June 13, 2024

The Problem With “Christian” Political Theology – It’s Greek, Not Christian (Jonathan Cole)

Christian political theology has a problem, which for want of imagination I dub its “Greek problem.”

Michael Walzer highlighted the essence of this problem in his stimulating book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible:

But there is no political theory in the Bible. Political theory is a Greek invention. Nor is there a clear conception of an autonomous or distinct political realm, nor of an activity called politics, nor of a status resembling Greek citizenship. And there is no systematic effort to think about this realm…(xii).

Walzer, who is not a Christian theologian (political or otherwise), did not characterize this penetrating insight as a problem. I will endeavor to show that it represents a serious problem for Christian political theology, and one that remains largely unacknowledged and ignored.

The problem does not center on the fact that what many Christians hold to be either the source, or at the very least an important source, of Christian political theology, namely the Bible, does not contain something that could unambiguously be described as an explicit, detailed or even coherent political theory.

While it can be cogently argued that political theory is absent from the Bible, it cannot be cogently argued that politics per se is altogether absent (Walzer is well away of this). In fact, politics, or at least what we now designate under that conceptual category, is interwoven into the very narrative and text of Scripture, albeit not, as Walzer correctly points out, in a systematic and theoretically-conscious manner.

Take, for example, the political history of Israel that looms so large in the narrative of the Old Testament, or Paul’s famous teaching about political authorities in the New Testament (“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…” Rom. 13:1), or again the political vocabulary repurposed for theological use in the New Testament, such as ecclesia or basileia.

The problem is, as I intimated at the outset, a Greek one.  The civilization that actually discovers and develops systematic political thought and offers humanity its first detailed, sophisticated and analytical descriptions of actual political regimes is pagan and Greek, which is to say that it came from a people who had no knowledge of Yahweh, his “Christ”, nor the texts that would subsequently come to shape Christian political thought.

Moreover, pagan Greek political thought continues to exercise a profound and enduring impact on the way Christians and non-Christians alike conceive and practice politics in the 21st century. Perhaps the best archeological evidence of this enduring influence, aside from Western liberal democratic institutions themselves, is our own language. Hebrew has bequeathed English no political concept of any note, while Greek has given English some of its most fundamental political concepts and categories, including the very word “politics,” and that which defines the type of polity in which this writer and presumably the majority of readers live: “democracy.”

What makes this a Greek problem rather than merely a Greek historical curiosity is the fact that Christianity, in spite of the Bible’s ostensible lack of interest in political theory, nevertheless developed its own civilization replete with its own political thought and political norms: Christendom and Byzantium.

The distinctive Christian political idea that dominated both of these Christian empires, despite their deep differences, was “divine kingship,” with its corollaries “divine right to rule” and “Christian empire.” And unlike democracy, to take but the most obvious example, “divine kingship” is a biblical idea.

To be precise, it is an Israelite idea. Oliver O’Donovan, in The Desire of the Nations, has argued that “the hermeneutic principle that governs a Christian appeal to political categories within the Hebrew Scriptures is, simply, Israel itself…the governing principle is the kingly rule of God, expressed in Israel’s corporate existence and brought to final effect in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (27). Norman Gottwald(per O’Donovan) has described the type of polity in which the Israelites expressed God’s “kingly rule”  as a “tributary agrarian monarchy” (20).

To put the problem in its sharpest relief, then, the Western liberal political orders widely embraced and affirmed by what appears to be a majority of their Christian citizens today, both left and right, far more closely resemble what one finds in Aristotle’s The Athenian Constitution than what one finds in 1 & 2 Kings, or indeed any other book of the Bible.

Even more problematic is the fact that the Athenian and American Constitutions, which effectively belong to the same genus of polity, are not ostensibly compatible with either Christian monarchical empire or Israel’s tributary agrarian monarchy, both of which belong to a different genus of polity. Suffice to say, this very taxonomical distinction is also Greek!

For the sake of clarification, I make no claim that every aspect of Western liberal democracy is Greek and concomitantly that none is Christian or biblical. Important elements of the former have been discarded or rejected for expressly Christian reasons. Moreover, one can hardly discuss the genealogy of Western civilization in any seriousness without reference to the indelible influence of Rome. The fact of the matter is that one cannot draw a straight line from Athens to Washington D.C.

There is long Christian interregnum (if that is the word for it) between Greek politics and contemporary American politics. The nature and genealogy of contemporary Western liberal political order is obviously far more complex than I have allowed. Indeed, one could even treat contemporary Western liberal political order as the post-Christian outcrop of a Christianized Hellenic–Roman substratum. However, the point still stands: we are much closer now to Greece than to Christendom, at least at the institutional level, and for most Christian citizens of Western polities this appears to be entirely unproblematic and unremarkable.

To restate the problem with the greatest clarity I can muster:

Christians habitually embrace certain pagan Greek political concepts, principles and norms, such as democracy, constitutionalism and citizen sovereignty, that are neither revealed in Christian Scripture nor emerge directly out of Christian tradition, while at the same time rejecting (implicitly or explicitly) certain political ideas that are, namely, divine kingship and monarchical rule (in the Greek sense of the term).

It is not my purpose to argue that the contemporary Christian embrace of democracy, constitutional rights and citizen sovereignty is a mistake per se, or that these are not theologically defensible. My fascination, rather, is with the fact that the tension outlined directly above is not regarded as an aporia (to keep with the great theme) by Christian political theologians, for I believe it has profound implications for the way Christians (ought to) think about the place of political institutions, norms, cultures and histories in the divine economy.

At a minimum, a Christian ought to be able to provide, or should at least attempt to provide, a coherent theological rationale for why Christians can and should embrace certain Greek pagan political principles while at the same time rejecting certain Judeo-Christian political principles.

Although the “Greek problem” has largely gone unacknowledged and unremarked, I believe it plays a tacit role in the work of leading political theologians. Below I identify what I regard as three distinct strategies for resolving the “Greek problem” as I understand it.

First, the aforementioned Oliver O’Donovan exemplifies the first strategy which seeks to ground Western liberal political order (or a version thereof) in Israel’s and Christendom’s political norms: “the unique covenant of Yhwh and Israel can be seen as the point of disclosure from which the nature of all political authority comes into view (The Desire of the Nations, 45). Furthermore, he writes: “To display the liberal achievement correctly, we have to show it as the victory won by Christ over the nations’ rulers (229)”, since “the legal-constitutional conception is the essence of Christendom’s legacy” (240).

It is important to clarify that O’Donovan does not advocate an absolute return to either Israel’s political norms or that of Christendom.  Nor does he stand in opposition to democracy. Rather, he seeks to show that Western liberal political order is the direct product of Judeo-Christian political reflection and practice, with the Bible at its core.

It is interesting to note, however, that there is no substantive discussion of Greek political theory and history or its enduring impact on Western liberal political order in any of O’Donovan’s work in political theology. Moreover, he believes contemporary Western liberal political order is increasingly in danger of degeneracy precisely because it is moving further and further away from its Judeo-Christian foundations.

A second strategy is typified by Christos Yannaras, who openly embrace aspects of Greek politics in the shape of a Helleno-Christian synthesis. Yannaras argues that the “struggle of the polis passed organically to the self-governing communities” in Byzantium and that the “ecclesia of the demos” found its metaphysical continuity in the “ecclesia of the believers”.  Where O’Donovan sees contemporary Western liberal political norms at risk of degeneracy as a consequence of abandoning its biblio-Christendom roots, Yannaras sees it as long corrupted by its very embrace of Christendom and concomitant abandonment of Greek political thought and praxis. He argues in his untranslated work The Inhumanity of Rights that “individualization represents progress in relation to the medieval West, but it is a tragic regression in comparison to the historical precedent of ancient Greek politics and a Helleno-Christian anthropology centered on personhood”. (47)

Contra O’Donovan, Yannaras all but ignores the political legacy of Israel and sees the seeds of the West’s political salvation in a return to the Helleno-Christian political ideals put into effect in Athens and Constantinople.

For the third strategy, we turn to Stanley Hauerwas, who (implicitly) resolves the “Greek problem” by repudiating the sanctity of Western liberal political order altogether along with its putative ancestry: Israel, Athens, Christendom and Byzantium.

Hauerwas in After Christendom instead calls for Christians to focus on being the church as a distinct political community and thus maintaining critical distance from secular politics: “I am not asking the church to withdraw, but rather to give up the presumptions of Constantinian power, particularly when those take the form of liberal universalism” (18).  He adds: “We believe both the conservative and liberal church, the so-called private and public church, are basically accommodationist (that is Constantinian) in their social ethic.

Both assume wrongly that the American church’s primary social task is to underwrite American democracy” (per Resident Aliens with William Willimon, 32). “We argue that the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world” (38). As an interesting aside, Hauerwas’ critical ecclesial distance from the state arguably depends on the very thing it appears to reject: Western liberalism, including its Greek foundation, for it is probably only within a liberal Western democracy that the church can safely maintain its independent and critical stance unhindered and unmolested.

The respective merits of these three strategies I leave open—they deserve more than the casual critique possible within the confines of the present format. Suffice to say, the positions of our respective cast are more subtle and sophisticated than the impression created by my somewhat crude schematization. Still, they do allow a proto-classification of strategies for resolving the “Greek problem”: 1) Christian genealogy as an alternative to Greek genealogy (O’Donovan), Christian-Greek synthesis (Yannaras) and repudiation of both Greek and Christian political thought and practice (Hauerwas). These distinct strategies for dealing with the West’s Greek political legacy appear to indicate that the “Greek problem” forms an important cleavage in Christian political theology. Yet, none of the authors surveyed appears to recognize the existence of the “Greek problem” as I have characterized it.

So why is the “Greek problem” not more widely recognized and why is it not a central aporia of Christian political theology? For the implications of the problem seem to be profound. Does it mean that political institutions are purely the product of human ingenuity, and therefore the Christian is free to pick and choose the best of Greece’s, Israel’s and Christendom’s historically and culturally contingent political norms? Does it mean that God revealed certain universal and timeless political principles in Scripture which then need to be complemented from the realm of human ingenuity?

Or Does it mean that God actually reveal certain political norms through Greece and if so what would that mean for the notion of sacred history? The list of questions goes on. What is common to them is that they force us into the realm of substantive theopolitical discussion.

It is difficult to provide a definitive answer to my aporia about the lack of aporia about Christian political theology’s Greek aporia. But I wonder if it might have something to do with the narrow interests of theopolitical discourse, with its heavy emphasis on political commentary and activism, and its generally weak theoretical foundation, at least in comparison to related discipline such as political philosophy and political science, as I have argued previously.

In our age politics has become an all-consuming vortex of 24/7 media coverage saturated with an ever-multiplying cacophony of perspectives vomited or regurgitated into the public domain with the singular effect of eliciting instantaneous and unreflective reaction, opinion and action in lieu of serious contemplation, argument and engagement.

In that sense many Christians have perhaps simply fallen victim to the wider Western pathology of “politicizing ourselves to death” (to pay homage to Neil Postman’s masterpiece Amusing Ourselves to Death). Identifying and addressing political theology’s central aporias, and the “Greek problem” is by no means its only one, could serve both to strengthen the theoretical foundations of political theology and to inoculate Christians from uncritically imbibing or reacting to the cultural norms of their particular context and time.

Jonathan Cole is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia. He has a PhD in Political Theology and is a contributing editor to The New Polis.


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