Politics According to the Bible (5): The Courts

[This is the fifth in a series of posts on Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture].

ULTIMATE POWER

In his final chapter in the section on basic principles, Grudem explains the way in which the United States government established its ‘separations of powers.’  He commends the American experiment of subjecting a people to a law (e.g. The Constitution), instead of a ruler.  Whereas in the history of the world, most nations were governed through monarchs or power-grabbing dictators, the founding fathers established a ‘document’ as the ‘highest authority’ in the land (124). Grudem lists 5 positive elements of this political system.

(1) Separation of powers which limited the absolute power of any one group.
(2) Accountability for lawmakers through the means of representative governors who were elected by popular vote.
(3) Rule of law which was an objective standard for all people.
(4) Protection from fundamental change so that the country would continue to be what it was originally intended to be.
(5) Protection from a hasty majority through the predetermined intervals of elections.

ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE, WHAT SHOULD JUDGES DO

True to his word, Grudem examines what the Bible says about judges.  He affirms the goodness and justice that is promoted when a body of judges rule according to an external standard.  In the Bible, priests served as judges and based their decisions on the laws of God (Ezek 44:24; Ezra 7:25-27). Accordingly, good judges are not to show partiality or take bribes (Deut 16:18-20).  Rather judges rule justly when they uphold and apply the good laws of the land.  On this Grudem lists a number of relevant Scriptures (131).

It is interesting to see what Grudem is doing in this section and throughout most of his book.  He primarily evalutates the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the United States by laying them against the biblical texts that concern law and government.  His approach is not quite theonomy–the direct use and application of the Mosaic law to contemporary government–but sometimes it seems that he is taking specific Bible verses to solve the problems of modern politics.

However, I think that there needs to be a more thoughtful interaction.  In other words, he moves directly from biblical text to contemporary situation through the application of biblical principles.  The problem is that there needs to be an understanding of the text in its biblical context and in the progress of revelation (i.e. the rest of the Bible) and history before it can be applied to modern America.

Russell Moore’s sixfold approach is much better.  In his ethics class, he advocated a sixfold progression of applying the Bible.  In order, they were (1) Christ, (2) the Kingdom of Christ, (3) the Church, (4) the Individual Christian, (5) Society at large, and (6) Politics.  When we aim to think biblically about politics, we must not skip over Christ, the Kingdom, the Church, the Christian, and the effect of Salt and Light in society.  Unfortunately, I think Grudem does this to some degree.  Or at least, as he moves from the biblical horizon to the political horizon, he simply flies over the other areas. More nuance is needed– as will be seen below.

ACCORDING TO U.S. HISTORY, WHAT HAVE JUDGES DONE

From his inquiry into the Bible, Grudem turns to examine the judicial system in the United States.  He brings to light the fact that in the last 50 years, the Supreme Court has been the single most influential body in all the government.  In fact, he shows how one man, Anthony Kennedy, actually retains the power to change the whole course of the nation. As the justices debate issues related to abortion, homosexuality, religion and the public square, hate speech, and more (150-51), Kennedy is the single swing vote between 4 conservative judges and 4 liberal.  Thus, what he says goes.  This was not how the United States was established, but through the growing awareness that the liberal agenda could be more speedily achieved through the Supreme Court, legislators began appointing justices would “discover” new meanings in the constitution.  They have kept the constitution but changed its meaning.

Grudem gives 6 examples where the Supreme Court has failed to interpret the Constitution, instead they have created new law by finding new meaning in the original text.  The problem is one of “originalism” or its denial.  Conservative justices (like Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas) read the Constitution attempting to understand the original meaning of the document with its contemporary applications.  Liberal justices (like Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Stevens) deny “originalism” and thus import their own understanding into the legal document.  This problem is akin to the debate among liberal and conservative Bible readers.  What inerrancy and a literal hermeneutic is to the Bible; originalism is to the Constitution.

Grudem quotes a long section from Supreme Court Nominee, Robert Bork.  Judge Bork was nominated by President Reagan, but failed to be appointed because so many senators opposed his conservative reading of the constitution.  In his book on the matter, The Tempting of America, he writes, “Either the Constitution and statutes are law, which means that their principles are known and control judges, or they are malleable texts that judges may rewrite to see that particular groups or political causes win… ” (Quoted by Grudem 149).

APPOINTING ‘ORIGINALIST’ JUDGES IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE FACING THE NATION TODAY

On this matter of “originalism,” Grudem points out that this is the greatest political issue today, because if a liberal bench is established on the Supreme Court, the commitment to re-writing the Constitution will have no check.  The problem with the Supreme Court is that it is an entity that is not held accountable to the people.  Whereas the U.S. Government was created to separate the powers of creating law and ruling law, as Bork says, “a judge has begun to rule where a legislator should” (148).

Grudem says that a “Christian worldview should lead us to support judges who rule according to the ‘original intent.’  He goes on to point out since governors and presidents are the ones who appoint the Supreme Court and Appelate Court Justices, and that federal and state level congressional houses are the ones who confirm or deny their nomination, that who we vote for matters for who will serve as judges.  He goes one step further too.  Recognizing the conservative tendencies of the Republican party and the liberalizing tendencies of the Democratic party, he says that “if Democrats are elected to the US Senate, they will tend to perpetuate the system of activist judges.”  Likewise, on the state level, Democratic candidates will by-and-large promote activist judges.  “On the other hand, Republicans (not entirely, but for the most part) have sought to support judges at both state and national levels who hold to the original intent of the Constiution and the laws that have been passed.  Therefore voting for Republican candidates for state and national positions is the best way…to bring about change and break the rule of unaccountable judges over our society” (154).

This is a very definitive prescription for voters going to the polls and one that many Christians would embrace, but I am not sure it is the most helpful way to frame “politics according to the Bible.” (See my reasoning below).

FINAL REFLECTIONS

If you know little about the way the judicial system in America works, Grudem’s chapter is a good start.  Moreover, his selection of court cases show the way the Supreme Court has shaped the moral landscape of our country.  For me, it has shown me a whole new way to pray for our government, namely to pray for the likes of Anthony Kennedy and the other 8 justices.  We ought to pray for the upcoming appointments of the next generation of justices (4 of them are over 70).  And we ought to vote and encourage others to vote for those candidates who will install judges that hold to the original meaning of the constitution and who have conservative views in keeping with a biblical view of life and justice.

With that said, Grudem makes the jump to say that we ought to vote Republican, but I think he missteps at this point.  He is correct to say that in our current climate Republicans will more often nominate and appoint conservative judges to fill in the gaps.  In this way, his recommendation is a shorthand version of the solution.  However, in his recommendation, he does not say enough.  The truth of the matter is that both parties have been heavily influenced by three centuries of Enlightenment thought and are not seeking to the kingdom of Christ the way many Christians would like to think that they are.  Political interests in Washington are for Washington, not Zion.

So in Grudem’s case, it is easy, and will win the approval of many, to simply name a party affiliation and say that they will provide the solution, but for those who are citizens of the kingdom of heaven (Phil 3:20), we cannot simply take on political brand names.  We must evaluate every candidate we vote for as Christians who see the world through biblical lens.  Grudem examines the judges in the light of Bible, but does not do the same thing with the political party system–not yet at least.

It would be far better to say that Christians should vote for the candidate who holds conservative positions and who will appoint justices who will interpret the law not create or discover new laws from within the constitution.  This requires more thought and discernment, and perhaps more complexity because there may not be an ideal candidate, but as we think about it biblically, we need to say more than simply “Vote Republican!” or “Vote Democrat!”

The bottom line is that our Christian allegiance and our party affiliation are not one and the same.  Because we are in Christ, his kingdom and his gospel and his ethics take priority over every human institution and political agenda.  I might liken it to a double-numbered highway.  There are times when we drive that we simultaneously travel on a road that functions as both a state highway and a local road.  However, there comes a critical point in the journey when you have to make a decision, will you stay on the state highway or will you turn off on the local road?  So it is in this life, as Christians there may be times when our convictions align with a certain political view, leader, or party; however, we are always ready to turn against any institution, party, or leader that changes its agenda against the kingdom of God.  We may walk in unity for a time, but in the end Christ’s rule must be unmistakeable in our allegiances.

As Christians we walk a narrow path, one that often leaves a very light impression on the political machinery at work in this world.  Consequently, our hope cannot be in the nation-states of today, but in the kingdom of Christ that is coming tomorrow.  Our lives are immensely political, but they must always be governed by Christ and his Holy Spirit.  The moment we begin to equate party politics with kingdom politics, we run the serious risk of compromising the radical and other-worldly nature of the kingdom we proclaim.  Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world, and so as we actively engage in politics today, we must do so looking for and hoping in the kingdom that will not by means of electoral votes, but rather through the immediate return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of his universal reign.

Marantha, dss

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