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Politics of Scripture

Christian Soteriology Implies That Theology Is Inherently Political (Fred Simmons)

The following is the last of a five-part symposium on the question “how theological is political theology”, which took place at the 2016 American Academy of Religion meeting in San Antonio.  The previous four articles can be found here, herehere, and here

To address our panel’s question (how theological is political theology?) I interpret theology in a customary, generic sense of reasoning about God and all things in relation to God.  The adjective “political” naturally seems to denote a particular domain of that reasoning, so that political theology refers to reasoning about God and all things political in relation to God.

Such a capacious interpretation of political theology appropriately reflects the variety of discourses associated with the term.  However it also precludes any simple answer to our question, since the multiple ways of reasoning about God and all things political in relation to God concern God to different degrees and in different ways.  Accordingly, I propose to modulate our question from a quantitative to a qualitative inquiry, and consider political theology not only as a domain of theology but also as a mode of theologizing.

This shift foregrounds a consequential debate about the role of theology in political theology that helps clarify theology’s significance to political theology.  Yet there is no simple answer to this reformulated question, either, since the diversity of political theology equally defies any single categorization of its mode of theologizing.  Thus, to concentrate on this aspect of political theology’s theological import, I shall focus on a tradition of political theology where this debate about the role of theology in political theology has been especially prominent—the Protestant Christian.

I begin with Walter Rauschenbusch who, although sometimes omitted from the political theology canon, clearly concentrated on the relation of the political to God and insisted that Christian faith requires theologizing about the political in a particular mode.  For example, Rauschenbusch claimed:

When God revealed himself, it was not by communicating abstract propositions or systems of doctrine.  The fundamental fact in the Christian revelation was that the Word became flesh.  Therewith Truth became History.  Christianity was first a single life, then a collective life, then a stream of historical influences, and always a healing and saving power.  Let us not reverse God’s process.  Let us not be rationalists and turn flesh into words and history into dogma.  The future of Christian theology lies in the comprehension of Christianity in history.  The future of Christianity itself lies in getting the spirit of Jesus Christ incarnated in history (127).

For Rauschenbusch, then, Christians’ commitment to the incarnation defines the goal of theology as political—“getting the spirit of Jesus Christ incarnated in history.”  Accordingly, Rauschenbusch in  frames his criterion of a Christian social order – one wherein “bad people do good things” – in terms of politics, economics, and ethics rather than baptism, catechesis, or church establishment (41-42).

Many of the main Protestant political theologians follow Rauschenbusch in this regard.  For example, emancipatory theologians James Cone, Beverly Harrison, and Katie Cannon agree with Rauschenbusch that the goal of theology is political, the relevant political community is society as a whole, and that the justice, equality, inclusivity, respect, and social support that Christians should seek to promote are intelligible to those without explicit Christian convictions.

Indeed, although prominent Protestant critics of this emancipatory tradition of Protestant political theology like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas vituperatively dispute Rauschenbusch’s account of the locus and content of proper Christian social advocacy, they endorse his contention that the goal of theology is political.  Hence, it could seem that political theology denotes not simply a distinct domain of theology—namely, that which concerns the political—but also a particular mode of theology—namely, praxis in the classical Greek sense of reasoning ordered to action.

This suggestion identifies an important similarity between profoundly opposed Protestant political theologians.  It may also help explain why other major 20th century Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and H. Richard Niebuhr, who did not chiefly construe theology as praxis, are seldom considered political theologians despite their work on the political in relation to God.  However the diversity of political theology defies such simplification.  Perhaps the most salient counterexample is Reinhold Niebuhr.  With his development and influential application of Christian realism, Niebuhr is surely a leading political theologian.

Yet even though he concentrated on elaborating a distinctive Christian account of political limits, aims, and norms, Niebuhr insisted that “Christianity is not simply a new law, namely, the law of love”.  Instead, according to Niebuhr, Christian theology is principally responsible to “the good news of the gospel … that there is a resource of divine mercy which is able to overcome a contradiction within our souls, which we cannot ourselves overcome” (102-103).  Such a gospel has political implications, and so can support a Christian realism, but it is not a politics, mandate, or mission, and thus a theology appropriate to this gospel cannot primarily be praxis.

Whatever their substantive merits, Niebuhr’s claims rightly foreground that at least for Protestant Christians, specification of the goals of theology and therewith the mode of theologizing involves soteriological considerations.  Of course for Protestants these soteriological considerations centrally concern the relationships between faith and works.  Protestant conceptions of these relationships, in turn, often depend upon basic theological judgments about the nature of the Christian good news – for example, whether it is foremost the invitation and empowerment to become active participants in the kingdom of God that Jesus brings near or the promise that through Jesus we have been restored to right relationship with God in spite of our continual disobedience, i.e., a proclamation of what we can do with God or what God has done for us.

Since Christians who support the former option tend to interpret the goal of Christian theology politically and to construe praxis as the proper mode of theologizing while Christians who commend the latter option generally emphasize other goals and modes, it is tempting to contrast these options as mutually exclusive.  However, Protestants now rarely reject either interpretation of the Christian gospel altogether.  Instead, their disagreements on these topics typically reflect their differing prioritization of these theological goals, modes, and soteriological images, among other things.

Similarly, although it is tempting to infer from praxis theologians’ prioritization of political goals that the mode of theologizing affects the degree to which political theology is theological, there is too much variety within political theology to sustain a correlation between how a political theology is theological and how theological that political theology is.  Nonetheless, attention to theological mode shows that assessing the role of theology in political theology does not simply depend on determining the extent to which a given discourse concerns God and all things political in relation to God but also involves specifying its reasons for doing so.

Fred Simmons is the J. Houston Witherspoon Fellow in Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. His scholarship examines the moral implications of Christian theological commitments and the relationships between ethics, aesthetics, and the life sciences. Previously an Assistant Professor of Ethics at Yale Divinity School, he has also taught at Amherst College, La Pontifícia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, and La Universidad Politécnica Salesiana. His current projects include a monograph concerning the ethical and potential soteriological significance of ecology for contemporary Christians and another exploring the connections between natural aesthetics and the Christian moral life.

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