Wolterstorff’s “The Mighty and the Almighty”: What is Political Theology?

For an upcoming conference, I am reading Nicholas Wolterstorff’s excellent and The Mighty and the Almightyeminently readable book, The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology. In some future posts, I will get into his argument concerning the dual authority of the church and the state, as well as some important counterpoints to his view (he takes Augustine to be one such counterpoint, and this will also allow me to resume my Augustinian posting).

For this first post, though, I thought to explain a little bit about the subject itself. Political theology may be misinterpreted by those who are imbued with the spirit of post-20th-century American constitutionalism to be tantamount to ecclesiastical or clerical rule (or, perhaps, rule by theologians). But it is actually an account of the relationship of divine and human authority in matters of politics and governance. As Wolterstorff puts it: “[A]t the core of traditional political theology was the question of how God’s authority is related to the authority of the state.” (2) Political theology treats the question, for example, of how a person or a people can reconcile these different authorities and demands in their own lives. And it is Wolterstorff’s aim to articulate a distinctly Christian political theology in the book.

Even so, putting the problem of political theology in this fashion may sound unusual to modern ears. Even if God’s authority was once a political problem, have we not gotten past all of that? Mark Lilla, whom Wolterstorff cites early in the book, recently explained in his intellectual history of the subject that the God of political theology is actually a “stillborn God”–a God that ought not enter into the political calculations of modernity. Though I wonder whether Wolterstorff is exactly right that Lilla was offering a requiem for political theology (more like an admonition to be mindful of the dangerous endurance of political theology), Wolterstorff presents two cogent reasons for the salience of political theology today.

First, believers in God have reason to attend to political theology because the relationship of God’s law to the civil law is a perennial problem for them. And, indeed, there is a long Christian tradition stretching for more than 1000 years (from roughly 500 to 1600) that offered a compelling answer to the problem of political theology–what Wolterstorff calls the “two rules doctrine,” which he contests (more on this in future posts).

Second, political theology is not dead; rather, says Wolterstorff, it has been “flying under the radar.” (3) Wolterstorff’s primary focus here is on some of the writing of Augustine, Calvin, and John Howard Yoder (a twentieth century Christian ethicist), but I might put the point more broadly. Many accounts of political thought have buried within them a collection of assumptions–often not explicitly laid out–of the relationship between the state’s power and other powers (perhaps greater powers) that lie outside the state. Attending directly to the ways in which a political system conceives of the authority and power of different realms (including its own) helps to excavate and shine a light on its deepest commitments.

One response

  1. Very interesting, Marc. I guess Wolterstorff is focused on Western Christianity? There is a complementary (some would say, contrasting) Eastern Christian tradition on these questions, going back to the patristic period. But mostly it’s inaccessible to Christians in the West, I think.

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