Faith in the revolution. The political theologies of Muntzer and Winstanley

Written by Andrew Bradstock Reviewed By Gerald Bray

This book comes in three parts which are quite distinct from each other, although they are held together by the overarching theme of political theology. The first part is a review of the life and thought of the sixteenth-century revolutionary Thomas Muntzer, about whom so much has been written, not least by modern Marxists. Muntzer’s close association with the first generation of the German reformation, as well as his approval of the peasants’ revolt as the harbinger of the coming kingdom of God, have made him particularly fascinating, and Dr Bradstock guides us through the current state of Muntzer research in a way which is both clear and convincing. Among much else, we learn how he was influenced by the German mystic Johannes Tauler, and how he drew on the apocalyptic traditions associated with the name of Joachim da Fiore, without adopting them fully or consistently. Muntzer comes across as a visionary influenced mainly by the book of Daniel, which may help to explain the political turn which his activities later took. Dr Bradstock is determined to emphasize that Muntzer never advocated violence as such, but was driven to it by the way in which the German princes put down their peasants.

The second section of the book is a study of Gerrard Winstanley, the seventeenth-century leader and theorist of the ‘Diggers’, a primitive communist movement which was suppressed before it could attain the dimensions of Muntzer’s revolt. Winstanley is portrayed as a man of radical leanings who was always on the fringe of the church, whether in its established or in any of its many dissenting forms. His social and political ideas apparently developed mainly in the light of his personal experiences during the difficult 1640s, and it is an open question as to whether his profession of Christianity was any more than a conventional form of words. Had he lived even fifty years later, some have suggested, he would have abandoned his religious vocabulary altogether, since it was hardly necessary to his programme. This may be unfair, Dr Bradstock hints, because Winstanley may have been pushed towards his radical politics precisely because of his Christian convictions, even if there is little doubt that they resulted in a form of secularisation.

The third section is a theoretical study of political theology which asks whether Christianity has anything unique to contribute in this area. If Biblical eschatology cannot be consistently applied to human realities, what can Christians do in the social sphere? This has been hotly debated in modern times, and widely different answers have been given. Dr Bradstock believes that Christians ought to be involved in movements of social transformation, and he concentrates on the liberation theology of Latin America. As a result, this section has a rather dated feel to it—it is rather like a throwback to the 1960s, when Marxism and the emerging third world revolution were causing upheavals on university campuses around the world. Almost all the writers whom Dr Bradstock mentions belong to that era, but it has to be said that the world has moved on since then. Oddly enough, one name missing from this discussion is that of Jacques Ellul, surely one of the most prolific and penetrating critics of the whole phenomenon, and a declared (protestant) Christian to boot.

One is left with the feeling that the common thread linking Muntzer, Winstanley and the modern Christian social revolutionaries is their middle-class origin. To them the world of the peasantry is essentially foreign, and thus easy to idealise. Christianity provides a useful quarry for their ideas and vocabulary, but it has not transformed their thinking very deeply. In particular, the doctrine of original sin, which must surely be the foundation of any truly Christian social theory, is notable by its absence from their thought, and Winstanley (at least) explicitly rejected it. Perhaps he had to, before the kind of revolutionary theology he subsequently adopted could even be conceived. Dr Bradstock does not answer this question, but at least his research shows that revolutionary eschatology, however dependent on the Bible it may be, is not a viable way forward for Christians in the political sphere, in this or in any age.

Gerald Bray

Gerald Bray is research professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, where he teaches history and doctrine. He is a minister in the Church of England and the editor of the Anglican theological journal Churchman.