Public Theology and the Bible as Gift

Last summer at the Winchester conference, Andrew Bradstock, the director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, presented a brilliant paper entitled, “The Bible and Public Theology,” and was kind enough to send me a copy of the paper afterward (and permit me to share some of it here).  I have been intending, for the past four months, to post something here summarizing and reflecting on some of the most fruitful and provocative insights of the paper, and at last I am getting around to it.  


Bradstock began with the vexing questions that have lain at the heart of my own work for the past three years: “Is it appropriate to introduce the Bible into public debate and, if so, how, when and to what purpose? Is it sufficient . . . simply to quote texts and assume that that makes your point or ‘clinches’ the argument? Can we take it for granted that, because we may invest a degree of ‘authority’ in Scripture, others will too?”  As someone deeply engaged in the project of “public theology,” Bradstock is eager to put the Bible back at the centre of this project, while avoiding the pitfalls that accompany many naive attempts at Christian forays into the public square.   

What is “public theology,” though?  Bradstock offered the following definition: 

“public theology is concerned with bringing a theological perspective to bear upon contemporary debates in the public square, drawing upon the insights of the Christian faith and offering its contribution as ‘gift’ to the secular world.”

However, despite a widespread interest in making use of a “theological perspective” and the “insights of the Christian faith,” many public theologians, he said, had been reticent to say too very much about how the Bible relates to the public, perhaps because Scripture is rarely perceived as a “gift” by the secular world.  However, Bradstock argued forthrightly “that a genuine public theology must emerge from an honest and open engagement with Scripture” and that “it is surely difficult to define as authentically ‘Christian’ any form of theology which accords no significant place to the text held by all the main Christian traditions as to some degree authoritative with respect to faith and practice.”

This should not be difficult, Bradstock contended, since, as he quotes David Neville, “A collection of texts that begins with the creation of the cosmos and ends with its renewal in the form of a city can hardly be said to focus on the private, rather than public, sphere”–the Biblical narrative, and the kingdom that is established in the course of it, have profound and pervasive implications for political life.  


But having established all this, we are still left with the very difficult question of how a collection of texts written thousands of years ago in a completely different cultural and political context can have anything concrete to say to public issues in our own world today–either Scripture remains concrete and specific, and hence fails to correspond to anything within our own political lives, or else it is abstracted to such a level of generality that it becomes vacuous, and capable of supporting thoroughly contrary political programs.  

But perhaps our dilemma is not quite that insoluble: “what public theology will want to argue is that, while of course the specific contexts from which the Bible narratives emerged bear little or no resemblance to situations we encounter today, the essential nature of the world, and humanity, has not changed” and hence we will not need to look far to find analogies between problems our own world faces and problems addressed by the Biblical text.  The goal will then be not to try to “apply” Scripture “willy nilly to contemporary situations,” “but rather . . . to engage the two in a dialogic, conversational and altogether more ‘dynamic’ way.”

Such a dialectic, it seems, is necessary if Scripture is to genuinely become alive for our own world in our own day, but of course, it certainly risks privileging our own modern perspective in a way that silences the voice of the Biblical text.  I was particularly struck by this when Bradstock approvingly cited Bauckham, cautioning against arguing “that since education in biblical times was not a government responsibility it should nowadays be left purely to parental responsibility, as it was then, [which] makes no more sense than to argue that in accordance with biblical precedence governments should not legislate for road safety.”  

Of course, while I would tend to agree that in this particular example, the argument from Biblical precedent is illegitimate, I know a great many people who really do argue in this sort of way.  And the problem is that they do have a bit of a point.  How much can we really separate the form of Biblical political life from its content?  Can we take principles of justice for a decentralized, agrarian society and employ them in modern nation-states, while discarding the form of ancient political organization as entirely irrelevant?  Theonomists reject this form/content distinction, arguing, for instance, that it is not merely the list of crimes that is normative, but the penal code that addressed those crimes.  This is altogether too wooden, and yet one does not want to hastily cast out the idea that we can learn something about how a community should be organized and what sort of things a government should do by looking at the Biblical narrative.  For instance, can the Jubilee law simply be abstracted from its agrarian context into an ethical principle to be used in modern debt relief, or should we also be willing to consider the possibility that it has something to tell us about better forms of social organization–that perhaps we need to recover aspects of agrarian life?  If we are too careless with discarding the form in favor of the content, we risk “plundering the Old Testament ‘as though it were so much raw material to be consumed, in any order and in any variety of proportions, in the manufacture of [our] own theological artefact’” as Bradstock quotes O’Donovan warning.

Nonetheless, as Bradstock points out, “Scripture itself is subject to a constant process of reinterpretation and redefinition” and, again quoting David Neville, he says “within Scripture itself ‘traditions are often preserved while also being reinterpreted… the Bible itself witnesses to a process in which the preservation of tradition goes hand in hand with interpretative innovation.’”

In our own innovation, however, it is important that we be guided by a clear hermeneutic, one ruled by the texts’ own interior logic, if we are “to enable public theology to avoid simply choosing those parts of the Bible which suit its case.”  Bradstock does not want to rule out any sort of picking and choosing, however.  Rather, if public theology is to offer its contribution as “gift,” this will shape what resources of the text we decide to draw on.  “If an objective of public theology is to reflect the exhortation of the prophet Jeremiah (29.7) to the exiled community in Babylon to ‘seek the welfare of the city’, its choice of biblical resources will be shaped by that intent.” 

Here again I have some misgivings.  For although this text is frequently quoted, it is rarely observed that, though Jeremiah might advise this to the exiles in Babylon, he does not advise those in Jerusalem to seek the welfare of Jerusalem (at least, except in a very long-term sense), and he is certainly not seen by the authorities as interested in offering any kind of “gift” to the society.  Rather, his message is all one of pessimism and judgment.  Although this would probably not be a fair indictment of Bradstock’s own actual practice, I do worry that the principles he articulated could perhaps have a tendency to screen out the more unpleasant and challenging bits of Scripture and dwell too much on the more obviously appealing and “useful” bits.  There is a time to build up and a time to tear down, and the Scriptures have an essential role to play in both. 

In short, we must indeed offer the contributions of the Bible as “gift” to the secular world, but ever mindful that some of the truest gifts may seem painful and unwelcome at first.  


In any case, this reflection only skims the surface of Bradstock’s paper, and does not even touch on some of the richest insights of the latter part of his paper.  The full version will be appearing in the forthcoming The Bible: Culture, Community, and Society (the same volume as my essay “Sola Scriptura and the Public Square”), so I highly recommend checking it out there.

The Third Dimension–Luther’s Two-Kingdoms Theology

An excerpt from a crucial section of my paper, “Natural Law and Which Two Kingdoms,” to be presented next weekend at the American Academy of Religion:

We must recognize that there were at least two sharply divergent conceptions of the “two kingdoms” that emerged from the sixteenth century, and, of course, a number of more or less consistent half-way houses between them.  Unsurprisingly, these different conceptions, and the way they used natural law, will undermine neat modern preconceptions about what natural law might be, and will suggest several different ways of applying it to a Christian society.  

Martin Luther offers a succinct statement of the first conception in 1521: “The kingdoms of the world are ruled by human laws which evidently have to do with things temporal; the kingdom of Christ is ruled by the pure and simple word of the Gospel.”  For the second, we have the Scottish Second Book of Discipline (1578): 

“The Kirke . . . hath a certaine power granted by God, according to the which it uses a proper jurisdiction and governement, exercised to the comfort of the whole Kirke.  The Policie of the Kirk flowing from this power, is an order or forme of spirituall government . . . different and distinct in its own nature from that power and policie, which is called civill power, and appertaineth to the civill government of the commonwealth: albeit they be both of God.”

Whereas Luther predicates two realms, one of law and jurisdiction, and another of pure grace and liberty, in Scotland we seem back to something akin to Gelasius and the medieval “two swords” doctrine: “two there are by whom this world is governed”–the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities.  Both have power, law, and jurisdiction under Christ, but they govern different functions.  For Luther, on the contrary, we find all power, law, and jurisdiction classed as part of the civil kingdom; Mosaic law, evangelical law, and natural law all fall on this side of the equation.  In short, the “spiritual kingdom” is the Church, but what we would call the “invisible Church,” though perhaps a better term would be the “evangelical Church” taking visible form only in the dynamic preaching of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments.  The visible, institutional Church, the gathered congregation that must be organized, ritualized, and governed, is part of the realm of “polity,” part of the sphere of human authority which it occupies in common with the more mundane concerns of the civil magistrate.  Indeed, the visible Church is simply the communion of the faithful, and as such, includes the civil magistrate if he be Christian, and his government, if the society be Christian.  The continuing “Christendom” idea, the corpus Christianorum, and the civil jurisdiction over the Church that usually went with it, is thus not some inconsistent holdover that Luther’s two-kingdoms theory has failed to exorcise, as VanDrunen suggests, but is part and parcel of it.  Human life is not a two-dimensional map onto which the two-kingdoms are drawn as a dividing line between spheres of jurisdiction, but rather, a two-dimensional map with which the civil kingdom is coterminous, and of which the spiritual kingdom might be said to form the third dimension–the vertical God-ward relation which animates all the rest.


What does this mean for natural law?  Well, for Luther, the contrast is not so much between natural law and divine law (Scripture) as between law and grace.  Scripture contains law too, and this is taken to be harmonious with the natural law, helping to govern the civil kingdom as illumination and application of natural law principles.  As much that we would call “religious” falls within the realm of the earthly kingdom, so it falls within the orbit of natural law, which cannot thus serve as the means for a thoroughgoing separation of church and state.  Not that Luther offers us a complete fusion of church and state–mindful of the intimate relationship between the outward ministry of the visible Church, and the inward power of the Gospel which breaks through it, Luther was wary of making the institutions of the Church simply a department of State (although not very successful in preventing it), and argued for the importance of maintaining three distinct “hierarchies” within the earthly kingdom–state, church, and family.


Down with Democracy?

The past 36 hours have witnessed a maelstrom of geopolitical and financial chaos to rival the most tumultuous days of September and October 2008.  The unlikely culprit?  Democracy.  The original article, for that matter–Greek democracy, for that matter.

For much of the past couple years, and increasingly in the last three months, world financial markets have been held hostage by the debt problems of a small Meditteranean nation that accounts of 0.5% of the world’s GDP.  Whenever prospects for Greece looked better, stocks soared, bonds fell, the euro rose and the dollar fell, economists cheerily prognosticated on the likelihood of buoyant global growth over the coming months and years.  Whenever prospects for Greece looked worse, stocks plunged, bonds soared, the euro fell and the dollar rose, economists filled the airwaves with somber assessments of economic health and prophecies of impeding doom.  After the most most harrowing and pessimistic period yet, markets suddenly gained new faith in Europe at the beginning of October, and began a heady and exhilarating climb to new heights of optimism, capped off by an exultant surge last week as European leaders overcame their differences to agree on a dramatic and it seemed decisive solution to the Greek problem.  

But what goes up must come down, and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou’s announcement Monday night of a referendum pullled the rug out from under the market about as decisively as a terrorist attack on Wall Street could’ve done.  From Tokyo to New York, stock markets plunged, erasing their recent gains.  Bank stocks took what Obama would call a “shellacking.”  US Treasury bonds rallied so fast that experienced traders were left dizzy and disoriented.  World leaders and economists erupted in furor–how dare he?  How dare he call a referendum?  Papandreou himself was suddenly sitting in the hotseat, facing a no-confidence vote and the defection of key party members, his government at risk of collapse.


After years of seemingly endless crisis management carried out by a mysterious top tier of financial and political elites behind closed doors at dramatically-titled “emergency summits,” the idea that a key decision should be made by “the people” seemed ludicrous and downright quaint.  In view of the recent wave of “Occupy” protests, a popular outcry against the mismanagement of the economic crisis by the elites, it was an irony worthy of Greek drama that the next global crisis threatened to come from giving power back to the people.  After all, despite Papandreou’s stalwart confidence that a referendum on the new rescue plan would at last establish a political mandate for the difficult reforms needed, many quite reasonably feared that the Greek people, incensed by recent austerity measures, would stubbornly reject the rescue plan, pulling the plug on the euro and defaulting on their debts as the lights of Europe went out one by one.  Indeed, it is perhaps a tribute to the courage of Greek politicians that in a world increasingly ruled by plebiscite, they have until now been willing to resolutely govern, making painful decisions for the long-term good in the teeth of popular outrage.  This courage is the more impressive when viewed alongside the mass abdication of America’s political “leaders,” who, confronted by similar budget woes, have refused to lead, choosing rather to be led nowhere by the fickle will of popular opinion.

However, whether one thinks that the referendum represents a noble re-empowerment of the long-disenfranchised masses, or a cowardly and reckless abdication in the midst of crisis, the reaction it has evoked reveals that, for all our rhapsodic paeans to “democracy,” we in the West are not really ready for it.  Sure, democracy is fine for things we no longer really care about–things like gay marriage and the like.  By all means, let’s decide those by mass referenda.  But when it comes to the things that really matter, the gears that turn the wheels of the world–when it comes to money, in short–we know that “the people” can’t really be trusted, and that expert leadership needs to take charge of the situation.  Democracy may be a great ideal, a fine motivation for bombing a few oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, but it’s much too risky to actually practice.

Natural Law Today

The following was a lovely little intro to the fall and rise of natural law thinking in Reformed ethics that I had penned for the paper I’ll be giving at the AAR this month, “Natural Law and Which Two Kingdoms?”  Unfortunately, as with most lovely little intros, it had to receive the axe, but here on the blog it may live out a long and happy retirement:

 Until quite recently, the concept of natural law was anathema in many Reformed contexts, and even today, it continues to face an uphill battle in many arenas.  In his seminal work, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, Stephen Grabill suggests three key reasons why natural law spent much of the twentieth century in exile from an otherwise vibrant tradition of Reformed theology and ethical reflection.  First, the towering figure of Barth, and his resounding 1934 “No” to natural theology (and to Emil Brunner) could not help but cast a long shadow over his successors, convincing many that the concept of natural law was insufficiently Christological and at root humanistic.  Second, even in those sectors of the Reformed faith where the name of Barth was not always hallowed, another consideration prevailed–anti-Catholicism.  Natural law, we all knew, was the product of medieval scholasticism, and hence must be jettisoned if we were to be truly Protestant.  Third, in more liberal circles, the anti-metaphysical turn of late 19th-century German liberalism looked suspiciously on anything so medieval as natural law theory.  Other reasons might be added–much of American Protestantism has been captured by a wholesale biblicism, a conviction that the more one can attribute to Scripture, and the less to any other authority, the better.  Natural law, on this conception, was seen to be in inherent rivalry with the authority of Scripture, and must be jettisoned.  Nor was this suspicion without foundation.  Beginning certainly in the 17th-century and well underway by the 18th-century came a turn in natural law thinking that detached natural law from special revelation and made it the province of autonomous reason.

But just when it might have seemed that all these reasons had conspired to purge natural law from the earth, it has begun a dramatic comeback in the past couple decades.  Again, some good reasons are not hard to spot.  The legacy of Barth has at last begun to wane, or at any rate, to be evaluated more dialogically than reverentially; centuries of Protestant-Catholic hostility have begun to thaw, and partnerships between Reformed and Catholic theological scholarship have emerged to an extent that John Knox is surely rolling in his grave.  Perhaps even more decisively, within an American context dominated by aggressive evangelical politics and shallow evangelical biblicism, it has become increasingly clear to thoughtful public theologians and political theologians that we need a broader foundation for Christian engagement with a secular public square.  For this task, natural law seems to offer great promise.

But with promise, of course, comes potential pitfalls.  With the rapid revival of natural law thinking, and its enthusiastic application to political theology by a rising generation of young theologians like myself, we must not casually brush aside the suspicions of an older generation, and must ask ourselves some hard questions.  First, what about Barth’s concern?  Is natural law un-Christological?  Will a politics of natural law necessarily detach us from a politics of Jesus?  Certainly folks like Stanley Hauerwas are inclined to worry on this score, and justly so.  As disciples of Christ, we must be suspicious of enshrining any standard for just political life that ignores the witness of Jesus, and his challenge to principalities and powers, that fastidiously sweeps the Sermon on the Mount off into the closet of spiritual life, leaving us free to live by another standard in public.  Second, what about the biblicist concern?  Does natural law give us a way to float free from Scripture, following a detached set of ethical principles discerned by reason, not revelation?  Must not the Bible, while not the exclusive basis for all our actions, remain at least the touchstone by which they must all be in some sense tested?  Third, to put a sharper point perhaps on the previous two concerns, what about the Fall?  The Enlightenment gave a bad name to natural law by imagining our reasons to be uncorrupted and capable of perfect access to and application of the natural law.  If we are to be Reformed, if we are to be in any sense the heirs of gloomy old John Calvin, then surely we must insist that natural law, like anything else, needs to be redeemed.  A simple creation/redemption schema, in which natural law governs the realm of creation, and Scripture that of redemption, will not do, because all things are made new in Christ, which includes political life and the standards that govern it.