About ten days back we looked at someone who uses the Bible “biblicistically,” to use the terms of Christian Smith’s book, while today we want to look at one who uses the Bible in politics with hermeneutical savvy, and he is one of the world’s finest New Testament scholars, Richard Bauckham. His book is called: The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically.
Bauckham is incapable of writing anything without finesse, but a blog post can’t capture all of what an author writes so I will merely sketch his big ideas. To begin with, when we read the Bible for politics we encounter a major issue immediately: the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament. That is, it’s easy to go to the Old Testament, find texts that support what we are looking for, and then announce with biblical bravado, “See, it’s right here in the Bible!” But, but, but… Bauckham says. Israel was a political entity and the New Testament Christians are a politically powerless minority.
Which means we have to deal with the problem of selectivity. “… this selection [or ours] has all too often been governed by expedience” (4). So, what to do? He speaks of “dispensational differences.”
1. One can argue, say, that the Sermon on the Mount advances our understanding of ethics and makes the old obsolete. So war is set aside.
2. One can argue a theocratic state can’t be a model for a state today. Those wars in the OT were for a theocratic state.
So Bauckham ponders some ways to approach these issues:
1. None of the OT applies to us as instructions for us but all of it is instructive for us (2 Tim 3:16).
2. Some think the ethics of the NT are for personal ethics but not for political institutions, and Bauckham finesses this one, but he comes out saying it’s not so simple. If the personal ethics are God’s will, they are for all. But there is a difference between the kind of instructiveness personally and politically. [OK, I get this, but I wonder if this ends up making the same distinction between personal and political.]
3. The Anabaptists saw a difference between church ethics and political ethics. He would contend that what goes for the Christian church goes for the community because it is God’s will. He does not think it is right to think there is a different ethic for the church and the culture/state/public. [OK, but there's more to be said here. 1. The ethic of Jesus is for Jesus' followers/kingdom people/the church. 2. The church does not in fact rule the state so the church remains at some level different than society/state/culture. 3. The will of God as Jesus teaches is for all people, to be sure, but not all people listen to God. 4. The state's ethic is what the state decides, and it does not embrace the Sermon on the Mount, for example. 5. So, there ends up being a distinction at the level of pragmatics and reality: the Anabaptist vision is not simply an ontological one between church and state, but an eschatological one between those who believe and those who don't, and it is not the church's business to impose believing ethics on those who don't believe. So, they argue, live it as a church and work into society over time, if society believes. If not, the distinction remains until the eschaton.]
4. Culture and conditions shape all of the Bible’s ethics. Government today is much different than government in the Bible, and not because today’s governments have overstepped biblical boundaries. Thus, the Bible doesn’t provide rigid norms for all cultures and all societies. This is a critique of biblicism. Here’s the big one: universality for a political ethical norm is found in and through its particular expressions then and there for that time.
5. This means the Bible encourages considerable freedom as we work out how to live the Bible in our time and in our way. Guidance of the Spirit, discernment, listening to Bible and history and culture.
6. To apply the Bible to politics means learning to read the Bible at different levels.
A. Linguistic: what does it say?
B. Immediate literary context:
C. Wider literary context
D. Cultural context: of the original text’s culture.
E. Broad historical context at that time.
F. Immediate historical context of the author and text and circle.
And that means the canonical context is primary but to be understood in light of the above.
Contextualizing is the task of the whole church. We are to avoid simplistic applications (biblicism).