Christianity and politics – Clark

By BrianEdgar

The book Tales of Two Cities comprises seven contributions on aspects of the relationship of Christian faith with contemporary, secular, pluralist politics. The papers were originally presented at a conference organised by Affinity, a network of approximately 1,200 churches throughout Great Britain and Ireland.

The papers vary considerably in length and style. Field’s discussion of Rutherford is particularly lengthy. There is a strong historical leaning with the writers generally seeking to find wisdom for the present from writers of the past. In terms of approach there is certainly an affinity, we might say, between the papers, for they have a shared appreciation for Augustine and various Reformed writers. Nonetheless, around this commonality the papers are varied in content and approach, especially concerning the value and nature of secular pluralism and the extent to which the rule of God is to be seen in present political structures.  The book as a whole is a very useful contribution to the field.

Beyond this, it is difficult to generalise about papers from different authors. Each paper has to stand on its own merits. The final paper, by Stephen Clark discusses the relationship between ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Westminster’ via a review of the previous six papers and a discussion of some fundamental principles for Christians engaging with the State. The following paragraphs summarise some of the most salient points of the various essays.

Gordon Wenham begins the compendium with a canonical approach to the contrast between Old Testament law as a necessity in a fallen world and the ideal standards expected of Christians. He explores the way that law can be transposed into Western multicultural society today, and the need for compromise with regard to the specifics of legislation because of the reality of pluralism. He argues that biblical principles can, however, be attractive to many people and should be commended wherever possible.

In ‘Was Jesus political?’ Steve Wilmshurst argues that Jesus’ mission has an unmistakably political dimension which is best understood in terms of a collision of power structures. Jesus’ agenda was not aimed primarily at changing earthly power structures but Jesus calls his followers to a radically new and wholly exclusive commitment where other loyalties – including ethnic loyalties and nationalism -  are abolished. He also issues a political challenge to the world at large by attacking the foundation of the earthly politics by calling on rulers to abandon their pretensions to power and to recognise the true source of the power they do possess.

David Field presents an extensive summary of  Samuel Rutherford’s thinking about civil government as found in Lex, Rex (1644). Civil government exists for the well-being and protection of the people whose highest good is found in the practice of true religion.  The essence of civil government is in its embodiment of the law of God which it is to declare legislatively, apply judicially and enforce executively. There is a tension between, on the one hand, those aspects of  Rutherford’s thought which are attractive to modern liberalism (the division of powers, checks and balances, emphasis on the rule of law, person-office distinction) and, on the other hand, his Calvinist doctrine of providence,  a reformed and covenantal reading of scripture and a tendency towards a form of Christendom.

The life and thought of Edward Miall, nineteenth century journalist, politician, nonconformist, committed dis-establishmentarian and author of a series of essays known together as ‘The Politics of Christianity’ is presented by David W. Smith. Miall opposed war, the inherent evils of colonialism and the implicit ecclesiastical legitimisation of  commercialisation (or ‘the trade spirit’) and the subjugation of certain classes. He was prescient in observing a dangerous trend towards individualism and the privatisation of religion and warned of the dangers of Christianity having too much political power.

Paul Helm takes an Augustinian approach to Christianity and politics in a pluralist society.  Pluralism itself can be defended by appeal to the moral principles of Christianity (‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’) or to the instrumental value pluralism (it is necessary to tolerate such a thing lest a worse thing come about). It also helps discourage the corrupting effect of a unified political power. There are, however, limits to pluralism – as when legislation would require Christians to sin – and Christians must not be seduced by it and fall into relativism or indifferentism. This view of pluralism is consistent with Christian exclusivity because the kingdom does not have independent, visible expression until the return of the King. Moreover, nothing that we know of the heavenly state rules out a form of pluralism and differences of opinion – given that heaven is a world of love and one aspect of love is forbearance.

David Mackay outlines the thought of Alexander MacLeod (1774-1833) on ‘the crown rights of King Jesus today’ as Messiah and governor of the nations of the earth. MacLeod, a Scotsman, was a Reformed Presbyterian pastor in New York. Mackay relates this view of present kingship to the concept of Christ as a crucified king. Thus asserting the crown rights of Jesus does not mean making people Christians by legislation or political programs, as Christ reigns precisely in his suffering.

Altogether, a book which will be a fine resource for those interested in considering the way of Christ in the contemporary political world.

This review of  “Tales of Two Cities: Christianity and Politics”, (ed) Stephen Clark , was originally published in Evangelical Review of Society and Politics: an interdisciplinary journal for the Christian analysis of social and political issues, Vol.1, No. 2, (October 2007) 64-66

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