Meaning versus Significance: Hermeneutics and Evangelical Political Activism

The presidential primaries are in full swing and so are the Evangelical political activists.  Yes, another post on politics . . . do not worry, there are nine months until November and I am already sick of it too.  My concern here is not to propose a full-blown theology of politics, but to briefly examine the hermeneutics behind the “political mandate,” namely the idea that Christians are required to be highly involved in the political process.

Hermeneutics 101

Before continuing a biblical hermeneutic must be established so that it can be contrasted with the hermeneutic of Evangelical political activism.  In the simplest of terms a biblical hermeneutic operates upon five key principles.  A common thread is woven throughout these principles, namely the importance of context.

Literal: Scripture must be interpreted literally.  Scripture is not a fairytale, it does not begin with “once upon a time,” it is history and future revealed authoritatively, inerrantly, and infallibly by the one who spoke the world into being.  The first step to understanding any passage in Scripture is to understand its literary context; as the Word of God it is unlike any other piece of literature known to man and as His Word it lays claims upon us that can be made by no other piece of literature.

Historical: Scripture must be interpreted within its historical and cultural setting.  God who exists outside of time has chosen to act and speak both within time and at particular times.  The paradox continues as one considers how the timeless Word of God is composed of words whose meanings are inextricably tied to the time and culture into which they were spoken.  The second step to understanding any passage in Scripture is to understand its historical context.

Grammatical: Scripture must be interpreted according to the rules of grammar.  Scripture is a series of words arranged into phrases and phrases arranged into sentences and sentences arranged into paragraphs etcetera.  Because the unified Word of God is comprised of the “words of God” one must understand the structural relationships that exist between these words.  The third step to understanding any passage in Scripture is to understand its grammatical context.

Contextual: Scripture must be interpreted within the context of the surrounding Scripture.  Because the multitudinous “words of God” comprise the unified Word of God one must be diligent to understand every particular passage as it both relates to and correlates with Scripture as a whole.  The fourth step to understanding any passage in Scripture is to understand its textual context.

Redemptive: Scripture must be interpreted as it properly relates to Christ.  Throughout the Gospels, most notable the road to Emmaus encounter, it is clear that both the Disciples and Jewish community as a whole suffered from a critical flaw in their understanding of Scripture, namely its relationship to the Messiah.  The fifth step to understanding any passage in Scripture is to understand its redemptive context.

Even beyond the aim of this post, I hope the outline above proves useful in your own study of Scripture.

Examining the Political Mandate

The aim of this post is to examine the hermeneutic of Evangelical political activism, namely as it pertains to the “political mandate.”  The “political mandate” is often justified or explained by the gross misuse of the metaphors of “salt and light” found in Matthew 5:13-16.  I am assuming that most of you can read and do so according to the basic rules of grammar so rather than go into a lengthy technical discussion of the relationship between these words I want to define them and then make several overarching observations.

Salt: This was an extremely valuable commodity; in ancient times it was referred to as divine, used to ratify covenants, and even used as money in some cultures.  The salt used in this region was from the Dead Sea and was often polluted with Gypsum a mineral that degrades the salts flavor and effectiveness as a preservative.  Various commentators have noted and argued for varying functions of salt: as a seasoning, as a preservative, as a chemical that induces thirst, and as an irritant to name a few.  Regardless of these particular functions salt was an extremely valuable commodity.

Light:  This word can function one of three ways: to describe the light itself, to describe an object emitting light, and to describe something that is illuminated.  Within Oriental, culture light was typically viewed as the means by which one sees in Greek culture, however, light was viewed as both the means and object of sight; a concept which has strong correlations to the idea of spiritual blindness.  Noting the three functions of light described redeemed man is certainly not the object by which blind men see this is an act of a sovereign God.  Redeemed individuals have been both illumined by Christ and reflect His radiance.  If taken in this sense the act of being illuminated is prerequisite to radiating light and thus the latter must be taken as the final function of the word; because Jesus Christ, the light of the world, has given us light to see we are thus fit vessels to radiate His glory.

In summary, those redeemed by God are to be particularly valuable to society and in so doing radiate the glory of Christ, so that fallen man, by both perceiving the value and its source, will glorify and worship God.  Neither the means nor the end of what Christ describes here is explicitly political.  Throughout the Gospels Christ continually refutes politicized interpretations of the Messiah.  The reaction of His Jewish hearers, who were fervently political, clearly did not interpret Jesus’ words as a political mandate as Scripture describes them as being amazed, rather than revolting against Rome.  Overall, the Sermon on the Mount has numerous references to political entities and yet the common response is submission and servitude rather than political engagement.  The early church did not interpret this text as a political mandate, nor did the apostles, who even under intense persecution did not take political action.  Furthermore, interpreting this text as a political mandate renders it irrelevant for most of the known world, as America is one of the few countries where the citizens play such a crucial role in politics and where Christianity is not persecuted by the government.  How is a Christian living in a Muslim country under Sharia law to fulfill this supposed political mandate?  Christian jihad?  Should American Evangelicals reinvent the Crusades and overthrow these governments so Muslim background believers can fulfill their political mandate via democratic process?

Addressing the Real Issue: Meaning versus Significance

The issue here is not one of meaning it is one of significance  “Significance is always ‘meaning-to,’ never ‘meaning-in.’  Significance always entails a relationship between what is in a man’s verbal meaning and what is outside it” (E. D. Hirsch Jr., Validity In Interpretation [New Haven and London: Yale Varsity Press, 1967], 63).  More simply stated, meaning is fixed, Scripture objectively and eternally means what God intended it to mean.  Significance, however, addresses the relationship between that meaning and our present context.  The text means that “those redeemed by God are to be particularly valuable to society and in so doing radiate the glory of Christ, so that fallen man, by both perceiving the value and its source, will glorify and worship God.”  The significance of that meaning will depend upon the context in which you apply it.  The way one goes about being particularly valuable to society and radiating the glory of Christ, although regulated by certain biblical principles, depends largely upon the context in which one is ministering.  This means that there is no political mandate.  This does not mean that redeemed individuals cannot be involved in politics.  It means that redeemed individuals must discern whether political involvement is the best way to be particularly valuable to society and radiate the glory of Christ.  What about me and what about my context?  Judging our current cultural context and the lack of discernment and discretion shown in past events I do not feel that what I see among Evangelicals is either particularly valuable to society or particularly glorifying to God, but arguing that point will have to wait for another day.


10 thoughts on “Meaning versus Significance: Hermeneutics and Evangelical Political Activism

  1. I read your entire post word-for-word and thought “man, that took a long time to write well.”

    If meaning “is fixed, Scripture objectively and eternally means what God intended it to mean…” then how can you determine that the passage means:
    “those redeemed by God are to be particularly valuable to society and in so doing radiate the glory of Christ, so that fallen man, by both perceiving the value and its source, will glorify and worship God.” ?

    I’ve heard the “salt” and “light” passage combined with 1 Timothy, that the “church is the pillar and support of Truth.” The applied context is that believers should support truth in society, and stand up for it. Like: “Sex outside of marriage causes certain social problems…”

    The anti-gambling movement doesn’t bother me in that it points out to society that the data says gambling is economically costly. What bothers me is the mindset of “the world around us is going to hell in a handbasket, and we’ve got to stop it by standing up for moral legislation!”
    The world around us is already following after Satan (eph. 2) and on its way to hell and unredeemed. Trying to prop up something that is spiritually dead is useless.
    I would rather pastors encourage their flocks to live lives so radically, Biblically different from others that non-believers see the difference. I’d rather see them encourage believers to be transparent about their finances, have open discussions about the best ways to use the money, to encourage them to budget and have self-control, as well as generous to others and more trusting in the Lord.

    I also think that just as there is a line between “emergent” and “emerging” we need to draw up some definitions between:
    1. Conservative (fiscal, political)
    2. Conservative Christian (advocates morally-based laws based on Biblical worldview)
    3. Evangelical- A follower of Christ. Defined separately from any political aspects.

    William F. Buckley = conservative.
    Rush Limbaugh = political conservative.
    Ralph Reed/Mike Huckabee= Conservative Christian
    Keith Walters = evangelical

    What do you think?

  2. “Scripture must be interpreted literally.” Really? At all times? Or would you say that there are times when scripture is not meant to be taken in the literal sense?

    “..those redeemed by God are to be particularly valuable to society and in so doing radiate the glory of Christ, so that fallen man, by both perceiving the value and its source, will glorify and worship God.” So, can it be that by being involved in the area of politics we can be particularly valuable to society and radiate the glory of Christ?

    I would say that as Christians we need to be involved in politics to an extent. We need to excercise the privilege of voting and openly and honestly discuss our views. I don’t believe we are to try and “win back America of Christ”, but simply that we are seeking to help our society prosper. If not, then we are essentially saying that this country is not really our home (which it isn’t) and it can go to hell in a handbasket politically for all we care. I don’t believe that is biblical either. We don’t look at the world and say that the world is heading for destruction and we could give a rip about it, we instead should be striving to be good stewards of it. I believe the same principle can apply to our society….which we can influence to some degree through the political process.

    Ultimately, however, we need to be sharing the gospel with those around us. Pointing them towards Christ. And when we stand against the forces of darkness, things that dishonor our God, then we open the doors to say we do so because God is Creator and KIng and has sent His Son into this world to redeem all those who would turn to Him in faith.

  3. JDTapp,
    I would argue that because God has an intended mean we can know what the text means. If God did not mean anything in particular then we cannot discover the meaning of the text. If God and His word are not changeless then either 1) God’s Word has changed and His Word is an incorrect witness or 2) God has changed and His Word is an incorrect witness.

    I completely agree that moral legislation is not the answer to the spiritual problems of Americans. I further agree that we need pastors who exhort and encourage their flocks to live radically for Christ.

    I like your example of the continuum of conservatives :) Thanks

    I am glad you enjoyed the post. I hope individuals at Ignite take these things seriously. Far too often individuals who grow up in the “Bible belt” uncritically accept a cultural Jesus who always votes Republican. I agree with Jonathon that voting is a privilege, and we need to approach the task with the level of sobriety that it deserves.

    Yes, I would say that all Scripture should be taken literally. What you fail to recognize is that I am not developing an entire hermeneutic of the word “literal” there are actually four other components to the hermeneutic described above that serve to guide the word “literal.” If we read II Chronicles 16:9 in the KJV it begins “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth.” If you were to approach this from a wooden literalist position you would need to conclude that not only does God have eyes but his eyes have legs so that they can run “to and fro.” But that is why the third and fourth components, of the above hermeneutic, are “Grammatical” and “Contextual” because you must examine the text according to grammar in the surrounding context. Doing that you would see that the writer is using anthropomorphic language, a common literary device that is used to describe God using human language. II Chronicles 19 records the narrative of a literal king Asa who is confronted by Hanani, the seer, who explains that because he refused to trust in the Lord, who strengthens those committed to Him, he will experience continual war until his death. This is not a story that can be taken allegorically it, with the whole of Scripture, is literal history and literal future revealed and as such it must be taken literally.

    I do not think that refusing to participate in the political process says that “this country to go to hell in a hand basket.” I would, however, say that pastor’s who place more emphasis on moral legislation—even substituting it for—gospel proclamation are sending America to hell in a hand basket. I too wholeheartedly agree that we must be about sharing the gospel.

  4. I know what you mean, but all your readers may not grasp what you are saying. Don’t want our people plucking their eyes out.

  5. But isn’t the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration untenable in the post-Enlightenment world? Doesn’t the result of historical criticism show that such doctrine no longer meets modern standards of rationality?

    (Someone posed these questions to me this week when I talked to them about the Bible being literal. I pose it to you).

  6. Jonathon,
    Yeah, atleast not while I am watching that would make me nauseous.

    There is a lot that can be said about that, and the book I quoted deals quite well with those issues. The simpliest answer I think is that regardless of where the evolution of human thinking has taken us (more like devolution) the fact remains that the author of Scripture stands by His Word, His Spirit enables us to grasp His Word, and His Son is returning to judge the world by that Word. What is untenable is post-enlightenment thinking and literary criticism. The death of the author cannot be claimed here. The Author of Scripture is alive and He stands by His unchanging Word. That probably would not help the individual asking that question because ultimately that individual does not want an answer to his question he wants an alternative source of authority, namely himself, and he will ask whatever silly questions allow him to seemingly escape the authority of the text.

  7. I agree. The poser of the question was a transgendered female pastor. Her other point was: Why should non-believers believe that the Bible is divinely inspired and infallible? Because it says it is? Because you say it it? Because God told you it is?

    Once a person takes those positions, I don’t think there’s a logical way to reason with them. Once they start picking and choosing and everything becomes relative, only the Holy Spirit can speak to them. I don’t think any words of man can do.

  8. I completely agree. I think that the greatest failing of Evidentiary Apologetics is that it assumes people are operating and thinking in a way that is rational and logical when the exact opposite is occurring. They are not thinking logically or rationally they are thinking rebelliously. The fundamental message of the gospel is “repent and believe” not “believe on the basis of this evidence that you do not know” but rather “you have the evidence and are rebelling against that evidence and the author of that evidence is coming to squelch your little rebellion.”

    That is a tough conversation to have. I think we often shy away from having those kinds of conversations because we have been trained in this Arminian way of thinking that says “look John Doe is trying so hard to know God” or “Rev. Jane Doe is holding an unbiblical leadership position but she is so faithful to following God.” The problem is that no one seeks God and no one tries to know God. For me this is hard because I like to think and I like to answer questions and I like to discuss things but there is a point when you have shared the gospel and you have to realize that rebellious humanity does not need logic or rationality they need the transforming power of a gracious and sovereign God. I think I rambled . . . hope some of that makes sense.

  9. It all makes sense.
    I’m often in conflict with myself by being a presuppositionalist. When you enter into any research with a pre-determined starting point and an inherent bias, it causes problems. But, I make the assumption of literality because it’s True.

    Rational behavior explains SO much of what we do, and Spiritual behavior is almost always in conflict with the rational.

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