Politics in Light of Redemptive History
A pastor once asked me, “Is political engagement part of our calling as Christians? After all, Jesus and the disciples didn’t seek political power or reform.” The answer, in short, is yes (though it matters greatly how we engage politically). Christ is Lord over all, including civil government, and if we pray for His will to be done on His earth, we cannot neglect so significant a part of life on earth.
In a secular climate, Christians are prone to restrict the Bible’s relevance to personal salvation, piety, and church life. N.T. Wright counters: “The whole point of Christianity is that it offers a story which is the story of the whole world. It is public truth.” That so many Christians think and act otherwise shows secularism’s dominance in our day.
Everyone believes and lives out a story and a worldview. Many Christians buy the lie that there are religious and irreligious people – and that politics is properly irreligious. But human beings are religious beings. People live out beliefs about themselves and the world. Worldviews not only shape individual lives, but also whole societies. For example, David Koyzis explains how modern political ideologies – liberalism, socialism, and others – are rooted in worldviews grounded in the notion of human autonomy. These ideologies identify the source of evil not within human hearts in rebellion against God, but within something structural in society, like inequity of wealth or power. Modern ideologies look to the state for “progress.” The narratives they tell about our origins, problems, and progress echo the biblical story but leave God out.
The Word as public and political truth
God’s Word is addressed to all people, and to rulers in particular.
- Psalm 2: “Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.”
- Psalm 22: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.”
- Psalm 148: “Praise the Lord from the earth … small creatures and flying birds, kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, young men and women, old men and children.”
- Judges 5 (The Song of Deborah): “Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers! I, even I, will sing of the Lord.”
- Proverbs 14: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”
- John 19: “You [Pilate] would have no authority over me [Jesus] at all unless it had been given you from above.”
We often describe the Bible as the history of redemption. And so it is. Yet this description can mislead if we miss its cosmic scope. The Bible is not simply a history of God saving His elect. “Redemptive history” is world history. The Bible tells the story of God, the great King, establishing His kingdom – the goal of world history. As Herman Bavinck summarizes: “God the Father has reconciled his created but fallen world through the death of His Son and renews it into the Kingdom of God by His Spirit.” Jesus Christ is not only the One who bore God’s just wrath for the sins of His elect, He is also the one through whom and for whom all things were created (Col. 1). He is the One making all things new (Rev. 21). The completion of His work – of salvation and judgement – will culminate in His rule over a renewed creation.
Christians’ comprehensive calling
If this is the truth about the world and our place in it, how can it not be relevant to law and politics? Even if many politicians today refuse to accept the truth of God’s Word, its impact is not negated. The historical impact of Christianity – protecting women, children, and slaves from violence and sexual abuse, outlawing cruel punishments, banning brutal and crude forms of entertainment, promoting freedom of worship, limiting rulers’ powers, implementing checks and balances – is well documented by historians. These benefits remain with us, embedded in our laws and traditions. And still today, even as a small minority, we can be – we are called to be – a leaven, a salt, a light, even in politics.
Political engagement is part of our comprehensive witness to the comprehensive truth of God’s Word. Understood this way, the supposed conflict between evangelism and political engagement disappears. The latter is not only opportunity for the former, but a part of it. As theologian Oliver O’Donovan argues, “Theology must be political if it is to be evangelical. Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God’s saving power.”
Some might object that Christians can do little good politically unless a “critical mass” of rulers or citizens become Christians. This is misguided. God can use engaged Christian citizens to help non-Christian citizens and rulers to see and oppose injustice. Even those who do not personally know or believe the Bible may yet perceive and apply partial truths. Take the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, for example. Many non-Christians were capable of perceiving the evils of racist laws, even if they lacked the motivation for opposing it that Christians had (and many more should have had!). Unbelievers may perceive that racism is wrong – though they may suppress that truth to varying degrees – because racism really is wrong and because all people really are equal before God. But people can perceive this truth more clearly, and suppress it less easily, where the surrounding culture has been leavened by the gospel.
Applying Scripture to politics
Redeemed by Christ and renewed by the Holy Spirit, Christians are called to participate in the work of renewing creation by living out and bearing witness to God’s creational norms in every part of life, including politics. Applying the Bible to contemporary politics is no easy task. It is not simply a matter of applying texts that speak about law, justice, or rulers, important though such texts are. We will see that texts about law and government need to be understood in light of their context within the overall biblical story. The Bible may not prescribe a specific set of civil laws for modern societies or even a specific form of government, but it does provide a framework for understanding civil government’s authority, task, and limits, and the norms of justice that should guide it.
A good starting place is to grasp the basic parts and fundamental unity of the biblical story. This story provides the foundation for a Christian worldview. A worldview is “the basic beliefs, embedded in a shared grand story, that are rooted in a faith commitment and give shape and direction to the whole of our individual and corporate lives.” Where do we come from? Where are we going? Do we have a purpose? How should we live? Try to answer the last two questions without the first two and you’ll see how our beliefs about meaning and morality are inseparable from the “big story” we believe.
Story -> Worldview -> Application
In a series of articles to follow, I hope to explore some basic political implications of key parts of the “big story” of the Bible, including:
- God’s good creation and man as image-bearer.
- Man’s rebellion.
- The continuity of creation and God’s redemption plan.
- A people called to be a blessing.
- God’s gracious giving of the law.
- The need for a king and righteous rule.
- The need for renewed hearts.
- Incarnation and the kingdom at hand.
- Christ’s kingdom ambassadors.
- The final judgment and kingdom completion.
Each article will focus on certain parts, without ignoring the others, since we cannot understand any part in isolation.
A Christian worldview “sets out the main elements or beliefs that constitute the biblical story and shows how they fit together in a coherent framework.” For example, from the biblical story of creation (the focus of my next article), we learn of our status as dependent creatures and subjects of the sovereign, self-existent, Creator God. This basic truth has major implications for all of life, including politics, which we may begin to grasp instantly but could explore for a lifetime. But we cannot stop there. There is more to the story.
 Quoted in A. Wolters, Creation Regained.
 See Theodore Plantinga, Reading the Bible as History.
 Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology.
 Goheen and Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview, 23.
 Ibid, 27.
John Sikkema is the legal counsel for ARPA Canada