Christopher Watkin’s new book, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture, is receiving significant attention. I see it mentioned regularly in blog posts (like this one), email newsletters, and at academic and ministry conferences. With a Foreword by the late Timothy Keller, it’s a significant work within the evangelical community.

With some discomfort, therefore, I confess that while I’m impressed by the grand scope of the project I’m not convinced by its overall internal logic. In an attempt to raise some important questions about how the Bible relates to academic work generally, this post and the next one will address the first word in the book’s title: biblical. I want to ask, How “biblical” is Biblical Critical Theory?

I can quickly set aside some of my more provocative retorts. Like, “Aren’t we late to the party if we’re analyzing modern life?” Or, “For whom does the Bible make sense of life and culture – and whose life and culture are we making sense of anyway?” Or, “How critical can we truly be if we begin with the assumption, rooted in a colonial worldview, that there is a single meaning for everything – and it just so happens to be found in this new book?” That last question is more than a quibble over a pint in the pub, I know, but honest readers of the Bible must admit that the “story” we distill from the Christian canon is an interpretation of the biblical text (the story is not the text itself) – and this raises the complexly critical question of how one person’s interpretation becomes authoritative over all other possible interpretations.

Bible on lectern

Now we’re approaching the question of how biblical this book is and this is a major question – a question far broader than can reasonably be tackled in a couple of short blog posts. So, I’d like to pry open this can of worms by addressing one instance of how Watkin uses Scripture to make one argument in the book. My hope is that this single example will spark our own further reflections on how Scripture functions in BCT, in academic work more broadly, and some of the larger interpretive questions involved in reading and applying an ancient text today, especially by those of us who live and work in higher education.

A topic which isn’t included in the book’s index (despite it popping up more than once in the book) but which provides a view into how Scripture is used in BCT is the topic of taxes. In Chapter 23, Watkin addresses “The Last Days and Giving to Caesar What is Caesar’s” based on Luke 20:21-26. Relying on Jesus’ famous response and other passages (like an uninquisitive reading of Romans 13:6-7), Watkin argues that “giving to Caesar is part of giving to God” and that “Paying taxes is part of my Christian duty” (496).

Watkin correctly identifies the predicament Jesus finds himself in when the Temple leadership approach and question him in Luke 20. If Jesus says, “No, you don’t have to pay taxes to Caesar,” then he will have the political authorities to deal with. Similarly, if Jesus says, “Yes, you have to pay your taxes to Caesar,” he’ll have to contend with the angry Jewish crowds and the Temple leadership’s accusations of idolatry. It’s a classic “Catch-22” which Watkin “diagonalizes” with “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

My problem with this reading is that Jesus, in his original first century context, simply could not have meant what Watkin concludes from this passage. The reasons are, frankly, numerous and I can only summarize a few of the weightier reasons here.

First, Roman taxation of Jews in the first century cannot be equated with taxes we pay today in Western democracies. Today, we receive government services and share the cost of supporting vulnerable populations through our tax policies. In the first century, Roman taxation of Jews was an instrument of gradual genocide. They are not comparable even though we use the same English word. Jesus was not – and, in my mind, could not have been – providing a basis for the political-economic domination of the powerful nations over against the marginalized peoples of the world.

Second, this reading fails to identify the idolatrous complicity of the Temple leadership operating in the background of this passage. In addition to Rome’s heavy taxation, the Temple leadership had added their own taxes (and other nefarious practices), to further dominate the Jewish population. This is part of what is behind Jesus’ public disturbance of the Temple marketplace recorded in all four gospels (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2). The Temple leadership were busy following Caesar’s example of how to get while the getting was good. When Jesus responded by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” he was announcing God’s judgment on the Temple leadership without saying it directly – just as he was clearly but indirectly denouncing Caesar’s claims in God’s creation. Watkin’s reading, though, allows this unspoken institutional injustice within the Jerusalem Temple to go without mention.

A final problem worth noting here is that Watkin assumes rather than argues that this episode in Jesus’ ministry is about a rational explanation of how to distribute our ultimate and penultimate responsibilities and loyalties in a complex world (499-501). That assumption leads to the awkward conclusion that I can love God (ultimate) by paying my taxes (penultimate). What is not considered, leading on from the point just above, is the better idea that this passage is about how to cultivate a vital intimacy with God when the institutions that bear God’s name are dead. Today, we often think that this passage is pointing out Caesar as the baddie. Instead, the passage clearly shows that it is the Jewish Temple leadership who are corrupt to the core (sending “spies” to “catch” Jesus – Luke 20:20). Jesus did not say, “Give to the Temple/Church what belongs to God.” Jesus did not validate the central importance everyone assumed the Temple to have. Instead, Jesus pointed his hearers directly to God as if both Caesar and Temple leaders were irrelevant. Jesus is pointing out that Caesar and priest may claim whatever they want but all things cohere in God alone.

Where does this leave us? I would argue that this leaves us in exactly the same place as Jesus’ original hearers in Luke 20: in the place of discerning prayer, patient listening for God. Today, we expect clarity immediately. Instead, Jesus instructs us to discern where God is in all the rival claims that we are exposed to moment by moment: political, religious, or otherwise. In a world of political domination, religious corruption, and institutional failure, then or now, those who follow Jesus must be prepared for “easy answers” to fail and only “a long obedience in the same direction” (originally from Friedrich Nietzsche and then made popular by Eugene Peterson’s devotional) to bear its fruit in its own (and not necessarily our) season. The same is true for hearing God’s dynamic Word in the familiar passages of Scripture. It’s true also for discerning God in the specifics of one’s academic work, ideas to which we’ll return next month.

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman

Michael Wagenman is Senior Research Fellow and Director of PhD Studies at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge. He earned his PhD at the University of Bristol (Trinity College) and now teaches Christian theology and philosophy in Canada. His academic work focuses on the theological dimensions of institutionalized forms of power within culture and society. His most recent book is "The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper" (Pickwick, 2020).​