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The Contested Public Square

Greg Forster | Author | Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Contested Public Square

The following is an excerpt from The Contested Public Square by Greg Forster (Intervarsity Press).


In its present form, this book is an introduction to Christian political thought. However, it was originally going to be a completely different book. In 2002, as I finished the main writing for my first book and had to start thinking about what I would write next, I set out to write a book about the role of religion in the political thought of the American founders. As I saw it, most people held one of two views: either that the founders saw religion as dangerous and wanted to restrain it, like many in Continental Europe at the time, or that the founders wanted a government based on the Bible, like Calvin’s Geneva or Winthrop’s Boston. Though some facts support each of these descriptions, on the whole I thought that both of them were seriously misleading. I hoped to show that while all but a handful of the founders believed in Christianity and did not think it was dangerous, most of them wanted government to be based on God’s “natural law” of justice, known by all people everywhere, rather than on the Bible. They thought that forcing people to obey the Bible against their wills was inconsistent with what the Bible itself said; their study of the Bible led them to conclude that God did not want them to enforce Christianity by law.

However, I ran into a problem. I found that I could not make a persuasive case for this interpretation of the founders unless my audience had a firm grasp of what the concept of natural law had come to mean for Christians in the late eighteenth century. So before I could explain the founders to my audience, I had to explain the serious changes that had occurred in Christian political thought during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But I soon discovered that to explain those changes, I had to show how they grew out of the political thought of the Reformation and the rise of the nation-state in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And then it dawned on me that those developments in turn made no sense unless we understand how natural-law thought had developed during the Middle Ages—which in turn required an understanding of how medieval political thought had itself been fundamentally shaped by Christianity’s tumultuous encounter with classical Greco-Roman political philosophy during its first five centuries. In other words, I could not explain Madison without explaining Locke; I could not explain Locke without explaining Luther; I could not explain Luther without explaining Aquinas; and I could not explain Aquinas without explaining Augustine, Peter, Paul, Aristotle and Plato.

The result of this intellectual train wreck is the book you now hold. This one covers such a broad scope of history—just shy of two and a half millennia in about 250 pages, or roughly a decade per page—that the original subject of the American founding is now only a marginal part of it. I am content with that; since I first set out to write that other book, some new and quite good historical scholarship has made great strides toward setting the record straight about the American founders’ political thought. And in any case I am now convinced that this, a general introduction to the history of Christian political thought, is the book that really needed to be written. However good the scholarship on the founders or any other Western political figures may be, it cannot effectively correct popular misunderstandings so long as the larger context of the development of Christian political thought is neglected. Without that essential background, there is not much hope for a clear understanding of any subject in the foreground.

Knowing the history of Christian political thought is not only important to interpreting historical figures like the founders but also to understanding where our civilization stands now and how we got here. If you were to wake up in an unfamiliar location, not knowing how you got there, you could find out where you were by asking around or by looking at a map. In human history, however, there are no maps and no bystanders to help us. The only way to make sense of where we are now is to know the path we took to get here.

To see why the broad historical context is so crucial to understanding political ideas, it is helpful to look at how the same problem arises from neglecting the history of theology. The church’s ideas about God did not just fall out of the sky fully formed in the first century; they underwent a historical process of development. For example, there is good evidence that Christians were already confessing the divinity of Christ not long after his death, but these confessions were extremely simple—not much more than “Jesus is God.” It took centuries for theologians to work out the detailed implications of this idea. The complex and highly developed doctrine of the incarnation that we find in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds (“although he is God and man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; one, not by conversion of the godhead into flesh, but by taking of the manhood into God; one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person,” etc.) was the result of a long, painstaking historical process of reasoning and argument among theologians. Even after these creeds were formulated, there were still many important issues that remained to be resolved by later theologians (e.g., that the one Christ has two natures, a human nature and a divine nature). Similar historical processes took place for virtually every other aspect of theology, such as the church’s consideration of which manuscripts were of authentic apostolic origin and should be included in the canon of Scripture.

Unfortunately, popular ignorance of this historical process leads to all kinds of confusion and misunderstandings and facilitates the spread of inaccurate historical assertions. Examples of this include the claim that Christians did not confess the divinity of Christ until that doctrine was imposed by Emperor Constantine for political reasons in the fourth century, or that priests in the early church distorted or manipulated the texts of the Bible for their own purposes. In the absence of firm background knowledge of the real history of theology, these propositions sound plausible to many people, but a serious consideration of all the available evidence decisively compels us to reject them.

The same principle applies to the history of Christian political ideas. Just as it took many years for Christians to work out the detailed implications of their theology, there has been a similar process of historical development in Christian political thinking. The understanding of a concept like natural law was different in the fifth, thirteenth, sixteenth, eighteenth and twentieth centuries, as Christian thinkers responded to changing circumstances and worked out the consequences of their ideas in greater detail. Where people do not know the context of that historical development, it is easy to misinterpret the political ideas of historical figures like the American founders.

Political thought is also called political theory, and any introduction to it must begin with a justification of theory itself. Many people dismiss formal theorizing as unimportant for practical matters, or they fear that it will shackle us to rigid ideologies. In defense of theorizing, theologian R. C. Sproul likes to say that “behind every practice, there is a theory.” He means that in every area of life, our behavior is always shaped by our understanding of the way things work, even when we do not realize it. When I am hungry and I reach for the potato chips, I may not consciously think, “Eating food relieves hunger,” but nonetheless that theory is unconsciously guiding my actions. There is always some theory guiding our behavior, so if we do not consciously develop a rigorous and well-tested theory, we will just end up unconsciously following a sloppy and unproved one. Perhaps if I had spent more time theorizing about my eating habits, I would have developed a more sophisticated set of principles to guide my eating and bought a less-fattening snack on my last grocery trip. There is no avoiding theory; if we do not have good theory, we will have bad theory.

Political thought is the theory that stands behind the practice of politics. Its goal is to develop better principles of action for our political life. While political thought is not the only factor that shapes the real world of politics, it is one of the most important factors. Political thought alone could not have won American independence from Britain; it also took lots of blood, sweat and tears willingly sacrificed to the cause. But the Continental Congress could never have persuaded the people of the thirteen colonies to make those sacrifices if it had not offered a convincing political theory to justify the revolution. And after independence was won, the radical American experiment in representative democracy and individual liberty was made a success as much by the ingenious political thought of Madison as it was by the personal magnetism of Washington and the practical political savvy of Jefferson and Hamilton.

Christian political thought is far too enormous a subject for one book to cover completely; this book is only an introduction. Like any introduction to a subject, it has to leave out a lot of information because there is just no room to cram it all in. I have done my best to focus on the areas that will be the most relevant and enlightening for the contemporary reader.

For example, I have left out a great deal of political thought from the ancient and medieval periods that is less relevant for us today so that I would have more space to cover the ideas from these periods that have a larger continuing impact. Augustine devoted long sections of The City of God to refuting the moral and social philosophies of important Roman thinkers like Varro, Plotinus and Porphyry; Aquinas and Ockham deliberated at length on the constitutional role of the pope in the Holy Roman Empire; fully half of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government is devoted to demolishing the absolute monarchism of Robert Filmer. These matters are important and deserve our attention; indeed, some of them deserve more attention than they are now receiving even from specialized scholars. But there is no place for them in a general introduction to Christian political thought. As a result, any book of this type must give an inadequate picture of the real mental lives of the thinkers it portrays. The best I can do about this is warn you: this book is only opening a door into a room. I hope that you will be interested in what you see, but you will not see everything in the room until you walk in for yourself.

Also, the focal point of my story is the political effects of the Reformation and the Enlightenment in Western Europe, for the simple reason that I am writing in English and those were the defining political events in the history of the English-speaking world. If I were writing a history of Christian political thought for Russian or Brazilian or Chinese readers, the focus would be different.

What this book does provide is the story of how we got to where we are now. It covers the most important of the various political ideas we have tried in the past; it shows the reasons we took the paths we did rather than pursuing other possibilities. I have also tried to convey a sense of why I find it such a thrilling story. It is full of dramatic twists, exciting hopes, bitter disappointments and glorious triumphs—and this is true regardless of which characters you think are the heroes and which the villains. The story is all the more gripping because it is our story, and we still have a chance to help write the ending.

Published on January 19, 2009

Taken from Contested Public Square by Greg Forster
Copyright 2008 by Greg Forster
Used by permission of InterVarsity Press
P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426

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