Politics Reformed

The study of political theology has experienced something of a resurgence in the last decade or two. The concept of political theology had fallen on hard times after the publication of Carl Schmitt’s book by the same name, not necessarily due to any disagreements with parts of Schmitt’s thesis – indeed, his argument that modern political theory is a secularization of Christian theology and that liberalism is a particularly pernicious gutting of the desire for truth, has been taken up by many commentators. No, it was his conception of sovereignty and his subsequent entanglement with the Nazis that discredited Schmitt and cast the idea of political theology into the shadows.

Granted, theologians continued to think about politics, and political theorists continued to think about theology, but a systematic and intentional attempt to work out a political theology that did justice to a full range of theological concepts and political reality at the same time proved elusive. More recently, however, various attempts have been made to understand the interconnections between theological and political commitments, and the role of theology in shaping public order.

This issue becomes especially interesting if we consider the American context, a place where theology both matters and matters not at all. Stanley Hauerwas has complained that in America the object of theological reflection is America itself – a criticism that has some truth to it, but may not be as big a problem as Hauerwas assumes it is. A lot hinges here on how one sees the theological relationship between creation, redemption, and sanctification. Much can be made of the idolatrous nature of America seeing itself as a “Redeemer nation” – and indeed, this will be a problem if one assumes God’s holiness is communicable. Surely Americans have been susceptible to this temptation. But I’m not so sure that this provides an adequate theological framework for understanding America.

There’s a lot more to be said about this than I can or will say in the space of this essay, but I’m thinking there is more to an American theology than meets the eye, for it involves in some fashion keen attention to the question of how God is present in the world and makes the world holy through His presence.

On this score America hasn’t operated ex nihilo but has worked within and through an impressive tradition of convenantal thinking. This tradition is expertly explored by Glenn Moots’ return to political theology in his Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenantal Theology (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010). Moots gives a detailed and erudite account of how covenantal theology both shaped political order and gave an account of how human beings could best be simultaneously religious and political.

Moots operates at all three levels of the theological enterprise: descriptive, critical, and apologetic. Even if the concept of covenanting may seem like a narrow part of the theological enterprise, Moots carefully unfolds the full range of its political and ethical implications while at the same time remaining firmly grounded in Biblical religion. With scholarly precision, Moots unfolds the process by which representative thinkers figured out how best to balance the twin problems of the relationship between individual and corporate responsibility with the reality that God is somehow present and active in the historical process.

The bulk of the book is spent looking at the development and permutations of the idea and use of covenanting in a range of Protestant thinkers going back to the earliest days of the Reformation. Particularly important is the detailed treatment Moots gives to Heinrich Bullinger, a near-contemporary of Calvin’s whose fame isn’t as extensive but whose theology and influence do not suffer by comparison. The resurrecting of interest in Bullinger is one of the chief virtues of Moots’ book. The importance of Bullinger in this context relates to the use of covenants in seeing church and state working together in terms of the salus populi, and in providing legitimacy to secular rule.

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