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I Understand
Volume 4.1 / Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ's Rule

Book Review

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Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ's Rule

Book Author: Leeman, Jonathan
Publisher: Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016. 448 pages. $40.00, paper.
Reviewed by Joe McCulley, Minnesota, USA

Jonathan Leeman wrote a big book with a short thesis: “The church is a political entity” (40). There is much packed into that small statement. What is the church? What does it mean for the church to be a political entity? Does this change how the church relates to the state? Does this mean Christians should vote a certain way?

This book sits far more on the side of political philosophy than on the side of practical political ethics. While he touches on some practical issues near the end (376-385), Leeman sees his book primarily filling two needs: First, he perceives a need for “institutional specificity” when discussing political theology. Abraham Kuyper may have proclaimed that “Christ cries ‘Mine!’ over every square inch of the universe,” but Leeman asks, “Does Christ require the same thing of all people and institutions?” (26). The refrain “institutional specificity” echoes throughout the book. Second, he perceives a need for “better political conceptuality” (28). Late modernity has left Westerners stuck in the rut of philosophical liberalism: the assumptions of secular post-Enlightenment liberalism (not to be confused with a specific political party) “present the biggest hindrance to conceptualizing the ‘community of the kingdom’ in political terms” (29).

The political is not limited to the activity of the state. “Politics broadly conceived is the acknowledgement that all of life exists within the jurisdiction of God’s comprehensive rule or judgment” (237). Leeman argues that a state creates civil codes based not on neutral reason but on unspoken moral and religious pre-commitments (76). So the state is an institution that makes both political and religious judgments, but it does not do so without limitations. It is merely the institution to which God has given the sword to administer his requirement of justice in the Noahic covenant. 

The church is also a “political” institution. Its beliefs about the world and about humanity cannot help but affect its actions in the public square. Further, to say “Jesus is Lord” is to make a potent political statement (39). The church is the institution to which God has given the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose individuals with respect to the kingdom of God. The church does this publicly, making both political and religious pronouncements about who are citizens of the kingdom. While the book primarily builds a biblical case, Leeman also draws upon the ideas of Oliver O’Donovan, namely his “doctrine of the two,” which understands state and church authority not to be co-extensive with outer person and inner person, respectively, but with this age and the age to come (51, 274). “Institutions like the state and family have authority over the whole person in one age, within the limits of their mandates; while the church has authority over the whole person for another age, within the limits of its mandate” (51). The foreign embassy is Leeman’s chief organizing illustration for the church’s role in the world. Like an embassy in a foreign land, the church declares the laws of the kingdom it represents and affirms the citizenship of those people residing in the world. Subjects become citizens through sola fide (245).

The book contains a chapter each on defining “politics” and “institution.” Our mental image of what is “political” so often includes ballot boxes and partisan mudslinging. Leeman seeks to widen this picture, arguing that politics is “the mediating of God’s covenantal rule” (50). God’s covenants, particularly the Noahic covenant, play an important role in determining the jurisdiction of the state’s authority.

An institution is any “behavior-shaping rule structure” (112). In chapter 2, Leeman pushes back against popular anti-institutional works that invoke a tired “spiritual, not religious” motif (139). The “spiritual, not religious” label belies the fact that all communities place expectations upon their members, making them more institutional than their members would like to admit. An institutional hermeneutic seeks to identify those expectations and obligations, asking, “Who is authorized to do what?” (129).

With definitions established, the book moves into its main argument: Leeman, along with Cavanaugh, rejects John Rawls’ political neutrality because it relies on an unwarranted distinction between the secular and the religious, a distinction that restrains Christians and other people of faith from basing any political argumentation on their closely held beliefs. It seems unavoidable to me, once the Rawlsian neutrality disappears, that religious freedom goes along with it, for what else keeps governments from adopting a state religion? Chapters 3-4 explain why this is not so through an institutional reading of the Adamic and Noahic covenants.

One question that divides political theologians is whether government is intrinsic to God’s good created order or a sin-restraining product of the post-lapsarian world. But Leeman bypasses Eden to extract a concept of politics from God’s own triune nature (146). He acknowledges that this task is “fraught with difficulty” (146n23) and takes the space to argue for why his view differs from the Social Trinitarianism of Jürgen Moltmann and John Zizioulas.

From here, Leeman moves to the Adamic covenant: mankind was created to “image” God, to tend and rule the garden, exercising dominion as vice-regents under the sovereign King. “Simply to live, for a creature made in God’s image, is to act out a religious drama just as much as it is to act out a political drama” (168). Politics and religion have been part of humanity’s substance from the beginning.

The fall into sin contested God’s political authority, and humanity now lives between self-rule and God-rule. How does God’s rule change with this new rebellion? Leeman first takes up the two-kingdoms view of David VanDrunen, who organizes the kingdoms according to God’s identities as creator and redeemer respectively (176). This conceptual fuzziness agitates Leeman: “Institutionally, what exactly does it mean to speak of a providential (or creator) rule versus a redemptive rule?” (178).

Then, through an extended interaction with John Locke and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Leeman unfolds how the covenants establish government “from above” (192). Locke believed government to be the project of individuals to form a just system of contractual relationships so that a government’s legitimacy comes from the people (“from below”). But as God’s created subjects, God authorizes governments and obligates humanity to yield to them (192).

In the Noahic covenant God commands humanity to administer his justice in all the earth. The two verses, Genesis 9:5-6, “obligate all human beings, as a matter of obedience to God, to ensure that a reckoning for crimes against humans occurs” (185). Important to the discussion is the phrase “crimes against humans,” as Leeman argues that it limits the state’s authority, excluding from it the right to declare or punish “crimes against God” like unbelief. This, Leeman argues, is what protects religious liberty. The Noahic covenant provides the obligation and authority to administer justice (189). But is a governing authority also authorized to do things other than administer justice, such as building roads and creating national food health laws? Leeman declines to say, only commenting that such decisions and activities lie in the realm of wisdom, i.e., what may or may not be wise to do in a given context at a given time (138, 198).

The rest of the chapter surveys the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants. Abraham and Israel were to display God’s righteousness and so bless the darkened world (217). Where the Noahic covenant called humanity to punish only crimes against humanity, the Mosaic covenant required the people of God to punish crimes against God (225). Leeman follows Wolterstorff in making an important distinction between delegated and deputized authority. God’s people bear God’s name, and so their actions represent God in a way that the actions of a governor do not: “This deputization culminates and is most centrally embodied in the Davidic son” (227). 

The new covenant establishes a new political community not along ethno-linguistic lines but upon the regenerative work of Christ. “The new covenant promises to fulfill the purposes of the previous line of covenants. It presents the society in which the Davidic son will reign. It will implement a just and righteous rule in the life of a people as the Mosaic covenant intended to do, and it will offer a basis for forgiveness of which all the sacrifices were a shadowy type” (254).

After an extended discussion on the general similarities and differences between the new covenant organism and totalitarianism, Leeman, following O’Donovan, unpacks a doctrine of two ages that draws from the framework of inaugurated eschatology (274). The present evil age, characterized by the flesh, coexists with the age of the new covenant, characterized by the Spirit of God. These ages overlap. “This means . . . that activities of the flesh and Spirit will inform the activities of both creation institutions and new creation institutions” (276). Christians, occupying both ages, submit to the present age’s institutions while waiting in hope for the consummation of the kingdom of God at the return of Christ. And all of this shows why “creational” and “redemptive” categories are not specific enough to organize political activity, because God’s citizens occupy both creation and redemptive mandates. 

            Though nearly 300 pages into the book, Leeman does make it to the New Testament. Here he captures Matthew’s understanding of righteousness, starting from confession and moving through forgiveness and fruit-bearing, public acknowledgment, and progressive submission to God’s will (314). In arguing this, Leeman weighs the objections raised by various proponents of the New Perspective on Paul.

            Finally, the book comes to an end with an appendix-like discussion of the keys of the kingdom and their use in the church. What exactly do the keys represent or unlock? Who holds the keys: the elders or the church body? Leeman does a masterful job at the end, tying up a few of the threads he began earlier with this statement: “The keys represent the power of deputization” (341). They represent the authority to confirm a person’s citizenship in the kingdom of God or to determine a doctrinal position (341). 

Political Church deserves a wide reading, but there are some areas in it where questions remain. In Leeman’s construction, it is not clear whether the state has the jurisdictional authority to do anything other than what is prescribed under the Noahic covenant, namely, to administer retributive justice for crimes against humanity. As noted above, Leeman does not specify whether God authorized the use of coercion to collect taxes for non-justice purposes that historically have been common to civil governments (e.g., the construction of Roman roads and aqueducts), other than to say that falls within the realm of wisdom. This appears to be a curtailment of the state’s jurisdiction that effectively requires an extremely small government.

The power of the church, according to Leeman, consists in displaying the ethics of the kingdom to the world in general. What the church cannot do, it seems, is call the government to create laws beyond issues of justice. While Leeman does comment briefly on issues such as tax structures (382), it is not clear that citizens of the kingdom of God have any jurisdictional authority in these matters until they become manifestly unjust.

Leeman too briefly critiques those systematic theologians who ground political conceptuality in the inner life of God. It seems out of place amongst the more robust and constructive biblical theology throughout the rest of the book. I wonder how many people will be able to understand from that short section why they ought not follow the trinitarian tinkering of Roman Catholic Karl Rahner and Eastern Orthodox John Zizioulas.

Those qualifications aside, Leeman graciously informs the reader about recent projects of major commentators on political theology. He is rigorous in his work and succeeds in showing the church to be a political institution. The biblical-theological arguments for the identity and exercises of the church are his strongest, and prove very illuminating. The writing is lucid and the footnotes are plentiful, also serving to make Political Church an exceptional introduction for readers interested in the discipline of political theology.

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