Doubts About Political Theology And The Church As A Lever Of Cultural Influence

Tish Harrison Warren, a priest in the ACNA (a denomination in the Anglican tradition), writes in Christianity Today,

We have an impoverished and inadequate political theology. It took us generations to get here, and this one election, regardless of the results, will not undo that. So before we know who wins or loses, we as a church must begin to reexamine how the good news of Jesus shapes us politically.

I do not disagree entirely with the main thrust of Warren’s essay, that the visible church forms a sort of alternative society. There are, however, some problems in the argument that need to be criticized and distinctions that need to be made.

It seems to be a given now that there is such a thing as “political theology” or that orthodox Christians ought to have one. Certainly this is the major premise of Warren’s argument. We will consider how to define this term below.

Her minor (middle) premise is that the church has always been a political entity,

The early church aids us in this task. Early Christians used the word ekklesia—a term used for the assembly governing Greek city-states—to describe their own gatherings. This terminology highlights how the early church understood itself as a political body. But this strange, new, Christian assembly proclaimed that they were citizens of a different kingdom with a different king. It wasn’t just a pious idea. It shaped them into a people who, in the words of Peter Leithart, embodied an “unprecedented social and political form” that “burst the bonds of all prior political categories.”

To buttress her argument she appeals to what she describes as a “third century” text, the Epistle to Diognetus. More about this in a moment.

What Political Theology Is And Is Not

Warren does not define for us what she means by “political theology.” I confess that I struggle with this term. In traditional Reformed use, following the broader Christian tradition, theology broadly defined refers to what God has revealed about himself, us, sin, Christ, salvation, church, sacraments, last things, and Christian ethics. Narrowly, theology proper is the study of what God has said about himself.

Politics, broadly, as I understand it, is the art (not science) of believers and non-believers living together in our shared, secular community. It is an important aspect of life but it is just one aspect of life. More narrowly, which is the way the word is most often used, politics refers to partisan politics, i.e., the contest between parties for influence and control over the levers of civil authority and power.

What does it mean when we qualify theology with the adjective political? Are there other spheres of life with which we can modify theology? Let us say that Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) was correct (as I think he was) that there are essentially three spheres in life: family, church, and state. For the sake of discussion, let us further agree with Johannes Althusius (1557–1638) that the family is the most basic unit of society. If political theology considers the theology of human social-civil life together, is there a theologia familiae, a theology of the household, and an ecclesiastical theology? Well, of course, we already have this in existing categories: church is already a topic of theology. The family is a topic of Christian theology under creation and theological anthropology as well as Christian ethics. Christian theologians have long considered what we now call political theology under the same headings. The same is true of what we might call the theology of the family.

In a sense, as my colleague David VanDrunen says in Politics After Christendom (17) the family is a polis and, for that matter, so is the church. Thus we could lump all three spheres under “political theology” but that would not be very helpful. Properly then, we should refer it to our shared, common life together under the general providence of God and under his moral, natural (creational) law.

By contrast, Warren moves from partisan politics, with which she begins her essay, to the broader definition, under which she seems to include the visible church. This makes a muddle and endangers the nature and mission of the church.

What The Church Is And Is Not

Christians often use the word church ambiguously. Most often, particularly among evangelicals, it used broadly to mean Christians considered collectively, without reference to the visible, institutional church. This is because, most evangelicals have a low view of the institutional church, because they have been taught the old German kergyma to dogma model: the Apostolic and early post-apostolic church was a dynamic, charismatic, and unstructured association organized around a message and a messiah and only later became an organized institution with fixed dogmas.

In fact, the history is rather different. The church was organized from the very beginning, it had dogmas from the beginning, and it had a message from the beginning. The Apostolic age did come to an end, a fact with which some have always struggled (e.g., the Montanists, if the traditional story is to be believed, and the Pentecostals) but the visible, institutional church established by Christ continued.

Mainly Warren seems to use the word “church” in the institutional sense. Thus, her attempt to leverage the definition of ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) with the pagan secular usage is ill advised, untenable, and should be rejected. It simply does not  follow and there is no evidence that the apostles or early post-apostolic church intended ekklesia in Christian use, to mean what it meant in secular usage. The sense of the New Testament use of ekklesia was no more determined by the pagan use than John’s use of Logos (the Word; John 1:1–3) was determined by its use among the Stoics and the Platonists. Rather. Ekklesia as used in the New Testament must be understood against its background in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. It translates the Hebrew noun Qahal, which stands for “covenant assembly.” This is how it is used in the New Testament. On this see the resources linked below.

The effect of defining ekklesia in terms of the pagan usage, is to turn Christ’s Church into something it is not, an institution to effect social outcomes. Remarkably, in defense of her thesis, she appeals to what she describes as a “third century” text, the Epistle to Diognetus. I know that Bart Ehrman says that it might be dated as late as the 3rd century but most scholars consider it a mid-2nd century text.

There is a much we do not know about this text. We do not know who wrote it (about 15 different authors have been proposed) and we do not know to whom it was written, Diognetus. The author simply calls himself a “disciple.” It seems likely that Diognetus was an influential figure, perhaps someone in the Roman government.

It also seems likely that the text is not an epistle at all but an apologetic and persuasive (protreptic) treatise, perhaps the record of an address, to explain to a pagan what Christianity is and is not, that it is not Judaism and it is not paganism. Whoever gave this speech or sent this treatise was bold indeed, since it is most likely that the hearer or recipient was a pagan. The author’s critique of paganism is worthy of Isaiah (and was probably influenced by the prophets).

We know from the treatise that Diognetus wanted to know about the political agenda of the Christians. In the ancient, pagan world a state-religion was assumed. The Christians had a religion thus they must necessarily have had a civil-political agenda also. The author wrote at length to disabuse Diognetus of this assumption.

He explained that Christians live in two cities simultaneously. He was echoing Paul in Phil 3:20 by arguing that our fundamental citizenship is in heaven. The author wanted to know that, In the sense in which Diognetus was thinking about politics, the Christians were no political threat to the established order. This is the point of chapter 5 of the treatise.

Nature & Grace | Sacred & Secular | Law & Gospel

Thus, when Warren says that prayer and fasting are  “inherently political acts.” she does what the treatise to Diognetus did not, she turns that which was intended to be sacred into something secular. She does this because her analysis lacks some important distinctions. Politics belongs to nature (i.e., creation) not to grace (i.e., redemption). Politics belongs to law not to gospel. Politics belongs to the secular not to the sacred. Most evangelicals, however, lack these traditional Christian categories and thus, for them, everything must be organized and considered under the categories of grace and redemption. Thus, they are constantly speaking about “redeeming” this or that. We see this confusion when Warren asks us to consider how the good news of Jesus shapes us politically. What if the good news does not shape us politically?

That is just the point of the distinction that Diognetus was making. By opting out of the state religion, we Christians were not making a political statement. We were creating, as Darryl Hart (see below) and others have argued, a new category: the secular. We were saying that we want to be good Roman citizens (or resident aliens) insofar as creational (natural) law requires but that our religious commitments require us to draw certain lines. We may eat food offered to idols so long as the meal is not a religious (cultic) meal (1  Cor 8l 10:14–22). The Romans hated this distinction and they killed us for it. They demanded conformity to the status quo. They called “haters of humanity” for daring to opt out of polytheism and the Roman civil religion but we did it anyway but not to make a point about the Roman political system. Insofar as the Roman government enforced natural law (Rom 13) it was doing what God appointed it to do. Thus the apostles commanded us to honor the emperor (1 Pet 2:17). We prayed for the civil governors who persecuted and martyred us (1 Tim 2:2). Those prayers were not a political statement.

Just as evangelicals seem to be able only to discuss politics under the heading of grace so too they seem increasingly unable to discuss theology without the heading of politics. We ought to resist the cultural trend of politicizing everything, even if if we are using the word politics in the broad sense. Not everything is about our common life together. Hence my discomfort with the category political theology. What if theology is sacred and not secular?

The early Christians, who lived under pagan rule, did not speak much about “political theology” nor did they portray every act of devotion as a political act. Our acts of devotion are not more or less significant because of what they say about or to the pagan world around us. They are significant because our first citizenship is in heaven.

Does The Good News Of Jesus Shape Us Politically?

Thus, it is not true to say, as Warren does, “the good news of Jesus shapes us politically.” Without a doubt, the good news of Jesus shapes Christians. That Jesus was raised from the dead and that in his vindication we are justified before God, and that we have been saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) means everything. It is truly life determining. I love my neighbor out of gratitude for the Son of God who loved me from eternity, who became incarnate for me, who obeyed for me, who was raised for me, and who is coming again. It is true that the good news is that Jesus is coming again to consummate his kingdom and that every knee shall bow but the good news is not political.

To say that the good news shapes us politically is to confuse the law and the gospel. God’s moral, creational, and natural law shapes our politics, i.e., how we live together, in a shared secular society with each other and even with unbelievers. The law of God teaches us how to love our neighbors as ourselves. The gospel of grace empowers us to do it but it is the wrong category to use here.

If one dissents from Warren’s application of the gospel to politics, even in the broad sense of the word, is one denying the gospel? Making these distinctions, e.g., law and gospel, nature and grace, sacred and secular, is important because it preserves Christian liberty.

Calvin said that we live in a twofold kingdom (duplex regimen) or administration of God’s providential government of the world, the sacred and the secular (Institutes 3.19.15). Should Christians think of the church as an alternative polis? Yes, certainly. It is, as I wrote above, as an institution, the embassy of the Kingdom of God. Ministers serve King Jesus but the church’s message is not cultural or political even in the broad sense. The church’s mission is to announce the law and the gospel purely, to administer the holy sacraments purely, and to use church discipline. These are the marks of the true church according to Belgic Confession art. 29. The mission of the church is not to affect the culture (transformationalism) or to effect a culture (reconstructionism). That may be a by-product of fidelity to the mission, it has been so, but it not our goal and when it has become our goal, we have lost our mission and our message. As citizens of a twofold kingdom, Christians, as individuals and in groups, do seek to engage the culture, faithfully, graciously, and intelligently. Our citizenship in the heavenly city should be evident to all but since we are citizens of a twofold government, let us not confuse the two lest the church become just another interest group.

© R. Scott Clark 2020. All Rights Reserved.


Thanks to Le Ann Trees for her editorial help with this essay. Errors that remain are the sole responsibility of the author.

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