order saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This qualification of Christian duty to obey civil authority applies to all forms of government including ours. So, even if the Supreme Court of the United States were to rule that our Constitution requires Christians to oppose something God requires, Christian citizens would have to obey God over the Constitution.

The second question does not dispute what the US Constitution requires, but asks how Christians who are good American citizens should respond if a government leader were to issue orders that are directly and openly outside boundaries of power delegated by the US Constitution. This question is easy to answer but could become hard and perhaps risky to carry out. Biblically the answer is that no human government has moral power to order wicked behavior, and Constitutionally the answer is that no US official has any legitimate legal power outside what he or she is given by the US Constitution and can therefore never legally demand or require anything of citizens contrary to the US Constitution. It other words there can be no moral obligation to act immorally and no legal obligation to act illegally.

But the reason this “easy to give an answer” to the second question could become hard to live by is that should persons ever come to occupy civil office in our land who oppose God’s moral law and the US Constitution at the same time, then a Christian’s mere refusal to obey their illegal-immoral demands, however respectfully and politely stated, will make them very unhappy and could result in persecution. In that case Christians should prepare to go to the lion’s den with Daniel.