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II. Christianity’s Emergence in the Political Thought of the Classical World
III. Augustine (354–430)
IV. John of Salisbury (1115/1120–1180)
V. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
VI. Dante Alighieri (1265–1321)
VII. Marsilio de Padua (1275/1280–1342)
VIII. Martin Luther (1483–1546)
IX. John Calvin (1509–1564)
X. Jean Bodin (1530–1596)
XI. Richard Hooker (1554–1600)
XII. Some Contemporary Manifestations
B. Civil Disobedience
C. Liberation Theology
The classical paradigm of political thought— consisting of Greek and Roman, as well as early Christian, philosophers—is distinct from later philosophical eras because of its communitarian perspective of the state and transcendent source of ethics and morality. Writers in this paradigm argue that the state and political society are necessary for the full development of the individual. For instance, Plato perceives that the state can help men achieve the virtuous life. As with Aristotle, this means that justice and virtue exist only when individuals are fulfilling the societal role for which they are best suited; for Plato in the Republic, this occurs when the state assists in such placement. Aristotle also asserts that the state aids in this development through the enforcement of laws. By being forced to behave legally, people become habitually virtuous. Many of these beliefs and values are sustained throughout the Christian phase of the classical era; for such key Catholic writers as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, the state acts in conjunction with the church for the purpose of sanctifying a sinful and fallen humanity. The state forces the Christian to curb an inherent sinful nature and rest content until the Kingdom of God is fulfilled, even if this control requires the coercion of the heretical into orthodox belief. For classical thinkers, the individual can be fulfilled only within the context of a community.
A second characteristic of the classical paradigm is a shared belief in the transcendency of morals, or a sense of natural law, overriding the authority of positive law (statutes and policies passed by the government) and the claims of the state. Although there is a great difference in belief regarding from whence such values derive, for these philosophers values emerge from an exterior force. For Plato, the source of ethics is to be found in the Forms, and the Forms are accessed through philosophy and the philosopher’s ability to reason, subsequently leading society to understand and pursue these absolutes. Aristotle also views the Forms as the ideal and essence of morals, values, and ethics; he, however, does not believe that they are obtained through philosophy—practical wisdom is the best means of implementing them. Both Augustine and Aquinas perceive that transcendent ethics are based in God as revealed through the Holy Scriptures; however, they too differ as to how humans may avail themselves of these truths. Augustine emphasizes the miracle of revelation, whereas Aquinas places a central focus on the human capacity to reason.
During the medieval era, a transition occurs both in the role of the state and in individuals’ relation to it, as well as in perceptions regarding the accessibility of transcendent morals. One response to this paradigm was unabashed secularism, such as found in some of the work of Machiavelli. In the writings of both John of Salisbury and Marsilio de Padua, the role of the state transforms from one of sanctifying and making people more virtuous to the simpler role of maintaining societal order. A second characteristic of this transition is found in the debate over the source of ethics and values. Whereas for the more traditional writers of the time this source remains firmly centered in God and the interpretation of these values is secure in the hand of the Church, the little individualism discoverable in Augustine and Aquinas regarding freedom of conscience vanishes. The authoritarian state of the medieval era is further strengthened by this power of interpretation and its legitimization by God. Machiavelli, in The Prince, also is a part of this strong authoritarian tradition: Power still resides in the ruler to maintain order in society, and the ruler continues as the purveyor of law and ethics.
The source for the demise for the medieval paradigm was the same impetus that led to the creation of the views of the Reformation—both serving as transitions to the liberal political paradigm. A primary inspiration for this vast change was the writings of Martin Luther; although Martin Luther did not directly apply his notions of individualism to the state—he did not believe Christians needed a state but merely obeyed the secular state for the sake of unbelievers in the community—his work is applied directly to politics by another reformer, John Calvin. Luther challenges the authoritarian medieval paradigm through his argument for the priesthood of believers. Individuals, he contends, do not need the intervention of the Church in the relationship between individuals and God. People can govern themselves in their spiritual relationship without requiring an intercessor. Calvin applies this belief in his Institutes of the Christian Religion in an effort to return to some of the elements of the classical paradigm. The state and its laws still provide for the virtue and needs of humans for sanctification; however, instead of the philosophers, Church, or society interpreting ethics and morals, individuals can interpret these elements for themselves. These values are then made manifest through the congregational rule of the Church, and the Church implements and enforces these rules through the state.
This Reformation paradigm differed from the medieval view primarily because of its emphasis on the importance and role of the individual in society; although stability and order are still important, these roles do not predominate over other functions of the state. The latter half of the Reformation paradigm is the transition from the Christian theocracy of Calvin and others to the beginning of the secular liberal state. The writings of both Jean Bodin and Richard Hooker illustrate this transition. The source of morals and ethics still derives from the transcendent sources of the Christian faith; however, society is not assumed to be inherently a Christian one.Aprimary reason for this change in perspective is found in the fact that the Roman church no longer had religious supremacy. The less centrally controlled Protestant church challenged the perspectives of the Catholic state and frequently struggled for control of the throne, as in the kingdoms of England and Scotland. With the emergence of the Calvinist Huguenots in France and the Anabaptists, who explicitly avoided engagement in politics, tenuous religious equilibrium disintegrated, and the bloody religious wars commenced. The necessity of religious toleration became a key concern of philosophers; with the new world community developing through colonization, a new philosophy of science and new religious and political organizations emerged.
The resulting liberal paradigm emphasizes the prioritization of individual rights over the classical paradigm’s communitarian needs. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean- Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill all fit into this paradigm because they concur that the role of the state is to protect individual rights and liberties and they believe that sovereignty is inherently located in the free, male, property-holding citizen and permanently ceded or temporarily loaned to the state. God, in this worldview, created government to ensure natural rights of the individual, but does not place sovereignty directly in the hands of the state. The contributions of Christian thought did not cease with the demise of the medieval and Reformation eras; it is clear that elements of the Christian perspective on political philosophy have influenced political thinking, particularly with the framing of the 20th-century expressions of civil disobedience and in the anticolonialist challenges of liberation theology.
II. Christianity’s Emergence in the Political Thought of the Classical World
The famed historian of political thought George Sabine (1961) has noted the following:
The rise of the Christian church as a distinct institution entitled to govern the spiritual concerns of mankind in indepen dence of the state may not unreasonably be described as the most revolutionary event in the history of western Europe, in respect to politics and to political philosophy. (p. 180)
While Christianity and classical Roman thought share some basic similarities in their assertions of natural law, human equality, and the necessity for justice, key differences ensured that they would eventually conflict.
First, Christianity makes a claim of egalitarianism that is broader than the Roman assertion of essential human equality. According to the Apostle Paul, in Galatians 3:28, for Christians there could be no distinctions based on ethnicity, the lack of a Jewish heritage, a believer’s gender, or whether one was enslaved or free. Second, according to the Christian Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Christian kingdom is not a physical kingdom but a spiritual one (see, for instance, John 18:36). For the Christian, this results in divided loyalties that are the source of much of the original political thought emerging from Christianity. Paul instructs believing Christians in the Roman Empire to be subject to their government, as the King James version translates Romans 13:1–6:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continu ally upon this very thing.
Christ, however, encourages his followers to give to the political state what it requires while simultaneously remaining loyal to the demands of God. In Matthew 22:17–21, debating with some of the Jewish leadership, Christ responds to the query, “Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?”
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money.” And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, “Whose is this image and superscription?” They say unto him, “Caesar’s.” Then saith he unto them, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Unlike Roman philosophy, in which the gods expected citizens to owe loyalty to the Emperor, for the Christian, it was only to the office of the ruler that citizens owed allegiance, not to the specific individual. Although the question of obligation to an unjust ruler is not new (consider, for instance, the Greek playwright Sophocles and Antigone), this tension is embedded within Christianity. For the Christian, unlike the classical pagan, this religion has a higher calling on the individual than merely living a virtuous life as a citizen of the state. In fact, Christianity places a calling on an individual’s life more powerful than merely the duty of civic obedience, demanding commitments from the individual that no earthly sovereign can eradicate. This tension created an inherent conflict with the Roman Empire, resulting in persecution of these dissidents. The attempted destruction of Christianity in the latter part of the 3rd century was justified, not by Christianity’s religious competition with paganism, but by its alleged attempts “to build up a state within a state, its boring from within every social class, and its gradual absorption of the Roman empire by infiltration and ideological appeals without overt acts of force” (Ebenstein & Ebenstein, 2000, p. 182).
Christian persecution ended after the rule of the Emperor Diocletian in 303–305 CE; by 312 CE, the Emperor Constantine personally converted to Christianity. One year later, he endorsed the Edict of Milan, ending the persecution of Christians, guaranteeing the freedom to profess the faith without any fear of state involvement, and formally recognizing the Christian church. This edict resulted in a new political climate in which Roman rulers sought Christian support for their policies. As a relatively newly institutionalized religion, Christianity experienced much internal tension over questions of doctrine and creed. In 325 CE, the Council of Nicaea settled many of these primary conflicts within Christianity. This determination identified which beliefs were to thereafter be classified as heresies and what schisms would emerge in the Church as a result of this delineation of orthodoxy. Although the Council ensured that Christianity survived as a coherent set of beliefs and doctrines, it also resulted in the persecution of many groups that demurred to the orthodox views of Christianity; most particularly, these controversial issues focused on Christology, or the nature of the Christ. By 393 CE, the Emperor Theodosius had declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, resulting in the birth of the Holy Roman Empire; by 410 CE, however, the Visigoths, under the leadership of King Alaric, invaded for the third time, finally looting the riches of Rome.
Within the growing Christian church were two challenges that required addressing. For many citizens of the Roman Empire, especially those who worshipped the traditional gods, the loss of Roman control and authority was traceable to the ascension of Christianity with the Empire. In addition, once the Council of Nicaea had explicitly identified heresies and schisms, intense tensions divided those who followed the now orthodox Christianity and those who retained beliefs now deemed heterodox.
III. Augustine (354–430)
Augustine, one of many African bishops within the Roman Empire, addressed these internal stressors on the Christian Church. His most famous book, Civitas Deis, or City of God, was largely designed to demonstrate that Christianity was not responsible for the demise and invasion of Rome. Instead, he considers how believers can live with the demands of the state while simultaneously pursuing the requirements of an obedient Christian life. Augustine’s philosophy bridged classical Greek and Roman thought with Christianity, particularly integrating Platonic thought and values with a Christian worldview. More specifically, the Platonic understanding of justice was immersed in the ideals and values of Christianity. Augustine believed that Platonic thought was very similar to the Christian construction of the world although there were clear conflicts between the two. In Augustine’s work, classical thought was transformed.
Humanity’s rejection of God in favor of self is the key turning point for Augustine. The badge of sin carried by every newborn child—natural depravity—means that the world is a sinful place, existing outside of God’s original plan; consequently, the ideals of justice cannot be realized on earth. Each person must make a personal decision in response to the reality of original sin. Based on this choice, Augustine divides the citizenry into two groups—those who choose to live in the City of God and those who select the City of Man. Although they are not physical cities and although no one can ever know with certainty where any individual truly resides, these demarcations indicate that people in a sinful world will choose to place their allegiance and priorities either in loving and serving God or in loving and serving themselves. Physical membership in the Church, according to Augustine, is not an accurate indicator of true citizenship. Augustine argues that while ideally an earthly ruler will be a denizen of the City of God, realistically most monarchs will be citizens of the City of Man, even if they claim otherwise. The only way to potentially uncover where a person has chosen to place his or her values is by watching how the person lives, and even then an observer might be inaccurate. This understanding that true Christianity is purely internal would later resonate throughout the Reformation.
Arlene Saxonhouse (1985) notes that because in the City of Man the body, not the spirit, is dominant, women, as others who are politically oppressed, are inferior. In the City of God, woman can be equal—her soul is equal to man’s because both have a direct relationship with God. The City of God removes the need for women to perform within the context of the family, allowing for a more true equality. But in Augustinian thought, this equality was in existence only in the City of God, not in the City of Man. Similarly, slavery is a consequence of the sinful world, not a natural phenomenon constructed by God. For the vast majority of classical and medieval philosophers, women, slaves, foreigners, children, and servants are dependents entrusted to the “citizen” to be protected and used. Therefore, with a few exceptions, as in Augustine’s City of God, they were not considered to be theologically or politically relevant to these philosophical paradigms.
Because of humanity’s fall from God’s grace and humans’ natural depravity, in which humans reject God’s will and embrace their own, Augustinian thought asserts that individuals are wholly incompetent at governing themselves. The only hope of human freedom is found through service to God, manifested imperfectly on Earth through the Church. Consequently, believers require guidance to help them remain obedient to God’s commandments, which are partially communicated through the Church and the Scriptures. According to Augustine, God uses the state to compel obedience. The form of governance is irrelevant; obedience is due to any earthly government because God makes human beings dependent on both the Church and the state. The function of the state is to provide social peace, albeit one that is imperfect and temporary, because the service and obedience required by God are possible only in an ordered and peaceful society. The state protects humans from themselves and assists in their sanctification (the process of becoming more like Christ) and moral maturity. Justice, however, is impossible to achieve on Earth; peace and stability are the best for which we can hope. For Augustine, compelled obedience also helps the heretical become more orthodox. Because God is the source of all truth, reality, and morality, God’s will is best relayed to the people through the Church and, when the state is obedient to God’s commands, communicated through the state. When the Church is obedient, compelling citizens to be obedient to the Church and state, citizens must obey both. But even if the state is disobedient to the rule of the Church and to the commandments of God, believers cannot deny the authority of the state. If Christians are commanded to go against the word of God, however, they should be willing to die as martyrs to the faith rather than be subversive to the state. For Augustine, good, obedient citizens (orthodox Christians) have nothing to fear from the state and therefore no reason to rebel. The state is used by God to aid in the growth and sanctification of the good, punish the evil into reformation or destruction, and move the heretical into orthodoxy. This is one of the earliest statements, endorsed by the Roman Church, as to the proper relationship between Church and state.
IV. John of Salisbury (1115/1120–1180)
Near the end of the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I defined the frequently contested relationship between the ecclesiastical power of the Church and the secular power of the state in a manner that would be later described as the two swords formulation. Although Christ is both the prince and the pope, according to Gelasius I, Christ divided these offices to protect humanity from itself, giving to the Church the responsibility of the spiritual welfare of the people and to the state the administration of secular politics. Both rulers derive their authority directly from God, yet according to this model, each office is independent and sovereign in its own realm. By the 12th century, this cooperative model would be strongly challenged by the papal authorities in the Church, who argued that God had given all earthly authority to the Church, which then delegates political power to the state.
John of Salisbury provides a typical medieval articulation of this papal position and is one of the earliest attempts at a coherent political theory in the Middle Ages prior to the Western rediscovery of Aristotle’s scientific writings in the 13th century. In his work Policratus (The Statesman’s Book), John of Salisbury constructs a sophisticated comparison of the physical body to the republic, in which the different elements of society are identified as equivalent to the body politic. For instance, the military serves as the hands of the body, while the bureaucratic agencies act as the internal organs. The Church is the soul of the body or of the republic—not separate from it. It is the Church that provides the sword to the prince, with the caveat that the Prince not exploit or destroy the clergy. The purpose of the state is to protect the Church and clergy from injury both from itself and from the state and to maintain order within the people. God granted power to the Church, which then delegates physical authority to the state, which must remain responsible to the Church. This does not mean that the papal authority has a veto over the choices of the prince, nor does it require that the Church control the state, but it does require that a governmental statute or ruling be nullified if it conflicts with the teachings of the Roman Church.
A second theme in the Policratus is John of Salisbury’s recognition of the potential for abuse by wielders of both swords and the evidence of said abuse in the contemporary Roman Church. Because he had much practical experience in politics, including serving as secretary of two Archbishops of Canterbury and possibly witnessing the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by King Henry II’s assassins, John of Salisbury understood the consequences of this abuse. In the Policratus, he accuses the Church of having greedy priests who exercise duplicity in their agendas, manifest a lust for power, and demonstrate a lack of compassion for those who suffer. Because of the eternal consequences of such abuse by the ecclesiastical authority, he argues that a tyrant in the Church is worse than a secular tyrant of the state.
This work is probably best known for its argument, unique in the Middle Ages and prescient of John Locke’s right to rebellion, that there can be legitimate grounds for citizens to destroy a tyrant. For John of Salisbury, there are laws that even kings can become outlaws for breaking; tyrannicide is acceptable when the ruler violates certain laws, particularly those regarding the authority of the Church. There is a mutual obligation to law binding the ruler and the ruled, so that the distinction between legitimate ruler and tyrant is essential. Although tyrannicide is permissible, it is essential that the citizen pursuing the deed distinguish between the appropriate consequences for crimes and vices, that tyrannicide not be committed by someone who has made a sacred oath to uphold the ruler, that the citizen respect the biblical injunction against poison, and that the citizen realize that tyrants can be used by God to punish those who are evil and to discipline the good. John of Salisbury was one of the few Roman Church authors who legitimate the disposal of God’s ordained, even though he limits this remedy to specific circumstances.
V. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
While Augustine is understood as integrating classical Greek and Roman thought into Christianity and in particular connecting Platonic thoughts and values with a Christian worldview, Thomas Aquinas is recognized for applying Aristotelian logic and systemic thinking to Christian doctrine. In Christian political thought, only Aquinas parallels the impact of Augustine, both integrating classical thought into Christian theology. As famously stated by William and Alan Ebenstein (2000), “To be born, the Church needed Plato. To last, it needed Aristotle” (p. 222). Initially understood through early Arabic and Jewish commentaries, Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics were translated from Latin into Greek during Aquinas’s lifetime. Aristotle’s scientific writings had a tremendous impact on medieval political thought. Many Christians, as Jewish thinkers had done centuries earlier, attempted to fit Aristotelian thought into a holistic synthesis of scientific and theological understanding. In this process of synthesis, however, Aristotle is reinterpreted and transformed. Writing in the midst of the rediscovery of Aristotle and the debates over the role of medieval law, Aquinas mediates between the Aristotelian presumption that human reason can help obtain justice and the Church’s assertion that the basis of right is custom and tradition. Aquinas tries to integrate both custom and reason, legitimizing both king and pope. The king can rule, but only where law is supreme and the King pursues justice. The Aristotelian function argument remains in Thomist thought (as the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas is generally referenced)—happiness is the end (meaning purpose) of the state, if all fulfill their societal roles and positions, when this is achieved and the king is subordinate to both the Church and God, Aquinas believes justice may exist. While Aquinas generally holds to Gelasian assumptions regarding the dual authorities of Church and state under the two-sword theory, he asserts that under specific conditions, the Church can remove a prince and release citizens from their political obligations to the ruler. The primary political works in which this analysis is developed are On Princely Government, Of the Governance of Princes, and Of Rulership (also known as On Kingship, which has been historically questioned as to its authenticity).
The Summa Theologica is the best example of Aquinas’s attempt to fully integrate the competing claims of faith—demonstrated by the Roman Church’s theological doctrine—and reason—best articulated by Aristotelian thought. For Aquinas, faith and reason both derive from God, and thus they can never truly be in conflict; faith, however, is a direct communication from God and is therefore closer to truth. Each section of this massive work is presented in a parallel structure beginning with a question under contemporary theological discussion, followed by “objections” reflecting the relevant erroneous answers to the question. Aquinas then provides the doctrinally correct answer to the question, generally supported by quotations from such authoritative sources as the Bible. Additional supportive evidence is included, and each numbered section concludes with a specific response to each of the original objections demonstrating its fallacies. The Summa Theologica provides definitive doctrinal answers to the key questions of the day; although alternative positions are evaluated, reason, supported by faith, reveals the truth. The Roman Church later adopted this massive tome as the authoritative statement of Church doctrine, used to teach young ordinands as they entered the priesthood.
Unlike Augustine, in Thomist thought the individual Christian can seek justice in both this world and the next. Obedience to authority is a virtue; a temporal ruler can legitimately expect the people to obey him; and through this obedience, citizens exchange their skills and talents for security and peace. So while an individual requires a state and is subordinate to it, the individual can expect something in return—security, peace, and, ideally, justice. Contrary to Augustinian thought, the function of government is to create a more just, secure society in which people can find happiness; justice is defined as individuals’ receiving their due by virtue of their contributions to society. According to Saxonhouse (1985), Aquinas believes that hierarchy is a reflection of the eternal order among humans. Kingship is always the best part of government; thus the subordination of the female is part of the order of nature as well. While for Augustine this oppression, like slavery, demonstrates the inadequacies of a corrupt world, for Aquinas it is simply part of the natural world ordered by God.
To prevent tyranny, Aquinas believes, the ruler must govern within the constraints of the law. Consequently, a role of the Church is to remind the ruler of his limitations through the threat of excommunication—for, consistent with the Roman philosopher Cicero, without law, there is no justice. The ruler has the right to expect people to obey him because within obedience to the law, they can expect an imperfect justice. Custom and tradition, however, are subject to criticism through the God-granted facility of reason; if the customs and traditions are unreasonable, they can be questioned and rejected. This freedom to question and challenge marks the early origins of a liberal view of individualism. Although Aquinas recognizes the dangers of tyranny, Thomist thought reflects the assumption that revolution in response to tyranny can result in worse abuses. For this reason, as well as the ruler’s direct appointment by God, Aquinas rejects John of Salisbury’s endorsement of tyrannicide.
For Aquinas, law has multiple manifestations. Because laws emanate from God, they are rooted in the universal and are applicable to all cultures, across time and circumstances. In Thomist thought, there are four types of law: the eternal law of God revealed in the universe, the divine law of God communicated through the Scriptures and the edicts of the Church, the natural law of God understood through the experiences and realities of humanity, and the human law through which eternal values and expectations are translated into legislation. For Aquinas, the key elements of natural law are (a) natural inclinations such as self-preservation, (b) engrained instincts such as procreation and the education of children, and (c) the internal propulsion of human beings to reason, toward knowing God and His truth, as well as to life in community. This formulation of natural law remained constant throughout the European Enlightenment.
VI. Dante Alighieri (1265–1321)
Similar to Machiavelli, albeit born 200 years earlier, Dante Alighieri lived in Italy as the numerous Italian states battled for dominance. As feudal society transitioned to a world of independent cities, the Church began losing control over local governance; it is not surprising that philosophers and scholars would seek better, more constant forms of governing. Although his Divine Comedy is better known, Dante’s De Monarchia (circa 1310) is understood to be one of the most important challenges to centralized papal powers in the Middle Ages. His work is interpreted as a unique combination of both Augustinian and Thomist/ Aristotelian thought.
Dante makes three primary arguments in De Monarchia, all regarding the proper governance of society and the ensured thriving of humanity through sustained political associations. In the first portion of his work, Dante argues that in order to have the uninterrupted peace necessary for humanity to develop to its full potential, a universal monarchy is required. Unity is essential to guarantee that states can resolve their disputes without resorting to war. A monarch can best secure the freedom necessary for individual and communal development. For Dante, however, this monarch would resolve only matters that require a common rule; most issues would be reserved for the sovereignty of the local state or community traditions. There is some debate over whether Dante intended to advocate for a worldwide monarch (Ebenstein & Ebenstein, 2000) or simply to unify Italy (d’Entreves, 1952).
In his second argument, Dante recommends that the nature of this universal government should be Roman because the Roman Empire acquired its domination of the world through natural right and its divine appointment by God, ruled based on law, achieved the common good for all, and ensured peace with liberty. It is this combination of peace and liberty that Dante believes will ensure human society can fulfill its potential. His final argument addresses the appropriate relationship of the Church with the state. For Dante, unlike many of his compatriots, the authority of the emperor is delegated directly from God and is independent of the intermediary of the pope. As a human is both an earthly and a spiritual being, possessing both sets of attributes, governing bodies must have both essences. To have a blessed earthly life, reason and philosophy as articulated through human law can be protected by an ordained emperor; to achieve the heavenly paradise, people must move beyond human reason to faith guided by the Church. By necessity, individuals need two guides—the pope to lead the citizenry to eternal life and the emperor to guarantee earthly happiness.
VII. Marsilio de Padua (1275/1280–1342)
In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303) issued the papal bull Unam Sanctam, which stated that only the Christian Church provided the means through which salvation and the forgiveness of sins occur. This Church had two swords—one spiritual and one secular—but “both swords are in the power of the church, the one by the hand of the priest, the other by the hand of kings and knights, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.” Unam Sanctam noted that the highest temporal authority could be held accountable by the spiritual power of the Church but that only God could judge the highest spiritual authority—the pope. A culmination of many battles between secular rulers and the Church, this papal bull resulted in outright and successful rebellions by such monarchs as England’s King Edward I and France’s King Philip IV.
Marsilio de Padua’s work, Defensor Pacis (The Defender of the Peace), in 1324, is significant because it makes a “positivistic separation of laws and morals, [establishes] civil power on nontranscendent grounds, and [deposits] political authority in the people as a whole” (McDonald, 1968, p. 176). This work marked the beginning of the secularization of the state, in which citizens— not God—are the source of governing legitimacy; this move toward the modern conception of the secular state is often attributed to Machiavelli but is traceable to Marsilio. Explicitly building on an Aristotelian comprehension of the origin and role of the state, Marsilio is led to a conclusion different from Aquinas’s regarding the authority of the Church, although all three philosophers conclude that the role of the state is to provide the good life. This “good life” has two components for Marsilio: the use of philosophy via reason to secure the good life temporally and to use revelation via faith to have the good life in the eternal realm. Consequently, like Dante, there is a need for both civil and religious government. The citizenry grants authority for this civil government, and many commentators (but not all; see Strauss, 1987, p. 284) perceive this idea as an explicit statement of popular sovereignty, albeit with the exclusion of women, children, foreigners, and slaves. The common will of the people is the source of political authority, and this will is known as the Legislator. The agent of the Legislator—the ruler— is the executive of the government. In Marsilian thought, this ruler is an elected monarch, although not inherently an individual. Although there may be divine law, it is human or positive law that possesses legitimacy. Divine and human law are distinguished from each other by the nature of their penalties when they are trespassed; if penalties are eternal, such laws cannot be enforced on Earth, and if laws are temporal, all are accountable to them, including king and priest. If the king violates the laws, the Legislator (corporate citizenry) is able to hold the King accountable, as with any citizen. In making this distinction between human and divine law, Marsilio de Padua attacks papal power and argues that the Church must be subject to secular judges. He removes all coercive power from the hands of the Church, not, as some assert, to allow for religious freedom, but to clearly distinguish enforceable positive law from the divine law realized only by God.
Marsilian thought is not a devaluation of religion or Christianity. Marsilio argues that the activity of the Christian priest is the most noble act of any believer, but Marsilio also articulates concerns regarding the corrupting influence of the power of coercion on the Church. By destroying ecclesiastical hierarchy, finding no authority for this power in the Scriptures, Marsilio places the individual priest and the corporate body of the Church under the authority of the state, just as every other individual and corporation is under its authority. This destruction of papal imperialism and the challenge to Church corruption anticipate the concerns of the Reformation.
VIII. Martin Luther (1483–1546)
The conciliar movement was an attempt by the Roman Church to address its widely perceived corruption by giving decision power previously assigned solely to the pope to councils that had authority to reform Church structure. Two councils were convened—Constance during the period 1414 to 1418 and Basel from 1431 to 1439— but neither was effective in advancing systemic change. When the ecclesiastical structure was unable to reform itself, a revolt from the membership of the Roman Church was inevitable. While Martin Luther was neither the first nor the last to advocate theological and political reform, he was the most influential in both instigating and fulfilling the Protestant Reformation. His famed declaration in the Ninety-Five Theses (1517) was his initial attack on papal indulgences, which he and others believed had corrupted the Church both theologically and politically. This system of indulgences instilled by elements of the Western Church had guaranteed salvation to those who could afford it, while enriching the priesthood and impoverishing many believers. The Protestant Reformation drew heavily on the theological arguments initially made by Augustine in the 5th century, challenging the Roman Church’s more recent reliance on Aristotelian thought.
Luther’s primary political works are Treatise on Christian Liberty (1520) and Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523). Luther’s religious and political contributions are parallel: Individuals can understand God’s word directly in an unmediated relationship. Instead of the laity requiring a dedicated priesthood to intervene with God, Martin Luther argued for a “priesthood of all believers.” Embedded within this schema is a notion of basic equality of all believers as Christians, but as with Augustine, this equality does not translate into a temporal format. Neither the Church nor the state is required to intervene within the relationship between humans and God. As a corollary, because faith is inherently personal and internal, true belief can never be coerced, only right behavior. Despite the claims of the Aristotelians, believers should not seek religious truth through reason—although individuals have the capacity to reason—but through their capacity for belief.
The question of the best form of government is mostly irrelevant to Luther, because God provides government for the guidance of the sinful person. Luther appears to support a monarchy above other forms because he fears any form of democracy would inevitably result in mob rule and control by the wicked. Christians themselves need no laws because they are governed directly by God; however, they obey and support government for the sake of their nonbelieving neighbors. In the works of Martin Luther, government is not religious in nature (unlike the perspective of John Calvin), and Luther does not perceive a Christian state to be feasible. Following Augustinian thought, government is ordained for a sinful world; therefore, a Christian government is impossible because evil always outweighs the good in the temporal sphere. The purpose of the government is to provide order, and therefore earthly justice should not be expected. While God has ordained two kingdoms, one religious and one temporal, they must be independent of one another. Luther’s key concern is that preaching of the Scripture, offering of the sacraments, and interpreting of doctrine are protected from the power of the state.
God is the source of all ethics and morality, and his will is directly revealed to individuals through faith; this is a process entirely separate from governance. While there is no right to rebellion, the believer does have a right of passive resistance. The individual does not have to obey despite conscience or faith’s dictates; there is no personal necessity to follow an evil ruler’s wrong edicts or to embark on an unjust war. But, for Luther, this view does not legitimate any form of organized resistance. It allows only for passive resistance, a personal response to evil rule. In fact, as Luther’s thought developed, his attitude toward dissenters and rebels hardened. In 1525, for instance, the German peasants who had been heavily oppressed both politically and economically took Luther’s religious theories quite literally and revolted. Luther immediately supported the princes in brutally crushing rebellion. Although he recognized the unfairness of the policies that had been enforced by those in power and that had informed the revolt, for Luther obedience to rulers is still the duty of believers because, as he argues, the world is a wicked place and deserves such harsh governance.
IX. John Calvin (1509–1564)
John Calvin was a French Protestant who moved to Switzerland, a newly Protestant country, because of religious oppression. There he wrote Institutes of the Christian Religion (first edition, 1536) and governed Geneva (1536–1538 and 1541–1564) in an attempt to realize his perfect Christian society. The ideal government for Calvin is a theocracy; government is good, provided by God, and the state should support the Church. Obedience rendered to the state thereby equals obedience rendered to God. As with Luther, Calvin perceives two types of government—the spiritual and the political—that complement and assist each other. His city of Geneva was to install this new world order and provide moral guidance for citizens; consistent violators of this order were to be expelled from the community. Geneva brought discipline to people displaced and excluded in the old system, thus creating a larger, better functioning workforce.
Calvin asserts that the function of government is to make people moral by providing order and justice to the larger civil society, believing that obedience to God’s law leads to justice among his people. Laws should not neglect God, but the state’s primary function is to aid the Church by enforcing laws with the objective of making people virtuous. As with other Christian philosophers, Calvin understands that God’s will is revealed to those who have a direct relationship with him, but the Church enacts God’s will through the enforcement of the state. Individuals need to be protected from corrupt societies that avoid teaching morality or reject orienting their members into right values; such societies need reform.
For Calvin, the believer seeks success, which is defined as material benefits to be saved, not enjoyed. Such monetary savings are understood as a social resource, a foundation of the industrial revolution; this expected austerity is a virtue of self-control and prevents the rule of lust in the life of the individual. Calvin is clear that the essence of the work ethic is found in the individual; like Aristotle, virtue is enforced by the law, and people slowly become virtuous through habituation perpetuated by law. This value was possibly best exemplified in the culture of Geneva and in the Puritan societies in colonial Massachusetts. An immense debate exists in the literature over the role of Calvinism in the creation of modern capitalism (see Green, 1959; Weber, 1930) by its removal of theological barriers to a capitalist system.
More than Martin Luther, Calvin recognizes that some resistance is acceptable in the case of tyranny. God is sovereign and will hear the cries of His people and deliver them by a savior. The purpose of the magistrates, for instance, is to check the power of rulers, and the magistrates should exercise this authority. Lesser governmental officials have a duty to protect the political sphere from a tyrannical leader; their right to resist comes from God because the sovereign power is shared. In a good system of government, the prevention of tyranny should be automatic because authority is divided and there are automatic checks on the consolidation of power. While Calvin emphasizes obedience and not direct resistance, his followers transformed this reasoning. Huguenot interpretation of a thread of Calvinist thought led to such essays as A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants (1579), published under the name of Stephen Junius Brutus, which justified a contractual understanding of government, popular sovereignty, protection of property, and the right of some resistance against tyrants. Similarly, John Knox rejected Calvin’s notion of passive resistance, arguing to the Scottish Protestant church that it is the duty of believers to challenge and resist a king who behaves contrary to God’s word and God’s glory.
X. Jean Bodin (1530–1596)
In his Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576), Jean Bodin creates a modern notion both of the state and of sovereignty. The family is the basis and the origin of the state— resulting in a strong distinction between public authority of sovereigns and private authority of heads of households. The ruler has been granted absolute and perpetual power under God and thereby has an immense obligation to serve him. Consequently, Bodin believes that divine retribution will fall on evil rulers. Sovereigns, however, do not have to be kings. They may be either individual or collective in their composition. While Bodin prefers a monarchy, he argues that legitimate sovereignty can be manifested in any form of government. The duty of the state has long been to protect property; it is not viable for the modern state to unify public and private happiness because the modern state is big, diverse, pluralistic, and must be ruled by a dominant central power. Bodin provides a mix of the old and the modern, but his work marks the end of the concept of the unified Christian society. While he rejects much of Calvin’s and Luther’s analysis regarding the interrelationship of Church and state, he advances the supposition that religious belief is a personal and not a public concern by explicitly advocating religious tolerance by the state.
XI. Richard Hooker (1554–1600)
Like Bodin’s work, Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of the Ecclesiastical Polity is a link between the medieval and modern conceptions of government. Hooker, although a Protestant, still values tradition, authority, good order, and law but also manifests a high degree of tolerance for religious dissent. The law of nature, however, requires that people have some kind of government or governing structure. At root, the government of the Church and the state are one, but they are not controlled by an all-powerful authority. The sovereign, unlike for Bodin, is not the one whose will becomes law, but instead the sovereign exists to enforce preexisting law. The sovereign is the “King-in- Parliament,” not the king as an isolated, independent ruler. Monarchy is not an absolute form, but if a monarch rules and the society is Christian, then the monarch must be Christian. Ethics and truth still are provided through natural law and God’s revelation through Scripture. Individuals, as in the view of most of the medieval philosophers, are still denied the right to resist tyrants because although tyranny is very destructive, anarchy is much worse.
XII. Some Contemporary Manifestations
The contemporary impact of Christian political philosophy has been seen across the political spectrum in Western societies. The vision of the Christian reconstructionist who wishes to return to a literal Old Testament legal system and the perspective of the Black Liberation theologian who views the New Testament priorities of the Sermon on the Mount as providing a systemic definition of legal justice— both derive their impetus from the political philosophies of the past. Contemporarily, there are three political interpretations that have been quite pervasive in Western thought: the vision of the Anabaptists, civil disobedience, and liberation theology.
An additional response to the new theological and political assertions of the Reformation is found in the development of Anabaptist communities in which the response to a personal God central to the believer’s life is a rejection of the corrupting influence of political engagement. Direct descendents from the radical reformers of the Protestant revolution, current denominations that derive their theological stances from Anabaptist premises include the Amish, the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and Hutterites. The term anabaptist derives from the Greek word that means rebaptize, reflecting the understanding of baptism as a sacrament in which only believers could partake and rejecting the pervasive Catholic and Protestant acceptance of infant baptism. Although there are great theological differences among these communities, they also hold some basic premises in common, most clearly articulated in the Schleitheim Articles of 1527. They are generally pacifistic, refusing to bear arms or to serve in the military, and believe in both nonviolence and nonresistance. Anabaptists endorse the strict separation of church and state because they do not believe that the state can supersede the requirements of God’s law and the church must be free to worship independent of state regulations. To different degrees, Anabaptist communities withdraw from the larger secular society in order to be more pure in their relationship to God.
B. Civil Disobedience
While civil disobedience certainly does not have its roots in the Christian Church, many of its practitioners have justified their participation within their Christian faith. Civil disobedience is an attempt to challenge the legitimacy of a country’s laws and practices without contesting the legitimacy of the nation. By nonviolently disobeying laws and passively accepting governmental consequences, activists hope to call attention to the injustice of the policies they are challenging. Many practitioners, such as Martin Luther King Jr., based their justification of this practice on the scriptural contention that humans are to obey God’s law and disobey human law when it is unjust. In his famed “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King notes that he agrees with Augustine’s claim that an “unjust law is no law at all” and Aquinas’s distinction that “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”
C. Liberation Theology
Liberation theology emerged from impoverished colonized communities in Latin America and was built on such writings as Peruvian Roman Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Theology of Liberation (1971). It insists on the centrality of the praxis (practice) of Christianity. This perspective recognizes the challenging of oppressive political systems as central to the doctrine of Christianity, and it privileges the experiences and voices of the poor as the distinctive of the faith. Because a sinful world is the root cause of poverty, only through the institutional challenging of political and economic systemic oppression does the Church pursue God’s will in confronting and defeating sin. Godly practice requires that social policies grant preferential treatment of the poor. Prior to ascending to the papacy as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote a refutation of the aspects of liberation theology dependent on Marxist interpretation of history and economics and that are supportive of social revolutions. He noted that although critiques by liberation theologians of the history and theology of the Catholic Church were often accurate, solutions solely dependent on Marxist analysis border on the heretical and challenge orthodox thought. Despite these challenges, liberation theology’s interpretation of Christianity has been incredibly influential, not only in Latin America but also in Asia and Africa, and particularly outside Latin America within Protestant denominations. In North America, its offshoots include feminist liberation theology and Black liberation theology.
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