October 28, 2010 by Jason Hood
“It is clear from the Torah that political life belongs to God, who has called on his people to do justice in every walk of life. Nevertheless, we cannot simply lift, say, the Jubilee laws and apply them verbatim to our present political contexts. . . God’s people are a holy nation and a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) living in virtually every earthly polity. They have good biblical reason to seek the prosperity of the polities in which they reside (Jeremiah 29:7), but they refuse to identify them with biblical Israel.”
David Koyzis is our second interviewee in this series, and Professor of Political Science at Redeemer University College in Ontario, Canada. His most important work on the topic at hand is Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP, 2003). His Notre Dame Ph.D. (1987) produced a dissertation entitled, “Toward a Christian Democratic Pluralism: A Comparative Study of Neo-Thomist and Neo-Calvinist Political Theories.”
1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?
DK: Before I can adequately respond to this question, it is necessary to distinguish between two meanings of the word church: (1) the church as a differentiated institution amongst other human communities and (2) the church as corpus Christi (body of Christ). In the first sense, the institutional church is called to a specific task in God’s world – one that no other community possesses. It is responsible to preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and to maintain discipline over its members. Of course, the church in this sense is one part of human life in community and not the whole. When we leave the four walls of the church building, we remain church members, but we are also husbands, wives, parents, sons and daughters, employers and employees, teachers and students, and members of a potentially large number of voluntary associations. As image-bearers of God we find ourselves occupying a number of authoritative offices related to the various communities of which we are part.
Although the church as institution occupies only a part of our energies, we are nevertheless mandated by scripture to do all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). This brings us to the second sense of church. In our exercise of these multiple offices we are members of the corpus Christi, which encompasses the whole of our lives, both inside and outside the institutional church. In so far as we are citizens of a particular body politic, we exercise our citizenship as members of Christ’s body and not as so-called secular persons subject in that realm to the ways of the world. Similarly, I teach political science at a Christian university, Redeemer University College. Although it is an institution in the Reformed tradition, Redeemer is independent of any particular denomination. Yet it can be seen as a manifestation of the larger body of Christ in fulfilling its ongoing educational task.
To apply this distinction to your question above, I believe we must affirm that church institution and state are distinct institutions with their own divinely-mandated tasks in God’s world. Yet as God’s image-bearers who have been redeemed through Christ, we approach both institutions as members of his body. Thus institutional church and state refrain from interfering in the legitimate spheres of the other, yet religion cannot be separated from politics, because all political actors are motivated by some religious worldview, whether or not they are aware of it.
2. Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers. Do you agree or disagree?
DK: My discussion above should be sufficient to answer this question. But if not, I will simply say that its answer depends on which sense of church is being used here. If the church be defined as institution, then I agree with Mouw and Henry. However, if by church is meant the corpus Christi, then I would disagree.
3. Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?
DK: Rather than respond with two individual thinkers, I will speak of two traditions each of which encompasses several thinkers. Since my youth I have been strongly impacted by the tradition of political reflection extending from scripture itself, through Augustine and Calvin, to Abraham Kuyper and his heirs. I am deeply appreciative of this tradition for two principal reasons: (1) it recognizes that the call of Christ to obedience extends to the whole of life and not just to a supposed “sacred” realm; and (2) it recognizes the genuine diversity of God’s creation, including human society. Kuyper uses the term “sovereignty in its own sphere,” or “sphere sovereignty” – both rather inelegant expressions, I’m afraid. I myself would call this “societal pluriformity” or the “pluriformity of authorities.” Marriages are intrinsically different from friendships. Families are different from work communities. State is different from the institutional church.
This recognition of societal pluriformity stands in marked contrast to the various secular ideologies which dislike this pluriformity and try, accordingly, to reduce it to one or two elements. Liberalism in its various forms is notorious for its longstanding efforts to reduce all human communities to mere voluntary associations. This tradition encompasses a number of thinkers, beginning with Epicurus in ancient times, extending to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke (from whom Thomas Jefferson borrowed heavily in his Declaration of Independence), John Stuart Mill and, in the late 20th century, John Rawls. The basic problem with this individualist approach is that, if all communities are voluntary in nature, there are no genuine differences amongst them. If the state has its origins in a social contract, as Hobbes and Locke held, then why not marriage and family as well? This reductionist tendency is in large measure responsible for the confusion over the legal definition of marriage in many jurisdictions, including Canada.
As Douglas Farrow has perceptively understood, even a libertarian form of liberalism, which claims to favour a strictly limited state, contributes in the long run to the expansion of the state’s claims over the rest of life. This is something that is lost on many American “conservatives,” who believe that the remedy for the imperial state is to turn the clock back to an earlier form of liberalism.
4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?
DK: Obviously we are commanded to respect and obey the political authorities and to give them what they are due (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Similarly, our political authorities govern under the divine mandate to do justice, especially to those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged (Psalm 82), even if they often do not recognize this. Generally Christians are mobilized to involve themselves in the political process in response to specific injustices. Yet we need to bear in mind that our political responsibilities are ongoing, even apart from concern over injustices. This is something frequently missed by those animated by single issues, whether abortion or poverty. The need for civil government is not just related to human sin but is rooted in our created limitations. If we were all spontaneously virtuous and living in an unfallen world, we would still disagree on such issues as, e.g., which side of the road to drive on, which colours to represent the different traffic signals and so forth. If we were to co-operate to build bicycles, left to ourselves without overall supervision, we would produce too many frames relative to wheels, or vice versa, handle bars that were different sizes from the frames, &c. Even in the absence of sin some authority is needed to co-ordinate our common efforts. Of civil government, Calvin has this to say: “Its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; indeed, its place of honour is far more excellent” (Institutes, IV.20.3)
As for efforts to have an impact on political life, this is not at all easy for the individual pew-sitter. This is why I think it wise to look back at someone like Kuyper to see how he successfully mobilized the Christian population of the Netherlands more than a century ago. Some 35 years ago I heard a then prominent evangelical leader say that he thought influencing political life was a matter for individual Christians only. Yet citizenship is more than just a matter of individuals attempting with their own resources to have an impact. We need to form organizations for this purpose. Decades later we Christians have become good at starting movements with an activist agenda. Witness the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition and Sojourners’ Call to Renewal. What we have not been good at is articulating a vision of public life that avoids the distortions of the secular ideologies and affirms the genuine pluriformity of society, including a positive place for the state as political community. Two organizations that undertake to do precisely this are the Center for Public Justice and, here in Canada, Cardus. I am a longtime supporter of and contributor to both groups. I would highly recommend them to Christians seeking a way to be agents of God’s kingdom in political life.
5. How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?
DK: I think I covered this under number 4 above.
6. How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics? Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?
DK: In my introductory political science classes I guide my students through several biblical passages that touch on God’s command to do justice. These are found throughout especially the Old Testament and have their origins in the first five books of the Bible, known to Jews as the Torah and to Christians as the Pentateuch. They are reiterated in the prophets and are recurrent themes in the wisdom books as well. Yes, they share insight with their neighbouring peoples, but that is to be expected because God has conferred his common grace on everyone, believer and unbeliever alike (Matthew 5:45). We share the same creation and are thus plugged into the order upholding that creation. This is what various Christian traditions call natural law, moral law and creation order.
At the same time we should not lose sight of the differences between Israel and the surrounding nations, the major one being that the former was in a covenant relationship with God and the latter were not. Many of the commands in the Torah, most notably the Decalogue, are broadly applicable to everyone. Yet many of the specific precepts, e.g., the ceremonial and civil laws, were applicable uniquely to Israel. It is clear from the Torah that political life belongs to God, who has called on his people to do justice in every walk of life. Nevertheless, we cannot simply lift, say, the Jubilee laws and apply them verbatim to our present political contexts. This is for two reasons. First, our western political communities are not in a covenant relationship with God. God’s people are a holy nation and a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) living in virtually every earthly polity. They have good biblical reason to seek the prosperity of the polities in which they reside (Jeremiah 29:7), but they refuse to identify them with biblical Israel. Second, ancient Israel was a largely undifferentiated society in which the various communities and institutions that we take for granted had not yet come into existence. Thus we cannot simply transplant the precepts of the Torah into our obviously more pluriform society.
Nevertheless, given the influence of biblical religion on the west, it is possible to see counterparts to the precepts of the Torah in both criminal and civil law. For example, the Jubilee might be seen to correspond to our modern bankruptcy laws or perhaps even to the redistributive policies of the welfare state, both of which are intended to prevent the permanent impoverishment of citizens over multiple generations.
7. Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment. Are all three of these to be implemented by believers? Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?
DK: It is not always easy to single out figures from the Bible and hold them up as models for ourselves, partly because their circumstances are unique to their time and place, but also because we should not wish to emulate their flaws (e.g., Samson). That said, Daniel is an interesting figure because, as Sir Thomas More claimed for himself two millennia later, he was the king’s good servant but God’s first. Somehow Daniel continued to remain faithful to the LORD even while serving two successive pagan kingdoms. He refused to bow to the false gods of the latter yet retained the respect of his royal masters. What we can learn perhaps from Daniel are two things: first, living faithfully in unfaithful times requires a precarious balancing of responsibilities which could lead to martyrdom; but second, and more important, while the kingdoms of this world come and go, the kingdom of Christ will endure for ever (Daniel 7:14). This is hugely significant, because it brings all of our efforts under the lordship of Christ, to whom and through whom the ultimate victory is promised.
8. If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics. This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work. But am I doing the right thing? Should I be bolder?” How would you respond? Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?
DK: I doubt that a church-planter should be addressing political topics directly in the course of starting up a congregation, although one assumes that, as the congregation matures, the latter will come to see that the gospel has relevance for the whole of life, including politics. The minister should make this basic confession an integral part of proclaiming the gospel. The extent to which he or she fleshes this out depends on the maturity level of the members of the new congregation. Are they new converts? Cradle Christians with a solid grasp of scriptures? If the former, then they need to be taught the basics first. If the latter, they should be given more of the meat of the gospel and not just the milk. But even recognizing this, a pastor ought not to be taking specific stands on policy issues, which is a task belonging to other institutions, not the least of which is the state itself.
9. What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology? The best book?
DK: I trust I am not out of place in recommending my own Political Visions and Illusions (InterVarsity Press, 2003), which is a survey and Christian assessment of the various political ideologies that have shaped and misshaped political life over the past two or more centuries. In this book I argue that we need to look at political ideologies as contemporary manifestations of idolatry. Liberalism, e.g., is not wrong to esteem individual freedom; it does err in making too much of this freedom at the expense of the communities that make up the rich fabric of an ordinary human society.
As for books that influenced my argument in Political Visions, I would strongly recommend the writings of James W. Skillen [editor's note: Skillen was our first interview in this series], Bob Goudzwaard and Albert M. Wolters. The last person is not a political writer, but his Creation Regained is a must-read for any readers aware of their need to grasp a Christian worldview before they begin to think through its implications for politics.
– David T. Koyzis, Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada