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The Contested Public Square: The Crisis of Christianity and Politics [Paperback]

By Greg Forster (Author)
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Pages   254
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.94" Width: 6.06" Height: 0.74"
Weight:   0.94 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Nov 1, 2008
Publisher   IVP Academic
ISBN  083082880X  
EAN  9780830828807  

Availability  66 units.
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Item Description...
Greg Forster provides an overview of the development of Christian political thought from the early church to the present. He illuminates our current crisis in which there is a fragmenting view of the proper relationship of government and religion.

Publishers Description
Christian thinking about involvement in human government was not born (or born again ) with the latest elections or with the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979. The history of Christian political thinking goes back to the first decades of the church's existence under persecution. Building on biblical foundations, that thinking has developed over time. This book introduces the history of Christian political thought traced out in Western culture--a culture experiencing the dissolution of a long-fought-for consensus around natural law theory. Understanding our current crisis, where there is little agreement and often opposing views about how to maintain both religious freedom and liberal democracy, requires exploring how we got where we are. Greg Forster tells that backstory with deft discernment and clear insight. He offers this retrospective not only to inform but also to point the way beyond the current impasse in the contested public square. Illuminated by sidebars on key moments in history, major figures and questions for further consideration, this book will significantly inform Christian scholars' and students' reading and interpretation of history.

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More About Greg Forster

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Greg Forster (PhD, Yale University) serves as the director of the Oikonomia Network at the Center for Transformational Churches at Trinity International University. He is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the editor of the blog Hang Together, and a frequent conference speaker.

Greg Forster was born in 1973.

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
Natural Law Theory - an excuse for Deism  Sep 22, 2009
George P. Wood has written on this site a superb review of Greg Forster's book which all should read. I will not duplicate his work here.

Forster is masterful in summing up thousands of years of Christian political thought. However, it is not entirely clear from Forster what constitutes Christian thought? It seems that Forster does not make a critical distinction if and when other worldviews, such as Natural Law theory, are mixed with the Christian faith.

It was a pleasure to read the highlights of such intellectual giants as Aquinas, Locke, Burke, de Tocqueville, Lewis, and others concerning Natural Law theory.

But there appears to be some the holes.

He speaks of Pietism on page 216: "Pietism is the belief that society, and especially government, are [sic] always under the control of evil." And that is about all he has to say about Pietism other than it is generally irresponsible and stonewalls progress. What a pity.

The general paradigm throughout Forster's work seems to be a sort of functional atheism with respect to man's governing of himself. In theological terms, he sounds like a Deist: God wound the clock long ago and stepped away. Now it's up to us to figure everything out. The back cover of the book begins with, "Building on biblical foundations..." Forster did not exercise particular care in this regard.

How can anyone discuss a biblical view of government if the repeated assertions from the Prophets concerning the role and function of government are ignored? Forster briefly considers Romans 13 but there is a whole lot more that he does not consider in the broader argument.

He repeatedly asserts that "might does not make right" and that there is an important distinction between what he (and countless others of the post-Reformation period) calls "lawfully constituted government" and "usurpers". The Prophets make no practical distinction of this kind.

The biblical teaching concerning government is quite different.

The Bible asserts that might is not necessarily just or good ("right") but it is still "might" - and must be obeyed except in the rarest of circumstances. Those rare circumstances have only to do with the magistrate requiring anyone to commit unlawful acts according to the Word of God as we see in both the books of Daniel and in Acts. Even then, the man of God can only passively resist and must be prepared to take the consequences - such is the high regard those who name Christ are to have for the magistrate and his divine appointment.

It is the repeated example of the godly persecuted in the Bible, including Jesus' response to the civil authority and the key passage of Romans 13. Scripture often discusses the conduct of those in civil government and the consequences of such conduct but not its legitimacy. The quintessential example of a murderous usurper having divine authority to rule is the anointing of Hazael by Elijah (1 Kings 19:15ff.) We should be mystified that not even Augustine appears to consider this example of "might makes right." Hazael had a specific task (even though he was unaware of its divine origin): To brutally punish Israel for her terrible sin. Hazael, like most heads of state, was a mere criminal running a gang but he had a divine purpose. If we had considered thwarting his authority in some way, we would have been in the awkward position of fighting against God.

This paradigm is echoed by Gamaliel in Acts 5:38-39 when Peter and some other Apostles appear before the Sanhedrin to answer various charges:

"Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God."

Fighting against God???

When, over the millennia, does this equation enter the discussion of the State and its role?

According to Scripture, anything beyond passive resistance in extreme circumstances becomes a serious matter of individual conscience. It should not become some armed and organized rebellion against authority, as characterized by the American rebellion against the British. An example of an extreme circumstance might be if an individual representative of the magistrate acts out of order and commits violence against an innocent third party and we have the ability to stop it. Again, it is not some organized and armed rebellion against a usurper or his representative but a lawful act on our part. Nonetheless, we may still hang for it. But Deism is another gospel and it would not concur with the legitimacy of such a hanging....

If one had been in Jerusalem circa 587 B.C. at the moment the Babylonian field commander had come through the gates and began the slaughter in the city, what would we do? If we had it in our power to resist this Chaldean mayhem, we would have wound up fighting against God.

And this is the point with Forster and countless others: The Bible asserts that usurpers, tyrants, and all of the rest of them may be mass murderers and the like but they are each and every one sent by God at His express command vis-à-vis Habakkuk 1:6-11:

"I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own. They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor. Their horses are swifter than leopards, fiercer than wolves at dusk. Their cavalry gallops headlong; their horsemen come from afar. They fly like a vulture swooping to devour; they all come bent on violence. Their hordes advance like a desert wind and gather prisoners like sand. They deride kings and scoff at rulers. They laugh at all fortified cities; they build earthen ramps and capture them. Then they sweep past like the wind and go on--guilty men, whose own strength is their god."

Does not Habakkuk describe countless usurpers and tyrants throughout history, including Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler? It is a legal fiction for Locke (as described by Forster) to assert that it is "...the abusive rulers, not the people, who are the real rebels..." (p. 192).

But the Reformation spawned a host of legal fictions, including the infamous assertion in the Westminster Confession (chapter XIV) that an adulterer is "as good as dead" and, therefore, can be considered really dead!

Why are Forster and others silent on so many passages of Scripture which defy the humanistic foundations of the Reformation?

So what of the World Wars? Nations are swept up in such things but is it because they wish to do good or is it some other reason? As Forster repeatedly asserts, social institutions cannot "love" nor are they capable of much good as they all sink into self promotion of one kind or another.

What is the godly Christian to think of all this? In our own nation, there often is an ungodly mixing of nationalism and the faith, "My country, right or wrong" and the flag prominently displayed in the buildings used by the Church. This nation allows (and often promotes) partial birth abortion, adultery, and homosexuality. What is some Christian from a foreign land to think when he sees the American flag draped about in places of worship?

Forster is right: "All paths now lead to danger." All nations have the greedy, the homosexuals, adulterers, liars, and other perverts but what do they do about it? Do they punish evil or promote it in one way or another? Our nation largely promotes it. As both Christians and citizens of the nation-state we should be ashamed of ourselves and this stampede into moral chaos that has become an Anschluss.

What good news is there? The usual false teachers are upsetting the flock for monetary gain, e.g., "...Our Christian heritage is being seized and if you don't send money right NOW, it will be the end of all you hold dear...." Meanwhile, these salesmen have little or no concern for the adultery, divorce, and immorality in their midst.

As Forster notes, even de Tocqueville observed in his time that the church was seen as a fourth branch of government - and many in the Church today still think in these terms. But what futility.... As the Founders noted (and Forster agrees), the more immoral a people are, the more control by government they invite (p. 207). The biblical paradigm, however, is not exactly this one - an immoral people does not "invite" more control by government, they are subject to violent (and oftentimes) complete destruction by foreign governments, their own government, or some sort of natural disaster.

Admittedly, the New Testament does not spend much time discussing civil government other than in Romans 13 and 1 Pet 2:13 ff. And why should it? Jesus was adamant, "My Kingdom is NOT of this world." But such words fall on deaf ears in this age of Humanism and Egalitarianism. What Forster describes as Pietism should have more than a short paragraph in the history of Christian political thought. Ambitious men who love this world and put their hope in it do not want to hear anything else.

Civil authority is a result of the Fall - and we can be thankful for the magistrate who, even in the most base of governments, keeps some sort of order. It is not some aberration of the Early Church to have had a decidedly aloof attitude toward the civil authorities. Jesus submitted completely even though he had a poor opinion of them (Lk 13:32). If He submitted why can't we? Augustine's permitting the Emperor to help root out heresy in the Church was a terrible mistake on his part and gave cover in the ensuing centuries for much evil in the Church. Is God's arm too short to clean things out? For most, God is asleep or "dead" - for that is functionally what their deeds ascribe.

Forster, speaking of the future of our nation, writes "All paths now lead to danger." (p. 249). How true. We continue to unravel at full speed like a supernova explosion with all its parts moving away from each other at light speed.
Excellent history of Christian political thought  Jun 27, 2009
Dr. Forster's book is an excellent and readable introduction to the history of Christian political thought. Although I've been a Christian and political junkie since I was a kid, I never had a good understanding of how Christians have approached politics over the centuries. This book gives a good overview of the way in which the Christian view of politics and government has developed since the time of Christ. I was particularly intrigued to learn how the Christian view of dealing with tyrannical governments has changed since the Roman empire. Dr. Forster writes extensively about the development of natural law doctrine and its current place in Christian political thinking. For both secular and religious citizens, this is a valuable book for understanding how Christians approach our current political climate.
An Excellent Introduction to the Evolution of Christian Political Thought  Dec 3, 2008
The Contested Public Square by Greg Forster is "an introduction to Christian political thought," with a special focus on "the political effects of the Reformation and the Enlightenment in Western Europe [and America]." It traces the evolution of that theory through eight critical junctures in church history.

Chapter 1 examines "how persecution permanently shaped Christian political ideas" by forcing the early church to develop "an apolitical sense of its own identity." As was true of Jesus, the church neither possessed nor sought access to the halls of power, whether in the Jewish Sanhedrin or Roman empire. Rather, its theology subverted the importance of the state.

Christianity believes that its religious institution (the church) is eternal and will survive intact after the destruction of the universe and the end of time itself; however, it believes that political institutions (the state) are merely temporal agencies that keep the peace and enforce justice in this world; they will vanish when the world does.

This theology both allowed the early church to survive and left it without a blueprint for political engagement. The Old Testament had such a blueprint, but the early church thought that Mosaic law was applicable specifically to Israel, not generally to the nations. The New Testament social teaching applied specifically to the church. If the church were to have a voice in political matters, it would have to utilize non-biblical sources.

The primary non-biblical source to which Christian theologians turned was philosophy, the subject of Chapter 2. "Critically and rigorously engaging with the Greco-Roman philosophical heritage helped them both to find answers to questions that the Bible did not answer and to address themselves on politics to those who did not believe the Bible."

Chapter 3 examines the most influential Christian theologian to engage the philosophers on political questions, Augustine of Hippo, whose City of God is arguably the most important Christian work outside of the Bible. Augustine made several important contributions to Christian political thought in this book.

First, Augustine outlined a psychological distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. "In one city," Augustine wrote, "love of God has been given first place; in the other love of self." Different loves are ordered to different goods. "For the City of God," writes Forster, "the only ultimate good is God; other things are good only to the extent that they look to God. For the City of Man, the satisfaction of one's own good. And since you cannot satisfy your desires without having the power to satisfy them, the ultimate good for the City of Man, what it desires above all other things, is power."

Through City of God, Augustine argues against early medieval pagans who blamed Christians for the sack of Rome, its loss of earthly power. Augustine saw things differently, however. He saw the sack of Rome as a just punishment of Rome's depredations. "Remove justice," he wrote, "and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?" While the City of Man desires power; the City of God desires justice.

The different goods sought by different loves does not mean that there can be no social cooperation between the two cities, however. "Just as there is no man who does not wish for joy," Augustine writes, "so there is no man who does not wish for peace." The cities cannot agree on eternal goods, but they can achieve compromise on temporal goods. Writes Augustine: "Thus even the Heavenly City in her pilgrimage her on earth makes use of the earthly peace, and defends and seeks the compromise between human wills in respect of the provisions relevant to the mortal nature of man, so far as may be permitted without detriment to true religion and piety."

Justice leading to peace is the leitmotif of Augustine's political thought. But how do we define justice and peace between the two cities when neither the Old or New Testaments are clearly applicable? Through natural-law reasoning. In Chapter 4, Forster names natural law "the most important political idea in history." Natural law "holds that the only proper basis of political authority is the moral laws pertaining to life in the present world (do not kill, do not steal, keep your promises, help those in need, preserve the community, etc.) rather than laws pertaining to eternal matters." Natural-law reasoning was "the driving force behind most...Christian political thought for as long as Christianity has existed." But it was only in the Middle Ages that Christian thinkers (especially Aquinas and Ockham) produced "a fully developed understanding of natural law and its implications."

Forster outlines six "basic principles of natural-law thought":

1. Natural law is an eternal moral law revealed to all people through human nature.
2. Natural law influences (but cannot save) even fallen and sinful humanity.
3. Natural law is the proper basis of political authority.
4. Natural law authorizes society to establish a government.
5. Governments are themselves subject to the natural law.
6. Each society's laws should apply the natural law to that society's particular circumstances.

Of course, medieval society had a degree of unity that is no longer present in society. Yes, the various kingdoms battled one another, but they did so under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church, whose doctrine established a unifying and authoritative worldview for the combatants.

The Protestant Reformation, the subject of Chapter 5, shattered that unity and gave rise to the nation-state, which is the basic political unit of modern society. Interestingly, the Reformers--at least the Magisterial Reformers--did not repudiate natural-law reasoning. What they repudiated was the authority of the Catholic Church, which provided the social glue to medieval society. In place of one church, the Protestant Reformation ushered in an era of multiple, conflicting spiritual authorities under the doctrine of cuius regio, eius religio (literally, "Whose realm, his religion). Predictably, war ensued.

Chapter 6 takes up the emergence of religious freedom in the Enlightenment, citing John Locke as a pivotal figure. The medieval and Reformation churches (magisterial Reformation, not Anabaptist, that is) seem to have forgotten the lessons of the early church and Augustine. Both realized that believers and unbelievers could cooperate and through the state realize temporal goods. Both also wanted the state to stay out of eternal affairs. By contrast, the medieval and Reformation churches used the state to enforce religion, thus sacrificing peace. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke wrote: "The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests." Those civil interests did not include enforcement of religion. "The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate because his power consists only in outward force, but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God." Forster does a good job of showing that Locke's conclusions were based not merely on natural-law reasoning, but also on a close consideration of what the New Testament teaches about faith. Since the New Testament does not teach the civil enforcement of religion, Locke could find no use for it either.

While Chapter 6 focuses on Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration, Chapter 7 focuses on how the American Founders used the natural-law reasoning of his Two Treatises of Government to justify revolution. Now, the pro-revolutionary stance of many American Christians is striking. The New Testament commands obedience to government (Romans 13), and the government in power at that time was both unjust and persecutory. How then can a Christian countenance revolution?

Locke turned to natural-law reasoning. Remember, natural law authorizes societies to set up governments, and the purpose of those governments is to practice justice leading to peace. If those governments practice injustice, however, who enforces justice against them? Society as a whole. Here we see that government arises, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, from "the consent of the governed."

Perhaps you think that it is not the Christian's duty to enforce justice against government. After all, Romans 13 does command obedience. But remember the immediate context in which Locke is writing. England has endured decades of civil strife resulting from religious strife, as Protestant and Catholic claimants to the throne struggled for possession of it. In such a situation, Christians were forced to make a choice as to who was the legitimate political authority to be obeyed. The mere possession of superior power could not settle the issue, since possession switched sides frequently. What had to be decided was the justice of the claims. In other words, who had the right to rule. But since an unjust government had no right to rule, it could be overthrown by revolution. That is what natural-law reasoning, at least in Locke's hands, seemed to require.

The trend of natural-law thinking, then, at least as it developed in England and America, was toward liberal democracy, in which political authority rests on the consent of the governed. But liberal democracy had its critics, both externally and internally. This is the focus of Chapter 8. Externally, the greatest critics of liberal democracy in the twentieth century totalitarian Communism and Nazism. Internally, theologians such as Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr questioned its natural-law foundations, whether in toto (Barth) or in ironic part (Niebuhr). Interestingly, C.S. Lewis restated and defended natural-law reasoning in a variety of works.

On the whole, I think Forster's book is a fair-minded summary of the development of Christian political thought, whose dominant mode is natural-law reasoning. I also think he correctly notes how natural-law thinking has historically tended to underwrite the project of liberal democracy. I was especially impressed with his two-chapter treatment of John Locke, which I have oversimplified (but I hope not distorted). Forster does not ask argue that natural-law reasoning is right. His literary enterprise is historical and analytical, rather than normative and apologetic. Nonetheless, I get the feeling that Forster himself believes the basic evolution of natural-law reasoning he outlines to be essentially correct.

It is a sign of his fair-mindedness, however, that he admits the triumph of religious freedom and liberal democracy is not without problems. Specifically, he mentions "the problem of public virtue": "how do we maintain political adherence to the moral laws necessary for politics (do not kill, do not steal, keep your promises, etc.) without a shared community religion?" In our deeply divided, red-state/blue-state country, this is an urgent question without an obvious answer.
A Helpful Introduction to the Topics  Nov 3, 2008
In The Contested Public Square, Greg Forster provides a helpful introduction to at least some of the major strains of thought which shaped the way Christians approach politics. Tracing the development of these ideas through history, he gives a helpful primer for those who are interested in learning more about these issues.

This is an extremely accessible book. It is written in a way that will allow someone with virtually no background in political thought to understand the ideas being discussed. Of particular value here are the sidebars throughout the book which offer background on the thinkers and world events which are important to understand the content. While many of these are going to be very basic for those with some background (Who was Plato? What was the enlightenment?), this means that the book provides an beginning point for those who don't have the requisite training.

The book is also focused enough to make an engaging read. Forster gives the history of western Christian political thought as a story. This means that it is both interesting to read and allows the reader to see a real progression of ideas, with each chapter in the history building on the last. I appreciate this way of approaching history, and I think many readers will agree that it makes the ideas much more memorable than if they were given in isolation.

The biggest weakness of the book is one which Forster admits in the introduction: its limited scope. This is a history of the particular stream of Western political thought which is not active in certain parts of American politics today. I must admit that I was hoping there would be a bit more breadth here. Important questions which developed in other contexts (the East, Christianity under Communism, etc.) aren't touched, and some ideas which continue to be influential even in the West are only addressed in passing (ie. Anabaptist thought).

More broadly, there are clearly certain issues which the author wants to stress here. He seems to be a big fan of natural law theory, and it gets a lot of play time. All of this said, I don't think this makes the book useless, particularly for newcomers to the ideas it contains. It is a helpful introduction to some influential ideas. It's just that its only an introduction, with all the limitations that entails.

If you're interested in learning more about how Christians have thought about politics historically, this book is a good place to start. This area of interest is admittedly limited, but its an accessible place to begin understanding these ideas. If you're already familiar with the basics, I'd give this one a pass and look for a more in-depth treatment of the subject.

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