Sunday, September 5, 2010

Frank Turk's review of Politics for Christians

Over at Pyromaniacs, Frank Turk reviews my latest book, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft. You can find his review here. It's not strange because Frank disagrees with my understanding of the relationship political philosophy and the Christian worldview. That, I fully expected, given the disparate ways in which our theological traditions inform the way we approach certain public questions. But what surprised me is this claim:
And it is almost utterly bereft of his much- deferred use of the Bible to inform part of our thoughts on this matter. Another symptom of this problem is Beckwith's missing Scriptural index -- but it's missing for a very good reason: there's no Bible cited by this book to speak of.
What is odd about this claim is that it is false. In the pages that are found under the general heading, "The Christian Citizen" (pp. 63-81), I interact with Scripture in some detail as well as cite and/or quote Scripture 34 times! (It may actually be more than that, but that's just my eyeballing it for this blog post). In the four cases in which I significantly interact with the Bible in those pages I expound on Jesus's interaction with the Pharisees over Caesar's coin, the role of grace in the exercise of Christian virtue in relation to the wider community, the arrest of St. Paul and St. Silas and what it teaches us about the exercise of our rights as citizens, and the Jewish Council's confrontation with the Apostles (and especially St. Peter) and what it says about what the Bible teaches us about the epistemological status of our theological claims in a public setting. Towards the end of that chapter, after I address the question of Christians supporting non-Christian candidates, I write the following (pp. 87-89), some of which summarizes my employment of Scripture on the pages prior to page 63 (notes omitted):
Is there Scriptural warrant for the notion that the common good should be the standard by which we assess candidates? Although I believe the answer is yes, as I have argued above, one must exercise care in using Scripture to address this sort of question. For, as I have already noted, the Bible’s authors did not reside in liberal democracies in which citizens play an integral part in electing their leaders, shaping policy and enforcing laws. So, this is how I suggest one should proceed: if we assume that the common good is achieved when a political regime treats justly its citizens and the many institutions that help develop and sustain their virtue (e.g., families, schools, churches, etc.), it seems that the Bible does provide us principles by which we can evaluate those running for public office. 
To illustrate what I mean, I will briefly review some of the principles we covered above that seem to show how the Scriptures instruct the state and the individual to do justice in a variety of different ways:

The stranger is my neighbor. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Lk 10:27) and offers the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to illustrate that the stranger too is my neighbor and entitled to be treated justly (Lk 10:29-37).

Help the less fortunate. We are commanded to help the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and comfort the afflicted (Mt 25:31-46; Jas 1:26-27). This can be accomplished by churches or by government programs. (Some Christians, as I noted above, like Marvin Olasky, emphasize the former, while others, like Jim Wallis, stress the latter).

The state should be just. The Old Testament is replete with calls for justice and condemnations of injustice directed to the state (e.g., Is 58:6- 10; Deut 24:19-22; Prov 31:8-9).

There is a rightly-ordered social fabric. The Ten Commandments (Ex 20:2-17) tell us something of God’s plan for a rightly-ordered society. We are to worship God, honor our mothers and fathers, remain faithful to our spouses, not covet or steal our neighbors’ property or spouse, maintain integrity in word and deed, and respect the intrinsic dignity of human life. In present-day political terms this can translate to the government respecting and privileging religious liberty, the right to life, private property, traditional marriage, male-female parenthood and integrity in public life.

It should be noted that many Christian scholars defend these principles as not only biblical, but also as the deliverances of natural reason apart from Scripture. This is why there are many non-Christians who agree with Christians on these principles, even if these non-Christians reject some if not all of the Christian Bible as God’s Word. After all, as I have noted in several places in this chapter, many of the calls for justice in Scripture, such as in the case of Cain’s murder of Abel, presuppose that the reader already knows what constitutes justice apart from any special revelation from God.

Nevertheless, a candidate who embraces these ideals, even if he or she is not a Christian, is a candidate that a Christian can support with a clear conscience. So, can a Christian vote for a non-Christian? Absolutely. In fact, in some cases a Christian’s conscience may require he support a non-Christian candidate if that candidate is the best-situated person most likely to advance the common good.
In chapter 5, I offer an argument for natural rights having their source in God (not unlike C. S. Lewis' argument in Mere Christianity). Frank is disappointed because he was seeking what he calls "a theological plea." Because "theology" literally means "the study of God," it seems to me that an argument that has God has its conclusion would qualify as theological. I suspect, however, what he means by "theological" is the sort of reasoning that one finds employed by preachers and Bible teachers expositing and exegeting Scripture. That's certainly a legitimate genre of reasoning, one that I offer in chapter 2 (see above). However, the point of chapter 5 was to make the case for the benefit of our unbelieving friends that their understanding of their own intrinsic dignity as persons--their intuitive acquaintance with the moral law about which they become aware whenever they want to secure their own rights in the face of injustices--derives its source from the only Being who has both the authority and ontological status to issue such commands. This is why I make use of the "New Atheists" and what their writings reveal about the moral law they seem to know and that percolates beneath their grievances against the Divine. As for Scripture, I do make use of it in this chapter (contrary to what Frank implies to his readers). On pages 158 through 162, I offer a brief response to the query, "Is the Natural Law Biblical?" Here is an excerpt from that section (notes omitted):
The second argument goes like this: the Scriptural passages most often cited in defense of natural law (e.g., Rom 1–2, especially Rom 2:15, which speaks of the law “written on our hearts”) do not teach what natural law proponents think it teaches, namely, that there are moral truths accessible to those with no direct contact with special revelation. For example, evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry writes:
The dual reference to law of nature and law of God presumably arose from the apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 1 and 2. John Murray in his volume on Paul’s epistle to the Romans in The New International Commentary series argues that the term “law of nature” is a Christian concept rooted in Scripture, not a secular concept to be grasped independently of a revelatory epistemology. To interpret Romans 1 and 2 in deistic terms of natural religion is unjustifiable.
Although this is not the place to assess Henry’s exegesis, it seems to me that his Scriptural citation is not based on a careful reading or understanding of natural law. Had he truly grasped the tradition he critiques, he would understand that his own point of view—the alleged biblical rejection of natural law theory—is itself dependent on moral notions not derived from special revelation. That is, Henry is affirming and defending a self-refuting position. Let me explain. By claiming that natural law thinkers have incorrectly interpreted the book of Romans, Henry is presupposing a moral notion that is logically prior to his exegesis of scripture: texts should be interpreted accurately. This, of course, is grounded in more primitive moral notions: to accurately interpret a text one should do so fairly and honestly, and one should pursue the truth while interpreting texts. Both these moral commands are logically prior to, and thus not derived from, Scripture itself, for in order to extract truth from Scripture, obedience to these moral commands is a necessary condition. This means that Henry, ironically, must rely on a moral law known apart from scripture in exegeting the scripture that he claims does not affirm the knowledge of the moral law apart from Scripture.

Here’s another way to think about it. Imagine someone said to you that the only source for our knowledge of grammar was the Holy Grammar Book. You would think to yourself, “Wait a second. Don’t I have to know grammar before I read and understand the Holy Grammar Book? And if I do, then it is not true that the Holy Grammar Book is the only source for our knowledge of grammar. For the first person who read the Holy Grammar Book already knew grammar before he read and understood the book.” In the same way, the moral attitude with which one should approach any text, including Scripture, is logically prior to reading the text.

Someone could argue that I am offering a hermeneutical principle (i.e., a rule of interpretation) rather than a moral one. But I do not think that is right. For these are not mutually exclusive if one thinks that a proper approach to texts is part of what it means to be a virtuous person. After all, if we discovered that an interpreter of Scripture had been negligent, uncharitable or dishonest in his biblical exegesis, we would not only suspect error in his interpretation, but we would also attribute to him a lack of personal virtue. This judgment would be at its root moral.
I very much appreciate Frank's kind and generous comments throughout the review in which he praises the book as a good introduction to politics. However, I do not think he accurately communicates to his readers the role that Scripture plays in the development of my case.

1 comment:

Frank Turk said...

Dr. Beckwith --

Thanks for your response; I'm flattered to warrant a label at your blog. :-)

You say this:

In chapter 5, I offer an argument for natural rights having their source in God (not unlike C. S. Lewis' argument in Mere Christianity). Frank is disappointed because he was seeking what he calls "a theological plea." Because "theology" literally means "the study of God," it seems to me that an argument that has God has its conclusion would qualify as theological. I suspect, however, what he means by "theological" is the sort of reasoning that one finds employed by preachers and Bible teachers expositing and exegeting Scripture.

To which I'd respond: it's true -- anything trying to pass itself off as reasoning about God is in so sense "theological". The problem, however, is that we're looking for an explicitly-Christian theology here to inform our thinking, aren't we?

I'd be willing to stipulate all the Scripture verses in your response here as your use of Scripture to make your point -- but it turns out your point is that the Christian can only interact with the lost politically from a natural law basis, and that point is not explicitly Christian.

I think your interaction with those topics is interesting and, as I said in my review, useful for a general discussion of civics -- I think it's an utterly-true fact that the Christian really can participate in any form of government as a good citizen based on these principles.

The questions which I think you leave unanswered and perhaps even unasked are these: why does Christianity always seem to upset the political apple cart? Is there something about an explicitly-Christian worldview that causes Caesar to be threatened? In that, how much is too much, and when are Christians called to suffer rather than fight?

Your book is good for teaching merely-civil engagement. But somehow Paul and Silas were persecuted rather than commended for their work, and Paul ultimately faced death for his work which Rome saw as politically dangerous. You don;t encounter much of that in your book; it seems to me those are issues you should have addressed as they are the explicitly-Christian ones, and also the explicitly-Christian theological questions.