N.T. Wright Rides a Pale Horse

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Peter Enns asks N.T. Wright a question here, and I would like to kibbitz about the answer for a little bit. After I weary of that, I shall lay myself down to rest a while, and then rise up again for some fresh kibbitzing in the morning.

In his answer, Wright says that in America the conservative/liberal spectrum in politics generally matches up with the conservative/liberal spectrum in theology, and he points out, quite accurately, that it is not this way in other countries,  but rather far otherwise. From the way he framed the answer, it appeared to me that he was talking in this instance about economics, so I shall take it that way in what follows. He makes the point that those who are conservative theologically across the pond are often passionately in the forefront of causes that we would here call left wing. I think this is true as well. I also think it is good that we are saved by grace, and not by works. If it were by works, our economic incompetence would leave a bunch of us hosed.

What I mean is this — many who claim to love Jesus with their theology hate the poor with their economics, and I think we should stop being okay with that. I frankly think we should knock it off — the gospel is not some airy fairy thing that fails to apply to how people have to live out their actual lives. When Jesus taught us to feed the poor, instead of turning their place of habitation into a desolation, this necessarily excludes every form of Keynesianism.

Now I also admit that the previous paragraph has a case of the cutes, but I also want to maintain — in deadly earnest — that leftism of every stripe is a poisonous and lying cheat. This being the case, it does not matter how many vibrant Christians, conservative in their theology, sign on board. How many robust Christians would have to believe in it before water would start flowing uphill?

Think back a couple centuries, and I will speak to you in a parable. There was a doctor who traveled all over his region, and he was fully trained in the best science of his day. Unfortunately, this included the doctrine of the bodily humors, and so wherever he went, he would bleed many of his patients — some a half pint, some a pint, and some a quart. Because he was a diligent man, this regimen would be applied daily. He was compassionate, he was vibrant in his faith, he was a Trinitarian, and he believed in the resurrection of Jesus. He also rode a pale horse.

Think carefully about how Wright answered this question. He says that the conservative match-up between theology and politics is an American thing, and where he comes from we find a different match-up entirely.

Now there are different directions we can go with this. We might conclude, for example, that Jesus doesn’t care what our economic policies are, so long as we love Him. Or we might decide that those who are conservative in their economics need to quit it, and become progressive, because that’s what Jesus wants. Or we might go the other way, and say that the progressives ought to become conservatives, also in the name of Jesus. The correct answer, boys and girls, is the last one.

The first one is out because we are told to seek the good of the city where we dwell (Jer. 29:7). We are instructed to do good to all men (1 Thess. 5:15). Apathy and indifference are therefore out. The second option is excluded for the same reason, only more so. If we are told to do good to all men, not only does it exclude leaving them alone in their misery, it also excludes doing bad things to them, creating misery for them. Keynesianism destroys jobs, wages, families, neighborhoods, education, opportunity, and more. How is it seeking the good of the city to saddle them with sub-standard schools? How is it seeking the good of the city to start subsidizing waste, fraud and abuse? All such meddling is economic stupidity, and God did not tell His people to fan out over the globe, doing stupid things to people.

Incidentally, while we are here, in the midst of my robust defense of true free markets, which only the Spirit of God can bring about through the gospel by setting men free from their envy and their covetousness gimmes, I anticipate a misleading challenge from the hipster left, alleging that I am simply defending our current system of crony capitalism, and worse, doing it all in the name of Jesus. To this I will simply reply that I was fighting crony capitalism (what I call crapitalism) when they were still in short pants, and observe, in addition, that if the world’s poor could be fed with leftist ignorance of economics, the world would have been satiated generations ago. If leftist nostrums were Joseph’s fat cows, what a fine world this would be!

When Wright says that there are a bunch of Christians in other places who are leftist in their economic politics, he is not telling us anything new. But what is his implication? He doesn’t state it outright, but the clear hint is that American Christians have spent too much time on the farm, and they need to visit the big Keynesian city sometime, and gaze at all the bright lights. Our facile identification of conservative theology and conservative politics is way too American and provincial, he would say.

Now if this is right, then it is right, and we should do as he says. But if it is wrong . . . and it is wrong . . . we shouldn’t. But our response should not be to simply bonk heads over it. We need to have a debate. Does the gospel of Christ, in setting men free, bring in free markets or not? I would be happy to take the affirmative.

Jesus is not a Keynesian, any more than Coriakin was a tall Dufflepud.

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Kent
8 years ago

It seems that we are presuming the “feed the poor” command must be carried out through the economic policies of the government and therefore that being conservative theologically and conservative economically are incompatable. The simple fact is that the Biblical command to feed the poor should be taken in the context of the command to make disciples. Therefore giving a drink of water to the thirsty should be accompanied by the opportunity to add: “by the way, let me tell you about this other cup of living water that will quench your thirst for ever.” Unfortunately, our laws have been… Read more »

Dale
Dale
8 years ago

There are some other things going on here as well.

American Christians tend to treat the constitution the same way they exegete the Bible.

Second, the term “liberal” and “conservative” doesn’t have a nice lineal spectrum because in those terms is conflated both economics and social values. So, for instance, you have libertarians who are economically conservative and socially liberal. The Christians in Great Britain tend to be economically liberal but socially conservative.

Klasie Kraalogies
Klasie Kraalogies
8 years ago

Doug, I’ don’t think Keynesianism means what you think it means. The followers of Keynes, the followers of the Austrian school, and the followers of the Freiburg school all have the same goal, but different methodologies.

Klasie Kraalogies
Klasie Kraalogies
8 years ago

Oh, and for the record, I’m no follower of Keynes. My sympathies lie with the Freiburg school.

George
George
8 years ago

Doug, I think you protest too much. Or maybe overact a little too much. I am torn. I get your point. I do. And I get the dangers of the Bio Logos Foundation. The likes of Peter Jones have more than adequately pointed out their flirting paganism… but I also would have a hard tie being sold into believing that Wright even as a colleague of Collins and Enns would hold to version of “Fristianity”. He knows better an dhas demonstrated as much many times over. My concern though are the free market ideals… no truely free markets exist… esp… Read more »

katecho
katecho
8 years ago

The notion that the poor are to be ministered to by the State is an idea that needs to die a horrible death before the poor do. The magistrate is God’s appointed minister of wrath, not of mercy. The sword that it bears makes a lousy soup spoon. Is there a more powerful recipe for unintended consequences, envy and bitterness? As the U.S. slides further from a republic toward a democracy (against which there is no check or balance), our government’s power base rests, increasingly, with those whose votes can be most cheaply bought with promises and with other people’s… Read more »

Roger Biehn
Roger Biehn
8 years ago

Not that I’m a Keynesian, but “Jesus is not a Keynesian . . .” Could you point me to some resources and evidence that, you know, proves this?

L Butler
L Butler
8 years ago

Unjust Weights and Measures are a feature of Keynesian thought.

L Butler
L Butler
8 years ago

Sorry, I should rather say that Unjust Weights and Measures are a feature of Keynesian practice.

Klasie Kraalogies
Klasie Kraalogies
8 years ago

L Butler, could you please support that assertion? For instance, to keep it on a popular level, could you demonstrate where in the Wikipedia discussion of Keynesian Economics unjust weights are a necessary component of the system?

Andrew Lohr
8 years ago

Bro Roger: search “Jesus is Libertarian” for lots of stuff, pro and con, on that topic (“Jesus is Libertarian Lohr” will find mine, tho I barely get to economics). http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/sidefrm2.htm links, I think, to a book called Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Maniplators, by David Chilton (or go to http://www.garynorth.com/freebooks and look for it.) A response to Ronald Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I found Chilton fun to read. Someone in his line of fire might not. North’s own Unconditional Surrender is a short, readable systematic theology that includes something on economics and politics. I… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
8 years ago

Weren’t most White Southern Christians part of the Democratic party during the Depression, when Keynesian economics first took off under FDR? For the most part, White Christians in general (and White Southern Christians in particular) didn’t start lining up behind the Republican party until after 1955, and not in full until the Nixon/Ford/Reagan era. And I’m pretty sure that a rejection of Keynesian economics wasn’t the driving force that brought them there. I agree with the basic premise that good theologians don’t tend to make great economists. But it does seem that the alignment of American conservatives with the Republican… Read more »

Thursday
Thursday
8 years ago

Everybody should read Jonathan Haidt, including Bishop Wright. First of all we have to get a few things straight: there are essentially three political orientations, not two: 1. Left wing liberalism/socialism 2. Right wing liberalism/classical liberalism/libertarianism/neoconservatism 3. Traditionalist conservatism The first two are variations on each other. They share the same moral basis, but disagree on technique. They agree that morality boils down to happiness, suffering and how to divide those things up. Bentham + Rawls. Libertarians are a little more cold blooded and rational, and so they can understand the economics of how to actually deliver the utility in… Read more »

Thursday
Thursday
8 years ago

In the real world, how these moral foundations get applied to voting etc. is not always 100% straightforward. Many black Christians in the U.S. are traditionalist conservatives who vote Democrat out of ethnic loyalty, a conservative moral foundation. They put up with the abortion and gay stuff, but aren’t happy about it. In the end it’s because they don’t trust whitey. Unions and such too used to rely a lot on the conservative moral foundations (http://bigthink.com/the-moral-sciences-club/why-re-unionization-wont-happen). As the left wing parties have become more and more thoroughly liberal in their moral sentiments, they haven’t been able to muster much of… Read more »

Thursday
Thursday
8 years ago

Jonathan:

Take a look at that Will Wilkinson article. Explains a lot.

Michael Hutton
8 years ago

We really have to agree on a definition of conservative. As a person living in one of these other countries (Australia) let me tell you that there are a lot of people who are hanging onto “conservative” doctrines as cultural heirlooms but not as thought out biblical convictions. Yes they believe in the resurrection, but they haven’t been pushed on that one yet. They wear grandma’s engagement ring, “It’s so beautiful and, you know, meaningful.” but have also moved in with the boyfriend. In fact, whenever the world has pushed them they have listened to the world’s wisdom and not… Read more »

George
George
8 years ago

Golly Mr. Wilslon,
Looks like you touched a nerve. Who knew people cared so deeply about stuff they’ll never *really* do anything about – except maybe for a handful of us being arrogant enough *not* to help those in need.

Thursday
Thursday
8 years ago

Michael:

Being a conservative is a moral orientation, not an attitude towards change. Again see Haidt. Many supposed Christians are only Christians out of inertia/cultural nostalgia. (You might want to check out the Willie Nelson song Family Bible as a particularly grand example, but there are many others in the country and gospel music worlds.)

Chris Maiocca
8 years ago

Don’t care what N.T. Wright thinks…

…just sayin…

Alice C. Linsley
8 years ago

Wright is a wishy-washy Anglican who plays the political card too often. He backed Rowan Williams, whose term as Archbishop of Canterbury was a disaster. He has never taken a stand against the erosion of Christian doctrine and discipline in the Church of England.

Tonya
Tonya
8 years ago

If I may stick my head into this dark paneled room filled with cigar smoke and billiards for just a second, I’d like to say that your opening paragraph, Mr. Wilson, has had me chuckling all day. Loved it!

John
John
8 years ago

I’m sorry, but there is no command to “feed the poor”. There is a command to become poor, follow me, and escape the wrath that is to come, but hardly anything so quaint as the dull humanitarianism splashed all over this post.

Tom Wright
Tom Wright
8 years ago

Just to say — thanks for the free publicity, Doug, but too bad I simply don’t recognise myself either in your portrait or in some of what’s said below. Not least Alice Linsley . . . you might want to try reading the things I was writing and saying throughout my time in Durham. . . My only real point was that as a Brit who spends a fair amount of time in America I find the American debates — including those reflected in this blog — to work with a completely different set of assumptions to those elsewhere, including… Read more »

George
George
8 years ago

Doug, Again, I think you over reacted in your post (a “pale” horse, really??). It all seemed a bit excessive especially with your exegesis of the “subtext”… but even now, as gracious and candid as Prof Wright was to you – you start off with, “you might be a “tad sorry” you came by, but I am not.” It all sounds so adolescent. Truthfully, you (along with Leithart, Sumpter and your son, save a few others) are the remaining handful of sane people in the reformed American tradition. I have been personally edified by your ministry for over a decade… Read more »

George
George
8 years ago

sorry lots of typos – but i think you get the point nontheless

cameron witmer
cameron witmer
8 years ago

Huh, and this whole time we thought you were just falling on deaf ears ;-)

Mark B. Hanson
Mark B. Hanson
8 years ago

Uh, George – you do realize that Doug was quoting Wright in his “tad sorry” comment, right?

Jonathan
Jonathan
8 years ago

Can you clarify what you are saying John? I can’t actually tell if you are saying that God is not asking to feed the hungry, or if you’re saying that God asks us to feed the hungry in a far more profound way than the caricature here.

Robert
Robert
8 years ago

One of the chief reasons that minorities have an opposition to truly free markets is that free markets have been used to promote economic racial discrimination. Since the Civil Rights Movement, Blacks, Mexicans Americans (not talking about illegals or their children) and every other minority group has seen significant inroads into economic opportunity within out current system. Why should they want a truly free economy?

Wesley
Wesley
8 years ago

Is it silly to poke my head out from behind my GK Chesterton books and offer it up for sniping in order to throw Distributism into the conversation?

Mike D'Virgilio
8 years ago

I really don’t care to comment about the tone and such, or what Wright said or didn’t say. But I do want to comment on what this post tries to do, which is establish a Biblical argument for free enterprise, and counter any support Christians might give to statist solutions to economic issues. I have a book somewhere in my stacks called “Is Capitalism Christian?” which I haven’t read in a very long time and which unfortunately is by the now lefty Frank Schaeffer. I think that is the wrong question. The question should rather be which economic system or… Read more »

Darius T
Darius T
8 years ago

On Mike’s point above, another great book is “Money, Greed, and God” by Jay Richards.

Rob Kennedy
Rob Kennedy
8 years ago

It seems to me, the Brits are as usual, overtly condescending to us western Yankee’s. Like you know, “dumb hicks” cannot clearly understand the rest of the world. Our capitalism is wrong, our foreign policies are wrong, we are wrong, we are too conservative, even our liberals, according to their astute aged learnedness. Well, In my opinion, they still have not recovered from their dismal defeat by us rogue patriots. We have major flaws and blind spots to our issues too be sure. Yet, wasn’t it our ingenuity and tenacity that has brought the world pretty much every major advancement… Read more »

Mike D'Virgilio
8 years ago

Thanks, Darius. It’s been on my Amazon wish list for too long, so just bought it!

katecho
katecho
8 years ago

N.T. Wright is a frustrating character in God’s Kingdom. He is not edgy enough for the American consumer audience. He has the intellectual credentials, and the ear of the radical liberal theologizers and intelligentsia (he seems to work hard to maintain access to their circles), but he moves like a snail in the wake of their agenda. I would give him credit for breaking ranks to take an unpopular position on the homosexual agenda, for example. That surely cost him something. But again, it was really too little, too late, particularly in light of his capitulation to the feminist agenda… Read more »

Nick Hill
8 years ago

Here is a paper I wrote on these issues: “Poverty, Economics, and Greed: A Christian Perspective”:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/37063377/Poverty-Economics-And-Greed-A-Christian-Perspective-Nick-Hill

Andrew Lohr
8 years ago

(Part, relevant here, of a response to the pingback on failures of capitalism) : When Christians say “capitalism” or “libertarianism” we may not agree with everything that goes by those names (how can we?), or with every jot and tittle of some system using those names; we may agree with the drift–government should be a lot smaller–and be willing to qualify details as needed. When Pastor Wilson mentioned N. T. Wright and then slammed Keynes, I suspect Wilson meant that Wright favors liberal (big government) politics, not that Wright agrees with every jot and tittle of Keynesianism; and I suspect… Read more »

John
John
8 years ago

Jonathan, Sure, but I’ll probably regret it. There is no command to “feed the poor”, as if this somehow was Jesus’ intention for your “Christian” life. He never imagined your “Christian” life in the first place. He did imagine God’s Kingdom coming, and coming so suddenly there wasn’t much time to prepare for it, and with it the judgment of the world. He imagined relief for the poor in his own time, to the extent there would be any, coming primarily from the wealth divestiture of the repentant, but never imagined their poverty would be eradicated in any final sense,… Read more »

Wesley
Wesley
8 years ago

John, maybe Jonathan understands you after your explanation, but I sure don’t. Are you denouncing Christ as not knowing how things would and will shake down?

It seems, and I can be mistaken, that you’re slighting Christ in favor of those “Gentile capitalists” who have to bail out the “true” Christians.

Is that what you’re saying?

George
George
8 years ago

Oh, man, Mark, I am sorry, I missed that… thanks for pointing that out… I am not sure how I even got the quotation marks right from his quote. Thank providence. My point is that it seemed to me (granted completely subjective here), that Doug’s reply was short, not too hospitable and somewhat “immature”. My point stands, “Uh” even though Doug is quoting Tom. I can’t believe the emotions that this post has brought out in people – absolutely fascinating, and might just in some kind of a way, give credence to the very thing Tom was trying to hint… Read more »

George
George
8 years ago

because he is quoting Tom

John
John
8 years ago

Wesley, Well, yes, technically speaking, I am denouncing Christ because he was mistaken about the Kingdom of God, but maybe more to the point I’m denouncing Christians because they do not obey him, nor have the character to admit it. “No one can be my disciple who does not bid farewell to everything that he has.” Still, one has to admire Jesus for his moral vision, his faith in God and in God’s justice, and his courage in attacking the religious authorities who perverted it all. As for St. Paul, at least he earned his own keep, paid his own… Read more »

katecho
katecho
8 years ago

John seems to have traded in one error for another. He recognizes (like few Christians seem to) that Jesus’ Kingdom plans were immanent, not deferred for some distant century. Jesus said that if He casts out demons in the name of the Father, then the Kingdom had come upon them. Jesus then proceeded to cast out demons. But somehow John reaches the blasphemous conclusion that Jesus was mistaken about the Kingdom and the coming judgment. John needs to consider that the world (“cosmos”, “order”) that consisted of the Judaic Temple system of types and shadows did, in fact, come to… Read more »

katecho
katecho
8 years ago

Regarding John’s statement about feeding the poor, Lev 25:35 says “Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and falters with regard to you, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live.” That sounds remarkably like a command to feed the poor, although if a man does not work, neither will he eat, so, outside of emergencies, this generally looks like staying out of their way and not hindering the poor, as in Lev 19:9-10: “Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very… Read more »

John
John
8 years ago

Katecho,

You should know better.

“But he spake of the temple of his body”, not of Herod’s.

Even near to certain death Jesus believed the kingdom would come fully formed, and that the high priest himself would see it.

“Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.”

John
John
8 years ago

Katecho,

“Only then with certain qualifications”? What, the widow and the orphan aren’t qualified already? I suppose you expect them to work.

“Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life . . . Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?”

Arwen B
Arwen B
8 years ago

John<

The way you are writing seems to imply that you don't believe that Jesus is God. You speak of Him as though He were merely a prophet or wise man.

It may help you to better understand if you correct that error in your belief.

katecho
katecho
8 years ago

John wrote: You should know better. “But he spake of the temple of his body”, not of Herod’s. This seems like a great place for a Bible lesson, so that we can all know better. Mablog John (not to be confused with the Apostle John) seems to have gotten his wires badly crossed regarding the reference to Christ’s prophecy concerning the destruction of the temple with “not one stone left on another”. When Jesus spoke of “the temple of His body” that was early in His ministry after having cleansed the temple with a whip. The jews confronted Jesus about… Read more »