Book Review: Tremper Longman, The Bible and the Ballot

Longman, III, Tremper. The Bible and the Ballot: Using Scripture in Politics Decisions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2020. 310 pp. Pb; $24.99.  Link to Eerdmans

Tremper Longman is well-known for his Old Testament scholarship. In this timely book from Eerdmans, he develops a method for applying Scripture to a wide range of controversial topics in contemporary American political debate. As he acknowledges in his preface, he writes as a professional Bible scholar, not an expert in public policy. Longman does not intend to write a book that sets out specific public policy, but rather how relevant principles from the Scriptures apply to particular policy issues. As a result, this book interacts with specific biblical texts and interprets them in their literary, historical, and theological context, as expected by a biblical scholar.

Longman, The Bible and the BallotLongman observes that the Bible is not “an information book dispensing principles” (75) but rather a collection of stories, histories and other genre which communicate information, arouse emotions and stimulate the imagination to form the reader person. The book therefore concentrates on “discovering biblical principles relevant to thinking through issues of public policy” (75). In his introduction he reviews Niebhur’s classic five categories from Christ and Culture and compares them to Craig Carter’s critique of Niebuhr (Brazos, 2006). Longman concludes that there is no one best strategy or formula of Christian interaction with culture. On some issues, a “Christ above culture” approach might be preferred, for other issues a “Christ against culture” may be necessary. Longman argues that the Bible simply does not give us instructions about specific policy decisions. If the Christian is going to interact with culture, they need to know the relevant biblical principles and be able to understand situations in order to know how to apply these principles (9). (See also the essays on the Bible and politics published in Christianity Today collected in Timothy D.Padgett, ed. Dual Citizens: Politics and American Evangelicalism)

The first section of this book sets out his interpretative method, beginning with an understanding of biblical genre so that the reader interprets the text in its original, ancient context. He uses biblical law as his example, discussing several laws found in the Old Testament that apply the general ethical principles of the Ten Commandments to cultural and religious issues in the ancient world. All the laws have principles at work which go beyond the general ethical teachings of the Ten Commandments.

Since there is continuity between the Old and New Testaments, Longman advocates a Redemptive-Ethical Trajectory for developing principles to be applied to issues that go beyond the Bible. Here he follows William Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals (InterVarsity, 2001). Longman concludes, “It is important to carefully consider Old Testament law and even New Testament ethical pronouncement before assuming that the church today should adopt or assume their continuing validity” (49). But he also points out that we should not assume there is an ethical trajectory from the Old to the New, nor that the New Testament is more “progressive” than the Old Testament.

After summarizing central biblical theological themes, he then turns to a series of issues which are controversial for temporary American political discussion. Some of these are standard fair for these sorts of studies (war, abortion, capital punishment). Other issues have become more important in the last few years. For example, Longman has a chapter on nationalism, patriotism, and globalization and another on religious liberty. He discusses same-sex marriage, the environment, immigration and racism in separate chapters.

Many readers will approach this kind of book with their own assumptions about each of the issues Longman has covered and judge this book based on whether his conclusions agree with those assumptions. This is an unfortunate byproduct of current American political discussion: the myth that there are only two sides to any issue, conservative or liberal. But Longman is not writing a book from one political perspective or the other. His goal is to examine the principles which ought to guide a decision on these issues. His chapters are therefore decisively weighted towards discussion of biblical text. There are usually only a few pages on “public-policy implications.”

Each chapter ends with a summary statement entitled “attitudes and dispositions.” This is important because his conclusions address Christian’s mindset before approaching a particular issue. For example, in dealing with same-sex marriage, he says, “Christians should begin by acknowledging their own brokenness in the area of sexuality and work to maintain their own sexual integrity.” He encourages readers to remain faithful to the biblical teaching on sexuality, but also love people who are in the LBGTQ+ community. Most important, the Christian community should never demonize this community because all people are God’s precious creatures created in the image of God and therefore worthy of respect (231).

Conclusion: Longman’s The Bible and the Ballot is timely since American evangelical Christianity is divided politically like never before. Unfortunately, many of the people who decide public policy are ill-prepared to do the exegetical work necessary to understand biblical principles.

Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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