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.

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