Critiquing Wayne Grudem’s Political Theology

Wayne Grudem is upright and unafraid to sidestep nuance and preach a strong word about Christian involvement in politics or the public square, that issue amongst others. This stance was appropriate in the setting I saw him in. He was in a church, answering the ‘Why?’ of political engagement and not the ‘How?’, which is a question that is much harder to answer, perhaps because it requires more than a lexicological knowledge of the Bible and its languages and translations. Grudem certainly has a systematic theological knowledge of the Bible. But is that enough if you want to formulate a concept of ‘Politics –According to the Bible’?

A blog post or so ago, I gave an account of Wayne Grudems talk at St. Helens Bishopsgate earlier this month, were he was encouraging Christian political engagement and promoting the work of the Christian Institute. You can read the account here.

As I said then, I am going to offer some points of criticism that formed while I listened to him. Before I ‘go negative’, I would like to repeat that his talk was excellently structured and very well delivered and, perhaps more importantly, that I agreed with more of what he had to say than I disagree with. However, I do express hesitance for a couple of reasons:

First, I said that I was anxious about how he framed the boxes he proceeded to tick. Second, it was a motivational talk, or rather a sermon, and not an academic lecture, the ideas of which are likely elucidated in his book, for which the space was not available on that Thursday evening. Third, there where some significant points which he should have clarified, elucidated and been clearer on. These are what I intend to talk about below.

What is a nation?

Grudem repeatedly talked about the/a/our/your etc ‘Nation’. However, he did not define what a nation is, or how a nation relates to geography, history, land or political system (monarchy, democracy, tyranny or another derivative or model thereof). For him it seemed to be neutral term, which did not deserve criticism, or praise, other than if Christians had influence it, in which case it was praised to the Christian effect. To some, this might sound like a desire for Christendom which in short hand means something like, where the church is above or as powerful as the state in leading a geographic region that ‘is ruled’ by exercising force and not allowing a plural environment of faith. The term has historical significance (middle ages, crusades etc.) and is criticised (somewhat) by Grudem in the first of his five points. Hence I don’t think he is promoting a ‘Christendom model’ of church-state relation.

However, he did not criticise it absolutely. This is a problem since it assumes that an authority of the church can and should have significant ‘power’ which is on par with the state. By power, it is assumed that the church has ‘coercive’ power, such as the power of the police or more seriously the military, to ‘correct’ behaviour, and in the more dangerous situations sectarian insurrections, according to the ‘Law’.

Grudem was clear that the church should not, and does not, wield this sort of power these days, but he did say that Christians should inform what is good and what is evil, since without Christians this difference is obscured. Hence the state should enforce, through coercive means, that which Christians think is best for the ‘nation.’ However, he did not explain how that relationship functions.

The ‘problem’ of Pacifism

I am not a pacifist, but I did feel Grudem could have done better on that front. He did not have much time for pacifism, at least as articulated by Gregory Boyd in “The myth of a Christian Nation”. According to Grudem, Boyd uses a circular argument against the involvement of Christians in martial force used by the nation, which basic argument is that if force was not used, history would be different, and hence history would be different. Grudem correctly criticises this argument to the point of making a joke out of it, but I wish he would have argued with Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, or Dietrich Bonheoffer: harder pacifist ‘nutters’ to crack.

What is more irritating however, is that Grudem claims Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of ‘us,’ Christians who have engaged with the political. King fought against racial discrimination in a non-violent way against the state. Here Grudem is inconsistent since he does not acknowledge the debt that those actions have to the political theology of the Anabaptist/pacifist tradition, which pits the state against the church, and asks the church to participate in direct action in a non-violent way against the state in situations where the state is oppressive. This shows a lack of charity towards pacifists—those who represent a political theology which is more counter-cultural or, to set the vocabulary in our context, counter-national—than Grudem would allow. Yes he did say disagreement amongst Christians about political theology was allowed, but it seemed he was allowing disagreements about issues not necessarily the approach.

An idealistic view of history

Grudem illustrated an idealistic view of history. He was thankful for those lives given by the UK to fight off Nazi Germany, and presumably, though he did not mention it, the US involvement in that war as well. Another country and person he did not mention was Stalin and Soviet Russia, hardly a God fearing man, and not a country run by Christian values, yet they too lost men fighting the plight that was Nazism, and without them German would not be my second language. Furthermore, WW2 was arguable caused not only by Hitler, but also by the after effect of WW1, the greed of nations, many of which where led by Christians.

Grudem did not mention Christians in Germany, many of whom fought for Germany, not Hitler, having an affiliation and loyalty to the nation, not its leader. Grudem did not mention the Dresden bombing, the use of the atomic bomb, or how the allies cut up not only Europe, but Africa and the Middle East. These lines on the map, drawn without care or heed to the tribes or ‘nations’ of those that lived in these countries, but done in a self serving way. Grudem did not want to acknowledge mistakes made by Christians in their involvement in the political, martial and legal realms. Which leads us to the most contentious point.

On the knowledge of Good and Evil

You wouldn’t want to be operated on by a mediocre doctor would you? You want the best doctor, even if he is not a Christian. You wouldn’t go to a mediocre Christian doctor, just because he is a Christian? The comparison is slightly unfair but the principle holds. While it is true that appropriate biblical principles are good for a nation (what ever that is), badly understood or misapplied biblical principles, interpreted by ‘nutters’, are bad for the nation and can do damage not only to the nation but to the reputation of God.

This point can be made through history. If we are going to uphold that a nation should be  significantly influenced by Christians and Christian values, then we must also say that the same nation hold the Christian responsibility of the deeds perpetrated by it which are evil. The acts of the conquistadors in South America, the acts of the slave trade (even if it was abolished because of Christian action), the eradication of native Indians, the covert operations in Banana republics and the list can go on. All these where perpetrated by nations and citizens more than happy to call themselves Christians. These acts where evil, done in the name of greed and hate against our neighbour. Grudem offered no apology, or did not articulate how Christians who see such evil should operate against their own leaders.

When he did argue for Christian involvement in politics I think he was largely eluding to traditional moral majority issues in the US, such as abortion, marriage support, and help for the family, though I seem to remember that he mentioned issues of poverty and debt as well. [edit:] But his thinking did not stretch further than assuming the liberal democratic state and its settlement with the church is in order.

Yes, Christians have special access to an understanding of true law, however, if you a priori allow for the goodness of a plurality of religions (or at least Christian sects), then you must also allow for a plurality of sources of understanding of what the good is and how civil society structures itself. This of course does not mean that Christians give up all their rights to speak in the public sphere, but it does mean we have to come to the discussion humbly and with a recognition that we might be wrong in out understanding. It doesn’t mean that we let others push us around, but it does mean our wisdom requires us to see where our own initiatives might be evil. It requires us to walk humbly with the Lord, which I am sure Grudem does.

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17 Responses to Critiquing Wayne Grudem’s Political Theology

  1. Phil C says:

    Great post. Do you think the idea of a “Christian nation” is valid? From your penultimate paragraph I’m not sure whether you are critiquing the idea in itself, of merely Grudem’s lack of clarity on it.

  2. Lauri Moyle says:

    Thanks Phil. I made some small edits of clarification to the last section of the post. I think it’s clearer now.

    What I am doing is pointing out were Grudem was unclear, and were he seemed to assume a specific type of political engagement, without thinking outside the box or even really acknowledging that other options are available. It’s a sort of historical nearsightedness and a look at the future which assumes the democratisation of nations.

    Personally I am very sceptical of the term ‘Christian Nation.’ If we assume that all of creation belongs to Christ then somehow the idea of a Christian Nation seems redundant. Now, what most people mean by a Christian Nation is that its values are directed by Christians and that biblical principles are a strong solid part of the heritage of that nation. This assumes that the state has the power to shape morality and because a Christians Nations values are shaped by Christians, the corporate morality of the nation will be strong.

    I think this is a bit of a myth. Does that mean Christians should not seek to change the law in order to influence the state and hopefully the morality of a given country? No. The law is indeed there to restrain evil.

    Having said that, you might not know this, but the Queen made a covenant with God when she started her reign, as did Obama when he started his term as President of the US. Does that make our nations Christian, even if we don’t really think that our laws reflect its Christianity? Hm…

  3. Tom Stanbury says:

    Thanks for the blog posts they have provoked me to think. I hesitate in making a post because not sure I fully understand the subject I am about to introduce. However it hasn’t stopped me in the past!

    I desire and pray for Christendom but not necessarily the Christendom as previously defined. I want people to know the Lordship of Jesus Christ by the spirit of God. So I would challenge the negative notion of Christendom. People knowing Jesus does change them and not sure I would like to meet the non-christian Tom Stanbury.

    As I have thought about this subject, to my mind eschatology does bear on the matter. The problem with eschatology for christians and especially evangelical christians (us) we can’t agree on how it will all pan out ( I am not going to go through the different possibilities now that would be PrePost-erous!) But I do think it has significant implications which are perhaps more pronounced in the U.S with their numerous ‘End Times’ interpretations. What kind of a world the christian believes Jesus returns to will massively effect how they will invest the life that God has given them now.
    What I know of church history and doctrine the orthodox belief that all christians can agree on with this subject is Jesus will come in the future to judge the living and the dead. As you encourage us in your final sentence in the post to walk humbly with the Lord, this future judgement should give further motivation to do the same.

  4. Lauri Moyle says:

    Hi Tom. No need to worry about knowledge of the subject matter. I am glad your contributing. Your right that the previous definition of Christendom is not the same as what you desire. Fervent haters of the ‘Christendom’ model of church/state relations, can be very real and true believers. In that sense I would say the label ‘Christendom’ has become so loaded that it is no longer useful. However the term Kingdom of God is better suited to our discussion. If Jesus is your Lord, you are a member of the Kingdom of God.

    Augustine, though writing before the middle ages, talks in his book, The City of God, about two kingdoms. The first is the kingdom of the man, the second is about the kingdom of God. If read from a theo-political perspective the book outlines the different realities that we as Christians live in. We are in a sense members of both cities (the kingdom of man is not in and of itself evil or wrong) and share in the reality of both the city of God and of men. So as a Christian, I am a member of the Kingdom of God, but I am as a human, also a citizen of the United Kingdom. However, the heavenly citizenship (Salvation through Christ) means that I will want the laws of the UK to reflect the truths which are found in the Bible. The way I used the term Christendom, relates to power and coercion. In the Middle ages the inquisition and other aspects of the Church of Rome and indeed Calvin’s Geneva, applied the use of force to control behaviour. That is now no longer what the church does. And I think that is a good thing.

    With regards to the end times, that is a whole ball game I don’t really want to get into, but again you are right to point out that its an important issue, not least because it relates to Us foreign policy.

  5. Tom Stanbury says:

    The two kingdoms is an important reminder. Yes quite relieved I live in considerably less brutal times in respect of the church enforcing behaviour.
    The reason I mentioned ‘End Times’. It is because the theology of some christians causes them to disengage with the world. The argument being this world will be destroyed and won’t last. This leads either to no political/social engagement or very skewed involvement.
    I have reached the conclusion there are things of this present world that will last into eternity. Although I can’t clearly present this from scripture. In fact every kind word, generous act, everything that is good is surely the basis of the new heaven and earth. With the acknowledgement that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead it will cause the christian to live quite differently than thinking whatever we do in this world gets destroyed anyway.

    • Phil C says:

      Tom, here is an essay which supports the view that things here today will/might last, which might be helpful:

      • Lauri Moyle says:

        Thanks for this. It looks v interesting Phil.

        V quickly Tom, (if you are looking for quick conceptual reasons to argue for political engagement) I would say that anybody who works in a ‘secular’ job, might as well work in ‘politics.’ They can still support the work of the Church and evangelism.

        Second, I would ask why it is that we bake cake. We might as well, use the resources to make bread, and save the rest to support evangelism. This leads back to the importance of having an understanding of the whole of human existence as human, not just as Christians. The Westminster Confession of faith articulates that the chief end of man is not to evangelize, but rather to give glory to God and enjoy him for ever. This of course means we must engage in evangelism, but it also means so much more.

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  8. wadingacross says:

    A friend has lent me his copy of Grudem’s book and I’d decided that once I’d read it, I’d review it.

    Well, life is bogging me down so my reading is virtually nil. I started to read your critique and then stopped myself on the off chance I might accidentally affect my own views going into and coming out of reading the book. I hope to give it a fair shot though and it looks like you’ve done a pretty thorough critique with a hopefully even hand considering your introduction.

    On an aside, anyone who links to L’Abri as a valuable resource is OK in my book! Schaeffer was/is cool.

    • Lauri Moyle says:

      Please note that I was not reviewing the book, but rather the first chapter of his book which is escencially the talk that he gave in London as a part of the books launch in the UK. But yes, do read him first and please do get back to me if you have questions or comments that you think might be helpful. L’abri is great.

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  11. SMB says:

    The points you made about WW2, crimes of “Christian” colonial powers and poverty are very well made. Pulling Grudem up on Dr Martin Luther King was also needed. King was influenced by Ghandi!!!! How pacifist can you get?!!

    Just to add, Grudem does not deal with the pacifist way Christ submitted himself to the forces of evil. When the guards came to take him away, Peter got out a sword and chopped a guard’s ear off. Jesus’ response was to rebuke Peter and heal that guard’s ear. Does this sound like a call to force in order to restrain evil to you???

    I’m afraid to say it, but all this leads us to the conclusion that Grudem is just a vile propagandist. Making matters much worse is his use of the Bible to advance his political ideology. He is just another self-righteous American evangelical, whose picks and choses the moral issues he wants to deal with. He’s not worth listening to at all and we should stop giving vicious men like this a platform from which to spread his propaganda.

    • Lauri Moyle says:

      I don’t think your last paragraph follows from the first and while I appreciate the frustration you have with Grudem I’m not sure it follows that he is a propagandist or vile. Saying those things reflects badly on a pacifist who would want to follow Jesus which I amassuming you are and want too.

      • simmmo says:

        Hi Lauri,

        I don’t retract my statements about Grudem. Because what this man is advocating in politics is precisely vicious and vile. Justifying violence as long as it is the West that is doing it. Advocating a do nothing attitude towards helping the poor. Read his book. He has simply inserted his own brand of US-centric ideology into scripture. I don’t think it’s a stretch to condemn this guy as a dangerous extremist. He is at the extreme right wing end of the spectrum on all issues he deals with. I mean what more can you say about the man? This is not what we find in the gospels or the prophets, who were particularly concerned with justice for the poor and leaders who actually did something to help them. Unfortunately Grudem takes his economic philosophy from people like Thomas Sowell who think the best way to help the poor is to be more selfish – then everything will get magically better for everyone. The economic models – be they Austrian or classical – that undergird Grudems opinions are unambiguously founded on rational egoism. I.e. do what is good for yourself and yourself only. Is this what the Bible teaches? I don’t think so.

      • Lauri Moyle says:

        Hm. Well, you make a lot of assertions, but dont back them up. I think there is truth in what you say, but attacking him as a person does not help your case. I am sure there is also a lot of truth in the book. I would love to see him wrestle with the concept of the year of Jubilee as applied to modern day US economics.

        I guess I would also say that much of what made america what it is now was based on working out the theology from which Grudem takes his roots. The concepts that John Calvin applied in Geneva, influenced the pilgrims which in turn influenced the development of the US. I think you can be a capitalist, but not espouce a self centred view, a rational egotism, as you say. I have benefited greatly from the donations of wealthy people, many of whom made their money in a way that is not exploitative, egotistical et al. and I think Grudem probably has as well.

        But keep up the critique. We need folk who do that!

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