Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 18, 2018, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/theology-political/v-1
The concept of political theology was the subject of important controversies in European, and especially German, philosophy, social science and jurisprudence in the twentieth century. After the First World War, a debate took place between the jurist Carl Schmitt, an influential right-wing critic of parliamentary democracy in the Weimar Republic, and the theologian Erik Peterson. Another debate was occasioned by a new, leftist political interpretation of biblical texts in the years after 1960. In that context, ‘political theology’ designates philosophical positions influenced by neo-Marxist philosophies, such as the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. The earlier controversy between Schmitt and Peterson played a role in this later debate as well. Johann Baptist Metz is probably the most important representative of political theology in the later controversy.
In his writings on the problem of the legitimacy of the modern state and its constitution, the jurist Carl Schmitt focused on the question of sovereignty. In his view, the sovereignty of the modern state is derived from an earlier theological tradition centred on God’s existence and nature. The modern theory of the state, Schmitt held, had shifted the idea of God’s omnipotence, which theologians understood as determined only by God’s goodness, to the concept of the sovereignty of the people. Rousseau (§3), for example, had described ‘the general will’ as the expression of the absolute will of a state’s citizens, which could never be wrong or evil. The problem is that when reference to transcendence is abandoned, the notion of the state that remains is despotic, as, for example, in Hobbes’ Leviathan (see Hobbes, T. §7). To describe the fundamental condition of modern politics, Schmitt introduced the notion of a situation of exemption. In a situation of exemption, radical political movements and charismatic leaders are allowed to annul laws simply by a decision to do so. Schmitt articulated a principle which helped to support both left- and right-wing political messianism: ‘Authority, not truth, makes law’.
The most important opposition to Schmitt’s account of the political theology of the modern state did not arise either from classical theories of natural law, in the Aristotelian or Thomistic traditions, or from a Kantian theory of law as based on arguments supported by practical reason. Instead it came from a theologian, Erik Peterson, who had converted to Catholicism from Protestantism. Peterson emphatically rejected Schmitt’s understanding of the voluntary character of law as theological. He based his argument against Schmitt’s position on historical as well as philosophical grounds. He pointed to the decision of the early Church to reject Arianism and to accept the doctrine of the Trinity. One of the consequences of this position was set out by Augustine, Peterson thought. In his De civitate Dei (City of God), Augustine rejects a version of political theology which he thinks he finds in Eusebius of Caesarea; instead, Augustine maintains that there is and must be a separation between the City of God, on the one hand, and the earthly city, or state, on the other. In Peterson’s view, this Christian position effectively undermines any possibility of a political theology of the sort Schmitt propounded.
After the Second World War, the Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz established a new version of political theology. In the 1960s, and especially during the time of Vatican II (1962–5), the Catholic Church was engaged in a process of reform and was searching for a renewed dialogue with the society in which it found itself. Metz’s political theology was part of this larger trend. Metz took a positive view of the Enlightenment and modern freedom of thought, and saw his position as a legitimate consequence (supported by biblical studies) of modern anthropology. Like his teacher Karl Rahner, Metz was concerned to bring the work of Thomas Aquinas into contemporary philosophical discussion. In his earlier writings, Metz also followed Rahner in trying to integrate Kant’s transcendental philosophy and German idealism in general with the philosophical presuppositions of systematic theology. These efforts significantly transformed the Neo-Thomist account of human nature.
Metz’s political theology was also based on a critical understanding of Kant’s account of human freedom and Marx’s concept of history. To some extent, it was influenced also by the views of Horkheimer and Adorno, who were critical of the Enlightenment and of modern theories of rationality, and by Benjamin’s view of history as ‘one single catastrophe where we perceive a chain of events’ (1950, Thesis IX). So understood, political theology constitutes an important theological theory of modern times. At its heart, there is the concept of an eschatological reservation with regard to all stages of progress and emancipation in history. This feature of Metz’s political theology allows it to avoid the sort of mistakes for which Peterson reproached Schmitt.
Lutz-Bachmann, Matthias. Theology, political, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K112-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/theology-political/v-1.
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