Book Review: Politics – According to the Bible… by Wayne Grudem

Grudem--PoliticsReviewed by John Hayward

From the author who ‘condensed’ the complexities of the bible into the 1291-page ‘Systematic Theology‘ comes this indispensable 624-page guide to ‘Politics – According to the Bible‘. Claiming to be ‘A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture’, and thus going further than Walter Kaiser’s 256-page guide to biblical ethics ‘What Does the Lord Require?‘, Wayne Grudem explains why the gospel calls believers to political engagement, what biblical principles should inform our engagement and then systematically applies these to about 60 contemporary political challenges.

Though I have much exposure to American thinking, I still found the book left me with a better understanding of the reasons why so much Christian political thought in America often appears to emphasise abortion and same sex issues. Such concerns–which are increasingly widespread in Britain and could appear quaint if they weren’t so irrelevant to the majority of the population–are evident, for instance, in the section on specific issues, which begins with chapters on the protection of life, marriage, and the family before getting to more mainstream concerns such as the economy and the environment; and in the subsection on ‘Incest, Adultery, and Homosexuality’, which in fact has just one sentence each on incest and adultery, whereas the overwhelming focus of sex outside marriage ‘according to the bible’ is categorically on heterosexual promiscuity, not homosexuality. So, while it is true that ‘governments significantly influence people’s moral convictions and behavior and the moral fabric of a nation’ and it is right that we make the case for ‘what is helpful or harmful to individuals and to society’, we ‘must also remember that inwardly transformed people are needed if we are ever going to see a transformed society. Merely passing good laws and having good government will never be enough to change a society.’

That said, clearly the ‘equality’ lobby have brought such attention upon themselves in that homosexuals have sought special rights and protections under the law over and above the protections that they have enjoyed in law equally with all citizens. Grudem eloquently demonstrates this in his section on how the nine unelected members of the US Supreme Court have recently appropriated the power not only to interpret and judge according to the nation’s laws and Constitution, but also to make new laws–a section that has worrying parallels with what is reportedly happening with Britain’s Law Lords and Supreme Court. Here he persuasively argues that the question of who rules the US and appoints its judges is the most important issue facing the nation.

While he acknowledges that ‘the laws that God gave to Israel can still provide useful information for understanding the purposes of government and the nature of good and bad government’, it sometimes feels that since ‘we cannot do this directly, and we can only do it with much difficulty,’ he all too easily looks to the key texts of Genesis 9:5-6, Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 for an answer. However, some would have hoped for more engagement with the bible’s rich social legislation, perhaps particularly concerning the biggest issue currently facing Western politicians – namely, debt and the economy. So, Grudem misses an opportunity when he concludes his section on the recent recession without having explored the bible’s many warnings against debt and the charging of interest or the possible modern significance of old testament legislation on periodic forgiveness of debts. On the other hand, others might feel he too often refers to the economic impact of policies, whereas a more biblical perspective might have more often analysed their relational impact and the extent to which they promote love of God and neighbour.

On taxation, he makes the case well that so-called ‘progressive’ taxes are neither fair nor biblical. He also observes that ‘redistribution of income (which is different from basic support of the very poor) is not part of punishing evil and rewarding good, and it is not part of impartially enforcing justice; rather, it is carrying out an additional social agenda that the Bible does not support.’ Yet, given that history teaches that spontaneous voluntary charitable giving cannot guarantee a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of all, some will doubtless recall Jim Wallis when he wrote, ‘the question “whatever became of the common good?” must be a constant religious refrain to political partisans.’ Others may find Grudem guilty of the same mistake of which Wallis accuses the Left–namely, disconnecting personal faith from public politics–and wonder what significance biblical teaching about justice, mercy and righteousness (with all that means for right relationships) might hold for the vocation of those called to be our representatives, standard-bearers and role-models.

Helpfully, the author regularly lists and responds to objections to his positions and includes arguments from reason and experience apart from the bible. Occasionally though, this high standard of critical engagement is lacking. For instance, in arguing in favour of capital punishment for murder, he cites evidence suggesting the punishment has a deterrence effect, but makes no mention of opposing evidence that the murder rate in non-death penalty states has remained steadily and increasingly lower than the rate in states with the death penalty. His perspective on the Iraq War is also less than comprehensive. Less significantly, his praise of ‘larger, safer, more comfortable cars’ is equally silent on safety issues related to SUVs and younger, less experienced or riskier drivers. On most points, however, his analysis typically presents a strong case.

Overall, Grudem has given believers an invaluable resource to encourage greater engagement in the church’s mission to be salt and light in the world. He could have identified the wider variety of biblical themes and principles drawn upon by believers across the political and faith spectrum, even where he judges these not to be relevant to what the bible defines as the purposes of civil government. We on this side of the Atlantic examining the political relevance of the bible might have hoped for a more inclusive approach, as in the academic ‘Jubilee Manifesto‘, theoretical ‘God and Government‘ or more practical ‘Votewise Now!‘ After all, as he rightly quotes, ‘God is not a Republican or a Democrat’ or, as we might put it, no political party has a monopoly on God and religion. Exploring to what extent the bible offers a ‘third way’ to both free market capitalism and socialism, rather than just critiquing the latter, would also have been good. As it is, ‘Politics – According to the Bible‘ at times appears quite partisan, although Grudem addresses even this concern in a concluding chapter, in which he encourages readers to read Wallis’ ‘God’s Politics‘ for a contrasting worldview, to read the bible, and then to decide ‘which arguments are the most persuasive.’

Even those who disagree with Grudem’s conclusions will be forced to think hard about why they believe what they do. Ultimately, he seeks to show how Christians should live their entire lives continually trusting in God, obeying him and living lives filled with ‘good works’.

Politics – According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture by Dr Wayne Grudem is published by Zondervan.

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Category: News and Reviews

August, 2010

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