As the world watches the US election in the coming weeks, it will raise afresh questions that have been considered by many Christians throughout the years. What should we hope for in elections? How should Christians participate in politics? Can we support a politician with whom we don’t agree entirely? Furthermore, how does what happens in the society relate to God’s gospel purposes?
In this episode of the podcast, Chase Kuhn speaks with Professor David VanDrunen, author of Politics After Christendom: Political theology in a fractured world, about God’s plans for politics in his world. After discussing how to think about these things theologically, they discuss an array of practical questions related to Christian participation in the world.
This episode is a must-listen for all Christians thinking about responsible citizenship in society.
Links referred to:
- Politics After Christendom: Political theology in a fractured world (Zondervan, 2020)
- Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A biblical vision for Christianity and culture (Crossway, 2010)
Runtime: 31:04 min.
Chase Kuhn: It’s that unmistakable time: it’s election season—the time when your newsfeed is even more dominated by American politics than usual, and when your social feed is full of posts and comments of obnoxious political propaganda. As the world watches the US election and continues to keep a finger on the pulse of their own local politics, how should Christians be thinking and participating? It’s very easy for Christians to swing toward either apathy or triumphalism. Today on the podcast, we’re discussing the place of politics in God’s world, and how Christians can live well as they participate in the broader society.
CK: Hello and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Chase Kuhn. I’m coming to you from Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. And today my guest on the podcast is David VanDrunen, who is the Robert B Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary in California. David’s the author of many books, including, most recently, Politics After Christendom: Political theology in a fractured world. There are many books that I have really appreciated from David—this most recent one being right at the top of the list—and I would like to welcome you, Dave: thanks for coming on.
David VanDrunen: It’s my pleasure! Good to be here.
CK: It’s great to have a conversation with somebody in my homeland—even in my home state: I miss California, although I think we’re—
DVD: We miss you too.
CK: Well, that’s very sweet of you, thank you! [Laughter] Dave, the reason why I’ve got you on the podcast today is because here in Australia—I’m an American in Australia, I’m constantly getting asked about the upcoming election, all we read about in the news is what Donald Trump said and how that’s, you know, influenced public opinion, and the world is watching as this election is coming up in just a couple of weeks now, and I would love for us to not necessarily hear how you’re going to vote—even why you’re going to vote the way you’re going to vote—maybe why you’re going to vote the way you’re going to vote. But I want to give a big picture vision for how politics work in God’s world. So I thought I’d kick off just [with] that question: why has God given us politics for his world, and is it a good gift?
DVD: Yes, that’s a really big question to begin and, you know, I think it might be helpful to begin by saying something about the word “politics”, because I don’t think that’s necessarily immediately obvious what we all mean by that. And, you know, one of the things I like to point out is that the word “politics” comes from the Greek word “polis”, which means “city”. And so there is a broader sense of politics in which we’re just talking about the life of the city, and in that sense, the city is the place where we as individuals come together—we as smaller institutions, you know, as families and businesses and schools and clubs—there’s this—there’s sort of this space where we come together to do things together, to work out our common affairs. And I do think that’s helpful to keep in mind, because sometimes—at least in the United States—I assume it’s probably true in Australia as well—that “politics” means elections and it means the wrangling between political parties and the functioning of government, and that’s obviously an important part of it. But I think it’s useful to keep in mind that there’s this bigger calling that we have as Christians to be living in our communities and to be interacting with a broad range of people in a lot of different ways.
So, you know, I would say that politics is a good gift—that he’s made us social beings and he wants us to interact with each other and to do useful, productive things with each other. And so the way I would look at politics in a very general way is to say that it is a provisional and temporary good gift of God. It’s not an ultimate gift: as Hebrews 13 tells us, “here we have no lasting city” (v. 14). We are awaiting the city that’s to come. And that word—we see that word “city”, which is interesting—it’s the new creation—that is, our ultimate place of allegiance. But the Lord has put us here in temporary, provisional cities in which we’re called to try to live peacefully and justly with each other, and in terms of government, I think that government has an important, but a very limited purpose. You know, you look at tax in the New Testament, like Romans 13, 1 Timothy 2, and you get the sense that what is government supposed to do? It’s supposed to promote justice. It’s supposed to help us live peaceful and quiet lives.
Now, those are really important things. But they’re not the most important things: our governments do not bring redemption to this world. Our governments don’t bring the kingdom of God to this world. And so, I think, you know, we’ll see how you want to follow up from here—
DVD: —but I think, you know, at a general level, I think if we can keep in mind that politics is a provisional good, not an ultimate good—I think that can get us a pretty good ways down the road for trying to think about things in a theologically helpful way.
CK: That’s really, really helpful, I think, because often we can easily conflate politics with something else—that is, we think politics are the means to getting the kingdom of God on earth—
CK: —and that, then, makes politics do too much lifting for us. And so, actually being able to frame it up in the way that God has given us something provisionally now is a really helpful way for us to keep it in its place, in that sense.
Going backwards just a few steps, then, how would you tell somebody what “political theology” is, then?
DVD: Right. Well, the way I would define “political theology”—and again, this is not how everyone does it—but the way I would do it is to say that it’s theological reflection about the political. How do we think theologically—in a biblically sound way—with the larger Christian tradition about our life in political community? So when we ask—like the question that you just asked me, I take that as a political theological question: how do we think? What is the purpose of our political communities? What are the proper functions of civil government? What kind of expectations do we have for them? How do we avoid extremes of triumphalism, on the one hand, or a kind of a retreat-ism—or isolationism—on the other hand? I think these are the kinds of questions that a political theology is going to answer.
CK: That’s great. And people throughout the ages have always thought about “What is the relationship of Christians and even Christians in community to the broader culture?”—
CK: —and how we think about our engagement with culture is really that kind of political theological tension, isn’t it?
DVD: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, basically, all the greatest theologians of the Christian church did political theology, in a sense: Augustine did a lot of it. Aquinas—Luther—did it. I mean, I think we could say it’s one of the classic areas of theological reflection. So I think we’re kind of joining our minds with those of some of the greatest thinkers that have gone before us.
And I think that’s helpful to remember because it’s, you know, we’re not the first people to be wrestling with these things and there’s a tendency we have to think of, you know, our contemporary political crises as like, you know, the most politically events ever. That’s really short-sighted. So, yeah, there’s been this broader endeavour to try to think theologically about our broader culture and then about politics as one important aspect of that.
CK: That’s great. And so much of our study of history can actually be an engagement of seeing how God was working, but also how Christians were either pressing into culture, retreating out of culture, or some mix of those things in between.
CK: One of the things I’ve really appreciated about your theological work is a retrieval of sorts of two kingdoms theology: you think about two kingdoms belonging to the Christian life, in one sense—that is, that we’re sort of in two spheres that overlap in some ways. Can you help us just get a real basic frame of how this fits into our conversation? What is two kingdoms theology and how does it maybe help us as we get into thinking about government?
DVD: Sure. Well, I think, just for the sake of honesty, I have to say that there have been different two kingdoms doctrines. There have been a variety of ways that people have looked at that, and the way I would basically explain it and, you know, I would look at my work on the two kingdoms as rooted in the historical Reformed tradition, which is different—I mean, it’s similar in some ways, but different in some other respects from the way that Lutheran tradition has looked at this.
So I would say, as a basic summary, God rules all things through his Son. That’s very clear from the Scriptures. But we also see that there is—we can make a kind of a basic distinction in the way that God carries out his governance of this world. And on the one hand, we know God is the creator and the preserver of all things: he continues to preserve, despite the Fall, the cycles of nature, human community in general, and has preserved important institutions like the family and like civil government, which are relevant for all human beings and which beings continue to have some kind of share in.
At the same time, we recognise that God also rules through the working of redemption: he has promised a Saviour in his Son, he has called out a people for himself, he’s finished that work of redemption in Christ. And so the Lord is now building his church, and he’s preparing a people for everlasting life. And I think what the two kingdoms doctrine does is it allows us to make distinctions without ultimately separating these things—that we recognise that God has one great grand unified plan for this world—for human history—but it also can be really important to make distinctions, and that one upshot, I think, for our conversation is that I think it’s helpful to root our political discussion primarily in God’s common rule, or that preservative rule: God has raised up and sustains civil governments to govern the human community in general—in common—Christians and non-Christians alike. And I think we get into big trouble when we confuse that work with what God is doing through building up his church through the keys of the kingdom. And so, it seems to me that the two kingdoms, it’s not the only classical theological resource we have to help us here, but I think it’s one of those that we have—especially for those of us who would identify as Reformation Christians—as, you know, in my institution, both would do.
CK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this has been really formative for our students here in particular as we’re thinking about Christian ethics and the kinds of expectations, and even the kinds of work that we’re trying to do. So as we’re sowing gospel seeds into our people and our church communities, we’re seeing a particular kind of work that God is doing in us. And that also then helps us frame up the kinds of expectations we have as we encourage Christians to live out their faith in the world. We can see that it’s actually really good to do things like work, but not because those work things have to be ultimate—that is, that they’re saving people or even, you know, I use the classic example—well, classic for me, at least, of a dentist and the chair, you know: if somebody thinks about their work as being valuable only because of evangelistic opportunities, then every time they turn on the gas to drill someone’s teeth, you know, they can ask them to repent while they’re, you know, sedated or whatever it is. [Laughter] Or if they really think that what they’re doing is bringing in the kingdom, then that filling really has to be a good filling, ’cause it has to last into the new creation!
DVD: Better be a gold filling!
CK: It’s got to be a pure gold filling, right? But actually, if it’s just going to be a good work for a temporal good of loving people in society as God’s providing for creation to continue, at least, in this way for now, then it’s just an honest job.
CK: Yeah, I mean, you’re really giving people something that’s going to help them in a very practical way, and in some ways, the way that you carry that out under God in faith, it is the mark of its goodness, then, in terms of its worship and things like that. So—
CK: —it’s really helpful for us, I think, to delineate these ways of thinking. Just in terms of that, would you say it’s fair, then, to say that the common order—that is, the broader society—is in some ways, then, the stage for what God is doing to bring in redemptive work? In other words, he is preserving it—
CK: —so that he can carry out that redemptive work.
DVD: Yes. And that gets to this broader unity of God’s purposes for this world. And, you know, I—in my work, I often try to root this preservative order—this common order—in the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9. And, you know, there’s no promises of redemption or new creation there. But I’d like to point out is that if it wasn’t for that, there wouldn’t have been a world for God to save. There wouldn’t have been a human community in which Jesus could have become incarnate and drawn out a people for himself. So it’s—obviously we with our finite minds, we can’t always see how God’s plan is working out. It’s mysterious to us. At the same time, we recognise that as God preserves this world and preserves our societies, it is—what was the word you used? It’s the foundation—it’s a “stage”—
DVD: —upon which the plan of redemption can be worked out and within which a church can be gathered. And so, you know, we know that God is working all things for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28), and I think that’s—I mean, that’s obviously a very encouraging promise in general, but I think it’s relevant here, because we realise that this common work that God is doing, you know one of its ultimate purposes is for the good of the people of God: it obviously is all for God’s glory. But it’s also for our own good. So I think very important to keep those things connected, even as we make proper distinctions.
CK: That’s great.
CK: As we take a break from our program, I want to encourage you to check out some of the very fine books authored by David VanDrunan, my guest on today’s program. In particular, I want to recommend to you two: the first is the most recent book by Dave, entitled, Politics After Christendom: Political theology in a fractured world. It was published earlier this year by Zondervan. In this book, Dave explores the notion of Christendom and helps Christians think responsibly about living in God’s world after the dissolution of Christendom. In this volume, you’ll find some very clear and deep theological reflection on how God has structured the world in view of his broader purposes.
Second, I’d like to commend a book that I tell people to read often, and in fact, I’ve gifted to many people along the way. It’s called Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A biblical vision for Christianity and culture, also by David VanDrunen and published by Crossway publishers in 2010. This book sets a very clear biblical vision for how God has worked in the world to provide both common provision as well as redemptive provision for his people. Beyond this frame, Dave offers practical wisdom to Christians for how they might live responsibly in this world as they engage the culture around them.
Finally, I’d like to tell you about some other resources that you can check out on our website at ccl.moore.edu.au. There, we’ve curated a host of audio, video and written materials that are aimed at helping Christians think about how they can face everyday issues in life from a biblical perspective.
Now let’s get back to our program.
CK: I would love to just drill down into some of these things now, I think, in terms of the practicalities. I mean, if we’re thinking, then, about our participation in the broader society—in particular, politics—I wonder how we can help Christians neither feel apathetic as—if I’m tempted to be honest with you, I’m often feeling quite apathetic about political life outside of the church—but also not too overly optimistic. I guess what I saw when I lived in the American South, for example, was “I’m Christian because I’m a member of such-and-such political party” or even the political party, then, began to sort of rule the Christian beliefs in some sense, and there wasn’t that kind of distinction so, again, we over-inflate these two things together. So how do we not just to retreat from political life in the public square, but also maintain that proper distinction? How do you encourage Christians, for example, going to the polls next couple of weeks?
DVD: Yeah. Well, it’s—I think you have the finger on that’s [inaudible] and I think maybe I would want to go back to one of the first things we talked about was this whole idea of politics as a provisional good, because I think that if you don’t understand that—if you think of politics as an ultimate good or you want it to be an ultimate good, then I think it’s much easier to fall into either of those extremes. Because if you’re thinking of politics as something that ought to be of ultimate importance and then you look at what practical politics actually looks like, it’s easy to get discouraged and apathetic, and just to say, you know, “I—this is ridiculous”. If it’s our politics needs to look like the kingdom of God or nothing, then, boy, very easy to get apathetic and just turn it all off. On the other hand, if you’re thinking in those terms of politics as an ultimate good, well then, it’s easy to see how that can turn into this kind of triumphalism or this optimism or this kind of thing that you’re describing that certainly has—it’s definitely infected certain parts of the United States a lot more than other places, but I think in the American South, it’s probably a place where it’s happened more, where religion and politics get so intertwined and it seems like it’s the political that’s more driving it oftentimes.
And it seems to me that if we take a proper view of politics as provisional, it allows us to say, on the one hand, “Look, I’m not going to make this the most important thing. I’m never going to make my theology—my Christian life—my church—answer to a political party or a political agenda, or to be used as a tool of these things”, which happens a lot. And on the other hand, I think we can fight off some apathy and discouragement by saying, “Look, politics isn’t supposed to be utopian. It’s not supposed to accomplish important things in that sometimes even small gains—small accomplishments—are worthwhile.” And I think that can serve as a kind of incentive to participate when you don’t make everything riding on getting the perfect result.
CK: That’s helpful, because I often get discouraged when I see candidates, for example, that stand for a few really good things, but on other policy matters, seem to be just blind as bats.
DVD: Yeah, yeah.
CK: So I’m thinking, you know, how do I then go in for them—you know, cast my vote for them—there has to be kind of weighing, I guess, to the political process. How do we think about priorities, then, as Christians in terms of our public life?
DVD: Yeah. That’s a great question—a really hard one, I think. I mean, I think part of it is an easy question in general, in that I think, yes, we inevitably to—we can’t let the better be the enemy of the good or sometimes even the good be the enemy of the okay, because I think we are inevitably going to be disappointed in our candidates—in our parties. There’s nothing in Scripture that would lead us to think—I mean, what would we read in Scripture that would make us think that we as New Testament Christians are going to have wonderful political choices and wonderful rulers that are going to make us happy and encouraged? I mean, there’s nothing there that would lead us down that road, I don’t think! And so, I think we have to make these—we are sort of are in the inevitable situation of saying we’re going to have to make some choices among the lesser of evils. Maybe that’s not the best way to put it, but I think you and your listeners understand what I’m getting at and—
CK: Yes, certainly.
DVD: So that means we’re going to have some priorities. And we certainly talk about that a lot here in the United States, and I think among a lot of conservative Christians, it’s often the—the issue of abortion which is especially—I mean, for many decades now, has been especially of concern and I think for a lot of conservative Christians, that has been more than anything else the kind of litmus test or the number 1 priority—and I think for some understandable reasons, although you also get some pretty powerful counterarguments saying, “Well, there are a lot of other really important issues too that touch people’s lives that sometimes involve life and death issues as well”. And then I think you have to be able to have an honest conversation about this. And I think an open conversation: I think that’s often hard to have. I think a lot of Christians have a hard time having those sorts of open conversations. I mean, I do think something like abortion, even if it’s not the be all and end all of everything for us here in the United States, I think it does deserve a place of being very very important, because I think you could say, “If government is supposed to be do anything, and we’re all going to have difference of opinion on just how much government ought to be doing, we should all be able to agree that government ought to be protecting the life of the most vulnerable among us”.
DVD: And so, I mean, it would seem, you know, who is more vulnerable than unborn babies? And so I think there’s some good reason why that is things that we’ve prioritised. But I think we also have to be open to say, “Look, there are—you know, things can get very complicated—”
DVD: “—and we need to be able to talk about other things as well”. So it’s—I wish I could give you a formula—say, “This is how you prioritise things”. But I just don’t think that exists.
CK: No, I think that’s—
DVD: There’s no substitute for our prudence—for our good judgement—in particular circumstances.
CK: Yeah, I think that’s very very helpful, Dave. I mean, I think what’s very difficult for people outside of the US is to appreciate the way that the parties have divided on that particular issue, and why the Christian conscience has been so gripped for so long to vote one way only—that is, to protect the lives of the most vulnerable. So I think here in Australia, the media is constantly just showing Donald Trump, for example, at his worst, or maybe just his true colours; I don’t know. But I don’t think they quite understand how could Christians vote for a guy who has so many sort of flagrant public outbursts and maybe even sinful behaviour in other ways. I guess they probably don’t appreciate that, in fact, if you don’t vote for him or stand with someone like him, you risk, then, the lives—or at least trying as best as you can—to protect the lives of those that are most vulnerable, which is a very difficult tension for Christians to be in, especially when you feel some of the other tensions, maybe, that exist by voting that way. So, very tough.
CK: I appreciate the way you try to navigate that, and especially drawing to attention prudence, and I think going back to what you said before, the process of weighing these things, then, is not to say, “I love this particular candidate, I stand for everything they stand for, but in fact, if I’m going to vote, I’m going to try and do as best as I can to promote a society that is going to protect life as best as I see able”. It won’t protect life perfectly, but we’re going to try to protect the most that we can in this way. I think that’s a helpful way of looking at it.
So in terms of just thinking about moving ahead, then, do Christians need to vote? Is that a good thing, if they have an opportunity to vote?
DVD: Well, you know, I think in general it is the good thing. I would not go to stuff and say, “Christians are—they are obligated—that they must vote”—that I could say from the pulpit—
DVD: —to people, “You must vote”. I mean, I just don’t think that that’s warranted. I think sometimes you can send a message by not voting.
DVD: Sometimes when you have low voter turnout, it sends [a] certain kind of message about things. So I would not want to be overly simplistic. But, you know, look, I mean if we have—if we are given the opportunity to vote, it seems like a pretty small thing to do in order to participate, and, you know, if we’re going to say that we’re concerned about our communities—that we’re concerned about justice being done—about prosperity—about order—about peace and all these things—that, you know, everyone says those are good things—then, you know, it would seem that this is one way that we have been given to do that. It’s not the only way, obviously: there are other ways to be involved and to make good contributions to our political communities. But yes, I think I think it’s a good thing.
CK: That’s great. That’s great. In Australia, you have to vote—Australia, you get fined if you don’t vote.
DVD: Oh, is that right? I didn’t know that!
CK: Yeah. But I guess in that sense, then—
DVD: Well, I don’t really like that idea, because I like the idea of people voting who care.
DVD: And so making someone vote who doesn’t care, I’m not sure I really like that idea.
CK: Well, this is what I was going to say is when I say “Must Christians vote, then?”, I guess it’s very easy for Christians here who are apathetic to go and just sort of doodle on their poll—
CK: —rather than actually go in and be a thoughtful participant in society. So there’s a responsibility, then, to not just be a passive participant—
CK: —even just to vote straight down a party line, perhaps, just ’cause it’s easy and convenient, but actually needs to be thoughtful about the ways that they’re participating in society. So.
Maybe a final question [for] you then, Dave, if it’s okay, how should Christians in churches think about broader social participation? I mean, we often think about sort of an inside/outside conversation: that’s what we’re doing here. And almost all of our participation outside, then, is geared towards outreach, evangelism, and that, I think, is good to be thinking about mission. Do we need to think about other ways that we participate in society, and should we bring the broader social political conversation inside to our churches?
DVD: Well, that’s a delicate issue, isn’t it, yeah.
CK: It is very delicate!
DVD: I—you know. [Laughter] You know, I would begin by saying it seems to me that when we’re thinking about the official teaching of the church, and by that I would mean, you know, what’s being preached on the Lord’s day, and I think also the whole ministry of the church—in the classroom or in counselling sessions, in discipling, you know—I would say that we need to be very careful to say what the Scriptures say—all of what the Scriptures say and no more than the Scriptures say. It seems to me that that’s a good basic Reformation principle that I think we need to uphold. And I think that means that if we’re doing what Paul modelled for us in Acts 20 with proclaiming the whole counsel of God (v. 27), then we are going to talk about a lot of things that have political overtones—have political implications—because politics touches so much of life. Scripture tells us a lot about family and marriage: well, those things get politicised, right? And—
DVD: And so we are going to be talking about things that are politically relevant, and I think we have to be careful that we don’t talk about less than Scripture does, because we don’t want to offend or we don’t want to cause division. We need to proclaim what Scripture says.
At the same time, I think it’s—we need to be very careful about going beyond that and start—I think when we talk—we start talking about political issues in terms of strategy and public policy and political parties, that’s where I think the church needs to be very careful and even, perhaps stay silent on those things. We proclaim what Scripture says, but we don’t micromanage the way Christians are going to exercise their political responsibilities.
I mean, I was talking about abortion a few minutes ago: I mean, it seems to me that if we are proclaiming the whole counsel of God, we are going to be teaching that unborn human life is human life that is worthy of protection. Christians ought not to procure abortions. But I don’t think that we then go out and say, “Well, this is how we go about as a political strategy trying to overturn abortion laws. This is how we try to minimise the number of abortions that are committed in our city.” I think those are things that are going to have to be left to the judgement of individual Christians and of groups of Christians as they try to work together on these things.
I mean, perhaps one last thing I would say about that is I do think it’s really important for the pastors and elders of the church to be trying to help their people grow in wisdom. And so, I think that means that we—and probably in more informal settings, rather than in more official settings like, you know, sermon on Sunday—I think that we who are ministers of the gospel ought to try to help our people gain wisdom and think well through these issues, even if we’re not giving them all of the right answers. I sort of look at it in a way, perhaps, similar to something like childrearing or disciplining our children: I don’t think it’s wise from the pulpit to be laying out detailed programs for how you discipline your children: there are a lot of ideas out there. I don’t think that would be wise. That would be going beyond what the Scriptures say. But we recognise this is important, and so we want—pastorally, we want to help parents be wise and grow in their good judgement as to how they care for their children. And so, I look at politics—it may [be] perhaps somewhat analogous to that. I think it’s okay for us to try to help people think well in a political theological way.
CK: That’s great.
DVD: And to gain wisdom so that they can go out in their own communities in whatever the opportunities they have and hopefully grow in making good decisions that are going to be beneficial for their community.
CK: That’s really helpful. And I think, again, returning to where we began, being able to situate each of these things in proper perspective of what God’s doing in the world is really important, so that as you’re growing in wisdom, part of that wisdom is knowing, in one sense, what sphere of life you’re participating in. So therefore what realistic goals we should be setting whether they are sort of penultimate, temporal goals, or really working towards ultimate good at bringing people up in the love and the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Thank you for the time today, Dave. I’ve really appreciate the conversation. I’m hoping this will be a great blessing to people as they think about continuing to live in God’s world.
DVD: Well, it’s my pleasure. Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.
CK: All right. Thanks very much!
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As always, I’d like to thank Moore College for making the ministry of the Centre for Christian Living possible, and to extend thanks to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for audio editing and transcribing. Music provided by James West.