November 03, 2012

Nicholas Wolterstorff, The Mighty and the Almighty

This book engages the important question of how God's authority is related to the authority of the state (2). It is a extended reflection in political theology, that is, thinking in a Christian way about the nature and authority of the state. The book comes out of lectures given by Wolterstorff in 1998, but, interestingly, he says he wasn't happy with the lectures in the form he delivered them (vi), so he set the material aside and returned to it occasionally over the intervening fourteen years, in the course of his other work, arriving at the product produced in this book. The book still retains much of the lecture "feel," in its direct tone and light annotation, but this isn't a deficit, and in fact makes what may otherwise have been overly technical accessible to the interested reader.

Wolterstorff's reflections are built on the character of Polycarp, one of Christianity's early martyrs, who exhibited an almost paradoxical allegiance to Jesus Christ and a recognition of the state. Out of Polycarp's situation, Wolterstorff recognizes two key dualities: "the duality of the authority of the state mediating the authority of God, and the duality of Christians being under the authority of both church and state." It is the exploration of these dualities that occupies the remainder of the book.

After looking at two possible objections to his framing of the situation (one from Yoder and one based on the "two-cities" understanding), he goes on to explore the nature of authority, of government, and of the specific authority to govern. These provide the reader with helpful summaries of what are obviously complex issues, laying important groundwork for the exposition to come. And after investigating Calvin's understanding of the relationship of God's authority and that of the state, he moves on to look at Romans 13, one of the key texts for Christian reflection on the stage.

The chapter on Paul really forms the heart of the book, both because of the historical prominence of this chapter in past Christian thought and because of the fruitfulness of his rereading of the passage. Without going into the details, two key points go together. This first is that most interpreters have looked at the passage and seen the first verse, emphasizing government's God-given authority, as the key to interpretation, whereas Wolterstorff asserts (not without warrant, I think) that verses four and five, which detail more specifically what government is and why it has been so authorized by God (emphasizing government's role as God's agent to curb wrongdoing). He asserts, "With verse 4 in mind, our immediate thought is that they [governing authorities] are not just instituted, period, full stop. . . . we know that they are instituted to do something, appointed to do something" (94, emphasis original). This interpretation is certainly not new, but what is more novel is that, in his argument, this dovetails with an earlier point regarding the nature of authority, where he differentiated between positional authority (that is, actions one possesses the power to enact by virtue of a position of authority) and performance authority (that is, actions that one has been given permission to undertake; 48). While many Christian interpreters have assumed something resembling the first understanding of authority when looking at Romans 13, Wolterstorff asserts that Paul has in mind the latter. This key interpretive move is at the heart of his argument. And he takes his conclusion one important step further. He asserts that the outline of government in Romans 13 would thus imply that government is to be a rights-honoring institution, since transgressing rights is in fact injustice and governments are tasked with punishing, not perpetrating, injustice. This leads him down a path he didn't fully expect at the outset of his own work: "I found a case for the liberal democratic state gradually emerging—albeit for a less individualistic understanding of the liberal democratic state than is common" (5).

 Wolterstorff's clearly written book does an outstanding job of formulating (or at least pointing toward) a theology of government, one that has potential to bear much fruit. Readers interested in questions of politics and theology will do well to take this work into account. Likewise, those interested in Pauline theology or Romans will likewise benefit from engaging with his reading of Romans 13. The book is scholarly, but also concise and direct, making it manageable for the interested general reader, and I hope many pick it up. I look forward to engaging more with his thoughtful writing, for I think it can illuminate why conflicts between religious and political spheres do in fact occur, and help us navigate a path through them that is true to the nature of each, all the while being ultimately faithful to the sovereign Lord who holds our full and ultimate allegiance.

Thanks to Cambridge University Press and the Amazon Vine program for the review copy of this book.

No comments: