Explaining the Christian World(View) of Politics

Posted on September 15, 2013 by

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Our Bereans@thegate blog has as its aim the engagement of Christian thought with the spheres of politics, economics and culture.  But it has occurred that perhaps the readers of the blog may not have a full sense of why and how we write what we do.  In other words, many of the posts are about specific topics from a Christian perspective, the “trees” so to speak, but we have not provided a more comprehensive overview of our thinking, the “forest.”  It is the aim of this post to provide an example of our approach through the sphere of politics.

First, this is a Christian blog site.  That being the case, we have the duty to conduct it from a distinctively Christian standpoint.  So one of the very first presuppositions we unapologetically assert is that we believe that special revelation, the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, are inspired by God, inerrant in their original manuscripts, and therefore authoritative with regard to our lives and thoughts.  The Bible then is God’s final revelation to man and constitutes a faithful record of God’s dealings with man and His holy expectations.  To deviate from this fundamental principle would be to say that there are other, possibly better, revelations of God’s good will in Christ, maybe even other and better ways to salvation, however it might be defined.  We cannot do that in good conscience or in good reason.

Second, we do not in asserting the ultimacy of Scripture as revelation mean to denigrate the existence and accuracy of truth discovered indirectly and outside Scripture.  The knowledge achieved through general revelation has always played an important role within God’s economy of truth.  Political science, a sub-discipline of the broader study of politics, relies on such empirically based knowledge—observations, experiments, statistics, etc.  We do not challenge this approach per se, only its misuse as ultimate, since Scripture is the final judge as to truth.  Scripture gives the so-called boundary conditions for truth, it provides the ground for proper understanding and interpretation of anything asserted as truth.  It serves to guide conclusions reached about empirical knowledge so that even if “all truth is God’s truth” all truth must be examined in light of Scripture.

This is a tall order and presents problems for example of interpretation.  We understand that many sincere Christians may reach interpretational conclusions different from ours.  This is inevitable and we will seek to disagree in charity.  But we also believe that our hermeneutical conclusions are defensible, if not infallible. 

So how does all speak to politics?  Christian worldview, rooted in Scripture, basically raises and answers the ultimate questions of life and thought, which then inform other more specific questions.  Here I will use three examples encountered in the sphere of politics.  First, “What is man’s nature?”  Is he inherently good, bad or indifferent?  Is his nature static or malleable—nature versus nurture?  Is it some combination of the two?  How does Scripture inform the answer?  The latter question is the key for a Christian worldview.  Scripture gives us two crucial facts about humans: (1) all are created in the image of God, whatever that may encompass and (2) since the Fall, all humans have been born in sin, with a nature that is bent toward sin and depravity.  A third fact, often overlooked, is that God is gracious to His creation, even as they rebel against Him.  This is the idea of common grace, that non-believers may possess accurate knowledge of the world and gifts for the flourishing of humans by the grace of God.

In political life, which “theory” of human nature one chooses is pretty important.  If I believe humans are essentially either good or changeable (as did many 18th century Enlighteners and as did Karl Marx), then I am likely to conclude that some forms of government are either good or at worst neutral when they may not be.  Do I trust, say, one-man rule without checks, if I believe humans are born with and possess a sinful nature, even post-conversion?  In other words how I think about the design of institutions is partly governed by my assumptions about human nature.

Another fundamental question is, “How do we know what we know”? (assuming that we can agree that we can know truth).  This is the question of epistemology.  But is this relevant for politics?  Yes it is.  First, we must as Christians be committed to truth in each and every sphere of thought, even politics.  We cannot be indifferent even if we cannot ourselves know all there is to know.  But second, how we think about how we attain knowledge is also important.  As I said, the empirical approach to knowledge is certainly valid, but it also has its limits in terms of what we may assume and conclude regarding our “data.”  To change Kant’s words from “religion within the limits of reason alone,” we assume “reason within the limits of Scripture alone.”  Assumptions and conclusions contrary to the direct or indirect knowledge from Scripture must be deemed out of bounds for the believer.  This is not rigid and wooden hermeneutics, baptizing some obscure text for illegitimate use.  We believe in careful and systematic interpretation and use of special revelation.  Even if an idea or practice is consistent with Scripture and not contradictory, it may of course be acceptable.  But there are clearly limits and they must be limits of Scripture.

Finally, we pose the question, “What is right and wrong, or, is there right and wrong?”  This is the ethical question, so vexing in all spheres simply because there are so many competing voices.  It is made even more problematic as we move from personal ethics to collective or political ethics, the issue of whether some particular institutional arrangement can be said to be consistent with Christian ethical principles.  The personal ethical question is all around us, especially in politics as we witness the various ethical scandals and the foibles of individual politicians.  Clearly and easily we may apply biblical ethical principles in these situations and most of us are fairly comfortable doing that.  But what about collective ethics?  Is a socialist form of government inherently unethical?  Is a republican form (as the United States has) inherently ethical?  This is not so comfortable.  We want so eagerly to condemn one and embrace the other.  But Scripture does not allow it, at least not directly.  Here is where both prudence and a few specific texts help us make a judgment as to which forms give the best incentives (or the worst) for right actions, that is, just actions.  We have already seen that biblically man is prone to sin.  Therefore we would not usually want to give absolute authority to one or a few “central planners” who might well abuse their power (even if not deliberately, since the Fall and sin also negatively affected the capacity of humans to know with the certainty necessary to plan for everyone else).  Moreover, a text such as Exodus 20 would tend also limit the acceptability of socialism—“you shall not steal.”  The latter seems to establish the existence of property rights, if not absolute rights, which ought not to be abolished by any state, let alone any individual.  I am treading carefully here because the argument is not a direct one, some command such that “this is right” and “this is wrong.”  It is partly an argument from prudence circumscribed by special revelation.

I have merely skimmed the surface of the issue of Christian worldview and politics.  More of these fundamental questions could be (and have been) raised by others.  This was only intended to spur further thought.  In addition we must be careful not to confuse what we do with politics as Christians with our ultimate goals of advancing God’s Kingdom through the salvation of individuals from the wrath of God and the building of His church for His glory.  We can fall into one of two extremes, a conservative or liberal (either is possible) social gospel or an isolationist pietism.  Moreover, not all believers are called or equipped to engage every sphere of life and thought in a deep way.  But we are all responsible to be somewhat conversant on any issue from a Christian perspective if it impinges on us or others.  And some are called to be immersed in these various spheres.  I look forward to interaction on this most important of topics.

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