Thursday, September 1, 2011

Politics and Theology in the New Testament

John Byron writes a characteristically wise and informed blog post urging scholars to maintain balance in their political interpretations of the NT.  He raises the issue of how,

It has become quite popular over the last few decades for New Testament scholars to bash ancient Rome and suggest that when first century Christian writers use terms like gospel, Lord, savior, kingdom, etc, that these authors are deliberately critiquing Rome and its emperors. Some modern scholars have pushed this interpretation so far that the New Testament looks less like a theological book and more like a political manifesto. 

But to what extent are politics and theology seperate things?  I know in the USA they have a constitutional separation between church and state, but we international observers notice how big (even exagerated) a role theology still plays in US politics.  But would Romans or Jews of the first century really have distinguished between politics and theology?  When your Emporer is also divine - or at least eligible for divinity after death, when he has a cult dedicated to him, when you pray and offer sacrifices to him, how is that political situation not also theological?  And when your Jewish God claims to be King, how is that theology not political?  And when you believe that a man executed by Roman political authority at the request of the Jewish religious authorities has been raised from the dead as vindication from God how is that belief not inescapably fraught with concrete political and theological implications?

Too often some of these interpretations of "Rome's gospel" are clearly motivated by frustration with American hegemony. And while I think American policy does need to be critiqued and criticized, I am not sure that authors like Paul and others were doing same thing with Rome as some modern scholars suggest. To hear some New Testament scholars talk there was nothing good about ancient Rome and that the world would have been better off without it. 
Yes it is fair to say that the writing of Bible scholars living in a representative democracy with a proud record of free speech will not engage in the same sort of political-theological critique as Paul and others might.  There was little point in Paul trying to influence public opinion or critique a foriegn policy which made no claim to be serving any ends other than its own.  It is also fair to say that Paul was more than happy to take advantage of Roman protection and legal processes whenever it suited him to do so (at least that is how Acts portrays things).  So scholars with an axe to grind about the moral failings of the American imperial enterprise need to take care that they are not simply reading into the texts what they would like to be there to bolster their own political rhetoric.  But if we are being balanced let's not pretend that anything theological is without concrete political implications - even if sometimes those are not immediately clear.  And likewise no political creed is without its theological implications - no matter how vigorously the lady doth protest "but I'm purely secular!".  The far greater danger is to suggest that the New Testament in somehow non-political and should never be allowed to stand in judgement of our human behaviour in the public sphere.  As that great self-consciously political theologian Moltmann writes,
During the Third Reich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointedly reminded the church that "only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants," and he gladly sang Gregorian chants. The memory of what happened at that time has made us increasingly aware that we also have no right to speak of God and with God if we do not do it in the midst of the conflicts of our political world.
Or if you prefer a more secular approach spend some time with Roland Boer and see how all readings (and by implication writings) of religious texts have their political implications.  You may not agree with me that the Bible is a socialist tract but your understanding of that most influential text - and as a scholar the understanding you relate to others - is not without its repercusions in the world of politics that you inhabit.


  1. Jonathan,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I will say that I fully I agree with everything you say, as I suspect you know. My only point was the need for balance. But as you point out, and was in the back of mind as I wrote, politics and theology were inseparable in the ancient world. I do wonder, however, to what degree they were aware of it and if the really believed that they were spinning out the so-called "gospel of Rome" or even imperial propaganda. Sometimes we talk like they knew exactly what they were doing and I think it is easier for us to look back and create labels and categories than it was for them. I suppose in later years others will say some things about us as well that we might not see as accurate.

    But again, great thoughts and I agree.

  2. Hi John, thanks for your comment. Yes, your post just imspired a blog post from a different direction. I didn't expect you'd find much to argue with here. Some of the parallels are incredibly striking, but by what means do we discern how far those parallels are intended by the authors to be a critique or just a borrowing of contemporary catch phrases, conceptual tropes and linguistic patterns? If I think of language in the church today, it may often mimic political, marketing or psychological language from the wider society - but does that automatically mean it is intended as an opositional critique - probably not. On the other hand it wouldn't have been safe in NT times to critique openly so there is some warrant for digging out anti imperial rhetoric between the lines. If nothing else anti american imperialism biblical criticism is going to make a fascinating chapter of reception history!