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Henry was Right, but so was Kuyper

February 2nd, 2010 | 3 min read

By Andrew Walker

A recent article by Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw has once again awakened the curious and troublesome topic of Christian political ethics. Without summarizing the entire article, I think it important to address the talking points Mouw takes up.

In the article, Mouw reflects, how after many years, evangelical dean Carl Henry was right given his approach to Christian political ethics. In an essay submitted to Christianity Today in 1967, Mouw puts forward the thesis that political pronouncements ought to be put forward under the auspices of the Church; that is, it is the Church making political pronouncements and not merely individual Christians (though, to be honest, this raises further questions on the possibility of there ever being a Protestant consensus on political issues).

Henry disagrees in the reverse. In his own axioms of political engagement (see below), Henry argues that evangelical political pronouncements can largely be done, in my own phrasing, by “negation.” According to Henry, the Church is incapable and lacks the authority to make informed and positive public policy recommendations. Instead, the Church is “declare the criteria by which nations will ultimately be judged, and the divine standards to which man and society must conform if civilization is to endure” (see axiom #3). Not only is the church incapable, according to Henry, but the task itself lies outside the realm of the church’s main stated objective, primarily being evangelization.

For now, here are Henry’s axioms:

1. The Bible is critically relevant to the whole of modern life and culture—the social-political arena included.

2. The institutional church has no mandate, jurisdiction, or competence to endorse political legislation or military tactics or economic specifics in the name of Christ.

3. The institutional church is divinely obliged to proclaim God's entire revelation, including the standards or commandments by which men and nations are to be finally judged, and by which they ought now to live and maintain social stability.

4. The political achievement of a better society is the task of all citizens, and individual Christians ought to be politically engaged to the limit of their competence and opportunity.

5. The Bible limits the proper activity of both government and church for divinely stipulated objectives—the former, for the preservation of justice and order, and the latter, for the moral-spiritual task of evangelizing the earth.

It is axiom #2 which raises the questions of whether Christians—and the Church—can offer positive policy pronouncements.

Enter Kuyper, who, according to Mouw, offers the mediating position between himself and Henry. Though Kuyper would have agreed with the limits of the Church’s political pronouncements, Kuyper’s thought, echoing Catholic Social Teaching, claims the Protestant equivalent of Mediating Structures—“Kuyper would have insisted that, between the gathered church and individual Christians going out into the world to struggle with applications to specifics, there is an important intermediate area of activity. Christians must form a variety of organizations that focus on specific areas of cultural involvement, in order to engage in the kind of communal reflection necessary to develop a Christian mind for the area in question. This means that it is important, say, for Christians who are deeply involved in policies and practices relating to concern for the poor to develop specific proposals building on the general principles proclaimed by that church, by deliberating on these matters in groups that have the expertise to struggle with them. And it is even appropriate to present those policy proposals as Christian-inspired specifics, even if they move well beyond what the church—as church—has a right to say.”

As one who is constantly oscillating between these two positions, I must agree with Mouw that Henry is right on this issue. Theology, it’s limits, and history have vindicated Henry.

I would love feedback from the readers of Mere Orthodoxy on this topic. What do you think? Is it better for Christians to work individually to impact our political culture, or should the Church work institutionally to advance particular agendas and candidates?

Andrew Walker

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.