Review: Jesus And The Powers: Christian Political Witness In An Age Of Totalitarian Terror And Dysfunctional Democracies By N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird—Part 2

Part one of my review discussed the perceived (by me) strengths of the book. My review continues with part two, in which I will discuss its perceived (by me) weaknesses.

Perceived Weaknesses

1. Social Gospel 201.

I do not recall finding Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, or any other of the original voices of the “Social Gospel,” either in the text or in the indexes, so the volume does not expressly tie itself to that version of Christian social thought. It does, however, emphasize “kingdom” over “church” (as did Rauschenbusch and Gladden), and promotes social and political engagement as a general/universal Christian duty:

The kingdom might not be from this world, but it is most certainly for this world, so we cannot retreat from the world with our kingdom-mission. (xv)

Our working hypothesis is that the kingdom of God is not from this world, but it is emphatically for this world. (7)

The authors approvingly cite Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology:1

Theology must be political if it is to be evangelical. Rule out the political questions and you cut short the proclamation of God’s saving power; you leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin—their own sin and others. (76)

Throughout Chapter 4 the point is repeated, as it ordinarily is in mainline or mainstream religion.2 Of course, “political” can be defined in a variety of ways, but in its narrow sense, it has to do with public policy implemented by the civil magistrate, policy that is almost always the result of compromise between competing interests or goods. Are labor unions, for example, good or bad? Well, they are both; on the short term, they ordinarily increase the benefits of laborers, and we are happy about this. On the long term, however, they sometimes drive manufacturing overseas, where laborers do not enjoy the benefits our laborers enjoy, and our laborers lose their employment. When the church professes to speak in a “prophetic” voice (speaking “truth to power”) on matters about which there is no clear moral right or wrong, she compromises her voice when addressing other matters.

The “world” may very well be an indirect benefactor of the church’s kingdom work; those of us who are informed by Holy Scripture endeavor by God’s grace to love our neighbors as ourselves. We do not rob or kill, and this benefits the world around us. But the kingdom of Christ is not “for the world,” much less “certainly” or “emphatically” for the world, because the world is hostile to God and hostile to us. Christ and his apostles said very different things about the world, and on whether the kingdom of God is “for the world.” All three synoptic gospels contain Jesus’s express words when he commissioned the twelve, alerting them to the reality that the gospel of the kingdom would sometimes be welcome, and sometimes not.

And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. (Matt 10:13–14; cf. Mark 6:10–11; Luke 9:4–5)

While “world” can be used in a neutral manner in Holy Scripture to refer to God’s created, material order, the term is also used to describe unredeemed humanity, a humanity that remains hostile to God and to those who attempt to follow him. Jesus said to his followers:

If the world hates you [condition of fact, εἰ ὁ κόσμος ὑμᾶς μισεῖ], know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18–19)

And in his priestly prayer for his church, he petitioned his Father to protect his followers from the world’s hostility, saying,

But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (John 17:13–16)

His apostles employed similar language to describe the innate hostility between God’s kingdom and the world. Paul did not say that he or his gospel was “emphatically for the world;” but rather:

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14)

James said:

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (Jas 4:4)

And John wrote,

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. . . . We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 2:15–17; 5:19, emphasis added)

2. Implicit Universalism.

If the kingdom, or its gospel, is “emphatically” and “certainly” “for the world,” does this not imply that the kingdom and/or its gospel is universal in its benefit? If Christ died, became a curse, and intercedes “for us” (Rom 5:8; Gal 3:13; Rom 8:34), and also (and “emphatically”) “for the world,” then the gospel and the kingdom comprehend everyone, universally, both us and “the world.” Yet both Jesus and Paul asserted that the kingdom of God was (“certainly” and “emphatically”) not universal, and did not include everyone. Jesus and Paul spoke as though some were and are benefactors of the kingdom of God and others were and are not.

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. (Matt 21:43)

Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near. I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town. (Luke 10:11–12)

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9–10)

Christian believers, of course, take no pleasure in the soul-enslaving power of sin, and we desire that all would repent and come to a knowledge of the truth; but we also acknowledge that the Scriptures tell a different story, one in which “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” This “world” is hostile both to God and to us. In the confessing churches, this reality is often spoken of as “the antithesis,” the sharp antagonism between those who are reconciled to God (freely, by divine grace) and those who are not.3

3. The coercive power of the state.

Our authors, in calling all Christians to political action, do not address the concern of many (confessional, non-mainline) churches: that state power is inherently coercive (either in fact or in threat). The civil magistrate does not wield the sword in vain, but in fact, by fining, incarcerating, and sometimes executing evildoers. Such coercive power is a different kind of power, inherently, from the non-coercive power of the gospel, that gently invites those who labor and are heavy laden by sin to find rest for their souls in that gospel and in its Christ. The “sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17) is different from the civil magistrate’s sword, which is a “terror” to evildoers, causes “fear,” and understandably makes us “afraid” (Rom 13:3–5). The “sword” (μάχαιρα) that the magistrate wields is the same “sword” by which Peter removed the ear of Malchus and might have cleaved his skull had it been more expertly wielded (John 18:10).

The church, of course, did wield such a sword during the Crusades, but one may be confident that our authors disapproved of such. Naively, however, they heartily commend the church’s political activity without any due regard for the reality that political power is inherently coercive. This approval of the exercise of political/coercive power is especially odd, since Jacques Ellul is frequently and approvingly cited by the authors (5, 123, 128, 163), whose first citation is to Ellul’s Christianity and Anarchy, in which Ellul’s case for a kind of “anarchy” is precisely rooted in his objection to the use of the state’s coercive power.

Conclusion

Under the press of circumstance, much of our Christian thinking about political power is myopic; we focus on one or two particular pressing matters, or focus on the concerns of merely one culture or cultural moment. To their credit, Wright and Bird have done the very opposite; they have provided a way of thinking Christianly about civil government that is richly informed by the broad sweep of the Bible, and by a broad sweep of international human history. Readers who wish to evade/avoid the narrow issues du jour will be richly challenged and rewarded by reading Jesus and the Powers.

Notes

  1. Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3.
  2. à la Lefferts A. Loetscher, The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church Since 1869 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954).
  3. See the brief and lucid articulation of this by Camden M. Bucey, “What is the Antithesis?,” Reformedforum, August 8, 2022.

©T. David Gordon. All Rights Reserved.

N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird,  Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracies (Zondervan, 2024).

You can find the whole series here.


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8 comments

  1. I must confess I was surprised, even shocked, to see N.T. Wright on the Heidelblog. Surely, there are other, less “weak,” better and more theologically sound sources with which to living Christianly in a terror-filled, hostile world. From my original encounter with N.T. Wright, I recognized his commitment to the social gospel as he defines it, but, more troubling, to universalism. Since one’s foundational beliefs shape and influence one’s counsel, I myself would not look to N.T. Wright for sound help in living in today’s conditions. It may, probably will, be argued that Wright is helpful and scholarly on other aspects of theology. I say again I will look for more trustworthy sources, where I don’t have to redact much of what is offered, from sources whose theological bona fides are established. (Please overlook the Latin, if it is flawed. It is more than 70 years old.)

    • Dear Lola,

      You’re right to be deeply concerned about the theology of N. T. Wright. I’ve been very critical of it and have encouraged readers to be aware of the profound problems in his reading of Scripture, his reading of redemptive history, and his theology. The HB has not suddenly gone soft on N. T. Wright.

      That said, Wright is a significant theological writer in our time and we think we have a duty thoughtfully to engage writers and books that are affecting or could have an affect in the NAPARC (confessional P&R) world.

      Engage is the operative word here. The publication of a review is not by the HRA an endorsement of a book by the HRA. It is a consideration of a book. Ordinarily a review will have two parts (even if it is published in one piece): a survey and a critique. The survey must be objectively fair and the criticisms even handed. This review does just that. It is important to establish for those who have not read the book what the book argues before criticizing it. As I read Dr Gordon’s review he does this very thing. In today’s installment, the second, he critiques the book reasonably on some very important issues. His commendation of the book is not a flat commendation of everything a book says nor is it a commendation of everything the authors have previously written.

      There is a short list of authors that this publication is unlikely to review. A publication by known scandalous abuser of the sheep is not likely to appear in the pages of the HB. There are probably other categories of writers whose work is unworthy of review here but short of that, we reserve the right to help our readers engage writers and texts, even those with to the board of the HRA is confessionally opposed, in order to help our readers remain informed about what is being published.

  2. Perhaps I missed it, but it’s not clear to me if this book is saying *Christians* should have thus&such political “witness”, or if it’s saying the proper witness of the *institutional church* should have these “political” characteristics. And in any case, whichever it is saying, it’s not clear to me what *exactly* that political witness is supposed to be.
    Can T. David Gordon (or someone) sum it up for me? Are they simply vague about it?

  3. Dear Baus,

    I would not say that the authors were vague; my brief summary probably makes their view appear more cryptic than it was in full context, but reviewers are obliged to abbreviate. Contextually, their meaning was/is standard “social gospel” teaching, that people need to “be saved from their own sin and others,” to use Dr. O’Donovan’s language. But God did not save eleven of twelve apostles from the “others” who martyred them, and the apostles offered not one word of counsel to the civil magistrates of their day. The reason I subtitled that section “Social Gospel 201” was because the view of the authors was/is the standard view taught in all mainline seminaries over the last half-century, that the church is to have a “prophetic” voice (oddly, said voice is always leftist, so I was very pleased that Wright and Bird were so candidly anti-Communist). If their view was vague, it was/is my fault for not providing a fuller discussion.

    • OK. So the “witness” is not only the witness of the institutional church, but also of Christians acting in other capacities?
      And the witness that they believe is or should be “political” is specifically a declaration that the state should save us (or set us free) from our sins and the sins of others through its policies… because (somehow) Jesus/the kingdom?
      And those “sins of others” being not only actual crimes, but also whatever list bad things they don’t like?
      Is that the gist?

      As a gist, I guess it wouldn’t be fuller, but rather more explicit. Just want to be sure I’m getting the right idea (about your views of what they say on that point). I appreciate the review!

      • Dear Baus,

        Thank you for your interest; I believe that you may have to read the book itself (especially chapter 4) if you desire to understand the position of Wright and Bird. Permit me to address two things that might help: “political” and “witness.”

        “Political.” There are at least two very different understandings of what the word “political” means. In its more neutral, Aristotelian sense, it means something like: “concerning the commonwealth.” Aristotle argued that the human is (unlike other species) essentially a social being, and he was right, because God said that “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The family itself is instituted by God (Gen. 2), even before the state is instituted (Gen. 9). In Aristotle’s time, the common political structure was the city-state, so the polis/city was the civic institution. And, of course, the presence of salt and light—people who love God and neighbor—would be and is beneficial to any society. Christian virtues (e.g. faith, hope, love) are virtuous, and any society benefits from the presence of virtuous citizens. This, however, is a byproduct of Christian virtue, not its goal; the goal of Christian virtue is to glorify God by emulating/imitating Him on a creaturely scale. The goal of Christian living is to please God, who made us and redeemed us, and our pursuit of that goal happens to benefit our geo-political neighbors, since we attempt to love our neighbors as ourselves. But the kingdom of God is not designed for such an end; its goal is to restore the original creational order by our submitting ourselves to God’s rule, which cannot be done by individuals who reject God’s rule and refuse to repent of that rejection.
        When Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom was near/nearing, how do the gospels summarize his preaching? “From that time, Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Mat. 4:17; Mark 1:15). And in the midst of his earthly ministry, he said to his hearers, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 3:3, 5). The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed was not “for” the impenitent; it was against the impenitent. Therefore, even in the fairly-neutral Aristotelian sense of “political” as meaning “concerning the commonwealth,” it is still wrong to say that the kingdom of God is “political,” because kingdom proclamation promotes division within every human structure, even within the family, which was the original human institution:
        “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53; Mat. 10:34).
        In its narrower sense, however, the term “political” refers to public policy, to law-making, etc., and not, more generally, to the well-being of the body politic. In this narrower sense of the term, especially, it is naïve to suggest that there is or can be a Christian politics. Public policy, by definition, concerns itself with the legitimate interests of the entire public: management AND labor, religious AND irreligious, manufacturing AND agriculture, etc. Many of Madison’s essays in the FEDERALIST papers addressed this very matter; how do we create a form of government that addresses all legitimate interests, without choosing some over others? Our form of government itself, and nearly every policy issue since our government’s founding, addresses a plurality of interests, and will therefore necessarily require trade-offs and compromises. Few/no law-making bodies do this infallibly; even at their best, their decisions and policies will likely have the result of favoring some more than others, and the kingdom of Christ mars its witness when/if it sides with one against the other. Can we really say, with a “thus saith the Lord,” that Congress should subsidize wheat more than corn, or vice versa?

        “Witness.”
        Your question raised the matter of Christian “witness,” and whether it was individual or institutional. The authors probably did not make that distinction, and even for me, it makes little difference (some, but only a little). A witness is someone who testifies to something outside of himself, in our case, to the testimony/witness of Christ and his apostles. We bear witness to that Christian proclamation that warns of future judgment and calls all people to repent before it is too late. Worldlings, of course, are entirely invested in this world, in this age and its temporal affairs; and they understandably wish to draw us into their arena of this-worldly, temporal affairs. But the very essence of Christ’s proclamation (and that of his apostles) was to reject the preeminence of the present and to assert the preeminence of the eternal. On most public policy issues, we have no apostolic testimony to share. Should we have relatively open borders or relatively tight borders? Should we have geo-political borders at all? We followers of Christ are and should be mute on such matters, because we have no counsel from the Word of God to refer to. We can, could, and should, however, bear witness to the testimony of Christ and his apostles that we (and others) have no lasting city here, because our “citizenship” is in heaven, from which we await a savior (Heb. 13:14, Phil. 3:20).
        T. David Gordon

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