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Stanley Porter discusses the New Testament and political theology
by Isabella Selk
Dr. Stanley E. Porter’s article, “The New Testament and Political Theology,” is set to be published in the upcoming edition of Didaskalia—Providence Theological Seminary’s academic journal.
The President and Dean of Hamilton, Ontario’s McMaster Divinity College, Dr. Porter specializes in New Testament theology and Greek and has taught for 25 years at various institutions in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. His published work includes 18 books and more than 230 articles and chapters.
Dr. Porter, who collaborated with Hughson T. Ong in authoring his contribution to Didaskalia, discussed the contents of “The New Testament and Political Theology” with Providence.
Has researching political theology changed how you approach the subject? Has your opinion moved from where you began because of your study?
SP: Researching and writing on political theology has had a number of effects upon my thinking about the subject. On the one hand, I am more and more convinced that some of the apparently easy and straightforward answers promise more than they deliver regarding providing a New Testament basis for a political theology. This worries me, because there are all sorts of statements made about politics and theology that merit a strong grounding in Scripture.
On the other hand, I have had my sphere of reference expanded, to the point where I wonder whether the notion of "political theology" is rightly conceived, and whether there are so many inherent theological ideas embedded in it that there is great difficulty in examining it in any clear way in relation to the Bible.
We perhaps need a reconceptualization of the entire notion, one in which the New Testament, and, by extension, the entire Bible, is placed at the centre of the discussion before politics and theology have their supervening influence, especially as politics is, I hesitate to say in light of the paper we have written, not really central to what the New Testament is about.
You spend the article discussing the shortcomings of different places theologians build political theologies from, before finally coming to the conclusion they all fall short in different ways. Where would you begin to build a New Testament political theology?
SP: The question of building a New Testament political theology has to begin with the New Testament. This is the major challenge, since the New Testament is a complex and multi-faceted book that is not susceptible to many easy answers regarding politics.
One of the main reasons is that the New Testament is, if I speak honestly, not really that concerned with Christians' political fortunes. I think that it is clear that the usual approaches, most of which tend to be reductionist in focusing upon a few passages or upon a single construct, are inadequate for the task. This will no doubt come as a disappointment to those who believe that the invocation of a single passage is the solution to a complex problem.
This is not to mean that the New Testament does not have something to say about political theology, rightly defined. However, the whole of the New Testament needs to enter into the formulation, which means that there is a lot more complexity to take into account.
We need to consider the teachings and situation of Jesus along with the situation and teachings of Paul and the other early Christian writers as they worked out the implications of the good news of Jesus. I think that we also need to be prepared for answers that are not what we would prefer to hear. The teachings of Jesus and his first followers have always proved very difficult to accept and implement, as we see throughout the New Testament—whether in the direct responses to Jesus, the problems in Paul’s churches, or even in Peter’s comments regarding Paul’s letters.
Nevertheless, we must begin with that complexity and then probably develop some kind of complex hermeneutical matrix that takes into account both the fundamentals of the gospel message and the importance of context, both then and now.
How would you recommend Christians use the Old Testament in regards to political theology?
SP: Very carefully.
We should use it probably more carefully than many use it today, when passages in the Old Testament are simply thrown at issues in our contemporary world, because they appear to address a situation in the way that we would like to address it. The Old Testament does not provide such a template for New Testament Christians, especially as many if not most of its teachings were directed not to those outside of the covenant community but to God’s elect covenant community of Israel.
The Old Testament, so far as its teachings are concerned, must be seen in light of fulfillment in Christ in the New Testament. This provides the basis for its use by Christians.
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Photo courtesy McMaster.

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