Review: Jesus And The Powers: Christian Political Witness In An Age Of Totalitarian Terror And Dysfunctional Democracies By N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird—Part 1

This stimulating volume by two highly regarded biblical scholars is introduced invitingly:

Jesus and the Powers has one objective: to say that, in an age of ascending autocracies, in a time of fear and fragmentation, amid carnage and crises, Jesus is King, and Jesus’ kingdom remains the object of the Church’s witness and work. (xiii)

The Church needs to understand how it relates to empires biblical and burgeoning, how to build for the kingdom in our cities and suburbs; to understand the time for obedience to the State and the time for disobedience to the State. (xiv)

We want people to consider how we can pursue human flourishing, how we might work towards a common good, and how we can pursue the things that make for peace in a time of political turmoil such as has not been seen since the 1930s. (xiv)

The book unfolds largely in a chronological order, and contains the following chapters:

  1. The Kingdom of Jesus in the Shadow of Empire
  2. The Church between Jesus and Caesar
  3. Power and the “Powers” in Early Christianity: John, Paul and the Paradox of Biblical Politics
  4. The Kingdom of God as Vision and Vocation
  5. The Church between Submission and Subversion
  6. The Church Resisting the Powers of Today
  7. Liberalism and Love in a Time of Fear and Fragmentation
  8. Conclusion

My review will consist in two parts: the perceived (by me) strengths of the book and its perceived (by me) weaknesses.

Perceived Strengths

1. International perspective (though both authors are from Commonwealth nations, whose respective churches were once Erastian).

Both from their broad experience and from their broad reading, the authors are familiar with global Christianity and with its perilous relationship to various political realities. This makes the volume helpful for those who endeavor to understand Christianity in its relation to various nations, ethnicities, and political experiments. An Australian (Bird) and an Englishman (Wright) have many insights for an American (myself).

2. Broad historical scope (a large slice of the historical pie).

Historians examine human history as a pie, and they constantly make decisions about how large or small a slice they wish to cut from it. Will and Ariel Durant examined nearly the entire pie; Aaron Renn has recently examined the last fifty to sixty years of American church history; my friend, Carl Trueman, sliced out about two centuries to evaluate. This volume examines the broad sweep of Israel’s history, and Christian history—from persecuted minority in the Roman empire, to ally with the same, through Caesaropapism, through Erastianism, through church-state independence. Such a sweep of history tends to relativize any of its particular moments, and readers will benefit from this breadth of historical perspective.

3. Prominence of empire for analyzing church history.

Similarly, Holy Scripture contains a narrative of God’s visible people on earth as constantly interacting with large empires:

The Bible is a book utterly immersed in empire. Its stories are set in the midst of the great empires of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, the Ptolemies and Seleucids, and then finally the Roman Empire. (10)

The great Roman peace was a peace that was created and sustained by merciless violence. (17)

This [Paul’s ministry] could only be construed as deeply counter-imperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire; and there is in fact plenty of evidence that Paul intended it to be so construed, and that when he ended up in prison as a result of his work he took it as a sign that he had been doing his job properly. (21)

This interaction with empire did not always work to the bettering of either church or empire:

Under Roman sponsorship, Christians were no longer hunted, but were now able to hound and harass their traditional rivals among pagans, Jews, and heretical Christian sects. . . . the Church then became an instrument of empire, offering Christ’s insignia to the decrees of soldier-emperors who continued to do what empires always do: conquer, enslave, and exploit. The Church came to exchange the cross of Christ for the sword of Rome. (26)

But the resulting product, Christendom, was far from perfect. . . . Christendom, for all the cultivation of Christian virtues, for all the claim of the spirit’s effervescent presence, for all the advances in human liberties from the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights, was still tainted with the human capacity for evil. It is indubitably true that Christian civilization was often neither Christian nor civil. (31)

4. Correct approach to biblical instruction regarding believers and the civil magistrate: always submit; sometimes obey (my language, not theirs).

The fifth chapter wrestles significantly with the biblical testimony (esp. Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2) about submission to government, while also recognizing that such submission can be offered without obedience, and/or, under extreme circumstances, by resistance to the magistrate, when/if the governing authority fails to do what God has ordained it to do.

5. Unapologetic about the enormous contributions of the Christian gospel and ethic to the world, especially in contrast to Communism.

It has been fashionable since the Enlightenment to reject the Christian metaphysic while retaining its ethic, and Jesus and the Powers recognizes value in its metaphysic as well as its ethic. The authors rightly acknowledge that humans are all descended from a common origin, that humans are made in God’s image, and that God intends the world to be managed by obedient humans—metaphysical claims that have profound implications for statecraft.

The authors rather firmly reject the fashionable conceit that Christianity has done no good in the world, and candidly applaud its better moments in informing the basic norms of civility and common humanity that have informed limited government, liberal democracy, rigorous scientific exploration of an orderly universe, and a pursuit of justice for all. Many universities, colleges, and medical institutions were founded by Christian individuals and institutions that pursued love of neighbor as a foundational ethical norm. At the same time, the authors are equally candid about the brutality of Communism, Christianity’s greatest ideological enemy:

The Communist leaders Stalin and Mao killed far more people than Hitler, King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo, and the military junta of Argentina put together. Yet Hitler and Fascism remain lodged in Western imagination as the definitive symbol of human evil. . . . Above all, Communism is tethered to tyranny. Many of us have friends who have lived under Communist regimes and you will be hard pressed to find one who speaks of such regimes with warmth, fondness and affection. They regard them ordinarily with dread, loathing and trauma. (124, 126)

6. Restraint in addressing the various recent approaches to Christendom.

The authors patiently work out their understanding of the relationship of the church to the present cultural moment, and they demonstrate substantial familiarity with the history of that relationship. They wisely resist, however, a point-by-point interaction with some of the recent voices on the topic; neither Rod Dreher nor Patrick J. Deneen, for instance, are mentioned, and there is only a single, brief reference to James Davison Hunter. Since each of these individuals (albeit unintentionally) has his share of “fanboys,” it was probably very prudent for the authors to set out their own case, informed by two millennia of Christian history, while intentionally evading the current buzz.

7. Modest promotion of liberal democracy.

The seventh chapter includes a modest promotion of liberal democracy. I say “modest,” because the authors candidly concede that other forms of government may also, in the right hands, promote human well-being. Nonetheless, they patiently articulate eight benefits that characterize liberal democracy that should not be jettisoned merely because of their occasional imperfections: individual rights are preserved; universal suffrage is promoted; powers are separated; conflicts are resolved peacefully where possible; economic equality and opportunity are promoted; governments are transparent and accountable; rule of law (and judicial independence); provision is made for self-critique. While discussing these various benefits, the authors nonetheless sensibly recommend liberal democracy modestly: “We write now neither to celebrate nor to castigate liberal democracy. Instead, we wish to prosecute the thesis that in a world with a human propensity for evil, greed, and injustice, liberal democracy stands as the least worst option for human governance” (158).

This chapter also includes a critique of what the authors call “civic totalism,” in which they say (in part):

In other words, we are concerned about a progressive post-liberal order that does not value the right to dissent, the value of ideological diversity or the necessity of public debate, and that does not tolerate religions it cannot dictate to. . . . We fear a progressive post-liberal state that rejects liberalism’s tenets on free speech, political pluralism, individualism and multiracial equality, while also rejecting socialist ideals of universal human experience, and the healing of ethnic and class divisions. (137)

8. Style of writing that is both clear and elegant.

While the work is careful and precise, it also releases an occasional lightning bolt of English prose, and such moments generously reward the careful reader. I will select only one:

The early church inherited the anti-pagan and anti-imperial perspective of its Jewish heritage. The kingship of God, and his Messiah, was set up against the empires of the world. Jesus was crucified by a second-tier Roman official in a backwater province, killed like a lowly slave, brutally executed like a murderous brigand. But God had raised Jesus from the dead, undoing what Pilate and Herod had done to him, robbing death of its finality, and testifying to the goodness of God’s power and the power of God’s goodness. Death was the tyrant’s ultimate weapon to terrify and enslave, yet God’s power and promise of resurrection meant that the tyrant’s weapon had been disarmed. (22–23)

©T. David Gordon. All Rights Reserved.

N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird,  Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracies (Zondervan, 2024).

You can find the whole series here.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law. Comments that are profane, deny the gospel, advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession, or irritate the management are subject to deletion. Anonymous comments, posted without permission, are forbidden.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.