Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 6.1

For the next couple weeks we’ll look at theological and philosophical positions on the use of the Bible in American politics. We’ll start with theology, looking at three common positions in political theology, as well as various theologians affiliated with those positions.

The first theological position to be examined is what is often called ‘neo-Calvinism’ and sometimes ‘Kupyerianism.’ As the latter name indicates, the position is rooted in the life and work of Dutch politician, journalist, educator, and clergyman Abraham Kuyper. Through his various occupations (most of which were held simultaneously), Kuyper attempted to revitalize the ‘Reformed’ theology of John Calvin for his time, particularly stressing Calvin’s doctrine of ‘common grace.’

Common grace—which, incidentally, is not an emphasis in Calvin’s own work—is the belief that God is actively involved in the world to restrain evil and promote some amount of order and flourishing. Neo-Calvinists often quote Matthew 5:45b in support of this doctrine: ‘for [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’

Common grace becomes the basis for a political theology when it is combined with a certain understanding of the opening chapter of Genesis. There neo-Calvinists find the ‘cultural mandate,’ God’s command that humans develop societal structures: ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ (1:28). Because human culture is part of God’s created order, then culture is meant to follow God’s designs, and, since God through common grace continues to be active in the world, Christians can participate in culture—including politics—with the purpose of achieving that design.

At this point we might conjecture that neo-Calvinists would encourage the use of the Bible in American politics, since such use might facilitate the ordering of American politics to God’s created design. Nevertheless, one other doctrine enters the neo-Calvinist picture to complicate things. That doctrine, called ‘sphere sovereignty,’ asserts the fundamental integrity of the various aspects of culture. Family, church, government, business, etc. are each separate ‘spheres’ that must be allowed to develop independently without too much interference from the others (government is somewhat of an exception since it works above and between the spheres).

Christians, therefore, are left with a somewhat paradoxical role in politics: they are to engage politics with the hope of ordering it according to God’s design, but they are not to confuse the spheres of church and government. Though, as we will see in the next post, various neo-Calvinists resolve that paradox in different ways, it at least provides us with a rough base from which to build a neo-Calvinist response to the issue of the Bible and politics.

Although the Bible, insofar as God’s intended design for politics can be found in it, is indispensable in shaping Christian political engagement, Christians must be careful to ensure that their political language and actions are sufficiently ‘political’ and not overly ‘religious.’ Thus the neo-Calvinist view assigns the Bible a place in politics, but cautions that its use may violate the separation of church and government spheres. This nuanced position will become more clear in the following post on specific neo-Calvinist theologians.

1 comment:

Christian Wright said...

Here's another piece from Alternet (http://www.alternet.org/story/39748/) that demonstrates one clear use of Biblical theology in pursuit of a political agenda -- albeit one that is dangerous, ahistorical and down-right strange in many ways.