Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Evangelical Political Activism


Part I


This article will deal with the politico-faith movement in terms of its lack of a coherent hermeneutical method. I will accuse the movement of making unjustifiable exegetical conclusions in the areas of social good, the use of the Mosaic Law, and its view on nature and purpose of Scripture. The movement argues that political activism falls under the rubric of social good, that the Mosaic Law ought to serve as an authoritative magistrate over secular gentile governments, and finally, that the Scriptures belong not only to the Church, but were also given to provide for the moral and social good of the culture. My goal is primarily to ask what divine revelation has to say to us about how we should think about politics in democratic cultures.

Recently, I had a disagreement with Steve Hays over at Triablogue regarding evangelical political activism. The whole affair began with comments I made regarding Steve’s post on his interpretation of what this election meant. Steve argued that the recent presidential election was not a referendum on social conservatism. I took a slightly different view, arguing that American demographics have been moving away from values that agree more with the Christian ethic than not. A survey of worldviews indicates that American culture is a post-Christian culture at this point. Moreover, the demographics imply that conservative values will continue to shrink in the marketplace of ideas for the foreseeable future. Young people are more likely to embrace liberal values by wide margins. This applies to single women as well. The black community is soundly liberal in its worldview, with some conservative Christian ideas mixed here and there, but at a very shallow level. The one demographic that tends toward traditional Christian values is the older generation, which is of course, passing off the scene with each passing year.

A Christian epistemology has at its core, the view that all knowledge is revealed knowledge. Moreover, Christians believe there are two types of revelation: general and special. Francis Turretin writes, “Second, the theology of revelation is again divided into natural and supernatural.” [Institutes, v.I, p.6]

Man possesses knowledge through nature (general revelation), or special revelation. This is the very foundation of hermeneutics. As the recipient of knowledge, man is indeed at bottom, an interpreter. Ethically speaking, Christians must interpret reality according to God's knowledge of reality. And that knowledge is knowledge that is prior to the fact while man's knowledge is revealed after the fact. Moreover, humans only know something when their interpretation of the information is accurate. A faulty interpretation of information does not rise to the level of understanding, which is necessary for knowledge to exist.

“Our prolegomena begins from below, with man. The steps in our development of prolegomena will be to look at man, his nature and his receptivity to revelation; at God, as He is understood by man; and at the appropriation of some particular concepts disclosed by revelation.”[1]

To dismiss the significance of man’s ability to know and hear from God carries with it implications that ripple through every major area of theology and philosophy. Moreover, failure to distinguish between the two types of revelation results in a hermeneutic that, in my opinion, produces a worldview that comingles the sacred with the secular. The results can range from simple error to rank heresy. One has to look no further than Pelagius to see the unholy fruit of confusing the two types of revelation. In addition, theonomy or dominion theology represent very well what happens when theologians are not careful in their hermeneutic when they fail to distinguish between the two types of revelation adequately. "The content of faith can be defined because the message of the Bible is truly made known by the Holy Spirit. Yet this content cannot be defined exhaustively or definitively because mystery remains even in the act of revelation." [Bloesch: Holy Scripture]

Through the centuries well–intentioned men and women have erred either by reducing revelation to rational information or by misunderstanding revelation as an ecstatic experience devoid of cognitive content. Modern fundamentalism illustrates the first error and existentialism the second. [Bloesch: Holy Scipture] It would seem that many evangelicals with strong political leanings tend toward rationalistic reduction of biblical revelation. This seems to emerge in the conversation I had with Mr. Hays.
B.B. Warfield wrote, “There is the revelation which God continuously makes to all men: by it His power and Divinity are made known. And there is the revelation which He makes exclusively to His chosen people: through it His saving grace is made known.” [Warfield, Revelation & Inspiration, 5] Warfield argues that God’s special revelation is especially set aside for the elect. There is a reason for this. Special revelation requires the aid of the Holy Spirit in the process of illumination. Without this help, we cannot understand it. Of the gospel Paul said that the god of this world has blinded the mind of those who do not believe so that they do not understand it. (II Cor. 4:4)  Warfield continues, “In contrast with His general revelation, natural revelation, in which all men by virtue of their very nature as men share, this special, supernatural revelation was granted at first only to individuals, then progressively to a family, a tribe, a nation, a race, until, when the fullness of time was come, it was made the possession of the whole world.” [11] Here Warfield shows us the restrictive nature of special revelation. Even in his use of “the whole world,” he does not intend to say it belongs to all men without exception, but that it belongs to all men of all races who are elect of God. He goes on to say, “But revelation, after all, is the correlate of understanding and has as its proximate end just the production of knowledge, though not, of course, knowledge for its own sake, but for the sake of salvation.” [12]

It is upon this understanding of the nature and purpose of revelation that our hermeneutic rests. “Hermeneutics is important because it enables one to move from text to context, to allow the God-inspired meaning of the Word to speak today with as fresh and dynamic a relevance as it had in its original setting.”[2]

My objection to the politicized faith of most modern evangelicals is hermeneutical, and therefore theological in nature. Our desires for a moral culture are the same. However, even the unregenerate desire a moral culture even if it is one based on a set of morals that are quite different from the ones expressed in biblical Christianity. The problem with the politics of faith has very little to do with social good, or defending the defenseless. Rather, it has to do with hermeneutics. It has to do with interpreting the text. It has to do with knowledge and the understanding of the truths revealed in Scripture. While there is much interest in the procedure of hermeneutics, there is little if any  interest in wrestling with the notion that hermeneutical behavior, like every other behavior, touches Christian ethics. “If the Christian community erred so dramatically on the side of procedure that it ignored responsibility, then academic criticism frequently so emphasized the groundless freedom of reading that interpretation became an action without context or constraint.” [Lundin, Walhout, Thiselton: The Promise of Hermeneutics, xi-xii] The point is that interpreting Scripture always has a context and should always be humbly submissive to the Christian ethic. We are not free to turn the Word of God into play-dough and make it say whatever we please.

The politicized-faith movement within evangelicalism employs hermeneutical methods that violate the grammatico-historical principle of ensuring that the grammar and historical meaning of a text dictate application. By application, I mean praxis. By praxis, I mean embracing the Christian value system. In my discussions with Steve Hays, I accused him of making an unjustifiable exegetical leap when he asserted that the command to care for your family, given to fathers, necessarily involved political activism. When I asked Steve to provide exegetical warrant for his handling of the text, he responded that he was taking general principles and working by logical inference. However, to legitimately draw a logical inference from a general principle, the two must remain indisputably connected. Using Steve’s approach, a modern western woman could say that her husband is violating God’s command to love her because he did not do something she wanted him to do. In other words, God commands husbands to love their wives, but who determines what that looks like? If this command is nebulous, it opens Pandora’s Box. A wife could argue that loving her means doing the dishes. The husband could say that it does not. The wife could answer I am working from the general principle of God’s command to its logical inference. A child could insist on the same sort of reasoning that Steve Hays uses, to argue that a father should incur tremendous hardship to pay for his or her education. The point is that the command is not as nebulous as Steve thinks it is and hence, this helps us with the rule that says, “Where do we draw the line?” Where is the line in the sand that helps us understand what it looks like to obey God’s command? This is where hermeneutics comes in to help with our exegesis of the text. This is the process of interpretation that every believer must respect as they access the biblical text. The casual approach most Christians take to interpreting Scripture is not only foolhardy and aweless, it leads many into flagrant sin.

The Politicized faith movement argues that political activism falls into the category of “social good.” Moreover, many, such as Steve Hays argue that the Mosaic Law “ought” to serve as the basis for civil law in American culture. Finally, Steve has asserted that the Scriptures belong not only to the Church, the Christian community, but also to the unregenerate as well and they serve more than one purpose.

“The most subtle of all misapplications of Scripture concerns those who interpret passages in their correct literary and historical contexts but then bring them to bear on situations where they simply do not apply.” [Klein, Bloomberg, Hubbard: Introduction to Biblical Interpretation] I think there is something involving this error bound up in the idea that Christ’s mandate for social good involves political activism.

The argument asserts that political activism is a logical inference derived from the general principle that Scripture mandates that Christians should engage in social good. Some go so far as to say that this is what Jesus meant when He said we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Is this an accurate understanding of the meaning of that text? Would Christ’s audience have understood Jesus' words this way? Is this even remotely close to how they would have applied it to their lives? The first step of application in the hermeneutical process is to understand not only what the text meant to the original audiences, but also what application looked like for them. To determine the answer to this, we have to move to exegesis.

Located in the Sermon on the Mount is Christ’s statement and command, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” What does it mean to be the light of the world? To what can we compare this? Do we have an example? In John 9:5, Jesus said while he was in the world, He is the light of the world. It stands to reason that the Church should engage in the same works that Christ engaged in if she is to be the light of the world in the same way Christ was. Was Christ aiming for a more moral culture? Was it the goal of Jesus to reshape Roman government in any way shape or form? Was Jesus after religious reform of the Jewish system during His day?

In the preceding verse, Jesus informed the disciples that they are the salt of the earth. We are both salt and light in a world that is dark and decaying spiritually. Notice that this statements refer to what we are! By nature, our new nature of course, we are salt and light. Jesus then says that doing good works is akin to letting our light shine before men. What are these good works? Do we have any idea what Christ was talking about? What does Jesus mean by good works, and how would his audience have understood and applied these words? One must not lose sight of the salt covenant as we read this text. To share salt with someone was to share fellowship and even to have a covenant relationship with someone. One interpretation of this passage hints at the possibility that the Church represents the salt of the food shared between God and his covenant relationship with creation. The focus is not on the overall covenant with creation, but rather the significance of the role of the disciples now in that covenant. If there is no salt, there is no flavor, and no preservative.

 The question is an important one because it is apparently by these good works that the Church shines her light and is quite possibly a passive preservative against moral decay. In order to understand the meaning of the text, it is important that we look at the grammar as well as the context. Most commentators focus on the historical use of salt and what it meant in that culture and unfortunately, they stop there. I suggest we look a little closer at the grammar. Ὑμεῖς ἐστε is a Greek emphatic. In other words, this construction would be like Jesus saying “YOU” are the salt of the earth. The focus is on the disciples. The same is true when He says you are the light of the world. Jesus’ focus is not on what follows the personal pronoun. It is on the personal pronoun. Jesus’ audience would have understood the salt and light analogy easy enough. They knew full well the significance of salt and light. Jesus is saying that Christians, by the nature of who and what they are in community with one another and in unity with Christ, are as significant to the present world order as salt is to food and light is to darkness.

Jesus then points out that He has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but rather to fulfill them. He then emphasizes how significant it is for anyone to manipulate the commandments. Finally, Jesus says that unless the righteousness of His audience exceeds that of the religious of His day, they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ concern in Matt. 5:13-20 is clearly the personal holiness and the unique nature of His disciples. The emphasis is on the conduct of the disciples and why that conduct is important. Christian values do have an effect on the world. That much is absolutely clear. However, is that effect the result of political activism determined by radically pragmatic goals? Jesus Himself was the light of the world while He was in the world. How much more moral did the Jewish culture become while He was here? Did He come to make a more moral culture or to save His people from their sins? Secondly, should our concern be on our personal holiness and sanctification or should it be on being salt and light? In other words, is it right to focus on our own behavior or the impact that God causes from that behavior? Grammatically, it seems that Christ is emphasizing personal righteousness or sanctification and then graciously disclosing how God uses that behavior in the world. History demonstrates very well how devastating it is when the Church focuses on results rather than pure obedience. Scripture reveals two basic truths in Matt. 5:13-20: first, that Christians being Christians are salt and light in this world. Second, being salt and light requires that we take personal holiness very seriously because if our righteousness fails to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees we will be like saltless salt and lightless light; good for nothing. The general principle is that good works serve as a preservative perhaps to the world and as light in a dark, sinful place. However, the suggestion that good works includes modern political activism is an anachronistic imposition on the text that is unwarranted.

How often are we commanded to be united together, to love one another, and to do good to one another and to malign no one in the Scriptures? Christian unity, love, service, and charity all serve as the good works, or deeds Christ mentions here. It is these deeds that would have come to the mind of Christ’s audience at the time. They would have understood this very well. They would not have thought about including overthrowing the Roman Government as a “good deed,” even if many of them would have wanted to do just that. Jesus said in Jn. 13:35 that all men would know that we are His disciples by the love we have for one another. Love is visible. The world can see the Christian community’s love or lack thereof. "For these poor wretches persuade themselves that they shall be immortal, and live for everlasting; so that they despise death, and some of them offer themselves to it voluntarily. Again, their first lawgiver taught them that they were all brothers, when once they had committed themselves so far as to renounce the gods of the Greeks, and worship that crucified sophist, and live according to his laws. So they hold all things alike in contempt, and consider all property common, trusting each other in such matters without any valid security." (Lucian, from The Death of Peregrinus, quoted p. 257, A Treasury of Early Christianity, Anne Fremantle).

"They asserted, however, that the amount of their fault or error was this: that they had been accustomed to assemble on a fixed day before daylight and sing by turns a hymn to Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, nor for any crime, but to commit neither theft, nor robbery, nor adultery, not to break their word and not to deny a deposit when demanded..." (Pliny the Younger, To Trajan, p. 254, A Treasury of Early Christianity, Anne Fremantle).

These are a sampling of good works observed by the world in the early period of the Church. In part 2, I will continue to discuss the arguments made by modern evangelicals in democratic societies that burden Christians with the imperative to be politically active.



[1] Winfried Corduan, Handmaid to Theology (Baker Book House, 1981), 1.
[2] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 23.

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