Thursday, October 7, 2010

Christian Political Theology

In an excellent book published in 2007, The Stillborn God, Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla lays out an excellent analysis of what he calls the demise of Christian political theology. He argues that political theology arose in Greece, was transferred to Rome when that power overwhelmed the Mediterranean world, and after Constantine, it arose in the newly Christianized Roman context, but now as a "Christian political theology." That political theology was developed first by thinkers such as Eusebius, Athanasius, and the Cappadocian Fathers, but in spades by Augustine, especially in his City of God. Thomas further explicated how this could work, using especially Aristotelian categories, and Calvin finished the exposition, using biblical models for understanding exactly how such a culture should be molded.

This Christian political theology was not specific about just exactly what kind of rule was best (monarchy, empire, aristocracy, or polity), so that there was a great fluidity in Christian politics. But at some level the king was seen as the body of society and the church as its soul, or in some situations the king was seen as having "two bodies,"one physical and the other spiritual, or society was pictured as having two swords. In this trinitarian, incarnational theology of a God who was transcendent, yet not remote, lay the notion that God was close enough that he could come to us or that we could come to him, and that part of the governing structure of the body politic was to maintain that connection or nexus, however conceived.

Lilla argues that the beginnings of the end of this synthesis came with the English civil war. That war, waged largely between two varying interpretations of Anglicanism, brought an immediate, though not final, end to Anglican episcopacy. Lilla argues, though, that it had a larger impact. That impact can be seen especially in the work of Thomas Hobbes, and to a lesser degree, in the writings of John Locke. Hobbes's Leviathan spelled the end of Christian political theology, at least in the sense that he demonstrated it was no longer necessary, and that eventually it would fade from view. In the centuries that followed, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Marx and others would add their voices to the mix, and the result is what we see in European societies today, and, in an increasing obvious manner, in America.

The analysis is brief, though trenchant. One does not have to agree with all of Lilla's assumptions or conclusions to recognize that this is an important book. What surprises me is that I have missed the book for over two years though I have been working in this area. I recommend this as an important read for those interested in history, politics, or theology. Or all three!

Chad Owen Brand


  1. If you haven't come across it yet, check out my blog, the "Political Theology Agenda":


  2. Interesting post.