Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Andy Crouch – PLAYING GOD [Feature Review]

[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”0830837655″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41Mpb6giMfL.jpg” width=”216″ alt=”Andy Crouch” ]Different Sorts of Power at Work?
A Feature Review of

Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power

Andy Crouch

Hardback: IVP, 2013
Buy now:   [ [easyazon-link asin=”0830837655″ locale=”us”]Amazon[/easyazon-link] ]  [ [easyazon-link asin=”B00F44LQ6Y” locale=”us”]Kindle[/easyazon-link] ]
[easyazon-link asin=”0830837558″ locale=”us”]Andy’s Book CULTURE MAKING[/easyazon-link] is also now available in a paperback edition…
Reviewed by John Nugent.


WATCH A VIDEO of Andy Crouch discussing this book

When it comes to power, Christians often gravitate toward one of two familiar poles. One holds that power is a neutral tool that can be used for good or ill. Recognizing its usefulness in getting things done and making the world a better place, this position seeks power and strives to wield it well.


The other clings to Lord Acton’s famous nineteenth century dictum: “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acknowledging the damage that power-wielding people routinely inflict upon those around them, this position eschews power and either gives up on making a difference in the world or seeks “power free” methods for effecting change.


In Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch seeks a mediating position between these poles. He is suspicious of claims that there is such thing as a “power free” method, and his interpretation of Scripture leads him to believe that Christians have a responsibility in this world to use power wisely for the common good. Yet he knows enough about the role of sin in the Bible story to avoid naïve claims about the supposed “neutrality” of power.


Power is not simply neutral, according to Crouch; it is dangerous. Because of its hazardous potential, it is all the more important for Crouch that godly people who have been shaped by the Scriptures exercise the proper use of power and model it for others. He therefore exhorts believers to respect power, seek power, and partner with persons and institutions with power to bring about positive change.


Because Crouch frames this book as a sequel to his work in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, I read the latter first. I don’t think doing so is necessary. Both books stand on their own just fine. Yet both books made the same sort of impression upon me. Crouch has solid insights, is a gifted writer, and has no shortage of illustrations to reinforce his points. He mostly affirms positions that are easy to affirm, especially if one is not suspicious of his one-dimensional view of power. Occupants of both poles would agree with much of what he says and then simply put more or less emphasis on different aspects.

[ The John Howard Yoder Index ]

Where Crouch more directly challenges readers, he does not hit hard enough or convincingly enough to change a skeptical reader’s mind. I found myself consistently wishing he had dedicated more time to supporting his points with a deeper reading of Scripture and less time to illustrating them. I also wish he spent more time engaging the insights of careful thinkers who disagree with him. They may have called into question his univocal view of power and spurred him on to a more robust analysis of the nature of power itself.


These preliminary remarks have a lot to do with target audience and writing style. This book may not have been written for people like me. Yet there is a deeper issue that Crouch needs to address regardless of his audience. Both books could benefit from a more careful analysis of the specific vocation of God’s people in a fallen world. For the remainder of this review I spell out what I mean by this.

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  1. I thought that he was pretty explicit that the difference between sacred and secular us of power was the purpose if use. Secular use of power is for the welder of the power. Sacred use of power is to empower others to fulfill their own gGod ordained roles and their own sacred uses of power.

  2. John,
    Incisive and clear and insightful.

    Andy’s pure Kuyperian in approach, that’s a historic posture of many Christians in the church, and I think I’d examine Crouch from that angle. From that angle, he’s correcting Kuyperian strategies at times. That’s how I read him.

    • Thanks, Scot. This comment and your related tweet are helpful in providing some context for Andy’s work. ~Chris

  3. This was an excellent review, in spite of the fact that I haven’t read the book yet. I try to read several reviews before delving into the real thing. Thanks.

  4. I have now read the book *Playing God* some months later than this review was published. I tend usually to agree with John Nugent’s ecclesiology (I thought) and tweeted this review enthusiastically but I have to say I think Nugent has caricatured Crouch’s book here and that many of his objections were adequately treated by Crouch. For example, Crouch’s book is suffused with reflection on Scripture. I understand though that Nugent as a biblical scholar may have a different standard than myself. I suppose where Crouch and I would both part ways from Nugent is this statement on page 3 of the review by Nugent: “Christians are not responsible for making this world a better place, but for being the better place that this world will never be until Christ returns.” I find this kind of dichotomy unnecessary. Not even Yoder would have said such a thing; Yoder’s book is “For the Nations.” I don’t really want to have an argument here but just wanted to commend to Anabaptist types who might be interested in Crouch’s book to read it for yourself.

    • Andy,

      Thanks for entering the conversation 5 months later. And now, 5 months after your response, I have discovered that you said something and can finally respond to you.

      The main point of my review was that the ecclesiology of Crouch’s book is extremely thin, and if he wants to take his project to the next level, he would do well to make a more robust ecclesiology more central to his analysis than it was in this work. I will leave it at that and engage your interesting comments about ecclesiology.

      In saying that the church is “not responsible for making the world a better place, but for being the better place that the world will never be until Christ returns” I am not denying that the church exists “for the nations.” My closing reflections on Isaiah highlight precisely that God’s people exist for the nations. I develop what I think this looks like at length in the epilogue to Politics of Yahweh.

      The key word in the sentence you quote as encapsulating the apparent
      difference between our ecclesiologies is “responsible.” The OT story (and church history) is replete with God’s people wanting to be responsible for that to which God never called them. So the important question that is seldom asked becomes: For what does God hold his people responsible in Scripture?

      The answer to this question must somehow come from the narrative of Scripture. Yet nowhere in Torah, the Prophets, Jesus, NT letters, or even letters to the churches in Revelation are God’s people held responsible for failing to make the world or wider societal social structures better. They were certainly never told, “In the beginning you were told to be fruitful, multiply, exercise dominion, and create a wonderful world – why haven’t you been doing that? When will you finally get on board with the cultural commission?”

      This is a glaring omission given the prominent role world-betterment plays in many theologians’ social ethics. There is certainly no shortage of admonition, accountability, and redirection in Scripture, but all intra-biblical critique has nothing to do with the “make the world a better place” agenda. This omission must be taken seriously.

      By way of contrast, consider how frequently in Scripture God and his spokespersons hold Israel and the Church responsible for not being the set apart exemplary people that God has called them to be in Moses and Christ. This is so because being a set apart exemplary people—or paradigm, pulpit, pilot project, demonstration plot, and first fruits of God’s kingdom—is the role God has given his people (as a group) as a part of God’s wider task of redeeming this world. The entirety of 1 Peter focuses on this critique.

      As God’s people do this, it will have a variety of effects. Sometimes it will be embraced, other times rejected. Sometimes it will result in praise, other times persecution. Sometimes our witness will be ignored; other times people will listen. Sometimes our witness will help the world become qualitatively better, for an indefinite duration, in specific places. Other times, our set-apart difference will harden the hearts of the world and strengthen the resolve of its rebellion. Sometimes. Scripture reports, the latter is even God’s will. Despite the diverse possible outcomes and by-products of our witness, our commission to scatter communities through out the world whose life together displays God’s reign remains the same.

      As far as I can tell I am not forcing a dichotomy between two things that the Scriptures clearly hold together. Rather I am distinguishing between two different agendas because one often has the negative consequence of eclipsing the other and when it does the multivocity of power gets obscured in the process.

      Thanks for the push back.