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Evangelicals in the Public Square

I came to this volume with my own ideas about the state of evangelical theology vis-à-vis political theology, and found my more-or-less uninformed intuitions confirmed by what I read. In particular, I note Budziszewski’s framing of the issues in terms of what he called “the evangelical dilemma”: “The problem for evangelical political thinkers is not that the Bible contains no political teachings (for it does) but that the Bible does not provide enough by itself for an adequate political theory” (p. 23). Given the evangelical credentials of each of the respondents (with the exception of Elshtain the “friendly outsider”), none questioned Budziszewski’s framing of “the evangelical dilemma.” Rather, upon acceptance of the evangelical commitment to scripture as the foundation for all theological reflection, one wonders what the options are. Weeks goes so far as to state: “Given that the authority of Scripture is the hallmark of evangelicalism, it may be both undesirable and unrealistic to expect evangelicals to craft a distinctive view of politics…. [I]f the Bible does not fully address political life, then a biblical politics is also unrealistic, because evangelicals are precariously building an edifice on an inadequate foundation” (p. 139). These basic assumptions and their implications are also echoed by Bolt: “If…an evangelical public theology or political philosophy ought to be, minimally, a biblically illumined one, on what do we focus the light of biblical revelation? I wonder if evangelicals have made a major mistake by attempting to create a biblical sociology, a biblical theory of social institutions, such as the state” (p. 161). His proposal is to reformulate evangelical public theology not on a theory of politics but rather on a biblical anthropology.

These trajectories of thought encapsulate both the promise and the challenge of evangelical theology today. On the one hand, the evangelical commitment to a biblically informed theology, worldview, and way of life may represent its gift to the church ecumenical. On the other hand, in a post-critical rather than modernist framework, what the Bible says is no longer a matter of appealing to a select number of proof texts. This situation results in the quandary explored by Evangelicals in the Public Square: that evangelicals looking for guidance for if and how to engage this public domain go to the Bible for help to think about their politics, but what they find instead is either the multiplicity of biblically informed perspectives or the lack of any substantive and coherent biblical view of political engagement. Is the response then to follow Weeks, Bolt, and perhaps many others and jettison any attempt to formulate a systematic biblical and theological vision for political engagement?

Readers of this journal will now sense why I have been led to explore precisely this question. Growing up Pentecostal–and we can defer for our purposes the question of whether Pentecostalism is a sub-culture of evangelicalism or vice-versa–I absorbed “the evangelical dilemma” and was swept up in the bandwagon that not only was attracted to the proposals of Weeks and Bolt, but took their suggestions to their logical conclusions and eschewed not only the task of political theology but also the practices of political engagement. In my Pentecostal worldview, being biblical meant many things, but it certainly did not mean develop a theology of political involvement as well as an agenda for political life. That was what “liberals” did, and those folk justified their beliefs and practices by foisting an extraneous and illegitimate set of concerns on the biblical text. The logic of a biblical worldview was this: if it could not be clearly read off the pages of scripture–and assuredly, as this book clearly articulates, a political theology could not be so identified — then it was from God’s point of view a secondary concern at best. And since God’s primary mandates–e.g., the Great Commission–could take up our entire lifetimes, one needed to be vigilant so as not to be sidetracked from what was truly important.

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About the Author: Amos Yong is Professor of Theology & Mission and director of the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena. His graduate education includes degrees in theology, history, and religious studies from Western Evangelical Seminary and Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, and Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, and an undergraduate degree from Bethany University of the Assemblies of God. He is the author of numerous papers and over 30 books. Facebook

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