Saturday, September 06, 2014

Book Review: 'The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology' by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff has recently proposed a new political theology that formulates a way for Christians to understand the politics of liberal democracy. As such, the book is not so much on God but the state:  
The subject of political theology is not God but the state. It is not a branch of theology but a species of political theory, namely theological political theory. [...] The task of political theology is to develop a theological account of the state and of its relation to various other realities. (p.112)
The proposal is defined by Wolterstorff's theology of authority. In order to better understand the state, Wolterstorff leads us to examine three things. First, our citizenry experience of the state, particularly its authority; second, Romans 13:1-7; and third, the relationship between church and state.

Wolterstorff points out that our experience of the state comes in two dualities. One duality is political authority's mediation of God's authority; with the former is limited and judged by the latter. The other duality is Christian citizens' experience of political authority (as mediated divine authority) and church authority (as mediated Christ authority). Wolterstorff's proposal aims to explicate these two dualities (p.16).

For this reason, the proposal parts way with two influential interpretations on Christian experience of the state. Wolterstorff spends chapter two critiquing John H. Yoder's failure to observe the difference between power and authority in the state which leads to Yoder's impotent social ethics of "freedom". In chapter three, Wolterstorff highlights Augustine's mistaken "two cities" reading of the state, which wrongly assumes that the imperial administration only governs the pagans and not the members of the church. Therefore, both the Yoderian and Augustinian interpretation of the state overlook the two dualities that Wolterstorff describes.

To understand the two dualities, Wolterstorff differentiates between "positional authority" and "performance-authority". Positional authority is the authority a position or an office exercises. A king can issue a directive regardless of the directive's moral status. It is well within the office-holder's authority to issue. Performance authority is the authority to perform certain action. Such authority requires morality as legitimacy. As Wolterstorff explains:
Sometimes one's authority to do something is the legal authority to do it, the legal right. In other cases ones authority comes along with some social role or position that one has or with some social practice in which one is engaged. But sometimes the right that comes with the authority to do something is the moral right to do that thing. [...] when I speak of someone as having authority to do something, I mean to imply that he has the moral right to do that thing, that he is morally permitted to do it. (p.49, emphasis added)
Then Wolterstorff went on to differentiate two types of power based on its Latin variations. Potentia power is the ability to perform that comes from oneself. Potestas power is the ability to perform that comes from others; hence it is an authorized ability.

These two binaries (positional/performance authority and potentia/potestas power) allow Wolterstorff to build his case to understand governance authority as having "the potestas and the [performance] right to issue directives that are morally binding." (p.62, emphasis added) And I think this is the crux of Wolterstorff's theological account of state's authority: "A condition of having the potestas to issue a binding directive to someone to do something is that it be morally permissible to direct him to do that." (p.63)

Two implications follow. First, binding directive depends on performance authority, not on positional authority. Second, directive is only binding and command our obligation if it is morally permissible. Therefore, a policy is authoritative only if it is issued by one's authorized ability to perform the issuance bases on moral rightness, not on one's position of power.
Whenever I say that someone has the authority to do something, I mean to imply that he has the moral right to do it. One might say that he has the moral authority to do it. (p.78, emphasis original)
In other words, whether a policy is legitimate or not depends on its moral status rather than the sheer act of power. After having established this, Wolterstorff applies it to interpret the locus classicus text on the relation between divine and political authority: Romans 13:1-7. Here is where it gets novel. Here is where Wolterstorff dismantles the popular "two rules" doctrine as articulated by John Calvin's reading of Romans text.

The two rules doctrine, according to Calvin, says that humans are under spiritual and civil rules. In terms of the latter, God provides civil government in our world as his representatives to (1) keep the peace, (2) punish evil doers, and (3) uphold Christian doctrines and the church's position in the society.

Hence, according to Calvin, the government is to be obeyed at all times---the only exception is when it violates the first five rules of the Ten Commandments. Therefore citizens have two obligations to civil government. First honor them for their office. Second, obey them even when they mistreat or wrong us (as long as they do not ask me to break the first five commandments).

Wolterstorff highlights two problems with this position. First, this doctrine does not allow us to exercise love to our neighbor when the only exception to civil obedience is the violation of the first five commandments. (p.74) Second, this position does not allow us to ask for God's deliverance when we are oppressed and unjustly treated by the government. (p.75) And Calvin's mistake lies in not differentiating between "positional authority" and "performance authority". As Wolterstorff writes:
[Calvin] while mainly working with the positional concept of authority, when it came to whether or not we have an obligation to obey the government he thought in terms of performance-authority. (p.80)
By differentiating positional and performance authority, Wolterstorff able to demarcate between legal from moral obligation. Citizens may be legally obligated to obey the magistrates, yet not morally obligated if the policy is not morally right.
In [Romans 13:4-6] Paul clearly teaches that God has authorized government to do certain things, and that when it does what it is divinely authorized to do, we must for that reason "be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience." (p.116)
Wolterstorff's interpretation is clear and very helpful as a guide on how can we relate to the state. It provides a more coherent context to better understand the moral status and the authority of the state and our role as citizens.

With that, Wolterstorff goes on to list six principles that "constitute an expansive charter for the autonomy of the church vis-a-vis the state and for the religious freedom of citizens in general---or to put it from the opposite side, an expansive set of limits on what the state may do with respect to the church, its members, and citizens in general." (p.125) One would have to read the book to find out more, so as not to be impoverished by this brief summary of a new and stimulating political theology.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Essay 3 in Alan Race & Paul M. Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008)

Daniel Strange defends 'exclusivism' in his essay 'Exclusivism: 'Indeed Their Rock is Not like Our Rock''. Strange defines exclusivism by its concern with two "central insights":
The first is that God has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to bring salvation into the world and that this salvation is both judgement and mercy to all human beings who are deeply estranged from God. [...] Second, this salvation won by Christ is only available through explicit faith in Christ which comes from hearing the gospel preached..., requiring repentance, baptism and the embracing of a new life in Christ. (p.37)
Strange qualifies that those who affirm exclusivism do not necessarily think that salvation is only given to those who express explicit faith in Christ. Salvation is contingent upon other theological decisions than mere exclusivism. There is a range of exclusivism.

Nonetheless the essay points out that exclusivism is widely recognized as the "dominant theme regarding Christian approaches to other religions" (p.38). Strange gives three reasons showing that the scripture teaches this position. First, the ancient world of biblical authors was religiously pluralistic. This shows that the Judeo-Christian tradition is self-consciously exclusive. Second, it is consistent throughout the scripture that there is only one transcendent and unique God and Jesus is God incarnate. Third, if truth, salvation, and goodness are in God, God's word, and God's community, then anything outside of these boundaries fall short (pp.38-39).

Then Strange proceeds to give a brief historical sketch of the various affirmations of exclusivism since the time of the ancient Israelite to ours. He calls the contemporary form that he holds as 'Reformed Evangelical Presuppositional Exclusivism' (REPE), which affirms that,
[W]hile the triune God has revealed himself through his work in the natural world, in terms of an ultimate religious authority, it is God's totally truthful revelation of himself and his works in divinely inspired [...] Christian Scripture that is the ultimate authority in all metaphysical, epistemological, ethical and soteriological issues, and like all claims to ultimate authority (Enlightenment rationalism included) such a claim is made on the Bible's self-attestation, for to go outside of Scripture for Scripture's justification would be self-referentially incoherent. (p.48)
REPE is Christocentric in that, "It is the person and work of Christ that distinguishes Christianity from all other 'faiths' and gives Christianity its exclusive or particular claims." (p.52) So how do we account for other religions and the good found in them?

Strange points out two reasons. First, God's common grace, though non-salvific, enabled by the Holy Spirit to restrain sins and the consequence of sin in the non-Christians and lead them to do good (p.54). Second, humans' universal religious consciousness when suppressed and substituted by human sinfulness gives rise to idolatry, hence other religions (p.48, 54; based on Cornelius van Til's reading of Romans 1:25). In summary, Strange is saying that, 
[O]utside of Christianity there is damnation, because of the necessity of repentance and faith in the person and work of Christ which has been revealed in the apostolic gospel message, and the claim that God is perfectly just in his condemnation of non-Christians, for no one is ever 'ignorant' of God and their responsibilities before their Creator. All humanity is universally guilty of rejecting the knowledge of God they have been given in revelation and will be judged for this rejection. (p.55)
To Strange, one is either conscientiously for or wilfully go against God. The former leads to Christianity, the latter to other religions or non-religion. There is no place for sincere rejection of Christianity in good conscience because by REPE's principle, a good conscience can never reject God. Any conscience that rejects God is suppressed or distorted by sin.

What if there are people who are really ignorant of God and their responsibilities before their Creator?

Take for instance, devotees of other religions are often sincere. They believe and practice their religion as conscientious as they could, just like Christians. Yes, they may sometimes act contrary to their religion in good or bad way, yet they really desire to follow their faith. Just like Christians too.

On the other hand, if (as REPE argues) non-Christians reject Christianity due to suppressed and distorted conscience, then is the acceptance of Christianity really an act in good conscience? There are people who accepted Christ not because they have studied the scripture and came to an illuminated understanding of the faith. They decided to accept Christ because their prayer for certain physical, material, or existential blessing is answered.

If the acceptance and rejection of God in relation to humans' knowledge of and conscience before him is not as pronounced as Strange perceives it to be, then this ambiguity should make us hesitant to declare who is in and who is out based solely on humans' knowledge and conscience. If so, then Christian truth and salvation is not as exclusive as REPE presents.