Radical Orthodoxy: Introduction to _Theology & Social Theory_

I am rereading Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory. If one were to read only 5 pages of Milbank (or Radical Orthodoxy, for that matter) then he should read the introduction to this book. The salient points:

– Milbank argues that no secular discourse (including sociology) should be allowed to position theology, but rather theology (which “alone … remains the discourse of non-mastery”) is truly the metadiscourse for everything. (Note: speaking of theology as “metadiscourse” is so much better than speaking of it as “the queen of the sciences,” as, for example, R.C. Sproul has done.)

– When theology allows secular discourse to set its terms (whether in the “liberal” attempt to be relevant to modern man, or — and this is more of a “conservative” tendancy — by confining itself “to intimations of a sublimity beyond representation”), theology becomes guilty of false humility, which is its “modern pathos.”

– The “method” Milbank employs in this effort is to co-opt Nietzche (and others, perhaps), turning his critical guns back toward secular modernity, in genealogical (or archaeological) fashion. Milbank wants to show how the presupposition of secular discourse (especially “politcal science”), that of a pure “remainder” left over once humanly constructed reality is “desacralized,” is false. This alleged residue is always already charged with its own mythological, religious (and pervasively neo-pagan) commitments. Primary characters in this story include Grotius, Hobbes, and Spinoza, with the likes of Vico, Hamann, Coleridge, Kierkegaard, and Blondel serving as “counter-moderns” (ie, “good guys”). The very idea of the secular, to take the largest example, was hijacked by modernity and transformed from its older Christian view (simply the time span between the fall and the eschaton) to its novel significance as an autonomous realm or cultural space, autonomously independent of God, religion, theology, and (most of all, perhaps) the church. (Another example of false modern construction: the “free market.”)

– Milbank provocatively sees a connection between antique thought (characterized by virtue, represented by Alisdair MacIntyre) and modern thought (characterized by difference, represented by Neitzche). Even though one of Milbank’s “two voices” with which he speaks in this book is the voice of MacIntyre, nevertheless Milbank thinks that Neitzche correctly reduced antique virtue (with its ultimate princple of logos or reason providing order to a chaotic world) to difference (which is the overarching principle of modernity, subsuming both reason and chaos in violent conflict). Both non-christian worldviews, however, radically fail since they both presuppose an “original violence” which is the opposite of the Christian doctrine of creation (affirming as it does a good world and the importance of peaceful communities of difference).

– Finally, since modernity has already called the bluff of antiquity, all that is left is a Christian construction of reality, which denies the necessity of violent difference. Only Christianity can provide an account of difference which is truly beneficent and peaceful. This, Milbank suggests, is our future.


Nouwen: an Example of Tanglible Orthodoxy

"John Eades said: ‘This is a time of purification. A time to identify your ambigous relationships and your ambivalent attitudes, and to make some decisions and choose some directions.’ Lord, it is you who said this to me. If I believe in your church and the voice of those who speak in her name, in your name, then it was you who pointed out to me the meaning of my stay here [during this spiritual retreat]: ‘Identify and choose.’" (from Henri Nouwen, A Cry for Mercy)

John Eades (as my dad pointed out to me) was Nouwen’s spiritual advisor.


Epitome of “American Exceptionalism”

"American exceptionalism was never more clearly expressed than by Secretary of War Elihu Root, who in 1899 declaired, ‘The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the world began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace of happiness.’ At the time he was saying this, American soldiers in the Philippines were starting a bloodbath which would take the lives of 600,000 Filippinos." (from Howard Zinn, "The Power and the Glory: Myths of American Exceptionalism")


A Tangible Orthodoxy

Neo-orthodoxy, paleo-orthodoxy, radical orthodoxy, a generous orthodoxy. We have many ______-orthodoxies, which, as a Christian thinker situated in a postmodern milieu, I think is cool.

However, I want to promulgate a tangible orthodoxy. This would emphasize (as some of the "orthodoxies" mentioned above do to various degrees) two things among others:

– relational intimacy rooted in confessing sin(s) one to another

– economic intimacy rooted in radical sharing one with another, thereby "giving flesh" to the biblical truth that God gives us our daily bread. 


Building Blocks for Augustine’s Doctrine of God (according to Bradshaw)

In contrasting Eastern Christianity’s synergistic approach to communion with the divine with the West’s traditional dualistic tendancies, Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw lists three assumptions which governed Augustine’s thinking as he developed his doctrine of God:

1. that God is simple

2. that He can be known in only two ways, through created intermediaries or through a direct intellectual apprehension of the divine essence

3. that the highest goal of human existence is such direct intellectual apprehension

Bradshaw, David. Aristotle East and West (Oxford: 2004), 265


War & True Politics

War & True Politics

Here is the best reason I know of for opposing the "war" in Iraq that is currently being fought by the American Empire:

"The Eucharist transgresses national boundaries and redefines who our fellow-citizens are. Rousseau was right to note that communion among churches is a threat to the unity of the state. The eschatological breakdown of divisions between Jews and Greek — and all other natural and social divisions — is preeminently made present in the Eucharistic feast. Patristic writers tended to emphasize the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist, regarding it as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in which ‘people from east to west, from north to south, will come and sit down at the feast in the kingdom of God’ (Luke 13:29). Thus St John Chrysostom, in his commentary on the Hebrews, displays the early Church’s conviction that at the Eucharist the heavenly banquet interrupts into earthly time: ‘For when our Lord Jesus lies as a slain Victim, when the Spirit is present, when He Who sits as the right hand of the Father is present, when we have been made children by baptism and are fellow-citizens with those in heaven, when we have our fatherland in heaven and our city and citizenship, when we are only foreigners among earthly things, how can this all fail to be heavenly?’ This is a fundamental disfigurement of the imagination of citizenship in the territorial state. One’s fellow-citizens are not all preset Britons or Germans, but fellow members (and potential members) of the Body of Christ, past, present, and future." William Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, (New York: Continuum, 2002), pp 50-51.


Synopsis: MacIntyre’s _After Virtue_ (chs. 1-5)

Synopsis: _After Virtue_ (chs. 1-5)

CHAPTER ONE (“A Disquieting Suggestion”)

MacIntyre imagines a situation in which, due to some kind of natural, world-wide catastrophe, modern science is largely forgotten. All that remain are vestiges and memories. On this scenario science has lost “certain canons of consistency and coherence … needed to make sense of what [it is] doing.” This hypthetical situation of chaos is characterized by: 1 arbitrary terms bandied around and enlisted for tendencious motives 2 rival and competing premises for which no further argument can be given 3 subjectivist accounts versus more objective accounts of truth 4 vestiges of an old language / vocabulary still (or again) in use Neither analytic (description of current language) nor continental (suppling of epistemological basis for that wh is given, which in this case are the “false simulacra” of natural science) philosophy would be able to “uncover the fact of this disorder.” This is how our actual world is, in terms of morality.

CHAPTER TWO (“The Nature of Moral Disagreement Today and the Claims of Emotivism”)

MacIntyre gives three reasons why moral argument (the examples he gives are war, abortion, and health care / education) in our culture is so frustrated: 1. conceptual incommensurability of rival arguments. Typically, both of the arguments, for and against whatever position, are (in principle) logically valid. But we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one argument against the other. 2. claim to impersonality. Typically, both of the arguments, for and against whatever position, claim to be impersonal, rational arguments, but are, in fact, highly personal and tendencious. 3. alienation from original context. Typically, the arguments that are put forth for or against whatever position are assembled from a melange of ecclectic and often cacophanous sources, most of which are not directly transferrable to our day. The key terms used in these arguments, for example, often change their meaning over time. (A prime example of this, I might add, is the term “religion” which has morphed in meaning since the time of, say, Aquinas, to such a point that he would no longer recognize its definition today.)

CHAPTER THREE (“Emotivism: Social Content and Social Context”)

Emotivism denies its rootedness in any particular sociology. But, in fact, its sociology is one in which the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations is ignored. Emotivism: “on values, reason says nothing” (contra the Medievals, I might add).

CHAPTER FOUR (“The Predecessor Culture and the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality”)

Our predecessor culture of the Enlightenment is primarily Northern European. Musical culture gives us a hint: the rise of the Catholic mass as concert performance (a la Bach or Handel) blurs the “traditional distinction between the religious and the aesthetic.” (38) No Greek or Latin word is correctly translated by our English word “moral.” The project of [rational justification of morality, independent of the theological, the legal, and the aesthetic] has broken down, and this has led to the predicaments of our own culture. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or is the beginning of the end of Enlightenment’s systematic attempt to discover a rational justification of morality. 3 characteristics of Either/Or to which we ought to attend: 1. the connection b/t its mode of presentation and its central thesis; 2. its deep internal inconsistency b/t its concept of radical choice and its concept of the ethical; 3. the conservative and traditional character of SK’s account of the ethical. Kantian Moral Philosophy’s 2 theses: 1. universalizability: if the rules for morality are rational, they must be the same for all rational beings (just like the rules of arithmatic); 2. if the rules of morality are binding on all rational beings, then what matters is their will to carry them out, not their contingent ability to do so. Categorical Imperative is the basis of deontological ethics. (46) Kierkegaardian choice is a surrogate for Kantian reason. For Hume & Diderot, the content of morality is largely the same as that of Kant / Kierkegaard, which is bizarre, b/c, unlike Kant / Kierkegaard, they “liked to think of themselves as philosophical radicals.” Rameau challenges Diderot / Hume on traditional morality. Diderot / Hume try to justify traditional morality on the basis of desire, as that which moves us to action. This fails. Kant reacts to Diderot’s / Hume’s failure, and tries to provide a rational basis (the Categorical Imperative / deontological ethics) for trad morality, but this, too, fails. Enter Soren Kierkegaard, who substitutes “radical choice” for the rational Categorical Imperative. This, too, fails, but MacIntyre’s point is that this is the real birth of the emotivism that characterizes the frustrated moral arguments of our own time. SK is the father of emotivism.

CHAPTER FIVE (“Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality Had to Fail”)

Two reasons why all of these attempts to justify morality were destined to fail: the ineradicable discrepancy b/t their (shared) conception of moral rules / precepts, and their (shared) conception of human nature. But first, the history of each of these (shared) conceptions. Premodern ethics had 3 categories: 1. man-as-he-happens-to-be 2. man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-telos 3. the precepts of rational ethics as the means of transition from 1 to 2. Thus, classical/theistic ethics had a “two-fold … purpose” (this is one’s ultimate telos, and this is how one gets there) and a “double-standard” (revelation by God and amenability to reason). (53) “About ends, [reason] must be silent” says the Jansenist-cum-Protestant view of reason. On this view reason is merely calculative: it can talk about means but not ends. The Enlightenment thinkers are deriving their moral precepts from man-as-he-happens-to-be (ie, “human nature”), as opposed to man-as-he-could-be plus reason-as-a-means-to-an-end, as the premoderns did. Thus the moderns are left with a discrepancy b/t moral precepts (which did not really change very much: they were all “christians”) on the one hand, and “human nature” (ie, man-as-he-happens-to-be” on the other). All the Enlightenment thinkers claim not to move from the “is-es” of human nature to “ought,” but they all, in fact, do (or at least try to). Hume (and the other Enlightenment thinkers) deny that “is” implies “ought,” and, even though many more recent thinkers follow them in this, MacIntyre (relying on A.N. Prior) debunks this view. Moral teleology of man is rooted in man as a functional concept, with a function / telos that is given by God. This is how the ancients and medievals approached morality. This is the most important point of this chapter, and this is what makes this chapter the most important one in the book so far. Ancient (eg, Aristotle’s) teleology was not rooted in his metaphysical biology, but in something prior: traditonal social roles like farmer, father, philosopher. Here again philosophy (and theology) are always rooted in sociology. (Doesn’t ERH make this point? Walker Percy?) Think about theology as rooted in the sociology of the church: in this sense praxis is prior to theology narrowly defined. The sacraments are prior to doctrine.


There is Another King: Gospel as Politics, by Joel Garver

There is Another King: Gospel as Politics, by Joel Garver

(note: more of Joel’s work can be found at: www.joelgarver.com.)


When Paul and Silas were accused by a mob in Thessalonika, among the charges brought against them was that they proclaimed that there is another king, this Jesus (Acts 17:7). Whatever the intentions of the mob may have been, this incident shows us that the Gospel message heralded by Paul–that Jesus, as the messiah, has been made Lord–was a message easily and credibly heard as a political message in the context of the ancient world.1 This was even so when those bearing that message were busy with what we would see as “church work”: proclaiming Jesus, explaining the Scriptures, and baptizing converts.

And yet, in our world, the Gospel is often heard only as a message about personal salvation or about distant events in a distant history or the promise of a new kind of spiritual experience. Even where the Gospel does lead to political involvement, more often than not it is seen as the intrusion of religion or the church into secular space, either by projecting one’s private religiosity into the public square or by dangerously colluding with the powers that be or by attempting to wrest their power from them.2

In the following essay, I will argue that the way things now stand is deficient and that the Gospel does not merely lead Christians to enter into and engage themselves within secular political space. Rather the Gospel is politics, a politics moreover that questions the very constitution of any social space as “secular” or the relegation of politics to that space.3

The Gospel, thereby, begins to redefine what we mean by “politics,” allowing our understanding of the political to migrate from ordinary understandings of it in narrow terms of civil administration (whether presupposing “secular” space or not), to a broader, analogically refracted concept of politics as encompassing the entire ethics of community and its common good, preserving politics as a normative discourse and practice embracing the various structures and patterns of human association under authority.4 Moreover, though our everyday grasp of the political may begin in our encounter with the sphere of civil magistracy, my claim is that, ontologically speaking, politics is rightly founded in the claims of the Gospel and the establishment of the church.5

I will begin by examining and deconstructing the notion of the “secular” as an artifact of the Enlightenment, noting how it has come to constrain the ways in which Christians and the church have seen themselves as related to the political. In the second half of this essay, I will attempt to sketch the ways in which the Gospel refashions politics around itself through its very message about a new King and new Lord, through the establishment of the church as the center of God’s reign, and through new practices–in particular, baptism and eucharist–which are themselves politically transformative.

Deconstructing the “Secular”

In order for the politics of the Gospel to be heard and grasped, it is first necessary to dismantle some of the assumptions that are often brought to discussions of civil order and faith, assumptions that may well distort what is meant by the claim that the Gospel is politics. These assumptions are typically “modern”–the “modern” referring to those varying perspectives that have been widely operative since the 17th century and which share many common themes and notions, ranging over the realms of politics, epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics. 6

Such assumptions include: the conception of the “secular” as a particular social space as opposed to the religious; a limiting of the “political” to that secular space and conceiving it primarily in terms struggle for power; an abstract opposition between “society” and the “individual” or the public and the private.7 These assumptions, in turn, are tied up with more evidently theological ones: a separation of reason and faith; a sharp division between the order of nature and that of grace or the natural and supernatural; a dichotomization between the exterior or objective and the interior or subjective; and so on. Moreover, it is arguable that this entire set of assumptions involves relations of mutual support and thus comes together as a single “package.” I will explicate some of these assumptions and dynamics presently, while leaving the rest to be addressed in my more positive account.

We can begin by noting that the “modern,” as many have contended, has its roots not merely in certain philosophical thinkers of the Enlightenment, but (perhaps more importantly) earlier in the late scholastics (e.g., John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham).8 Thereby, the “modern” also affects in differing degrees the thought of both various varieties of Protestantism as well as Tridentine Catholicism, including the ways in which both developed their overall theologies, including their theological reflections upon the state and politics in relation to the church and faith. The full story of the construction of the “modern,” with its varying assumptions, however, is beyond the scope of this present essay, but a few brief gestures toward a more complete genealogy may prove useful in questioning its suppositions and categories.

For pre-modern, medieval thought (which finds its highest expressions in Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure), the kinds of sharp distinctions drawn within the modern were unknown or drawn quite differently. Fundamental to this medieval conception of the world was a conception of language and thought (and, indeed, reality itself) as functioning analogically, grounded upon the doctrine of creation.9 Since the creation comes from God, is directed towards God, and stands in relation to God, it is like God and revelatory of God. Nevertheless, this revelatory likeness is only analogous–implying both likeness and unlikeness. Since everything is created by God it images him (supremely human beings); but since everything is created by God it images him only within the greater and absolute divide between Creator and creature. The Fourth Lateran Council had formulated this in the following way: for every similarity between God and the creature there is an even greater dissimilarity (maior dissimulitudo in tanta similitudine).10

Thus, for example, when we say “God exists” and “creatures exist” we are using the term “exists” analogously, not univocally (and not equivocally either, since a real likeness is there). For God to “exist” is for him to exist non-derivatively, independently, originally, a se, and so on. For us to “exist” is to exist derivatively, dependently, createdly, in deus, and so on. In God, existence and essence are co-terminous and identical. In the creature, there is a real distinction between existence and essence (i.e., we don’t have to exist) that gives primacy to act over form as the concrete and particular subsistence of things. Nevertheless, because of creation, there are real analogies between the divine existence and creaturely existence.

This analogical view has implications for many areas of thought and practice, including not only epistemology and metaphysics, but also (and more importantly for our present purposes) political theology and philosophy. But I begin with a metaphysical observation, that within this pre-modern perspective the “natural” is not the self-contained world of manipulable matter that is the opposite of “artificial” (as it became in later thought) and thus the “supernatural” is not conceived as some second story of “stuff” that is somehow added on top of a more basic nature. On the contrary, natura has to do with kinds of things, their origins and ends, and what they do (including making “artificial” things), as they are organized in relation to one another in a single whole. All things within their fundamental relations to other things within this whole are “natural.” Those very same things, however, are equally conceived as “supernatural” in terms of their absolute origins (since all creation is ultimately pure gift, i.e., grace) and in terms of their final end (since life within God is the graciously given goal of all creation). “Natural” and “supernatural,” therefore, are adjectival or adverbial on such a conception and have no reference to a distinction in substance. They are also temporal, pointing backward and forward in the unfolding of time, rather than spatial. Nature, indeed, is always-already “graced.”11

Let us turn now to another observation, this time epistemological. Given what we have already seen about the term “exists” and the relationship between nature and the supernatural, it is clear that on such a pre-modern doctrine of analogy, the question of “Being” cannot be raised apart from the question of created or uncreated being and so there is no possibility of a philosophical ontology that is prior to and unconstrained by theology. Indeed, all of created being must be seen as symbolically disclosing the divine, pointing to transcendent reality, not just as some undifferentiated “God of the Philosophers” but as the Triune God of Scripture. This is the case, in part, because all of the perfections of God (truth, being, goodness, beauty, etc.) are only manifest in the generation of the Logos in the Spirit. Thus our knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world is an analogous manifestation in us of God’s own Trinitarian knowledge of these things and thereby, as it were, our thinking God’s thoughts after him.12

With regard to the political, there are significant implications following from these observations, foremost that it is impossible to construct some kind of “natural” or wholly “common grace” politics that remains neutral to and outside of theological concerns and the operation of grace in history. On the other hand, there can be no simplistic identification between the structures, role, and significance of the various overlapping organizations of, for instance, church and civil orders. Rather, their relationship must be conceived analogically, within the eschatological tension of creation’s origin and end. Thus the pre-modern notion of the “saeculum” was not that of the modern spatialized “secular.” Rather, it was temporal, referring to those aspects of the present order of things that will one day pass away when the telos of the creation is consummated.

This also implies that “politics” is not to be confined to the functioning of power within a secular realm, but must, first of all, refer very broadly to the whole organization of a “polis,” a way of life of a people who share a common life, including various analogous and overlapping structures of rule and authority (what one might see as an irreducibly “gothic” social space).13 These implications will be drawn out further below in relation to the Gospel, church, and sacraments.

Before turning to that account, however, we can note that there were several important shifts that John Duns Scotus (and later, Ockham and nominalism) introduced into wider questions as they had been explicated within pre-modern thought. The major Scotistic shift was the positing of a univocal notion of “Being” and with that, undermining the analogical use of language.

Unlike his medieval predecessors, Scotus maintained that it is possible to consider “Being” in abstraction from the question of created or uncreated being. In doing this Scotus established the separation of philosophy (ontology and epistemology) from theology and, indeed, founded the possibility of constructing a philosophical ontology that is unconstrained by and transcendentally prior to theology itself, philosophy thereby being permitted to set the conditions for theology. Ockham, in turn, represents a further radicalization of the steps that Scotus had already taken, positing an entirely equivocal notion of “Being” in dialectical tension with its univocity.

Other separations and dichotomies (nature/grace, nature/supernature, faith/reason) flow from these basic shifts in the following ways. First, God and creation can be set within one undifferentiated chain of Being. This, however, introduces serious difficulties into language and its ability to refer since “Being” can now refer univocally to two different realities–created and uncreated–and thus language, and our ideas and concepts expressed in language, become a mask over reality rather than a medium by which reality is able to reveal itself to us in the context of the event of knowing.

This in turn begins to shift epistemology into a direction in which the subject and object of knowledge become increasingly related extrinsically and externally, rather than maintaining the kind of interior intentional connection that was found in earlier thought. Thus it is the case that either the world exterior to the mind remains philosophically unknowable or it becomes approachable only through experimental manipulations devised by reason, perhaps guaranteed by divine fiat (as was true both for Ockham and, later, Descartes). Thus late medieval thought unwittingly founded what would develop into the claims of Enlightenment reason.

With regard to nature and supernature (and its concomitant, nature and grace), there is a twofold separation and fission between God and the creation (even if Scotus’ original intent was to safeguard the gratuity of grace). First, since God and creation are both situated within a single extension, it is possible to explain and think about the world in relation to Being without reference to God and thus the world becomes the self-enclosed system of “nature,” a material reality that remains complete in itself and at our disposal. It is this “nature” that opens up the space for the secular and politics as one expression of the exercise of power over that realm.

Second, this entails that the operation of grace must be seen as an extrinsic operation that is super-added from outside of the creation and thus is, experientially, unknowable except by faith (even if otherwise guaranteed by revealed facts such as “propositional revelation” or by grace-given experiences such as “being born again” or externally imposed present authority such as “papal infallibility” or automated sacramental mechanisms).14 Religion, thus, begins to be pushed to the margins of what is distinctively human, a development that will have significant implications for the Renaissance isolation of the “secular” as a particular space of human existence, under the sole scrutiny of human reason.15 Such a space exists in distinction from the privatized and interiorized realm of a grace accessible only by faith, a site that was constructed by late medieval theology and philosophy.16

By the time the “modern” fully emerged, it arrived with a well-formed secular sphere to which politics is proper, leaving us with the various negotiations between that sphere and “religion” to which I already referred above. Regularly enough, political theology has been complicit–often unwittingly–with these modernist assumptions, even within those traditions that most wish to be consciously “biblicist” in their approach.

In the Reformed tradition, for instance, certain theonomic, pluralist, and klinean approaches are arguably all infected to varying degrees (and often in opposite ways) by the erection of secular social space. In the case of some theonomic thought, the rhetoric and strategy remains very much one of power, taking over present political structures (even if emphasizing bottom-up efforts, limited government, and rule of law) without substantially questioning the nature and constitution of modern social space and its underpinnings (e.g., an abstract opposition between the individual and society, the market as a neutral mechanism of exchange).17 In the case of some pluralisms (however “principled”) and of klineanism, there are varying degrees of retreat from theological engagement with the political, staking out a sealed sphere of kingdom work (often centered on personal, individual salvation) and only entering the secular sphere on the basis of a naturalistic “common grace” that remains neutral to Jesus.18

Obviously these claims cannot be taken to characterize all versions of the positions in question or to constitute a substantive critique of them. Nonetheless, these kinds of critiques will be borne out, I think, by the more positive account I will provide below. With this genealogical sketch of the modern and its effects in mind, however, we can now turn to the biblical text, hopefully with ears better attuned to hear the politics of the Gospel.

Gospel as Politics

We start with the simple observation that Jesus (and John the baptizer before him) came with the Good News of a kingdom–the reign of God–proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. Paul summarized this same Gospel in terms of the one who “was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus, the messianic king, our Lord” (Rom 1:3-4), then going on to expound justification. Such a Gospel not only presents itself as the proper fulfillment of the political aspirations of Israel (no matter how much it may challenge, overturn, and redefine those aspirations), but also, insofar as it became Good News for all people, Jew and Gentile alike, it relativized or undercut any claim by Caesar to be ultimate Lord, ruler, savior, or divine son.19

In the follow sections, then, I will argue that this Gospel (even the very term “Gospel”) is fraught with politically disruptive claims and thereby gives rise to a new kind of civil community in the church, which practices two politically redefining rites: baptism and eucharist. Thus the Gospel is politics and, in its politics, both repositions the relationship between the Christian community and any particular civil governing regime in a way that lies beyond the “secular,” as well as shapes and forms how Christians are to act politically.


We can begin by considering the term “Gospel,” which, as is commonly recognized, not only finds its way into the New Testament from the prophetic literature of Israel, but also would have significant resonances within the Roman world to which the New Testament addressed itself.20

From the perspective of Isaiah 40 and 52, the “Gospel” was the message of Israel’s God returning, enthroned in his holy city on behalf of his people, to redeem them, to judge their enemies, and, in so doing, to set the whole world aright. This vision of Israel’s restoration was one that, elsewhere in prophetic literature, was filled out in terms of Israel’s anointed king and representative, the messiah, in whom her destiny was set and who would be the agent of Yahweh’s justice, establishing true order. In either case, it challenged Israel’s ultimate allegiances to any other gods or sovereigns and called her to trust her God and his justice, even in the midst of exile.

From the perspective of the wider world of the New Testament, a “Gospel” was the proclamation and celebration of an emperor or king, whether his birth or his rule, and, in Paul’s day, it would have had particular relevance with regard to news of the Caesars. Like Israel’s “Gospel,” this royal summons was intended to elicit a response of allegiance and fidelity.

When the New Testament presents a Gospel about Jesus, then we must see both perspectives in play, giving us a prophetic message that is directly and unavoidably political. The proclamation of Jesus as messianic king, savior, and Lord constituted not only a theological message, but also a political confrontation both with Israel’s aspirations and collusions as well as with a wider empire, especially where rulers expected worship and sacrifice as well as taxes.21 And the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5) which this message engendered represented not only a personal appropriation of some “private” religious truth, but also a very public shift in political allegiances, that “there is another king, this Jesus.”

The remarkable content and implications of this New Testament Gospel, however, need to be explored further, so that the precise significance and contours of its politics can be better appreciated.

In focusing the Gospel upon Jesus, the New Testament presents the man of Nazareth as the fulfillment of both Yahweh’s return and Israel’s messianic expectations, the two prophetic threads intertwined and each deepening the meaning of the other. Thus, when Paul says in Romans that the “Gospel” proclaims that by Jesus’ resurrection the Spirit declared him to be messianic “son of God,” this points through and beyond the title of Israel’s king and representative (1 Sa 7:14; Ps 2:7; 89:4, 26-27; cf. Ex 4:22), to Jesus’ divine sonship as Yahweh in the flesh (see, e.g., Rom 10:13, quoting Joel 3:5). As such Paul’s Gospel subverted not only Israel’s understanding of her own God, her political hope, and her messianic expectations, but also the imperial good news of Caesar and his claims to divine sonship. We will examine the Jewish and imperial contexts in turn.

First, let us consider the variegated politics of Second Temple Judaism. The landscape here is likely familiar: while some Jews colluded with the Romans and others retreated into the wilderness, the hopes of many were lodged in political and religious liberation from Roman dominance through the leadership of a revolutionary messiah.22 Within this matrix of revolutionary hope, rituals and sites such as Torah observance, ancestral traditions, the national homeland, and the Temple itself could serve as powerful symbols of that hope and catalysts for action.23

It was just such politicized symbols that Jesus drew upon as part of the Good News of God’s reign, rejecting, relativizing, and redefining those symbols around himself, thereby calling into question dominant Jewish notions of identity and ambition, proposing a different “way” of being the people of God. In doing this, however, Jesus was proposing another kind of politics, one which the Gospel-writers present as the politics of the true messiah and, therefore, of Israel’s God, restoring his people and establishing his justice. Indeed, the “way” that Jesus followed is the very “way of Yahweh,” which is, paradoxically, the way of the cross.24

This was a reversal of all expectations. Rather than overthrowing the Romans and restoring Israel’s power and symbols in the way anticipated, this messiah would “be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him…” (Mk 10:33-34; cf. 8:31; 9:31). In his words to his disciples, Jesus made the politics of this reversal explicit,

You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; rather, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all. For even the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mk 10:42-45).

It is precisely in the apparent shame and defeat of the cross that Jesus, in fact, had victory over the principalities and powers, putting them to open shame on the way to reconciling all things to himself (Col 2:13-15).

Jesus, thereby, revealed the way of service–service unto death–as the true way of being the messianic king. And, insofar as the messiah was the summation and representative of Israel, Jesus lived out in his own life what Israel had been called to do and be for the world–called to service among the nations as a light and witness to the God who was the creator of the whole world, a God revealed supremely in Jesus. The way of the messiah and of Israel, then, was not to be the way of ethnic pride or nationalistic fervor, of pharisaic zeal or violent revolution.

Nonetheless, in this reversal of expectations, all Israel’s hopes were strangely fulfilled, her restoration found in the new community of believers in Jesus, and, as Israel’s messiah, through his death and resurrection, Jesus became Lord and savior of the world, including Rome. Israel, after all, was called by God to bear his purposes for the whole human race in Adam, so that when Israel’s true son and king was made Lord, his rule would not be merely that of a Jewish monarch, but moreover, as the true human, embody the eschatological dominion that the race of Adam was always intended by God to receive.25 Where Eden’s guardian, Adam, failed to lay down his life for his bride in the face of a bestial serpent, Jesus was faithful unto death, as a servant, and thus became Lord of all, from Israel to the “farthest corners” of the world.

This trajectory is clear not only in the overall shape of Paul’s Gospel of the Jewish messiah who is Lord, but also, for instance, in the unfolding narrative of Luke-Acts, with the ascension of the messiah as divine ruler at its thematic center (functioning against the backdrop of Daniel 7).26 As the royal proclamation of this messiah goes out to Israel in Acts 1-12, it culminates in the sudden death of Herod, Israel’s false king (and local agent of Rome) who arrogates to himself royal and divine titles that rightly belong to Jesus. Acts 13-28 narrate this same royal proclamation as it makes its way to Rome, to another throne where there sits another ruler who makes similar royal pretenses to divinity. Thus Jesus reveals the nature of all truly human rule to be, in the first instance, that of cruciform service–not of Roman identity or divine aspirations, of imperial power or military violence.

In this context we can reflect upon the Good News of the kingdom as involving the “forgiveness of sin” and Paul’s Gospel as directly concerning “justification.” These two, closely related categories are the obverse side, as it were, of Jesus’ death and resurrection by which he was vindicated as Israel’s messiah and Lord of the world.27

Since Israel remained in disarray and as exiles in their own land as a result of her sin and apostasy, “forgiveness of sins” was part and parcel of return from that exile, of the vindication and restoration, and advancement of the kingdom that Israel expected and her God had promised. This eschatology, however, was realized in an unexpected way in Jesus as Israel’s messiah, through the way of the cross, leading to his own resurrection and enthronement, events by which God declared that sin had been forgiven and that Jesus was in the right before the divine court. Since Israel represented all of adamic humanity, Israel’s restoration in the messiah’s resurrection, in turn, was also the means by which the human race as a whole might be, in the person of Jesus, restored from its exile from paradise, forgiven and vindicated before the divine court, and advanced to the kind of dominion-through-service for which it was created.

Thus the end of history is already accomplished in the midst of history in the person of Jesus as messiah: the true Israel and the true humanity. Moreover, as Paul emphasizes in Romans, these events reveal the remarkable “righteousness” or “justice of God” (e.g., Rom 1:16-17), God’s own faithfulness to his covenant promises to Israel and the human race, acting as righteous judge, setting the world aright. As such, the doctrine of justification has political implications for both Israel and the wider world.

With regard to Israel, it shows that God’s justice–yearned for by the psalmists and prophets–is not a vindictive justice that favored Israel at the expense of the Gentile nations or one that condoned Israel’s own apostasy. Rather, it shows that Jew and Gentile alike were bound over to sin so that God could shower mercy upon all (Rom 11:32). This would have profound implications for Israel’s relationship with the Gentiles, relativizing ethnic, political, and ritual boundaries, particularly as Jew and Gentile were woven together in the church (cf. Eph 2:11-22).

With regard to the wider world, Paul’s message of justification–particularly as addressed to the church at Rome–questions prevailing notions of justice, Rome’s divinized pretensions to house the goddess Iustitia, and the exercise of that virtue within the empire.28 The Gospel then calls upon those seeking a true measure of justice to place their ultimate allegiance with Jesus as Lord and savior, rather than the emperor or senate (and Paul’s comments on the civil magistracy in Romans 13 must be read in this wider context, designed to preclude misreading his polemic as negating all human civil authority under God).

Thus, once again, the Gospel and the doctrine of justification it entails, reveal a reconfiguration of political values. With these points in hand, we can now turn to how the Gospel takes shape in the people of God as the church.29


As resurrected Lord, the justification received by Jesus is, in turn, shared with those who receive the Gospel in faith, thereby becoming the messiah’s people and partaking in the forgiveness and vindication he secured and received. Thus the church becomes the locus of a new humanity, where we begin to live out what Jesus has done so that God’s justice is manifest (2 Cor 5:21). Therefore, insofar as the as the church is a forgiven and forgiving community of people sharing an ordered common life together, the church also is the practice of a new politics.

That the church is, in some sense, a “political” community should be evident even from the political, social, and economic terminology that the New Testament applies to the church: assembly, kingdom, city, nation, citizenship, community, people, partnership, warfare, and so on.30 The New Testament is rife with political terminology applied to the church, thereby presenting the church itself as the center of a new kind of human community. But the kind of community the church is supposed to be is not the kind of “political” community the world envisions. It is a community that instead follows the way of the cross, one whose weapons are not the world’s weapons, and one in which authority is neither by might nor power, but by the Spirit of God, through one-anothering service and openness to risk.

The New Testament draws out this new ecclesial politics in various stories and images. As one example, in Acts we find the Christian ekklesia juxtaposed against that of pagan Ephesus and apostate Jerusalem.31 In common Greek usage, the ekklesia of a polis was the ordered assembly of its citizens gathered for official business. But Luke ironically narrates the ekklesia of Ephesus as a riot where “some cried one thing, and some another, for the assembly was confused and most of them did not know why they had come together” (Acts 19:32, cf. 19:38, 41). The chaos at Ephesus is paralleled in Acts 21 by similar events in Jerusalem, showing that even the city of Yahweh had devolved to the level of a pagan city-state.

Luke’s portrayal is all more ironic in that the Greek polis was founded on the aspiration to master chaos, to order society, and to exercise justice, all interwoven with the cult of the patron deity, social class and status, and forms of ritual inclusion and exclusion.32 Jerusalem finds itself acting the part of a Greek polis, accusing Paul of bringing disorder, discarding the law, and defiling ritual boundaries. In both cases, however, Luke shows the purported aims of the respective ekklesiai to deconstruct into their opposites in the face of the Christian Gospel: Ephesus falling into disarray, miscarrying justice in the heat of human passions and Jerusalem disregarding the legal requirements of Torah, provoking the intervention of Gentile authority.

Both episodes, thereby, uncover the real workings of merely human politics, as Peter Leithart argues,

In these two incidents Luke pronounces his (and the Lord’s) verdict on the old world’s ways of ordering human life, on the cultures of the old creation. When the people come together in ekklesia, the true character of their civilization is revealed and unmasked. In the assembly, it becomes clear that the future hopes of the world for peace and justice cannot lie with either of the ancient ekklesiai, with either the city-state of the Greeks or the temple city of the Jews.33

Adamic humanity, left to itself, can only erect temporary measures towards order, measures that, in the face of the Gospel, are revealed as possessing an underlying and inherent violence.

In between the two accounts, however, Luke tells us what happened when the Christian ekklesia of Troas came together at the end of Passover, on the first day of the week, to break bread, representing a liturgical alternative to Ephesus and Jerusalem (Acts 20:6-12). Instead of shouting and chaos, we find the people of God gathered, listening to and dialoguing with Paul, a scene so tranquil that poor Eutychus falls asleep. Leithart comments,

This is not a place of chaos and confusion but a new life, a new order of human life and society. Its assembly is a passage, a Passover, a transitus that moves its participants from death to new life, signified when (at midnight!) Eutychus goes through the window to his death but is raised to new life and is received into the feast.

The breaking of bread together here, in eucharist, is a sacramental alternative to both the temples of Artemis and of Israel, offering not merely one way of being a community among other options, but rather “an alternative ekklesia, which formed the heart of an alternative polis, an alternative city, an alternative culture, a new world.”34

Elsewhere, in his letter to the (overwhelmingly Gentile) church at the Roman colony of Philippi, Paul provides a similar challenge, again centered on the Gospel of Jesus as “savior” and “lord” who is able to “subdue all things under himself” (3:20-21; cf. 2:9-11, alluding to Isa 45:23 and thereby supposing Jesus’ divine status).35 Though not all of those whom Paul addresses in Philippi would have shared the privileges of Roman citizenship, the city as whole did enjoy many benefits of its colonial status, under the protection of Roman law and culture, and thus could take pride in that status, a pride which, in the days of Paul, had begun to take shape in terms of the cult of the emperors.36

It is in this context that Paul warns against placing “confidence in the flesh” (3:4), and instead, whatever privileges the Philippians may enjoy, to “count them as loss…as dung” in light of the reign of Jesus as messiah and Lord and our heavenly citizenship (3:7-8, 20-21). As Paul had noted earlier, since Jesus was God, he lived the humility of the true God, not seeking to take advantage of his divine privilege, but taking the form of a servant, following the way of the cross (2:6-8; a theme we have already seen unfolded in the Gospels). Following the pattern of Jesus, Paul works through the implications for his own Jewish privileges, calling upon the Philippians to do the same with regard to their Roman citizenship.

Paul’s argument here, while couched in terms of his own experience with Judaism and cast in the language of Jewish slurs against paganism, is offered as what N.T. Wright suggests is a “coded” analogy (speaking in a way that is “safe” for his readers, 3:1), as a viewpoint from which the Roman, Gentile Philippians are to think about their own allegiances and identity (3:15-20; the analogy between non-Christian Judaism and paganism is one that Paul makes elsewhere as well, cf. Gal 4:1-11; Col 2). The “citizenship” of the Philippian church (1:27; 3:20) lies elsewhere, thereby situating them in Philippi, not as a colony of Rome, testifying to and extending Roman privilege, but as a colony of heaven, testifying to Jesus’ Lordship and the way of being human that he lived out (note Paul’s allusion to ideal humanity drawn from Psalm 8). This, of course, did not eliminate the Roman identity of Paul’s readers, but resituated that identity in the messiah and subsumed it to his service. After all, Paul himself was not beyond pressing his own Jewish, Pharasaic, or Roman identities into the service of the Gospel when the occasion required it (Acts 21:40; 22:3, 25; 23:6).

We find a similar dynamic in Peter’s first epistle. Whatever the particular citizenship or ethnicity of his readers, Peter several times refers to them as “exiles” and “sojourners” (1:1, 17; 2:11) in light of their new identity in Jesus, the messiah: “you are a chosen race, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2:9).

Leading up to this remark, Peter quotes and alludes to Israel’s constitution as a nation (1:14-16; 2:5, 9-10), their deliverance from Egypt (1:18-19), and Israel’s promised restoration after exile (1:24-25, quoting Isa 40:6-9), applying each of these to the church as God’s new restored humanity, a new race and people, a new kingdom and nation. In this context he also alludes to Jesus’ kingship over them as Davidic messiah, the one embodying Israel’s restoration (2:6 quoting Isa 28:16), the vindicated one admitted to God’s temple after enemy oppression (2:7 quoting Ps 118:22; cf. the allusion to Ps 34:8 in 2:2), and the return of Yahweh himself (2:8 quoting Isa 8:14-15).

Thus, according to Peter, the primary identity of these churches, as a community and a people, did not derive from what part of the empire they happened to reside in (cf. 1:1) or from what people they derived their descent. Rather, as those who had been “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [their] ancestors” (1:18), they rendered obedience to the Lord Jesus as messiah, as those born into a new human family, with the God of Jesus as their Father (1:14, 17-18, 22-25).

This theology, however, might very well be heard by Peter’s audience as liberating them from every human obligation outside of the church and freeing them from all merely human authority, relativizing emperors and governors to the point of undermining their legitimate rule altogether. But Peter anticipates such reasoning, agreeing that Christians are a “free people”–loosed from old allegiances–but admonishing them not to use this “freedom as a pretext for evil” (2:16). Peter knows his Gospel, with its message of a new king and kingdom, might well lead the Gentiles to “malign [believers] as evildoers,” and so he admonishes the churches to “conduct yourselves honorably…that others may see your honorable deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (2:12). As a particular application of this call to honorable conduct, Peter writes that they should “accept the authority of every human institution for the sake of the Lord” Jesus and his rule, whether the emperor or provincial governors, honoring their place as those sent by Jesus as messianic king and Lord to punish wrongdoers and to benefit those who do right (2:13-14).

Thus, for Christians, human authorities are re-positioned as expressions of the authority of God himself and of the messianic Lord he has installed as well as reinterpreting those authorities in relation to a new ecclesial identity. This is a theme also sounded by Paul (Rom 13:1-4), whose comments, like Peter’s, must be read in a wider context that questions the pretensions of civil authority in light of Jesus’ resurrection as Lord and the justice of God.37 Arguably, both Peter and Paul’s injunctions to honor the civil authority as servants of God can be traced back to Jesus’ well-known statement, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21), given in answer to a question about paying taxes. In particular, this seems echoed in Paul’s statement, “Render to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom 13:7).

But Jesus’ statement, like Peter and Paul’s, steers its way through the tension between the ultimate authority of God and sometimes presumptuous human authority, even while affirming that such authority comes from God and pointing out the kind of path that those who would follow Jesus must take.38 In all three synoptic Gospels the question about paying taxes to Caesar comes in the context of parables of coming judgment upon Jewish unbelief, as well as growing confrontation with Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and scribes. As such, Jesus’ reply needs to be read, in part, as a challenge to various Jewish responses to imperial authority, whether revolutionary zeal or expedient compromise, turning the focus instead upon his own identity and mission. Moreover, within the context of the Gospels and the communities to which they were written, Jesus’ reply also functions to challenge the church whose identity is found in him.

Jesus begins by asking for a coin and asking whose image and inscription it bore. As any first century person would know, the coin showed Caesar, proclaiming him “son of god” and “high priest,” rendering it an extremely problematic object for Jews to carry and use, even not overly scrupulous ones. Jesus’ question, then, puts his questioners in an awkward position, face-to-face with what they would resent as their own unsettling complicity in the system they opposed.

Furthermore, the incident occurs in a context where taxation had already spawned more than one revolutionary movement, resulting in the execution of the rebels. In this context, Jesus’ statement to “Give Caesar what is his” could be heard as an endorsement of such revolutionary programs, a call to stick Rome with its just deserts.39 But this is the same Jesus who rejected all such programs and called his followers to go the second mile, not to live by the sword, to turn the other cheek, and to be the servants of all. The way of kingdom’s victory would be the way of the cross. Thus Jesus continues, “And give to God what is his.”40 In saying this, Jesus turns the question back to the questioners, challenging where they placed their ultimate loyalties–with their own, potentially violent, political aspirations or with the reign of God that Jesus was proclaiming.

Paul and Peter understand and apply Jesus’ teaching rightly. The transformation of political order that Jesus began would come about through being the church as an alternative polis, understanding itself as living within an eschatological tension. On one hand, those in the church were called to lead “quiet and peaceable” lives of allegiance to Jesus “in godliness and dignity” (1 Tim 2:2) cooperating with and praying for those in authority in the civil sphere, paying taxes, rendering honor, and serving them as those appointed by God and his messiah.

On the other hand, the church was to enact the reign of God and his triumph in Jesus over the principalities and powers, proclaiming a Gospel message of another king, a citizenship from heaven, and a fearless freedom which resituated all human authority and, when such authority opposed the Gospel itself, could open the path to martyrdom. Indeed, Paul immediately follows his call to “render to all what is owed them” with the paradoxical qualification, “owe no one anything–except to love one another” (Rom 13:8), thereby resituating even cooperation with political authority in light of the mutual, self-giving love of the Christian community.


Baptism is the rite of entrance into this church and kingdom and has, itself, a political dimension, granting a new identity, acting out a new way of forming community, and setting apart those baptized as having already died and risen with the messiah. In all these areas there are important implications for the church as a new polis and the practice of a new politics.

In terms of the new identity conferred by Christian baptism, this rite is to be understood in light of Jesus’ own baptism and against the background of various water rites in the Old Testament and John the Baptizer’s proleptic ministry.41 As such, baptism is an expression of the faithfulness of God himself who in and through Christ Jesus accomplished salvation by Jesus’ undergoing baptism in his own person for the sake of his people. The baptism of Jesus points back to all of God’s acts of creation and re-creation throughout salvation history, including:

* the original creation in which a new world was drawn by God from the watery deep
* the safe journey of Noah and his family through water in God’s ship to a new world washed from sin
* the powerful deliverance of Israel from the slavery of Egypt through the cloud and sea unto a new obedience
* the entry of Israel into the promised land, crossing the Jordan, with the ark of God’s presence in their midst
* Israel’s gracious return from the exile of sin, returning across the great River, vindicating the nation against her enemies.

Jesus’ baptism was also a new application of the rites given to God’s people for cleansing from the living death of leprosy and from contact with bodily death, rites that had once reconstituted Israelites as God’s priestly people. Analogously, Jesus’ baptism recapitulated the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests to serve in God’s house as guardians of his holiness, servants to their Lord, and ministers to his people. Finally, the baptism of Jesus set him apart as heir to David’s throne, God’s anointed and beloved servant, that is, the representative and sum of Israel’s own sonship and her service to the nations as a new adamic people.

Thus the baptism of Jesus summarized all of God’s promises to his people through the centuries–promises of sonship, priestly service, vindication, spiritual anointing, new creation, God’s presence, cleansing, and so on–and attested to God’s faithfulness to all of those promises in the messiah. In Christian baptism, then, everything that belongs to Jesus is shared with his messianic people, the Church, marking them out as God’s new creation in which all old barriers have been torn down, whether those of anointed priesthood, ritual purity, familial descent, national identity, or royal lineage. The promises to which these various boundaries once pointed are now fulfilled in the church: the old things have passed away and all is made new.

Thus, within the New Testament, the identity announced in baptism stands in contrast, perhaps most clearly, to the demands of the so-called judaizers. Paul makes it clear, that while such rites had their place in God’s plan, no ethnic or nationalistic rite, such as circumcision, marks out the eschatological kingdom. Nor is the rite of kingdom initiation any kind of gnostic mystery or elaborate induction into citizenship of a pagan polis, limited to those who acquired the approved esoteric knowledge, who are born of proper descent, or who have performed some great public work.42 Rather, baptism stands as a simple, public water rite applicable to all: Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, barbarian or Scythian, and so on. All other identities are thoroughly conditioned by baptismal identity and once the kingdom arrives, to return to the old patterns of identity and boundaries, whether Jewish or pagan, would be, as Paul says, to submit once again to the “elementary principles” (Gal 4:1-10; Col 2:8-23, where the connection with baptism and “the powers” is made explicit).

Moreover, the new identity received in baptism is one that calls us to die to the old Adam and find our identity in the new Man and the way of life that he established and over which he is Lord. This involves a certain “transvaluation of values,” for while there is a lowering and breaching of old adamic barriers, since the church is open to anyone whosoever, there is a cost be counted in such a radical break from old identities, the embracing of a new ecclesial identity, and the forms of social and political tension that may ensue. After all, as Jesus says, those who would follow him must “hate father and mother” if such family ties prove an impediment to following the messianic Lord (Lk 14:26).

Thus baptism is itself an event of considerable social and political risk-taking, marking out a community of such people who, as already dead and reborn, place their ultimate hopes in a kingdom that is not founded upon this world, but proceeds from heaven. Whereas pagan virtue would build political community on the supposition of the community as its own end, ecclesial politics would regard itself as missionary and eschatological in purpose, calling its members, outsiders, and even enemies to that end.43

Moreover, the pagan polis, as its own end, required that it define itself by a marked distinction between how it treats its own members and how it regards all others. In such a context, the ties that bind people together in community–both fellow-feeling and anger–are implicated within a particular kind of communal pride by which co-members share in the nobility of the community itself and those who fail to uphold the standards of the community are deemed worthy of vengeful anger.

Christian practices of the political, however, undermine such conceptions. Paul, after all, regards himself as the apostle to “both to Greeks and to barbarians” (Rom 1:14), setting the two on equal footing with regard to the Gospel’s objective. And this Gospel calls upon all who enter the church to do so through baptism, a recognition that they only come as people who have been forgiven so that any pride in former identities but be regarded as loss. Thus pagan vengeance is undercut and the community puts itself at risk as a place where the onetime enemy is invited within. But, with Jesus as Lord and savior, the Christian church, as a new polis, leaves itself to his hands, trusting that he will preserve his people in the world.


Finally, eucharist is a politically charged meal which projects an ideal for new ecclesial community of forgiven and forgiving people. As such, it has eschatological, environmental, ethical, economic, and other dimensions and thereby must take a central place in any Christian political practice. Given the centrality of the eucharist in any authentic Christian praxis and given its theological depths, my remarks here will be necessarily limited.

In terms of its first century context the eucharist can be read in light of both the sacrificial meals and festivals at the Temple in Jerusalem and over against various kinds of sacred meals within pagan Hellenism. Moreover, our reading of the eucharist must likewise be informed by wider patterns of table fellowship, both in Jesus’ own ministry and in the early church.

With regard to Judaism, Jesus’ institution of the eucharist in the context of the Passover feast would have certainly drawn upon the significance of that feast, not only as a ritual remembrance of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, but also its first century importance as a politicized expression of Israel’s hope for present deliverance from Roman occupation and the fulfillment of Yahweh’s eschatological promise.44 Jesus’ appropriation of the Passover for his last meal with his disciples must therefore be read, in part, as offering an alternative politics, centered on his own person and the expectation of his imminent execution.

In the background to this final meal stood Jesus’ practices of table-fellowship which he had undertaken over the three years of his public ministry in which he had “come eating and drinking” as a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 11:19). Shared meals, in this cultural environment, embodied close fellowship and, as enacted by Jesus, were both a proclamation of Yahweh’s prodigal and restoring forgiveness as well as the construction of new ties of kinship around Jesus himself. As such they called upon participants to extend forgiveness to one another and to all, engendering forms of restitution that exceeded legal requirements. Those at Jesus’ table, therefore, were nothing less than the inbreaking of a future eschatological Israel that served as a rebuke against those who would perpetuate a politics of exclusion, national identity, and violence, a rebuke that came to public expression in Jesus’ confrontational action at the Temple.45

And so, when Jesus gathered his disciples together at Passover (particularly read against Jesus’ Temple action earlier that week), he was showing himself and his new community to be the true Temple of Yahweh, reorienting all its symbols around himself as the site of Yahweh’s promised return, the sacrifice for sin, and the restoration of Israel. But the restoration envisioned by Jesus would be one that came about through following a road that led to the cross, calling his followers upon the same path. As a “memorial” performance of this manner of deliverance, Jesus’ Supper would also be the perpetuation of the “dangerous memory” of an unjust execution at the hands of corrupt officials and an indifferent empire.46

The eucharist, therefore, continually troubles the gathered church with an eschatological tension of being a martyr church on mission, filling up in itself what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, and thereby thwarting any too easy embrace of present systems of governance. As such, it establishes the proper conception of the “secular” as “saeculum,” a temporal notion referring to this present world as both passing away in its provisional structures as well as remaining that which is to be redeemed within the bosom of the church.

Within the context of the Roman empire, this function of the eucharist took on other dimensions insofar as it conceived itself as the true sacrificial meal of which pagan feasts were only a false image. While Paul allows that meat sold openly at market could be permitted upon a Christian table, whatever its origin (1 Cor 8:1-6), he also decreed that it is not possible for a Christian to partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons–to participate in the sacrificial feasts of the pagan polis and to gather in partnership as the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:14-21). Paul’s use of the term “partnership” or “communion” here (koinonia) comes with cultic, economic, and political overtones, for within antique order local temples were not merely places of cultic ritual. Rather, they were thoroughly implicated within a complex network of social relations, literally defining space within the ancient polis, bound up with the privileges of citizenship and kinship, the stratification of political order, and forms of economic access.

Paul, of course, is no dualist and, in keeping with his Jewish creational monotheism, perceived now through Jesus, he recognized that all things exist through Jesus as Lord and messiah. Nonetheless, Paul introduced forms of moral reasoning, rooted in Jesus’ Lordship and the practices of the Christian community as an integral community in itself, by which his hearers might wisely discern how to live as members of God’s kingdom and household, making judgments within a world that, while under Jesus’ Lordship, still resists God’s reign. Indeed, the table of the Lord must serve as just such a place of discernment and judgment, manifesting the gathered Body of Christ in reconciled solidarity over against the world, thereby proclaiming the effective power of Jesus’ death until he comes to judge.47

In this light, it is unremarkable that, not only does Paul proscribe involvement with the official cultic rites of pagan cities, he also forbids Christians from appealing to the pagan courts (1 Cor 6:1-6). This is not because such courts have no authority under God (we must presume), but because whatever legitimate authority those courts possess is already disclosed in a greater way within the church and, there, in light of eschatology and with eternal consequences (1 Cor 5:3-5; 6:2-3, 9). The eucharist, therefore, stands as a rite that encompasses the people of God both as a household and family gathered intimately at table and as a polis and nation assembled publicly at temple, thereby outwitting any absolute dichotomy between public space and private space.

But this eucharistic politics is one that knows no spatialized dualism of the natural and supernatural, rather functioning subjunctively in proclaiming and giving a foretaste of the ways things ought to be, against the remembrance of Jesus’ death, a temporal movement, relating eschatology and history. As a ritual meal of eating and drinking, the eucharist forges a tie to this world as the place in which God’s reign is realized, the transformation of this world in and through human action, and the establishment of peace.48

In particular we see a confluence of work and play, the mundane and the refined in the joining of bread with wine. Bread is basic sustenance but requires the establishment of human economy–subsistence agriculture–as well as the cessation of conflict and employment of human labor.49 Wine, on the other hand, is a cup of playful celebration but requires some degree of technological sophistication, extended peace to age and mature, and the opportunity to relax and enjoy. The eucharist, therefore, projects a communitas in which such labor and celebration are valued, along with the peace to engage in them and the leisure to delight in them.50 And insofar as the one and same Body of Christ is present wherever eucharist is made, the work of liturgy likewise undoes the logic of center and circumference–whether in terms of political, economic, social, or cultic centralization and stratification–founding catholicity precisely in what is most local.


In these reflections, I have not offered anything near a comprehensive Christian politics. Nonetheless, I have attempted to underscore the ways in with the Gospel itself functions politically and implications drawn from that. And in some respects, I suggest, Christian politics consists first and foremost in living out that Gospel as church, enacting it authentically in community through the word and sacraments. Only by consciously engaging in such praxis and through continued reflection from within it, will it be possible to envision and move towards what that politics will mean for our particular lived conditions within neighborhoods and businesses, civic associations and civil government.

Still, several broad themes have emerged, I think, in the course of this discussion, and we would do well to bring them together here in summary. First, the Gospel of “Jesus is Lord” unravels any attempt to construct a Christian politics of “two kingdoms” in which the church and civil governments are set side-by-side as externally and extrinsically related orders. Rather the relationship is one of analogy, which, of course, presupposes a fixed distinction, without confusion, but also internal and intrinsic relations.51

Second, ecclesial order and civil order thus do not occupy two different spaces, but two different times: the church having an eternal end, rooted in God’s past saving acts in Christ, made present now in word and sacrament; the civil order having a temporal function within the present saeculum, ordained to continually pass away, though its treasures are carried in the bosom of the church into the eternal kingdom (Rev 21:24). Thus, rather than proving a threat to civil order, the church, as the true polis and kingdom, is the transcendent community before which immanent civil structures can be see to have a reality and integrity quite apart from the exercise of force or the territorialization of space.

Third, these conceptions serve to relativize civil authority, situating it within and under the authority of God and his Christ. As a result, Christians cannot trust any human institution to ultimately secure our advantage, to be an object of final allegiance, or to sustain the missionary vocation of the church in the world. In light of the Gospel as the revelation of God’s authority, justice, love, and universal concern, human authority is seen always to hold the potential to deify itself, to miscarry justice, to perpetuate violence, and to construct barriers.

Fourth, insofar as Christ is the model of truly human rule and the church is his Body, a renewed humanity, civil organization must come to be analogically fashioned in the image of the church, in a way that is appropriate for a temporal order and its ends, often exercising authority within communities consisting of both Christians and non-Christians. But there is no place here for a “common grace” politics that remains neutral to the claims of the Gospel, even with regard to the place of unbelievers within society, for it is precisely the Gospel that calls us to risk love even for enemies and to remain at peace with all people, as far as it is up to us (Rom 12:18). If anything is clear from Jesus’ ministry, as a manifestation of God’s justice, it is that the promises of God are not be secured through violence.

Finally, the politics engendered by ecclesial order provide a model for the analogous reconfiguring of social space in the ways suggested above: questioning the dichotomy of private and public spaces, disengaging centripetal forces and their relation to the peripheral and local, complicating homogenized space with a polymorphic organization of overlapping structures and authorities, and so on. These kinds of shifts would have significant implications for the exercise of civil authority, the shape of economic markets, the production and dissemination of culture, and so on. Clearly these implications suggest that the church stands as a witness to the possibility of a praxis that refuses the dichotomies offered by the modern: either nation-states or anarchistic turmoil, globalization or protectionism, unregulated capitalism or state socialism, and so on. But just how these binaries are to be overcome is left open and it is the church that must prove the site of resistance through a more self-conscious attempt to live out the Gospel as a counter-political community drawn together around word and sacrament.

Further implications might be drawn, but these few shall suffice. The Gospel, I have shown, is already politics and thus the church, as Augustine suggests, is the true res publica in light of which human community, politics, and justice is possible at all. And so, indeed, there is another king, this Jesus.


1. N.T. Wright likewise suggests that the message Paul brings here is politically resonant (2000:165).

2. It seems to me that many well-intentioned Christians are, unfortunately, complicit in these misunderstandings (much of the rhetoric of the so-called Religious Right comes to mind, though left-leaning bodies such as the National Council of Churches are often just as imprudent). Part of the burden of this essay is an attempt to rethink these problematics.

3. This is not to say, by any means, that politics is the primary focus of the Gospel and, much less, that politics somehow exhausts the meaning of the Gospel. But inasmuch as the relationship between faith and politics is the aim of this essay, I will be focusing upon the political import of the Gospel.

4. I am appealing here, in part, to the pre-modern notion of the “political” as a very broad ethical discourse, encompassing various forms of human association, the virtues embodied in them, directed toward the common good as an end, and exercised through some kind of public authority (though, unlike ancient political thinkers such as Aristotle, I would place politics under the wider rubric of ethics, rather than vice versa). As such, the church can be seen as “political” in a way analogous to a particular civil regime or, perhaps, “counter-political.”

5. One thinks here of Augustine’s claim that the Roman empire could not claim truly to be a republic or a people since it lacked justice, other virtues, and authentic community (De Civitatis Dei 19.21-28). Augustine goes onto suggest that it is the church that is the true res publica and city-state.

6. Much of the following analysis is drawn from de Certeau 1992, Foucault 1994, Gillespie 1994, Milbank 1993, Montag 1999, and Pickstock 1998. The story of the transition from the pre-modern to the modern is one that is gaining an important place within much postmodern discourse as a genealogical strategy by which modernist assumptions can be recovered and questioned.

7. John Milbank begins his magisterial Theology and Social Theory with the assertion, “Once, there was no ‘secular’…” (1993:9) and proceeds to narrate the founding of the secular. Much of my account here is dependent upon his.

8. Although Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is often credited as the “father of modern philosophy” the full story of the construction of the modern is naturally much more complex. After all, Descartes’ near contemporaries were also instrumental-including Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), Petrus Ramus (1515-1572), Jean Bodin (1530-1596), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), among others. Consult, e.g., Pickstock 1998:47-100, Milbank 1993:9-38, Gillespie 1994. Moreover, the historical roots of the modern run much deeper, not only philosophically, in the thought of Scotus (1266-1308) and Ockham (1288-1349), but also socially and politically, in developments stemming from the investiture controversy and the rise of conciliarism. On these latter points, consult Montag 1999, Cavanaugh 1998:207-221, de Certeau 1992:82-87, and Kantorowicz 1957.

9. One may speak here of an analogia entis, though the term came into current use through Erich Przywara in the early 20th century. The criticism of this notion by Karl Barth and some other (Reformed) Protestant authors, seems to me to largely miss the mark by understanding the analogia in far too a post-scotistic manner.

10. For a very helpful exposition of this doctrine of analogy and its implications for faith, philosophy, politics, education, gender, and the like, see Schindler 1996. Schindler follows very closely in the footsteps of de Lubac and von Balthasar on these matters.

11. While a sharp dichotomy between “nature” and “grace” or the “natural” and the “supernatural” is often taken to be a hallmark of the thought of Thomas Aquinas, this is a serious confusion, mistaking the views of later thomism (which is much indebted to Cajetan and Suarez) for those of the Angelic Doctor himself. Much of the burden of 20th century Roman Catholic theology has been to move beyond these dichotomies towards a more integrated–and more authentically thomist–understanding of nature and grace. The two most important figures here are Karl Rahner (see Rahner 1992; 1978) and Henri de Lubac (see de Lubac 1998; 1984), though the retrieval of Aquinas is a much broader project; see Chenu 1964, Jordan 1992, te Velde 1992, O’Rourke 1992, Jenkins 1997, Milbank and Pickstock 2001, and Kerr 2002.

12. Milbank and Pickstock’s Truth in Aquinas (2001) presents an extended exposition and defense of interpreting Aquinas in this way.

13. On the notion of “complex” or “gothic” social space see Cavanaugh 2002:99-106 and Milbank 1997:268-292.

14. On the move away from pre-modern notions of revelatio, consult the account given by Montag 1999. The rejection of medieval typological and liturgical enactments of the biblical text and the decided shift towards a more literalistic exegesis and the “grammatico-historical” sense of the text, was deeply complicit with the founding of the modern as well as the construction of the secular state. See Milbank’s comments on the biblical hermeneutics of Hobbes and Spinoza in 1993:17-20.

15. Indeed, the very notion of “religion” underwent a significant shift, see Cantwell Smith 1962:30-44.

16. Again, consult the critiques of this perspective by Rahner and de Lubac (though my sympathies lie with de Lubac, in the context of Catholic debates). This conceptualization of “nature” and “grace” was the standard account within Roman Catholic dogmatics texts by the time of the 19th century and remained prominent in Roman Catholic theology well into the 20th century. I would argue that these very same dynamics play out in analogous way, particularly within some Reformed Protestant dogmatics, in areas such as how the doctrine of “regeneration” relates to Christian experience or the relationship between the pre-lapsarian “covenant of works” and the “covenant of grace.” Various attempts to overcome the more problematic forms these dynamics have met with considerable resistance in some quarters.

17. I readily admit that the bulk of theonomic literature envisions their program as coming to fruition through evangelism and discipleship. But the question remains: when enough people have converted and have embraced the theonomic vision, what then? I am left with impression that the goal is more for existing institutions to be merely “taken over” by the new majority than for the entire social fabric to be transformed. I say this, in part, because much theonomic analysis of culture and economics remains thoroughly imbued with what strikes me as conventional social conservativism and libertarian economics.

18. Again, I certainly grant that the intention of these theorists is well-meaning. Several aims may be intended, I presume: [1] to prevent the grace of the Gospel from being confused with mere civil legalities, [2] to realistically recognize that we live in a pluralistic society, and [3] to avoid any kind of “theocracy” (by which is meant, I think, an “ecclesiocracy”). I hope that I am not ignoring any of these concerns, but a couple of comments seem in order. With regard to [1], there are ways of expressing the grace of the Gospel that give in too much on nature/grace dualities; proper distinctions can be made without conceding to such conceptions. With regard to [2], I suggest below that within a Christian politics, a pluralistic society can only be rightly predicated upon the Gospel’s call to love even our enemies; such a pluralism cannot remain neutral to the person of Jesus. With regard to [3], the fear of “theocracy” already supposes a distribution of social space in which the church and “religion” is external to the civil sphere and thus must intrude upon it in an ecclesiocratic manner in order to shape the political. It is just such a conceptualization I am arguing against as too complicit with the modern.

19. Though perhaps unsatisfactory to some, it is my understanding of the New Testament that the term “Gospel” most focally means the announcement of the reign of God, manifest particularly in the death and resurrection of Jesus as messiah and Lord and is summarized in the Christian confession that “Jesus is Lord.” Other matters (such as justification and forgiveness of sins) are immediately entailed by this Gospel, while other matters are further implications of and responses to the Gospel (for instance, personal faith). These matters, however, are not the primary referent of the term “Gospel” itself.

20. On the meaning and resonances of the term “Gospel” see, Wright 1997:39-62; Horsley 2000:164-165.

21. On the rising Roman imperial cult, see Price 1984.

22. For some general overviews of the religious climate of first century Judaism consult Sanders 1992, Saldarini 2001, and Hengel 1989.

23. Though I cannot agree with all of his various assertions, Borg 1984 makes for stimulating reading on this topic. For a more balanced account, see Wright 1992:369-442.

24. Regarding “the way” that Jesus followed, see Mk 2:23; 3:1; etc., esp. 10:17, 32, 52. That Jesus’ “way” was the very way of Yahweh is intimated by John the baptizer at the beginning of the Gospel, Mk 1:2-3; that it was the way of the cross is stated by Jesus himself in Mk 8:34-35; 9:35. The centurion at the foot of cross draws these texts together when, seeing the way Jesus died, he confesses, “Surely this was son of God” (Mk 15:39). For a more detailed study of these themes in Mark, see Garver 2000.

25. This Adam-Christ dynamic is most evident in Paul’s writings (esp. Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15).

26. For a brief elaboration of this reading of Luke-Acts, see Wright 1998.

27. The following remarks draw heavily upon Gaffin 1987, Wright 1992, 1997, and Siefrid 2001, among others.

28. See Georgi 1991 and Wright’s comments in Horsley 2000:170-173.

29. Allow me to anticipate a possible objection at this point: that by so thickly nesting the Gospel within the vocabulary and issues of the era in which it was first articulated, one runs the risk of losing the message of the Gospel for us today (thanks to Jim Rogers for pointing this out and for much other helpful criticism). I would reply by arguing that the Gospel only speaks to situations outside of its immediate first century context because it is “so thickly nested” within its first century context. The universal is only found in the particular. And that is not to say that it is necessary to understand all the particularities of the immediate context in order to understand the Gospel for one’s own time and place. But I am presupposing an ontology here in which history and cultures are analogically ordered so that all history that preceded Christ typologically anticipated him in more or less obscure ways (“preceded” here including either absolute temporal preceding or in terms of preceding the Gospel’s actual arrival). And all history that comes after Christ, on the other hand, is attributable to the event of Christ and its re-narration of everything through the church. Of course, it is the history of Israel and the church that most centrally and fully participate in Christ either by typological anticipation or as an effect, respectively. But this is only so because everything always already reveals Christ in some manner.

Epistemologically, this means that it isn’t necessary to do this kind of analysis of the first century context in order for the Gospel to have its import and effects in whatever time and place it arrives, because the context of the first century is already analogically anticipated in that site of arrival in such a way such that, once the Gospel is received and enacted sacramentally and liturgically in that new time and place, its original effects will be non-identically reproduced. Nonetheless, this kind of historical analysis serves to deepen that event and, I would argue, enhance the Gospel’s effectiveness and relevance to our contexts precisely because the more light that is shed on its original context, the more light we shed on own context and how to receive the Gospel within it as that good news continuously arrives here and now.

30. On various aspects of this terminology, see Horsley 1997, 2000. For further reflections on the political, public character of the church, see Leithart 1993 and Clapp 1996:44-57.

31. The following observations are indebted to Leithart 1997a.

32. On the nature of the ancient city-state, see Polignac 1995, Zaidman and Schmitt Pantel 1989, Dumezil 1970, Alföldy 1985, and Gordon in Beard and North 1990. Hauerwas and Pinches’ interaction with Casey’s Pagan Virtue is also worthy of note (1997:89-112).

33. Leithart 1997a.

34. Leithart 1997a.

35. The following is informed by the comments of Wright in Horsley 2000:173-181 and Oakes 2001.

36. On the emperor cult, again see Price 1984.

37. On Romans 13 see O’Donovan 1996:146-148, Elliott 1994:214-226, Wright in Bartholomew 2000:190-191, and Jewett in Horsley 2000:65-68.

38. Some of the following is drawn from Hart 1984, Wright 1992:502-507, and Hays 1996:126-127.

39. That Jesus’ statement might have been heard this way is all the more possible against the backdrop of a passage like 1 Macc 2:68.

40. The phrase here resonates with an allusion to Ps 96:7-10, which, given its larger context of Yahweh’s contest with false gods and idols, strengthens the anti-imperial undercurrents of Jesus’ saying.

41. With regard to what follows, see in particular Garver 1999 and 2001.

42. With regard to the religio-political organization of the ancient polis, see, again, Polignac 1995, Zaidman and Schmitt Pantel 1989, Dumezil 1970, Alföldy 1985, and Gordon in Beard and North 1990.

43. On this point and the two that follow, see Hauerwas and Pinches 1997:104-109.

44. On this context for the last supper see Wright 1992:554-563.

45. The importance of the temple action here is noted by Neusner 1989.

46. Much of the theoretical and theological analysis in what follows is inspired by Cavanaugh 1998:222-252 and 2002.

47. On 1 Corinthians in its imperial context, see Horsley 2000:72-102. See also Leithart 1997b.

48. Leithart 1997b and Schmemann 1973:11-46.

49. See Kass 1994:121-122.

50. Empereur and Kiesling 1990:117-118.

51. The echo of the Chalcedonian formulation of the two natures of Christ is intentional as it provides a helpful, though limited, analogy. According to that formulation, the human nature of Christ is united to the divine, but without any confusion with that divine nature. Nonetheless, the humanity of Jesus is enhypostatized by the single subject of the divine Son so that the humanity of Jesus is a perfect analogical revelation of deity. In an analogous manner the civil sphere must be seen as situated in relation to the church, without confusing the two spheres, but with the civil sphere analogically manifesting ecclesial “politics.” This analogy, of course, can be pushed too far, though it has the ironic effect of suggesting that the Lutheran “two kingdoms” doctrine is incipiently Nestorian.

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