Interview: Dorothea H. Bertschmann on Romans 13 and the Political Paul

We continue our LNTS interview series with a stimulating conversation with Dorothea Bertschmann on her book, Bowing Before Christ – Nodding to the State? Dorothea discusses the power of the “political” Paul through examination of two theological powerhouses who have dominated the discussion. Her argument is a sublime petition for balance in the consideration and utilization of the apostle Paul in the church’s engagement with the worldly powers that be.

We hope you enjoy the interview, and we encourage you to get Dorothea’s book, along with 28 others, in the exceptional collection of first-rate biblical scholarship that is the Library of New Testament Studies: 2016.

TB: You dedicate Bowing Before Christ to your father, who passed away in 2012. What was the impact of his life and death on your research and writing?

DB: My whole PhD was overshadowed by my father’s worsening illness and finally his death. I remember doing some of my initial reading in intensive care, sitting at his bedside and I was devastated that he did not live to see me finish the project and graduate.

However, he was also a positive inspiration and a source of constant encouragement. We were the two theologians in our family and could talk for hours. My father was influenced by Karl Barth (he had attended some of Barth’s last lectures in Basel as a theology student!) and Barth’s theology of God’s utter fidelity to humanity in Christ Jesus, yet completely on God’s own terms of freely given love.

Sharing much theological common ground, my father and I agreed much less in our political leanings, but took it both for granted that the church has a place in the public square and must raise its voice prophetically in a crisis.

TB: The idea of reading Paul (or any part of the Bible) politically is fraught with extreme danger, while promising great benefit. The Nazi regime is just one example you mention, and more recent phenomena could be mentioned as well. What contribution does your book make to the question of politicising Paul?

DB: I hope my book will make a point that reading Paul (or the Bible) politically is not the same as politicising Paul. Paul’s statements on political authority in Romans 13 have been rightly or wrongly used to inculcate political quietism and unquestioning submission towards political rulers in Christians. I would not say that the Nazi regime politicised Paul in a particular way, but the disaster of Nazism showed the dangerous side effect of such a “blind obedience” in Paul’s name: It can lend unwitting support to authoritarian regimes.

Partly in reaction to this, “new” readings of Paul have been offered, which rightly highlight the enormous potential for subversion and resistance in Paul’s Gospel of Christ’s Lordship. I put “new” in inverted commas, because the idea of prophetic resistance against unjust governments is of course not new, but has a firm place in many Christian traditions of political reflections, not least the Reformed one.

The question remains how Paul’s theology of Jesus’ Lordship (which is clearly political and has potential for resistance) squares with his support of (any) political authority in Romans 13 and his emphatic admonition to submit to this authority. Instead of defending the quietist Paul or the revolutionary Paul at all costs (this would be politicising!) I tried to understand on the one hand how Paul uses central political categories such as authority and rule in his Gospel proclamation and on the other hand how he engages temporal political authority in a concrete and explicit sense. By engaging the work of two influential political theologians I sharpened my lens for such categories and how they might link up with each other.

TB: Could you discuss the basic approaches to political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and John Howard Yoder, and then explain why you chose these two as dialogue partners for Paul?

DB: A lot of political theology is rooted in theologies of natural law. I chose O’Donovan and Yoder because they have a more salvation-historical approach. They both wrestle with the question in what way the rulers of this world are affected by the Christ event. Surely the world of political rule cannot remain untouched by God’s salvific outreach in Christ? Both conversation partners are also keen and able exegetes and though my project was not about evaluating good and bad exegesis, their use of Scripture made them helpful conversation partners. They are christo-centric in their own way and acknowledge the importance of an eschatological horizon and so does Paul.

In Yoder’s narrative Jesus reveals the true (non-violent) human being after God’s own heart. Similarly the community shaped by Jesus’ teaching and example embodies the ‘true political’, the partially realized vision of a reconciled community, where peace reigns. The cross epitomizes Jesus’ subversion of rule understood as domination and violence. Jesus embodies servanthood and sacrificial suffering instead. The resurrection affirms this new paradigm. The church is duty-bound to follow Jesus’ example in order to offer the world a convincing demonstration of the ‘true political’. Secular rule is treated with suspicion, because it seems unable to forego violence. It has to be constantly confronted with the ‘better righteousness’ of the church without being able to ever meet the demands of God’s eschatological kingdom. And yet the church needs secular or temporal rule as a space wherein it can fulfill its mission.

Oliver O’Donovan sees Israel as the paradigm where God reveals his rule as the king, who saves, judges and owns his people. Authority is God’s gift to enable community. During Israel’s exile this model gives way to dual authority, where the people of God is simultaneously under God’s rule and the domination of a foreign Imperial power. Jesus challenges this dual authority, by proclaiming God’s kingdom, which is vindicated in his resurrection. The rulers of this world are defeated and their task reconceived in a much more modest version.

Like Yoder O’Donovan is no advocate of a naïve Christocracy, where Christ rules directly through the rulers. The rulers, who respond to the Christian mission are not replaced by the church but accompanied by it. The church’s presence in turn seeks to both castigate the state and keep it from Messianic pretensions and to enable its legitimate contribution to human flourishing.

TB: Related to that, if Paul, Oliver, and John were in a room together, who would speak first and what would they say?

DB: I am not sure who would speak first, but I suspect that each one would try to have the last word! Paul would of course have a special place of honour by being an early apostolic witness whose theological reflections had been canonised and become a binding authority for the church. Let’s assume he would start by saying that the risen Christ was Lord of the church and the whole world. The church had to look to him both in hope for ultimate salvation and in obedience to the pattern of self-giving love he had left. Political authority still had a place in this vision, the Christians should show support and could expect to be treated well, because their Christian ethos turned them into law-abiding citizens, too. However, the rulers of this age should not be credited with too high hopes and the Christians’ obedience was due to God and only indirectly to them.

O’Donovan would then give Paul a quick update on 2000 years of Church history and political reasoning (assuming Paul had been unaware of it in his heavenly bliss) and point out that the Christian witness, after all, reached the ear of the rulers of this world, and called them to obedience to the Gospel. (And surely Paul must be pleased with this, given his efforts to engage governors and finally the emperor with the Gospel message!). This “obedience of the rulers”, O’Donovan would say, naturally had consequences for the rulers’ self-understanding. They would from now on be greatly diminished in their function, losing the task of salvation and of possession/identity but would still have the important function of rendering justice, however imperfect this might look at times.

Yoder would take over at this stage and make a strong case of how harmful this ‘Constantinian turn’ had been for the church. What is the good, he would say, in a church, which wins the ear and possibly heart of temporal rulers, but loses its own soul in the process? He would express his deep shock and grief at the seemingly easy peace the church of Christ had struck with war and all sorts of violence used as means of political restraint (e.g. the death penalty) once it had extended its influence into the sphere of political power. Yoder would insist that the church does not have to be successful but faithful. I think the discussion would very much circle around the question who conquered whom when the Roman emperor joined the Christian church. Paul would likely express his amazement at such a conquest – he did not see that coming. Or did he?

TB: There has been a raging current debate about Paul’s view of political authority. Some think that Paul was consumed with the the powers that be, directed much nuanced language against the Emperor. Others, however, think that “the Emperor has no clothes.” Where does BBC land in this debate, and what does it have to say to either position?

DB: The debate of the “anti-imperial Paul” was indeed in full swing and had possibly reached its climax when I started my research. I wrote my PhD in Durham where two of its greatest protagonists lived at the time: John Barclay, who was my supervisor and N.T. Wright, then bishop at Durham cathedral. I remember how I once woke up in cold sweat from a nightmare, in which Wright would thrust his bishop’s staff to the ground and say: “You’ll see, you’ll see, it is all about the emperor.”

So this debate was important and informed much of my writing but from the beginning I wanted to take one step back and look at what are the key elements of a political theology and how Paul sketches these out and connects the dots…or fails to do so!

Much scholarship on the anti-imperial Paul was fuelled by the correct observation that Paul’s Gospel language shares some vocabulary with political language of the Roman Empire: Lord, saviour, glory etc. The exclusive note of “Jesus is Lord” led some scholars to emphasize the principled antagonism between the Christian creed and Roman imperial ideology, whereas others would emphasize the complete otherness of Jesus’ rule, which very nearly subverts any notion of rule.

I agree with Barclay and others that to see the emperor as the direct target of Paul’s religious language is narrowing the scope of Paul’s theology and making some problematic assumptions about language. Paul saw sin and death as the defeated rulers of the world, not any concrete ruler in particular.

But I also agree with anti-imperial scholars that the language of Christ’s lordship has indeed very critical potential, which might lead to clashes, first and foremost in the arena of worship. If the church is constituted and ruled over by Christ, his laws will always be more binding than any others. However, this does not simply focus on earthly rulers, but might include parental authority, family loyalties and the given ethos of any group a person belongs with.

I see my contribution as twofold:

Firstly, I tried to show that a confession such as “Jesus is the Lord” can be interpreted in vastly different ways: The emperor could indeed be seen as Christ’s enemy, but equally find a place as Christ’s vice-regent in the pyramid of power. Equally there could be a lot of space for co-existence and perhaps even co-operation between church members and ‘the state’, depending on how Christ’s lordship is defined and nuanced. I like to think that the Christian confession is like a verb or noun, which can be conjugated in different ways and has been conjugated in different ways throughout history. It is simply wrong to see antagonism as the automatic and only Christian response, though this has been a possibility, too, we only need to think of the book of Revelation.

Secondly, I tried to distinguish between the potential of Paul’s language and his actual discourse he follows when he directly mentions the rulers of this world. I can’t tell you how many attempts I have read who try really hard to soften Romans 13:1-7 or effectively turn it into its opposite as a piece of highly subversive and anti-imperial language. I find this simply unconvincing. Paul’s advice is situational, yes, and should not be used too quickly as an abstract principle for all times, but it is also theological. Paul does seem to think that the Christian believers can live well and happily under pagan authorities. He does seem to think that on the whole these authorities would provide a space of some law and order the church should gratefully acknowledge and contribute towards.

He also seemed to think that the Church takes neither its hope nor its vision of living together from the state but from Christ. Their life together and towards outsiders is infinitely more demanding than simply ticking the boxes of ‘paying your dues’ and ‘doing no harm to anybody’. Paul chose a certain way to connect the dots at a given moment. Coming from his basic theological convictions he might indeed have said something else, but he obviously did not. And this is where we can begin to honestly and thoughtfully interact with both Paul’s basic convictions and his concrete application of those convictions in his own situation and wonder what we might be called to do today.

TB: How would you define the key terms “political” and “politics”?

DB: I follow two standard definitions of seeing ‘political’ in a broader sense as community organization at every level, where humans live together as social beings. The more narrow sense of ‘political’ is temporal or secular authority, ‘the rulers of this world’, as Paul might have called them, which takes recourse to a number of means, including means of restraint and enforcement.

TB: Is the church a political body, or is it something else entirely?

DB: The church is no doubt a political body in at least two senses: It is political in the simple sociological sense that it is a distinctive body of people, who somehow structure and negotiate their life together.
It is also political in a more theological sense of being placed under the rule of Christ, to whom it looks for both its guiding pattern (its ‘constitution’) and for its ultimate salvation. I learnt a lot from O’Donovan in the latter respect, who coined the excellent term of the church of a “community under the authority of the risen Christ”. It is precisely the rootedness in such an identity, which transcends earthly rule, which serves as a barrier against messianic expectations we have for earthly political rule.

Yoder has a keen eye for the church’s need to be visibly distinctive through its conformity to the crucified and risen Lord, which can bring it into conflict with earthly rulers.

TB: You arrive at a conclusion in BBC that stresses the “silence” of Paul on the issue of political authorities outside the church. Is this a good thing? Don’t we wish that Paul would have said more? How is the church to respond to either extremes of political discourse and authority without legible instruction from the church’s greatest theologian?

DB: I would not say that Paul leaves us nothing legible for our own political discourse. He unfolds the basic Christian confession of Christ’s Lordship in a fairly breath-taking and comprehensive way. Something like the Philippian hymn structures all of reality in a new way and reframes everything, including politics. But how? Paul makes a lot of the church as the community under Christ’s authority, as the citizens who look to their heavenly constitution and live accordingly, especially in Philippians. Christ’s Lordship has a normative force for the church’s present conduct and is its driving hope for the future. This ‚community under Christ’s authority’ enjoys real freedom and independence. But it even so needs the space carved out by temporal rule, just like everybody else. Put differently, the church belongs both to the new and old creation. Paul manages to acknowledge both realities. He sketches out in Romans 12 and 13 how the church is both something special and how its individual believers are at the same like everybody else. He gives the state authorities a modest role in God’s salvific drama, but certainly not a major part.

But you are right, I find indeed that Paul is silent where we expect him to speak: He does not make any attempt to have Christ interact directly with his earthly “colleagues“, neither attacking, nor enlisting nor reforming them. Maybe this is precisely because Paul does not see them as Christ’s colleagues…. Christ’s rule, for Paul is reflected and embodied in the church, not in the political rulers of his day. This can be frustrating for us, who would like to see ‚Kingdom values’ directly promoted by political agents, whether they are conservative or progressive.

On the one hand Paul might give us pause to think about our expectations: What is the role we ascribe to political agents? But more importantly, what is the political reality of our churches, as communities under Christ’s authority, apart and beyond our political lobbying in the narrow sense?

On the other hand Paul’s concretizations of his faith and hope are not a blueprint, but a prototype as my former Durham colleague Stephen Barton put it so well. I find it fascinating that we have both Paul’s Gospel and the concrete examples how he sought to live in its horizon and light. Both are closely intertwined. But we have to think through these issues again in every generation: How do we live in the dawn of the kingdom or with the confession that Christ is the Lord? In this enterprise we cannot simply repeat and replicate Paul and we are well advised to know major traditions of Christian thinking and reasoning. Especially when it comes to politics there is a danger that different Christians just squeeze their own party preferences out of Paul and Scripture in general. Theological traditions teach us to dig deeper, to reflect systematically on central issues such as how state and church are meant to interact, how God’s power is mediated and reflected, what is the purpose of all this and how to live in the tension of ‘already’ and ‘not yet’.

We really never can become complacent in this respect. Take the sad example of Yoder’s large scale sexual abuse, which came to the light after I had finished my PhD. I still find much of his vision insightful and fascinating, but I cannot help thinking that just as the state needs the church the church needs the state, too. It needs the state with its critical gaze and its willingness to bring the justice to victims of abuse, which is all to often withheld from them within the church.

TB: If you were asked to describe Paul’s political outlook in one word, what would that be, and why?

DB: Christocracy, in the sense that Christ is Lord of the church and Lord of the whole world, but the latter in a presently hidden way.

TB: Who would you anticipate has the most to gain from reading BBC? What sort of research projects could you see stemming from the work you’ve done in this book?

DB: My first readers were my excellent supervisory team, Prof. John Barclay and Prof. Christopher Insole, who seemed to enjoy the inter-disciplinary approach and how their field of Pauline theology was brought in conversation with Political theology and vice versa. I hope that both Biblical scholars and political ethicists will gain from reading the book and I hope that it encourages further inter-disciplinary work.

In terms of content the topic of hope became very important to me. Expectations about political agents often seem to alternate between resignation and idealism. The latter can easily become violent, when faced with the inertia and complexity of the human nature. Hope is an altogether different category it seems to me, which can accommodate a certain robust toleration of less than perfect situations, but is also dynamic and not easily contented with the status quo. I would like to see people write about hope.

TB: Finally, what are you working on now and when can we expect to see it?

DB: I have been working for some time on a Pauline theology of suffering. I was concerned with the ease with which some Pauline scholars counsel suffering, self- effacing love as the epitome of Paul’s ethics, including his political ethics.

While it is true that Christ’s willing self-giving is a powerful contrast to much self- serving power in our world, which is inspiring and demanding, I am very concerned that an overly easy theology of ‘good suffering’ further exacerbates the plight of those who are oppressed and diminished in various ways.

Again, I can see how people legitimately seek to react against a “Feel-good” Gospel, but a simple counter-reaction is not going to help us. There is a note of resistance against human suffering in the overall Biblical witness. I am keen to see how Paul echoes and transforms (and possibly drops) this note of resistance in his own theology. My hunch is that Paul has a way to see suffering already firmly taken up and linked with God’s salvific outreach in Christ without making suffering instrumental or needed for salvation.

On a good day I have hope to finish the book before I retire or before the parousia happens…(Well, in the second case we won’t need it anymore).

Dorothea Bertschmann (PhD Durham) is Tutorial Fellow of the College of the Resurrection in England. If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out our previous interviews with the editor of the LNTS, Chris Keith, and our first author interview with Jamie Davies.

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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