The “Social Gospel” of the CofE Bishops is in Fact a “Statist Gospel” – And: The Importance of “Sanctions”
Here is a new article by Gary North. In it he attacks a) the promoters of the “social gospel”, i.e. Christians who think that because helping the poor etc. is the moral thing to do the state should do it (as the CofE bishops have said again recently); AND he attacks b) people who oppose this position in a soaking wet, useless way, i.e. those who say “that the Bible doesn’t apply to anything outside of individual salvation and family government.” Specifically, he attacks Matthew Lynn of the Telegraph, who these days criticised the bishops for their intervention in the election campaign. North states that while the “social gospel” is in fact a “statist gospel”, most of those who oppose the “social gospel” are trying to “beat something with nothing”. They are trying to beat a (generally perceived) moral position by saying that there is no ground for a moral societal position in the Bible; that it’s only about the individual and the family. Not so, says North. The Bible is also, and very much so, about society and how to run it. But it mandates not socialism, North states, not even Keynesianism, but free market capitalism. THAT is the true “social gospel”. And THAT is what people opposing the “statist gospel” should be saying. Only they don’t because that would mean opposing the interventionist state, the modern manifestation of “power religion”.
The basis for North’s position that the Bible does indeed mandate a certain way of organising society is to be found all over the Bible. Today I will talk about an important aspect of that notion, namely “sanctions”. In the books of Moses in the Old Testament we find the ground rules laid down by God (or so we are told). Now, there have been some questions raised in this forum as to whether these rules are actually God’s or whether they exist independently of God, just as the rule 2 + 2 = 4. However, this is not the crucial point with regard to organising society. There are other, more crucial points: Is God sovereign? And if not, who is? That’s the ownership question. Another crucial point is this: What happens when the rules are ignored? And what happens when they are adhered to? In other words: is there a point in acknowledging them at all?
Deuteronomy is the last of the five books of Moses. Near the end, in chapter 28, we find the “blessings for obedience” and “curses for disobedience”. And they are clearly not just directed at individuals and families: “The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. … The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail.” (v 9, 12-13)
The same applies to the curses: “The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed. They will leave you no corn, new wine or olive oil, nor any calves of your herds or lambs of your flocks until you are ruined. They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land the Lord your God is giving you.” (v 49-52) And finally: “The Lord will send you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you.” (v 68)
So, very near their end, the five law books are sealed, so to speak, with “sanctions” – positive and negative ones. Just as indicated in my article about the “three basic religions”, it is claimed here too that there are consequences when choosing God’s way or another way. Even not choosing has consequences. There is no escaping them.
One might think this applied, or applies, to the Hebrews only. However, at least in the gospel of Matthew (chapter 5) Jesus is quoted as saying: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (v 17, 18) Now one might say that despite that, the specifics of the laws have changed. In Acts 15 for example the laws regarding circumcision and forbidden food are abolished. However, the basic rules such as the Ten Commandments remain valid, as does the first commandment issued to mankind: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Just as importantly, the principle that God imposes positive and negative sanctions depending on adherence to the laws remains intact. And: that these sanctions apply not only to individuals and families, but to whole nations as well.
Going back to Matthew, right at the very end of that gospel (ch. 28), Jesus is quoted with this: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” (v 19, 20)
Jesus reinforces the statement of the importance of adhering to God’s commandments, and follows it up with the commandment to “make disciples of all nations”. In other words: Christians are called upon to evangelise not just individuals, but whole nations, i.e. their constitutions. The way nations, their laws and institutions, are organised is to be aligned with God’s commandments. To the extent that they succeed, these nations will, in time, be blessed. To the extent that they fail, they will, in time, be cursed. The blessings are clearly this-worldly, meaning widespread economic blessings, meaning compound growth. The curses equally so, meaning widespread economic ruin. It is in this spiritual, theological context that we ought to consider the theory that Christianity is the main factor that spawned sustained individual freedom and capitalism in the West and nowhere else. Two authors who have recently written exactly in this vein are the Catholic Rodney Stark (“The Victory of Reason”) and the secular humanist Larry Siedentop (“Inventing the Individual”). Though they do not acknowledge the connection to the biblical blessings and curses.
The above mentioned “social”, i.e. “statist gospel” is a significant departure from God’s commandments. North summarizes its position thus: “Thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote.” The Bible predicts that nations that institutionalise commandments such as these are on their way to something worse than “Egyptian slavery” – in this world, not the next.
North’s view of the “social”, “statist gospel” is consistent with his “postmillennial” view that widespread adherence to God’s commandments is necessary to create, not a heaven on earth, but the prolonged (“millennial”) era of continual earthly blessings predicted in Revelation – after (“post”) which Jesus will return for the final judgment. We are therefore called to work – in order to create blessings for ourselves, our neighbours, our nations and our descendents, to “fill the earth and subdue it”. But we are also called to create the best preconditions for these work-based blessings to unfold. That means rejecting any form of “know it better” state interventionism or central planning. In other words: rejecting power religion. It means creating the conditions for free market capitalism.
P.S.: In a comment under D.J. Webb’s recent piece “Kick Anti-Racism out of Football”, commenter “Tim” makes this perceptive observation:
“If Western civilisation was good and sound, why has it succumbed so readily? Why has the long march through the institutions remained unchallenged? If we compare cultural relativism, Marxism and all the other progressive ‘isms’, ‘anti-isms’, ‘phobia’ etc. to a contagious disease, we must also acknowledge that strong and healthy bodies usually don’t succumb to infections so quickly: they fight back. So, can we say that whatever is affecting the West now, was already there and that the apparatchiks’ takeover is just an opportunistic manoeuvre.”
Tim is quite right. There has long been a design fault in Western civilisation. Or rather a lack of antibodies against a deadly, “contagious disease”. The main aim of my series about Gary North’s writings is to explore his theory (or theology) as to what exactly this lack is and how it can be alleviated. Because I think that, basically, North’s diagnosis AND his prescription are correct and appropriate.
It is only when the call for capitalism is combined, in a logically consistent way, with a God-centred teleological promise of future “blessings” that we stand a chance of turning around a significant and sufficient amount of people who are currently on the superfast highway to serfdom. Sufficient, that is, to withstand the relentless continued movement in that direction by the rest of the flock. Without God, we “happy few” libertarians are not nearly enough to withstand the rising torrent, let alone move in the opposite direction. Without God, we, or our biological and/or intellectual heirs, will one day be swept along, whether we want to or not.