Book Review: Good News for the Public Square

Love doesn’t get much airtime in the public square. It does, of course, feature quite prominently in popular culture - a consistent theme in art, almost inevitable in whatever is reigning in the charts at a given moment - but much less evident in discussions of law and policy. 

Christians, brought to new life by the love of God, might be more inclined to see the relevance of love to public life generally, but I confess it isn’t necessarily clear to me after my morning Bible reading how love can have ‘teeth’ in the public square.  What does love tell us of how to structure our society? Of how to tailor our contributions to public life through the law? By what mechanism might we progress a key Christian principle such as love of neighbour (Mark 12:31) into a compelling and coherent proposal in education/commercial/family/tax law?

Good News for the Public Square (GNPS) understands love as central to the Christian contribution to the public sphere. It is in its own words ‘a framework for how good government relates to the good news of Jesus’. GNPS is an encouragement for thinking Christians to love our neighbours “through a biblically shaped contribution to public life.”[xi]

The book is a collaborative work, with the content originally delivered at a conference in London in the run up to the 2010 general election. The contributors (Mike Ovey, Wayne Grudem, Jonathan Chaplin, David McIlroy and Timothy Laurence) are distinguished across the spheres of law and theology, and as such the calibre of reasoning is high. The result is a study that is quite short (121 pages long) and plain in language. That it is simple does not mean it is simplistic, however, and should you find yourself needing to read over paragraphs a few times, you’re in good company. This is a deep account of the philosophy that should govern Christian engagement in public life. 

The body of the book is well served by its brilliant Overview and Conclusion, which capture masterfully some of the core elements of the book. This is particularly fitting given the fact that a key contention of the book is that to be a faithful public Christian presence, we need a thorough grasp of Genesis, Revelation, and everything in between. Our present reality is situated within the ancient story of God’s revelation, and our thinking and practice must be informed by where the story begins and where it ends. As Jonathan Chaplin notes, the key to the doctrine of creation is not so much biological origins as it is “the comprehensive scope of God’s will for the whole of human life, indeed the whole of reality, and to teach us about our radical dependency on his sustaining power and love and law.” [74] This truth, coupled with our knowledge that the new creation we anticipate is not ‘new’ in the sense of being different in kind, but ‘new’ in the sense of being ‘restored by redemption’ [75], provides impetus and illumination to our work for justice now.

Truth. Authority. Goodness. Hope.

The overview presents the reader with the four elements of government which shape the ensuing discussion. These are: 

  1. A role with authority (Authority)
  2. A true assessment of the present situation (Truth)
  3. An understanding of what a good state of affairs should look like (Goodness)
  4. A view of how the situation is to be moved from its present state to that which is hoped for (Hope) [xvi]

Each of these - Public Authority, Public Truth, Public Hope and Public Good - is the respective title of the four main chapters that follow. Within them is a striking interrelation of the intimate, personal outworking of the revelation of Yahweh of Israel and the Christ of the Church with the systems and mechanisms of government around the world and across cultures. Before diving into the core material, it is stated in the Introduction that “‘God’s love for humanity points towards some universal loving provision for human civil needs.” [33] This is expanded upon quite powerfully by David McIlroy in Chapter 3:

“The idea of ‘general revelation’ points out that what God has revealed of himself and of God’s design for human life through the way the created world works is consistent with what God has revealed of himself and of God’s good design for human life in the Bible and in the person of Jesus. [54] 

This sentence captures a great deal - it is a core conviction of the writers that God is indeed at work in his world, principally in the rule and reign of Jesus through his church, but also through the institution of civil authority. Because the reality of God touches on every single aspect of existence in the world (whether his personhood is acknowledged or not), we can embrace embodied faith and shun reductionist dualism. We can also strive towards a deep and balanced integration of personal belief and public practice.

This approach is a breath of fresh air to anyone who has wrestled with whether ‘bringing their faith into their work’, i.e. actually applying their knowledge of Jesus to the content of their work in the law, is fundamentally at odds with respect and tolerance in a pluralistic society, or even with the preservation of a distinctive Christian witness. When faced with calls both within and outside the church for the prospect of a meaningful relationship between church and state to be rejected if there is to be any hope of maintaining what is right and distinctive about either, this integrated understanding functions as a much-needed guide into bitterly contested territory. [65]

The call of wisdom and the embracing of complexity

It is in view of this contestation that GNPS repeatedly sounds the call of wisdom. There is a fascinating link between recognising God’s own wisdom at work in the way things are and recognising our invitation to use our God-given, Word-illuminated, Spirit-cultivated wisdom in pursuit of the kingdom of God within the realm of public life. 

“God has, in his wisdom, glorified the gospel by giving societies enough knowledge through natural revelation to keep themselves alive and generally make good judgments to that end, and yet not enough knowledge to truly flourish without Christ and the benefits of the gospel...The sphere of public authority was never intended to become an entirely self-sufficient sphere with the capacity to create a utopian society without need of the gospel.”[68] And so, as those who have access to God’s wisdom through his law and his love, we recognise that for us, “Wisdom’s task is to recognise the relevant features of creation’s order and bring the situation towards it skilfully.”  [94]

Bringing elements of our comprehensive worldview to bear on discrete policy concerns is both right and costly, but in the account of GNPS, it is never disputed that these things do and should go together.

Circling back to love

To answer the question posed above – what contribution can love make to heated public debates, to the choice of which NGOs and charities to support, to our work in the mundane, daily operations of law and policy that serve to make human coexistence possible?

“True love aspires to bring “significant Christian influence” in the public square. It means influencing the public square to return to its God-given mandate.” [102]

In this account, our love is alive. It is awake to Scripture and awake to the world around us. It denounces any fundamental opposition between working for God and work in the public square. In fact, it goes beyond this to highlight the necessity for all Christians to participate in the public square (across an admittedly wide spectrum in light of callings and giftings), as an indispensable means of fulfilling both the Greatest Commandment and the Great Commission.

This expansive account of God’s work in his world and the implications of the reign of Jesus, both now and in the new creation, showcases the fundamental benefit and yet the fundamental tension of contributing to the public square as a Christian. Our knowledge of God’s word will spur us on to seek the welfare and flourishing of your neighbours in a way that is consistent with Scripture, and yet such a considered approach to the Bible and the world will leave us profoundly aware of how all our best efforts will not save the world.

This is a sobering truth. What is most needed for world peace is changed hearts, and the one thing that law is definitively woeful at is this very thing. We take solace and courage from history, knowing that Christ-honouring public efforts can yield beautiful fruit, and yet with the law we are always restricted to the symptomatic, unable to reach root causes. We grow in confidence that it is the gospel and the church’s unhindered witness to it that can deal with this more intimate issue, and yet we remain clear that even with this, “the gospel has not replaced the on-going role of public authority.” [107]

Rather than neat, quick answers, good solutions will likely require some wrestling. The people of God remain faithfully present in God’s world, and are committed to this wrestling for the long haul, trusting God will make all things right in the end.

Call to the Christian Lawyer

There remains much to explore in the content of this book (watch this space!), but I would like to close with the words of Wayne Grudem, one of its contributors. Grudem is a popular theologian, well known for his work in the domain of Systematic Theology. When quizzed on the relationship between his eschatological outlook and the merit of Christians working for the benefit of society in the public square (basically, if the world is just going to continue in a steep decline into godlessness before the consummation of the age – what actually is the point of all of this?), Grudem’s response is remarkable. 

Grudem believes a unique moment of persecution will precede the return of Jesus, but without specifics on date and time, “…What I do know is that in the meantime I’m to be obedient to the teachings of Scripture, and what I do know is that there is a possibility that as we work, and as we are faithful, and as we trust God, instead of persecution, we may see revival.” [104].

Grudem continued, sharing that ‘he suspected that God would not abandon the West but that revival would yet come. He said that Christian Lawyers, for example, can prepare for revival by working, amongst other things, ““to influence the legal system and the government to give space for the gospel to be preached.” Other ways to prepare directly for revival would include work to protect the freedom of churches and Christian organisations to hire Christians. More generally, Christians should want to see all areas of law reflect what is good.” [105]

What a stunning picture.

Of Jesus, who relentlessly pursues those who are apart from him.

Of his church, radiant in her love for her bridegroom, vibrant in her witness to him.

Of Christian lawyers heralding revival in and through their faithful, often unseen, service.

As someone who has discerned a calling to serve Jesus through my work in the law, these words put steel in my spine and point me to a gloriously hopeful end to my life’s work.

I take these words as a personal charge. Will you? 

 

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

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