The following is the full text of a presentation delivered at Wheaton College on September 23, 2016, for an event co-sponsored by The Davenant Trust and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. I am very grateful to Drs. Vincent Bacote and Bryan McGraw for their hospitality and engagement. The full video of the event, including their responses and the extended discussion time following, can be viewed here. Much of this presentation is taken from chapter 1 of my forthcoming book The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology (Eerdmans, May 2017).
Life Between Two Loyalties
From the moment that Christ enigmatically rebuffed Herod’s political theologians with the words “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his followers have had to grapple with the challenge of living under “different kings and different laws.” At various times and places, some have been so bold as to imagine they had removed the sting from Christ’s statement, whether by bringing God and Caesar into alliance, by restricting their kingdoms to different worlds, or by ensuring that Caesar would adopt pluralistic policies that would grant free rein to any religious conscience. Each such solution has in due course been exposed as an over-optimistic illusion, leaving Christians to grapple anew with the tensions of their dual citizenship. Whatever the failures of Reformation political thought, it must at least be credited with its refusal to blithely dismiss the problem; indeed, fewer questions, as I hope this study will show, were more central to early Protestant theology and churchmanship.
Let us begin, then, by tracing the legacy of Protestantism’s proclamation of freedom in relation to Western political order. Certainly, few deny that a central contribution of Protestantism, what Alister McGrath calls its “dangerous idea,” was an epistemological revolution: the insistence on the freedom of individual Christian consciences to determine Scripture’s meaning for themselves. Luther’s famous words at Worms offer a memorable summary of this freedom:
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.