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Christianity and civil government

A review of “Politics After Christendom”

Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World

David VanDrunen

Zondervan Academic, 400 pages

For more than a millennium, beginning in the early Middle Ages, most Western Christians lived in societies that sought to be comprehensively Christian--ecclesiastically, economically, legally, and politically. That is to say, most Western Christians lived in Christendom. But in a gradual process beginning a few hundred years ago, Christendom weakened and finally crumbled. Today, most Christians in the world live in pluralistic political communities.

Recently, I had the opportunity to read Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World by noted scholar David VanDrunen (Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago and the Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California). The majority of VanDrunen’s work focuses on natural law and the two kingdoms’ doctrine, rooting both in his conception of the divine administration of common grace through the Noahic covenant. For VanDrunen, the Noahic covenant is essential for his project, and that shows in this book as well.  He argues the Noahic covenant is “foundational for understanding the revelation of God’s will in the natural law, the character of Christian’s pilgrimage in the present age, and the nature of God’s common rule” (20-21).

In Part 1 of Politics after Christendom, VanDrunen expands on much of his already published work on grounding political and public life in the Noahic covenant as he seeks to show how God has “ordained civil government—as the ruling authority of political communities—to be legitimate, but provisional, and to be common, but accountable” (25). Governments are legitimate because God has given them authority to do their work, but they are provisional since they are set in place for a limited time and purpose.  Governments are common to all, but they should be morally accountable for administering justice on behalf of those within their authority. These concepts of government as established by God and morally accountable to those under their authority set the parameters for Van Drunen’s political theology.

Part 2 focuses more on the practical outworking that comes from rooting political theology in the Noahic covenant. VanDrunen’s main effort in Part 2 shows how the Noahic covenant is needed to shape how Christians reflect on significant issues of legal and political theory. He does so by dealing with topics such as religious liberty, family and commerce, justice, and customs and laws. Part 2 does not seek to offer a comprehensive Christian political theory of these issues but offers a framework for thinking on today’s crucial contemporary political issues. Additionally, VanDrunen is careful in this section to posit what political and public life ought to look like for the human race in general and not precisely just for Christians.  He writes as a Christian and as a citizen and recognizes that the truthfulness of Scripture offers much truth for the world, regardless of whether one is Christian. VanDrunen argues that society should be pluralistic so that all of the basic Noahic institutions of family life and justice are available to all.  In this way, VanDrunen makes a solid case for his political theory framework grounded in natural law and Scripture.

VanDrunen takes great care in crafting his arguments, even if he is building on much of his previously published work, particularly Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought and Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law. However, this book strengthens the theoretical foundation of his earlier works by exploring in a more detailed manner the practical applications of his political framework. It makes a powerful argument for why Christians need to be actively engaged in politics even as they seek to be faithful to Christ in a changing cultural landscape. While the book is dense, written more for academics than laypeople, he effectively introduces his arguments by giving a few sentences summarizing his main points. This makes the book accessible to all who are willing to engage and wrestle with the text.

While VanDrunen understands Christians will always desire a government that closely adheres to the ethics of Scripture, he also understands that this will not often be the case this side of heaven. Instead, VanDrunen’s framework offers Christians a standard that is intelligible to all, regardless of their faith, because of its grounding in natural law, that provides a coherent approach to government, even in a fallen world, drawing on God’s establishment of government for the common good of society. 

VanDrunen makes a strong case for how the Noahic covenant might apply to contemporary political issues, though he may read more into the covenant than is explicit in the text (a point that VanDrunen admits). The Noahic covenant does not explicitly deal with many of the issues that VanDrunen applies it to in Part 2. In these instances, VanDrunen’s commitment to the principles of classical liberalism, drawing on the foundations of Locke and others, are placed into the text rather than allowing it to speak for itself. Though these principles are not inconsistent with the teachings of scripture, this is more a case of VanDrunen finding direct answers to modern questions that were not the main concern of the author and original audience.

Nevertheless, this book is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to deal with political issues biblically. While one does not need to accept all of what VanDrunen is proposing in this volume, Christians, evangelicals particularly, will find here an excellent introduction to political theology and how the Scriptures and natural law apply to our current political situation.  

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