Does politics have only a remedial function or are we created for political life from the beginning? Does government exist only to counter the effects of human sin, or does it play an important role in human life even apart from sin? These are among the crucial questions James W. Skillen addresses in his new book, The Good of Politics: a biblical, historical, and contemporary introduction. Founding president of the Center for Public Justice, Skillen, now retired, has woven a rich tapestry that owes much to the tradition of political reflection associated with the great Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper.
The first part of the book lays out the contours of the biblical drama, particularly as it relates to the Christian’s task of citizenship in the political community. As a Reformed Christian, Skillen characteristically begins with the sovereignty of God and the comprehensive scope of his kingdom. Indeed God’s kingdom is not merely a spiritual kingdom, as some would have it, but has relevance for the totality of human life in his creation. God’s kingship is “over every human authority in this world.” Caesar and God do not exercise separate domains, for even that to which Caesar has a relative claim belongs ultimately to the God who has given him his high office. In this respect, all two-kingdoms approaches to life fall short by failing to give God his full due.
The second and middle part of the book deals with “key historical developments,” extending from the early Christian era up to the present, with special emphases on Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, the Anabaptists, John Calvin and Johannes Althusius. Here Skillen explores the ambiguity in Augustine’s identification of the two cities, which in some passages seem to encompass two quite distinct communities of persons driven by their disparate loves, but in others appear to mark a contrast between the present earthly life and eternal life in the heavenly city that transcends it. If we follow the latter approach, then it turns out that the two cities do not manifest themselves in two different groups of persons but encompass many of the same persons in the present age. This ambiguity is carried forward especially in Lutheran circles, but also by other Christians who tend to read the spiritual/directional opposition between obedience and disobedience into the structural differentiation of such human communities as state and gathered church.
I was pleased to see Skillen’s treatment of Althusius in particular, because the 17th-century political and legal theorist is unjustly neglected in the English-speaking world, though he is better known among German-speakers due to the influence of the great 19th-century legal scholar Otto von Gierke. Althusius laid the groundwork for a revived notion of citizenship as active membership in a political community as opposed to mere subjection to a monarch. More significantly, for Skillen’s purposes, Althusius articulated a theoretical basis for what might be called the pluriformity of communities and authorities characterizing a mature differentiated society – in this respect, Gierke’s effort to view Althusius as a precursor to Rousseau’s popular sovereignty is wrongheaded. Catholic social teachings have labelled this conception subsidiarity, while Reformed thought has spoken of “sovereignty in its own sphere” or sphere-sovereignty. Both of these have profound implications in countering the influence of the various totalistic ideologies that have so marred recent history.
In the third part, Skillen makes a positive case for “engaging politics today.” Much of this will be familiar to those who have read his previous books, especially In Pursuit of Justice, but it is worth revisiting this material in the larger context of the present book. Here he reaffirms that “God created humans for political life. God did not establish government and politics only in reaction to sin.” Along with this comes the basic conviction that justice is not simply about the needs and wants of individuals. A biblical understanding of justice requires that government attend to the institutions of civil society as well by protecting their distinctive identities and unique tasks in the world. Government itself is not intrinsically tethered to a pagan ethic, as Robert Kaplan and Anabaptists alike aver, but, like every human community, is obligated to live out in its own proper way the divine command to love God and neighbour.
The Good of Politics is part of a series of projected volumes by Baker Academic on Engaging Culture, and as such it admirably fulfils its purpose. Readers have come to appreciate the wisdom and insight that Skillen has displayed in his work over the years. This new book certainly lives up to our expectations. The Good of Politics is a biblically and historically rich primer on the political life for everyone persuaded that the claims of Christ extend to our calling as citizens. Of course, not everyone will necessarily accept that political life has a creational basis, and even Kuyper had his doubts on this score. But Skillen makes a strong case for this position here, and even skeptics would do well to add this book to their summer reading list.
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