An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Five Views on the Church and Politics

Five Views on the Church and Politics
Amy E. Black general editor
Grand Rapids: Zondervan (Counterpoints)
ISBN 978-0-310-51792-4; 240pp; pbk; £12.99

The views series is an extremely helpful series. This one is no exception. It follows the usual format of one advocate expounding a particular view and the others responding to it. This way, at least in theory, we see the strengths and weaknesses of each position. In this volume we have five different views expounded by five different experts: Thomas Heike (Associate Dean and Professor of Political Science, University of British Columbia) on the anabaptist;  Robert Benne (formerly Professor of Church and Society at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago) on the Lutheran; Bruce Fields (Associate Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, TEDS) on the Black Church; Jamie Smith (Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College) on the Reformed; and Brain Benestad (D’Amour Chair of Catholic Thought at Assumption College in Worcester, MA) on the Roman Catholic view.
Each author does a great job of explaining their own perspective and the responses are fair and friendly— each respondent takes time to note what they do agree with and then highlights areas of disagreement. In each of the chapters we are given an historical and theoretical overview of the position and a case study on how that position deals with poverty.

Amy Black, the general editor and professor of Political Science at Wheaton, provides a helpful introduction and closes the book with an overview section ‘Christian witness in the public square’. She notes number of areas of agreement between the respondents; these include: the centrality of the church and its witness to the gospel; the importance of governing institutions; the importance of civil society/ free associations; and a concern for cultivating virtue in individuals and working toward(s) a more virtues society (228). She also notes a number of tensions and disagreement centred around some key enduring questions:
• When addressing the societal problems and making collective decisions, what are the proper roles for individuals, churches, and political authorities? How and to what extent should they relate to one another?
• What is the proper level for Christian political engagement? In what ways should individual Christians participate in the political community? Do churches have a proper political role?
• In what ways should Scripture (and its interpretation), reason, historical perspective, and contemporary experience guide Christian political thought?
• In what ways does sin corrupt government, politics, and Chris­tian interaction in the public sphere? What are the best ways to counteract the effects of individual and systemic sin? (229)
The one downside to the book is that there is no traditional old-school Calvinistic position. Smith provides a Kuyperian neo-Calvinist perspective. However, given the choice of the two I’d plump for the Kuyperian view — though it’s a shame the Reformed Calvinist view is not represented. Smith is an interesting choice for the Kuyperian chapter — he had recently taken to task Jim Skillen’s excellent book The Good of Politics, but Smith redeems himself and draws on Skillen’s book in his chapter here. Smith’s chapter and critiques of the other positions for me were the highlights of the book.

Benestad makes an important observation:
A survey of the Catholic laity as a whole and of Catholic clergy would, no doubt, reveal that most Catholics could not give an adequate account of the church’s position.This widespread ignorance stems largely from lack of education. Seminaries have, for the most part, not done a good job of preparing future priests to think about the relation of the Catholic faith and politics Only a few of the laity would study the subject in a Catholic university or hear about it in a Sunday homily (180-181).
This I suspect is sadly true of most Christians - let alone Roman Catholics. This book will provide an excellent place to start to remedy the situation. Particularly if they start with the biblical position expounded so ably by Smith! A good bibliography would not have gone amiss (though there are copious footnotes) but the book does contains an author, subject and scripture index (surprisingly Rom 13 only occurs only once in the index).

Overall this is a great introduction to the different perspectives not only for those new to these topics but also for those who are familiar with the approaches will find much to think and chew over. 

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