Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Politics and Prose
By Byron Borger
March 21, 2014
The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction James W. Skillen (Baker Academic; 2014) $22.99
It is with exceptional gladness that we announce the publication of the new book by James W. Skillen, the founder and former president of the Center for Public Justice. The Good of Politics is stunning in its scope and exceptional in its discerning insight, offering a fresh articulation of the foundational vision of CPJ. Skillen helps us ponder what we mean by public justice and how God’s good gift of the state should use legitimate authority to help order a pluralistic political community. He explores who is responsible for what and in what way political-legal authority is unique among other sorts of legitimate exercises of cultural power.
As many know, Skillen possesses a remarkable ability to see the underlying presumptions and ideological commitments behind and beneath the proposals of other thinkers. He dives into this in the opening pages of The Good of Politics by showing that two seemingly divergent spokespersons on questions of faith, culture, and politics may actually have surprisingly similar assumptions about the nature of government, the task of the state, and the calling of a political community. Skillen’s astute evaluations, based on a lifetime of serious study and discernment, help us see beneath the surface of competing perspectives. His calling as a political philosopher and his instincts as a teacher combine here to help us understand current thinking about faith and politics, and how a better perspective on civic life and statecraft might look.
Skillen is also a man of the Scriptures. His lifelong study of the Bible and his ability to converse with the best Biblical scholars are rare for a political scientist, and his reformational passion for “Scripturally directed thinking” shines here. The chapters in The Good of Politics that open up the full-orbed Biblical drama – creation-fall-redemption-consummation – are themselves worth the price of the book. He writes,
The Biblical story is not some kind of ancient background noise… The Biblical story catches up the whole of created reality, encompassing all that exists and all that humans will ever be and do. That is why if we are to look carefully at the meaning of Christian engagement in the political culture of our day, we must first find ourselves in the Biblical story.
Before Skillen explores a Biblically attuned perspective on the nature of the state, he has to help us “find ourselves in the Biblical story.” To do that, he evaluates competing views of this matter, namely, how Biblical religion does or doesn’t equip us to be engaged in culture and responsible in citizenship. Most directly, he critiques the “two kingdoms” view (often associated with Martin Luther, but in recent years with a certain sort of conservative Calvinism) and the Biblical pacifism found in the important work of Richard Hays. These are very important contributions to the broader conversations among politically astute evangelicals.
The first half of the book offers an overview of how to properly stand in the flow of Biblical history and, from within that consistent Scriptural vision, learn to see ourselves as God’s vice regents, stewarding the many gifts of creation, including our political responsibilities. This particular approach is integral to the social vision behind structural pluralism.
From this profound Christian worldview comes an awareness that politics is, as the title insists, a good thing. It is Biblically misguided to think that the state was somehow only a negative afterthought from God after sin entered the world. Yet few American citizens, including Biblically literate Christians, seem to glory in the goodness of a God-ordained, diversified, and unfolding creation, replete with good institutions such the state. Why is this?
Responding to this question, the book explores how various (negative) ideas of the state developed historically. Skillen illuminates this through his study of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Althusius, and his description of the social realities of early Christendom, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and Puritan and colonial American society. He dialogues with vital social thinkers, – from Locke to Machiavelli, Hobbes to Hauerwas – offering new insights, fresh angles of vision, great quotes, illuminating stories, and helpful ways to connect dots.
This particular section of the book is profoundly engaging and important. Friends of CPJ will realize this, as understanding the history and development of our current political malaise has long been our strength. Indeed, CPJ has eschewed issue-oriented crusades in favor of taking a longer view, including the sustained study of the good of politics and the goals of just statecraft. Learning how we’ve failed in this and how God’s people have accommodated their thinking to pagan ideologies and powerful social forces is vital to all of us and particularly essential for those who feel called to leadership in public life.
The last portion of The Good of Politics envisions how people shaped by this Biblical understanding of the task of the state and the important, limited role of government for the sake of public justice, might approach policy questions. Skillen begins with the reminder that all politics is perspectival and faith-like biases inevitably inform all policy debates. This “viewpoint as standpoint” is a great chapter, and also leads to discussions about what is meant by the “common good” and what sort of engagement (for what kind of political community) we should pursue.
Finally, the book gets more specific, including chapters on normative family policy, marriage, education, economics, and the environment. A final chapter briefly addresses some international concerns and the possibilities of global cooperation. Although introductory, these pieces are provocative and well developed.
If we are to advance our Christian witness within our Western democracies and in other places worldwide, we must be well schooled in the Biblical drama and be knowledgeable of the key historical developments in Western political thought. The Good of Politics will surely school us well. As Jonathan Chaplin says, it is “a veritable tour de force of sustained Christian reflection.”
- Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”