Politics – According to the Bible
A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture
I have been putting off writing a review of this book. I owe an enormous debt to Professor Grudem because his was the first systematic theology that I read cover to cover. It was a really engaging book because he didn’t duck out of the juicy bits of theological discussion (at the time for me these were: speaking in tongues, prophecy, etc). I loved the way he seemed to know everything – he had a definite opinion on every subject from the order of events for Jesus to return, to the roles of men and women in the home, he seemed to be as confident and as sure about these things as he was about the atoning work of Christ and the reality of the resurrection. Other views on the end times, roles of women, baptism, were summarily dismissed with numerous Bible texts that showed the superiority of Professor Grudem’s views. This is just what I wanted – a champion who could take on all foes and so I lapped it up and I used this mighty tome as a discipleship tool to induct other teenagers in the essentials of the Christian faith.
You might wonder why a UK Christian would bother engaging with Professor Grudem’s book which is clearly aimed at a US audience. But Grudem’s influence is global and he has quite a following in the UK, he has been visiting political leaders in countries like Albania with a seminar called 50 Factors Within Nations that Determine Their Wealth or Poverty, of which this book is a written version, he has also been lecturing emerging leaders across Europe to explain with his views on global warming. So this is not an irrelevant book to engage with from a UK context. (See the video below which is an admiring eulogizing of Grudem sung by a UK evangelical student group).
Dr Grudem is adamant that this book is clearly derived from the Bible . His title proclaims that this is “politics according to the Bible” in other words Grudem is confident he has done his homework and as someone who is very clear on the issue of not just the infallibility of Scripture but the inerrancy of the Bible – it is a primary value to Dr Grudem that his book is exegetical that its conclusions flow from the clear teaching of the Bible. Indeed he explains:
“as with any written document, it is always possible for a hostile reader to lift biblical statements unfairly out of their contexts and announce that “this is what the Bible teaches,” but this is done with no attention to responsible principles of interpretation and no awareness of the place of specific verses within the broad sweep of historical development throughout the Bible.” P.57
I believe Dr Grudem to be a faithful man seeking to apply the Bible to the contemporary church. It is therefore with some regret that I must register some major misgivings not just with this book but with Dr Grudem’s theological and hermeneutical method demonstrated in this book.
As an author I know what it is like to receive unfair and uncharitable reviews of my books, so I want to give this book a fair reading, the book is encyclopedic in its size and breadth, so a blow by blow account of the book is not possible, rather a panoramic description will be provided. We must of course start with the good. So I would like to share 5 things that I value about this book.
- Encouragement for Christians to engage in Political life– the book starts with a passionate call for Christian engagement with political life. This is to be commended – as many Christians have evacuated the world of politics for fear of getting dirty.
- Challenging pietistic disengagement that stems from a “trust Jesus and be forgiven of your sins and grow in holiness and go to heaven” reductionist gospel. (p45) Dr Grudem helpfully challenges the pietistic gospel that only has an interest in saving souls not demonstrating the reign of God over all creation.
- A recognition that Christendom is not an appropriate model for political engagement.
- A willingness to engage with tricky subjects: gun ownership, torture, pacifism etc.
- A recognition that you should vote on the issues rather than simply supporting a Christian candidate because they are Christian (p.66)
Structure of the Book
The book breaks down into 2 main sections:
lays down basic principles of Christian political engagement, arguing against faulty views of the church and politic engagement.
looks at specific issues in the following order:
Protection of life – including: Abortion, Euthanasia, Capital Punishment, Ownership of Guns
Marriage – including Polygamy, Homosexuality, Divorce
Family – including “governments should encourage married couples to bear and raise children”, Spanking
Economics– including: Private property, Economic development, Free market regulations, the rich and the poor, taxes
The Environment– including: the current state of the earth’s resources, carbon fuels etc
National Defence – including just war theory and pacifism
Foreign Policy – including Israel, the interrogation of detainees, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
This is certainly a wide-ranging book. You can probably tell from the ordering of the chapters where Dr Grudem is going with what some would see as a predictable emphasis on traditional hot-button moral majority questions. But Dr Grudem cannot be accused of ducking volatile issues and he is to be commended for encouraging Christians to think through these important subjects.
I will limit myself to three areas of critique:
1. Style and Scripture
Dr Grudem’s normal mode of scriptural engagement is prooftexting. So for example in his section arguing that the carrying of concealed firearms will help to bring about a safer society Grudem relies on one text
Luke 22:36-38 “But now let the one who has a money bag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one….”
He defends this text from other texts for example when Jesus tells peter to put away his sword or when Jesus said “all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” But there is no engagement with the Bible’s wider teaching on peace, on beating swords into ploughshares, on Jesus’ lack of weapons, on the practice of the early church. This single text is the basis by which Grudem argues that the ownership of weapons is acceptable Christian behaviour in fact it is to be encouraged. Grudem marshalls numerous statistics to argue that it is a open and closed case that gun ownership makes for a safer society. He does admit that UK Christians will see this issue differently but he warns the UK church
“things are not as peaceful as they might seem. The recent situation is such that, surprisingly the rate of violent crime(with or without guns) per capita in the UK is now about twice as large as the rate in the United States.”
Grudem argues that gun control laws do not reduce gun crime and in several places they have lead to an increase in crime. There is no engagement with statistics that claim the opposite, (for example in Australia gun control laws have been very successful) it is presented as a clear open and shut case. There is no serious engagement with theologians who would take alternative opinions. There is very little theology here, just a prooftext and some statistics.
One of the things that I enjoyed about Grudem’s systematic theology as a young person was that Grudem did not sit on the fence about anything, he had clear views and made a persuasive case for all of them. But looking back it almost feels like everything was a primary issue of Grudem – there is no sense of “Christians differ on these issues, I maybe in the wrong here and so these are not issues that we need to divide over” instead Grudem seems to have very little respect for other views – there is a sense of omniscience in his writing – a sense that Grudem believes the Bible to be crystal clear on all the issues he looks at.
It is true he does present a caveat in the introduction of his book:
Do I think that everyone who tries to follow the Bible will agree with my understanding of these issues? No. In a book that covers sixty political topics, many readers will agree with me in some sections and disagree with me in others. Many Christian readers who accept the authority of the Bible might argue for alternative positions that they think are better supported from the overall teaching of the Bible. That is fine with me, for I think we grow in our understanding by discussing and reasoning with one another (in a civil manner!)… I also want to say that I do not hold with equal confidence every position I support in this book. On some issues I think the overall teaching of the Bible is clear, direct, and decisive, such as the idea that civil governments are set up by God to punish evil and reward good (chap. 3) or the idea that laws in a nation should protect people’s lives, particularly the lives of preborn children (chap. 6).
This caveat is made but still it does not feel clear in the body of the text, it would not have taken much to signal which issues he feels there is room for disagreement on. He does seem pretty adamant and committed in his statements on global warming, the superiority of free market capitalism, ownership of guns – I was not aware of these being seen as a matter of interpreting difficult passages but rather Grudem appears to present the Bible being clear on these issues.
There is very little engagement with views from the history of the church or from the global church. Grudem is of course entitled to his opinion and I am not criticizing Grudem for not agreeing with my political opinions – I am concerned that he makes the dogmatic claim in the title of this book makes that this is “politics according to the Bible” and he doesn’t try to engage with other opinions.
– in his chapter on economics, Grudem argues that personal ownership of private property is a fundamental assumption of the Bible. He then goes on to argue that this puts the Bible in direct contradiction of Marxism. It appears to me that any kind of socialism is seen by Grudem as subChristian. He argues that one of government’s primary responsibilities is to promote economic growth in a nation as it is “morally good and part of what God intended in putting human beings on the earth” p.269 I could not find an engagement with why we should be thinking about an individual nation states economic prosperity rather than the overall prosperity of the world. Grudem describes the free market as
“a wonderful, God given process in human societies through which the goods and services that are produced by the society (supply) continually adjust to exactly match the goods that are wanted by the society (demand.)
He recounts how he traveled with his young family through communist Europe as a means to demonstrate the superior capitalist free market economies compared the ‘drab” and “people’s faces appeared drained of hope or any joy in life” p.277
This feels like propaganda for small government republicanism. I have driven through parts of affluent North America where people’s faces look drained of all hope or any joy of life – for me to use this as a reason to conclude that free market economics is a wicked system and then back it up with a proof text such as “the disciples shared all things in common” (acts 2;44) would seem sub biblical imposition of a political system on the text. But Grudem continually takes this approach. It feels like syncretism – allowing the cultural context he is in to determine his reading of scripture. Now of course all of us are vulnerable to this and so allowing other Christian voices, and the sweep of the Biblical narrative to direct us is surely a helpful corrective to avoid this kind of eisogesis.
He takes a similar view on the environment arguing against a radical environmentalism that wants to leave nature untouched and “undeveloped.” There seems little space given to moderate environmentally minded evangelicals whilst Grudem fights the radical groups. Grudem argues
“Did God create an earth that would run out of essential natural resources because of human development?… There is no hint that mankind will ever exhaust the earth’s resources by developing them and using them wisely” p.329
Grudem argues “ there is no good reason to think we will ever run out of any essential natural resource…” He then cites reams of statistics to support his case. He summarises
- “Long term trends show that human beings will be able to live on the earth, enjoying every increasing prosperity, and never exhausting its resources”p.332
- Buying Recycled Paper is a waste of time. p.348
- Pesticides are not a problem. p.352
- Coal resources will last for 1500 years p.357
Grudem argues that concerns about nuclear power are “based on irrational fear led by Hollywood style fiction, the green lobbies and the media. These fears are unjustified and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources” p. 359 (safer than windpower, hydroelectric power, geothermal energy…)?
“There is no virtue in always seeking to reduce our energy use.” p.360
Some say a picture tells a thousand words:
With respect to global warming, Grudem asks the question “Did God design a fragile earth or a resilient one?… should Christians believe that God has actually designed the earth to be this fragile in response to human activity.” Grudem clearly insinuates that the fears of the environmentalists are a challenge to a fundamental understanding of God’s ability to create a resilient planet. There is a problem with this argument – it seems pretty water tight. But by this argument nuclear weapons do not exist or have a greatly exaggerated potential impact on human life, because God did not create a world that is fragile enough to be vulnerable to human activity.
Grudem argues that “scientific opinion is strongly divided about global warming” this is not what Sojouners argue: “More than 95 percent of scientists working in the disciplines contributing to climate studies accept that climate change is almost certainly being caused by human activities.”
The controversial aspects of this book include:
- Rubbishing the claims that human interaction has anything to do with climate change.
- Arguing for the carrying of concealed firearms.
- Arguing for the use of torture, particularly waterboarding on terror suspects.
- Arguing that freemarket capitalism is the only biblically justifiable economic system.
- Arguing against a welfare state.
All of us are vulnerable to being influenced by our cultures, our upbringing and cultural location makes us vulnerable to seeing the Bible through our preferences, political persuasions. The best way to test our views would be to expose them to the whole biblical narrative rather than selecting prooftexts. If you work hard you can make the Bible say almost anything you want – how many of us have had conversations with Jehovah’s witnesses that use an identical prooftexting hermeneutic. They impose a theological system on the Bible that means they miss the point of its narrative. If we are not careful the Bible ends up being a mascot to support our own ideologies rather than allowing scripture to shape us.
I was disappointed by this book it feels divisive, and lacks a wider theological awareness that you would expect of a thinker of Grudem’s caliber. Should it perhaps be retitled: Politics according Grudem, a one sided polemical text book?