Why Is Christian Citizenship a Paradox?

The French Catholic press Ad Solem in early 2015 published my book on political philosophy entitled There Is No Power But of God (Tout pouvoir vient de Dieu), which outlined a much more expansive program of research on the relationship between theology and politics that I am working on at present. In general terms, this book was framed as a reflection upon the formulation of Saint Paul in Romans 13:1. It put the common political interpretation of this passage to the test of a historical, philosophical, and theological reception, whose most prominent landmarks are to be found in the Fathers of the Church, especially in Saint Justin, Tertullian, and Saint Augustine. The major aim of this book consisted in demonstrating that this formulation does not expound a Christian political doctrine, but rather a way of conceiving Christian citizenship in light of the requirements of the universal common good.

Beyond the historical insight of this book, its readers are sure to grasp its contemporary relevance at a time when so much violence is seeking religious justification.

However, at the same time, as Pope Benedict XVI has said, and as Pope Francis has reiterated in his discourse to the European Parliament, “it is the forgetting of God, and not his glorification, that engenders violence.” Following the example of Saint Justin, the Christian martyrs of the first centuries testified to this glorification of God as rooted in the patience of love and not in the violence of arms. One also observes that in Europe, as well as in America, many episodes of violence which have occurred have not sought any religious justification, yet they nevertheless have their own monstrous idol, the Moloch, who demands a daily and increasing human tribute. Thus, the idea that “There is no power but of God” also signifies that the power does not come from money or that it should not belong to it. For “You cannot serve God and mammon,” says Luke’s Gospel 16:13.

In the face of such a dual idolatrous impasse, whose positions are established on opposing fronts, Christians have to defend a specific way of living in the city. It is, indeed, this notion of Christian citizenship, rather than yet another political doctrine (is the great cemetery of political doctrines which history constitutes not already full?), which seems to me necessary to promote today. However, in order to do so, Christians must have access to an authentic interpretation of themselves. As a result, any apology ad extra is inalienable from an apology ad intra, as attested by the Patristic texts, which serve as guides in my book.

Acknowledging that this reflection—which is primarily, but not exclusively, addressed to Christians—owes a great deal to the seminar which Jean-Luc Marion held on the Fathers of the Church between 2011 and 2016 at the Institut catholique de Paris, it is my hope that it will enable others to discover what Hugo Rahner had called “the immortal example of the Christian Church of the early days”[1]!

We often wonder whether the Christian faith entails a political doctrine, as it does a social one. This question is not relevant. For if Christians necessarily practice their citizenship, if there is such a thing as Christian citizenship, it does not designate a political regime which might be specifically Christian, in virtue of the following principle: “My kingdom does not belong to this world (John 18:36). In belonging to Christ, Christians belong to a kingdom which does not belong to this world but rather to God, a kingdom which has no necessary or even privileged political expression. Christianity does not entail any particular political doctrine, whether it be established or competing with it—and thus always of the same nature as itself: Christians live in the city without belonging to it and without supporting a competing political doctrine. The question of Christian citizenship is not one of which political doctrine might be derived from Christianity, but rather one of its very absence. Christianity does not consist of promoting or practicing a political doctrine in any way: it is essentially a way of living in the city.

This claim might appear surprising, especially if one recalls the famous Pauline formulation which forcefully affirms that “There is no power but of God.”[2] Political thought has not failed to see this statement as the Scriptural foundation of a Christian political model, and more specifically, of a Christian theocratic doctrine, insofar as this formulation might serve to justify the temporal power of the ministers of the will of God. As if the will of God could not be reconciled with the will of the people without conceiving of God as the God of a particular people: in this case, it would be possible to assert, as Jefferson had done for American democracy, “vox populi, vox Dei.” In this way, the reference to the will of God would only lose its status of an “anti-democratic transcendence” for the sake of signifying the free will of the people, its right to self-determination, a right which might be opposed to that of all other people.

Yet, the God of the Christians is not a god of a particular people—or at least no longer, as he had previously been the God Israel alone—he is the God of a humanity fully reconciled in Christ, as Paul emphasizes in Romans 10:12: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him.”

In this way, the universality of the Pauline reference to the will of God would ratify its anti-democratic character, since it would be opposable to the free will of a particular people. In this case, one could make an objection to the initial claim and assert that Christianity entails a specific political doctrine, whose character would be eminently theocratic. From the time of the Apostles up to the present day, history does indeed testify to this theocratic temptation of Christianity, operative in the following ways: at the end of Antiquity, in the form of Caesropapism (the seizure of the Church by the state), beginning with the Emperor Constantine, who had called himself the “bishop of external affairs,” all the way to Justinian, the “emperor-priest,” and the despots who had succeeded him; in the Middle Ages, this time in the form of Papal theocracy (the seizure of the state by the Church), when the Church, finally victorious over imperial despotism, had forged itself a “double-edged sword”; in the Modern period, with the renewal of Caesaropapism, when the state, from absolute monarchies to the great Western revolutions, had accomplished its democratic molting without abandoning the reference to the will of God in assuring its legitimacy, just as the notion of civil religion would attest.

However, does the political history of Christianity exhaust its theological significance? To what degree is it legitimate to view Christian theology through an exclusively political lens, to the point of always recognizing within it an instrument of the absolutization of powers that are human, all too human—whether it be a matter of the power of the Church or the power of the state? In the face of contemporary theocratic temptations, which no longer have anything in common with Christianity or even claim themselves to be anti-Christian, it is necessary to once again take up the thought of the early Christians, who had had the wisdom to view political thought through an essentially theological lens. For this theological lens did not consist in developing a Christian theocratic doctrine, but rather in promoting and practicing, within the Roman Empire, an alternative way of living in the city, an alternative kind of citizenship.

A semantic shift accounts for this change in perspective: while the Greek “πολιτεία” signified both the political constitution of a city in general and the best possible version of such a constitution (the De re publica of Cicero is the Roman counterpart to the Περἱ πολιτεἰας of Plato), in the thought of the early Christians, it emerges as a reference to a way of living in the city. We note this change, in particular, in the Epistle to Diognetus:

But while they [the Christians] dwell in both Greek and barbarian cities, each as his lot was cast, and follow the customs of the land in dress and food and other matters of living, they show forth their remarkable and admittedly paradoxical way of living (πολιτεία).[3]

While there may be such a thing as a “Christian πολιτεία,” a specifically Christian way of living in the city, there is no such thing as a “Christian res publica,” that is, a specifically Christian political constitution, with its own particular mode of government – be it monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic. A theological perspective on political thought does not oppose the will of God to the will of the people any more than necessarily uniting them. Its objective is neither to elaborate a treatise on the best form of government, nor to develop a general theory of the state, but rather to discern the best way of living in the city. This optimal way of living in the city is expressed in the form of a paradox, which runs through all of the apologetic literature of the first centuries of Christianity, beginning with the Apology of Justin and the Epistle to Diognetus all the way to Augustine’s City of God,[4] which might be considered as the last great apology of this period. This paradox might be summed up as follows: the best way of living in the city consists in living there as a foreigner, for such civil distance allows a preservation of the city from its idolatrous tendencies. Here, we might once again cite the Epistle to Diognetus, which expresses this Christian requirement of a “responsible distance” in a very effective way:

They [the Christians] live in fatherlands of their own, but as aliens. They share all things as citizens, and bear all things as strangers. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and every fatherland a foreign land.[5]

In Justin’s Apology[6]—even more so than in the Epistle to Diognetus—such responsible distance is clarified in terms of its principle: Christians promote and practice a responsible distance in relation to the city, because they try hard “to live according to reason and to flee from evil.”[7] In this formulation of Justin, “to live according to reason and to flee from evil,” one recognizes the principle to which the Latin Fathers would grant the status of the first precept of natural law: “do good, avoid evil.”[8] Without explicitly relating it to this principle, Justin takes recourse to the notion of “the law of nature (φύσεως νόμος).”[9] In fact, he is the first of the Fathers “who had clearly shown the value of the notion of ‘natural law.’”[10] Thus, Christian citizenship is characterized by a double obedience: to the laws of the city and to the law of nature, whose hierarchy of perfection had already been observed in the Epistle to Diognetus: “They [the Christians] obey the appointed laws, yet in their own lives they excel the laws.”[11] Natural law is not a law that contradicts civil law, but rather a law that imposes a way of living which fulfills it, a law which imposes loving, to be precise, for “one who loves the other has fulfilled the law,” as Paul affirms in Romans 13:8.

Thus, Christian citizenship entails the understanding that the event, whose witnesses Christians are, urges them to conceive of their relation to the law and to the state in a different way: not on the basis of a “empty formula” of a formal principle (just as the Austrian positivist jurist Hans Kelsen had criticized the first precept of the Christian natural law[12]), but on the basis of an absolute imperative, which is rooted in the very passion of Christ. This absolute imperative is none other than that of love, understood in the sense of an “unusual patience (ὑπομονή ξένη),”[13] to which Justin refers in connection with Christians facing martyrdom. This definition perfectly reiterates that of the First Corinthians 13:7, “love (ἀγάπη) bears all things (πάντα ὑπομένει),” just as it coincides with the definition of Christian citizenship in the Epistle to Diognetus: Christians “bear all things as strangers (πανθ' ὑπομένουσιν ὡς ξένοι).”[14] This definition of the Christian πολιτεία in terms of the “patience of love” can be found all the way up to the City of God, in which Augustine exhorts Christians to “Endure (tolerare)” even the worst governments and “by such endurance (tolerantia) [to] win for themselves a place of the highest eminence in the most holy and august court of angels, in that heavenly republic whose law is the will of God.”[15]

This definition of Christian citizenship allows one to see the Pauline formulation in Romans 13:1, “There is no power but of God,” through an essentially theological lens. Although contemporary exegesis remains divided with regard to its interpretation, Father Jean-Noël Aletti, S.J., explains that the formulation of Paul cannot be understood apart from the literary units to which it belongs, from Romans 12:9 (“Let your love [ἀγάπη] be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good”) to Romans 13:10 (“Love [ἀγάπη] does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love [ἀγάπη] is the fulfillment of the law.”)[16] Thus, Romans 13:1, which explains that “there is no power but of God,” has no other starting and ending point than love, which must inform all Christian behavior, including its relationship to the law and the state. This is why it is possible to say that “the aim of the passage is . . . neither to elaborate a political doctrine, nor to establish the legitimacy of political power.”[17] However, it is necessary to point out that for all that, Romans 13:1 nevertheless theorizes the relationship of Christians to the law and to the state, that is, the specifically Christian way of living in the city.

This claim, which allows one to see Romans 13:1 through an essentially theological lens without rejecting its properly political implications, may be confirmed by a recontextualization of the Pauline formula and of its reception by the Church Fathers. Here, I would restrict my corpus to previously cited texts, while adding the Apology of Tertullian.[18] In view of the general context, it is necessary to emphasize that the strictly juridico-political objective of these texts consists in clearing Christianity’s name of the crimes of which it has been accused. As far as public crimes are concerned (the only ones in which I am interested in here) are, at least in the texts of the second century CE, those of lèse-majesté and lèse-religion. In the context of the Roman Empire as established by Augustus in 27 CE, these two crimes would have been considered as one. For the emperor was not only a holder of power (potestas), but also an agent of authority (auctoritas), of the power of suggestion and ratification of all public acts, including that of inducting a god into a pantheon, an act which had until then been reserved primarily to the Senate. Insofar as Christians refused to sacrifice to the gods of the city (lèse-religion), they trespassed against the auctoritas of the emperor (lèse-majesté).

Indeed, as the historian Hervé Oudart points out, relying upon the work of André Magdelain, Auctoritas principis, such recognition, by the Senate, of the auctoritas of Octavian, qualified as “Augustus,” “expressed a general principle of veneration” and stemmed from the religious sphere. It suggested the closeness of Octavian with the gods of the city.”[19] In the context of the Roman Empire, asserting that “There is no power (potestas) but of God,” and thus that God is the auctoritas which confirms and amplifies power in its application, was tantamount to divesting the emperor of his auctoritas, and not in order to render it to the Senate, but rather in order to render it to God. In this way, Romans 13:1 could not be understood apart from its relation to Romans 13:7, where Paul, referring, in particular, to Matthew 22:21, claims: “Render to all their dues.” A statement which can then be interpreted in the following way: “Render the potestas to Caesar, and the auctoritas to God.” Admittedly, Paul is making use of a legal principle which is to be found later on in the formulation of Ulpian, reiterated by the Codex Iuris, “jus suum cuique tribuere[20]; however, its purpose is certainly not that of a theological justification of the legitimacy of Roman power, and thus not of its absolutization.

On the contrary, the formulation “There is no power but of God” aims at limiting the legitimacy of Roman power by inoculating it against its idolatrous tendency towards self-absolutization, which is manifest in its identification of potestas with auctoritas. The idea that there is no potestas but of God signifies that Caesar cannot appropriate to himself the auctoritas that belongs to none other than God. However, is it therefore necessary to invert this claim and conclude from it a revolutionary character of Romans 13:1? Admittedly, Christians are liable to be accused of lèse-majesté and lèse-religion in the context of the Roman Empire, and yet does this mean that they adhere to a competing political doctrine, the goal of which might be the establishment of a “Christian State”? One of the arguments most strongly opposed to this interpretation of Romans 13:1 is found in Romans 13:5, in which Paul not only does not exhort Christians to rebel, but rather, on the contrary, to submit themselves to political power, whether it be Christian or not: “Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience.” Far from promoting a kind of theology of revolution, Romans 13:1 aims at limiting the legitimacy of all power, whether it be Christian or not.

In the context of the persecutions of the second century CE, the repetition of this exhortation to submission to the point of martyrdom is illustrated as much by the Apology as by the death of Justin. It is also evident in the Apology of Tertullian, even though the latter did not end up becoming a martyr. Admittedly, Christians did not sacrifice to the gods of the city, but they did not shy away from condemnation, following the example of Christ and even of Socrates before him.[21] Such martyr-like (not revolutionary) behavior, rooted in the patience of love, confirms the statements of the Epistle to Diognetus on the eminently civic attitude of the Christians. It is also this very idea that is found, contrary to all “political Augustinianism,” in Book II of the City of God, in which Augustine, as has already been said, calls Christians to endurance, even towards the most corrupt of powers, and not for an “absorption of the temporal by the spiritual.”[22] Thus, the formulation “There is no power but of God” not only criticizes the idolatrous tendencies of Roman power, that is, the theocratic temptations of pagan power, but also rejects all future theocratic temptations of any Christian power, whether these temptations take the form of Caesaropapism or of papal theocracy.

This claim can also be expressed positively: if Christians criticize the idolatry of temporal power, that is, its self-establishment by the identification of potestas with auctoritas, they do not, for all that, reject its autonomy. The specifically Christian way of living in the city thus entails a political position proper to the Christians, yet this position should not be confused with a specific political doctrine, because it consists neither in competing with an established power, nor in justifying its nature, or its kind of political regime, or its laws. This position proper to the Christians, which might be characterized, in reference to the Epistle to Diognetus, as “paradoxical,”[23] is expressed in the requirement of an autonomous yet non-foundational temporal power. Romans 13:1 expresses this double requirement of autonomy and openness to an “absolute transcendence,”[24] which prohibits holders of power from appropriating its foundation. In this way, the formulation “There is no power but of God” aims at rendering power fundamentally inappropriable, because it is founded upon an authority which transcends it absolutely and subordinates it to its proper end: the common good as the good of all.

Far from entailing a theocratic doctrine which would confer temporal power upon the ministers of the will of God, Romans 13:1 theorizes, beyond the relationship of the Christians to the law and the state, the main conditions of the common good as a universal good. These conditions, which I analyze in detail in my book, are threefold: the non-idolatry of power, the search for peace, and the respect for freedom, first and foremost religious freedom. However, they may also be summarized in a single condition: the patience of love. By the end of this work, the Pauline reference to the will of God completely loses its status of an “anti-democratic transcendence.” On the contrary, it becomes clear that it theorizes the conditions of a true democracy, if one thinks, following Claude Lefort, that a true democracy is not first and foremost a political regime and that the impossibility of appropriating power to oneself is its fundamental condition.[25] Only then might one consider that Christian citizenship, which has no necessary or even privileged political expression, nevertheless favors the establishment and preservation of a form of government and society that can be conceived of today as the best guarantee of the universal common good.

Editorial Note: This essay was translated by Yuliya Tsutserova. It was delivered at the University of Chicago yesterday as a lecture sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute.

[1] Hugo Rahner, L’Église et l’État dans le christianisme primitif, French translation by G. Zinck (Paris, Cerf: 1964), 13.

[2] Here, we are using an English translation of the Vulgate (“Non est enim potestas nisi a Deo”) which renders the Greek term “ἐξουσία” by “potestas,” that is, “power” and not “authority.” We hold to it without entering into contemporary exegetical debates, because we are first and foremost interested in the historical reception of the Epistle to the Romans 13:1.

[3] The Epistle to Diognetus (an anonymous text from the fifth century CE), trans. H. G. Meecham (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1949), pp. 79-80 (translation modified). Hereafter: Epistle to Diognetus.

[4] Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. R. W. Dyson (Cambridge: CUP, 1988); hereafter City of God.

[5] Epistle to Diognetus, V, 5, 81 (translation modified).

[6] Justin, “Justin’s Apology on behalf of the Christians,” in Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies, ed. D. Minns and P. Parvis (Oxford: OUP, 2009); hereafter: Apology I (Justin).

[7] Justin, “The Second Apology,” in Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies, ed. D. Minns and P. Parvis (Oxford: OUP, 2009), 2A 7.2, 299; hereafter: Apology II (Justin).

[8] See, in particular, Ambrose of Milan in De paradiso, 8, 39: “We understand that it is necessary to avoid what is naturally evil, and that it is necessary to prescribe what is naturally good.” Thomas Aquinas will reiterate this idea: “And so this is the first command of law, ‘that good is to be sought and done, evil to be avoided.’” Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 28 (1a.2ae. 90-97), Law and Political Theory, trans. T. Gilby, O. P. (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), Ia IIae Q. 94, A. 2, 81. Even earlier, it is necessary to refer to the Epistle to the Romans 12:9: “Let love be sincere; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good.”

[9] Apology II (Justin), 2A 2.4, 273.

[10] M. Spanneut, Le stoïcisme des Pères de l’Église (Paris: Seuil, 1969), 253.

[11] Epistle to Diognetus, V, 10.

[12] Hans Kelsen, “Natural Law Doctrine and Legal Positivism,” in General Theory of Law and State, trans. A. Wedberg (Clark: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2009), 416.

[13] Apology I (Justin), 1A 16.4, 119 (translation modified).

[14] Epistle to Diognetus, V, 5.

[15] Augustine, City of God, II, 19, 143.

[16] Jean-Noël Aletti, “Paul et les autorités politiques. À propos de Rm 13, 1-7,” in Le Pouvoir. Enquêtes sur l’un et l’autre Testament (Paris: Cerf, 2012), pp. 263-288.

[17] Aletti, “Paul et les autorités politiques. À propos de Rm 13, 1-7,” 288.

[18] Tertullian, Apology, trans. G. H. Rendall, The Loeb Classical Library, vol. 250 (Cambridge: HUP, 1984). Hereafter: Apology (Tertullian).

[19] Hervé Oudart, Jean-Michel Picard, and Joëlle Quaghebeur (eds.), Le prince, son peuple et le bien commun. De l’Antiquité tardive à la fin du Moyen Âge (Rennes, PUR, 2013), 10. See also: André Magdelain, Auctoritas principis (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1947), pp. 60-61.

[20] This notion of justice appears in the Republic (433 a) of Plato in the form of “τὸ τὰ αὑτοῦ πράττειν”: “to do one’s own.” It will be taken up again and modified in the Laws of Cicero (I, 19) in the form of “suum cuique tribuere” (“attributing to each his own”), which facilitates, following Aristotle, a transition from the moral conception to the properly legal conception of justice: “They also think that this thing has been called [from] the Greek name for ‘attributing to each his own’” (See: Cicero, “On the Laws,” in “On the Republic” and “On the Laws, trans. D. Fott [Ithaca: CUP, 2013], 136). Finally, it is also found in the Codex Iuris I, 1, 10, in the form of “jus suum cuique tribuere,” which is based on the formulation of Ulpian: “justice is the constant and perpetual will to attribute to each his due.”

[21] Socrates is frequently referred to in apologetic literature, in particular in the works of Justin, who mentions him on several occasions, in particular in Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies, ed. D. Minns and P. Parvis (Oxford: OUP, 2009), 2A 10.5-8. Accused of “not acknowledg[ing] the gods that the city acknowledges, but other newfangled divinities” (See: Plato, Apology, trans. C. Emlyn-Jones and W. Preddy, Loeb Classical Libarary, vol. 36 [Cambridge, MA: HUP, 2017], 24 b-c, 131); hereafter Apology (Plato)), Socrates had refused to shy away from his condemnation (cf. Phaedo 98 e), all the while rejecting its injustice and turning it on his accusers: “if you put me to death, being the kind of person I say I am, you’ll not harm me more than you’ll harm yourselves.” (Cf. Apology (Plato), 30 c, p. 155). Justin will take up the same claim: “true reason does not counsel that anyone should harm the innocent just because wicked things are said of them. It counsels rather to punish those who ask permission to bring charges on the basis of passion rather than sober judgment.” (Cf. Apology I (Justin), IA 3.1, pp. 83 and 85).

[22] Henri-Xavier Arquillière, L’augustinisme politique. Essai sur la formation des théories politiques au Moyen Âge (Paris: Vrin, 1955), 34. As for the praise of Christian emperors, and especially of Constantine, which has all to often been attributed to Augustine, see the article of Jean-Marie Salamito, “Constantin vu par Augustin. Pour une relecture de Civ. 5, 25,” in Costantino prima a dopo Costantino (Bari: Edipuglia, 2012), pp. 549-562.

[23] Epistle to Diognetus, V, 4.

[24] We speak of “absolute transcendence” not in the sense that this transcendence would not be operative in the city, but rather in the sense that this transcendence is irreducible to the immanent logic of the city, which always tends to identify potestas with auctoritas, and thus to succumb to the idolatry of power.

[25] See: Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, trans. D. Macey (Cambridge: Polity, 1988), in particular p. 17: “This model reveals the revolutionary and unprecedented feature of democracy. The locus of power becomes an empty place. There is no need to dwell on the details of the institutional apparatus. The important point is that this apparatus prevents governments from appropriating power for their own ends, from incorporating it into themselves.”

Featured Image: Apse mosaic of Santa Pudenziana, Rome, c. 410, Taken on: 13 May 2009, Author: Welleschik; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC SA-BY 3.0.


Émilie Tardivel-Schick

Émilie Tardivel-Schick is a philosopher, professor and scientific director of the "Chair of the Common Good" at the Institut Catholique de Paris. She is also a member of the French redaction of the International Catholic Review Communio. She is author of a book on the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, La liberté au principe (Vrin, 2011), which received the Prix La Bruyère of the Académie française, an essay based on the political writings of some Church Fathers, Tout pouvoir vient de Dieu (Ad Solem, 2015), and a collection of texts with Jean-Luc Marion, Fenomenologia del dono (Morcelliana, 2018). Her present research focuses upon the conceptual history of the common good and the theme of political theology.

Read more by Émilie Tardivel-Schick