A Review of Christian Political Witness (Part 1)

A Review of Christian Political Witness (Part 1) May 2, 2014

If you think that the gospel is not political, read Christian Political Witness. This book will fix that misunderstanding.

Today, I will review Christian Political Witness (IVP), which edited by George Kalantzis and Gregory Lee. Why review this book on this blog? I explained my thinking in the last post.

christian-political-witnessThis and the next post give a broad picture and critique. Over the coming weeks, I will examine in more depth a select group of chapters, suggesting some of practical implications for China and ministry.

This book is loaded in significant discussion relevant both for Westerner and non-Westerner alike. Christian Political Witness draws on the insights of scholars across disciplines and backgrounds. Consequently, this anthology offers a wide range of perspectives and is provocative because of its content, not merely its tone.

CPW is a needed corrective in a conversation about a topic that many conservative evangelicals are reticent to talk about. Sometimes, this indifference comes from lack of awareness; others are afraid of the consequences of intermingling “faith and politics.”

Being Biblical is Political

In the opening chapter, Stanley Hauerwas claims that the church is inherently political.

He suggests that the question “What is the relationship between faith and politics” demonstrates the degree to which church has ceased to be the church (22). The very fact that we add “and” between faith and politics shows how much we have misunderstood the gospel and the mission of the church.

When the church ceases to grasp the significance of the incarnation, it yields to the whims of the nation-state and devolves into a voluntary society that must constantly defend its existence.

What does Scripture say?

 The presentations by Mark Noll (ch. 2), Scot McKnight (ch. 3), and Timothy Gombis (ch. 4) are substantial discussions about the relationship between the Bible and the church’s political witness. Mark Noll reviews the problematic ways that people used the Bible in the 1860s to argue both for and against slavery. He insightfully shows the faulty logic of both sides, who confused biblical inerrancy with the correctness of their own theology and practice. Bad exegesis leads to bad ethics.

McKnight challenges two misunderstandings about the “kingdom” language in the Bible. One the one hand, some reduce “kingdom” ministry to social work, making the world a better place. On the other hand, conservative evangelicals tend to privatize Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom.

McKnight defines the “kingdom as the redeemed community under Jesus (59).

Yet, he is not reductionistic. For the time being, the church is the manifestation of God’s reign in the world. He adds, “There is no kingdom outside of the church” (62).

Gombis considers Paul’s political vision.

He begins by clarifying the meaning of “politics,” which he says “has to do with rulership––who is in charge and what right do they have to order our lives?” (75). He then spends the rest of the chapter showing that “for Paul, Israel’s identity and mission shaped the church’s identity and mission” (75). Not only does he offer a truly gospel-centered view of ethics, he discusses a number of contemporary political implications.

Does the Bible Give a Political Witness?

The above authors offer a more robust perspective of “politics” than is customarily held by many (if not most) evangelicals. They do an exceptional job defining their terms, such as church and kingdom. Thus, McKnight and Gombis cut through typical liberal/conservative dichotomies. More importantly, they wind up developing a view of the church rooted in the entire canon, not simply a few of Paul’s epistles.

This review cannot do justice to Hauerwas’ remarks, which truly deserve a full reading. His theological logic is compelling, though at first reading, many will think him too complex. His discussion on Barth could have been shortened; nevertheless, his thesis is penetrating and relevant because he effectively reframes traditional categories of “ecclesiology” and “politics.” As a result, he states,

“That the church matters is why I resist using the language of ‘belief’ to indicate what allegedly makes Christians Christian” (22).

Noll’s chapter is a humbling reminder that a right doctrine of the Bible does not guarantee a right view of Christian practice. This is particularly true when it comes to social issues that the Bible does not direct address.

As a result, Noll’s insights should convince us of the importance of teaching exegesis and not simply theology. Otherwise, theologies framed by cultural presuppositions will ruin the church’s ethical witness in the world.

(In missiological language, this is one more reason why I stress, in Saving God’s Face, the fact that contextualization is fundamentally a work of interpretation.)

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