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The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology

Nicholas Wolterstorff
Published by Cambridge University Press in 2012

Reviewed by Alexander Jech, Philosophy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s new book, The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology, aims to provide an original contribution to the long Western theological tradition of political thought and to show thereby that this tradition remains capable of making original and significant contributions to our understanding of the political order.

The basic plan of Wolterstorff’s book is straightforward, and he carries it out in clear, precise strokes as expected from one of the fathers of analytic philosophy’s Christian revival. He begins by setting out a specific way of framing the basic issue in terms of “dualities” of authority faced by Christians. He next develops an account of authority, governance, and political authority, grounds his account of political authority in the argument of Romans 13, and then deals with a number of implications of the view he has defended. Along the way he dispenses with rival views, contesting especially the traditional “two rules” doctrine defended by Calvin and many others, arguing persuasively that its conception of political authority is beset with insolvable difficulties. And, in the end, he leaves us not only with an account of political authority, but—because “what one says about the relation between divine and political authority determines the shape of almost everything else” (4)—with the foundation for a complete political theology.

There are two main stages in Wolterstorff’s argument—one philosophical, the other theological. The first occurs in chapters 4 through 6, where Wolterstorff discusses “Authority,” “Governance,” and “Authority to Govern.” These chapters develop the conceptual resources necessary for the second stage of the argument and Wolterstorff’s conclusion. The second stage occurs in chapters 8 through 10, where Wolterstorff provides an interpretation of Paul’s account of political authority in Romans that stays clear of objectionable aspects of rival interpretations and provides a foundation for the liberal democratic state (“albeit… a less individualistic” [5] liberal democratic state). In the remainder of this review I will focus upon explaining and evaluating Wolterstorff’s argument in these two sections of the book.

Wolterstorff begins by providing an account of authority, or rather, of a particular type of authority. According to Wolterstorff, political authority is a type of what he terms “performance-authority” with a normative definition. It has to be distinguished from various other ideas, such as power or influence, the authority of an expert, or—most importantly for his purposes—what he terms “positional-authority,” the authority insofar as it is associated with possessing a particular office. Performance-authority is something like the right to do something (“right” understood as a kind of normative or moral, not legal, permissibility). Such authority comes in many forms, and Wolterstorff sketches out a few of these, such as the authority of an attorney to act on a principal’s behalf or that held by a baseball umpire to declare a batter out. But his focus is on the type of performance-authority that is concerned with governing the actions of others.

Governance involves one person directing another or many others in what to do or not to do. It is common to accept that governance is, at least, justified by certain kinds of deficiencies in the governed. Children, for example, are justly subject to their parents’ governances because of their immaturity. Other types of governance, however, are more controversial. Wolterstorff uses the example of a business enterprise to explain the nature of such governance. In such an enterprise there is a common telos or purpose that requires people to act together and coordinate their actions. In some of these, such coordination requires that some individuals govern the actions of others, giving them directives to make, purchase, or sell certain kinds of objects, for example. The governance exercised in such enterprises, however, is generally limited to those who are members of the organization itself and far from ultimate. The state, however, claims a right to public governance, that is, the authority to govern all the individuals in its territory, even those who are not its members or employees. It also claims that its authority is ultimate. It governs everyone within a given territory, and there is no appeal beyond its decisions, unless the state itself grants the right to appeal elsewhere. It is these qualities of state governance that distinguishes the state’s governance from others and raises our natural questions regarding its authority:

But why does the state govern me even though I do not hold a position in the state and even when I am not on government property? Why does it govern me all the time, even when I am at home with my family or out on a hike in the wilderness? Why are there no locations within its territory where I can escape its governance? … It must be that some great good is thought to be achieved, or some great evil averted, by the combination of public governance by the state and the members of the public conforming to that governance. (58)

Before he answers this question during the theological stage of his argument, Wolterstorff asks what it is that government claims when it claims it has authority to govern. When persons have such authority, their directives generate obligations to perform what they direct. These obligations, crucially, are prima facie rather than ultima facie: they may be overridden or fail to oblige when issued improperly or when conflicting with other obligations. It therefore follows that when someone with authority to govern issues a directive to do something which is morally forbidden, this directive generates no obligation to comply, for “[a] condition of having the potestas to issue a binding directive to someone to do something is that it be morally permissible to direct him to do that” (63) (that is, no one can have the right morally to oblige someone to do something morally forbidden).

On this basis Wolterstorff dismisses a long line of traditional argument that those in positions of authority ought to be obeyed and submitted to even when they govern immorally. Such a position recognizes jurisdictional limits to authority (a person in authority may have authority over certain individuals and not others, or over certain areas of life and not others, and so on), but it does not properly limit the authority of those in these positions to issue directives to participate in acts that are morally forbidden. This position, which is utilized by the “two rules” tradition, is simply confused, according to Wolterstorff, and its confusion results from running together the concept of performance-authority (the right to do something) and positional-authority (a position to which performance-authority is attached).

Those defending the “two rules” doctrine have traditionally located this doctrine in Paul’s discussion of political authority in Romans 13. Wolterstorff considers their exegesis flawed, for what Paul says “neither says nor suggests that if officials in a position of authority order the members of the public to do something and that order falls within the scope of their positional authority, then it generates in the public the obligation to obey” (93) unless we presuppose him to be working with a concept of positional authority. It is more reasonable, however, to take Paul to be using a concept of performance-authority. According to this interpretation, Paul’s argument is that God has commissioned government to exercise public governance for the purpose of executing wrath on wrongdoers. God does not authorize or even permit governments to become a wrongdoer in the exercise of this authority, using their coercive power to wrong citizens. Rather, government has authority to govern the public by preventing wrongdoing; that is, it is has the authority to protect rights. Since this is itself a moral right, and therefore morally obliging only insofar as it does not violate rights, the state is rights-protecting and rights-honoring. Governments are instituted to do something: curb injustice. The great telos or purpose that justifies the state’s unique claims to authority rests in the fact that “we each have a natural right to there being, when possible, some institutionalized arrangement for protecting us against being seriously wronged by our fellows” (102).

According to Wolterstorff’s argument, then “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” is not a statement about the holders of political offices but about the offices themselves, so that the holders of the office have a commission from God in virtue of holding the office. Resisting the government when it carries out its role is never merely resisting the government but always resisting God as well, who has given it this task. This falls within the larger argument of Romans, which in Wolterstorff’s view is concerned with how God deals with human wrongdoing—on the one hand, by offering the gospel to all, Jew and Greek, male and female, equally, and on the other hand, by instituting government in order to curb injustice.

Wolterstorff is under no illusions that he has offered a complete political theology or even a full account of authority; a full treatment requires treatment of God’s authority, both its ground and various modes. He does, however, draw out a number of implications for this view, including a robust account of pluralism and religious freedom (insofar as the coming of the church fragments any society in which it appears and prevents a society from possessing any common religio-ethical unity).

Let me register one problem I see looming. According to Wolterstorff the consistent development of a Pauline conception of political authority results in something resembling a liberal democratic state. The reason for this is that Wolterstorff views injustice as the violation of rights and therefore immediately sets the whole discussion within a framework of rights understood primarily as constraints upon action. From this it follows that governments are required to be rights-honoring, given the nature of political authority sketched above. But one might ask: why view injustice in terms of rights violations and why view justice primarily in terms of rights? Why not some other way? Can we be quite certain that Paul himself conceived of injustice in terms of the violation of rights and of curbing injustice as preventing such violations? The argument proceeds too quickly on this central point and leaves the reader suspecting that the larger debate still remains open. This is an argument, to be sure, that Wolterstorff addresses to some extent in Justice: Rights and Wrongs, but more needs to be said to silence the likely objections of those, such as John Howard Yoder or Stanley Hauerwas, with different interpretations of Paul.

Having mentioned these reservations, I nonetheless think that Wolterstorff’s book deserves the attention of everyone working in the areas it concerns. Those concerned with the nature of political authority and those who are concerned with living faithfully under God’s authority and who wonder how far this commits them to respecting the authority of the state, and on what grounds, would do well to consider and evaluate its argument for themselves. The Mighty and the Almighty makes an important contribution to these topics, and it ought to be studied both by those who endorse similar conclusions and by those who would argue for a different understanding of the relationship between God and Caesar.

Cite this article
Alexander Jech, “The Mighty and the Almighty: An Essay in Political Theology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:4 , 418-421

Alexander Jech

University of Notre Dame
Alexander Jech is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.