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    Why I Went Cold Turkey on Political Theology

    Reading the Gospels out of delight in them, rather than as fodder for political argument, was like breathing fresh air.

    By Alastair Roberts

    April 8, 2024
    • Delores Douglas

      Thank you for revealing the genuine simplicity of the Gospel and how we that are so burdened by those who seem to be so much more knowledgeable than myself by what they in words create and defend. Your words encourage me to return to my Bible and seek the guidance and peace from the genuine source - Christ.

    • Chris Bonner

      Much wisdom here. In my own life, I have been enmired in some of the same theonomic political theology (in my youth in Tyler, Texas, I was employed making copies of cassette tapes featuring Rushdoony, North, etc.: mea culpa!), and I too have grown wary of how easily such a theological mode obscures the proper object of theology: God Himself. Online apologetics exacerbated this tendency in my own life by encouraging my to couch my knowledge of God and His Word in terms of conflict & debate. Scripture does speak to those issues, of course, but forcing every passage to answer questions alien to the word itself does terrible interpretive violence to the text and to the reader.

    • Marianne Fisher

      Frederick Buechner once wrote "Theology is the study of God and God's ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study us and our ways and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise." It certainly often seems to be a direct way to bypass what we, as humans, truly need to live. Lately, I've been thinking about what the church would be like if all we had was the Gospels to go on and go by. Don't get me wrong, I love the Psalms, Isaiah, and many of the Epistles. But... Less Leviticus, more Prodigal Son. Less Revelations (especially all that blood to the horses' bridles), more Sermon on the Mount. More Grace, like dew in Hermon, rain upon mown grass, balm in Gilead.

    • Francis

      Thank you, Alastair. This is exactly what i needed to read this morning. We people keep forgetting that it is his kingdom and his righteousness that we are to seek (Matt 6:33), not our kingdom or our righteousness. Without love for Jesus, nothing we do is in keeping with his commandments (John 14:23-24). So we must be asked personally again and again, as Peter was, "Do you love me" (John 21:15-17). This article did that for me, today.

    In my early twenties, I became obsessed with a belligerent form of the political theology of the Theonomic Reconstructionist movement. Arguing from the basis of the universal Lordship of Christ and the dominion granted to humanity in the original creation, this view took scripture – most notably the Old Testament law – as a blueprint for a complete reconstruction of our entire social, legal, and political order. It insisted on the necessity of a direct scriptural mandate for such order and presented its theology as the answer to this need. Largely on account of the influence of the Austrian School of economics upon some of the principal advocates of the position, this vision – in a surprising twist! – actually cashed out in something like anarcho-capitalism with extensive application of the death penalty.

    The leaders of the movement were scrappy, smart, interesting, assertive, and produced books, newsletters, journals, and articles at a rate of knots. I voraciously consumed all their material. They wrote so much that it soon represented almost all my reading. Their vision of a Christian faith with bearing upon all life and society led them to write provocative works on history, social order, law, ecclesiology, the family, business, economics, and a host of different areas. For a thumotic young man with extensive areas of interest, their radical, expansive, and heterodox vision held considerable appeal, as did the pugnacious and iconoclastic manner in which they advanced it against more established thinkers.

    Being familiar with the theological arguments for my position, and knowing the letter of the Bible very well, I was adept at using scripture to defend my positions and didn’t have trouble getting the best of many of my interlocutors, few of whom had given serious thought to the issues. Indeed, few things were more likely to strengthen my sense of the rightness of my stances than arguing with opponents. Spirited disagreements with adversaries can be curiously effective at heightening such confidence: the more focused one is upon the flaws in opposing positions, the less attentive one is likely to be to the issues with one’s own.

    The movement was weird and unbalanced in ways that I did not initially appreciate and fueled some very unsavory fringes. As a contentious, unruly, and fractious movement, rebellious towards many authorities, revisionary in much of its history, unorthodox in its politics and economics, and with an appetite for antagonism, tribalism, and provocation, it offered many ways for people to go off the rails into an array of forms of extremism. Many, especially in the run-up to Y2K, were stockpiling guns, supplies, and moving to more secure locations, preparing for a radical collapse of society, after which they hoped to rebuild along their ideological lines. Others went in the direction of Southern heritage and white identitarian movements. In the most extreme cases, its militant ethos led some to support and engage in anti-abortion terrorism.

    I was living in the United Kingdom, where Reconstructionism was near non-existent, and was mostly studying the position in books and online articles. I had only met a couple of moderate Reconstructionists in person. Before the rise of social media, I was not connecting with other advocates online and had several healthy grounding forces in my life. Nevertheless, the militant spirit of the movement undoubtedly affected me.

    While considering myself to be championing the Lordship of Christ, I became fixated on contentious debates and increasingly dulled to the things of God. I openly affirmed Christian truths, yet they no longer stirred my heart as they once did, nor did they bear the same fruit in my life. The place that Christ had once occupied at the center of my thought and affections had gradually been crowded out with matters of culture war, theological, and political conflict, and party interest.

    Jesus’ earthly ministry was a ministry marked by words: words of grace and forgiveness, words of comfort and compassion, words of truth and authority, words of blessing and commission. Jesus was not only a speaker of remarkable words; as we see from the opening of John’s Gospel, Jesus was the divine Word come in human flesh, the very self-revelation of God. Throughout John’s Gospel, the evangelist emphasizes the power of Jesus’ word of which faith can grasp hold. At Jesus’ word, a lame man could walk, bread and fish were multiplied in disciples’ hands, a dead man was summoned from his tomb. Recognizing the power of his Master’s words, Peter confessed, “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

    Yet alongside such testimony concerning the power, authority, life, and grace of Jesus’ words, there was also the perplexing reality that not everyone who heard Jesus’ words received them, regarded them as significant, or responded as they ought. During his earthly ministry, the words of Jesus were frequently met with resistance, rejection, lack of interest, ridicule, and incomprehension on the part of his hearers. This failure of spiritual perception and reception of Jesus’ words is a theme to which the Gospels frequently return, often analogizing it to deafness or blindness.

    The reception of the word of God is the theme of the Parable of the Sower and the teaching that surrounds it. Within the parable, Jesus described several contrasting responses to the word, likened to a seed sown on different soils. In most of the soils that Jesus described, the seed didn’t yield the hoped-for grain. Jesus proceeded to reference Isaiah 6:9–10, explaining the way that his teaching in parables was intended to be opaque to the spiritually resistant and dull, yet revelatory to those with spiritual perception:

    This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.” But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matthew 13:13–17)

    a man sowing seeds in a field above a valley with a river

    Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Parable of the Sower, 1557, oil on panel

    Jesus’ description of people hearing yet not hearing or seeing yet not perceiving, and teaching in the Parable of the Sower, alerts us to the challenging and unsettling reality of people who, though exposed to the living and powerful words of Christ, are spiritually insensitive to them and cannot receive them. To receive Christ’s words, there needs to be a correspondence between their spiritual character and the spiritual character of those who hear them. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:12–14:

    Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

    Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees, who tithed the smallest herbs and spices, of missing justice, mercy, and faithfulness, the beating heart of the law; while straining out a gnat, they would swallow a camel (Matt. 23:23–24). Even when they were handling genuine divine truths and commands, they had no sense of proper proportion, balance, and priority. Their fixation on legal minutiae and commands tragically resulted in the point of it all escaping them. Hearing they did not understand.

    It was when I stepped back from the charged contexts and spectacles of theological conflict that doubts began to surface. My doubts arose, not from specific claims or arguments, but from the general effect that the material I had been reading and positions for which I had been arguing had on me. Whether it was something about my spiritual state or the material I was reading, I didn’t know. However, for all my thinking and theologizing, I knew that it had not drawn me more to Christ, nor was it producing good fruit in my life. It was making me contentious, unloving, proud, and resistant to authority. Most troubling, I knew that my love for Christ was growing colder. This realization greatly unsettled me.

    I determined to go completely cold turkey on the political theology. I stopped reading it. I stopped thinking about it. I stopped arguing about it. In its place, I steeped myself in the Gospels, reading and meditating upon them. And I prayed.

    I started to read the Bible on its own terms; I started listening to it, rather than listening for things that served interests and concerns I was bringing to it.

    Underlying my decision to make such a radical break was consideration of some of the biblical teaching I have discussed: the relationship between good seed and good fruit and the necessity of healthy soil for production of such good fruit. When, for all my study of scripture, the fruit produced in my life was of consistently poor quality, either there was something amiss with the manner of my hearing or certain of the teachings to which I was attending were not as scriptural as I had supposed. To address these problems, I needed to prepare the “soil” of my heart and, lest I sow tares rather than wheat, to work with the most trusted “seed” of which I knew.

    It was not long until I experienced a significant change; the appeal of the political theology largely dissipated. While I could make seemingly scriptural arguments for it, so much of the spirit of the politics I had been getting into was alien to the spirit of the Gospels. Reading the Gospels deeply and out of delight in them, rather than as fodder for political argument, was like leaving a thick miasma and breathing fresh air.

    Part of the shift I experienced was a shift in my posture towards scripture, which led to changes in my hearing of scripture. When I was chiefly animated by political positions and debates, my approach to scripture became increasingly subservient to those. I had been “listening for” things that seemed to back up my positions. I knew all the prooftexts. I could defend my position “from” scripture too: I knew how to counter all sorts of biblical arguments against my position.

    And not all the prooftexts and counterarguments were illegitimate. It was not that the politics which had appealed to me were without some truth, but the measure of truth they had was easy to focus upon when I was fixated upon bad critics. However, when I turned to Christ and his words, I knew I could no longer defend them in the ways I once had. In too many respects they just didn’t breathe the Spirit of the Gospels.

    When I stepped back, the arguments, debates, and ideology no longer mediated my relationship with the text. I started to read it on its own terms; I started listening to it, rather than listening for things that served interests and concerns I was bringing to it. As I did, I began to feel the grain of the text and to learn to move with it. Biblical statements ceased to be brute facts to be marshalled into an extrabiblical system.

    Among other things, I started paying more attention to the manner of the text and its unifying movements of thought. While I could incorporate abstract biblical verses into my former political system, I discovered that it was more difficult to honestly account for the ways the Bible itself held everything together – what it prioritized, what it said, how it said it, what it didn’t say, what it downplayed. Had the biblical authors truly believed what I had believed, they would have written very different books, with a very different animating spirit to them. And while many of my former beliefs weren’t straightforwardly wrong (although some certainly were), the spirit that animated them was, producing distortions that twisted everything.

    It became increasingly apparent to me that, when animated by a spirit other than the spirit of the Gospels, even seemingly biblical claims could be taken in some deeply erroneous and destructive directions. However, as I had been animated by a spirit other than that by which the scripture was inspired, chiefly listening for things that served my interests, my readings of the text itself had often simply been careless; their persuasive force fell away when this became evident to me. I had been missing the weightier matters of the Law, straining gnats and swallowing camels.

    We are responsible for the fields of our lives, for the tending of their soil and for the seeds that we plant within them. Unless we are vigilant in weeding our lives, in taking care over the seeds planted within them, and in inspecting what each seed yields, it may not take long for our entire characters to be overrun by error or made barren and fruitless.

    In this responsibility, we are not left at the mercy of chance and fortune. Good soil, good seed, healthy growth, and good harvests all have distinctive and discernible hallmarks: we must both be diligent observers and committed cultivators of all of these. And where we sense that something is awry, we should be practiced at spiritual discernment and in confession and repentance.

    It is possible that, reading this, you find yourself in a similar position to the one I was in as a young man. Some teaching has captured your imagination and is increasingly animating your life. While that teaching may initially pass as biblical, your life and the movements to which you belong do not seem to be producing good fruit. You may find it easy to resist arguments against your position yet have an uncomfortable sense that something is amiss. It is for such situations that we must practice testing the spirit of the teachings that we sow in our lives, the quality of the soil that receives them, and what yield comes from them.

    Contributed By portrait of Alistair Roberts Alastair Roberts

    Alastair Roberts received his PhD from Durham University, and teaches for both the Theopolis Institute and the Davenant Institute.

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