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Politics radical and peaceful

29 April 2016

Peter Sedgwick finds this guide something of a manifesto


The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology

Craig Hovey and Elizabeth Phillips, editors

Cambridge University Press £18.99


Church Times Bookshop £17.10



THERE has been a huge revival in political theology in recent years. This book in the Cambridge Companion series will certainly establish itself as the best introduction to the field. It is edited by Elizabeth Phillips, a tutor in ethics at Westcott House, Cambridge, and Craig Hovey, at Ashland University, Ohio. Both are American, and both did doctoral work in Cambridge a decade ago.

The majority of the contributors of the 14 chapters in this fine companion are from the United States: only Phillips, Philip Goodchild, and Christopher Rowland are authors based in England. This means that apart from Radical Orthodoxy (John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward) and Oliver O’Donovan, there are few contemporary British theologians mentioned, and almost none from past centuries. Only Hobbes and A. D. Lindsay are cited as past English writers, in one article on contrasting political philosophers.

This means that the British reader has to work hard to relate these essays back to a contemporary British political or theological context. But the effort would be worth it. There are good essays on what you could call the “classic” political theology of the mid-20th century. Jürgen Moltmann writes about his own work and others; there are excellent articles on liberation theology, American public theology (two chapters), and Roman Catholic social teaching. Hauerwas, Yoder, and Radical Orthodoxy all loom large. From this perspective, the collection serves as a clear guide to the debate from the 1960s, dominated by Moltmann, Vatican II, and liberation theology, until the present day.

But the volume offers more than this. There are very interesting essays on the interpretation of scripture (Rowland, veteran biblical scholar and political theologian); the use of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas (where Milbank again is seen as insisting that all Christian political thought that does not involve the Church is “a realm of sin”); capitalism (where Goodchild argues that money replaces God as the supreme value; so the human will becomes subverted into a will in thrall to desire of all the false allure that capitalism offers); liberalism (where William T. Cavanaugh is cited by Hovey as showing that the modern liberal state claims its authority because public devotion has migrated away from the Church, with its sacraments and common life); and civil religion (Cavanaugh himself on the false appeal of secular ideologies).

Most of this follows the writer Carl Schmitt, nearly a century ago, who argued that all modern theories of the state were just secularised versions of theology, where the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver.

Finally, in a powerful essay, Phillips argues that what is needed is the integration of apocalyptic and eschatology, holding together the peaceful vision of the messianic age in Isaiah and the radical toppling of kingdoms in Daniel. Here is a judgement passed on all politics: Phillips summons Augustine to place all political life under the vision of the eternal city: “All things . . . ordered by desire for and love for God”.

This collection is in many ways a manifesto. The Bible is seen as a political resource; Augustine and Aquinas are theologians to be engaged with today in critical dialogue; contemporary politics is, above all, to be engaged with theologically. “It is not difficult to answer the question: would our politics be more stable, civilized and responsive to public needs if politicians were full of the fruits of the Spirit?” (Peter J. Leithart, chapter 13, “Good Rule”).

That quotation shows the volume’s key demand. There is a crying need, according to these contributors, for an evangelised politics, which abandons the false gods of the market as idolatry. It is a very different theology from that, for instance, produced by the Church of England’s Board for Social Responsibility in the half-century since the 1960s, and its intellectual rigour and evangelistic zeal is very clear.

It is a welcome addition to British theological writing, although it may well need a very different dialogue partner for it to migrate from the intellectual world of Westcott House to the debating chambers of the Parliament at Westminster. Nor would it translate easily to the litter-strewn streets of my deprived urban parish. It would need a Ken Leech or a Luke Bretherton to do that. But the strengths of this book lie in its deep engagement with systematic theology, political philosophy, and post-modern thought, allied to a profound spirituality that engages with what it names as the evils of our day. These are the false gods of capitalist democracy and our hedonist culture of self-expression and consumer desire.

I am sure this will become the standard British text on Christian political theology in the early 21st century, and will be an invaluable guide for many theology students.


Canon Peter Sedgwick is a former Principal of St Michael’s College, Llandaff.


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