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.
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.