Review: The Bible in Politics

April 10th, 2012

In The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically (Second Edition), Richard Bauckham instructs Christians in the art of letting the Bible inform politics, rather than using the Bible to justify their own positions.

Bauckham, a widely published British scholar, first published The Bible in Politics in 1989, when the world was still sharply divided between the communist East and free-market West. Nearly two and a half decades later, new political divisions have arisen, with the conflict between radical Islamists and the West often capturing the headlines. Issues such as climate change and globalization, which were hardly on anyone’s political map twenty years ago, are now primary issues.

Can a book on politics written in one era still be relevant in another, dramatically different one? Yes, Bauckham answers, because of the way it approaches the task. The Bible in Politics doesn’t seek to apply selected passages in the Bible to particular political issues. Rather, it offers a hermeneutic—a method for reading and applying the bible to contemporary situations—that is transferrable across time.

Reading the Bible politically is a complex task, and one with few shortcuts. To understand how the Bible speaks to modern politics, we must first understand what the Bible was saying to the people and cultures who formed its content. Since the culture of the Ancient Near East is so radically different from that of the contemporary West, very few statements in either Testament can be transferred directly. Thus, the Bible does not always provide instructions for us; rather it is instructive in how we understand God’s work in our time.

That is not to say that the Bible does not give us clear general concepts. Passages such as the Ten Commandments offer very basic principles of how we should relate to God and one another. But these general concepts are always worked out in particular fashion in the bible narrative. Jesus follows this pattern in his teaching about the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. Right application of biblical standards, then, depends on our right understanding of context—that in which the scriptures originated, and our own.

Once he has laid the foundations of his hermeneutic, Bauckham gives specific examples of how it might be applied to various biblical texts. He takes on issues of holiness and civil code through the lens of Leviticus, and examines matters of power and oppression through Psalms and Proverbs. From the New Testament, he explores Jesus’ teaching on taxation and the evangelist’s critique of empire in Revelation.

In the next three chapters, Bauckham alters his approach. Rather than begin with scripture and seek application, he begins with recent historical situations and seeks answers from the Bible. He examines slavery through the book of Exodus, the Holocaust through Esther, and the threat of nuclear annihilation through the flood narrative in Genesis.

Bauckham’s final chapter focuses on the person and praxis of Jesus, the central figure in the Bible. His loving identification with people from all walks of life provides the key insights for how we should approach our own political context. By identifying with the cross—and by extension with those who suffer in our time—we participate in the hope for resurrection.

Despite the years between editions, The Bible in Politics is still quite relevant for contemporary readers. This second edition is a valuable resource for Christians who want to develop their politics through careful examination of scripture, regardless of their political background.

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