Learning the language

How do we think scripturally about contemporary issues facing not only the Canadian Church, but all of Canada? How can Christians make positive contributions to the common good from our relatively new position on the social margins? And how does the Bible fit into all this?

We cannot simply move from biblical exegesis to public policy. Evangelicals would be wise to remember that between exegesis and public debate is an important step—prudential judgment. That is, an inner working out of how the sometimes very different horizons of the biblical and contemporary worlds merge in the process of careful Bible reading and application. Consider, for example, Jesus' and Paul's teaching on divorce.

In Matthew 19, Jesus gives a straightforward, if difficult, teaching on divorce: marriage is grounded in the fabric of creation; therefore, no divorce. Paul, on the other hand, wrestles with applying this teaching in a community of new converts where, among other things, spouses may wind up divorced simply because one of them became a Christian (1 Corinthians 7:15). Paul is not contradicting Jesus' or the Early Church's view of divorce, but tries to apply it in situations that are messy and marred by sin. He is exercising prudential judgment.

A profound and very helpful example of prudential judgment—the wrestling with Scripture in contemporary issues—can be found in the teaching of Pope John Paul II, where he writes about just economic policy, workers' rights, human sexuality, and many other topics. Whether or not one is inclined to agree or disagree at the end of reading, the documents reveal a deep Christian thinker who wants to apply the Scriptures to pressing human and social problems, but in a way that recognizes that such application is rarely, if ever, immediate.

Now the next question: How can we contribute to public welfare, the common good, from a position on the margins? Perhaps the worst thing to do is to surrender the public square to the loudest voices and focus instead on evangelism or social action. Those activities are, of course, vital. But they are no substitute for being present in the public arena, proposing (and never imposing) thoughtful Christian reflection.

Again, we find a good way forward in the Bible: 2 Kings 18-19. The Jews have returned to Jerusalem. They are rebuilding their city, their identity, from the ground up. Part of their challenge was to become conversant in two languages. The language "outside the wall" was the language of the Aramaic, the language of the people of the Empire; the language "inside the wall" was Hebrew. The language of the People of God. To do business, to negotiate, to live, they had to speak Aramaic. To be formed as God's people, to worship, and also to live, they had to speak Hebrew.

We are in a fundamentally similar position today. If we are going to make positive contributions—and not just a milk-toast-rubber-stamp—to the common good of all citizens of our country, we will need to be ever more fluent in two languages.

The language of prudential judgment above is the language inside the wall. It is the language of "the Bible says," the language of exegesis and application, the language of worship. If we try to speak that language to those who do not know it, we will do no one any good.

On the other hand, the language of public policy, public debate, thoughtful, reasoned reflection is the language outside the wall. We need to learn to speak that language, too. Not to win each public debate, but to be faithful in every one, win or lose.

The best biblicist—perhaps even one whom history will judge to be the William Wilberforce of our time—will be prudent and bilingual. He or she will seek faithfully to understand and apply the Bible, and articulate its position in a way the wider world may understand, whether possibly to accept or finally to oppose.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at texasflood.ca.