I am happy to see Kevin’s excellent post and essay on the doctrine of justification. And I am not surprised to see him come to the conclusion that our failure to articulate it is at the core of our impotence. Bruce McCormack started from the same point in his brilliant essay on the role of justification in Protestant theology, an essay which is mandatory reading for those wishing to understand what’s at stake over the doctrine of justification.
So, I want to offer an unqualified “amen” to Kevin’s articulation. But I also want to include an “and,” which I admit may get me into some trouble. It strikes me that while our Lord Jesus is the grounding for our individual salvation, in procuring our salvation he defeated the principalities and powers that govern the world. And for Paul (and for Daniel), these powers exist and manifest themselves in a political context—that is, a political context, which encompasses both the social and the governmental (if that’s a word).
In a few weeks, we will celebrate the birth of our Lord, who the governing authority welcomed into the world by slaughtering infants. Herod understood that the Gospel destabilizes the world and its powers. As Oliver O’Donovan writes in Desire of the Nations:
Jesus, similarly, believed that a shift in the locus of power was taking place, which made the social institutions that had prevailed to that point anachronistic. His attitude to them was neither secularist nor zealot: since he did not concede that they had any future, he gave them neither dutiful obedience within their supposed sphere of competence nor the inverted respect of angry defiance.
This destabilization entails a kind of Godly indifference toward the political order, rather than a principled push for its eradication. Again, O’Donovan:
Jesus’ departure from the zealot programme showed his more theological understanding of power, not his disinterest in it. The empowerment of Israel was more important than the disempowerment of Rome; for Rome disempowered would in itself by no means guarantee Israel empowered...The gift of power was not a zero-sum operation. God could generate new power by doing new things in God’s midst.
But for O’Donovan, the dethroning of principalities and powers does not lead to disengagement from the political realm, even if we remain detached from it. Writes O’Donovan:
The kingly rule of Christ is God’s own rule exercised over the whole world. It is visible in the life of the church...but not only there. St. Paul declared that God has ‘disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public show of them in Christ’s triumphal procession.’ That must be the primary eschatological assertion about the authorities, political and demonic, which govern the world: they have been made subject to God’s sovereignty in the Exaltation of Christ. The second, qualifying assertion is that this awaits a final universal presence of Christ to become fully apparent. Within the framework of these two assertions there opens up an account of secular authority which presumes neither that the Christ-event never occured nor that the sovereignty of Christ is now transparent and uncontested.
That secular space that the exists between now and the eschaton is the space in which the Church enacts its mission, which is a mission both to people and to the nations and societies that they compose. This reframing of the political order, and of power, opens up the possibility for approaching politics, for approaching art, for approaching education and science from a different vantage point—one that is integrated into and reflects the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross. In short, Christendom. But it is grounded on a view of the atonement that encompasses both christus victor and propitiation.
This entails that evangelicals who wish to be Gospel-centered do not necessarily need to think about politics less (though some might), but rather think about politics differently. Just as most of us ought consume and produce culture in a fashion that is unique to the Gospel proclamation (“no” to a Christian sub-culture, “yes” to Christian culture), so we ought act in the political arena differently—where “differently” means something more than than simply abiding by basic ethical norms such as “Do not lie.” And it is worth pointing out that this Godly disinterest is easier to cultivate in a monarchy than a deliberative, representative democracy such as our own—which may, in fact, require a greater amount of political engagement by average citizens than other forms of government would.
All this is, I think, compatible with recent reflections around the blogging world about the relationship between propitiation and Christus victor. And O’Donovan says as much. He critiques Hauerwas’ rejection of Christendom on these grounds, arguing:
Hauerwas has a theological difficulty about this reading of Christendom. ‘I do not believe’, he once declared to me with customary irony, ‘in justification by faith!’ But the subjection of the angelic powers of government to the rule of Christ is one aspect of justification, the fruit of Christ’s triumph over death and hell. Christians who believed in Christendom believed that they could discern this in world-historical developments. Yet they knew they could not count on it as a permanent right.
That Jesus died for our sins grounds his defeat of the principalities and powers is no reason to exclude the latter from our understanding of the Gospel. If anything, it is an affirmation of the transformative reality of Christ’s redemptive work, and crucial for articulating what kind of life we are justified into. Ignoring it strips evangelicals not of the heart of the Gospel, but of crucial theological and anthropological resources to help us live out the fullness of the faith in a dark and hostile world.