Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh, 2013), is the Director of the Davenant Trust, a non-profit dedicated to the renewal of Protestant theology and ethics at the intersection of the church and academy, and an Associate Editor of the journal Political Theology. He has written and published in Reformation studies, historical political theology, and issues in economic ethics, with a particular interest in the thought and legacy of English theologian Richard Hooker.


Jesus knows full well, after all (cf. Jn. 13:36-38) that Peter is denying him. And yet he does not deny Peter. Even while his disciples are scattering and hiding, Jesus confidently declares that they will bear witness to him, as indeed they would after his resurrection.

The biblical images of God as divine king are often handled with embarrassment in a more egalitarian age. However, although it may appear little more than accommodation to ancient despotic assumptions, throughout the Scriptures the kingship of God is presented as a great force for liberation against all human tyrants.

Earlier this week, two prominent Catholic political bloggers, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry (better known as Pegobry, or just PEG), engaged in a short but sharp exchange on the subject of property rights (see here, here, here, and here). There is not space here for a full discussion (see a longer version of this post here if you are interested in more), but I will seek to add some insight from Thomas Aquinas, who has perhaps done more than anyone to inform the Catholic Church’s reflection on these issues.

The stark repetition of the admonition to being of one mind in the first and last phrases is particularly arresting, and particularly challenging for us today. After all, for contemporary liberalism, being of one mind is no virtue, and the same could be said for most contemporary Christians. We no longer think of pluralism as simply a pragmatic political strategy for negotiating irresolvable difference, but as a good in itself. It is difference, we say, that makes us strong, tolerance and indeed embrace of otherness.

In most reflections about Good Friday and the events surrounding the Passion, the focus is squarely on Jesus, and to be sure, one can hardly deny that this is where it should be. However, it is interesting to note the extent to which the Gospel authors are quite interested in what these events reveal about the disciples that had followed Jesus up to this climactic point in his ministry—not just the Twelve, of course, but all those who had heard his word and believed in him.

Romans 13:1-7 has stood as one of the most important texts throughout the history of Christian political thought, but like so many biblical texts, has proven capable of being put to the service of several different—even contradictory—ends. The 16th century in particular stimulated several different readings of the passage, readings which have continued to remain popular down to the present day.

. . . In other words, disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan confront us with the sobering reality that the deepest, deadliest and most intransigent problems we face today are social problems, not technical problems. We continue to deceive ourselves with the hope that if we can but increase our knowledge of the world, our technical know-how at problem-solving the riddles that nature poses for us, we can defeat death and disease.

. . . Often much more important than what people argue is how people argue. . . . Many whom we may have hastily taken as kindred spirits, because they happen to have reached some conclusion we moderns take for granted, turn out on closer inspection to have been motivated by wholly different concerns, so that the convergence is largely illusory. Others, however, whom we might be apt to dismiss as barbaric for their unenlightened ideas, turn out to have been strikingly liberal-minded.

I am grateful to Bill Cavanaugh for taking the time to respond to my blog post of two weeks ago, “Modernity Criticism and the Question of Violence,” and giving me the opportunity to clarify better the nature of my criticisms. Clearly such clarification is in order, as Cavanaugh’s response seems to have struck off in something of the wrong direction, defending theses that were not really under challenge. If I may adapt the opening from his post, Cavanaugh’s response would raise significant difficulties for the thesis of my critique if (1) the argument of that critique were directed against The Myth of Religious Violence and (2) my purpose was to endorse Steven Pinker’s triumphalist progressivism. The first of these premises is false, and the second is highly questionable.

Debates over the virtue or vice of modern liberal political arrangements often boil down to narratives about violence, whether we are speaking of violence in its literal sense, or in the more metaphorical use made so fashionable by postmodernism, namely, the attempt to erase or neutralize difference. According to the eulogists of liberalism, it rescued us from the darker ages of religious tyranny, in which zealots of orthodoxy used political power to enforce uniformity, and even to violently persecute dissenters.

As on so many issues that divide left-wing and right-wing Christians, the Bible seems frustratingly pliable when it comes to the issue of property rights. Conservative Christians like to assert that the Bible takes private property for granted, that the Eighth Commandment demonstrates it to be a “divine institution” or a “sacred right,” and that the many examples of wealthy patriarchs prove not only private property, but large accumulations of it, have divine sanction. Those more inclined toward some kind of Christian socialism like to point out Jesus’s very harsh strictures on the accumulation of wealth and the assertion of private property rights, and the early Jerusalem community’s practice of “having all things in common.” As so often happens, we seem to be faced with something of an Old Testament/New Testament divide, in which the Old Testament bolsters a conservative agenda, and the New Testament a liberal one. Is the Bible thus divided against itself?

With conservative and evangelical ethicists falling dramatically off the anti-gay-marriage bandwagon at a remarkable pace, superstar theologian David Bentley Hart’s essay “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws” last month in First Things came like a spark on a dry pile of tinder. Challenging the optimism of many contemporary Catholic thinkers (and recently many evangelical thinkers as well) that natural law arguments can provide a convincing, broadly-appealing basis for opposition to gay marriage legislation, Hart provoked a tide of responses and counter-responses in the blogosphere, which continues even now. For at stake in Hart’s remarks were not merely how conservatives should and shouldn’t engage in gay marriage debates, but the nature of the public square and of natural law itself, the foundation upon which so much Christian political theory has been built over the centuries.

Rather than attempting to weigh in with yet another contribution to the wide-ranging debate, I will merely seek to provide here something of an annotated catalogue of the more significant blasts and counter-blasts

…there is another way in which human judgment often aspires to God-likeness: when it seeks to control the future course of events, preventing future evils, rather than merely rectifying existing wrongs.

Of course, there is a plausibility in this aspiration, since prudence is one of the essential political virtues, and prudence is above all concerned with weighing future consequences, with planning and forethought, with mitigating foreseen harms and maximizing prospective benefits. But prudence, in the scheme of cardinal virtues, must remain always the handmaiden of justice.

. . . The concept undeniably has a certain appeal, and few slogans are better calculated to capture the imaginations of the young and disaffected than “Towards eucharistic anarchism” (Bill Cavanaugh’s phrase in Radical Orthodoxy) and other such brazen assertions of liturgical politics. But in all the talk of eucharistic politics, a surfeit of aesthetic appeal seems to have usually compensated for a shortfall of logical clarity.

We have spent now four posts tracing the historical development of Protestant two-kingdoms theology, and its influence on early modern political thought. This has all been an attempt to vindicate the claim, advanced in the first installment of this series, that the wider world of political theology has good reason to attend to the disputes over this doctrine that have heretofore been the province only of a characteristically combative subgroup of the American Reformed. Has it been vindicated?

In the 17th century, although the evangelical theme of the two kingdoms is everywhere. It is often somewhat hidden, though operant, behind other more forefront matters of contest–self-interest vs sociality as the basis of society, the divine or human grounds of legitimate rule, the relation of the State to nascent civil society, public and private–and sometimes the thing itself goes under aliases. It sometimes plays a greater role in the thought of the doctrinally idiosyncratic, for instance Hobbes, than it does in that of those otherwise more orthodox, such as Richard Baxter. This is a very vast and complicated field. Given that this is to be such a short overview, we will consider here merely one aspect of Lutheran two-kingdoms doctrine, that of the denial of political power to the clergy, and point to a few landmark instances…

Few figures in the history of theology can boast as contested a legacy as Richard Hooker, the purported forefather of a protean via media that is redefined with dizzying frequency. Until recently, many readings of Hooker suffered from the insularity that characterized much of Anglican historiography, doggedly committed to the assumption that England had its own history, blissfully independent from goings-on on the Continent. So when historian Torrance Kirby suggested that in fact, Richard Hooker should be read as a theologian of the magisterial Reformation, he touched a raw nerve among Hooker scholars, generating a hostile backlash that, after two decades, shows no sign of letting up. Perhaps tellingly, none of the responses to Kirby and his followers has bothered to engage the thesis at the heart of his re-interpretation, that Hooker’s theological response to Puritanism rested throughout on his Protestant—indeed, Lutheran—two-kingdoms doctrine…

Unlike some other second-generation Reformers, we do not have to read between the lines to find a two-kingdoms doctrine in Calvin. On the contrary, he is far less ambiguous even than Luther in setting it out at the center of his theology, inviting the question of why Calvin studies have until recently largely ignored the theme. The doctrine appears in the all-important chapter III.19 of the Institutes, as Calvin concludes his discussion of justification and prepares to transition to his massive Bk. IV, entitled “The External Means or Aids By Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein.” Inasmuch as Calvin scholarship has attended at all to his two-kingdoms idea, it has frequently assumed, as VanDrunen does, that in delineating the “two kingdoms,” Calvin intends to delineate the two distinct institutions within this sphere of external means—church and state. However, from a structural standpoint, it is more compelling to see his distinction of the two in III.19 as a center-post, with the “spiritual government” pointing back to his discussion of the inward reception of the grace of Christ in Book III, and the “temporal government” pointing forward to his discussion of the external means in Bk. IV—on this basis, both the visibly-organized church and the state would constitute external means in the temporal kingdom. Certainly Calvin’s word choice in describing the two seems to bear out such a reading…

The crucial thread in Perry’s narrative has been that of the “turn to loyalty”: where Rawlsian liberalism can dismiss the problem of religious loyalty and imagine that religious and political loyalties ought by their very nature never to conflict, Locke recognized clearly that such conflicts do happen, and such loyalties must be carefully attended to if they are to be harmonized. Accordingly, he provides not merely a solution of political theory, but a solution of political theology that attempts to establish, from within Christianity, the proper nature of Christian loyalty. Unfortunately, most interlocutors today simply no longer recognize the tension but persist in a naïve conviction that civil loyalty and religious loyalty ought to pose no threat to one another in modern America…

Chapters 4 and 5 of Pretenses of Loyalty constitute the heart of Perry’s argument, offering as they do an intriguing re-interpretation of Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration and revealing the tensions that will bedevil it in following centuries. Perry’s overall thesis, we will recall, is that modern liberalism suffers from an amnesia, forgetting that there are in fact two prerequisites for a successful policy of religious toleration: harmonization of loyalties and abstract respect. Relying upon the latter alone, modern liberals find themselves flummoxed at the frequency with which border conflicts erupt between religion and politics—having agreed to tolerate all purely religious practices, governments find that many believers insist on expanding the scope of their religion to include civil matters. They ask that believers consent to be led behind a veil of ignorance, willing to treat others and themselves be treated as abstract rights-bearers, but many believers refuse.

Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is obsessed with the question: what are the conditions of possibility for political judgment? Judgment, as Oliver O’Donovan has written in The Ways of Judgment, “both pronounces retrospectively on, and clears space prospectively for, actions that are performed within a community” and is therefore “subject to criteria of truth, on the one hand, and to criteria of effectiveness on the other” (9). Although judgment must meet both criteria, very often in the world of politics, they appear to be in rivalry. Truth-telling, in a world of fickle voters and predatory media, in a world of terrorists and hidden threats, can seem like a very unwise proposition, a luxury that must be dispensed with if order and justice are to be preserved. This tension haunts Nolan’s trilogy.

One of the most valuable contributions of Perry’s book is his attempt to illuminate the heretofore rather unexplored territory of Locke’s early work—his 1667 Essay on Toleration and especially his 1660 First Tract on Government. So obsessed are political philosophers and Locke scholars with the magna opera of 1689 that they have tended to pass over these earlier works in silence, but from the standpoint of understanding Locke’s theory of toleration, this is a great mistake, as Perry shows. Why? Well because the early Locke was an opponent of toleration, arguing forcefully against Puritans in the First Tract that the magistrate had the right to impose uniformity in religious practice, and ought to exercise this right. Why the about-face? Only if we take seriously this question, says Perry, will we be able to understand what led him to articulate his full-blown theory of toleration in 1689, and what he sought to accomplish with that theory. Moreover, in so doing, we will find that the argument for toleration is not so much of an about-face from the argument against it as we might have imagined.

John Perry’s recent book “The Pretenses of Loyalty” offers a clear, penetrating, and persuasive diagnosis of the predicament of contemporary liberal political theory through consideration not only of its present tensions, but more importantly, of its amnesia regarding its historical foundations. I say clear because Perry’s exposition is tightly focused, lucidly written, and structured so as to ensure ease of understanding. By missing no opportunity to repeat his main thesis and the key issues at stake, he walks a fine line, to be sure, between assisting and insulting his readers, but ultimately avoids the latter in my judgment. The diagnosis is penetrating because it does not rest content with surveying the ongoing contemporary conflicts between politics and religion and the critiques marshaled by communitarian theorists such as Michael Sandel and Stanley Fish—though he does this admirably in the first two chapters—but digs right down to the historical roots of liberal theory, the amnesia of which, he argues, is largely responsible for its present predicament….