I’m enjoying John Coffey’s new book, Exodus and Liberation: Deliverance Politics from John Calvin to Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a study of the use of biblical language and imagery in political movements of revolution and liberation.
The use and misuse of biblical language fascinates me because interpreting life Scripturally is at once absolutely necessary for faithful Christian discipleship and extremely precarious, always running the risk of idolatry. Christian leaders must orient and constantly reshape their communities’ imaginations so that they see the world through biblical eyes.
The trouble, however, is that agendas, motivations, and ideologies from elsewhere creep in so subtly that we sometimes find ourselves co-opting biblical language to advance personal, tribal, or nationalistic causes.
As just one example, Coffey cites Eusebius’ use of exodus imagery, moving beyond inner-biblical typology to biblical-political typology:
Eusebius was aware that Hellenistic Jewish writers had long presented Moses as a great legislator, and it was to Moses that he turned to legitimize the Constantinian revolution. The exodus demonstrated that God intervened in political history to liberate his oppressed people from bondage, and the deliverance of the Christians in the fourth century was a stunning confirmation of this. In chapter 9 of the Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius compared the pivotal battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 to the exodus of the children of Israel. The parallel was too clear to miss: the pagan Emperor Maxentius and his shield-bearers had drowned in the Tiber just as Pharaoh and his chariots had sunk in the Red Sea. In his Life of Constantine, Eusebius drew numerous parallels between the careers of the Emperor and Moses, just as traditional Christian biblical exegesis had traced a parallelism between the type (Moses) and the anti-type (Christ) (p. 5).
In The City of God, Augustine would caution against reading the will of God in secular history. But down the centuries Christians have found the Eusebian temptation quite irresistible. Political typology had undeniable power. It did more than provide religious legitimation; it reframed political history, placing it in biblical time. By scripturalizing events, Eusebius had made contemporaries see them through different eyes and invested them with providential meaning. Fourth-century Christians were not simply living through another imperial power struggle; they were reenacting Israel’s exodus. God had come down to deliver them, and Constantine was their new Moses (p. 6).
Discerning legitimate and illegitimate uses of Scripture to interpret personal, corporate, and political narratives requires constant vigilance on the part of the people of God, and works like Coffey’s can be a great help in this task.