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On Taming the Tongue: An Interview with Richard Bauckham

Richard Bauckham


New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham discusses the relevance of the epistle of James for contemporary political engagement.

Professor of New Testament Studies, The University of St. Andrews
June 20, 2019

What sort of book is the Bible? For many, Christian scripture may be a source of important religious truth, but not a book that belongs in the public square. Biblical scholar and theologian Richard Bauckham disagrees. In a period when the evangelical movement was divided on the issue of political engagement, Bauckham wrote a groundbreaking work called The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically.

The book’s second edition comes at another timely moment for evangelicals considering their role in public discourse. We asked Richard Bauckham to sit down with us and discuss the Bible’s relevance for today’s divisive political speech.

Evan Rosa [ER]: You’re coming out with a new edition of a significant book called “The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically.” Let’s start there; why did you write this book?

Richard Bauckham [RB]:  It’s coming out in the new edition recently, but I first wrote the book back in the 1980s, when a lot of evangelical Christians in the UK were rediscovering the need to be involved in social matters, politics, public life. All those things that, in the early 20th Century, there had been a kind of evangelical movement away from, in the sense that you have to escape from the world rather than be involved in it. There came a much more positive attitude for playing a positive Christian role in the public sphere.

With that of course went, for evangelical Christians, a real concern to read the Bible in a way that is appropriate and helpful. It has always seemed to me that the Bible is about the whole of life. It’s not just about what we think of sometimes as rather narrowly religious concern. It’s about the whole of life.

What I did in the book was to give a general hermeneutical approach to reading the Bible in a relevant way. The rest of the chapters were worked examples. I did a combination of some chapters on specific passages of scripture. There’s a chapter on Leviticus 19, for example, a chapter on Proverbs 31, one on the Psalms. I tried to give a variety of chapters on different sorts of scripture to show what they had to say.

I also dealt with specific issues, because I think this requires coming at things from both angles. In a sense, you have to do a hermeneutic from both ends: a hermeneutic of scripture, and a hermeneutic of the contemporary situation that you want to relate scripture to.

The Bible is about all of life. 

ER: Can political speech be virtuous? How do we introduce that into public discourse? 

RB: I think it is true that political speech has degenerated over the last few decades. But the descent into vilifying your opponents is clearly not a Christian way of doing things. The Bible has some great stuff about ethics of speech, the Epistle of James particularly. The dangers of the tongue are really a key concern.

 In fact, in the ancient world in which the Epistle of James was written, people thought a lot about the ethics of speech. They were very concerned about what speaking can do in life. Speaking is something very powerful. It does things. It’s a tremendous force for good and also for harm. 

We can damage people by what we say, we can spoil political life. So I think we’ve got to strive for honesty, for charity towards the people we most differ from. We’ve got to listen rather than just put out our case. We need perhaps to develop an ethics of political speech.

ER: The Epistle of James is one of your areas of expertise. Can you say more about what this short letter can teach us about virtuous speech? 

RB: The Epistle of James is wisdom literature, and what that means is that it gives you things that you’re supposed to remember and ponder. You don’t just read it through and go with an argument. What you do is savor these particular recommendations, little parables, cleverly crafted sayings. They’re supposed to stick in your mind. That’s how you absorb them into your life. You ponder them.

It’s true for a lot of Jesus’ teaching, as well. It’s framed in this kind of wisdom style, which you are meant to ingest, take into your life, and ponder. Speech is a habit, you see. The way we get used to speaking is a habit. You can’t just break a habit by reading a passage and thinking, “I’ve got to change this,” and then going away.

You’ve got to somehow absorb the wisdom of scripture into your mind, so that it affects your habits and becomes itself a new sort of a habit. It’s got to be a sort of transformation in the heart, which can happen when we ponder scripture, absorb scripture, and deliberately take it into our heart.

One of these wisdom sayings in the Epistle of James is, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.” It’s a lovely succession. Anger comes at the end. Getting angry is the result of being too quick to speak, not listening, being quick to anger. It’s recommending considered speech. Don’t let’s just blurt out what we feel at the moment.

There’s a lot of that in modern life, a sense of expressing exactly what you feel all the time. Actually, the Bible recommends that we be thoughtful about our speech and considerate. Then we won’t get uselessly angry with our opponents.

Anger rarely does any good. James also says, “Human anger does not affect the righteousness of God.” We’ve got to be very, very cautious about anger. There are some circumstances in which, like Jesus cleansing the temple, there is righteous anger. But our anger is all too easily mixed with all sorts of sinful feelings. It’s very difficult to for us to be angry in a pure concern for justice. “Human anger doesn’t affect the righteousness of God.” That relates to speech very often. Most of the time, our anger is expressed in hurtful speech and unthoughtful speech.

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