Christopher Rowland

Those who go to the Bible expecting an unambiguous message on the issue of politics need to recall William Blake's witty aphorism: "Both read the Bible day and night / But thou readst black where I read white" (The Everlasting Gospel, 1808). That is a salutary reminder to anyone embarking on a consideration of "what the Bible says" on any subject (Barr 1980). In different social and historical contexts, different texts have been used. Thus, with the emergence of Christendom after the conversion of Constantine, an understanding of Christian polity became more tied up with the task of Christianizing society. There was a corresponding diminution of the stark contrast between God and Caesar in history and political arrangements which had applied before the fourth century. Charting these two perspectives would involve describing the complex oscillations between accommodation and separation, between God and Caesar. Different texts have been used to justify these positions. An "accommodationist" position would tend to focus on Romans 13 and read the gospels in the light of that text, as was done, for example in the Alternative Service Book (1980) of the Church of England, in the readings for Pentecost 15. A stark contrast appears between the "accommodationist" and "separatist" positions if one reads the New Testament through the lens of the Apocalypse and gives primacy to the teaching and example of Jesus, who fell foul of the colonial power. Accommodation and separatism are nowhere better seen than in the sixteenth century in the contrasting use of scripture by the magisterial reformers and the early Anabaptists.

Rather than going straight to the biblical texts (cf. O'Donovan 1996), therefore, a context for the interpretation of the contours of an emerging Christian politics in the pages of the New Testament will be suggested here on the basis of early Christian practice, as far as it can be reconstructed from pre-Constantinian sources. The reason for taking this approach is that such early Christian practice is the major witness to the ways in which the scriptures were interpreted. A characteristic strand of that early practice expresses itself in a continuing interplay between "contraries": difference from the surrounding order and living within it; continuity with the Jewish tradition and yet radical departure from it; and the tension between the reality of the continuity of this age and the taste of the age to come.

This will be followed by a much later writer's interpretation of key New Testament texts. The choice of John Milton's treatise on The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates is not arbitrary. First, it was written in a situation in which there was the widest divide between the divine and the human kingdoms. As such, it offers an example of biblical interpretation which echoes the sentiments of pre-Constan-tinian Christianity. Second, Milton offers examples of the interpretation of key Christian texts such as Matt. 22: 15-22 and Rom. 13. 1-10 as part of his argument against those who would claim scriptural authority for a view of human society in which the divine monarch is replicated in human affairs. Milton's text, therefore, offers an opportunity to watch an interpreter at work in a clearly understood context; and a context, moreover, that has a close analogy with the situation of pre-Constantinian Christianity. In the light of the sketch of the interpretive context of earliest Christianity, with its clear prioritization of obedience to God rather than Caesar in private and public life, and a consideration of the scriptures which stresses the critical difference between the divine and human polities, we will consider the Gospel accounts of Jesus' prophetic proclamation of God's kingdom and the ethical challenge it presented to early Christians, and the indications of their engagement with that challenge.

Both pre-Constantinian Christianity and Milton's Tenure of Kings and Magistrates exemplify the stark contrast between God's kingdom and the kingdoms of this world which is characteristic of so much of the New Testament. The contrast between this age and the age to come, the present and the future, and between what is and what should be, is a thread which runs through the New Testament and which gives that collection of writings its peculiar theological power. Such a conviction lies at the heart of Christian belief and accentuates the qualitative difference between present and future downplaying the sufficiency of all present political arrangements. This tension, or dialectic, in various forms has been characteristic of Christian political theology down the centuries.

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