Volume 16 - Issue 1
Attitudes towards the state in Western theological thinkingBy Torleiv Austad
A theological approach
What does a theological approach to the understanding of the state in Western thinking mean? Looking into the history of theology, we do not find any precise and clear answer. Since the beginning of Christianity there have been within the church and its theology various concepts of the state. The theological approach has changed from time to time. The main reason for this seems obvious: theological reflection on the state is dependent not only upon the Bible and its interpretation, but also upon the changing social, political and economic situation in which people live. The theology of the state is therefore to some extent contextual.
From Western theological thinking we ought to learn to re-examine our theological approach to the understanding of the state. That does not mean giving up trying to find a new platform or a new perspective in the Holy Scriptures. Otherwise it would not be Christian theology. But we need all the time to purify the biblical criteria we are using in order to diminish our own ideological and political prejudices. In addition, developing a theology of the state is scarcely possible without taking into account the state and the society in which we live. Christian ethical thinking has to be aware of the difference between our situation and that in which the NT developed.
In the theological approach to the state we ask for scriptural principles and guidelines which can be used theoretically and practically in dealing with political issues. The main question is: What is the purpose of the state within God’s will and plan for the world and for the salvation of mankind?
It is not possible to find a unified, specific concept of the state as a political structure. In the Holy Scriptures, which cover a span of at least 1,000 years of history, there are different types of organized political life. The political structure of the common social life in Palestine at the time of Jesus is not the same as the organization established during the reign of the great kings of Israel. And when the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome about their civil responsibilities and duties in society, he had in mind the Roman state, which differs from the Greek concept of the polis or city-state. The Roman state was not only expanding into a universal empire but was also based on law as the constituent element of its existence.1 From an ethical point of view it is quite clear that there is no reason for monopolizing one of the concepts of the state or of political structures within the Scriptures. Nor can we speak of a convergence towards a biblical or even a Christian model of the state. ‘Nowhere in the Bible does God put forward an ideal of monarchy or republicanism or some other political system as the unchanging truth for our aspiration’, J. W. Skillen claims incisively in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.2
The notion of the state
The term ‘state’ can be defined in various ways. In this article it is used in the sense of the supreme organization and authority of the common political life within a territory or country. The term can also refer to an independent political community as such, i.e. a body of people permanently occupying a definite area under the leadership of a sovereign government. Here we face primarily the political association of a society, the governing authorities, not so much the community itself. That means we are not dealing especially with the community aspect in the close relationship of state and nation, state and society, or state and family. By concentrating on the supreme governing authorities we focus on such ethical challenges as the mandate and the limits of the state, the obedience of the citizen, the development from monarchy to democracy, the secularization of the state, the problem of legitimacy, and relations between church and state.
Originally the term ‘state’ was derived from the Roman legal concept of the status rei Romanae, i.e. the public law of the Roman Republic. At the beginning of the fifteenth century it replaced such former terms as polis (Greek) and civitas, regnum and respublica.3 Since the age of the Reformation the national state has been dominant in many Western countries. In the twentieth century a network of international structures has been built up, especially on the economic level. In some respects, therefore, we can speak of a supranational state which has to be considered together with the national state.
One of the most frequently used and misused texts concerning the state is Romans 13:1–7. Besides the more detailed exegetical debate among scholars, two main questions have been raised with regard to the ethical application of the text in actual situations. The first question—or cluster of questions—is about the institution of the state. What does it mean that ‘the authorities that exist have been established by God’ (v. 1)? Is every actual state, regardless of how it came into being and exercised power, ‘God’s servant’ (v. 4)? To what extent is the authority of the state absolute and indispensable? Does the text provide an adequate basis for a Christian concept of the state?
The second main question arises from the specifically exhortative character of the text. What are the meaning and the consequences of submission to the governing authorities? Do they include a demand to obey oppressive rulers? Is it against the will of God to oppose or resist a state which may hold ‘terror for those who do right’?
In the Western theological tradition, and especially in the Lutheran wing of it, there has been a marked tendency to take Romans 13 as a Christian obligation to submit to and obey every actual governing authority. The argument generally used is that the existing state is considered to be instituted by God and given divine authority. Christians are therefore not allowed to oppose and revolt if the state happens to be tyrannic. In the Reformed tradition stemming from John Knox and the Huguenots there is a stronger ethos of resistance to injustice caused by the state. From the outset Reformed churches have usually been more active in socio-political matters than have their Lutheran counterparts, including criticizing governing authorities whom they have perceived to be bad.
The reasons for the generally uncritical Lutheran attitude toward the state are to be found in the close relationship between state and church, e.g. the state church, and in the theological concept of the orders of creation. In this concept the state is considered to be an instrument or order of preservation instituted by God to uphold the world, keep sin under control and prevent general destruction.4 The possibility that the state itself could degenerate and become demonic was for centuries rarely considered.
Two historical phenomena in Europe and North America have called into question the traditional use of Romans 13. The first was the advent of democracy in Western political and theological reflection. The second, with consequences for our understanding of the modern state, is the experience with totalitarianism during the Third Reich and in strongly Communist countries.
Democratic thinking and policy in the generations immediately after the French Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence led to a new debate on the authority of the state. Does it come ‘from above’ or ‘from below’? Can Christians, according to Romans 13, accept a state which derives its authority from the people by election? Does not the democratic idea contradict the concept of the state appointed by God and endowed with divine authority? Some Christians resisted democracy because they thought the people, i.e. the masses, would usurp the authority of the state and dethrone God. What they did not see at once was that they in fact used Romans 13 to defend and preserve the old monarchy and oligarchy. After years of discussion it became clearer that the state as God’s servant in the world is a theological perspective which is independent of the origin and the structure of the state. Governing authorities who have their power through birth and familial connections are not necessarily more in accordance with God’s will than those who have their power from the people and are responsible to them. The great confessional families have adapted themselves to democracy and, having made the adjustment, ‘they have released spiritual influences which have been favourable to democratic life, though the relationship between Roman Catholicism and democracy even in such cases remains problematic’.5
The pendulum, however, has swung towards the other side in the ethical thinking of some Western theologians. They claim that there is a special affinity between Christian faith and democracy. Karl Barth admits that the notion of democracy is powerless to describe even approximately the kind of state which most nearly corresponds to the divine ordinance. He continues:
There is no reason, however, why it should be overlooked or denied that Christian choices and purposes in politics tend on the whole toward the form of State, which, if it is not actually realized in the so-called ‘democracies’, is at any rate more or less clearly intended and desired. Taking everything into account, it must be said that the Christian view shows a stronger trend in this direction than in any other. There certainly is an affinity between the Christian community and the civil community of free peoples.6
The institutions of political democracy have a better foundation in Christian realism about human nature than in the optimism of the Enlightenment. That is shown by Reinhold Niebuhr, who makes clear the dangers of utopian democracy. He summarizes his concept in a sentence which is very often quoted in ethical thinking: ‘Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’7
The modern totalitarian state shaped by National Socialism under Hitler and Communism in the USSR has been a strong challenge to the churches, to theological thinking, and to the Christian conscience. Its entry on the stage of European history was a shocking experience. But the churches are also aware of a tendency towards totalitarianism within democratic welfare states, especially when trying to regulate and control all sectors of social life, including religious and moral decisions and activities.8 Nevertheless, it was the rise and fall of the Third Reich which caused a new revision of the Christian ethics of the state. The two most burning issues during its twelve-year life and in theological reflection immediately thereafter concerned the limitation or the state and the right and duty to resist when the state claims to be totalitarian and asserts injustice and restraint of conscience.
From his Christological point of view, Karl Barth very strongly criticized the Lutheran doctrine of the two realms based on the distinction between creation and redemption. His alternative was to draw analogies for the life of the state from the kingdom of God. The gospel, justification by faith and even the church should be patterns for state and society.9 Barth’s concept of the state played an important role in the Confessing Church in Germany during the Third Reich. After the Second World War Christological ethics dominated the ecumenical debate on church and society until the middle of the 1960s.
Romans 13 today
Facing Romans 13:1–7 in theological ethics today, it is important to keep in mind the difference between the perspective of the apostle Paul and our own questions. Among theological ethicists there is now a consensus about the impossibility of seeing Romans 13 as an entire doctrine of the state which can be used for almost all occasions concerning the state of our time. Without any hermeneutical reflection the Pauline text can easily be misinterpreted and misused in ethical situations vastly different from that of the Roman Empire in the middle of the first century. lt seems obvious that Paul’s purpose is exhortative. He wished to remind Christians in Rome that God expects them to do their duties even in civil affairs like paying taxes and customs. Even though the Christians already belong to the eschatological kingdom of God, they should not overlook and feel free from the ordinary obligations of all citizens. N. A. Dahl puts if this way: ‘Paul speaks only of the ordinary, elemental duties’.10
Seen from our world of politics, many questions and challenges are not taken into account in Romans 13. Some examples can be mentioned: Paul does not take into consideration various forms of the state or give arguments for what he may have thought was the best. The text cannot therefore answer the general question whether monarchy, oligarchy or democracy is most preferable. What we usually understand by democracy lies outside Paul’s horizon in Romans 13. Therefore it is neither acceptable to ‘canonize’ democracy nor to reject it as incompatible with biblical thought. The possibility that Christians some day would participate actively in political life and exercise power is not even considered.11 The text does not give any concrete help in dealing with the tension between the majority and the minority within a democracy. Paul presupposes that the governing authorities are paying respect to elementary justice and that the Christians in Rome are living in an ordered society. He does not raise the question what the Christians should do if the authorities become criminals. There is no commandment obligating Christians to stay away from every kind of resistance if good behaviour should cause trouble and fear and the doers of good be punished instead of the evildoers (cf. v. 3).
On the other hand, Paul instructs Christians to obey the governing authorities because they are appointed by God and given responsibility for justice and order in society. Not only the Christian life, but also civil life, is attached to God, who has dominion over the whole universe and requires our submission to his will. The Christians are not granted any immunity from fulfilling ordinary obligations, in the civil affairs of society. The condition, however, is that ‘the authorities are there to serve God: they carry out God’s revenge by punishing wrongdoers’ (v. 4).
The mandate and the limits of the state
Theological thinking about the mandate and the limits of the state is based upon God’s all-embracing dominion of his creation. He has the whole world in his hands, not only the churches and Christians. For that reason it is possible to speak meaningfully about the state, from a theological point of view without purporting to present any political theory or programme for the political organization of public life in society. On the other hand, we cannot and shall not exclude political ‘designers’ from taking notice of the theological understanding of the mandate and the limits of the governing authorities.
During the Reformation the theological question of the state’s mandate and limits arose from the fact that the church, i.e. the Roman Catholic bishops, had made total claims upon people not only in spiritual but also in worldly affairs. In the twentieth century we have experienced that the modern state can make total claims not only in worldly but also in spiritual affairs. There are totalitarian ideologies, such as National Socialism, which do not allow the governing authorities to limit their demands in any area of life.
Struggling with the totalitarian state in our century, some churches have drawn attention to the concept of the two realms or governances. In trying to limit the worldly power of the church, Article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession asserts that the spiritual and the temporal authorities ‘are not to be mingled or confused, for the spiritual power has its commission to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments’.12 The church should not interfere at all with government or temporal authority: ‘Temporal authority is concerned with matters altogether different from the Gospel’. Temporal power ‘does not protect the soul, but with the sword and physical penalties it protects body and goods from the power of others’, the Augsburg Confession declares.13This particular description of the limited task of the governing authorities has been used as an argument against the interference of the modern state in religious convictions, the inner life of the church, e.g. the preaching of the gospel, and matters of conscience. The point is that the state is not allowed to put pressure on people in areas relating to God and sensitive ethical obligations. In fact, there is sometimes a combination of arguments taken from both the Christian faith and general human rights.
Regardless of whether it accepts the concept of the two realms, theological thinking has to make a distinction between church and state, gospel and politics. How to draw this line in concrete situations is constantly being debated. It is noteworthy, however, that no church affords total affiliation with the state. That means that theology is required to reflect not only on the peculiarity of the church but also on the mandate and limits of the state.
From an exegetical point of view, Oscar Cullmann emphasizes the ‘provisional’ character of the state. It is not a final institution. In the question of paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus recognized that within its sphere the state could demand what belongs to it: money or taxes (Mk. 12:13–17 and parallels). Giving mammon back to Caesar is not, however, placed on the same level as serving God. Give God what is his! That is our life, our entire person. Cullman says: ‘On the one hand, the State is nothing final. On the other, it has the right to demand what is necessary to its existence—but no more. Every totalitarian claim of the State is thereby disallowed’.14 According to the commandment of Jesus, the Christians are not allowed to give to the state what belongs to God. If the state demands more than what is necessary for its existence, it transgresses its limits. Christians are relieved of all obligations to such a requirement from a totalitarian state. Cullmann interprets Romans 13:1–7 in the same way. The Christians shall give the state, even Nero’s state, what is due to it, but no more. They are not asked to give to the state what is God’s. If the state remains within its limits, it will be described as God’s servant. If the state transgresses its mandate, however, the Christians will consider it as ‘the instrument of the Devil’.15
The state is an instrument which God uses in order to uphold the world until its end. It has neither divine nature nor a specific appearance. Belonging to this world, the state does not have the eschatological quality of the Kingdom of God and the gospel. The mandate and the limits of the state are to be seen within the worldly household of God and in relation to the genuine state of the Christians, the politeuma in heaven (cf. Phil. 3:20).16
From the NT texts which speak of the life of the Christian in the world, we may draw the following conclusions for understanding the mandate and limits of the state: First, the mandate of the state is to deal with and regulate the common social, political and economic life of society. Secondly, the state has the right to require taxes from the citizens to be able to take care of some of the common needs, such as food and clothing, work and social welfare, law and justice. Thirdly, the state has to take care of and reward those who are doing right and to punish those who are doing wrong. Thus the state is on the way to fulfilling its mandate of administering justice. If the state pretends to give itself divine attributes and becomes involved in people’s relationship with God, it goes beyond its limits. It is also a transgression of those limits when a state offends elementary civil rights, especially when it restrains freedom of conscience. In addition, a just state, i.e. a state which functions in accordance with its mandate, may not be totalitarian in terms of claiming sovereignty in all areas of life without crossing the line and entering into injustice and demonic power.
The task of the church over against the state is threefold: First, the church has to remind the state of its mandate and limits. Secondly, the church should encourage the citizens, Christians included, to co-operate with the actual state as far as it is true to its calling. Thirdly, because the state is constantly tempted to become totalitarian and degenerate, the church and Christians are called to be critical of every state and evaluate its functions on the basis of ethical premises.
Disobedience and resistance
In the ethical debate after World War Two about attitudes toward totalitarian states, a new trend began to emerge. Now it is a much more widespread and accepted standard of ethics that the people, Christians included, have the right and even the duty to resist an unjust, demonic state. For centuries it had been hammered in, especially in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches, that it is Christian to obey every governing authority, without regard to possibly unethical decisions and claims. The obligation to submit to even a bad, evil and unjust state was considered to be part of God’s hidden governance and upbringing of his people. Disobedience and resistance could lead to anarchy, which was contrary to God’s will—according to the common understanding. This traditional attitude was adjusted through the terrible experiences of the Third Reich. The attempt to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944 has to a great extent been justified since the war in theological thinking.17
The change in this respect can be illustrated by an example from the struggle of the Church of Norway against Nazism during the German occupation of 1940–45.18 The bishop of Oslo, Eivind Berggrav, made a sharp distinction between a just and an unjust state—a distinction which was appropriate at that time. The just state, the bishop reasoned, is based on a theological interpretation of natural law. The law, a constituent part of the state, is considered holy, in keeping with Rudolf Otto’s understanding. Berggrav claimed that this holy law corresponds to God’s will for creation (lex creationis). His criteria for a just state seemed to be the following:
(1) The just state acts in accordance with law and justice, which are anchored in God.
(2) The just state is limited to temporal matters; it is not allowed to influence questions of faith and conscience.
(3) The just state has to keep brutal and crude power under control by upholding the law and administering justice.
(4) The just state is able to distinguish between good and evil deeds, and it does not hinder the former.
Bishop Berggrav was convinced that according to Paul in Romans 13 the law is interposed between the citizen and the sovereign authority. If the state respects the sovereignty of God’s law, then every citizen is obligated to obey. Without God’s law, there can be no proper authority and no obligation to obey. Whenever the state rules without law, in a completely arbitrary matter, it becomes unjust. In such a case, it usually reveals itself as a police state which tries to become absolute. In the presence of such a case, the Christian not only has the right but also the duty to disobey. Where there is no law and order, the Norwegian bishop did not hesitate to speak of a fundamental right to revolt. In this connection he questioned the traditional Lutheran attitude and fell back on Reformed models.19
This conditional understanding of the state, which was Berggrav’s great theological contribution to the international debate about political ethics, is built on the democratic tradition according to which the people have the duty to judge the legitimacy of the state.
Turning to contemporary Roman Catholic moral theologians, it is interesting to see how strongly they emphasize that the church and Christians should be critical of the state and not only when the state threatens specifically ecclesiastical concerns. The state is the servant of the common good, not its master, and it needs to be ‘demythologized’. ‘Christians must do their utmost to see that the deification of the state which now threatens us anew shall not take root throughout the world’, Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler assert in the Dictionary of Theology.20 They claim that the laws of the state do not need to be obeyed ‘if they call on one to do the common good considerable harm; and if they require anything immoral, then to obey (saying that “orders are orders”) is unlawful and sin before God’.21 It may be a moral obligation to change the concrete form of the state. ‘An emergency or the need for self-defence may even justify revolutionary action outside the law’, these two Roman Catholic theologians reason.22
State and church
The understanding of the state in the history of Western theology cannot be understood without taking into account its relation to the church. Until the beginning of the fourth century the church consisted of local congregations scattered around the Roman Empire. It did not have any strong central organization. From time to time Christians and their communities were under pressure and persecuted by the governing authorities. When the Roman emperors became Christians, the church was given a central and protected place in the empire. Constantine and most of his successors thereby began to ‘Christianize’ the ancient Roman world. Rather quickly Christianity moved from being a religion recognized by the state to a state religion and later the exclusive state religion.
In the Middle Ages the already existing difference between Western and Eastern Christianity became more apparent in relations between church and state. In the West there developed a pattern of ecclesiastical sovereignty over feudal estates, while the Eastern way followed the older Roman tradition of imperial sovereignty shepherding the church.23
Against the background of the dominating role of the church in the West during the Middle Ages, the question has been raised whether there really was a state. The famous thesis of J. N. Figgi is that the state in the Middle Ages was ‘a dream, or even a prophecy’. He claimed that ‘the real State of the Middle Ages in the modern sense—if the word is not a paradox—is the Church.… The State or rather the civil authority was merely the police department of the Church’.24 This is undoubtedly a too one-sided judgment. The state existed throughout the Middle Ages. But the terminology used then and now needs to be taken into account and examined.
Thus, in medieval political language civitas usually referred to the city-state which flourished in various parts of Europe, and more particularly in Italy. Regnum was used to describe the territorial monarchies in process of formation from the close of the high Middle Ages onwards. Respublica was reserved in most cases for describing a wider community, the respublica christiana, which united all believers in one sheepfold. The angle of vision determined whether that community was the Empire or the Church.25
The church claimed to have supreme jurisdiction in society and was accepted by the people as the highest spiritual rule and the source of all law. But, apart from a few cases, the church did not exercise a particularly broad range of worldly powers. The idea of the universal lordship of the church over the whole world did not become a comprehensive political reality, although the ambitious Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303) made an unsuccessful attempt. In spite of the dominant position of the church during the Middle Ages, the state remained in the form of civitas, regnum or respublica. It is not correct to say that the church became a state or even the state.
At the time of the Reformation Luther protested against the medieval idea of the superiority of the church over all worldly powers. He insisted that the church’s only power was that of the gospel, i.e. Word and Sacrament. The church did not have lordship over the worldly realm. In such matters the state, according to Luther, had its specific mandate and function under God’s governance, but not under the church and the bishops. The purpose of the distinction between state and church was to purify the gospel and avoid the medieval blending of spiritual and worldly power, especially by the clergy.
The problem of legitimation
In Aristotle’s concept the polis was the bearer of the highest values. The city-state therefore had no need of further legitimation. The Roman state sought its basic values in the supreme law or natural law. This law was considered to be eternal and unchangeable, and it expressed the supreme values of justice from which the positive laws emanate. Thus the law became the constituent element of the state. The Christianized state, the respublica christiana, took over the Roman structure of law, justice and state. The supreme or natural law was not identified with God’s law and interpreted in accordance with the Christian tradition. God’s will became the ultimate norm according to which the positive laws of the state had to be measured, renewed and refined. What we call the legitimation of the state was involved in the entire structure of the Christianized state.
When some Western states at various times after the Enlightenment proclaimed themselves to be secular and non-religious, the legitimation problem turned up in a new setting. In the European state and national churches there were—and still are—close ties between state and church which have made a great impact on the self-understanding of the state. On the other hand, the entire process of secularization gradually untied the ideology and politics of the state from the Christian tradition. In fact, many states are now to be seen as secular bodies. Nevertheless, the need for legitimation seems to emerge again and create a challenge to philosophical, theological and political thinking. Modern secular states look for an anchor in transcendent values, including religious or even Christian values. In the USA there has grown up around the Presidency a kind of civil religion, one independent of the individual presidents’ religious convictions and efforts to get support from various religious groups. Civil religion is a phenomenon which can also be observed in other countries. It demonstrates a search for a religious legitimation of the state which can give strength to its authority.26
This is not the place to go into greater detail in describing the need of the secular state to legitimize its existence and authority through the use of ultimate, religious values. Instead of further description, something which requires inter alia sociological methods, we would raise a theological question: What does it really mean that the governing authority is God’s servant? When Paul spoke about the governing authority as instituted by God, he did not have the Christianized state in mind but the heathen Roman state. The theological consequence of this is that even a secular state of the modern type is instituted by God and intended to be God’s servant. Should the secular state recognize its divine origin and task? And, in that case, how is it to be done? Or is the Pauline concept only a theological point of view without any significance for the actual state and political life? If we presuppose that there is a linkage between God and the governing authorities in secular matters, one could ask if the tendency in history to seek religious legitimation for the state is a reminiscence or a vague reminder of its divine purpose. There seems to be a basic law for social life that is valid not only for individuals but also for the state and its functions. We may call this God’s law, lex creationisor lex naturae.
Prayer for governing authorities
‘But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’, writes the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon (Je. 29:7). The people should pray for the foreign city in which they are held captive. The apostle Paul follows up, urging ‘that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanks givings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way’ (1 Tim. 2:1–2). Prayers for sovereigns and all in high office are not limited to political friends. We are called upon to pray for political enemies as well. Behind the prophetic and apostolic insistence on praying for all governing authorities lies the conviction that God is the Lord of the whole world, and that the worldly authorities are his servants (cf. Rom. 13:4). To bring them all before God in prayer means to open up to his grace also in such worldly matters as peace, justice and welfare.
The ancient church prayed to God for all governing authorities. In Luther’s Small Catechism the prayer for ‘godly and faithful rulers’ is taken as a part of our daily bread’, which is a petition in the Lord’s Prayer. Today there is no doubt: to pray for kings and presidents, governments and other political organizations is common among Christians and is one expression of the political responsibility of the church.
So far prayer for governing authorities usually seems to be uncontroversial in many Western countries. It is simply a question of doing it. But in some cases regarding specific prayers ethical problems arise. Is it right or wrong to pray that one’s own political party will win the next election? Does one go beyond the scriptural passages on prayer by asking God to remove a bad president or a paralysed government from office? What do we say to a military chaplain who prays that the troops he serves may emerge from battle victorious? A general answer to these questions is that we should not dictate to God certain political solutions. We are invited to make our requests in everything known to God (Phil. 4:6) but not to use our supplications to hurt others.
In Christ the end is already fulfilled. But the consummation is not yet realized; it still lies in the future. The kingdom of God has arrived but is not yet fully accomplished. This ‘already/not yet’ perspective constitutes the entire understanding of Christianity at the time of the apostles and in the ancient church. The attitude of the first Christian generation to the world is characterized through eschatological conviction and expectation. They are aware of their situation and responsibility in the world, despite having their ‘commonwealth in heaven’ (Phil. 3:20). The dialectic between being in the world but not of the world (cf. Jn. 17:11–19) points to the future in terms of both time and quality.
Now, the understanding of the governing authorities is to be seen in this eachatological framework. As already mentioned, Cullmann makes clear that the state appears as something ‘provisional’. ‘For this reason we do not find anywhere in the New Testament a renunciation of the State as such as a matter of principle; but neither do we find an uncritical acceptance—as if the State itself were something final, definitive’.27 The ‘provisional’ character of the state is the reason why the first Christians behaved so differently toward the governing authorities. The apparently contradictory attitude can be illustrated by comparing Romans 13 and Revelation 13. In both cases Christians are confronted with the Roman state. While the governing authorities according to Romans 13 respect elementary civil rights, the same state in Revelation 13—about forty years later—is seen as the beast from the abyss. Therefore the attitude of Christians has changed from obedience to disobedience. Within the eschatological horizon of the NT the relationship between Christians and the governing authorities is never fixed: it is complex, sensitive and changing.
When conflicts with the civil authorities developed, the apostles demonstrated their primary loyalty to God as expressed by the words of Peter: ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29). This clause has been used in many cases in church history when Christians are blamed, persecuted, forced to sin and thrown into prison by the authorities.28 On the other hand, there are countless examples of how the church and its members have co-operated with unjust states and thereby given them legitimacy as God’s servants. To obey every state uncritically, including those which are demonic, is not in accordance with the dramatic tension between Christians and the governing authorities. Cullmann puts it this way: ‘The earthly State is God’s servant so long as it remains in the order which is willed by God.’29 Heathen states and the gospel are compatible; totalitarian states and the gospel are in principle incompatible.
1 Cf. A. P. D’Entreves in Studies of Selected Pivotal ldeas Vol. IV (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), pp. 312–318, here p. 313.
2 J. W. Skillen in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 479
3 Cf. H. A. Rommen in New Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. XIII (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967), p. 664.
4 Concerning this concept, see theologians like W. Elert, P. Althaus, E. Brunner, W. Künneth and (in a modest way) H. Thielicke.
5 J. C. Bennett, Christians and the State (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), p 127.
6 K. Barth, Against the Stream (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954), p. 44.
7 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), p. xi.
8 Cf. E. Berggrav, ‘State and Church Today’, Proceedings of the Second Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, Hannover, Germany 1952 (Geneva: The Lutheran World Federation, 1952), pp. 76–85.
9 See especially K. Barth, Rechiferligung und Reckt (ZolIikon-Zürich: Theologische Studien 1, 1938); Christengemeinde und Bürgergemeinde (Zollikon-Zürich: Theologische Studien 20, 1946) and Community, State and Church (New York: Doubleday, 1960).
10 N. A. Dahl, ‘Is there a New Testament basis for the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms?’, Lutheran World XII, no. 4 (1965), pp. 337–354, here p. 347.
12 Quoted from The Book of Concord. The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), p. 83.
13 Ibid., p. 82.
14 O. Cullman, The Stale in the New Testament (New York: Charles Schliner’s Sons, 1956), p. 37.
15 Ibid., p. 86.
16 Cf. O. Dibelius, Grenzen des Staates (Berlin-Spandau: Wichern Verlag, 1949).
17 Even by W. Künneth, Politik zwischen Dāmon und Gott (Berlin: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1954).
18 Cf. T. Austad, ‘Eivind Berggrav and the Church of Norway’s Resistance Against Nazism, 1940–1945’, Mid-Stream XXVI, no. 1 (1987), pp. 51–61.
19 Cf. E. Berggrav, Man and State (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1951), especially pp. 247–284 and 300–319.
20 K. Rahner and H. Vorgrimler, Dictionary of Theology, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p 487.
21 Ibid., p. 486.
22 Ibid., p. 487.
23 Cf. Skillen, art. cit., p. 478.
24 Quoted in D’Entreves, art. cit., p. 314.
25 D’Entreves, art. cit., p. 314.
26 Cf. R. N. Bellah, Beyond Belief. Essays on Religion in a Post-traditional World (New York: Harper and Row, 1970); M. W. Hughly, Civil Religion and Moral Order: Theoretical and Historical Dimensions (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1983).
27 Cf. Cullmann, op. cit., p. 5.
28 Today Acts 5:29 is often quoted in the South African struggle against apartheid. See The Kairos Document, Challenge to the Church, rev. ed. (Braamfontein: Skotaville Publishers, 1987), p. 6.
29 Cullmann, op. cit., p. 89.
Dr Austad teaches at the Free Faculty of Theology, Oslo, Norway