I was pointed to an article last week with the intentionally surprising title “10 Reasons Why Reading the Bible Makes Us More Progressive.” By “progressive,” the author, Benjamin Corey, means “liberal” or left-of-center in the modern American political sense. His thesis is that taking the Bible more seriously will actually tend to move you in a leftward direction politically.
If this is true, it is something many evangelicals need to consider. For those of us for whom the Bible is the lodestar of our worldview, the implications of such a question are important. Unfortunately, Corey’s ten points did not seem as thoughtful as they should have been. In my view his conclusion about the correlation between reading the Bible and progressivism is unwarranted. So, in the spirit of critical thought and friendly engagement, let’s look at the 10 Reasons.
Corey’s Points Considered
1, 2, and 7). Let’s lump these together. His premise here is that reading the Bible makes you realize your shortcomings and develop a humble heart. The Bible shows us that we are full of flaws and the Holy Spirit convicts of us of our sin. It teaches us to be humble, quick to hear, slow to speak, and nonjudgmental. It preaches mercy and that justice and mercy are the more important parts of God’s law. Indeed, humility, gentleness, and mercy are important. Very important. They are characteristics that should be evident in every follower of Jesus Christ. We ought to be slow to anger, tenderhearted, patient, and forgiving. I absolutely agree with these things.
But what is the connection between these attributes and progressive politics? Corey states that, “the more I see others as being just like me, the more progressive I become because I move in a trajectory of love, tolerance, and am way less likely to pronounce judgment on someone else than I was before.” A trajectory of love, tolerance, and forbearance is admirable. How it makes you more progressive, though, Corey does not explain. We are left struggling to find the connection. He simply assumes a connection that he must also assume his readers see. I don’t. The implication here is that tolerance, mercy, and humility are found in greater degrees among liberals. This assumption I cannot allow him to get away with. It is simply false. Counter examples abound. And not only is this untrue, it is frankly small-minded and insulting. Is Corey close friends with many or any Republican voters? I don’t know. In any case, insisting on a link between humility and mercy and voting Democrat is a non-sequitor, if not a shameful argument to make.
3) In his third point, Corey says that the more you read the Bible, the more concern for the poor you develop. This also I hope is true for everyone who reads the Bible seriously. The problem I see here, though, is the false assumption that if you care about something, you must support a government agenda to deal with it rather than some other method. It is interesting that studies have shown conservatives probably to be more charitable than liberals in general. I will not argue that it’s because conservatives care more about the poor; conservatives and progressives both care about the poor but have different ideas about how to help them. Concern for the poor is important, and Corey is correct that it is preached all over the Old Testament. But, again, it has little to do with making someone progressive. It would only do so if you believed government was the best way to aid the poor—in which case you were progressive already.
4 and 5) “The more I read the Bible,” says Corey, “the more I realize ‘redistribution of wealth’ wasn’t Obama’s idea—it was God’s” and “the early Christians actually practiced this re-distribution of wealth.” These points and their explanations have holes, to say the least. Corey points out the Jubilee year and restrictions on gleaning your garden more than once, and the command from God that there should be “no poor among you.” He then points out the practice of the early church in the book of Acts of giving one’s wealth to the church leadership to distribute according to need.
The concern for the poor encoded in Old Testament law does serve as an example of sorts that laws against injustice and exploitation are warranted. The poor should not be taken advantage of. If Corey is a progressive, however, it follows that he would not want to implement the Old Testament law today. How far would he use it as a model for modern civil polity? For any progressive or conservative with an agenda, I foresee a lot of cherry picking when pointing to Mosaic law as a basis for modern policies. In the Reformed Christian tradition, there are those called theonomists that would see the Mosaic Law as the civil law that God desires us to put into practice today. This view is by far a minority view. The majority Reformed tradition sees the judicial (governmental) laws of Moses as expiring when the theocratic state of Israel expired, and not obligatory now. However, they are still seen as morally useful as regards their “general equity,” or overall moral compass. This latter use Corey must have in mind. Here, though, Republicans are plenty “progressive” enough. Only the strictest libertarians call for abolishing all government assistance programs in all cases. But even whether the Old Testament Law necessarily points to government assistance programs would be subject to interpretation. A direct link to progressivism? It isn’t there.
What about the practice of the church in Acts 4:34-35. The first point I must make is critical, but may actually surprise many evangelicals: the Book of Acts does not serve as a blueprint for how the church should be run. The epistles do. The books of Acts is a historical record of the church in a unique time in its history—the apostolic age between the Day of Pentecost and the destruction of Jerusalem. About this passage though, it should be pointed out that the communal giving is merely described, not commanded (is = ought fallacy?) , and that it is only mentioned here in two verses and nowhere else. A prescription for the church would be brought up again in more detail. Furthermore, even in this instance the giving was not mandatory. In the comments (some of which were to my encouragement very astute), someone pointed to Ananias and Sapphira to show that the giving was required. I will point to them to show that it was voluntary. From what Peter says in Acts 5:4a, it is crystal clear that Ananias retained his individual property rights, that the donation of proceeds was voluntary, and that the sin of his and his wife’s wasn’t holding back money, but lying about holding back money. Finally, this was a program of the church, not the state. The church today still has a ministry to needy church members which is administered by deacons. But many a staunch Republican gives gladly to the church and even serves as a deacon with joy. Now, church giving is mandatory, but this giving is to support the operation of the church, including its mercy ministries, and is not supposed to be a giving of all you have (in fact, in the New Testament no amount is specified beyond what we have decided in our hearts to give willingly and gladly); nor are Christians commanded to be dependent on the alleged redistributionary function of the church for their livelihood, which they would need to be if the Acts 4 pattern were practiced as described. Contrariwise, per 1 Thessalonians 3:8-10 Christians are supposed to be self-sufficient if able, so as not to use up the church’s resources. The connection to progressive politics once again dissolves.
Further, he says “There weren’t any mandatory drug testing programs, just assistance according to need.” Well, I’ll simply point to 1 Timothy 5:3-16, since Corey did not mention it, and observe that while there was no drug testing, there were some sensible prerequisites for receiving aid from the church funds.
6) Corey says that Jesus taught that we should pay our taxes. Well, sort of, though he moved on with the question quickly to get to talking about his mission. But still, Romans 13 and other places teach us to submit to the governmental authority and paying taxes is part of that. Since all Scripture encompass the mind of Christ, it’s fair to say this is a teaching of Jesus. Does this realization make one more progressive? As with all the other points, it’s very hard to see how. Taxes are used to pay the cost of government. Even the most right-wing libertarian believes in paying taxes. Among all but anarchists the debate has always been how much and what are they should be used for, not whether they’re necessary. Sorry, but this point of Corey’s is just much too shallow.
8 and 9) Points eight and nine in Corey’s article address the Bible’s attitude toward immigrants and the environment. Here is where I think he makes his best observations, but still makes a logical jump. The treatment of immigrants is a recurring subject in the Old Testament, and always, as far as I know, in favor of the immigrant, the alien resident, the traveler. Foreigners in Israel were to be treated with kindness, not contempt. And I would affirm that despite the change in contexts, Christians must act this way toward sojourners today. That this principle will make you more progressive is a bit of a leap, however. Personally, I believe in a pretty open and welcoming immigration policy. But that would be the libertarian in me—not exactly a “progressive” influence. Moreover, it goes without saying that the situation of ancient Israel was much different from that of the U.S. or any other country today, where the advances in weaponry and transportation and the complexity of the world make the dangers associated with porous borders unfortunately very real. I am not advocating a closed-border policy. I am simply pointing out that the issues are not so simple anymore, and that therefore, Corey’s basic equation that compassion and magnanimity towards the foreigner must coincide with a particular immigration theory is not sufficient. Many with stricter theories of immigration are not uncaring of the predicament of those seeking to relocate, but instead sensitive to the impact and risks connected with unchecked borders. The answers are not so easy and are not directly correlated with how compassionate someone is.
On the environment, though, let me give Corey the win. Conservative Christians have in the past decade or two begun to talk about environmental stewardship and care for God’s creation more frequently and more mainstream. This is a very good development. But it did take the left-leaning environmentalist movement of the prior decades to jolt Christians from complacency, and many evangelicals are still snoozing. That is not to say the issue was never seriously addressed by religiously conservative Christians before. Exhibit A: the book that helped me reevaluate my own approach toward the environment was “Pollution and the Death of Man” by Francis Schaefer. This gem was published in 1970. Still, it was the exception, not the norm.
On the other hand, it is only fair to note that conservatives considered collectively certainly do not have a monolithic view on how the government should or shouldn’t interfere to protect the planet. I, for instance, believe in protecting the planet but am no friend of the Executive cudgel known as the EPA, an agency most progressives not only support but would employ even more aggressively. But, to concede, reading the Bible should lead us to understand our dominion role as one of caretaker and steward of the beauty, diversity, and delicacy of God’s good earth—and progressives discovered this first.
10) Benjamin Corey’s final point is his worst. He says that as he reads the Bible, he realizes that “God isn’t judging us by whether or not we get all of our doctrine right—he’s judging us by whether or not we get the ‘love one another’ part right.” Actually, reading the Bible leads to no such conclusion. The oddity here is that if reading the Bible drove you to that realization, then it is itself a doctrinal realization. It is true that God is not judging us on whether we get *all* our doctrine right, in the sense that neither our salvation nor God’s acceptance of us is based upon passing a theology test. We are not saved by our knowledge per se, and our knowledge should grow as believers, which means it was smaller when we were first born again. But deemphasizing doctrine is always troublesome. The reason is because apart from an accurate understanding of who Jesus is, the predicament of the human race, Jesus’s atoning work, and faith, we actually cannot truly come to Christ and become one of God’s children. Corey says God is “less concerned with us all sharing the same doctrine but is heavily concerned with whether or not we love each other.” God is certainly concerned with whether we love each other. But is he nonchalant regarding us all “sharing the same doctrine”? Consider 1 Corinthians 1:10, which says, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” Paul tells Timothy to watch his doctrine closely and to shun anything contradicting sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:10, 4:16). He likewise tells Titus he *must* teach what coincides with sound doctrine and to hold firmly to what he had been taught already, so that he could encourage others with sound doctrine and refute false doctrine (Titus 1:9, 2:1). In Philippians 2:2, Paul emphasizes both that we love each other and that we share the same doctrines. They’re both very important to God. In fact, Paul in Romans 10:2 laments the condition of his fellow Jews, because they had a fervor for God—but it wasn’t based on an accurate understanding! Romans 10:2 should be taken to heart. It does not mean are saved by our knowledge, nor must we memorize Charles Hodge to know God as father; but it does mean there is some baseline of correct knowledge about the gospel we must have in order to call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved.
“Doctrine” is not an academic theory. Doctrine is simply, “What does the Bible teach about this?” Even if the explicit verses about the importance of doctrine I gave were not there, we would still have to believe that doctrine is paramount for the obvious reason that if God communicates to something to us, it must be important to understand what he means. That is, we know doctrine must be very important from the very fact that we *have* a Bible to read.
Our love for one another is indeed, as Corey says, to be the calling card of the Christian church. It is our hallmark. It is how *the world* knows who we are. But how do *we* know who we are? Doctrine. Biblical Christianity posits a body of propositions to us and demands we believe them. That’s doctrine. Get it wrong, and you don’t have Biblical Christianity. And by the way, what this one has to do with political affiliation I do not know. There are Bible belt Republicans a plenty that go to church every week but care less about doctrinal matters than Benjamin Corey. This goes both ways. If Corey is implying care for doctrine for some reason made you more conservative (which he seems to be), then Corey’s whole thesis that “taking the Bible seriously” makes you more progressive would be a self-contradiction since “taking the Bible seriously” is just another term for doctrine!
So what’s my point? That, No Corey, reading the Bible should actually make you a good Republican? Not at all. My job was merely to complicate Corey’s simplistic reading of Scripture. In none of the above points did I swing the pendulum the other way and say that reading the Bible will actually push you towards the right. While this has of course been done often, I think that that too is a non-sequitor that needs to be abandoned. And that’s my real point in taking on Corey’s interesting article. I think he is making the same mistake in reverse. In many of his points, the problem was he simply did not give serious Bible readers who also vote conservatively the benefit of the doubt, and was too hasty in forging links between Biblical ideas and progressive ideology. His faulty assumption is that Christian conservatives must simply be conservative for tradition’s sake and if they would just study their Bibles more carefully and humbly, well …. Yet isn’t possible they have given the issues real thoughtful consideration, not casting off biblical authority, and simply come to more conservative conclusions? I would give the same benefit of the doubt to political progressives whose theological doctrine is orthodox—and yes, such people exist.
It is simplistic to use the Bible to advance a political agenda where the politics involved are not clearly hit upon in Scripture. And not many political issues are. Oh, there are moral issues coming into sharp focus now that the Bible speaks about, and that may have political implications. But the Bible does not say whether to increase or phase out Social Security. It does not tell us whether the Keystone Pipeline is a good idea. It does not explain Keynesian and Austrian economics and say which is a more accurate model of the real world. It really doesn’t. It isn’t because the Bible is insufficient. The Bible is a hundred percent sufficient for its purpose. Its purpose is to tell us a story about God, Creation, Fall, and Redemption, what it means for us, and what we must do in light of it. Trying to weave the Bible into politics gets hairy pretty quickly (see also, D.G. Hart and Carl R. Trueman). I am not saying there are no worldview implications derived from the Bible that will bleed into politics from time to time. But I am saying that taking the Bible seriously does not lead invariably to one contemporary American political affiliation or another. Conservatives have been rightly criticized for this kind of shoehorning, but they are not the only culprits. (I once visited a church where the pulpit was basically hijacked as a platform for a liberal political speech. I was furious—and not because I disagreed with the politics.) So now it’s my turn, as a conservative, to call a progressive to account for the same fallacious logic. Let us as Bible-believing Christians just knock it off.