How to use the Bible in Politics 1

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).

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  • CJW

    So, I wonder if Bauckham’s reviewed Grudem’s book? I especially wonder if Grudem’s read Bauckham’s?

  • John W Frye

    The grave error I think in the ‘moral majority’ approach was this: “…it is not the church’s business to impose believing ethics on those who don’t believe.” In the popular “take America back for God” movement there is the assumption the USA will obey biblically-shaped morality. This is a fantasy and sparks the ‘culture wars.’

  • Robin

    John Frye,

    Could you flesh out more what you mean here “impose believing ethics on those who don’t believe.”

    I am a believer, and I happen to live in a country where I elect my representatives, so should I not elect representatives who either share my ethical beliefs, or promise to enact my ethical beliefs in a culture which may or may not share them?

    If I shouldn’t, because that would mean I am imposing “believing ethics on those who don’t believe” Does that mean that my beliefs on murder, rape, incest, abortion, war, environmental concerns, etc should all be disregarded unless they can be supported by an empirical (non-belief oriented) claim that even Richard Dawkins could love.

    Does that mean men like Gandhi or MLK should not have made any specific religious claims in their search for equal/civil rights because they were, after all, imposing their “believing ethics” (equal rights for minorities, in King’s case specifically based in scripture) on “those who don’t believe” racist southerners who didn’t want equal rights for blacks.

    I’m not interested as much in the Christian community imposing its ethics on the secular community as I am in the majority utilizing its vote to secure laws and ethics that are consistent with its own views. If the majority of the country becomes anabaptist I’m not going to throw a fit when they slash military spending, I’ll recognize it as a legitimate outcome of the democratic progress that involves anabaptists imposing their ethics on the rest of us non-pacifists.

  • Taylor

    two observations;

    1) In a democracy, it is a right and necessary result of the system that the ideals and ethics of the individual become the ideals and ethics of the government. in other words, Christians ought not force the majority, but neither should they accommodate an unethical minority.

    For example, inasmuch as I am against abortion, not only do I have as much right as any unbeliever to vote my conscience; I also have an obligation to the very system of government in which I exist to do just that.

    2) While it seems to be a persistent caricature (and as such, is sometimes true) of biblicists that they oversimplify, I am concerned about the result of over contextualizing as well. In the model put forth by Bauckham(#6), there is no suggestion that biblical ethics might be supercultural.

    This sounds like a fair way to study in light of modern sensibilities. Things just aren’t necessarily wrong now that were then. Maybe that’s true, but what are we then saying about sin? Take the elephant in the room. Why was homosexuality a sin in the past? Because it was an affront to a cultural context? Frankly, I find that offensive. I realize that example is extreme, but it does illustrate a danger in attributing ethics to culture too heavily.

    Based on that question, how do(italics) we go about deciding which elements of holiness are supercultural and which aren’t?

  • Taylor

    (I may be misreading the argument in assuming that ethics are often dictated by morality.)

  • Joe Canner

    Taylor #4: What are you suggesting re homosexuality? That it should be against the law? Remarrying after a divorce is also a sin (usually); should that be against the law as well?

    Aside from the fact that it is not at all clear what the Bible says about homosexuality as we know it today, and aside from the fact that the cultural context of homosexuality is much different today than it was in Bible times, it doesn’t seem like there is any warrant for there to be a one-to-one correspondence between what the Bible calls sin and what the government prohibits by law. That is why we need a nuanced approach, such as (perhaps) the one described here.

  • If we read all of Scripture in the context of 1st century Judaism, the reader will notice a stark contrast between the politics of the OT and the politics of the NT. True indeed, the OT is replete with elements of theocracy, whereas the NT seems to be void of any political stand whatsoever. And, I believe this is intentional as Christ draws us away from “Caesar” and into the kingdom of God which are diametrically opposed. One is a kingdom of this world while the latter is a kingdom of another world. I find it ironic that there is not a single instance in all of the NT where Jesus or a disciple sought political favor in order to advance the kingdom of God. Nor, is there a single instance of a disciple seeking individual or civil rights, save perhaps Paul’s desire to appeal before Caesar.

    I don’t think the Bible should be read into politics nor politics read into the Bible. We should essentially empty ourselves of any preconceived biases or notions when studying Scripture, especially the NT. Otherwise, our socio-political beliefs will likely effect our hermeneutics. Most recently, this has become most evident on such socio-political issues as: homosexuality, female ordination, just war, violence. I believe there is some ambiguity in Scripture resulting in some room for interpretation. But not much. The Bible, in most part, is pretty black and white… cut and dry.

  • John W Frye

    Robin @ #3,
    I simply affirm Scot’s comment. For example, the Sermon on the Mount is replete with an ethical code–how to behave toward friend and foe. This sermon presupposes a kingdom and an authentic relationship with its King. We cannot and should not expect the world, our culture at large, to live out this kingdom ethic; it has no capacity to do so. Of course, one can extrapolate ethical ways (non-violent intervention) from the S on the M as Gandhi did (as a Hindu) and as MLK Jr did (as a Christian). What bothers me about the “Take America Back for God” crowd is the incipient vision of a theocracy.

  • AHH

    Before this gets diverted into discussion of theocracy and/or homosexuality, I want to endorse the question of CJW @1.

    I have not read either Bauckham’s book or Grudem’s. But from this review and from what I have read about Grudem’s book (in which I believe he mostly equates Biblical teaching with right-wing Republican positions), it seems like Grudem would be an exemplar of the “biblicism” approach that Bauckham criticizes. Is my impression of their relative approaches accurate?

  • When I was at TEDS, I admit that two of my favorite profs were Wayne Grudem, and (ahem…), Scot McKnight. Grudem was in the midst of writing his Systematic Theology, and we would receive photocopies of the manuscript to read for class. It was fun to interact with Grudem as he was putting the finishing touches on what has become perhaps the most influential theologies of a generation.
    What’s frustrating to me is when someone with one area of expertise attempts to use those tools to an area that demands another framework of expertise. Grudem’s biblicistic systematism does not lend itself well to political theory. And, sadly, Grudem fails to interact with any of the greatest Christian political philosophers. This is a major disservice to the body of Christ. Grudem *could* have offered biblical critique of Subsidiarity, Sphere Sovereignty, Anabaptism, etc., etc., but he does not.

  • bill crawford

    Biblicism is rightfully criticized for making the Bible a “handbook on X”. However well-written and nuanced, how does Bauckham’s book escape this charge? Isn’t he trying to use the Bible as a handbook on politics? And if this is a proper, non-biblicist approach, why not the (for a random example) Bible as a handbook on dating or plumbing?

  • Amos Paul

    There’s only been one Theocracy in history, and that was the Israelite people from Moses and into the Judge system. The nations of Israel and Judah were secular nations ruled by secular men as God warned Samuel they would be in 1 Samuel 8. We should not expect any particular earthly nation to be *God’s* nation as they are all consequently run by corrupt human individuals.

    But when we’re living in a Democratic Republic and are voting for what we think our government should be like, I think it wise for Christians in the States to remember the Declaration of Independence that sparked our country’s existence–wherein we recognized inherent *rights* within every individual God has created. Even the Roman Catholic Church has now recognized the freedom of religion as a fundamental human right. This is not God’s nation we’re living in, but man’s nation–so we ought to defend the rights that God has given men including their rights to pursue or not pursue God in their behavior.

    Nevertheless, we must obviously recognize ethics in law insofar as those legally enforced standards *defend the rights and dignity of individuals* from the harms of other individuals. It’s not our job–and ESPECIALLY not the Government’s job!–to keep one another from sinning. But it is our job, rather, to protect one another from the harms of each other’s sins. To what extent the government is involved is directly proportional to how much power we think a secular authority should wield over our lives as every bit of that power is a sacrifice of *some* of our God given liberty.

    [Shameless plug —

    Furthermore, I’d argue in the line of Aquinas via natural law theory that, if a law does not satisfy the natural requirements of a law, then it’s not a law at all. It’s merely a threat that a legal power or majority is holding over you.

    All genuine laws should fall under the general outline that:

    1. The law is derived from right reason.
    2. The intent of the law is aimed at the common good.
    3. The law is established by a legitimate authority.
    4. The law is fairly promulgated to the populace.

  • Anderson

    FiveDills: “I find it ironic that there is not a single instance in all of the NT where Jesus or a disciple sought political favor in order to advance the kingdom of God.”

    Why do you find this ironic?

  • #13 Anderson – In light of American Christianity. Pushing morality “Christian rights” through legislation and politics.

  • Scot, on the personal / political distinction, Bauckham makes, I think, this helpful point: it is comparatively easier (not simple) to transpose what the Bible says about personal morality from its culture(s) to ours. But, given the massively different political contexts in which Scripture is written, it requires a much more creative and difficult hermeneutical task for the Bible to speak into modern political life.

  • Patrick


    That idea needs advancing for all Christians of all persuasions, the state is not God’s agent for anything except crime prevention and public safety textually unless we accept the OT as our legal codex.

    In this respect Bauckham is right.

  • DRT

    John Frye, I would like to explore a couple topics with you, will you please either get my email from Scot or go to my blog?

  • Taylor

    Joe #6,

    (Sorry it took so long to respond, I’m in Korea)

    I absolutely don’t think the government should rule make laws against for or against homosexuality or heterosexuality. I intended to use that to illustrate the downside of assuming that every moral/ethical issue in the Bible is only unethical due to its context. That would end up with a God who is guilty of hate crime to various subcultures through the ages rather than a righteous God who instituted a law that is universal and spiritual.

    With respect (and I’ve looked at both sides; I actually won a debate at a conservative university on modern homosexuality as not sinful), it is difficult to say that homosexuality is a fuzzy topic on interpretive or cultural grounds, modern or ancient. It would also beg the question of why God was so adamantly concerned about young boys being abused and not young girls. But, this isn’t the outlet for that conversation.

    As I said though, in a democracy, I respect a Christian’s right to vote his or her conscience just as much as anyone else. And his or her conscience ought to be informed to some degree by the Bible.