What is Politics?

Christianity and Politics I

The Bible is not a political manual, which is obvious on a moment’s reflection. Many Christians—including influential pastors and scholars—emphasize this today. They are not wrong to do so in the abstract, although there are two fundamentally divergent paths that are usually taken once this platitude leaves one’s lips. Some say (or at least live as if it is true) that because the Bible is not a political handbook Christians should not get involved in politics; their lives should be about spiritual things.

Others, although agreeing that the Bible wasn’t written to give us a detailed blueprint for political action today, go in a completely different direction: Christians should indeed care about politics because the state is an important divine institution in the world. Recognizing that the Bible isn’t written to provide detailed instructions for things like precise tax rates, exact immigration quotas, percentage of GDP to be spent on infrastructure, military strategy, and so on, they turn instead to arguments from natural law, the voice of conscience, and even simple observations about governance derived through trial and error over many centuries.

I am firmly in this latter group. And yet I still recognize that the Bible has much to say about the state, which God created for the good of humanity. Scripture does this in a variety of ways. In the next article I will work through what I take to be the building blocks of a Christian approach to politics. I’ll do so by looking at God’s purposes for the world as seen in the opening chapters of Genesis, where we encounter man’s divine mandate to rule over the world God made.

But for now we must begin with a definition of politics. I take mine from the great seventeenth century Protestant political theorist Johannes Althusius (Politica 1.1-3):

Politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them. Whence it is called ‘symbiotics.’ The subject matter of politics is therefore association, in which the symbiotes (= “people who live together”), pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life. The end of political ‘symbiotic’ man is holy, just, comfortable, and happy symbiosis (= “living together”), a life lacking nothing either necessary or useful. Truly, in living this life no man is self-sufficient, or adequately endowed by nature.

Or put more simply: politics is figuring out how groups of people can live together, and doing so in a way that is good for them both individually, and as a whole. Quoting Aquinas Althusius puts it tersely: ‘to govern is to lead what is governed to its appropriate end” (Politica 1.13) For Althusius this means attending to a just constitution and governmental administration (Politica 1.5), to the material welfare of a people (Politica 1.8-9), to self-determination and national defense (Politica 1.17), and to the needs of body and soul (Politica 1.14).[1]

As such (and as we will see as this series unfold) politics is just as self-evidently important from a biblical perspective as it is the case that the Bible is not a detailed manual for political action. If the Bible speaks to living together with others in society (which it does) it speaks to politics. Politics would only be extraneous to a Christian’s life if he happened to be the last man on earth.

In this series of brief articles I aim to provide a primer of sorts for Christians thinking about the basics of faithful political engagement. Most books on the subject are either at a very high level (academically speaking), or, if on the popular level, are aimed primarily at ensuring that Christians do not get involved in any meaningful sense. To do so, it is often claimed, is idolatry (exceptions might be made to restrict gun ownership or enact reparations for slavery).

But our Protestant forebears knew better. To bring this to a close I’ll simply leave you with the words of the Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli:

In good republics, both law and administration will aim at nothing less than each man becoming a good citizen, for they have eyes not only for the body but also for the spirit, and they will take care that citizens live according to virtue.[2]

Citizens living according to virtue in good republics. That is the Christian political project in a nutshell, and that is what we will explore in this series.

* * *

For those who might be interested in following as these short articles unfold, here is a list of the topics I intend to address:

  1. What is Politics?
  2. Politics and Creation: Order and Rule
  3. Politics and the Fall: The Goodness and Limits of Politics
  4. Political Wisdom: God and Politics in Proverbs
  5. King of Heaven and Earth: On God’s “Two Kingdoms”
  6. Politics and Power: The Civil Magistrate
  7. Politics and Society: Family, Community, Nation
  8. Freedom and Tyranny: Rights, Obligations, and Political Order
  9. Politics and Law: Divine and Human Law in the State
  10. Conclusion: Classically Protestant Politics for Today

[1] The latter of these is the most controversial among many Evangelicals today (and will be dealt with in a subsequent piece), but one might think that most could at least agree that the state cannot be neutral with regard to religion, maybe even that church and state can be harmonious in their labors without intruding upon the realm and authority that is distinctive to the other. But then again radical secularism has so pervaded our nation since the end of WWII that even these claims might seem radical and un-American to many.

[2] Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics (Emidio Campi and Joseph C. McLelland, eds.; Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2006), 12.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.