Evangelical Political Theology: The Church Fathers on Romans 13, I Peter 2 & I Timothy 2


Previously, we examined three important New Testament texts on the relationship between church and state: Romans 13:3-4, I Peter 2:13-17 and I Timothy 2:1-7. Building on that essay Repairing Evangelical Political Theology, today we will see what a few of the church fathers said about these texts. But first, let’s review a progressive critique of the first essay.

Smug liberals don’t want you reading the Bible to see what it says about politics

Liberal-progressive Christians don’t want you conservative, bible-believing evangelical Christians bothering to read the Bible or do your own research on a topic.

Don’t read that commentary or touch that concordance and whatever you do, stay away from that set of the Yale Anchor Bible Dictionary! They warn such behavior might lead to “concordance-ism.” That enters the lexicon of liberal theological slanders right there with biblolatry. For the progressive Christian, there is nothing more threatening than average Christians who take the Bible seriously—seriously enough to pick it up and read it to see what it has to say about important topics like politics and Christianity.

Reading the Bible and doing your own research might put liberal elites out of a job. If you search the Scriptures like the Bereans that might make for some inconvenient questions. And elites don’t like questions. Anyone remember how Russell Moore acted when questioned at the Southern Baptist Convention? Yeah. Elites don’t like questions.

These elites want to tell you what the Bible really means about a topic. You can’t possibly understand the complexity of what God is trying to say by reading the Biblical text, they claim. You need their help. They’ll fill in the blanks, find some precedents in 2000 years of church history and canon law—all to make sure you understand any conservative view of government is wrong.

No thanks. The Bible teaches us what God has in mind. We don’t need pope or priest or preening intellectuals to tell us.

Here is a sample of what one smug, elitist believes about researching a topic like political theology.

He wrote, “His concordance-ism doesn’t tell us anything at all useful about the subject he imagines he is addressing authoritatively.” Except what the Bible said explicitly through Peter and Paul. That, despite what a liberal might wish, is sort of important. No concordance was involved. Simply, reading one Bible text, consulting the ICC commentary on it, finding a link to a related journal article and following where the path led.

Not content to be smug, now our Internet friend proceeds with insults, “But it tells us a great deal about him and about all that he is unwilling and unable to think.”

Asserting that someone is “unable to think” is such a graceful way for a “Christian” to behave. One might wonder if this person’s attitude was caused by too much progressivism or too much time in grad school. Either affliction results in serious smuggery.

“This guy looked up the word ‘state,’ thereby stumbling onto — and truncating, maybe unintentionally — two biblical passages that are, indeed, relevant to the long history and vast body of Christian political thinking.” While our proud friend says I used two New Testament selections, I used three: Romans 13:1-7, I Peter 2:13-17 and I Timothy 2:1-7. Further, I haven’t used a concordance in years, and is state even included in one? Typically, ruler is the term I remember reading in most Bible translations. But, whatever.

“And based on having conducted his word-search of subject X, he regards himself as wholly versed in the subject.” Who claimed that? This contains both ad hominem and a straw man. However, it is worth strongly considering God’s explicit instructions on a matter and in the case of these New Testament selections, the instructions are apparent to all readers. Perhaps that is what upsets progressives?

While Judges might offer some great political theology, the explicit writings of the Apostles seems far more relevant to negotiating modern situations than instructions given exclusively within the context of Israel’s theocracy.  That isn’t license to ignore the Old Testament, but the New Testament seems a good place to start for the Christian.

The real scandal to elites is that a typical Christian might consult their Bible and think critically about progressive policies. Any such light results in ad hominem.

So, time for more context on key New Testament passages regarding the state.

What Do the Church Fathers Say About Romans 13 & Christians?

Apollinaris of Laodicea: “But as Judas’s decision was the cause of domestic murders and of a rebellion against the authorities which did much harm to the people, it seems to me that here the apostle is condemning any attempt to imitate him based on the illusion that it is a godly thing to disobey rulers. He has a good deal to say about this, condemning it as a mistaken way of thinking.” Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church[1]

Ambrosiaster: “For if the earthly law is not kept, the heavenly law will not be kept either. The earthly law is a kind of tutor, who helps little children along so that they can tackle a stronger degree of righteousness. For mercy cannot be imputed to anyone who does not seek righteousness. Therefore, in order to back up the authority and fear of the natural law, Paul bears witness to the fact that God is the author of both and that the ministers of the earthly law have God’s permission to act, so that no one should despise it as a merely human construction. In effect, Paul sees the divine law as being delegated to human authorities.” Commentary on Paul’s Epistles[2]

Chrysostom: “Paul has a good deal to say on this matter in his other epistles also, placing subjects under their rulers in the same way that household servants are under their masters. He does this to show that Christ did not introduce his laws for the purpose of undermining the state but rather so that it should be better governed. He does not speak about individual rulers but about the principle of authority itself. For that there should be rulers and ruled and that things should not just lapse into anarchy, with the people swaying like waves from one extreme to the other, is the work of God’s wisdom.” Homilies on Romans.[3]

Theodoret of Cyr: “Since God wants sinners to be punished, he is prepared to tolerate even bad rulers.” Interpretation of the Letter to the Romans.[4]

Origen: “In what sense is a judge in this world the servant of God?… It seems to me that this question is answered by that passage in the Acts of the Apostles where the decision was taken to impose only certain ritual obligations on Gentile believers. They were told to abstain from eating what had been sacrificed to idols, from blood and from fornication, but nothing was said about murder, adultery, theft, homosexuality or other crimes which are punished by both divine and human laws. Now if what was explicitly forbidden to the Gentiles was all they had to do, then it would seem as if these other things were all right. But look at how the Holy Spirit has organized everything. Because these other crimes are already punished by secular laws, it seemed superfluous to add a divine prohibition as well. All that he decreed concerned matters which seemed right from the divine point of view but which were not covered by human laws. It is in this way that a human judge acts as a servant of God. For God wants these crimes to be punished by human judges and not by representatives of the church.” Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans[5]

What Do the Church Fathers Say About 1 Peter 2:13-17?

Tertullian: “Pray for kings, because when the kingdom is shaken, all its other members are shaken with it, and even if we stay aloof from tumults we shall have some part in the resulting misfortune.” Apology 1.31[6]

Note: Benedictine communities won’t save you.

Andreas: “Peter said this because there were some subversive people who were saying that Christ had come to overthrow the state, teaching us that we should despise every earthly power. But when they see us submitting to them because it is God’s will, then they are silenced, because they realize that they were wrongly trying to tear the kingdom of Christ in two.” Catena[7]

Oecumenius: “We have been set free from the world. We have become citizens of heaven. This verse does not imply, according to John Chrysostom, that the apostle now wants us to be subject once again to earthly powers and to obey them. No, we are to obey them as free people, honoring the one who has delivered us and who has told us to do this for his sake. Similarly you must not have any kind of evil in your mind, like disobedience or hardness of heart. You must not use your freedom as a pretext for refusing to obey. We might add that someone who is free according to the Lord would never do anything absurd or foolish.” Commentary on 1 Peter.[8]

 

What Do the Church Fathers Say About 1 Timothy 2:1-7?

Chrysostom: “For God has appointed government for the public good. When therefore they use force for the common good and stand on guard for our security, isn’t it reasonable that we should offer prayers for their safety in wars and dangers? Such prayers are not excessive flattery but agreeable to the rules of justice.”[9] Homilies on I Timothy.

Augustine: “Meanwhile, it is to our advantage that there be such peace in this life. For, as long as the two cities are mingled together, we can make use of the peace of Babylon. Faith can assure our exodus from Babylon, but our pilgrim status, for the time being, makes us neighbors. All of this was in St. Paul’s mind when he advised the church to pray for this world’s kings and high authorities—in order that “we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in all piety and worthy behavior.” Jeremiah, too, predicting the Babylonian captivity to the Old Testament Jews, gave them orders from God to go submissively and to serve their God by such sufferings, and meanwhile to pray for Babylon. “For in the peace thereof,” he said, “shall be your peace”—referring, of course, to the peace of this world, which the good and bad share in common.”[10] The City of God 19.26


[1] Gerald Bray, ed., Romans (Revised), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 312.

[2] Gerald Bray, ed., Romans (Revised), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 313.

[3] Gerald Bray, ed., Romans (Revised), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 313.

[4] Gerald Bray, ed., Romans (Revised), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 314.

[5] Gerald Bray, ed., Romans (Revised), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 315.

[6] Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 92.

[7] Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 93.

[8] Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 93.

[9] Peter Gorday, ed., Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 154.

[10] Peter Gorday, ed., Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 154–155.

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