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The Necessity of Political Theology in Political Science

Though at times obscured by the array of content from the subfields of political science, there is a fundamental relationship between theology and the study of politics. The very origins of political reflection can be traced to the resistance of the philosopher to the disorder of the polis that arises out of the souls of the citizens who give the city its character.[1] Thus, politics has always been concerned with questions of order, peace and happiness in human interactions, and has always understood that these questions have a fundamental connection to the very hearts and souls of individual citizens. Though the original Platonic approach to political philosophy directs politics toward the correction and development of the soul,[2] it is not possible to return to a strictly classical vision of political existence after the advent of Christianity.

The problem of classical philosophy after Plato was the inability of Plato to successfully resolve or transmit a solution to the question of mediation between transcendence and the world.[3] This insoluble problem constituted what Alasdair MacIntyre has referred to as an “epistemological crisis.”[4] That is, when traditional paths of thinking reveal dead-ends and “[begin] to have the effect of increasingly disclosing new inadequacies, hitherto unrecognized incoherencies, and new problems for the solution of which there seem to be insufficient or no resources within the established fabric of belief.”[5] This intellectual crisis further contributed to the breakdown of classical political order because its partial apprehension of reality only yielded a Promethean spirit of “defiance and revolt…followed by confusion, defeat, and despair.”[6] Plato could only hint in his day at the soul’s need for transcendence. It remained for Christianity to declare the possibility of the soul’s salvation through the gracious movement of God toward man.[7]

The advent of Christianity rescued philosophy from the stagnation of the Greek failure to create a bridge between the one and the many. However, the vision of eschatological salvation Christianity provided also opened the door to misunderstanding and eventual abuse through the derailment of Christianity into various gnostic formulations,[8] which eventually culminated in the catastrophe of political ideologies in the last century.[9] Fundamentally, the unprecedented destruction witnessed by the last century was not caused by the technical developments of the weaponry of war, but by the ideological revolt of the totalitarian movements from the order of creation that is seen as defective and in need of correction.[10] David Walsh notes, “The horrors of our times have been attributable not so much to the perennial lusts, stupidities, and misunderstandings that have always plagued the relationships of human beings, but more to a quite novel passion to compel recalcitrant reality to fit within the perimeters of one or another intellectual system.”[11] As reality has continued to resist transformation by human control, it becomes clear to those not blinded with ideological passion that the root issue is more than the desire for techniques of improvement. Rather, as Walsh states, “In its ideological manifestation, the will to power is rooted in a hatred of reality and revolt against its divine source.”[12] Thus, the various mass ideological movements of the twentieth century were one and all not only religiously derivative from Christian eschatology, but also functioned as ersatz religions with their very own competing narratives of creation, fall and redemption.[13]

Given that Christianity’s revelation of the parousia creates the possibility of gnostic ideologies, it is only fitting that the twentieth century’s revival of serious political speculation return to Christianity for the correct diagnosis of these ideologies, but also that the diagnosis necessarily point out the corrective.[14] The Christian response to political crisis cannot be a simple reminder of the Christian insight into the depravity of man (despite how important and necessary this insight has been in history). If this were the only Christian response needed, the spiritual crisis of the last century would have been easily avoided because it would never have constituted an actual crisis. If depravity is Christianity’s only lens, then we have no response to Machiavelli’s recommendation of “cruelties well used.”[15] Few have considered that the truly bedeviling problem of politics is not depravity, but rather humanity’s possibility of redemption, namely the restraint of sin within individual persons and their restitution to a right relationship with God in this life. Therefore, the goal for Christians studying politics must be to show how grace affects politics, whether in the form of common grace[16] or the salvific grace of redeemed individuals who are citizens of the City of God, but are presently intermixed among earthly citizens.

The development of common grace is fundamentally tied to God’s continuing superintendence of creation after the fall.[17] Since the fall is a rejection of God’s rule and reign over all of creation, it would stand to reason that our rejection would have abridged God’s care for humanity, and the world would quickly spiral into chaos, if not simply cease to exist. However, this has not been the case, and the non-salvific mercy of God in continuing to supervise his creation is expressed as common grace. As Abraham Kuyper notes, “Sin unbridled and unfettered, left to itself, would forthwith have led to a total degeneracy of human life…But God arrested sin in its course in order to prevent the complete annihilation of His divine handiwork.”[18] In that it provides an element or restraint against the corrupting and damaging influences of human imperfection, it is clear that common grace can be formulated in largely negative terms of what is prevented, or what actions and courses humans are restrained from. However, the negative aspects of common grace do not exhaust its possibilities and operations within the human sphere. Common grace can also be formulated in positive terms to explain what man has achieved and how he has flourished. Kuyper declares:

“‘Common grace’ will thereby achieve a purpose of its own [i.e. independent of salvation]. It will not only serve to bring about the emergence of the human race, to bring to birth the full number of the elect [i.e. simply restrain the destruction of humanity so that men may be redeemed], and to arm us increasingly and more effectively against human suffering, but also independently to bring about in all its dimensions…the full emergence of what God had in mind when he planted…nuclei of higher development in our race.”[19]

This higher development is a blessing from God regardless of whether it originates within Christianity or without and indicates that Christians can be confident that any truth in this world is God’s truth.[20] Christians, therefore, can faithfully interact with the world even in secular settings assured that their involvement does not need to be in explicitly Christian terms for it to represent God’s graciousness to the world.

While common grace gives notice that God’s providence generally remains in this world, this does not exhaust a Christian account of politics because it does not address what happens when redeemed individuals act accordingly in the world. Human society not only corresponds to the reality of the cosmos as a microcosmos[21] but also functions as a macroanthropos.[22] Eric Voegelin explains, “As a general principle [this] means that in its order every society reflects the type of men of whom it is composed.”[23] The uniqueness of individual humans can manifest an array of experiences ranging from the virtuous to the vicious, all of which are completely possible in both individuals and groups. So there is a dual import to the anthropological principle; on the one hand, it calls for symbolizations of order within society that account for humanity as it is in reality, but, on the other hand, humanity as it exists is not naturally good so society can manifest the vices as well as the virtues of its citizens.

As Christians provide revelational insight into the nature of humanity and its proper ordering, the order of society can shift toward a fuller conception of these anthropological principles. Therefore, the presence of Christians within a given polity will affect the order expressed and represented in that polity if only by making certain thoughts thinkable. Similar actions undertaken by the mass of individual Christians throughout society will at minimum produce a leavening effect on political culture.

Institutionalizing certain Christian principles within the polity is theologically permissible as long as this is clearly understood as simple derivation from Christianity and that it does not constitute Christian membership for those in the polity who follow these strictures. David Walsh captures a sense of the accomplished institutionalization when he writes, “Not only has global modernity derived from a Christian orbit, but it carries within it the imprint of its Christian past that cannot be ignored so conveniently. Christianity is not merely the empty husk sloughed off by a modernity now capable of standing on its own feet. It is much closer to the inner code that pervades a civilization secular in appearance but still deeply Christian in its soul.”[24]

While Christian categories such as redemption and grace are strictly theological in operation, their existence in reality provides possibilities and a pattern for appropriation into political order, but its mirror image, namely misappropriation, also appears and deserves attention. Misappropriation is the ever-present possibility of misconstruing and misapplying a symbol into a realm where it cannot provide representation according to its constituent experiential basis.[25] This description applies to all attempts to make salvation a function of political society, but also to a myriad of other constructions of theopolitical imaginations.[26] While the attempted representation is undertaken in good faith that the developed symbolization can authoritatively represent an aspect of reality, it becomes evident that the symbol cannot function as it was originally intended. This leads to the malfunctioning and disorder of political institutions and operations that were premised upon correct representation. The idea is evident in such examples as the misappropriation of freedom or personal autonomy into a defense of suicide or drug abuse. In both of these cases, the representative symbols of freedom or personal autonomy are intended for human flourishing and have broken down by being misappropriated to situations that cannot express the experiences of reality they are meant to represent. Acts of misappropriation need not be limited to individuals, but can also appear in societal actions that bear severe consequences within the political order at large.

Appropriation functions as a political benefit because it correctly symbolizes something of reality. It is an expression of the fundamental tension between nomos (law and convention) and physis (nature) that has been recognized since the birth of philosophy.[27] The greater the degree of correlation between the conventions of human existence and the true order of the universe, the better the chance of harmonious human relations between each other as well as with the cosmos as a whole. Conversely, the misappropriation of theology into the political realm misrepresents reality and derails collective action through its faulty logic and operation regarding human representations and their institutions. The political problems that develop from misappropriation cannot be exhaustively delineated because the facets of reality cannot be numbered and each can be incorrectly represented with varying detrimental effects.

The matter of misappropriation is further complicated because the derailment of symbols and subsequent political problems are not necessarily immediately obvious or perceivable. This can be traced to the initial representation of the symbol. If the deformation of the symbol in misappropriation is immediately evident, there is little chance that the misappropriation will actually be carried out. Misappropriation is fully evident when it reaches the stage of Orwellian doublethink and doublespeak where war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.[28] The difficulty with misappropriation lies in identifying it before the full extent of its corruption is felt. This is difficult because every misappropriation initially appears to be an authorized appropriation that will correctly represent universal reality in concrete detail, or else it would not have been attempted.

Particularly as the consequences of incorrectly representing symbols in the political realm can lead to such catastrophic results, it may seem prudent to avoid notions of redemption in political actions. It cannot be denied that some of the most horrific actions of the twentieth century were motivated by regimes inspired by misappropriations of salvation that they could transform or redeem the world from its present state of corruption. If, as Eric Voegelin indicates, Gnostic movements arise out of Christianity’s own soteriological differentiation,[29] why should modern political theory not seek to avoid any connection with theological material? The difficulty of such an eminently reasonable inference is that after the Christian differentiation[30] it is necessary to retain the symbols representative of diremption and redemption. Voegelin notes:

“Theory is bound by history in the sense of the differentiating experiences. Since the maximum of differentiation was achieved through Greek philosophy and Christianity, this means concretely that theory is bound to move within the historical horizon of classical and Christian experiences. To recede from the maximum of differentiation is theoretical retrogression; it will result in the various types of derailment.”[31]

Classical philosophy cannot independently function after the critique and advancement offered by Christian revelation that proved technically superior philosophically.[32] It is also impossible to avoid the theoretical and practical connection of diremption and redemption. As Charles Norris Cochrane notes, “‘Forgiveness,’ i.e. a realization of the possibility of a clean sheet and a new deal…follow automatically as a consequence of accepting the Christian starting point.”[33] Every exploration of depravity as an inhibitor of collective action, namely through its communal manifestations of ignorance, passions, and self-interest, entails the concurrent introduction of salvation because depravity only exists as an identification of difference from the correct position or state. Representative symbols of redemption are unavoidably implicit or explicit within all contemporary political reflection.

The only option available is not to avoid the theology of redemption, but rather to appropriate it correctly so as to avoid or limit the harmful effects of misappropriation. As Reinhold Niebuhr similarly notes, “Neither the finiteness of the human mind nor the sinful corruption of the mind…can completely efface the human capacity [for] apprehension of the true wisdom.”[34] Niebuhr elsewhere refers to this as, “the vitality of children of God.”[35] As we have seen, however, this blessing is not without its pitfalls. Niebuhr further states, “It is this capacity for self-transcendence which gives rise to both the yearning after God and to the idolatrous worship of false gods.”[36] In more pointed detail, Niebuhr writes, “Nothing short of the knowledge of the true God will save [humanity] from the impiety of making themselves God and the cruelty of seeing their fellow men as devils because they are involved in the same pretension.”[37] Man will always worship something,[38] so political theory cannot neglect the theological account that seeks to correctly represent the experiences of reality because it must recur to this to develop and evaluate its own efforts of working within the cosmos. Political theology is thus, at minimum, present in every course in politics – whether it is as an undercurrent in domestic politics or an outright matter of investigation in theoretical courses.



[1] “Philosophy…has its origin in the resistance of the soul to its destruction by society. Philosophy in this sense, as an act of resistance illuminated by conceptual understanding…is first, and most importantly, an act of salvation for himself and others, in that the evocation of right order and its reconstitution in his own soul becomes the substantive center of a new community which by its existence, relieves the pressure of the surrounding corrupt society.” Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. 3: Plato and Aristotle (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 68.

[2] See Plato’s Gorgias 464B-464C

[3] Cf. Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture throughout for more detail in this regard.

[4] Alisdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1989), 361.

[5] Ibid., 362.

[6] Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action From Augustus to Augustine (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2003), 456

[7] “The Christian bending of God in grace toward the soul does not come within the range of [Greek] experiences – though, to be sure, in reading Plato one has the feeling of moving continuously on the verge of a breakthrough into this new dimension.” Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 78.

[8] “The temptation to fall from uncertain truth into certain untruth is stronger in the clarity of Christian faith than in other spiritual structures.” Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2004) 83.

[9] See David Koyzis’ Political Visions and Illusions for an excellent overview of political ideologies as forms of idolatry.

[10] Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, 64-65.

[11] David Walsh, After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990) 10.

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13]See the chapter on “Ersatz Religions” in Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism.

[14] “The diagnostic and therapeutic functions are inseparable in philosophy as a form of existence.” Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956), xiv.

[15] See Machiavelli’s The Prince ch. 8.

[16] We may credit the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper with explicating the importance of common grace for understanding Christianity as not only an ecclesial religion, but also a worldview. See his Lectures on Calvinism.

[17] “When man sinned, [God] did not permit him to go unpunished, but neither did He abandon him without mercy… It can in no wise be believed, then, that He has chosen to exclude the kingdoms of men and their lordships and servants from the laws of His providence.” Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 206.

[18] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 123.

[19] Abraham Kuyper, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 179.

[20] See also Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, 2.40 for his account of “spoiling the Egyptians.”

[21] “Human society is not merely a fact, or an event, in the external world to be studied by an observer like a natural phenomenon…it is as a whole a little world, a cosmion, illuminated with meaning from within by the human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization.” Voegelin, New Science, 27.

[22] Plato first developed this principle in his declaration that the city is “man writ large” See The Republic, 368D-369B.

[23] Voegelin, New Science, 61-62.

[24] David Walsh, The Third Millennium: Reflections on Faith and Reason (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999), 5.

[25] Humans throughout history have consistently developed communal symbols to express the experience of the existence of a transcendent order and their participation within that order. This is why Voegelin declares political science fundamentally concerns “an exploration of the symbols by which political societies interpret themselves as representatives of a transcendent truth.” Voegelin, New Science, 1.

[26] The phrase is borrowed from the title of William Cavanaugh’s Theopolitical Imagination.

[27] See for example, Plato, Gorgias 482C-483A.

[28] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Plume/Harcourt Brace, 1983), 3.

[29] Voegelin, New Science, 107.

[30] According to Voegelin, symbols can be more compact or more differentiated. See also Voegelin, Order and History, Vol. 1, 163 and following.

[31] Voegelin, New Science, 79.

[32] See Voegelin, New Science, 80, footnote 7.

[33] Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 557.

[34] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, Vol. II: Human Destiny (New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1951), 63.

[35] Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 146

[36] Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny, Vol. II, 63

[37] Niebuhr, Interpretation, 146.

[38] A point clearly intimated by Augustine in the famous opening of his Confession as the inverse of his dictum: “Because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you,” which he indicates when he continues, “For he may call for some other help, mistaking it for yours.” Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Classics, 1961), 21.

David BeerDavid Beer

David Beer

David Beer is the Associate Director of the Center for Christian Faith & Culture and Associate Professor of Political Science at Malone University.

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