What is the difference between “political philosophy” and “political theology,” apart from the name? In a straightforward sociological sense the difference is that some scholars describe themselves, or are described by others, as “political philosophers” and others as “political theologians.”
Those so-described often find themselves institutionally separated – political philosophers in philosophy schools and political theologians in theology schools or seminaries. But if this is the only distinction, then it is a trivial one. Such differences do not, of themselves, resolve the question of whether political philosophy and political theology are substantively different endeavors or merely synonyms for the same endeavor.
I propose to examine whether there is a substantive difference by comparing and contrasting the work of political philosopher Joseph Raz and political theologian Oliver O’Donovan on the topic of political authority. Both are regarded as leading thinkers on this topic in their respective fields.
Interestingly, their careers reflect the common practical separation of political philosophy and political theology in the academy alluded to above. Raz was Professor of Philosophy of Law at Oxford and Professor of Law at Columbia, while O’Donovan was Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral theology at Oxford (substantially overlapping with Raz) and Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at Edinburgh. I take Raz and O’Donovan to be characteristic of contemporary secular political philosophy and contemporary political theology, but not representative. Both have their internal critics.
My analysis is guided by three questions: 1) Are Raz and O’Donovan essentially talking about the same thing, i.e., “political authority”? 2) If they are, then what difference does the “theology” of political theology make to the two accounts if any? 3) Does this distinction, to the extent that it exists, make dialog between the two accounts feasible?
It is difficult to provide succinct summaries of Raz’s and O’Donovan’s accounts of political authority without sacrificing much nuance on account of their complexity and difficulty. That said, the briefest of expositions ought to suffice for the task at hand. I will use Raz’s essay “Authority and Justification” and O’Donovan’s book The Desire of the Nations.
Raz is concerned with explaining what legitimizes obedience to political directives. Although the term “political authority” features in his work, he more often talks simply of “authority.” Raz’s conception of “authority” includes, but is not limited to “political authority.” Raz has three theses which purport to explain how political authority can legitimately command obedience. He names them: the “dependence thesis,” the “preemptive thesis,” and the “normal justification thesis.”
The “dependence thesis” argues that what legitimate political authority does in practice is rationally and objectively weigh up the “reasons which already independently apply to the subjects of the directives” that “are relevant to their action in the circumstances covered by the directive” [p.14].” This ties the legitimacy of any exercise of political authority to its level of dependence on reasons for action that exist independently of the authority’s directive.
The “preemptive thesis” says that the dependent nature of legitimate political authority replaces the independent reasons upon which it is based [p.10]. In other words, where a directive is truly dependent in the sense described above, then the directive, rather than the dependent reasons upon which the directive is based, becomes the grounds for compliance.
The “normal justification thesis” explains how the “dependence” and “preemptive” theses can legitimize a particular political authority, i.e. a government, in a more generic sense. It argues that: an “alleged subject is likely better to comply with reasons that apply to him…if he accepts the directives of the alleged authority as authoritatively binding and tries to follow them (19).”
In other words, the “subject” is more likely to do the right thing by following a political authority that he or she has grounds to believe will consistently issue directives based on the dependent reasons that apply to the subject independently. The whole schema is predicated on humans having a natural inclination and interest in acting rationally.
Although O’Donovan does not have a three-theses schema per Raz, it is possible to distinguish three central theses in his account of political authority. I call these: the “normative political authority thesis,” the “providence thesis,” and the “re-authorization thesis.”
O’Donovan contends that political authority can only be understood within the context of an “account of the reign of God” . He maintains that “the unique covenant of Yhwh and Israel can be seen as a point of disclosure from which the nature of all political authority comes into view (45). The “normative political authority thesis” claims that the essence of political authority is revealed in the way that Israel mediated God’s kingship, most particularly during the Davidic monarchy.
This essence of political authority is the conjunction of “power,” “execution of right,” and “perpetuation of tradition” in “one coordinated agency (46).” The purpose of this conjunction, i.e., political authority, is justice.
The “providence thesis” says that the fact that any regime can come to hold, and continue to hold, political authority (as defined above) is the “work of divine providence in history, not a mere accomplishment of the human task of political service (46). Finally, the “re-authorization thesis” argues that the exaltation of Christ and the emergence of the church presage a re-authorization of political authority such that in the post-Easter phase of salvation-history judgment, and judgment alone, forms the sole legitimate function of political authority(151). O’Donovan claims to find support for the “re-authorization thesis” in Romans 13:1-7.
That Raz and O’Donovan provide two very different accounts of political authority hardly needs emphasizing. But given diversity of opinion is de rigueur in both political philosophy and political theology, the mere fact that their accounts differ does not settle the question of whether those accounts necessarily belong to two different discourses.
The first thing to note is that it is quite clear that Raz and O’Donovan are broadly addressing the same phenomenon: political authority. They may define this central concept differently, but there is clearly a degree of conceptual convergence. Both make it clear that political authority relates to the activity of “governments.” Furthermore, Raz’s “directives” and O’Donovan’s “judgments” appear to be cognate given they both describe activities performed by governments that purport to command obedience.
However, while there is reason to believe that both are analyzing the same human social phenomenon, O’Donovan’s account contains theological concepts that are completely absent from Raz’s account. O’Donovan’s account of political authority includes, and is dependent on, concepts such as God’s divine kingship, Israel’s covenant with God, providence, and Christ’s exaltation. Raz’s account, by way of contrast, neither mentions God nor any theological concept at all.
Nor is there any reference to Scripture or Israel in his account (Raz, interestingly enough, is Israeli). In fact, Raz’s account of political authority does not even presuppose the existence of a God. His is an entirely naturalistic account of political authority. The absence of theological conceptuality found in Raz is indicative of much contemporary political philosophy.
It is possible to infer one of two things from the absence of theological concepts in Raz’s account of political authority: 1) such concepts are regarded as untrue and therefore irrelevant to the phenomenon of political authority; or 2) they are true, or might be true, but are not necessary to explain the phenomenon of political authority.
This illuminates a substantive difference between political philosophy and political theology: the theological conceptuality that is characteristic of political theology is alien to the conceptuality of political philosophy, even though they share a common political vocabulary and ostensibly investigate common social phenomena. But there is an even more substantive difference, which in the best traditions of esoteric social science idiom I will call: “epistemic methodology”.
One of the interesting contrasts between Raz and O’Donovan is that Raz finds the existence of political authority entirely unproblematic. Political authority simply exists, like any other social phenomenon, and the only thing begging explanation is how it works and what its normative function is. Raz’s methodology reflects this epistemological perspective. It is empirical-rational. He applies rational analysis to what can be observed in relation to the phenomenon conventionally denoted by usage of the English term authority. He takes as axiomatic the ability of human reason to reliably describe and explain the phenomenon of political authority without recourse to any other authority.
O’Donovan, on the other hand, believes the existence of political authority is problematic and begs explanation. In fact, he believes it is unintelligible without reference to God. While he too employs empirical observation and rational analysis, he also relies on theological concepts, revealed historical texts (Scripture) and the notion of salvation-history to help identify and explain both the essence and normative function of political authority.
This difference in epistemic methodology is significant as it gives political philosophy and political theology a different framework for judging the validity of political theories. This might help explain why the two fields appear to have organically developed into different discourses. But does this necessarily preclude dialog?
The fact that political philosophy and political theology ostensibly investigate the same phenomena creates a prima facie basis for dialog. Moreover, the different epistemic methodologies with the different, albeit to some extent overlapping, conceptualities they generate do not necessarily undermine that basis. Political philosophers, after all, tolerate a wide variety of views.
Influential philosophical anarchist Paul Wolff argues pace Raz that political authority can never be legitimate. But this contrarian view has not stopped political philosophers from taking Wolff seriously and engaging his arguments. It is important to note, however, that Wolff reaches his anarchist conclusions through the same epistemic methodology as Raz. His account of political authority is naturalistic and empirical-rational, and like Raz he ignores theological concepts.
So the question is as follows: can political philosophers take seriously the arguments advanced by political theologians in relation to phenomena investigated by both parties in spite of political theologians using an epistemic-methodology and theological concepts that the political philosopher might not regard as credible? This is really a question of attitudes. There is nothing in principle to stop an atheist or agnostic political philosopher critically engaging the work of a political theologian except prejudice.
If current trends in the attitudes of Western intelligentsia towards Christian belief is anything to go by, then prejudice may indeed be an obstacle to dialog. Atheist scholars of the Richard Dawkins variety simply do not believe an intelligent human being can hold Christian beliefs, in which case there is no point reading, let alone taking seriously, anything purporting to be Christian scholarship. One does sadly encounter a mirror prejudice among some Christians: the atheist couldn’t possible say anything illuminating for theology.
But not all atheist and agnostic political philosophers share Dawkins’ polemical attitude to theology. So the absence of any reference to, or engagement with, political theology may simply be the product of ignorance or perceived lack of relevance rather than prejudice. Whatever its reason, this silence indicates that it will fall to political theologians to initiate dialog by demonstrating that their work is both credible and relevant to the work of political philosophers.
Political theology is generally more open to political philosophy than vice versa. It is not uncommon to find references to the work of contemporary political philosophers in political theology. And there are, of course, Christian philosophers of prominence within the Academy. Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Alasdair MacIntyre come to mind.
There is even a contemporary Christian political philosopher of note: Charles Taylor. But it is difficult to think of contemporary political theologians, at least those who describe themselves as such, who have come to the attention of non-Christian political philosophers, let alone left their mark in the field. It is even more difficult to think of an atheist political philosopher who has shown even the slightest interest in political theology.
If what passes for the engagement of contemporary secular political philosophy by political theologians amounts to little more than the occasional citation of a political philosopher or two, then we should not have ambitious expectations of genuine and meaningful critical dialog. What is required is deep engagement. Can political theologians really expect political philosophers to read and engage their work if they do not extend the same courtesy?
The reality is that scholars of any stripe are far more likely to take note of work that substantively engages their own work, or that intersects with its arguments. If prejudice is an obstacle, then the way to remove it is for political theologians to show that they can critically and insightfully engage the best work political philosophy has to offer without leaving its theological commitments at the door.
That is not a call for all political theologians to substantively engage secular political philosophy in all their work. It is simply a call for some political theologians to do so at least some of the time. It is hoped that such an engagement could demonstrate to non-Christian political philosophers that political theology can credibly challenge, illuminate and constructively contribute to the work they do, even if the political philosopher may not ultimately accept the political theologian’s epistemic methodology.
Jonathan Cole is a research member of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University (CSU), Canberra, Australia, and a PhD candidate in Political Theology at St Mark’s National Theological Centre, CSU. He spent 14 years working in the Australian federal civil service in the areas of Immigration, Health and Intelligence. He spent seven of his 14 years working in two intelligence agencies as a Senior Terrorism Analyst. He has an MA specializing in Middle Eastern politics and Islamic theology from the Australian National University. He speaks Arabic and is an expert in Islamist terrorism. He also has a BA Honors in Modern Greek language and history. He wrote his honors thesis on the politics of linguistic nationalism in nineteenth century Greece.
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