The Bible and politics: How do they mix?
by Mark Penninga (First Appeared in Reformed Perspective magazine, June 2008)
Consider this scenario: You have received an official-looking letter in the mail. It is addressed from the Honourable Prime Minister Stephen Harper and inside is a memo that explains that you have been selected to appear before a special Parliamentary committee that must make a decision about whether Canada will sign onto an international coalition fighting global warming. Your fear of public speaking is irrelevant – you have been summoned and must fly to Ottawa next week. “What am I going to say to this panel?” you ask your family and friends. “I don’t believe in this whole global warming thing – and I’m no scientist!”
Realizing that this is quite a remarkable opportunity, you phone up your old high school classmate who you know went to university to study the sciences. He gives you a number of studies which question the “science” of global warming and which suggest that climate change is probably caused by natural fluctuations that have always happened. Armed with these studies, you work furiously the next few days, trying to write up a brief that you will present to the government panel.
But what are you going to say? How should your Christian faith influence your presentation? Should you be quoting the Bible? Or are you just going to “stick to the facts” about climate change since the panel probably isn’t interested in hearing your Christian beliefs about the environment?
It applies to all of us
Granted, it’s not likely that any of us will receive an invitation like this in the mail. But the issue of how we, as Christians, interact with our secular government (and the secular world in general) is important and something that we must consider. After all, Christ has commanded us to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Regardless of whether we are involved with politics, the issue of bringing the Bible to bear on public life must apply to all of us because we all share a calling to be a light in this world.
This is also a matter that the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada has to understand. At the very least, we will face this issue in simple correspondence (emails, letters, etc) with our leaders. And it is an issue we’ll face when we, the Lord willing, appear before Parliamentary committees.
Nature, the Bible or both?
We can easily be intimidated about bringing our faith into the discussion when we are speaking with a secular person. After all, they don’t believe in God so why should they accept His authority? Even if they do believe in God, Canada is a secular nation and most people believe that religion should have no place in politics. After all, we don’t want Muslim Sharia law to apply here, right?
One popular response to these difficult questions has been to separate the laws that come from revelation (the Bible) from the laws that can be known from nature, and then to only speak of the laws of nature when bringing our perspective to government.
But what exactly are these so-called “laws of nature”? The Apostle Paul alludes to them in Romans 1 when he speaks about how man is without excuse because the invisible qualities of God can be known from the creation that surrounds us. Natural law theory holds that objective laws, which are unchanging and readily known by everyone, exist independently of man-made law. They are natural principles that help govern this world. For example, the Golden Rule is a classic natural law that is held by people throughout the world, regardless of their religion or nationality.
The Belgic Confession’s Article 2 explains that there are indeed two ways that we can know about God: by reading through Scripture, and by looking at “the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly the invisible things of God….” Studying nature and the way that God has ordered this world can teach us valuable lessons about how our lives ought to be lived.
This means that natural law can also be brought to bear on the political issues of the day, since it is understandable by all people. One need not be a Christian to agree with us if we rely on the laws of nature. For example, in the introductory scenario it would mean that you bring a message based on science which jives with what the Bible says about global warming.
Avoiding mention of God?
There are very few who would question that we can use natural law when speaking with our government. However, how much of our message should be grounded in natural law, and how much should come from the Bible?
If you were to sit in on a presentation being made by a Christian group to government, it is very well possible that you won’t hear anything about God or the Bible. Instead, you will hear a lot about sociological or scientific arguments which show that a particular policy is good or bad for our society, families, institutions, etc. They’ll most often choose to use a natural law approach.
But is this the right approach? Does the Bible have no place in our letters, emails, letters to the editor, or presentations to the government of our secular nation? As Reformed Christians, we believe that the authority of the Bible applies to every sphere of our lives, including the public spheres such as politics and community service. There is little doubt that God wants us to be courageous ambassadors of His Word: “I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God…. When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12:8-11)
The reality is that we do tend to worry about what we are going to say, and how we would be received if we were to make our faith or God’s Word public. Perhaps one of the most common worries is that our message will be written off as religious dogma which doesn’t belong in the public square. Or perhaps we don’t want to be labelled a “religious fundamentalist.” As well intentioned as these fears are, they belittle the strength of God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. Hebrews 4:12 reminds us that, “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Our message must be different than the message of the world. Our ultimate purpose should be to testify to the truth. We can hope that the message will have a receptive audience, but ultimately that is not in our control. Our Parliament and courts have heard many good arguments to support the things that we believe in and that has not stopped them from making wrong decisions. Behind it all, there is a spiritual battle waging at the hearts and minds of our leaders. We have a responsibility to show this and to testify to the truth of the Word.
This does not mean that natural law has no place in our discussions or that we have to refer to the Bible in every situation. Far from it. It should not be one or the other, but both the law from revelation and the law from nature that we use, depending on the circumstances, the issue, and the audience. In some circumstances it may be appropriate to rely entirely on the laws of nature. After all, the same Author wrote both laws so creation should testify to the truth of what we find in God’s Word.
This means that it is appropriate to quote the Bible in a letter to our MP, or in a presentation to a special Parliamentary committee that is studying global warming. But when doing so, we also need to keep in mind that citing a Bible text is not the end of the conversation. We must explain why the message of the Bible is something that is good for our society. And this takes effort and time. As David McIlroy explains in his book Christian Perspectives on Law: A Biblical View of Law and Justice “In order to create a viable, coherent set of propositions from natural law, it is necessary to interpret nature in the light of Scripture. On the other hand, if Christianity is not to be brought into disrepute, Christians must be able to demonstrate the social utility of the laws they are proposing; in other words, it would be wrong to impose on society a law whose benefit could not be argued from nature.”
Courageously bringing a Biblical perspective to our secular society and defending the social utility of it is no simple task. It requires God’s guidance, difficult research, and thought. But this is very important, as ignoring God’s Word or refusing to explain its meaning and significance to people who don’t believe in its authority can take away from the message that our world needs to hear. After all, we are – all of us – prophets, with a most valuable message that can ultimately lead to life or death.
When do we argue from Natural Law and when do we use the Bible?
Now that it has been established that the Bible has a place in public policy discussions, how do we know when or where to apply it? Here are some things to consider:
1. The context
Who is your audience? Some contexts provide excellent opportunities to speak about how the Bible agrees with what we know from nature. Other contexts are not so appropriate. If you are presenting your argument as an article for an academic journal (for example, an article on global warming for the Scientific American) it may not be helpful to cite the Bible as support for your case. Many journals strive to be empirical and would view anything spiritual or metaphysical as inappropriate. As a result, your whole argument could be discredited and may not even be accepted for publication.
However, if you were presenting the same issue in a context where you have an opportunity to speak directly to your audience, it may well be appropriate to testify to how the Bible wonderfully agrees with what you have already established from nature. A lunch meeting with your MP is one example. Try to know your audience and how receptive they would be to a Biblical message. And remember to be brave – just because an audience may be unfamiliar with hearing the Bible does not mean that it is inappropriate to use it.
2. The issue
In an age where traditional morals are being questioned and even dismissed, it is important to know when to argue for something from nature or from the Bible. For example, many Christians have made the mistake of trying to rely on natural law to argue against redefining marriage to include homosexuals. But the standard arguments quickly fall flat. Just because society has almost always recognized marriage as between a man and a woman does not mean that it has to continue that way. We change things all the time. But marriage is ultimately grounded in the Bible because it was God who defined it already in Genesis. We can use the Bible to show how marriage is ultimately a religious institution and therefore should not be redefined by the state. Relying on natural law can even discredit our position because when the natural law arguments begin to fall, our overall argument falls. But when we rely on the Bible we can know that its truth can never be undermined. We must be sure that the laws of nature that we use on a particular issue are indeed objectively grounded and can be agreed upon by others.