Peter Leithart on using the Bible politically

The latest edition of Comment includes articles by an impressive line-up of thinkers, including Marilynne Robinson, Jean Vanier, Matthew Milliner, Calvin Seerveld, Esther Meek and others. It also includes a nice wee piece by guest editor Peter Leithart who has this to say about Scripture:

‘When used as a tool of political assessment and evaluation, Scripture is a yardstick to measure what’s already out there in the world, rather than a potent political force in its own right. Christians who mine the Bible for positive moral, political, or aesthetic principles frequently have an intellectualistic and moralistic view of human experience. Much of the abundant, often edifying, literature on Christian worldview reduces Scripture to a system of ideas or a set of moral rules that we consciously embrace and apply to the world around us.

But the Bible is not a compendium of doctrines, ideas, or rules. Scripture teaches, but teaches through stories, poetry, exhortation, visions, letters. It addresses the whole man—our minds, but also our passions, imaginations, loves, and desires. Christians who attempt to apply the Bible to political life, for example, often focus so completely on discovering ethical standards that they ignore the significance of Scripture’s rhetoric. Rhetoric italicizes what is said. When using the Bible politically, we not only ask, “What does God say is good and right?” We must also ask, “What does God italicize?”‘ – Peter Leithart, ‘The Word of God and the City of Man


  1. I’m currently reading and studying the psalms (now up to ps. 135 KJV). The language is so powerful and beautiful sometimes it takes my breath away – even when I’ve read the particular psalm a number of times before. It’s a sheer pleasure to read – and hopefully, along the way, I learn something!


  2. What’s this business about “the whole man”? Scripture addresses the community that gathers to hear the word. In the Bible itself scripture is read/heard in the formation of a particular people – the people of God. We don’t use the Bible politically, we hear the word, receive it in our mouths (as the Deuteronomist likes to say); we let it form us as a particular people, which includes a particular polity.


  3. If I can bring Yoder into this as an aside (Leithart’s favourite conversation partner), there is a reason his book on hermeneutics is called “To Hear the Word” and not “How to read the Bible,” as the publishers would have liked.


  4. But then you have the bloody in-your-face reality of applied Christian politics. Which became inevitable the very moment that the multi-various early Christian movement was coopted by the Roman State and the soon after appearance of what became the “official” version of Christianity as defined by the church fathers who won the culture wars of their time and place – that is those who had the most swords. Worldly power, including worldly ecclesiastical power always grows out of the barrel of a gun or via the business end of a sword.

    Who thus gave themselves the political power to consolidate their own power and privileges.A principal method was their power to define “heresy” and thus deal with “heretics” – ah I love the smell of burning human flesh and of human blood, and the sound of human screams.
    And then of course there was the never-ending problem of those who attempted to resist the blood-soaked imperialist impulse/momentum of Constantine’s famous sword. The result was of course mountains of corpses and rivers of blood.
    Applied Christian politics 101:
    In one stark image:
    Images and words
    Also check out Columbus & Other Cannibals by Jack Forbes; Americam Holocaust by David Stannard.
    And this essay – note the unspeakably vile sado-masochistic snuff/splatter movie been reviewed here.

    Meanwhile of course all religions are armed to the teeth, especially the 3 “great” monotheistic religions that originated in the Middle East. Each of which (especially Christian-ism and Islam-ism) are now engaged in global warfare for self-appointed totalitarian control of all of humankind.


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