The political use of the Bible

Gai Ferdon, March 2003

Gai Ferdon expects to complete her PhD on Biblical Hermeneutics, Jewish Polity and Constitutional Forms During the Interregnum (1649–60) later this year. She will then write a Jubilee Centre report outlining biblical teaching on constitutional forms. Drawing on her research, in this article Gai touches on some key hermeneutical principles and illustrates the political use of the Bible with reference to the seventeenth-century Puritan John Eliot. In a future article, Gai will draw out the implications of biblical teaching on constitutional forms for modern political structures.

At the heart of Scripture is the fundamental assumption that God is Lord of creation and bears absolute authority to govern man in every way.

The Bible unfolds all the necessary presuppositions, propositions and absolutes for structuring and organizing our personal affairs as well as our public relationships, of which government is a part. But how do we discern the Lord’s political and governmental will for our lives from a diversity of biblical texts?

Christian hermeneutical scholarship for purposes of public policy is, unfortunately, a highly controversial and contentious discipline. Regrettable as well is the habit of many Christians to justify their preconceived political agendas by merely adorning them with biblical references. This is certainly descriptive of some of the political use of the Bible in the seventeenth century. At that time, political opposites such as Royalists and Republicans resorted to similar texts to support contradictory constitutional reform proposals.

Nevertheless, there is a principled hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures for political use, and many seventeenth-century Christians did reflect vigorously upon the Bible for timeless political truths precisely because they believed that it does contain normative God-given commands and civil ideals. Indeed, many turned to the polity of Ancient Israel for guidance on how to reconstitute England’s political authority and solve her constitutional crisis.

Some hermeneutical considerations

Biblical interpretation can be a rigorous enterprise requiring some level of scholarly sophistication. The fact that God delivered his eternal word through human languages in a variety of forms within several historical contexts demands that we closely scrutinize such particulars. Diverse literary genres and figures of speech all require unique interpretive rules to unpack their sense and significance. Since biblical texts are connected to historical situations, we must also grapple with the historical and grammatical contexts of passages and texts.

The objective of such a careful analysis of genres, figures, and contexts is to discover a text’s original meaning, or what it meant to its first audience. After determining this, we can then begin to explore its contemporary application or significance. Biblical scholars refer to this entire interpretive process as exegesis, or the drawing out from the text of its eternal truth. Any honorable use of the Bible, therefore, demands that we highlight these literary distinctions and develop a discerning eye for contextual details if we are to successfully capture its original meaning and its relevance for our time.

Unfortunately there is not space here for a comprehensive treatment of such a complex process. Still, I would like to highlight some interpretive guidelines that are particularly important when we make political use of the Bible. Although there are biblical texts with obvious political import, some rules of interpretation are particularly important for our purposes precisely because they relate directly to God’s unique capacity to rule in a sovereign way. In this regard, we can be confident about the timeless significance of these political texts to the extent that they mirror clearly revealed aspects of God’s sovereign rule.

Being more specific, our first hermeneutical reference point should be the Genesis account of creation. Genesis presents us with a sovereign God who transcends his own creation and who retains an absolute authority over it by virtue of his eternal position as creator, revealer, designer, and sustainer. God’s sovereignty gives him total jurisdiction over man both externally (his actions) and internally (his heart motivations). The creator/creature distinction implies God’s unique authority to govern, guide, and direct man in a total way and thus represents a level of jurisdiction and authority which no civil institution, political ideal, or social agenda can lawfully surmount, obstruct or fully replicate. There remains a realm of man, the internal, which is precluded from civil governance.

Secondly, when we read the Bible politically, we should look for inextricable links between God’s commands and his unchanging nature. Commands which are clearly linked to the fundamentals of God’s character are universal and timeless in their application. Since God created all men as his image bearers, expressions of his character as revealed in the biblical text have enduring significance for our ethical and political conduct. Much of the Old Testament remains relevant precisely because the ethical commands it contains reflect God’s immutable nature and express his holiness.

Select capable men from all the people – men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain – and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.

Exodus 18:21–22

Utilizing the Jewish polity:a seventeeth-century example

Throughout Christian history, there have been a number of distinct biblical texts that have been employed, and appropriately so, for political purposes (see e.g. Deuteronomy 17:14–20, 1 Samuel 13 and 15, or 1 Samuel 8:1–22). One particular early modern Englishman, John Eliot (1604–1690), known as the ‘Apostle to the Indians’ of Massachusetts Bay, crafted a civil model based in part on his reading of Exodus 18:13–27 and Isaiah 33:22. His civil experiment with the Algonquian Indians is described in The Christian Commonwealth, which Eliot published in 1659.

Eliot’s constitutional model was drawn almost exclusively from his reading of the Old Testament political structures and particularly Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18:13–27. Eliot read the counsel of Jethro as establishing the Hebrew Commonwealth and he sought to restore this polity for the Algonquians. He construed the command to ‘select capable men from all the people – men who fear God…’ whom Moses was to place over the people ‘as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens…’ as a permanent constitutional principle through which God’s governing authority operated. Cases ascended through Eliot’s judicial ranks to remedy the burden of adjudication in the same way that Moses was required to delegate his workload to other elected magistrates. Judges, whose character was to reflect the very holiness of the law they were to administer, determined cases within revealed legal precedents.

But the grand political text which informed Eliot’s reflections on Exodus 18 is the depiction of God as the absolute lawgiver, judge and king in Isaiah 33:22. Eliot reasoned that if God indeed exercised sovereign rulership in these ways among the Jews, the polity once delivered to them was the definitive institutional expression of his rule among men.

Eliot also emphasized two distinct political imperatives which together sustained the operation of his model: that of swift judgement (based on Ezra 7:26) and administrative proficiency (based on Deuteronomy 16:18). God’s government for man was primarily characterized by responsive and prompt justice.

Another political principle which Eliot draws our attention to is the importance of a diversity of rulers and levels of authority to shoulder the burden of governance, or a diversity and diffusion of civil power. Israel had no centralized sovereign authority but rather local self-rule among the tribes. In this regard, ultimate sovereignty was never civilly localized, and Eliot’s reading of Isaiah 33 as well as the Exodus 18 passage disallowed for such a concentration of authority among men. Nevertheless, Moses continued to retain that authority over matters affecting the entire Israelite community which provided for a type of civil unity among the tribes. Local rule, however, was most conducive to swift and efficient civil and legal management.

Eliot also integrated a covenant framework into his model, and patterned it after the Jewish experience in Deuteronomy 19:10–15. Since God had ordained a covenantal model for the just administration of law for his people and governed them according to their covenant confessions, Eliot understood a covenant as representing God’s relational pattern for entering civil society via consent and mutual agreements. It also allowed for a legal means by which the ruled could delegate authority to rulers, hold them accountable, as well as express a people’s willingness to be governed by God and his law.

Concluding observations

The difficulty we may have with Eliot’s model concerns his view of Exodus 18 as principally a judicial hierarchy, not to mention his strict adherence to the Mosaic code. We would need to expand our investigation of other hermeneutical rules to address these issues more fully. It is important to note, however, that Eliot did not delineate his entire understanding of the application of the Mosaic code. Also, Eliot’s commonwealth model is situated within his own work among the Algonquians who, like the Israelites upon departing from Egypt, had no existing law and government. Eliot may have read his own situation into the text, perceiving Jethro’s counsel as mirroring his own political need and therefore appropriate for that situation.

There is a very strong scriptural case for arguing for liberty regarding the form of civil government. Nevertheless, there are particular political norms which Eliot correctly determined from the Jewish experience, and it follows that certain civil forms are more readily able to accommodate and protect them. Norms such as God’s sovereign authority to rule supremely, the divine origin of civil authority, law as something which rulers discover and apply rather than create, godly character qualifications for rulers, diversity of rulers, the diffusion of power within a limited government, local self-rule and delegation of authority via consent and covenant are all worthy of our serious consideration.

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Category: News and Reviews

March, 2003

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