Happy Thanksshopping

Although I have oft deplored Black Friday, this trademark of a culture gone mad, this most sacred of all holidays to our national god of Mammon, I had not until today stopped to reflect on the sad irony of its position in our national calendar.  Its defilement of the liturgical calendar, with expectant, ascetic, penitent waiting for the Advent of our Lord being overrun with the frantic feeding frenzy of the Christmas shopping season, is something that has increasingly troubled me in recent years.  But sharper still is the contrast with the day that now marks the start of this shopping orgy: Thanksgiving.  

The origins of our Thanksgiving, and of its analogues in many other cultures, lies in a grateful celebration of the gifts of sustenance that God has supplied us from the bounty of creation.  Thanksgiving is the day when our ancestors rejoiced that their basic needs had been supplied, and expressed their contentment and gratitude for their freedom from want.  Today, no sooner do we pause to engage in this now-artificial ritual than we hurl ourselves with wild abandon into the whirl of covetousness and discontent, leaving behind the repose of satisfied needs to stoke the fires of artificial wants and needs.  Of course, the theologically-minded defenders of our modern consumer capitalism will insist that there is a connection–that the extravaganza of shopping can serve as an expression of gratitude for the gifts we have received, that enable us to purchase so freely, and indeed, to purchase gifts for others.  But this is to overlook the deep difference between the gratitude that accompanies the satisfaction of genuine human wants and needs, and the still-restless temporary satiation that accompanies the indulgence of artificial needs that a bottomless consumerism constantly creates.  The former is not impossible, even for the modern American shopper; but it is increasingly uncommon.  

Since my birthday always falls on or near Black Friday, and I have for years received mostly cash gifts after relatives despaired of following my arcane and eccentric tastes, I have for several years found good reason to join the teeming masses and make an uneasy truce with the manic ritual.  This year, the day’s proceedings concluded on a note of heavy irony with my final purchase–a book called Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.   

In it, the author Benjamin Barber (best known for the prophetic Jihad vs. McWorld) argues, more or less, that in its quest for ever-greater consumption of its limitless production (I think of Arendt’s The Human Condition), global capitalism has learned to expand its consumer base by aggressively marketing to children, the easiest to persuade and hardest to satiate, and hooking them early on the consumerist drug, and by increasingly converting the adult populace to a state of childlike gullibility, dependence, and insatiability.  The result is the simultaneous destruction of childhood and the infantilization of adulthood. 

I have only read the first chapter so far, whose thirty-seven pages read like one great rant composed in a fever of moral passion which, though often merely reactionary, occasionally attains heights of genuine eloquence.  Although the moral passion rings somewhat hollow in the absence of any theological conviction (as I found also with Naomi Klein), such a prolonged and at times cranky rant is on the whole justified by the seriousness of the subject and the keenness of Barber’s insight.  Already in this first chapter he exposes the risible obsolescence of appeals to a “free market” that is based, more often than not, on manipulation and captivation of the defenceless, to the “Protestant work ethic” of a capitalism that is now much more about consuming than producing, and to the operation of the “law of supply and demand” in an economy where supply does not so much meet demand as create it.  Here are a couple striking quotes, one from near the beginning of the chapter and another from near the end: 

“Beyond pop culture, the infantilist ethos also dominates: dogmatic judgments of black and white in politics and religion come to displace the nuanced complexities of adult morality, while the marks of perpetual childishness are grafted onto adults who indulge in puerility without pleasure, and indolence without indolence.  Hence, the new consumer penchant for age without dignity, dress without formality, sex without reproduction, work without discipline, play without spontaneity, acquisition without purpose, certainty without doubt, life without responsibility, and narcissism into old age and unto death without a hint of wisdom or humility.  In the epoch in which we now live, civilization is not an ideal or an aspiration, it is a video game.”
“The consumer at once both imbibes the world of products, goods, and things being impressed upon her and so conquers it, and yet is defined via brands, trademarks, and consumer identity by that world.  She essays to make the market her own even as it makes her its prisoner.  She trumpets her freedom even as she is locked up in the cage of private desire and unrestrained libido.  She announces a faux consumer power even as she renounces her real citizen power.  The dollars or euros or yen with which she imagines she is mastering the world of material things turn her into a thing defined by the material–from self-defined person into market-defined brand; from autonomous public citizen to heteronomous private shopper.  The boundary separating her from what she buys vanishes: she ceases to buy goods as instruments of other ends and instead of other ends and instead becomes the goods she buys.”

Traveling and Theopolis

I’ll be traveling and visiting family for the next two and a half weeks, so expect the posting here to be somewhat more sporadic than usual.  Stay tuned, though–not too long after I get back, Peter Escalante and I hope to resume the “Neo-Anabaptism” and natural law discussion for another round of iron sharpening iron–so expect to see some sparks fly!  Also, I expect to be hosting some great guest contributions here over the next couple weeks, which should pick up some of the slack while I’m traveling.

Meanwhile, bop on over to Theopolis to check out a new round of articles we have up–one from Byron Smith on the UK budget cuts, one from Jeremy Kidwell on how we should understand a carpenter’s Great Commission, and a slightly-revised version of the second half of the “Primer on Christian Citizenship” I posted here awhile ago.  There should be a couple more articles coming in too, but as I’m only the editor, and therefore neither omniscient, omnipresent, nor omnipotent, I can’t say just what has become of them.

Set Free for Service: Kasemann on Rom. 13

In his 1969 article “Principles on the Interpretation of Romans 13,” Ernst Kasemann offers what may be the best discussion of Romans 13 I have yet come across (and I’ve come across several dozen).  What is most remarkable about the article is that he succeeds in doing this despite resolutely refusing to take into account the context–the end of chapter 12 and 13:8-10–no, Romans 13:1-7 must be interpreted, he doggedly persists, as an independent unit.  Oddly, though, the resulting interpretation he offers is one that fits like a glove into this context, and which absolutely demands to be read in continuity with these flanking passages.  In other words, his conclusion would make much more sense and be much stronger as the result of an exegesis of 12:9-13:10, not merely 13:1-7.   

I shan’t try to summarize the whole article here, but I’ll try to cover a couple key bases and then share some of the particularly fine quotes toward the ends.  Kasemann surveys the basic existing interpretive options for Romans 13 (those existing as of 1969, at least; several more have arisen since) and says that the basic problem with all of them is that they want to reverse the priority of Paul’s command and the grounding he gives that command; they want to shift the emphasis from the concrete ethical directives to the abstract metaphysical principles that they feel must underlie these directives.  The history of the interpretation, he says, “suffers from its conception of the real problem as lying not in the content of the exhortation as such but in the basis on which it is made.”  Although of course the latter is important, he says, “I believe it to be an error to make this the pivot of the whole thing….the tenor of the passage is not didactic as if the parenesis were a conclusion from a thesis.  The stresses must not be incorrectly interchanged; otherwise we shall almost inevitably find ourselves on a path which does not correspond to the emphasis of the passage.”

Kasemann then surveys Paul’s seemingly “conservative,” even “reactionary” teaching on social issues elsewhere in the New Testament to develop the case that in all these places, what is key for Paul is how he wants the Christian to act toward the social order they find themselves in, not so much the theoretical grounding for the existence of that social order, on which Paul is often quite ad hoc.  And how is it that Paul wants the Christian to act?  In a freedom that makes itself the servant of all.  Over and over he rebuts what seem to be reasonable deductions of a doctrine of Christian freedom, because he wants to understand that the Christian has been liberated not to do whatever he wishes, but for service: the Corinthian view “takes account of freedom exclusively as freedom from burdensome compulsion.  The apostle, on the other hand, is concerned here, as always, with the freedom which knows itself to be called to serve.”  And that means a service that is inescapably embedded in the existing social order:

“According to Paul, it is none other than the Spirit who imposes himself on the everyday life of the world as being the locus of our service of God; while emancipation, even when it appeals to the Spirit, prefers to retreat from this everyday life and the possibilities of service that are given with it, and is thus a perversion of Christian freedom….The traditional arguments are, to put it in a nutshell, Paul’s emergency aids to call the Christian to take his stand before the true God, the Lord of the earth, and thus to call him to the possibility of a genuine service in everyday life.  Anyone who prefers to live in isolation from the world and its powers is in practice taking away from the world its character as God’s creation and is thereby disqualified from serious service.  For Christian service must take place on earth and in earth’s everyday life; otherwise it becomes a fantasy….To acknowledge the given nature of this everyday life, which may possibly wear the colours of dictatorship or slavery–it is just this that is charismatic activity, the possibility of Christian freedom.”   

Subjection is not called for so much on the basis of what the powers are but where they are–namely, in the order where the Christian finds himself called to serve:

“Finally, it is not the given realities in themselves which move the apostle to argue that ‘We must be subject’ but the necessity to authenticate Christian existence and the Christian’s status in the eyes of the Lord, who stakes his claim to the world by facing it continually, in the person of his servants, with the eschatological token of his lordship, the quality of tapeinophrosune [lowly-mindedness].” 

Kasemann’s reading finds its crux at verse 5, where he reads, as I do, the “not only fear, but also conscience” more as a “not really fear, but instead conscience”:

“That he [the Christian] does so [fulfils his political duties] without question is seen as proof that he has in fact no reason to fear the bearers of political power.  Verse 5 does not therefore bring a double motivation to bear–obedience both out of fear and for conscience’ sake–but an alternative: others may have grounds to fear the powers that be, the Christian obeys them as one who knows himself to be confronted in their claim with the divine summons and who in his obedience is rendering service to God.  There can then, here or elswehare, be no question of interpreting Christian obedience in action as slavish passive obedience.  Christian obedience is never blind; and indeed, open-eyed obedience, directed by suneidysis, must even be critical.  For him, God does not dissolve into his own immanence to the extent of being identified with it; rather, he remains Lord of the world and as such calls the Christian into the freedom of sonship.  An obedience that does not breathe this freedom of sonship does not deserve the designation ‘Christian’.” 

After a fantastic discussion of whether revolution is ever justified, Kasemann concludes, “In this exercise [understanding Rom. 13] everything will depend on preserving the paradoxical connection of necessity and freedom at the point of their deepest unity–that free man’s service which is the good estate of Christian existence in the world.”

The Reformation’s Revolution of Romans 13

When the Reformers argued that Romans 13 established God as the direct efficient cause of civil magistracy, they put themselves into a bit of a pickle.  For of course, no one wants to make God the author of evil, and it was quite clear then as now that civil magistrates often do a heck of a lot of evil.  Of course, Calvinists are used to rebutting the charge that predestination makes God the author of evil; we distinguish between his direct providence and his indirect providence, or between what he actively ordains and what he passively permits, etc.  But this wouldn’t quite do for civil magistracy, because the Reformers were clear that Romans 13 wasn’t just about God’s providential control over rulers, but his very direct ruling in, with, and under them (if we may borrow sacramental language).  A solution (but one that was to prove treacherous) was to be found in their additional conviction that Romans 13 intended to provide a blueprint for the rationale and proper function of civil authority.  

Vermigli provides a great illustration when he faces up to the problem in his De Magistratu and in his commentary on Romans 13.  What if someone objects, “if every magistrate is divinely given, then each should always rule without fault”?  He counters that “this reason does not move us, nor should it.  The office must be distinguished from the individual.”  Evil individuals may occupy a divinely sanctioned office.  “The testimony of Daniel makes it plain that magistrates are divinely ordained, for God gives and transfers kingdoms at His own discretion.”  The office of magistrate, you see, proceeds from God in a very direct and unqualified sense.  But the particular person who occupies it does so only by the general providence of God, who oversees the rise and fall of men and kingdoms in the course of his governance over all creation–this is the point made in Daniel.  This would seem to undermine any argument for obedience, for how is any particular citizen under a particular ungodly king supposed to know that he’s supposed to submit to this particular providence, and not rather to be the providential means of the fall of this particular king?  If you want to discourage rebellion, it does little good to say that God has directly authorized the kingdom, but not necessarily the king.

So Vermigli does not mean that God merely permits tyrants to rule, rather, he directly raises them up, even if they are not acting according to the ordained function that is a proper manifestation of his will.  We see this when he turns to considers the objection from Hosea 8:4: “They have reigned but not by me”:

“They thus beastly behave themselves, have not a respect to the will of God, which is revealed unto us either by the law of nature, or in the holy scriptures.  For by that will of God their doings and endeavors are manifestly reproved.  And in this manner they are said not to reign by God, for that they apply not themselves to the written and revealed will of God.  Howbeit it cannot be denied but that God by his hidden and effectual will would have them to reign to that end which we have now declared.  For, that is not enough which some answer, that God doth not these things, but only permitteth them.  For the holy Scriptures manifestly testify, that he called the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and other nations, to vex and afflict the Israelites: and that against Solomon and other kings, he raised up enemies and adversaries, to keep them under and to chastise them.  And forasmuch as these men being thus raised up have no regard at all to the will of God, but only apply themselves to ambition, and to their own lust they grievously sin against God.  Howbeit God by them though they be never so unjust and wicked executeth his most just judgment: and therein committeth no offence.”

Vermigli can still preserve a very direct divine ordination of the wicked magistrate because, although such a magistrate does not necessarily any longer fulfill the original good office of magistracy that God has ordained (of which Rom. 13 is taken to be a blueprint), he fulfills another office–a chastisement for the sins of the people.  This is a theme that Vermigli and many of the other Reformers return to frequently–if a tyrant is in office, we must recognize it as chastisement for our sins.  In fact, this can be subsumed back under the Rom. 13 blueprint of civil authority, since one task of the magistrate there is to be a “terror to the evildoer.”  So Vermigli, despite having to separate the authorization of the office from that of the person, is able to find a way to argue that, whatever his faults, the person ends up fulfilling the authorization of the office one way or another, and hence must be accepted and obeyed.  Of course, one key caveat remains: if he commands contrary to God.  Since we are only to be subject to him as touching his function and office, “when he goes beyond, and commands any thing that is repugnant unto piety, and unto the law of God, we ought to obey God rather than men.”


It wasn’t long, though, before many Reformers were finding a reading such as this an uncomfortable constraint when faced with actual, rather than merely theoretical “tyrants”–or at least monarchs unfriendly to the Reformation.  One popular way of getting around the problem was to emphasize, as the Huguenot monarchomachs did, that the lesser magistrates were powers ordained by God too, who were also entrusted with the task of guarding the commonwealth, punishing evildoers, etc.  And this meant that in fulfillment of their tasks, they might have to restrain the chief ruler.  Another route, though, and one with even more revolutionary implications, was to press hard the distinction of office and person.  


Unsurprisingly, this was the route taken by John Knox, not one prone to half-measures.  In his famous debate with Lethington at the 1564 General Assembly, Knox was taken to task for his recent sermon on Romans 13.  Lethington summarized, “Ye made difference betwixt the ordinance of God and persons that were placed in authority, and ye affirmed that men might refuse the persons and yet not to offend against God’s ordinance.”  Knox replied that Lethington had heard him aright, and proceeded to expound further:

“First, the Apostle affirms that the powers are ordained of God [for the preservation of quiet and peaceable men, and for the punishment of malefactors; whereof it is plain that the ordinance of God] and the power given unto man is one thing, and the person clad with the power or with the authority is another; for God’s ordinance is the conservation of mankind, the punishment of vice, the maintaining of virtue, which is in itself holy, just, constant, stable, and perpetual.  But men clad with the authority are commonly profane and unjust; yea, they are mutable and transitory, and subject to corruption, as God threateneth them by His Prophet David, saying: ‘I have said ye are gods, and every one of you the sons of the Most Highest; but ye shall die as men, and the princes shall fall like others.’  Here I am assured that persons, the soul and body of wicked princes, are threatened with death.  I think that so ye will not affirm is the authority, the ordinance and the power, wherewith God endued such persons; for as I have said, as it is holy, so it is the permanent will of God.  And now, my Lord, that the prince may be resisted and yet the ordinance of God not violated, it is evident; for the people resisted Saul when he had sworn by the living God that Jonathan should die….

“And now, my Lord, to answer to the place of the Apostle who affirms ‘that such as resists the power, resists the ordinance of God,’ I say that the power in that place is not to be understood of the unjust commandment of men, but of the just power wherewith God has armed His magistrates and lieutenants to punish sin and maintain virtue.  As if any man should enterprise to take fromt he hands of a lawful judge a murderer, an adulterer or any malefactor that by God’s law deserved death, this same man resisted God’s ordinance, and procured to himself vengeance and damnation because that he stayed God’s sword to strike.  But so it is not if that men in the fear of God oppone themselves to the fury and blind rage of princes; for so they resist not God, but the devil, who abuses the sword and authority of God.”

Office and person have now become completely separable.  Sure, God ordains the office of magistrate, but he ordains it for a particular good purpose, described in Rom. 13.  If any particular magistrate fails to fulfill this ordained purpose, then he is no lieutenant of God, but of the devil, and is to unwaveringly opposed as such.  Romans 13, then, is suddenly transformed from a text chiefly calculated to instill obedience to a text authorizing and providing a litmus test for armed rebellion.


This line of argument is taken up and taken further in Knox’s ally, the opportunistic Scottish humanist George Buchanan, who in his deeply subversive dialogue, De Iure Regni Apud Scotos, despite seeking to argue from classical authorities and reason rather than Scripture, feels the need to confront Romans 13 head-on.   He too quickly succeeds in knocking out of the hands of his opponents and using it as a weapon against them.

The key again lies in reading it as a definition of the proper task of magistracy: “In his Epistle to the Romans [Paul] defines a king with almost dialectical precision: he says that the king is an officer to whom the sword has been given by God to punish the evil and to encourage and sustain the good.”  He then, citing the same passage from Chrysostom that Vermigli cites at one point in his commentary, says that these things are not written about a tyrant, “but of a true and lawful magistrate, who is the earthly representatie of the true God.”

 He strengthens this point by appealing to what he takes to be the original rhetorical context.  Here he is considerably ahead of his time, which was generally happy to apply the text first and ask questions about its original purpose later (if at all), and he pre-empts by four centuriesthe arguments of many recent interpreters of the passage–Paul was writing to combat libertines and enthusiasts: “But if you also consider what induced Paul to write these words, note that this passage may count strongly against you.  For Paul wrote it in order to censure the rashness of certain men who denied that the commands of magistrates were necessary for Christians.”  

Therefore, we are to understand that

“Paul, then, is not concerned here with those who act as magistrates but with magistracy itself, that is, with the function and duty of those who are set over others; and he is not concerned with any particular type of magistracy, but with the form of every lawful magistracy.  His argument is not with those who think that bad magistrates ought to be restrained, but with those who reject the authority of all magistrates….In order to refute their error Paul showed that magistracy is not only good but also sacred, the ordinance of God, indeed, expressly established to hold groups and communities of men together in such a way that the would recognise the blessings of God towards them and refrain from injuring one another.”

 So, by appealing to the rhetorical context, he manages to turn the passage into a discourse on civil authority in the abstract, rather than any kind of concrete command to submission.  Paul has no intention of authorizing tyrants, only magistracy in general: “You will find nothing in Paul to show why they [tyrants] should not be punished for violating the laws of God and of man.  For he discusses the power of magistrates as such, not how evil men evilly wield that power.  Indeed, if you measure tyrants of that kind against Paul’s rule, they will not be magistrates at all.”  He recognizes God’s  providential use of such rulers, but is not willing to give them any direct divine authorization, since that would make God the author of evil: “God sometimes appoints an evil man to punish evil men, but no one in his right mind will dare to assert that God is the author of human malice, just as everyone knows that He is responsible for punishing evildoers.”

So we may justly conclude that “the definition of a power laid down by Paul does not apply to tyrants at all, since they devote the strength of their authority to the fulfilment of their own desires, not to the benefit of the people.”  Romans 13, by defining the right use of authority, thus serves as a basis for identifying improper authorities, and by implication, absolving people from any duty to obey this.  

Buchanan, though, is a bit shrewder than Knox, for he realizes that he will have to do a bit more to get around a potential objection–after all, wasn’t Romans 13 written to people under Nero?  Weren’t rulers like Caligula and Nero precisely the sort of people that, on Buchanan’s reading, Paul should have been encouraging Christians to resist.  His next move serves to historically relativise the passage (a revolutionary move among his contemporaries)–it was a pragmatic command to Christians in a particular circumstance, but not one that should apply in all times and all places.  

“Paul wrote this in the very infancy of the church, when it was necessary not only to be above reproach, but also to avoid giving any opportunity for criticism to those looking even for unjust grounds for making accusations.  Next, he wrote to men brought together into a single community from different races and indeed from the whole body of the Roman Empire.”  

These were mostly lower class people, who had no powers in the government.  

“If such people had tried to take any part in government, they would inevitably have been thought not only foolish but quite out of their minds; still more so if they had come out of their hiding-places and made trouble for those who controlled the government.” 

In other words, these were people who simply weren’t in a position to rebel successfully.  Their only option was patient submission, and so that’s what Paul counselled.  No doubt he would say the same in the sixteenth century, Buchanan says, to Christians living under the Turks–as they are in a position of impotence, quietism is the only option. 

Needless to say, this last development is one that would’ve deeply unnerved Knox, who was determined to make every political declaration in Scripture a direct command to his own day; to suggest that certain key passages might have had force only in a particular situation, and our own situation is to be addressed, as Buchanan thought, simply by reason, flew completely in the face of Knox’s biblicist agenda.  However, the Scottish Reformation made very strange bedfellows, of whom Knox and Buchanan are perhaps two of the strangest.


Nuggets from the O’Don

My supervision meeting with Prof. O’Donovan today featured the usual generous sampling of entertaining and illuminating tangents, in which he deigned to share tantalizing tidbits of insight about political theology as a whole and that of the Reformation in particular.  Here are a smattering of them (take these with a significant grain of salt as representations of O’Donovan’s thought, since he was speaking off the cuff and these thoughts are filtered through the narrow and potentially distorting limits of my own understanding and particular interests):

The point that the Calvinists are urging at the end of the 16th century is that the Reformation has not been completed because a true Church has not been established with independent integrity as a social body.  The Anglicans respond that the Presbyterians are in fact wanting to reverse the Reformation, by re-establishing a new papacy, just a papacy of the proletariat.  There is some justice in the charge, but there is also justice in the point the Presbyterians are urging; after all, the Papacy was not an all-bad idea.  In fact, the Papacy was a historical development that grew out of the need to answer the same sort of question–namely, how do we give a locus of the Church’s identity as a unique institution in  the midst of a Christendom society?  The advent of Christendom and the Christianization of the Roman Empire called forth the Papacy as the solution, as a way of giving a clear visible form to the Church as something independent from Christendom.  The problem did not go away, and the Presbyterians were right to raise the question again.  Even Hooker recognizes this to an extent, giving the Church a certain kind of independent visible identity again, with its own laws and its own Convocation that govern how the monarch can govern it.

The invocation of the “Hebrew Republic” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was far from uniform.  For many, it was not so much a desire to repristinate the Hebrew Republic in contemporary Europe, as it was a way of accounting for the historically-conditioned nature of the political structure of the Old Testament, and thus of putting it at a certain distance from contemporary politics.  We see this with Grotius, for instance, who sees the legal system of the Old Testament as exceptionally elegant and wise, but not always applicable.  To determine how much it may be applicable, we have to look at what Christ said.

In the Patristic period, a simple binary configuration is used for making sense of the OT law–there is the enduring moral law, and the obsolete ceremonial law.  The criminal law can be subsumed under this latter, and thus comfortably done away with.  The scholastic emergence of the third category, civil law, allows one to do more justice to the authentic value of the civil laws, but while enabling them to be historically relativized where necessary.  The category of evangelical law emerges in the later Reformation.  It is not present in Lutheran and the early guys (not present in Vermigli and Bullinger, for instance), who will have no truck with the idea that the Gospel imposes a new form of law–the Gospel is of a different order entirely.  But with the Calvinists emerges the idea that that there might be a particularly Christian form of law that should affect how states operate, how justice is administered, how international affairs are run, etc.

The problem with the Puritans is that they simply wanted to copy Geneva, but the Genevan model, while very satisfactory for a small city-state, could not be so easily mapped onto a large kingdom, as Hooker recognized.  If you tried to copy Geneva in England, what you ended up with was a political structure centralized in a national monarchy, and an ecclesial structure that operated on a town and parish level, resulting in a very unsatisfactory balance of power, unlike that in Geneva.  This problem has become very evident in the American setting, where no tradition (except the Catholics) have been able to sustain a national church; the denominations have simply splintered into regionalized bodies, and ones in which effective sovereignty operates generally at the local level.  Meanwhile, political structures have become increasingly concentrated at the national level, making it impossible for there to be any effective ecclesial counterweight.