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Volume 17, Issue 3: Meander

Jesus and the Minimum Wage

Douglas Wilson

If anyone wants to read something by N. T. Wright that would indicate why I find him such an edifying writer, I would recommend Bringing the Church to the World, put out by Wipf and Stock. I am edified by him as much as I am because few contemporary writers make the case against false and pietistic dualism as effectively as Wright does, and this book provides numerous examples of this. For Wright, the Lordship of Christ is no airy-fairy thing, but translates into every aspect of life, and Wright powerfully shows how this assumption is a characteristic feature of the apostolic mindset. Further, Wright's core orthodoxy in this book is plain: on the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, the historicity of the resurrection, and what God was actually up to in the Incarnation, Wright shines. It would be hard to describe how great a blessing this book was.

But being blessed by a writer is not the same thing as slavishly following him. As I wrote in our issue of Credenda on the New Perspective, I find that Wright is the kind of writer who can edify me even in the midst of appalling me. That happens in this book. For example, Wright does outstanding work in showing how the New Testament does not permit us to divide "preaching the gospel" from "social action." Amen, and amen again. The problem is that some of his suggested solutions for applying the gospel of Christ to pressing social issues (e.g., simply forgiving Third World debt) demonstrate exactly the kind of naivete that makes people want to banish clerics from all public policy discussions. He wants to kill mosquitoes without draining the swamp, which would simply be exasperating if a president or prime minister had a cabinet-level official wanting to do that. But what if the cabinet-level official was maintaining that this was what Jesus wanted? Bad policy backed up with the trump card of Christ's authority over all things in heaven and earth is calculated to create a backlash against that kind of thinking. If anything is capable of provoking political and religious leaders back into a rigorously defended dualism, it is this.
Don't get me wrong. The lordship of Christ does extend into everything. Wright is exactly right about this. And he is exactly right that we need to pull up our socks and do the tough work of making these applications. My problem is that before learning to apply the "logic of the gospel" to the current events around us, we need to learn how to detach ourselves (as much as possible) from the winds of erroneous doctrine in our own age. It is perilously easy for all of us to simply equate "a biblical worldview" with whatever it was we were all thinking already. Turns out that Jesus supports the war in Iraq when Jesus is from Oklahoma but is deeply troubled by it in Connecticut. Of course, it is easier to see this pattern of "my appeal to the divine trumps yours" in other people, and I do see a number of ways that Wright appears to be affected by the soft socialism of his UK surroundings. No doubt he could return the favor and identify ways in which my American conservatism has affected my exegesis. Exactly so, which is why we all need to work through multiple generations of careful exegetical and theological study and application before taking this show on the road.
The difficulty is this: before we get around to telling the world what Jesus thinks of the minimum wage laws, we have to get past the sound bytes of this particular secular party or that one. Does Jesus want "everyone to have a decent wage"? Or maybe Jesus is opposed to this practice of pricing the marginally employable out of a job. At the same time, although we don't want our "applications of the gospel" to become something that special interests can manipulate (and they will cluster round, about ten minutes after the word about what we are trying to do gets out), we still have to "come down" somehow, somewhere. Continuing with the minimum wage illustration, there are only a certain number of logical possibilities. Jesus can either want us to abolish it, raise it, lower it, or keep it the same. And whichever one we do, after the requisite Bible study, we are going to please at least one secular group and anger others. This will be unavoidable, but shouldn't we take care not to anger the one secular group that (by common grace) understood the matter?
And of course, the ecclesiastical world being the kind of place it is, these applications will simply give Christians additional fodder for our shameful divisions. Wright is correct that simply side-stepping these difficulties by resorting to dualism is a form of faithlessness. But to rush in and get it all wrong in the name of Christ would be disastrous. Many of Wright's applications (or the drift of them that could be identified from this book) seem to rest on the back of certain assumptions, assumptions that fall into the category of "what everybody knows." But we must guard against the error of simply identifying what "everybody knows" with what "everybody in my limited and in-grown circle knows." Everybody knows the sun rises in the east. Everybody in Wright's circle of friends appears to know what causes acid rain. Wright does a good job identifying the idolatrous assumptions that go into the suggested solutions that come from the pantheistic environmentalists. But he does a fairly poor job of seeing how idolatrous assumptions can generate the data that he appears to simply take as "common knowledge."
And that is how I would characterize this book—great wisdom in a number of crucial areas. And unfortunately, there is also a good bit of folly that will undo the value of the book.

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