The following lecture was recorded during Providence’s 2017 Christianity and National Security Conference.

Daniel Strand argues that theology must determine the way that Christians think about politics. He argues that a proper understand of government vocation starts from the work of God, that Christians must consider divine rule before they talk about human rule.

Our speaker to kick us off this morning is Daniel Strand of Arizona State University, who has become one of our most regular contributors to Providence and is a scholar of Augustine. He is a wonderful thinker and writer and is working on producing for us Providence a pamphlet or small booklet explaining the core purposes for which God ordained government, which I think that his talk this morning will touch upon. We’re looking forward to his talk and that booklet, which I think has almost no equivalent currently available in American Christianity. It is a much-needed resource. Daniel, we’re delighted you could be with us. Thank you.

Nowhere I’d rather be on a Saturday morning than listening to someone talk about God’s vocation for governments. Glad you could join us for the second leg of the Bataan Death March. I will be your guide. This morning, I’m going to offer a brief outline of a political theology. This is a contemporary word that, if you use it in the Academy, just means many different things. I don’t want to scare you with that word, but it is theology, a political theology in the true sense, which is a theology of how Christians ought to think about politics in a straightforward sense.

What I’m going to do is give you a basic outline of how I see it. I’m not going to get into Romans 13 and what does Paul mean by this or that. I’m going to give you a general map. If in the Q&A you want to ask questions, that’s great; let’s get into that. It is going to be a more theological discussion than we’ve had thus far, so forgive me. I’ll try to make it as digestible as possible. I won’t use immediateizing the eschaton or anything like that, but I may. I’ll try to keep people awake or put them to sleep.

What I tend to see when I talk to groups of Christians, regardless of denomination or affiliation, is that people believe they have the right sort of thinking about government, democracy, political ideas, and rights in place. Then we need to find a way to relate theology to that. We know what good politics is, or at least we have a pretty good idea. Maybe we tweak it here and there, but then how does theology fit into this? I want to say we have it precisely backwards if that’s the way we start thinking about it from a Christian perspective. Theology must, if you’re a Christian, meaning connected to the Bible, determine the way that we think about politics.

Some preparatory remarks before I get into it. It’s important, especially for Americans, considering the comments yesterday about Americans’ tendency to be anti-historical or thinking we’ve left that stuff behind, which is a real problem. You see this come out in politics as well. We tend to love reading people like John Locke and the Founders, which I love the Founders. However, there is a whole Christian theological tradition of reflection on politics that dates back to at least the second century AD. As Americans, we maybe cherry-pick a little bit here and there, but we need to understand that tradition.

So, I’m trying to mediate this very long tradition, which is varied. It’s not just a single tradition, but there is a lot of reflection that has been going on for millennia, fifteen hundred years before the American Founding. I think that tradition also needs to inform how we think as American Christians about politics. Let’s get into it.

I’m going to make one foundational theological claim and then talk about how the idea of our vocation of being in government is derived from that foundational claim. I’ll close with a few words on the church in relation to government. A proper understanding of government’s vocation must start from the works of God. Before we talk about human rule, which is what’s happening in politics, we must talk about divine rule. You see this in the Bible and in the early church. The fundamental concept is the Kingdom of God.

The basic vision is this: God governs the universe. God is the paradigm for governing; He’s the ultimate paradigm. If you’re an American, you might see government as a necessary evil because government screws things up all the time, especially if you’re conservative. But that is essentially what God does—God rules. He governs all the universe, and thus, government must be seen within the entirety of the Canon, the biblical narrative, as a means by which God rules. Not wholly, not completely. It’s a pale reflection, it’s not perfect. We grow allergic to the idea that God might actually be working through government. Especially if you live in a country where government is quite corrupt, that statement is even more outlandish. Nevertheless, it’s true.

God is up to something in history. When we look at government, we see a locus of God’s authority being mediated and exercised on earth. We cannot merely elaborate a set of unchanging structures from the Bible, as some tend to do. The speakers yesterday did a great job of disabusing us of this. Christianity does not offer that. Unlike Islam or even the Old Testament, you get a very nice set of laws—613, I believe the rabbis counted. Yes, 613, give or take one or two. Christians have this idea of God’s reign, inaugurated in the creation of the world and brought to fullness in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. The central message of Jesus’ preaching in the Gospels is the Kingdom of God is here. This is all political language.

Even though it becomes familiar to us because you hear it maybe on Sunday, the idea that Jesus is a king should make us think about how our faith informs our political views. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has fundamentally changed the course of human history. He has brought the dead to life and will make all things new. Oliver O’Donovan, a theologian and political theologian, has a fantastic quote: “Theology must be political if it is to be evangelical.” When he says evangelical, he means the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. “Theology must be political if it is to be evangelical. Rule out the political questions, and you cut short the proclamation of God’s saving power. You leave people enslaved where they ought to be set free from sin—their sin and others’.”

When you read the Epistle to the Romans, if we think about what government requires of us, we go to Romans 13. We must read chapters 1 through 12. These chapters have a lot to teach us about politics or at least God’s reign. This needs to frame how we think. God is ruling, so how does human rule relate to this?

The gospel is public truth, not private truth, not mere parade. It is personal and individually salvific. Some people diminish that and say the personal salvation stuff is uninteresting. No, that’s absolutely essential. We ought not lose that, but we ought not make it private. The gospel is public truth. Leslie Newbigin makes this point repeatedly.

In much of today’s political questions, you see it in recent hearings for a judge who was a Catholic. Senator Dianne Feinstein made a comment about bringing dogma into the law, saying, “The dogma lives loudly in you.” Conservatives do this as much as liberals. We have a sense that we’re not supposed to bring this private personal truth because how can we expect people to believe this? But Jesus was crucified publicly. We’re not given a special private message. God does his works for all to see. This truth is meant to shape everything we do. 

The temptation is to expect too much from politics or too little, right? The pacifists, which we heard of quite frequently yesterday, were idealists. The temptation is to make politics redemptive, and it ought not to be. There’s only one Redeemer, there’s only one person who redeems if you want to use that language, and it is Jesus. So, politics cannot do that.

If politics does that, it often becomes quite vicious and cruel because when human beings try to make politics do something it ought not do, you see this over and over again. The phrase, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” is often seen. That is expecting too much. Luther was fond of saying, “If the lion lies down with the lamb in this life, you will need to replace the lamb often.” God does not promise politics to be redemptive.

But the other extreme is to say politics is just amoral, functioning as a necessity. International politics is about clashing interests, restraining evil, and is seen as a brute necessity. No, it can’t be that either. Morality and theology need to frame and shape how we think about politics and government.

Government cannot become detached from our thinking about God’s rule. Government, I would argue, must bear witness in the way Christians have talked for a long time. This may sound strange and even makes me cringe, but I’m not talking about catechizing the populace or requiring professions of the Trinity. Government must work in light of God’s saving works. It cannot be agnostic about that point, at least if you’re a Christian.

All Christian government in this way must be secular. Secular does not mean being neutral about religion; it refers to the time we live in before the return of Christ. The Latin term “saeculum” used by early Christians refers to this age. It’s not about stripping religion or moral claims in the public realm, but an awareness that we live in a time of waiting for Christ’s return.

There are two rules in the Christian life, a term that becomes standard. Luther and Calvin both refer to these two rules: priestly authority and royal power. St. Augustine talks about the City of God and the city of this earth. This debate about the nature of these two rules was prominent in the Middle Ages and is crucial for understanding the limits and roles of government.

The most fundamental rule is God’s rule, with political rule seen as a means to maintain order and provide scope for God’s rule in human community life. God’s rule narrows down and limits government. This provides a theological argument for limited government; without a strong account of God’s rule, government wouldn’t know its limits.

Government is secular, meaning it serves God’s purposes in this age through punishing lawbreakers, providing structures for orderly society, and passing laws to address wrongs. These secular goods are temporal but very real, such as peace and order. Government’s role is remedial in this period of waiting, a Christian creation, and developed over time.

Government’s fundamental task is to judge between right and wrong in both public and international contexts. Governments must judge not only within their borders but also in their interactions outside. This judgment mirrors God’s judgment in a limited sense, preserving temporal order and peace.

Judgment is an act, not just a structure of government. Governments judge and act, requiring power. Power, though often seen negatively, is essential for politics. Paul Ramsey, an influential Protestant ethicist, says power and force are the essence of politics. Power is instrumental, not an end, used to preserve order and law.

Peace and order are significant goods provided by government power. They are often unappreciated until they break down. Government power sustains these goods profoundly in society, seen in the functioning of law courts, public services, and law enforcement.

Punishment, often the primary activity of governments historically, protects the common goods of society. Government judgment mediates God’s judgment against injustice, particularly in national security and war, aiming to punish wrongs and restore peace. However, Christians believe the Kingdom of God is not advanced by force of arms. War, while tragic, serves a divine purpose of witnessing against injustice and vindicating laws.

National security and interest play a crucial role as mediators of God’s common grace, protecting and preserving society. However, these must be held to the standard of God’s law, not seen as ends in themselves but part of a larger vocation.

Interest in national security, though, must be held to the bar of God’s law. They are not an end in and of themselves, even though they do provide for the nation. Securing the goods of the community needs to be understood as a possible vocation that God requires. Security at all costs and promotion of national interest at all costs is therefore something that needs to be rejected by Christians. They are great goods and important, but they are not ultimate.

There’s a tendency to talk about national interest as though it’s the only thing that matters. Augustine, in City of God, Book 19, famously presents this image of the judge. Bishops at this time, in the late Roman Empire, were very involved and actually judged cases. Augustine himself would be sitting in and judging like a contemporary judge would. He has this great illustration, probably personal for him, in Chapter 6 of Book 19, his most famous book in City of God, where he talks about the tensions of judging.

He brings out the ways in which human judging is fraught. God commends it; it’s absolutely necessary. Yet, it’s human judgment, meaning it is filled with error and ignorance. We don’t know all the facts in a case. Augustine, when presenting this image of the judge, shows a judge who wants to do good for the community but is potentially punishing someone who is innocent. He understands this tension.

He comes to the conclusion that human community requires it, and at the same time, he presents himself before God and says, “God forgive me.” He actually quotes a psalm, “Deliver me from my necessities.” You must sit in judgment, and yet you must ask for forgiveness, knowing that this judgment is going to be imperfect, potentially sinful. You have this tension, and as Christians, we ought not ever lose that sense of acting in public life. It’s absolutely good and required in mediating in a very vital way, mediating God’s grace to seek to sustain order and peace.

Yet, it is a preliminary judgment. Tasks that we undertake are fraught, and at the end of the day, when you’re done serving, you need to go home, get on your knees, and ask God to forgive you. Lastly, let me say something about government and church. The church exists as a repository and memory of God’s redeeming work and a sort of foretaste, looking forward to what God’s going to do. The most important task for the church is not to go and be political.

It’s not to go and be the resistance or somehow find some way to go protest. The most important political thing the church can do is proclaim the Gospel, to pray, to receive the sacraments. It reminds the government that their judgments are imperfect at best and that their laws and activities are not the final word for human life. The government punishes and engages with power and the use of force, rightly so. But this is not what God has planned for us in the new heavens and the new earth.

It’s a necessary activity that government performs, and yet the church bears witness to the final ends of human community, which are not what they are today. It brings an awareness of the fragility and finite nature of our own discernment in enacting justice and punishment. The gospel creates space for life beyond government, for life beyond the political. It serves a vital function in communicating to us what the divine vocation of government is, its purpose, and enunciates the rule of the spiritual and the political.

It tells us that government has a vital, important function in judging and using power to enact those judgments, realizing that its judgments are not perfect but are needed and an important way of mediating God’s grace. I’ll open up the floor to questions, comments, and denunciations.

Hi, good morning. Thank you, I’m Miranda. My question is: I work a lot with grassroots and church involvement in politics. I’m on this ongoing quest to make sure the church is engaged, and I get a lot of pushback from pastors all the time that it’s not our place. I go on these big long rants, but I would love to hear some points we could use when engaging with Christians that don’t feel like they have any responsibility.

I know the church’s first priority is the gospel, but I still want to shake every Christian that doesn’t vote. Do you have any tips that we could use when we try and grow that way? Is it more serious as to what the pastor’s reasons are for not engaging in political or is it sort of a pious testing that Christians aren’t concerned with politics? Is that the home?

I’ve heard several things. I’ve heard that our focus should only be on the gospel. I’ve been told that if a pastor engages in politics, he could lose members of his church or that he could offend people or that his church would no longer be a safe place. I’ve been told that our hope is not in the White House, it’s in Jesus. I mean, I could give you a list; I could go on for hours.

So I think the comeback, at least from a theological vantage point, is to say that to your evangelical pastors, all theology, if it’s properly evangelical, must speak to politics. It doesn’t mean you have to be a partisan, and I think the church ought not be partisan. We must fight the raziel even if one party aligns with us strongly on a point. That’s okay. But I think what we’re seeing is a reaction to, at least from my generation, which is not your generation, living through periods of time like the moral majority, the Christian Right, where evangelicals were wholly identified with the Republican Party.

Many pastors who lived through that period now are very, very wary, especially evangelicals. They’re trying to distance themselves. So I can understand that impulse. Nevertheless, I think you’re right; they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You probably need to speak to that. You say, “I understand you don’t want to be partisan, and that’s good and right. Nevertheless, the church can’t stand on the sidelines and pretend like we just care about souls.”

If the kingdom of God, which is at the heart of the gospel, is good news for everything, it also means it speaks to politics. Is that okay? Part of it is, you know, pastors aren’t total fools. They realize that you can’t get up there and sort of rail on a political issue. So I have sympathy on that front with them, but I think I track where you’re coming from.

Questions? Hello, my name is Anne Carmen, I’m from the King’s College, and I was wondering if you would speak more to what you said about power and the features of power with government. It seems to be that there requires some kind of mutual agreement of power. The people still have to acknowledge because otherwise, they can just overthrow the government. We’ve seen that in many ways, and you could even say that power lies with the people because of the way they influence the government, even though they might have force.

So in that way, there’s a power dynamic. But if you could just elaborate on the dynamics of power and why that’s necessary for government? Sure. This is where I think Christianity sits a bit awkwardly with contemporary democracy, especially American democracy. Our form of government seems to lay supreme stress on the consent of the people. I would like to say that government needs to realize it’s under authority and that it’s accountable to the people it serves.

In that sense, I think that’s right. But I do want to push back and say, ultimately, government needs to be recognized by the people as legitimate and authoritative. In that sense, it derives its power from God first and foremost. We might say we have different mechanisms for authorizing government, and I think Americans tend to think that if the people just agree with it, then it’s right. Or at least maybe that’s an extreme position, but I think it’s a tendency.

Power needs to understand it’s under an authority. It exercises power as an institution under authority, and I think this is very unfashionable to say, but we need to say, and I think all Christians need to say, that authority is God. We can talk about different ways in which different governmental structures are going to hold government accountable, and I think that’s fair. It’s not to say we just lift up the Bible to the President or Congress and say, “Listen,” but it’s important to stress that a legitimate government needs to exercise power.

They do need to use it; it’s vital to the survival and flourishing of a community. Absolutely essential. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a community. I think many people would not like that to be the case because power is often demonized. It’s kind of aligned with oppression in our contemporary world. We want to be like Jesus; he was nonviolent, he didn’t exercise any power. We stress the sufferings of Christ, which is appropriate, but also the kingdom of God comes in power.

Jesus exercises power in his ministry, and God does as well. So we need to see that as a fundamental and important role, even if limited. When we talk about the kingdom of God, it actually has a way of putting government in its place and helping it to realize it serves a vital purpose but a narrow one. It exercises power not over human souls; it exercises power over the goods of society: preserving life, preserving order.

But it’s limited. We need to keep that in mind. Finding a way in proclaiming the gospel that actually provides a way for us to keep that power at bay is a really vital role that the church performs. Up front here? Hello, Mr. Strand. Doug Burton, I’m with Burton News and Hughes, and I’m privileged to write for Providence. I was in Iraq for a couple of years, and I had to hear reports of terrible atrocities. I still report on it now.

My question is, is there a Christian consensus about anything? When you talk about Providence, you know, for example, in churches today, Christians are divided about gay marriage, t

hey’re divided about life. They’re divided about religious liberty. I wonder, is there a Christian consensus about how Christians ought to deal with the terrible persecution and atrocities that are being committed against Christians in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria? This is not an issue that we faced 500 years ago. There really was a consensus about what all Christians believed.

All Christians would agree then that it was evil to burn people in cages. I guess most people today would agree that’s against the will of God, but there is incredible division and confusion about what God’s will is. How do we determine a Christian consensus? This side of eternity, it’s not going to happen. As much as God gives us to see the right, we will see the right. We are fallen, finite creatures.

As much as we want a very clear and unambiguous representation of God’s will on every issue, you have the creeds. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” You do have consensus across denominations on some very vital things. When it comes to whether or not we should be going overseas to stop genocide, I think everybody would agree. I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find Christians that would disagree with that.

What to do about it is a prudential consideration. We have limited resources, political will to deal with, and all those complexities of marshalling armies. If every act of horror or genocide is our duty to respond to, then all of us better join up the army and spend most of our time traveling around the world trying to stop all these wars. It’s a very complex question. I’m not giving you a very satisfactory answer here, but it’s important.