Until Christ’s return, Christians will grapple with the implications of their beliefs for political, economic, and cultural realities.
Originally published in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd Edition, November 2017.
Political theology” is a recent term, emerging only in the twentieth century. Since its introduction, political theology has developed into an academic discipline relating theology to political, economic, and social arrangements. Broadening beyond the academic discipline, Christian political theology refers to any effort at probing the implications of the church’s beliefs, practices, and scriptures for political, social, and/or economic realities. This may entail probing the theological assumptions of political movements, practices, and theories, whether secular or Christian.
“Political” here has a wide understanding connected to social structures, economic practices, and cultural movements. This includes looking at the government, meaning the institutions, laws, customs, and exercise of authority for a particular political entity. It can also involve engaging any form of structural power used to organize a community of people.
The term “political theology” initially emerged from a 1922 book titled Political Theology by German legal scholar Carl Schmitt, although the contents of that book have little to do with what is now considered political theology. Schmitt drew the term from the late nineteenth century writings of Russian revolutionary anarchist Michail Bakunin, who believed that those in power problematically used God’s existence to justify domination of others. Where Bakunin saw all forms of government and political power as problems, Schmitt believed that the power of the state could and should keep anarchy at bay. Schmitt also believed that political orders needed a source of legitimization. Toward that end, he identified a relationship between the metaphysical concepts and the historical-political constructs of the day. As shifts occur in one, he argued, they inevitably occur in the other. To give an example, within Schmitt’s framework it makes sense that western Europeans generally picturing one God had a corresponding political structure involving a monarch; as European metaphysical images shifted, eventually the political structures would shift as well (eg, from monarchy to democracy).
In Schmitt’s view, all significant components of modern theories of the state were drawn from theology and then secularized. Schmitt tried to demonstrate that political sovereignty is a secularized version of the Christian understanding of God. He was especially known for emphasizing the “exception,” in which the current political authority can justify extraordinarily political measures to prevent chaos. While his political theory initially prevented supporting National Socialism, Schmitt supported Hitler upon his rise to power while Schmitt’s ideas related to authority and the exception provided support to Hitler’s dictatorship. This has understandably marred Schmitt’s intellectual legacy, although his writings have continued to generate interest in decades since. His most lasting contributions are not directly related to his ideas about political theology, which were contested even at that time.
Erik Peterson in particular, a friend and fellow scholar, disputed Schmitt’s arguments. Peterson maintained that Schmitt’s claim about political sovereignty was based on a distorted and heretical picture of the Trinitarian God. Peterson argued that early Christian apologists adopted problematic notions of monotheism drawn from other sources that associated God with omnipotence. Once Roman emperor Constantine experienced conversion to Christianity, Peterson continued, Christians like Eusebius of Caesarea mistakenly found theological support for the political power of the Roman Empire by looking at their conceptions of God. In Peterson’s estimation, those who held to the orthodox position in which the members of the Trinity were considered co-equal and co-eternal (against the notion of God in which the Son was subordinated to the Father) would not find it possible to correlate the political construct of the emperor and the metaphysical picture of God. Furthermore, Peterson’s thought was informed by a strong eschatology, which means that he did not sacralize current political arrangements but saw their shortcomings compared to the age to come.
These two threads of Peterson’s thought, eschatology and Trinitarian theology, became important in the articulation of a “new political theology” in the 1960s and 1970s. When scholars today refer to the emergence of political theology, they are often referring to a movement initiated by the Catholic theologian Johannes B. Metz and the Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann along with Dorothee Sölle and others writing in Germany in the late 1960s. These theologians were responding to the horrors committed during World War II, considering places like Auschwitz something that not only the country but also the church had to face.
Both Metz and Moltmann were drafted as teenagers to fight for Germany in the war and then captured and sent to prisoner-of-war camps as the war ended. Through photographs posted at one of these camps Moltmann, at age 19, discovered the horrors of the concentration camps in his own country, causing him to despair, while through fellow prisoners and an American chaplain he discovered Christianity and the Bible, which would eventually provide him with a new source of hope – a significant theme of his later political theology. Metz grew up Roman Catholic in a small mountain town before he was forced into the German army at 16. One evening he was sent to bring a message to battalion headquarters and wandered all night through burning villages and farms, returning to his company only to find every single person dead, including other teenagers like himself. This experience profoundly shaped his subsequent approach. He became convinced that theology needed to deal with actual history, even the hardest moments like the existence of Auschwitz, which neither the church of Germany nor its theologians adequately engaged.
Affected by their context in post-war Germany, first Metz and then Moltmann in the 1960s were concerned with articulating the public responsibilities of the Christian faith. Whereas Schmitt’s “old political theology” focused on the state and the basis of its political power, this new political theology addresses the church and its role in the world. It is deeply convinced that Christianity is not to be relegated to the private sphere, but the church is to be publicly engaged with social and political structures and realities. Eschatology and hope play a significant role, as both Metz and Moltmann were affected by Marxist Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope. Both theologians were also influenced by the strand of Marxist thought found in the Frankfurt School, drawing on the critical theory of its thinkers to assess modernity and probe the implications of Christian doctrine for praxis.
While usually considered a separate development from the original Schmitt-Peterson debate, Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology explicitly draws on Peterson’s argument. Following Peterson’s critique of monotheism, he believes that only robust trinitarianism enables the church to critique rather than sacralize political and social orders. Concerned that Christianity has too often colluded with political regimes rather than critiquing them, Moltmann permeates his writings with concern for oppression and alienation. When it comes to eschatology, for example, Moltmann believes that the future Kingdom we hope for in Christ profoundly influences how we imagine the present. This hopeful reimagination, in turn, enables us to transform the present, as we critique and reshape current structures in light of God’s vision for the future. This is not naïve hope that disregards present sufferings, but neither does it allow present sufferings or past events to entirely define reality. According to Moltmann, a Christian understanding must also include God’s promised future, anticipation of which can change today’s lived reality as it questions structures that perpetuate oppression. Moltmann’s christology likewise has political ramifications. That in Jesus Christ God himself was crucified by a political regime provides a theological basis for the church’s critical engagement with every political order. God’s suffering on the cross demonstrates God’s identification with suffering in this world, including those who suffer from humiliation, marginalization, and poverty. Out of these and other doctrinal convictions, Moltmann articulates specific ways the church can be politically, economically, and culturally engaged.
Related to the political theology that emerged from the German context was the liberation theology developing in Latin America around the same time. Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez and other Latin American Roman Catholic theologians began to articulate a “theology of liberation,” a phrase used for the first time in 1968, that connected the struggle for social justice in Latin America with their Christian faith. The result was a way of doing theology that weds reflection on the Word of God with Christian praxis, so that theology does not just inform what we do in a particular situation but is actually shaped by what we discover in concrete historical and political situations. In the Latin American context where the vast majority is poor, what emerged from this theological method was emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor and a call for the church to share God’s love for the poor by working toward their liberation from unjust oppression.
This theological method was used in articulating black liberation theologies in North America, with James Cone publishing A Black Theology of Liberation in 1970 and J. Doetis Roberts writing A Black Political Theology in 1974. These theologies probed the liberating implications of the gospel for the racism and oppression experienced by blacks in the United States. Likewise, a number of North American feminist theologians were inspired by Latin American liberation theology to explore the oppression of women, viewing God’s preferential option for the poor as relevant to their situation as well.
If we draw on such contextualized understanding of political theology while broadening our scope, we come to the understanding of political theology as any effort to probe the implications of the church’s beliefs, practices, and scriptures for political, social, and/or economic realities. This is how Christian political theology is generally understood today.
Accordingly, we can look back to see that political theology has a much longer history even if that precise term was not used. This history goes back further even than the church’s existence, as the Old Testament tells the stories of the efforts of God’s people to create political, social, and economic structures guided by their beliefs, practices, and God’s law. The New Testament, too, witnesses to the efforts of the early church to faithfully live within and engage the political, social, and economic arrangements of their day. The early church had to discern what faithful living entailed as it faced persecution and martyrdom within the Roman Empire, linked to refusing to worship Roman gods and to acknowledge emperors as divine (both of which were understood to be signs of political loyalty).
This theological and political discernment looked quite different after Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity. For the first time, it became possible to imagine that God would use an empire and its rulers to promote, rather than persecute, the Christian faith. Constantine’s decision to make Christianity a legal religion, and his involvement in church matters as emperor through convening the Council of Nicaea, paved the way for his successor, Theodosius, to make Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The advent of what we have come to call Constantinianism, in which a political regime uses its power to privilege Christianity and intercede in matters of the Christian faith, ushered in almost fifteen hundred years of experimentation as different relationships between “church” and “state” were tried in various forms of Christendom. Throughout this time, Christians were grappling with political theology as they wrestled with the ways the church ought to engage political structures that were understood to fall under the reign of Christ.
Augustine of Hippo stands out amongst such early church writers. His City of God, which Augustine began writing shortly after the fall of Rome in 410, continues to be a key text. While it addresses a wide range of issues, it is perhaps most well known for emphasizing the profound differences between the “heavenly city,” in which citizens are united together by their love of God in Christ, and the “earthly city,” in which citizens are marked by love of self and pursuit of power. Augustine does not neatly translate these two cities into the visible church and the existing political realm, nor does he think the heavenly city provides a blueprint for the earthly city. God’s purpose for the political realm within the earthly city is to restrain the ramifications of sin within a fallen world, and God does not ordain one specific political structure that needs to be implemented within the various cities of the world.
Following Augustine, in the medieval period we see continued grappling with the relationship between the church and the political realm. Within this Christendom context, the consensus was that God intended a single society composed of churchly and political authorities, but considerable debate took place over whether God intended the church and the pope to have supreme authority over political institutions or instead God ordained the political realm and its rulers to have their own authority and/or to have authority over the church. Popes such as Gelasius I, Gregory the Great, Leo III, Gregory VII, Innocent III, and Boniface VII offered various perspectives through the centuries, while rulers, theologians, and scholars like Justinian, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Giles of Rome, Dante Alighieri, Marsilius of Padua, and William of Ockham also contributed to the conversation.
Questions about the relationship between the political realm and the church continued during the Reformation era. Martin Luther’s understanding has come to be known as the Two Kingdoms doctrine. He believed that God ordained two different kingdoms, one sacred and one secular, and God also ordained different means for these kingdoms to fulfill their God-given functions. The temporal kingdom, responsible for preserving peace and order, is governed by civil law and the sword. The Kingdom of God is governed by the word of Christ and the Holy Spirit. While Christians live in both realms within a given political society, the kingdoms themselves are to remain separate and essentially operate with different guiding moralities. Luther went further than those before him in his convictions that both were divinely established realms in which God was equally active and that neither should interfere in the function of the other. Practically speaking, this means that civil law and the sword ought never to be used for enforcing Christian faith. On the other side, it means that, if called to serve in the earthly kingdom, Christians can understand their use of the sword as a way of serving God.
Fellow Reformer John Calvin shared with Luther the conviction that the political realm and the church were distinct, with the political realm alone having access to the sword, but he believed the two realms were to work closely together as they served God and encouraged godliness. In addition to promoting civil justice, the political realm could play a role in matters of faith as it encouraged outward piety and conformity to the moral law. Calvin acknowledged that the political realm could not address the inner transformation that only Jesus Christ can bring, which is why its focus was on outward behavior such as preventing idolatry, blasphemy, and other offenses against God that were named in the Ten Commandments, which Calvin understood to express of God’s timeless moral law. The church, meanwhile, had a role to play in encouraging faithfulness through its teaching, ordering of worship, and discipline. It also promoted the well-being of the larger community as Christians lived out their love of God and neighbor. The church, in other words, was not relegated to the “private sphere” but contributed to the greater public good. Calvin’s ideas were not merely theoretical, as he had the opportunity to both develop and implement them when he was asked to help transform Geneva into a Protestant city.
Around this same time, another way of conceptualizing the implications of Christianity for the political realm was developed by the Anabaptist movement. Emerging in Switzerland and spreading from there, this movement believed that the church was in need of not just reform but dramatic transformation to recover its New Testament shape. Anabaptists, rejecting most developments since the time of Constantine, thought that the church should have no connection to the political realm. This meant no Christian participation in military service, any civic or political office, swearing oaths, or the like. Anabaptist convictions were rooted in their interpretation of the New Testament and particularly a literal understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. They developed a different view of baptism from their reading of Scripture as well; they believed that only those who could understand its meaning should be baptized and become part of the church, as opposed to the common practice of infants being baptized into the established church of a particular nation. From their reading of Scripture Anabaptists also developed strong convictions that whatever property or possessions they had were to be used to help those in need. Anabaptists faced tremendous persecution because their convictions were considered extreme even for those engaged in the Reformation.
Much has changed since then, but the ideas of Luther, Calvin, and the Anabaptist tradition continue to exert significant influence today. Politically speaking, the most significant development in the West has been the emergence of political societies in which the church plays no explicit role and is not privileged in any official way. The Christendom model largely ended with the creation or emergence of Western political societies that are considered secular, meaning not directly connected to religious institutions, beliefs, and practices. Many different theological voices have grappled with the implications of Christianity in a post-Christendom context.
For the Roman Catholic Church, this involved considering the role of the Church in relation to changing political and economic realities. A body of doctrine that is collectively known as Catholic social teaching began to emerge in the late 1800s when Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical focused on the economic and social conditions facing the working class. This document called for the state to promote social justice and promote the common good while arguing in support of private poverty and what has come to be known as the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity acknowledges the importance of other social entities besides the state, arguing that social problems should be addressed at the lowest and most local level possible. This principle limits the role of the state through its acknowledgment of a God-given place for family, unions, and local communities and civic associations.
Responding to similar changing social and political dynamics, Dutch theologian, pastor, and politician Abraham Kuyper drew on Calvin and the Reformed tradition to develop a new concept called sphere sovereignty, which acknowledged politics and the church as distinct realms but went on to maintain that the family, education, the arts, and economics were also important spheres established by God. All of these spheres need space to legitimately co-exist within a single political society but they do not need to be distinctively Christian to fulfill their God-given purpose, so the church ought not to try to direct either politics or the other spheres, nor should the other spheres try to encroach upon the church.
Early in the 20th century, Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who spent considerable time in Germany, was awakened into questioning the church’s relationship to the political realm when he realized, to his dismay, that his German theology professors signed a petition supporting Germany’s entrance into the First World War. Barth’s subsequent theological journey led him to re-establish the significance of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ as the source of theology, and to maintain that theological thinking rooted in the Word of God had political and social implications. The Barmen Declaration, written with other Confessing Church pastors as a protest against the rise of Hitler and the acceptance of National Socialism into the German church, demonstrates Barth’s conviction that confessing Jesus Christ as the Word of God whom we must trust and obey has political implications even without the use of explicitly political language.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also part of the Confessing Church who believed that theology can and must address political situations. Watching the vast majority of German churches around him accept Nazism and allow the church itself to be changed by its doctrines, he believed the church to be capitulating to the political realm. Bonhoeffer called instead for the church to call the political realm to account. While he had the opportunity to stay in America during the Second World War, Bonhoeffer instead returned to Germany to be with his people so that he might have an authentic voice during and after the war. Becoming involved in the resistance movement which attempted to assassinate Hitler, he was arrested during the war and killed after a 2-year imprisonment in which he continued thinking and writing about the church’s societal and political responsibility.
In the North American context, Reinhold Niebuhr was an influential theologian and public intellectual who articulated a perspective that came to be known as Christian realism in the 1940s and 1950s. Rooted in the Christian conviction that society and politics are corrupt due to human sinfulness, he argued that we need to limit our expectations for the political realm while continuing to seek justice and peace. For Niebuhr, this involved rejecting his commitment to pacifism.
Offering a different perspective, John Howard Yoder was one of the most articulate advocates of Christian non-violence. His Politics of Jesus, published in 1972, critiqued Niebuhr’s realism while helping to popularize a contemporary Anabaptist perspective on the political significance of the church’s pacifist witness in this world. Influenced by Yoder, theologian, ethicist, and prolific writer Stanley Hauerwas has further popularized Yoder’s perspective by writing about, among many other topics, the church’s calling to be its own polis. Christians are to provide a distinct witness as resident aliens within the larger political societies of which they are a part, which involves recognizing how easy it is for the church to be unfaithfully formed by the narratives of the wider political culture rather than its own narratives and practices. Hauerwas’ students have continued the conversation about the political significance of the church’s witness, with William Cavanaugh offering a particularly provocative account of how the Church lost its public role with the rise of the liberal nation-state. Cavanaugh, a Catholic, argues for the significance of the Eucharist in forming the church into a faithful people who can resist the state’s false narratives.
Cavanaugh is sometimes associated with a theological movement called Radical Orthodoxy that arose out of a British Anglo-Catholic context in the 1990s. Committed to probing every aspect of modern culture from a theological perspective, Radical Orthodoxy identifies the theological assumptions and implications of supposedly neutral, secular political and cultural practices and ideas. As an example, John Milbank, one of its founding members, questions the creation of the nation-state as a realm distinct from the church, believing that it problematically reinforces the idea that secular areas of life exist disconnected from the spiritual realm. In a contemporary articulation of Christendom, he believes that the church ought to be the predominant political institution.
Writing from a very different Anglican perspective, Oliver O’Donovan directly addresses the academic discipline of political theology, pushing it to consult the biblical story and patristic, medieval, and Reformation writings, which bring the notion of political authority to the fore. O’Donovan’s exploration of the reign of Jesus Christ, who has disarmed and triumphed over all the powers, leads him to suggest that Christendom may be the result of the church’s faithfulness in mission, which rightly involves proclaiming the reign of Christ to political authorities. Space still remains for a secular political realm following the original use of the term secular as belonging to this age, but not enduring into the new age that Christ will usher in.
Until Christ’s return, Christians will grapple with the implications of their beliefs for political, economic, and cultural realities. While academic theologians wrestle with these implications in one type of discourse, hoping that their writings connect with lived realities, many Christian practitioners around the world work out political theologies on the ground as they seek to faithfully engage, critique, and form the social structures, economic practices, and cultural movements of their times and places. As they do so, they draw upon the deep biblical roots related to political theology and further build up the discourse that has been emerging as generations of the Church connect their Christian faith with the larger world in which they live.
Augustine. Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans (426). Translated by Henry Bettenson. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1972.
Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (1971). Translated by Sister Caridid Inda and John Eagleson. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973.
Hauerwas, Stanley. After Christendom: How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas. Nashville: Abingdon, 1991.
Metz, Johannes Baptist. Theology of the World (1968). Translated by William Glen-Doepel. New York: Herder & Herder, 1969.
Moltmann, Jürgen. Theology of Hope (1965). Translated by James W. Leitch. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.
O’Donovan, Oliver. The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concepts of Sovereignty (1922). Translated by G. Schwab. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005.
Peter Scott and William T. Cavanaugh, eds. The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus (1972). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.