The Need for Faithful Political Theology
Pastor Tim Keller thinks “many American Evangelicals have no coherent understanding of how to relate the Bible to politics.” He made this lament on Twitter, posting it as part of his argument that “Churches should not destroy unity or fellowship over political differences.” It seems this inability to connect Biblical truth to the political sphere leads to such destruction.
Another way to put the problem is to say that American Evangelicals do not know how to engage in political theology. For political theology seeks to relate the Bible to politics. It begins with submission to God through His revelation, with Scripture as the highest revelatory authority. Political theology then uses this lens to consider the essential questions of politics, such as who should rule, for what purposes, and by what means. It next takes those big concerns and applies them to one’s own political society, seeking through prudence to mold policies that fit Biblical principle to local circumstance.
Keller got this part right. American Evangelicals, really many American Christians, lack a coherent political theology. Yet Keller’s own comments place him among them. Moreover, in his critique, Keller offered no alternative principles for thinking and acting Biblically in the political sphere. Granted, a tweet threads is not the best forum for making that case, given the nuance required. However, some hint of a direction would have been appropriate.
Appropriate and deeply needed. We need a political theology grounded in our Protestant past and relevant for our 21st century. What might that political theology look like?
We can start our inquiry with Psalm 2. There, political rulers and the peoples ruled by them conspire against God’s rule. After laughing them to scorn, God orders them to “serve the LORD” and to “Kiss the Son,” meaning God’s anointed in a foreshadowing of Christ. The basic position of a political ruler and his people is submission to God. This submission is part of their political wisdom, or folly if they do not submit. The same Psalm says “therefore, o kings, be wise” and that wisdom consists in the call to serve the LORD “with fear” (remember,too, that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom).
Next, we turn to Romans 13. Often appealed to in order to quell thoughts of rebellion, the passage also gives the basic outline of government’s purpose. After saying that all governments are divinely established, Paul writes that rulers “are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Romans 13:3). Moreover, if you “do what is good…you will receive his [magistrate’s] approval.” Thus, the ends of government involve punishing evil (thereby protecting the innocent) and rewarding good. We must write our laws and operate our institutions according to these goals.
However, we immediately run into a problem. Few would object to a double purpose so generic. Of course government should punish the bad and at least approve the good. Digging down one level, how do we discern the good worthy of honor and the evil deserving punishment? What content do we have in mind for these categories?
To get at this question, let us return to Keller’s argument. Keller supported his point by comparing two sins: idolatry and murder. Affirming the evil of both, he then noted that Evangelicals do not wish to institute legal bans on the first. However, many Christians argue that the Bible’s prohibition on murder requires believers seek to illegalize abortion. Keller sees incoherence between the two. If we refuse to ban idolatry, we must be open to continued legalized abortion as at least a legitimate Christian posture.
To address this claim, we must turn to those rules’ origin. We know these sins from a common source: the Ten Commandments. Perhaps one could start there when considering the good and evil of which Romans 13 speaks for politics. Keller balks at doing so, both because “it is too simplistic” and “we don’t do this already.”
“[W]e don’t do this already” appeals to public policy as currently practiced. Keller thus points out that we do not enforce most of the Ten Commandments at all. The few we do, like stealing and murder, we hardly do as a conscious keeping of the Decalogue. Nor are we likely to take up these laws any time soon, given increasing secularization and elite antagonism to Christian belief.
But this is a poor argument. It implicitly assumes an ought from an is. However, the first point about simplicity requires more interaction. It gives us a window, in fact, to addressing the content question. On the direct, narrow point, Keller is right. Pasting the Decalogue into the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations would indeed be too simplistic. But for much longer than America’s existence, Christians looked to the Ten Commandments as a starting point to discuss what a legal code should involve. That is because Christian belief predominately saw the Decalogue as including a summary of the moral or the natural law. It displayed in summary the essential points of justice and thus comprised the groundwork for legal reasoning.
For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the confessional standard of Keller’s Presbyterian Church in America, says, “The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof.” On this point, the Confession holds a basic agreement with the current Roman Catholic Catechism, Thomas Aquinas, and the vast majority of reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries.
By the moral or the natural law, these men meant those laws first revealed by God in nature to the reason and conscience of man. We did not need special revelation from Mt. Sinai to know not to murder or that God deserves obedience and worship. Romans 1:18–32 shows our problem to be primarily one of will, not intellect. We know false worship and sins against neighbor are wrong. We even know the ultimate penalty they deserve. However, we need the moral law restated, as well as the grace to love and follow that law truly, because of our sinful hearts.
The moral or the natural law furnishes principles. They do not comprise a legal code. Thus, the Israelites had the judicial law, which applied the moral law to their own polity. Those rules made up their statutory system. Since God authored these laws as much as he did the Decalogue, the judicial laws applied the moral law perfectly to the Hebrew polity. However, those laws did not last because the Israelites as a political community did not last. Returning to Westminster, that document (stating a commonplace Protestant observation) declares that the judicial law “expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”
Thus, this system leaves us with the Ten Commandments still of binding obligation. Blasphemy, idolatry, murder, adultery, and coveting remain sins. But we have freedom to form codes under the moral or natural law as we think best for our time and place. Moreover, while we have that freedom, the Scriptures do not leave us without additional guidance. The judicial law itself might, as Westminster says, show us the “general equity” that our own laws could follow in spirit, not in letter. The examples of the judges and kings, the wisdom of Proverbs, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, and the accusations of the prophets all give counsel for wise political action.
In the past, many Christian thinkers had public laws enforce all Ten Commandments but with this limit: they only regulated a person’s actions. The state could not touch the conscience; God alone was Lord of it. This point applied to the Second Table about loving one’s neighbor as much as the First about loving God. Hating your brother and wishing him dead the state had no power over. But the state could illegalize deeds grounded in all Ten. Speaking blasphemy and murder both received punishment.
In America, our enforcement of the First Table has always been less stringent than many of our predecessors in Western Christendom. And rightly so. We have some liberty within the bounds of justice in how we pursue the good. Yet we have had state laws that established certain denominations. Many of these tended to be establishments conferring privileges, however, always in ways that retained freedom of worship for dissenters. We banned blasphemy and had blue laws giving special status to Sunday, not because our citizens simply needed some day to rest but because Sunday was the day for rest and for worship. That did not mean we forced persons to attend worship or tried to pry into their hearts regarding their belief about God.
I would argue that legal action on the First Table continues even in today’s highly secularized America. We still have certain laws that treat sales, especially of alcohol, differently on Sunday. We still give massive tax breaks and exemptions to churches and ministers. Again, these fall short of how rigorously other nations have enforced the First Table it the past. But religious liberty has a legitimate home in Christian political theology alongside efforts by the state to be a nursing father or mother to the church (Isaiah 49:23). To see them as incompatible shows our inability to construct a political theology . Liberty need not mandate absolute neutrality, hard as that seems for us to grasp.
But that all still leaves the question: why not a similar calculus on abortion? We do ban many forms of killing. Why say this form must receive legal prohibition? I think a good answer exists on this front, too. One is institutional. We have the church to model and encourage proper worship of God. Whatever role a government might have in that task will always be secondary. The same is not true of protections against theft or killing. There, the church must speak out against them and exercise its own discipline against members who engage in willful, unrepentant sin. However, Romans 13 says that the state, not the church, possesses the sword. Its coercive power is trained toward stopping the actions of these sins, by force if needed.
And protecting life holds a special place among these goals of government. Consider again that Romans 13 calls government an ordinance of God for our good. We can think of many potential goods government might provide. In fact, a central debate of politics involves what goods a government rightly guarantees. However, one prerequisite exists for any and all other goods: existence. One must live before he can receive protection of his property or of his religious exercise. No life, nothing else can be done as far as politics goes. There is a reason that many trace Genesis 9:6 to the formation of law and government. That passage says, “[w]hoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Destruction of life is a special evil and God gave special sanction to government to deal with that evil.
Turning to abortion, consider the importance the Bible places on our obligation to protect the weak. “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation” (Psalm 68:5). The prophets of the Old Testament serve as prosecutors against Israel on these counts. Prosecutors charge based on violations of the law. The Israelites have broken the law, in part, by neglecting the weak among them, notably the fatherless and the widow. “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them” (Isaiah 1:23). How much weaker does one get than the unborn? How much more defenseless?
Consider, too, the particular banning of child sacrifice to Molech (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2). It profanes God in its wanton destruction of innocent life for the purpose of serving false gods. Abortion is tied up so closely with idolatries of consumerism and self-centeredness that it approximates Molech sacrifices too closely for comfort. Thus, combine the importance of life, the weakness of the unborn, and the idolatry involved in abortion, and we see a special imperative that their lives receive protection.
Thus, Pastor Keller is right. American Christians need to rediscover political theology. But they need one much more robust than what Keller offered. In the name of church unity, his approach results too often in a combination of inaction and platitudes. Christians should not break Christian fellowship over tax rates, infrastructure spending, or how to fund Social Security. But violations of the moral law are more serious matters. They have a theological foundation and a role to play in thinking about law and politics. We can think both thoughtfully and effectively if we would return to the exercise of political theology.
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