The debate over immigration in America continues apace. In fact, it has heated up considerably in recent months as some of President Trump’s policies have drawn sharp criticism and outrage across the country (family separation, deportation, building the wall, etc.). These are complex and difficult issues that require a broad knowledge of the multifarious aspects involving immigration (current events, economic impact, legal possibilities, political and criminal issues, etc.) including an understanding of how immigration policy has evolved throughout U.S. history (for the best source on that, see Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life [New York: HarperPerennial, 2002]). Additionally, as Christians, we want to consider what the Bible has to say about immigration, and develop an ethic that not only guides us in how to treat the foreigner in our own lives or through our church outreach, but that might also influence national policy in some way. While we can’t cover every aspect of immigration exhaustively in the proceeding articles, we can broach a number of important issues that will serve as sign posts along the way.
Recently, Wayne Grudem made the case for building a wall at our southern border, a policy proposal Trump was notorious for supporting during his 2016 presidential campaign (and still advocates). I suspect that most Americans who support a wall of some sort (and it’s not a complete wall stretching the entirety of the 1,954 miles we border with Mexico) are not keen on a wall per say, but are fed up with an out-of-control illegal immigration that is beginning to have negative effects upon our economy and society, and believe a wall is the only effective way to stop it. However, parts of the wall are being built while we speak, so it is important to discuss if such a policy is justifiable, and if so, on what grounds. Yesterday, John Hutchins responded on this site to Grudem’s arguments, offering a trenchant rebuttal from multiple angles. Today, I begin a multi-part response to both Grudem and Hutchins.
The Perils and Promises of Biblical Application
The Bible is the most authoritative and influential piece of literature the world has ever seen. This is not because of its literary value (although it has much to offer us there); it is because it claims to be God’s own words—a living and active, God-breathed revelation that is eternal and never failing in its content and promises (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:12). This is why Christians, both historically and today, have believed the Bible is relevant to life (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and that we ought to read and interpret Scripture in order for it transform not only ourselves, but our families, communities, and yes, even entire nations. So the Bible is a powerful moral and cultural force that carries divine authority, able to command the allegiance of millions. The Bible can be used for good in the hands of the faithful and responsible, or for destructive ends if abused by purveyors of avarice, social power, and inflated egos. The religious history of our own country is a narrative of this very promise and peril, since from the colonial period God, country, and scripture often have been fused together to create a unique civil religion and spiritual national life (for a fascinating example of how the Bible was preached and applied in an early communal setting, see Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England [2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011]; on American civil religion, see John D. Wilsey, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015]).
This drama continues today. The Bible still plays an important role in American public and civic life, even as we enter a post-Christian, secular era in which Christians often find themselves in the crosshairs of public scorn. Given these realities, and the fact that a skeptical world is watching to see how Christians conduct themselves in public, it is incumbent upon us now more than ever to demonstrate excellence in exegesis, graciousness in application, and winsomeness in our witness. I do not believe Wayne Grudem’s biblical arguments for building a border wall meet these criteria, and so I offer my own rebuttal.
In the following analysis, I limit myself to critiquing Grudem’s methodology—his system of biblical hermeneutics. He may be right in his policy conclusions about the appropriateness of a border wall (I think a plausible case can be made for it; and I am a strong advocate for a secure border), but his theological reasoning and use of the Bible as an authoritative stamp leaves much to be desired.
Wayne Grudem’s Flawed Hermeneutics
Grudem makes a biblical case for building a wall on America’s southern border in a rather crude way: he gathers all the verses in the Old and New Testaments that relate to positive examples of walls being used for peace and security, and from these deduces that walls are good; therefore, it is good for the U.S. to build a wall on its southern border in order to prevent illegal immigration. This is the same hermeneutical approach Grudem takes in his widely published and read Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994). When I read this text in seminary (in 2014), I noted that his methodology for doing systematic theology simply amounted to “collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teachings clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic” (p. 21). Later Grudem elaborates on what this looks like, in three steps: (1) Find all the relevant verses for whatever you’re studying (using a concordance, for example); (2) Read, take notes, and summarize each verse; (3) All the verses and what they teach should be synthesized to find out what the Bible teaches on that subject (pp. 35-36). That’s it! If you want to know what the Bible says about a certain topic, just do what Grudem says.
At the time, I termed this approach “dustbin theology” because it is akin to (metaphorically) grabbing a dustbin and broom and sweeping all the relevant verses together so that, presto!, your theology can spontaneously emerge. This is rather simplistic, and one can see the errors in Grudem’s theology unfold throughout the text as he mechanistically employs this method chapter after chapter. There are (at least) six problems with this approach. The first is that he nowhere identifies or provides a rubric for what verses are supposedly “relevant” to a particular topic. Grudem says we should look in a concordance, which indicates a strictly lexical approach. But lexemes can only take you so far in theology; they can point you toward some relevant verses, but not all of them; and they do nothing for helping you identify the passages or stories in scripture where those words aren’t employed (which just begs the question as to what words you are supposed to be looking up in the first place).
Second, Grudem says we are to summarize each verse and then synthesize all the verses into a coherent whole. While in the abstract this sounds straight-forward, it rarely works out this way. What if two passages on a topic don’t clearly relate to each other, or worse, they appear to contradict one another (e.g., the fourth commandment to observe the Sabbath in Ex. 20:8-11, versus Heb. 4:1-13 on a different kind of Sabbath rest for God’s people)? Additionally, the process of summarizing and synthesizing are deeply subjective—something that can’t be avoided—which leads to wildly different theologies. Grudem doesn’t address these complications or provide guidance on how the interpreter can mitigate their predilections and biases in order to handle scripture responsibly (2 Tim. 2:15). Third, this approach doesn’t incorporate the broader context of these verses or other theological themes, such as the grand narrative of scripture. Atomized verses collected together yield a fragmented, choppy, and often contradictory theology. We must simultaneously fit these verses and what they teach into the unifying and progressively unfolding story of the Bible. As such, we will find that some teachings were at one time relevant, but have since either passed away or been fulfilled such that they are no longer pertinent, or have taken on a different form and function.
Fourth, and most critically, Grudem never discusses the problem of intra-testamental hermeneutics, the problem of how the Old and New Testaments relate to each other, and how they relate to us. His approach essentially flattens scripture, making every verse from every book equally important and applicable. This forces Grudem to try to fit all the relevant verses together like a one-dimensional puzzle—and if one piece doesn’t fit, the whole picture is thrown off. Fifth, although he recognizes the distinction between systematic theology on the one hand, and historical theology, philosophical theology, and apologetics on the other, he rarely incorporates other disciplines into his biblical worldview. This is most telling regarding philosophy, for he comes to theological conclusions that are logically and philosophically impossible; had he done some historical theology, he would have recognized that others had made this mistake before him and had adjusted their approach accordingly. This is why Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology (3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013) and Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest’s Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996) are far superior systematic theology texts. Being able to incorporate other disciplines into biblical exegesis and application is especially important when seeking to apply scripture to public life, since we will have to draw upon ethical systems and philosophical paradigms to translate from the ancient culture (the author’s horizon) to modern culture (the reader’s horizon). Sixth and finally, Grudem assumes that the whole bit about application simply and straight-forwardly follows from one’s conclusions about theology: if this is what the Bible teaches, then just do it!—regardless of whether we’re talking about the individual, civil society, or the federal government. Of course, no one who has seriously studied how to apply Scripture or how to move beyond the Bible to theology takes this approach. Even though the Bible might clearly teach a certain theology, it is often unclear if, how, or to what extent this applies to us today, especially on matters of ethics, economics, and political economy.
Proof-Texting a Border Wall
This is the underlying method that is driving Grudem’s approach to immigration and wall building, and it predictably leads him to a conclusion that, in retrospect, is really just a massive proof text for his favored policy outcome. Hutchins is keen to note Grudem’s methodological problems in that he doesn’t apply a consistent historical-grammatical approach (which, admittedly, is only one option out of many). Grudem omits key differences as Hutchins observes: “OT walls surround cities not nations, protect from invaders not immigrants, and are likely constructed voluntarily by a community and not coerced through tax dollars.” Additionally, Grudem simply leaves out other passages that cast doubt upon his “walls = good” formula: the walls of Jericho were its undoing (Joshua 6), Jesus rebuked his disciples for marveling at the glory of Jerusalem’s walls that were doomed to be destroyed by Rome (Mk. 13:1-2), and while the New Jerusalem has walls as Grudem notes (Rev. 21:12), he fails to note that the gates will never be shut by day (Rev. 21:25; and since there is no night, they stay open continuously). So much for keeping people out. So even by his own method, Grudem has simply failed to consider the rich variety of what the Bible teaches about walls—and more importantly, the themes, trajectories, and future goals those passages point to. More troubling, however, is that Grudem circumscribes the discussion about a wall to only those passages where walls explicitly show up in scripture. He never stops to consider that there might be larger themes and deeper principles involved that would guide us on this policy, thus invoking entire portions of the Bible where walls are nowhere to be found.
Even if Grudem had succeeded in collecting all the relevant verses about walls and gates and such in the Bible, and had somehow managed to strangle a coherent theology out of them, it is unclear what that would have to do with the immigration debate in America presently. No situation in the Bible closely approximates the complexity of immigration we face today that would make it is easy to apply a tidy 1-to-1 correspondence model (in biblical lingo, the cultural horizons do not align). Instead, we must do the hard work of developing a capable method of application that is faithful to the text and what scripture teaches, but flexible enough to bridge cultures and contexts separated by millennia. Additionally, we must be able to recognize the limits of scriptural teaching and application, and when we hit those limits how we must turn to other sources (such as moral, legal, and political philosophy or natural law ethics) to help us construct an immigration policy that is just and good. This will be the focus of the next article.
Conclusion: A Popular Interpretive Approach That Needs Amending
Grudem’s hermeneutic is insufficient and short-sighted, but typical for these kinds of issues. In fact, his approach is regularly employed by those who disagree with him. Over at Relevant Magazine, a number of articles on the refugee and immigrant crisis do essentially what Grudem does but to the opposite effect: compile a list of verses about how much God loves the immigrant, sojourner, and refugee, which predictably leads to adopting less restrictive immigration policies (that more or less align with Democratic or progressive policy prescriptions). Again, both approaches flatten the text and amount to proof texting. In this race, whoever can stack up the most texts on their side wins, which reduces biblical meaning and authority to a numbers game. This is an inappropriate way to read and apply Scripture; not only do we deceive ourselves, but we look foolish in the eyes of the world and only serve to propagate the endless culture wars America has become infamous for.
If we should use Scripture for lessons on immigration, how should we employ biblical teaching on this topic (if at all)? In our next article we will consider a healthy biblical hermeneutic and approach to application that will serve as a faithful guide for those of us who are committed to taking Christianity to the public square.
Ben is a graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed his MA in New Testament Biblical Studies. He is currently completing a second MA in Christian Apologetics and Ethics, and hopes to pursue a PhD in the near future. He loves reading, drinking coffee, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. His academic interests include biblical languages and exegesis, theology, philosophy, politics, and economics.