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Christian Theology


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Title: Christian Theology

DCM, Oxford, Mar. 2015 N. Townsend
  • Christian Theology
  • and Political Life
  • Aim to distinguish the main questions addressed
    in the Christian tradition's discussion of
  • and to begin to address them with reference to
    biblical and theological sources.

  • Structure
  • Introduction (i) the obedience of rulers?
  • (ii) context liberal society
  • (ii) definitions
  • A. Three normative political questions
  • Why? What? How?
  • B. Christian political participation in
    radically pluralist, liberal societies

  • Three periods in Christian political history
  • 30-313 Pre-Christendom
  • 313 Edict of Milan tolerance of Christians
    after Constantine becomes Emperor
  • 313-1791 Christendom
  • 1791 First Amdt of the American Constitution
    there shall be no law respecting an
    establishment of religion.
  • 1791-now Post-Christendom
  • O. ODonovan suggests these symbolic dates
    (Desire of the Nations, p. 195)

  • ODonovan takes Christendom to refer to,
  • a historical idea that is to say, the idea of a
    professedly Christian secular political order,
    and the history of that idea in practice.
  • Christendom is an era, an era in which the truth
    of Christianity was taken to be a truth of
    secular politics. (ibid., italics orig.)

  • We are now in post-Christendom, liberal society
  • What form should Christian political witness now
    take when our culture is no longer
    characterized by the idea of a professedly
    Christian secular political order, but by plural
    religious and philosophical convictions,
    discourses and communities?
  • We shall address this in Part B.

  • What is politics? As this term is generally
    used (e.g. in British public life), politics
    refers to
  • determining what will be done for a whole,
    geographically-defined community by means of
    enforceable law
  • together with all the activities directed
    towards that elections, lobbying, opposition,
    underhand scheming, and so on.

  • Authority
  • morally rightful holding/exercise of power
  • Political authority
  • morally rightful holding/exercise of power for a
    whole society,
  • in other words, morally rightful determining of
    what will be done for a whole society

  • Questions about political authority are
    normative about what should be done.
  • That is, they are questions in normative
    political theory (à la John Rawls, Theory of
    Justice, etc).

  • Three normative political questions
  • 1. Why should people accept governments
  • claim to authority at all? 
  • The problem of political obligation
  • 2. What should government do? 
  • That is, what is the proper role of govt?
  • 3. How should government be constituted? 
  • That is, should the form of government be e.g.
    monarchical or democratic?

  • How can Christians address these questions?
  • 1. The Bible
  • We can read both of two political strands within
  • The just government strand
  • The prophetic strand
  • (From Walter Brueggemann, Andrew Goddard see
    further N. Townsend, VPlater Mod A, 1.3 ) and Mod
    B, 2.2.)

  • The just government strand
  • - human rule as authorised by God
  • OT The Torah
  • The role of ancient Israels king
  • Ps. 72, Prov. 16 10-15, 312-9 Isa. 11
  • NT Jesus fulfils/transforms that royal role.
  • God above Caesar, but Caesar has a role
  • Mark 1213-17 Rom. 13 1 Pet. 2.
  • Contemporary Oliver ODonovan

  • The prophetic strand
  • - God calls people to critique the very rulers
    whom God authorizes
  • OT The Exodus
  • Warnings about monarchy 1 Sam. 8 Kings
  • The prophets Amos, Micah, Jer. 2111ff
  • NT Jesus Luke 416f critique of Sanhedrin (et
  • Paul life in Christ James Revn
  • Contemporary liberation theology

  • How can Christians address these questions?
  • 2. The tradition(s) of Christian political
  • Augustines pessimistic contrast the two cities
  • arguably closer to the prophetic strand
  • Aquinass more optimistic vision of government
    directing persons to virtue and the common good
    closer to the just government strand
  • See ODonovan ODonovan (eds), Irenaeus to
  • Witte Alexander (eds), 2 vols on modern RC and
    Protestant writers

  • The two political strands in the Bible, plus
  • the three normative political questions (why?
    what? how?)
  • can give a structure within which to think
    clearly about Christian faith and politics.

  • 1. Why should people, including Christians,
    accept governments claim to authority? 
  • (a) Jesus message The reign of God is at hand
    for any holders of worldly power, a subversive
  • But Jesus way of bringing in Gods reign
    repudiated all dependence on normal political
    means taking worldly power, coercive imposition,
    military force.
  • Rather, his way was the cross as is his
  • Jesus was simultaneously political and

  • (b) Pauls teaching, esp. in Romans
  • Chs 1-7 How Jesus life, death and resurrection
    are significant, for the Jewish people and all
  • Chaps 8-16 What that means for how those in
    Christ should live
  • (incl. a passage, chs 9-11, on how the Jewish
    people fit into Gods purposes after Christs
  • In summary live according to the Spirit (85).

  • From 121, Paul sets out what this means in
    practice in an astonishing series of
  • What the whole letter up to ch. 12 conveys is
    that, under the authority the Christ and the
    Lord, his followers are to live in a way that
    makes worldly structures of law and power
  • Their way of life is supposed to transcend these.

  • But, at this very point, Paul suddenly gives
    attention to how the Christians in Rome should
    see the Roman authorities!
  • They should recognize and be subject to the
    governing authorities / the powers that be
  • Why? Their authority comes from God - the same
    God who is made known through Christ and the
  • The powers who executed Christ are Gods
    servant for your good! (v. 5)

  • Summary
  • The few verses about the governing authorities
    in Rom. 13 are a brief aside in the letter
  • Romans 12-13 can be seen as a relativization yet
    affirmation of human government.
  • We should obey government because its authority
    is from God. But this is of secondary
    importance, relative to what God has done in
    Jesus and is doing by the Spirit.

  • The other two normative qs can be seen as
    arising from this one
  • If (1) God has authorised political authority,
    (2) what should it do, and (3) how should it be
  • But can you think of another question that also
    arises, a fourth question?

  • When? Is political authority pre- or post-Fall?
  • Is it given in creation, or only as a remedy for
    some of the effects of sin?
  • What do you think?
  • The can be called the q. of the ontological
    status of government.

  • Thought experiment
  • In a human society without sin in the state
    of innocence (Aquinas) would there be
    government? That is, would some people exercise
    authority for society as a whole, hence over
  • See further sheet to be supplied Does
    government have a directive as well as a
    remedial role?, and see
    k, Mod. B, p. 3.3.3

  • 2. What should government do?
  • In summary justice the Bible witnesses to
    this in many places.
  • To do justice to people is to recognise them for
    what they truly are, each alone and in community,
    and then to render to them what is due.
  • But different visions of humanness mean
    different conceptions of justice.

  • Ps. 72 a portrait of an ideal king
  • O God, give your judgments mishpatim, pl. to
    the king
  • your justice tzedakah to the kings son
  • That he may govern your people with justice
  • your oppressed with judgment mishpat.
  • That the mountains may yield shalom for the
  • and the hills great abundance,
  • That he may defend the oppressed among the
  • save the children of the poor and crush the
  • vv. 1-4 (NAB) cf. esp. vv. 12-14

  • The mishpat, judgment, that the ideal king
    exercises is for the sake of those who
    are oppressed, poor or needy, or victims of
    violence (vv. 1-4, 12-14). 
  • One commentator on Ps. 72 says this
  • The only stated responsibility of the king in
    vv. 2-7 or vv. 12-14 is to establish justice for
    the oppressed, to save the needy  Such
    salvation was what God did in the exodus and
    this function is the measure of royalty, whether
    human or divine.
  • J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Book of Psalms, in
    L. Keck et al., eds, The New Interpreters Bible
    A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. IV
    (Abingdon, 1996), p. 963.

  • Ps. 722-3 shows also this
  • Through judgment (mishpat) in favour of the
    oppressed and poor, there will be not only
    justice (tzedakah) but shalom.
  • Shalom wellbeing, shared welfare, peace with
    justice, peace and prosperity, the common good.
  • The king has responsibility for shalom, but this
    comes through just judgment for the sake of the
    exploited and poor.  

  • Numerous other references in the Hebrew
    Scriptures show that governments role is mishpat
    and tzedakah.
  • E.g. Exod. 23 1-8 Num. 35 9-34, esp. 11
    Deut 1618-20, 17 8-11 1 Kings 3 Ps. 72 1-4
    Prov. 16 10-15, 31 4-9 Isa. 11 3-4 Amos 5
  • Rom. 13 seems to presume too that a basic purpose
    of government is judgment in court.

  • For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but
    to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the
    authority? Then do what is good, and you will
    receive its approval 4for it is Gods servant
    for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you
    should be afraid, for the authority does not bear
    the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to
    execute wrath punishment (NIV) retribution
    (NJB) on the wrongdoer. .5Therefore one must be
    subject, not only because of wrath but also
    because of conscience.
  • Romans 13 3b-5, NRSV

  • Tom Wright on this passage
  • In Rom. 12, Paul has just said, strongly and
    repeatedly, that private vengeance is absolutely
    forbidden for Christians. But this doesnt mean
    on one hand, that God doesnt care about evil,
    or, on the other, that God wants society to
    collapse into a chaos where the bullies and the
    power-brokers do what they like and get away with
    it . . . That is almost all that Paul is saying
    in Rom. 13 4-7.
  • Paul for Everyone Romans Part 2 (SPCK, 2004), p.

  • Interlude The common good
  • The human good is inherently or irreducibly
    common. It is analogous to the good of a concert,
    a football match or a great feast of celebration
    it can exist for anyone only as all participate
    in the shared action in which they produce and
    benefit from it simultaneously.
  • It is participation in communion, ultimately
    with God.

  • How has that biblical emphasis on government
    as judicial been developed in Christian history?
  • We can distinguish at least three ways.

  • (i) Government as directive to the common good,
    including by disciplining people through law to
    the end of their virtue
  • This sees government as pre-Fall, given in
  • Government uses the force and fear of law to
    discipline people (Christian and not) in right
    conduct so that they are formed in good habits
    the virtues.
  • Influenced by Aristotle the locus classicus is
    Aquinas early modern Calvinism (C16-C17) is
    similar the disciplinary society (Charles

  • (ii) The judicial role of government is made
    central/paradigmatic the ruler is most
    essentially a judge/magistrate.
  • According to O. ODonovan, this reflects the
    long history of Christian political thought,
    going back to Augustine, more faithfully than
    Aquinass directive view.
  • He labels this view government as judgment.
  • This sees government as post-Fall, as of Gods
    providence for the fallen world. So government
    is reactive (OD).
  • Given OT emphasis on rulers exercising mishpat
    (judgment), and, arguably, as similar emphasis in
    Rom 13.2-4 1 Pet 2.13, he advocates govt as
  • ODonovan sees this position as Augustinian.
  • On this view, everything govt does is a response
    to wrongdoing remedial ODonovan speaks of
    the reactive principle

  • (iii) Government as to establish/uphold
    conditions necessary for a supra-political good
    the common good including not least by
    upholding human rights.
  • (a) Modern Catholic Social Teaching govt as
    maintaining the public order (John Courtney
    Murray) or the social conditions which allow
    people, either as groups or individuals, to reach
    their fulfilment (Gaudium et Spes)
  • (b) Kuyperian neo-Calvinist govt as
    maintaining public justice among other social
  • In both, govts role has directive and remedial

  • We need to be aware of a fourth position (but
    not one that can be seen as a development of the
    biblical emphasis on government as judicial)
  • Government as alien to the gospel and not to be
    exercised by Christians neo-Anabaptist
    Hauerwass ecclesial ethics.
  • Emphasises that the church community itself is a
    polis Gods city and therefore political.
    But nothing is said about what Christians should
    do as participants in secular public

  • 3. How should government be constituted? 
  • The q. of form of government
  • Slides on this are included, though the session
    could not consider this question.
  • Good form Bad form
  • Rule by one Monarchy Tyranny
  • by few Aristocracy Oligarchy
  • by many Republican govt Democracy

  • Jesus ministry and the early Churchs mission
    generated a contrast between the Christian
    community and earthly government. 
  • The community that professed Christs supreme
    authority wasnt willing to see itself as under
    Romes authority alone even though Rome had a
  • This produced a new institutional duality  the
    contrast we now refer to as between Church and

  • This duality is rooted in the OT in the
    experience of exile
  • Seek the shalom of the city to which I have
    exiled you pray for it to the LORD, for in
    its shalom you will have shalom. (Jer. 297)
  • The Jews in Babylon and the Christians in Rome
    were each a city of Gods people within another
    city.  The advice Jeremiah and Paul each gave
    was live with it! Augustine two cities. 

  • That was at the end of the monarchy, the
    terrible risks of which Samuel had warned about
    at its beginning 1 Sam 8.
  • I and II Kings portray the monarchy as failure.
  • Hence the OT history paints a negative picture
    of monarchy.
  • Yet in I Sam 8, God concedes to it, and works
    with it and an ideal of good kingship emerges.

  • In Jesus kingship, three things happened at
  • The pre-monarchical ideal, in which God was
    directly the peoples king (1 Sam. 8), was
  • What became the monarchical ideal of an heir to
    Davids throne who would make real the vision of
    Ps. 72, Isa. 11, etc. was fulfilled.
  • The post-monarchical model of two cities (Jer.
    29) was affirmed Jesus kingship is supreme but
    Caesars rule has a place under it. ?

  • Then, after Christ has come, God gives the
    Spirit, the Spirit of the Christ, to all his
    people Acts 2.
  • This offers to all renewal of true human living
    as those made in the image of God and granted
    dominion, authority, at the beginning.
  • Here are seeds of democracy..

  • While there are roots in Scripture for an
    assessment of forms of government, the Church was
    relatively indifferent among them, insisting
    instead that what matters much more is that
    government is just and for the common good.
  • In other words the what question is more
    important than the how question.

  • Reminder three normative political questions
  • 1. Why should people accept governments claim
    to authority at all? 
  • 2. What should government do? 
  • That is, what is the proper role of govt?
  • 3. How should government be constituted? 

  • B. Christian political participation in
  • pluralist, liberal societies
  • Appeal to Christian faith in political debate?
  • Not allowed, says neutralist liberalism.
  • Most prominent defender John Rawls
  • (In Political Liberalism, 1993, and Justice as
    Fairness A Restatement, 2001)

Christian participation in political life
  • To see why not, consider the context of public
  • Religious, philosophical and ethical
  • Rawls refers to this as the fact of pluralism
  • More accurately, his expression is The fact of
    reasonable pluralism. In a free society, people
    will reasonably disagree about religion,
    philosophy and ethics so reasonable pluralism
    is permanent, he says.

Christian participation in political life
  • But if we disagree, how can we live together
    without conflict?
  • More specifically, how can we talk together and
    decide in public if we have deeply different ways
    of understanding the world?

Christian participation in political life
  • Two main answers
  • 1. Translation into a neutral, secular, shared
  • - thin, neutralist liberal, John Rawls
  • 2. Difficult conversation despite deep
  • - thick, post-liberal, Jeffrey Stout, A.

Christian participation in political life
  • 1. Translation into a neutral shared language
  • Religious language needs to be excluded from
    public debate, because it cannot contribute to
    reaching agreement.
  • So public discussion needs to be secularised.
  • And Christian speech/practice is to be

Christian participation in political life
  • Translation into a neutral shared language,
  • Advocates of this secularist position
    generally hold that the only content of the
    shared language is do with individuals rights
  • to be maximally free from external interference
  • to choose themselves how to live.
  • Hence a thin language.

Christian participation in political life
  • The most influential such position is Rawlss,
    who argued for two principles of justice. In
    his words
  • Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a
    fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties
    such as speech, association, religion, which
    scheme is compatible with the same scheme of
    liberties for all
  • Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy
    two conditions
  • first, they are to be attached to offices and
    positions open to all under conditions of fair
    equality of opportunity and
  • second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of
    the least-advantaged members of society (the
    difference principle).
  • (Rawls, Justice as Fairness A Restatement, p.42)

Christian participation in political life
  • Difficult conversation despite deep
  • Advocates of this thicker version of public
  • hold that this is possible without conflict
  • recognise that mutual understanding by those in
    different traditions can be very difficult.

Christian participation in political life
  • Difficult conversation despite deep
    disagreements, contd
  • Advocates of difficult conversation also
  • hold that this is possible, thanks esp. to a
    vigorous democratic culture
  • refer to such a culture as strong democracy or
    deliberative democracy. (Benjamin Barber)

Christian participation in political life
  • To recap, two main alternative answers
  • 1. Translation into a neutral shared language
  • 2. Difficult conversation despite deep
  • Luke Bretherton suggests a third alternative
    hospitality. Im not sure this is
    fundamentally different from 2.
  • Luke Bretherton, Translation, Conversation or
    Hospitality, in N. Biggar and L. Hogan (eds),
    Religious Voices in Public Places (Oxford OUP,

  • Main problem with the translation approach
  • Some of the main issues we need to decide in
    public require appeal to matters on which people
    disagree religiously/philosophically, e.g.
  • the beginning and end of life
  • human responsibility for non-human nature
  • economic justice should income be distributed
    by individual contribution to profitability or by
    participation in generating a common good?
  • whether its better generally for children to be
    raised by their own two biological parents than
  • what marriage is

  • If that is so, public discussion on such matters
    cannot take place in a neutral shared language
    as this would not engage with the reasons why
    people disagree.
  • So there is no option but answer 2 difficult
    conversation despite deep disagreements.
  • This is what Christians who participate in
    public debate have to contribute to.

Christian participation in political life
  • Summary
  • Public discussion in our day is deeply divided.
  • So can we use a neutral language?
  • No, because many contentious issues turn on deep
    differences that no neutral language can
  • So in public life and witness, Christians and the
    churches have to participate in a difficult

  • Whether people are Christians or
  • hedonist neoliberals
  • voluntarist social liberals
  • Burkean conservatives
  • ethical socialists, etc, etc, etc (see Map)
  • they have no option but to come to public debate
    willing to articulate how their comprehensive
    conception of the human good supports what they
    advocate should be done by political authority.

Christian participation in public life
  • It is democratic procedures which enable us, to
    the extent that we do, to live together
    politically despite the extent of the radical
    plurality among us.

  • Christian Theology
  • and Political Life
  • Introduction the obedience of rulers?
  • context liberal society
  • A. Three normative political questions
  • Why? What? How?
  • Plus the q. of the ontological status of govt
  • B. Christian political participation in
    radically pluralist societies
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