If so many Christians differ in interpreting politics through a Biblical lens, can the Bible really have authority? Good question.
By way of example, unlike Marxism and Islam, the Christian faith allows and encourages questioning to improve our interpretation of the
scriptures. This openness will always result in some diversity of opinion, which may appear as disunity.
Mainstream, fringe and heresy
Biblical interpretations can be seen as three concentric circles, almost like a stone dropped into water. Although there are nuances in each, think of the mainstream Biblical interpretation as the spot where the stone fell. We find the fringe groups moving away from the mainstream in the first circle. The third layer represents the groups who attempt to merge the Bible with other philosophies not stemming from the Scriptures.
Heretical examples include Liberation theology attempts to reconcile with Marxism, the Emerging Church with Postmodernism, Woke theology with Cultural Marxism.
Some mainstream examples include the natural law biblical interpretation – the idea that the law of Moses was a particular application of natural law principles to Israel at that time and place. It can be applied differently in the contemporary context. This philosophy has continued from the Byzantines to St. Thomas Aquinas, from John Calvin to the Westminster Confession – all groups or individuals who significantly differed on other issues.
The alternative view of a verbatim binding application of the law of Moses has always had a following as well, from the Reformation to the Puritan era to the New England colonies. Today it is represented by the American Reconstructionist movement. Nevertheless, those who hold this view tend to apply some scriptures rigidly while others are more flexible. They derive principles from scripture, so it tends to be literal rather than an absolute application.
The difference between the natural law principle view and the
Reconstructionist literalist view is much smaller than the difference with
competing secular philosophies.
- The idea that God judges nations and civilisations continues from Augustine to the Byzantine empire, from John Knox to Abraham Lincoln to Abraham Kuyper (Prime Minister of the Netherlands). It only very recently became marginalised.
- That slavery is ethically wrong was held from the Byzantines to Wilberforce to Jefferson (even though many often defended and practised it). It was incrementally outlawed for one category of people and one jurisdiction after another.
- There has always been a consensus among genuine Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants regarding the sanctity of human life and against sex outside of marriage – particularly abortion and homosexuality. Likewise, there was a consensus against feminism and support for traditional gender roles.
- Roman Catholic conquerors of South and Central America outlawed human sacrifice just as Protestant Missionaries motivated the British government to outlaw widow burning in India. While European Christian civilisation has had many tragic minor wars, these do not compare in scale or brutality with the pre-Christian wars of the decimation of millions and the post-Christian Second World War.
While there have been differences between prominent Christian thinkers, there has been a remarkable convergence of interpretation around the mainstream over the centuries.
Forces for convergence include:
- Historically, Christian groups took differing positions in particular circumstances. Still, when those circumstances changed, people had to re-think these, often shifting from the position of political power to weakness).
- In many cases, the need for Christians to unite to oppose an increased threat of a common enemy has forced us to work together with people we formerly opposed.
- Mainstream Christian political positions fit logically together, so one can be derived from the others. For example, suppose we oppose killing the weak, such as the unborn, sick, and politically unpopular. Historically, a socialist state will ignore this opposition because they have the power to do so. Political persecution ensues. It is also a cost-saving if fewer people need to be financially supported by the state. Hence euthanasia or abortion are attractive options for them. There may be a few pro-life socialists, but sustaining the tension is challenging.
- Historically, most Christians from the Magna Carta to the English Bill of Rights to the American Bill of Rights have supported the right of private citizens to bear arms, while statists have opposed it. The reason is that private arms limit the state’s power, which limits state power to persecute and take away freedoms.
Examples of historical convergence
- In the 1500s, Martin Luther took a religious freedom stand against the Catholic Church but supported submissiveness to the state. This was convenient because the Protestant Princes defended Luther’s life from the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, when the Holy Roman Emperor defeated the Protestant Princes after Luther’s death, the Magdeburg pastors took a stand for religious freedom against the state – which was supported by Theodor Beza and John Knox and Protestantism ever since.
- The Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy and early Protestantism agreed that the religion of a territory should be the religion of the nation’s ruler. Thomas Helwys, the Baptist founder, held that the government should allow religious freedom, including for unbelievers, Moslems and Jews. While initially persecuted, this view was gradually adopted by most other religious denominations when on the receiving end of persecution. The early American colonies originally each adopted their own denominational state church. Nevertheless, they agreed on the first amendment to say that the government should make no law regarding establishing a religion when they united. After the First and Second World Wars, America imposed that policy on Western Europe.
- In the Middle Ages, most of Christendom held to the view of ‘Christian territory’ and ‘Holy land’, which motivated the Crusades. Today, the Roman Catholic church, having lost political power in its heartland Italy, is no longer promoting that view but rather religious influence and freedom – more similar to the Protestant consensus.
- In the Twentieth Century, the Roman Catholic Church issued an encyclical that became the basis for the Christian Democrat parties of Europe – opposing Marxism and supporting the democratic state. While not in absolute agreement, this is close enough to the Protestant view that they, in many cases, participate and often dominate such parties.
- At the time of the Reformation, the Anabaptists were fragmented into various viewpoints – some of the pacifist and some militant. The militant faction led a rebellion at Munster, which the Holy Roman Empire squashed. Since then, Anabaptists have leaned towards pacifism. Nevertheless, their political credibility has been marred because they have only lived in countries defended by others who are prepared to fight. Many of them have become mingled with liberation theology and postmodernism in the twentieth century.
- The dominant Protestant political position at the time of the late Reformation was the Westminster Confession, which gave the civil magistrate power to call a church synod to decide disputes. The Baptist 1689 Confession was identical in most respects but disagreed on this point. Subsequently, the American Presbyterian church has formally revised the Westminster Confession to delete this point, thus forming consensus with the Reformed Baptists.
- Following historic Medieval Europe interpretation of the Bible, Luther opposed the lending of money at interest. On the other hand, Zwingli supported it. The Christian consensus that has emerged is that debt and lending money at interest is permissible for a business loan but dangerous and must be tightly regulated to prevent abuse. This contrasts with the pure free-market/ capitalist view that has led to developing world bankruptcy and the 2008 world financial crisis.
- Recently, the Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler recommended the books of a Roman Catholic Archbishop to defend common Christian virtue. As he explained, the theological opponents “find ourselves in the same lifeboat together”. In a culture losing Christian consensus and freedom, Christians have been forced to work with those they would not have formerly done.
- There have been various utopian visions of Christian political society, which now, after many centuries, have not happened or been very short-lived. While a few persist in the hope of these or defer them to the millennium, most Christian political thinkers have been forced to face the reality that we have to find a way to live in a fallen world with people who don’t share all our ideas.
Forces of Healthy Convergence
- The mainstream natural law biblical interpretation promoted by both mainstream Roman Catholicism and Protestantism allows for a variety of applications of biblical and natural law principles depending on the particular circumstance of the geography and culture. For example, in his Institutes, Calvin argues that a nation whose culture is predisposed to committing a specific crime can have a harsher penalty than countries that don’t. Nevertheless, Christian inspired law will tend to agree on desirable outcomes.
- Often, a particular issue involves several different Biblical principles that must be applied in a balanced manner. We may disagree on which take priority – just as members of specific churches disagree on decisions while agreeing on the Bible.
- Christians are free to disagree where the Bible is silent. For example, should we host the Olympics? What should our national flag look like? Almost all political work is actually in this debatable area.
Forces on Unhealthy Convergence
Forces of political divergence and heresy have been exacerbated by the the problem of funding of theological work:
- Institutions fund most biblical Christian theologians to train pastors. Therefore, theology has focused on the church and not politics.
- The universities have come to fill this gap. They are funded by the state and not accountable to any church authority. The result is that university theologians are often heretical since they are protected by academic freedom. State funding means that university theologians outnumber seminary ones about 100:1. University theologians’ job security depends on them producing many papers, while seminary job security depends on training pastors. The easiest way to produce a new article is to propose a wacky idea. The result is hundreds of thousands of utter nonsensical theological papers of which politics is a favourite subject. Most such academics do not subscribe to the authority of the scriptures and thus simply use those scriptures they like as inspiration on a similar level to any other book. This is obvious from the way they discuss and interpret scripture. Even when the state does not fund universities, they usually have hidden state funding via state student loans. Asking whether they subscribe to the authority of the scriptures can expose the nonsense. But allowing for their biases, sometimes one can find a few gems of valuable historical information and philosophical ideas within the academic theological manure heap.
- Much funding for heretical Christian thinking and activism comes from secular, government and state church sources: For example, Scandinavian churches, funded by the state, tend to be heretical and give money to promote heresy in Africa. Likewise, North American governments provide money to combat HIV to churches to encourage their sexually liberal agenda. The government will fund conferences to try to co-opt churches into their agenda. This has always been a problem through the centuries.
- In every historical era, there has been someone who has tried to reconcile the popular philosophies of the time with Christianity, but when those philosophies lose popularity, so does the Christian version.
- Another major force hampering Christian thinking in politics is the irony that politics tends to attract people who want political power – and so tend to favour state control – while in fact, the true Christian faith wishes to minimise state power and allow freedom. So ironically, a genuine Christian politician faces the tension of promoting biblical views while reducing his personal power. That’s hard.
- Every Christian ethos political party faces a dilemma: Christian wedge issues such as the sanctity of human life, marriage, and religious freedom are not the primary motivators for most people’s votes. So they diversify their issues and accept membership of those who are not true Christians but agree with Christian virtues. This increases their power but often dilutes the base. They enter into alliances with other parties with other motivations and often exchange ideas. And often, some politician who is not remotely Christian adds a Christian wedge agenda to his basket of issues to get the Christian vote and win. Politics is thus messy, and there is a continual tension between influence and purity of ideas. In many cases, those that started as Christian political parties lose that status just as schools and universities lose their Christian ethos.
Questions to ask when encountering divergent ideas
Significant questions to ask when encountering divergent views are:
- Firstly, does this person affirm the authority of the Bible?
- Secondly, who is funding this work?
- Thirdly, is this a passing worldly fad idea they are trying to reconcile with Christianity?
- Fourthly, are these people motivated by a lust for power?
While there will always be a variety of viewpoints in the free debate around the scriptures within the Christian faith, we have converged to a remarkable consensus on the most significant issues through the centuries. There will be divergence on fringe views and even more on heretical views, but mainstream Bible affirming Christians tend to agree on most points.