Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Hermeneutics of Evangelical Political Activism

Part II


The grammatical structure and the historical context of the words of Christ in Matt. 5:13-20 lend no support to the practice of making the logical inference that good works or social good requires or even involves political activism. The argument may be recast in syllogistic form:

1. Scripture commands Christians to do good works.
2. Political Activism is good works.
3. Therefore, Scripture commands Christians to engage in political activism where permitted.

The first problem is connecting the kind of good works of political activism with the kind of good works in first-century Christianity. Remember, a fundamental rule in hermeneutics is that we must understand how the original audience would have understood and applied the text before we can understand how to apply it today. There is little dispute that the Greco-Roman mind would have thought about good works in terms of political activism. Political activism simply would not have come into view when they heard kala erga.

In addition, the argument commits what D.A. Carson calls the fallacy of negative inference. It assumes that if you do not engage in political activism that you have not engaged in good works. In other words, I engaged in a variety of good works, ranging from feeding the poor to giving to the needy, but because I did not visit an orphan, I am guilty of not engaging in good works. Dooes Mr. Hays expect every Christian to engage in every good work possible or imaginable? Is this what Jesus had in mind when He said these words? Here is another form of the argument:
1. Christians have a duty to morally influence the culture.
2. Political activism is the most effective way to morally influence the culture.
3. Therefore, every Christian has a duty to influence the culture through political activism.

The major premise is really quite problematic. Matt. 5:13-20 nowhere commands Christians to be a moral influence to the culture. It does not suggest that we must try to influence the culture. What it says is that we must be concerned with personal righteousness, which is another term for personal holiness, which is another term for sanctification. Our efforts are to focus on our conduct. We must focus our attention on our behavior, our value, our beliefs. We have a duty to God and to the Christian group to uphold a very unique and peculiar set of values in front of the entire world. What the text says is this behavior serves as a light to darkness and as salt to food. It is the behavior that should receive our attention, not the impact that follows that behavior. I don’t focus on not getting a speeding ticket every time I drive. I focus on driving according to DMV norms, standards. By doing that, I ensure a certain outcome: no speeding ticket. The best way not to cause an accident is to focus on practicing those behaviors that ipso facto prevent accidents. Christians have a duty to live according to godly norms as mandated by Scripture. There is nothing in that set of norms that explicitly or even implicitly includes actively influencing the morality of a given culture. Christians obey God's command out of concern to please God, because they love God. This behavior serves as salt and light in a world of darkness and decay.

The second problem is in the minor premise. This premise asserts that political activism is the most effective method for influencing the culture. The first problem with this premise is that it is radically pragmatic. The second problem is that it is simply not true. The most effective way to influence or change the moral condition of a culture is to change to moral nature of the humans in that culture. The problem is that we cannot change that nature. Hence, any moral influence that does not change the moral nature is at best superficial and insignificant. A redemptive focus is the most effective way to influence a culture. This method focuses on the gospel of repentance. Our concern is the souls of lost men, not on making men more moral or even on preserving religious liberty or any other kind of liberty.

Matthew 5:13-20 fails to provide sufficient exegetical support for the argument of political activism because it violates the grammatical, historical rules that govern sound interpretive principles. It ignores the grammar of the text, not to mention the principle of original understanding and application. There are no general principles that support the logical inference used by the argument in question.

In addition, I have shown that there are several problems with the argument, not just in exegetical terms, but in terms of the logic of the argument itself. The second argument commits that fallacy of negative inference.

My second objection to the hermeneutic of the evangelical political activists is how they use the Mosaic Law. According to many in this movement, the Mosaic Law should serve as the basis for civil law. From a hermeneutical standpoint, this is puzzling to say the least. The Mosaic Law is part of the Sinaitic Covenant between the nation of Israel and God. In fact, the two are used interchangeably in Scripture. It is one thing for us to argue that the Law of Moses would serve this purpose well. It is another thing to leap to the assertion that gentile governments “ought” to use the Mosaic Law as their basis for civil law. It is even a bigger stretch for the Church to insert itself into the process by issuing such commands or by employing political strategy to move the governments in that direction. There is no precedent in Scripture for this use of the Law or for this function of the Church.

Exodus 19:3 says, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel.” The LORD did not instruct Moses to speak to the entire earth or all the nations of the earth. God had entered into covenant at Sinai specifically with the nation of Israel. Romans 3:2 tell us explicitly that the Jew has an advantage because God entrusted the commandments to them. Again, in Romans 9:4, Paul says that the Jews own adoption, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the temple service, and the promises. Romans 2:14 tells us that the Gentiles do not have the Law (of Moses). There is no exegetical warrant to expand the law of Moses to believing gentiles and there is certainly no warrant to expand it to gentile civil authorities. The Jerusalem conference makes it clear that gentiles were not to come under the law of Moses, in principle or otherwise. While the gentiles were not to be burdened with keeping the law, they nevertheless were instructed to be sensitive to their Jewish brethren so as not to give cause for reckless and unnecessary offense. The same people who lobby for this use of the Law stop short of carrying it to its logical end. They do not bother attempting to make adultery a crime, or lying under all circumstances, or Sabbath keeping. In addition, they ignore the punishment that comes with this law. Adulterers were stoned! Sabbath breakers were stoned! Proponents of this movement do not seem to understand that when you modify a law, it becomes a "new" law. Since this new law is a law nowhere revealed in Scripture, it is not a law of God. Hence, it follows then that it must be a law of man. This conclusion is very unattractive to the proponents of political activism. However, if they are going to be consistent, they must land here. Since they do not, I accuse them of being capricious and arbitrary in their hermeneutical method.

It follows that any attempt to bring a believer under the Mosaic Law is not in keeping with a consistent hermeneutic. Moreover, it is especially tragic when the politico-faith movement attempts to employ a very inconsistent hermeneutic in order to issue imperatives around applying the Law of Moses to unbelieving civil governments. Scripture is clear that it is a serious matter to use the Law in an unlawful manner. Using the Law to obligate civil authorities to fashion civil code is not a proper use of the law nor is it the role of the Church. We come back to the question of rules of interpretation. If God made His Law with the nation of Israel, who can say that man is free to expand that Law, that covenant, to the rest of the nations?

Finally, we come back to the question of special revelation and the nature of Scripture. I have argued that Scripture belongs to the elect, to the Christian community, the Church. Steve Hays disagrees. The Jewish Scriptures belong to the elect of God. At one point in time in history, the elect of God was the Jewish nation of Israel. Over time, the elect has expanded to all those who believe the gospel. The writings, the prophets, and the Law were given to the Jew. The central figure is Christ. As God’s plan of redemption progresses through history, He brings in under the new covenant, gentiles from all flesh. By their nature of being elect, the Hebrew Scriptures now belong to them as well. Romans 1:7 tells us that Paul was addressing the Roman Church, believers, called as saints when he wrote Romans. 1 & 2 Corinthians was addressed to the Church of God, the sanctified ones. (I Cor. 1:2; II Cor. 1:1) Galatians 1:2 is addressed to the churches in Galatia, the called-out ones. Eph. 1:1 was addressed to the saints, the holy ones who are at Ephesus. Philippians 1:1 was also addressed to the holy ones at Philippi. Colossians was addressed to the holy ones and faithful brethren in Colossae. (Col. 1:2) I & II Thessalonians was addressed to those whom God had chosen and those who were persevering in faith and whose faith had been enlarged. (I Thess. 1:4; II Thess. 1:3-4) Timothy and Titus were both pastors and Philemon was a fellow laborer in the gospel. Hebrews was without question written to believers. The writer says in 6:9, “But beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation.” James 1:2 refers to the recipients of this letter as brothers. 1 Peter 1:1 is addressed to those who are chosen while II Peter addresses those who have received the very same faith that Peter himself has. John writes to “His little children” in the hope that they might not sin. (I Jn. 2:1) Clearly John is not speaking to the unbelieving world as an audience. II John 1 is addressed to the chosen lady, the church. III John 1 & 3 addresses Gaius who is walking in the truth. Jude 2 is directed to those who are called and kept for Jesus Christ. The Revelation was sent initially to the seven churches of Asia.

This last issue brings us back to the idea of special revelation. Special revelation is redemptive in nature and purpose. God cut man off from certain truths about Himself and about man’s own condition. This was part of the curse. When the angel stood guarding the garden, it was at the initiative of God. Man was cut off from God and certain truths about God, not to mention creation. While man’s knowledge of God has been limited and extremely affected by his depraved condition, still man is not without some knowledge of the divine and even of the natural order of things. “The seeds of the sciences are naturally inherent in humans. Every science is gounded in general, self-evident principles. All knowledge rests in faith. All proof, finally, presupposes a principle of demonstration…In Religion, whether we want to or not, we always have to go back to a seed of religion, a sense of divinity, a divine instinct, an innate knowledge.” [Bavinck: Reformed Dogmatics. V.2, 71]
Calvin adds, “That there exists in the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service.”[1]

Man, having been cut off from knowledge of God due to his fallen, sinful condition is in desperate need of light. His mind is darkened, his intellect depraved, and his will captive. If man is to obtain redemptive knowledge of God, and a clearer understanding of God, a true knowledge of God that is uncontaminated by wicked corruptions and perversions and a depraved state, it will come at God’s initiative, not man. The Holy Writings serve a redemptive purpose, not merely a moral one, and not merely a social one. This purpose is supernatural, spiritual, salvific. The Torah was given so that Israel would recognize the holiness of God and his righteous demands. It was given to reveal to men their need of redemption, of a Savior, their helplessness to become righteous without divine intervention. The writings provide us with the story of God’s redemptive dealings with man as His revelation unfolds in history. In addition, the writings provide us with songs of praise and nuggets of wisdom declaring the praises, the wisdom, and the glory of God. The prophets speak to the wayward elect nation as she relates to God ever so inconsistently from one era to another. The Law, the Writings, and the Prophets, also called the Torah, Ketuvim, and the Nevi'im all point forward to the revelation of God in the Christ event, the incarnation. That the Scriptures are divine, supernatural revelation is beyond dispute for the most part within evangelical circles. The implications of this truth touches the politico-faith movement in democratic societies like America. The overarching purpose of God in Scripture is doxological: for His own glory. One essential component of that purpose is redemption.

The hermeneutic of evangelical political activism, which I have also referred to as the politico-faith movement proves to be inconsistent in that it violates the rules of interpretation. The method neglects to ascertain the meaning and application of a text to its original audience before seeking its own understanding and application. This opens the method up to an anachronistic approach on the question of social good in Greco-Roman times, politics in the modern era, and how these two relate to one another. The argument commits the fallacy of negative inference when it contends that Christians must engage in political activism if they wish to carry out their duty to be a moral influence in the culture. The argue fails to prove what it assumes to be true.

In addition, the hermeneutics of evangelical political activism uses the Mosaic Law unlawfully by subverting God’s intent for that Law and imposing it on gentile governments. Moreover, the movement presumes it to be the role of the Church, individuals within the Christian community if you will, to interpret that Law and engage in the actions necessary to inform the government of its duty. In other words, it is perfectly right for the Church to manipulate politicians into submission through political activism in order to shape the culture into one that certain evangelicals think we should have. Scripture nowhere imposes the Mosaic Law on believers, let alone gentile unbelievers. Furthermore, Scripture does not place this responsibility on the Church.

Finally, that Scripture belongs to special revelation with a redemptive purpose seems to be entirely ignored by the politico-faith movement. Steve Hays objected when I said Scripture belongs to the Church. He accused me of holding to an Eastern Orthodox/Roman Catholic view of Scripture. One wonders if Steve thinks that the EOC and the RCC are wrong in all their views. If Scriptures are redemptive, and they are divine revelation, then it follows that they were not given to make depraved men more moral. They were given to make dead men live again. They were given to make blind men see again. They were given to make bound men free!

If the Church will influence the culture around her, she will do so according to God’s design. God has deigned the Church to be a light on a hill and salt. If the Church behaves according to God’s design, she will be those things. If she focuses on allowing the world to hear her preaching, and proclaiming the true gospel, baptizing those who have professed faith in Christ, discipling one another, and loving and serving one another, living out those values that define who she is in community with herself and with Christ, then the world will see that light and they will experience that salt to the degree that God has determined. The mission of the Church is redemptive, salvific in nature. It is focused on the eternal. The mission of the Church has never been to create a culture of morally better people who, at the end of the day when it is all said and done, still reject God as their sovereign Lord. The Church's mission is to rescue the perishing. It is not to make the "perishing" the "morally good perishing." Jesus came, not that men would be morally good, but that men might believe that He is the Son of God, and believing, they might have life! 

 



[1] John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, vol. 1, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 55.

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