Paul’s Political Theology


Reading Paul’s letters with responsible attention to their own dynamics, we find that his theology concerns the subversive and redemptive power of divine grace in Christ, which creates and empowers new communities of social (and therefore broadly political) significance. These communities (inadequately) represent the advance of the gospel on a conflicted world stage, where the main players are what Paul calls ‘powers’ (αρχαι and δυναμεις, e.g. Rom 8:38): on the one side, the Spirit and grace, on the other, Sin, Death, and the Flesh (and sometimes Satan or δαιμονια). The Roman empire is not itself one of these powers, because they operate across all levels simultaneously—individual, social, political, and cosmic; like any empire, it may be co-opted, in or in part, into the ranks of ‘the sons of darkness’, but only within an undifferentiated mass whose identity is determined not by its current political configuration but by its alignment with powers of far greater influence. In fact, Paul’s most subversive act vis-a-vis the Roman Empire, was not to oppose or upstage it, but to relegate it to the rank of a dependent and derivative entity, denied a distinguishable name and significant role in the story of the world.

Interpreters who take Paul’s theology to oppose ‘Caesar’, ‘the Roman empire’ or ‘imperial ideology’ are apt to find themselves trapped within the political categories created by Rome itself or by modern political analysis. But Paul uses different categories and maps the world in different terms. If we ask about imperium, Paul certainly makes use of the language of reigning (βασιλευω), but employs it for the overthrow of the reign of Sin by the reign of Grace (Rom 5.12-21), and for the ‘kingdom’ being established by Christ, who is engaged in deactivating every ‘rule’, every ‘authority’ and every ‘power’, the last of which is Death (1 Cor 15.24-28). The Pauline classifications and their related antimonies here cut across the categories normally employed by historians and social analysts. Where we divide the world into historical periods and ethno-political units (the Hellenistic or Romans eras; the Seleucid kingdom or the Roman empire), Paul sees no significant differences between Romans and Greeks, only a categorical distinction between χοσμος and καινη κτισις which was created by the cross (Gal 6.14-15): in shattering other classifications of culture and power, the world is divided anew around the event of Christ. ‘The world’ or ‘this age’ (1 Cor 1-2; Gal 1.4) is a Pauline category that can be used to characterize both political rulers (1 Cor 2.6-8) and the cultural systems by which they operate (‘wisdom’ and ‘power’, 1 Cor 1.20): it is sufficiently comprehensive to include Roman power, but its defining characteristics are by no means ‘Roman’. Thus the ‘principalities’ and ‘powers’ discussed by Paul are entities which defy our normal taxonomies. They are not simply ‘anthropological’ since they cover the whole gamut of existence, from social disintegration to the corruption that infests the whole cosmos (1 Cor 15.26; Rom 8.18-39); to call them ‘cosmic’ might suggest they that hover in some extra-human sphere, and not (also) in human lives on the earthly stage. Paul’s language of ‘powers’ thus denotes comprehensive features of reality which penetrate (what we call) the ‘political’ sphere, but only as it is enmeshed in larger and more comprehensive force-fields.

Paul’s theology is thus by no means ‘apolitical’—neither privatized, confined to the level of individual piety, nor spiritualized, detached from the social and political realities of everyday life. His failure to name ‘Rome’ springs not from naivety or pietism (nor from fear of political openness) but because his systemic analysis of the world differs from ours: for him the ‘political’ is fused with other realities whose identity is clarified and named from the epistemological standpoint of the Christ-event. In this sense, the Roman empire is not significant to Paul qua the Roman empire: it certainly feature on his map, but under different auspices as subservient to more significant powers.

Because Paul does not recognize the Roman (or any other) empire as an autonomous or self-contained political system, he does not assign it to one side or other of the battle-lines created by the Christ-event: different persons, facets, or events which we merge under the label ‘the Roman empire’ Paul could disaggregate according to their position in the real power-struggle of the cosmos. There were undoubtedly numerous aspects of Roman power that Paul would castigate as energized by the Flesh, by Sin or by Death, but since he was not opposed to Caesar or Rome as such, he could also recognize aspects of Roman rule that were at least compatible with the rule of God. His many different experiences of Roman power did not have to be aligned into straightforward opposition or support for ‘the empire’. Because his criteria for evaluation derived from outside Rome’s self-expression or self-definition, he was able to traverse the political conditions of the Roman world at a ‘diagonal’, oriented neither for nor against Rome in political terms. Inasmuch as the Roman empire operated by the power and wisdom of ‘this world’, opposed Christ and his people, or arrogated to itself false pretensions of significance, it was a manifestation of ‘the present evil age’ doomed to destruction (1 Cor 1-2; 1 Thess 5.1-11; Phil 1.27-30; Rom 8.31-39). Inasmuch as its authority was subservient to God’s and it was capable of preserving and rewarding ‘the good’, it could be recognized and honored accordingly (Rom 13.1-7). In this sense Romans 13 is no Pauline aberration, nor even under the hidden rubric of ‘nevertheless’ (Wright): it expresses Paul’s judgement that political authorities can be subsumed under divine power, as under the power of Sin. Although this passage is not theologically integrated into Paul’s Christology (and is hardly adequate as it stands as a ‘political theology’ in the modern sense), its juxtaposition with Rom 8.31-39 indicates that Paul can simultaneously offer highly differentiated evaluations of Roman power according to its context and expression.

Barclay, John M. G. Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011. 383-385.

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