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01 November 2011

How Scripture shaped Great Britain

How Scripture shaped Great Britain

Our political system owes a lot to the Bible, writes Nick Spencer, research director at think-tank Theos and author of Freedom & Order...

This year has reminded us that political stability is a precious thing. The so-called Arab spring, with uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria and beyond, has shown how far from political security and freedom many countries are. The English August, with riots of a very different nature in London, Manchester, Birmingham, and beyond, further emphasise how we should not take our own political stability for granted. 

Much as many dislike the idea, the fact is that British political stability owes much to the Bible (and not just the King James Version). To say this is not to claim that we owe all our political freedoms to the Bible, or to maintain that the Bible has always been used on the side of the political angels. Neither statement is true. 

Rather it is to assert that our political system - with its commitment to justice, the rule of law, political equality (indeed basic
human equality), and toleration - has grown up in profoundly biblical soil. 

Take the idea of human equality. Founded partly on the 'image of God' of Genesis 1 and partly on the universality of the gospel, the conviction that all humans are of equal worth has had an incalculable impact on national politics. The radical 14th century priest John Ball based his aggressive egalitarianism on it and is remembered for his famous rhyming couplet: "When Adam delved [dug] and Eve span,/ Who was then the gentleman?" The Christian philosopher John Locke wrote a highly sophisticated defence of equality in his first Treatise of Government, which he subsequently used to defend a limited and contractual government. Perhaps most influentially, the evangelical abolitionists of the late 18th century deployed the full range of texts - Genesis and the image of God; Exodus and the liberation from slavery; Christ and the golden rule; St Paul and the idea that "there is neither…slave nor free… in Christ Jesus" - to insist that enslaved Africans were every bit the equal of supposedly superior white Europeans. 

This commitment to fundamental equality is relatively easy to trace back to biblical Christianity. Other political virtues have a more chequered history. It would be quite wrong to claim that the British commitment to democracy was drawn straight from the Bible. Clerics, particularly those of the established Church, opposed the extension of the franchise at almost every turn, pointing out that direct scriptural warrants for democracy were few, and that democracy held out the genuine risk of the people making the wrong choice (not so absurd a suggestion when you remember what happened in Germany in 1933).

That recognised, it is fair to say that democracy could not have taken root in the way it did in Britain without the Bible and, in particular, without the determination to place a small, readable translation in everyone's hands. The man most responsible for this, William Tyndale, was actually a hard-line political authoritarian, but these views were seriously undermined by his overwhelming desire to make the scriptures accessible to everyone. In doing so he created a kind of
spiritual democracy that prepared the ground for political democracy many years later. Early 19th century radicals argued that if God considered even the humblest man competent to judge for himself the means of eternal salvation, and government was simply the means of temporal salvation, it followed that government should involve the people in the
formation of its laws. 

Perhaps, the most subtle and unrecognised political impact of the Bible is the way it helped form first England and then Britain as political - as opposed to geographic or ethnic - entities. When Pope Gregory sent his missionaries to the English people in 597, the English people did not exist. Conceiving of them as a single unit and sending his clerics to them was a
momentous move on Gregory's part, causing one recent historian to observe that "the English owe their existence as a people, or at least the recognition of it, to the papacy". 

Much the same thing happened 1,100 years later when Protestantism helped forge a common identity following the Act of Union in 1707. In the words of the historian Linda Colley: "Protestantism was the foundation that made the invention of Great Britain possible." In each of these instances, the formation of a political identity did not happen overnight. It took generations of work by historians, legislators, hymn writers and the like to forge that identity. What is noticeable, however, is how often they drew on the notion of biblical Israel as a nation in order to achieve their goal. 

At times this business of forming a national identity through biblical language and logic sailed very close to the heretical wind. National enemies were regularly identified as Assyrians. Britain was often compared to Jerusalem. More worrying was the way Isaac Watts published a translation of Psalms in 1719 in which he rendered Israel as "Great Britain". 

Such examples should remind us the biblical politics of the past is hardly without blemish, and that we should not be held captive by it. Rather we should recognise and celebrate the enormous (and overwhelmingly positive) impact that biblical Christianity has had on our national political life - while acknowledging its shortfalls - and then work to ensure that its mark on our future is no less constructive or significant. 

Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

 


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