Wayne Grudem, of systematic theology fame and one of the editors of the ESV ticked all the right boxes in his talk on why Christians need to be involved in politics at St. Helens Bishopsgate on Thursday the 24th. When I say he ticket all the right boxes, I mean it in both a good, but also slightly uneasy way. The way strong box tickers frame their boxes is sometimes the cause of slight unease to me, especially when I agree with so much of what the speaker says. In this post I will outline what happened at the event and in a following post I will offer some comments on what parts of the boxes I had unease about.
Grudem is over from the US through the invitation of the Christian Institute ahead of the publication of his new book entitled Politics – According to the Bible published by Zondervan and coming out in September. Rather unassuming name isn’t it? Well, he isn’t a man afraid of calling things what they are.
His talk had excellent structure, was simple enough for novices to understand and was delivered—rather refreshingly given the subject matter—like a sermon, with pitch change and emotion. At one point he even cried, something I had not expected. The reason for the hoarse voice: The sacrifice of half a million lives made by the UK (or was it England) in the Second World War fight against ‘A’-dolf Hitler.
In short the argument is that the military, police and national structures are here to promote the good and stop evil. It’s not just evangelism but the law that brings about good in society, as it restrains evil. Where would our nation be if Christians did not help our leaders know what is good and evil?
The sketch: What happened
With constant references and repetitions of “your nation” he reminded the audience that “we” and by this I assume he meant the UK have contributed so much good to the world. Grudem expressed his thanks for all the good he has been able to appreciate because of it, including the publication of Erasmus’ Greek NT. “How could I not love this nation?” he said, continuing by asking whether God might not be calling “his sons and daughters” to stand against evil again? Then firing off a machine gun bullet point list of good things that Christianity has caused in the political realm since 67AD, including the cessation of infant sacrifice, spousal burning on pyres, the abolition of the slave trade and in a mock inflection, possibly meant to satirize US civil religion (though that was not clear), he mentioned 1776, the US war of Independence. Then on quick to his five and three point arguments. The first five are the wrong views of Christian relation to politics, the other three affirm Christian involvement in politics.
The summary: Problematising the frames of the boxes will come later. By and large the answer to the following I agree with. If you would like clarification or more information I am happy to reply to questions.
- Government shouldn’t compel religion: Pretty obvious to many of my readers I think. Where it has compelled one religion over others, bloody warfare ensued. For more modern examples look at Saudi Arabia, etc.
- Religion should not be excluded from Government or the public sphere: Disallowing reference to a persons faith in public discourse is a priory a faith commitment, namely that there is no God, or that the gods have nothing to say to the secular political realm. There is more to be said about this, but his summary was adequate. His illustration included a headmaster stopping the valedictorian from mentioning God during her graduation speech, a singular act against freedom of speech, which is sad and laughable under the American constitution.
- All Government is demonic: Here he referenced the book: “The myth of a Christian nation.” which, Grudem says argues that all ‘power over’ is domination which is at root demonic. Governments necessarily dominates hence being involved in Government is being involved in the demonic. Grudem looks to the Old Testament pointing to Israel showing that governance is not bad per se and then looks to the New Testament reminding us that all governments are God ordained. Citing other text to underline his point. He also mentions and critiques, and finally ridicules Boyd’s pacifism. More on that in the next post.
- No politics, lets focus on evangelism (this was the main point of the meeting which was entitled ‘Does political involvement distract from the Gospel?‘): Grudem says that he did not find anybody who would advocate such a view in a book, or openly in conversation, however he did indicate that it is a view people from conservative evangelical churches express. This, he says, is too narrow a view of the gospel. The gospel is good news about everything. He rather naively (from a historical perspective that is) asked what the effect of the good news was in Korea, contrasting the north with the south. His foundational argument against this view is the creation mandate, by which we are called to be involved in all of reality, and politics is certainly one aspect of that reality. Furthermore he says that it is the role of Christians to prevent situations like North Korea where the gospel cannot be shared. He ends by asking: “Which parts of the Bible should we not teach as the bible?” Since the bible has things to say about justice, ending by saying that if I love my neighbor, will I not want good laws for them?
- Do Politics not evangelism: This is self explanatory. The example he gave here is the teachers of the social gospel or liberation theology, which neglect evangelising and calling people to repentance. Evangelism is needed.
The good and affirming things he had to say, the things that we should do are:
- We need to have significant Christian influence on Government: This is so because we are to seek the welfare of the city, no matter which city it is. Moreover we have special access to what the welfare of the city looks like.
- Government will get lost without Christians helping it understand good and evil: Where will its knowledge of good and evil come from if not from Christians?
- The role of pastors is to preach about the political issues as well: from time to time it is appropriate for pastors to teach and preach about a political issue, for the health of the congregation but also for the health of the broader community.
As I said he ticked the right boxes. However, there are some points which are worth critiquing which I will do in more detail later. But just to give you a taster. Grudem does a good job in outlining the Why? of the question but does not do well in the How? department. To be fair, that is not a question he was asked to answer, however I am almost certain that most of the people in the audience would have benefited more from a clear and rigorous answer to How. Second, he did not define what a ‘nation’ is, and given his emphasis on the term (rhetorically annoyingly so), I think this was a strong flaw in his answering the Why?, which is inevitably shaped by the How? which in turn assumes a place, which he in short-hand coined ‘the nation’ but did not define his term. On history his understanding seemed to be as romantic as a Hollywood flick on any given era.
Furthermore, he was less than charitable to the pacifist side of political engagement rooted in the Anabaptist tradition. He was so uncharitable in fact that he claimed Martin Luther King Jr. as a Christian engaging in politics (the good sort), but did not acknowledge the root of Kings political theology and justification for civil disobedience in Anabaptist/pacifist tradition, which he had previously made the butt of a joke.
Finally, Grudem’s emphasis on Christians having special access to the knowledge between good and evil and a purer understanding of justice worried me. More of this later.