The third installment in our symposium comes from D. Kyle Trowbridge, a graduate student studying theology, politics, and ethics at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana (USA).

If sin and faith are among the possibilities of human beings then the complete incomprehensibility inexcusability, and infinity of the fall is rationalized into a comprehensive action of immanent possibilities. Here sin loses the weight of infinity, the result being that forgiveness and the wiping out of sins can be understood only as the actualization – albeit from God – of human possibilities.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Anthropological Question in Contemporary Philosophy and Theology

I look for a Protestantism imaginative enough, self-critical enough, sober enough to permeate the culture of the future not from the dominant but the sectarian center of its own life. By the sectarian center of its own life, I do not mean a center of divisiveness, but the kind of center of its own life that understands what our Lord himself meant by the mustard seed, by the grain that must fall into the ground and die, by the leaven in the lump.”

Paul Lehmann, Protestantism in a Post-Christian World 

When introducing Philip Ziegler at this year’s Barth Conference, Bruce McCormack noted the book, Militant Grace, is “politically very relevant to the times in which we live.” Indeed, in his chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ziegler welcomes a more extensive study which examines the role the cross plays in social and political relationships.[1] This short review does something of the kind, and will, I hope, bring to light some social and political considerations under the pressures of Ziegler’s work. 

The Theatre of God’s Grace: Apocalyptic Theology, Experience, and Politics

A strength of Ziegler’s book, whether intended or not, is to do for politics precisely what he does for ecclesiology. For Christians, it is not that God’s grace provides us with a vision that is separate from the world, as its life as Christians and as the church are marked with the political experiences that make human life what it is. It is as dialectical as the ecclesiastic vision, and thus the very thing that makes Christians more distinctive is that same thing that makes us less distinctive, the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is a vision of the theology that “will cultivate Christian unease with the present world by calling to mind the advent of the Kingdom, lamenting its present contradiction.”[2] Two drawn out implications of Ziegler’s apocalyptic theology will have to suffice: the role of experience in the Christian life and how it influences and shapes our theological imaginations about God’s grace, and how we think politically under the “presence and pressure” of Jesus Christ.[3]

First, a word on experience. Throughout the work, Ziegler stresses that the apocalyptic turn sees contours of the world remade by grace. The upshot of this view is not only a recognition of the contemporaneity of God’s action in the world but one that sits with the often-messy realities of this world. It does so precisely because it is concerned with the reality of a truly human life in this world. What it might offer is not a subjective account of human freedom, but rather a realistic account of human life that encounters the regimes of sin and grace. 

Consider the theologians Ziegler surveys. Luther’s insistence that the medieval church did not consider the practical effects of sin seriously enough, Kierkegaard’s protest against Christendom, or the 20th century theologians who lived and died through the wars and horrors of totalitarianism, sought to give a theological response to concrete situations on the ground. To remove the human response would be to cut off the very element that makes these particularly powerful witnesses to this God and would forfeit the affective and existential character at the heart of the event of God’s revelation. To ask, “what world is it?” [4] is to ask, “whose world do I live in?” If one answers apocalyptically, it shapes how we view the social and political world around us. Ziegler says (and ends by quoting Käsemann), “when the gospel acclaims that Christ is for us the true Lord of the world, it acknowledges his lordship ‘over body and soul, heart and mind, disciples and demons, the world and the world to come, as a political fact’.” To live in faith in this world is to live under the reign of God. With this comes all the “perplexities of life” in the world we find ourselves. Which is to say, we experience the event of God’s revelation alongside our social and political contexts. Thought of in this way, we might do well to think carefully about bifurcating dogmatic and contextual theology, especially as apocalyptic theologians, and instead insist that theologians must consider the dynamism that is bound up when one influences and informs the other.

Second, extending Lauren Winner’s insights on how ecclesial practices are packed full with damaged goods,[5] Christian political theology may ask itself to reconsider how it uses some of its favorite motifs. These might include benign phrases like “law and order” “political stability” “common good,” which serve as a catch-all in the face of political fragmentation and pluralism. The reach for common goods on the grounds of custom, through tradition or civic religion, fail to consider how political worldviews are deformed and shaped alongside ecclesial practices. 

If appeals to either order or common good paper over legitimate protests and do not ask us to consider the necessary political fragmentation not only in political order but especially a world “twice-invaded” by sin and grace, then the politics at play is neither real nor theological. They fail to consider, as Paul Lehmann did, the humanization of the politics of the Word of God. An apocalyptic political theology might just solve this problem. If God’s eschatological presence over human affairs is good news for those “from below,” [6] it is so because it is attuned to the theological disruptions that aim and challenge all-to-human idealisms and universalisms. Put differently, apocalyptic political theology in this vein asks us to consider the “faces of injustice” [7] before any of our “theories of justice.” 

It would be right to do so. In a political environment besieged by chants of “send her back,” of police brutality, mass shootings by white supremacists, and sweeping ICE enforcement, any talk of a “common good” without talk of the unequal cruelties which shape the lives of people are pure abstraction. Might the “advent of the truth” that “wrestles its human witnesses free from their ignorant complicity in the untruth of the world,” [8] inform a political theology that invites us to see afresh how and why particular political and social ideas and institutions manifest themselves in real-time? Maybe. To speak of universality without dealing specifically with the injustices is to lay aside the truth for convenience, whether that truth is God’s revelation or the cries of those under cruelty’s regime.

As Ziegler notes, “Protestant ethics may leave off the temptation to chase an abstract vision of a world merely framed by an unchanging order; instead, it needs to pursue the task of discerning the reality of a world graciously governed by the present, world-making, and salutary divine action and ordering of Word and Spirit.” [9] The alterity and wholly otherness of God’s action in play in Ziegler’s work offers not only theology that hopes to avoid capture by the sicut deus but may also provide critical tools for political theology. Ziegler again, “what we each deserve is not finally established by a natural but rather by a profoundly unnatural right, since by grace human beings are blessed to by those who bear a righteousness that is not their own (Phil. 3.9).” [10] The alterity and promeity of God’s address may help us better judge the current rots of our political order. To live under and within the messianic contours of Protestant political theology is to be based on nothing other, as Bonhoeffer would have it, the truth of Christ’s reality. A reality that upsets not only our own ecclesial and political triumphalism but also confronts the cruelties that feed on those who suffer. 

Conclusion

I’ll close with a question and a note of gratitude. First, a question, one I hope related to the observations above. We lost so much with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s untimely death. Of interest to this book are the lost conversations he may have had with Ernst Käsemann – and what possible tensions are uncovered in Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on reconciliation and Käsemann trading on language of liberation? Ziegler notes that, for Bonhoeffer, “reconciliation in Jesus Christ is constitutive of reality.” [11] The reconciliation of the fallen world by God’s action is such that it reorients how one understands “worldliness” – theologically and politically. Yet, in the chapter “Christ Must Reign,” Ziegler notes for Käsemann the Christian life is to be “cleaved to the body of Jesus Christ as a people who, in the power of the Spirit, acknowledge that they have been set under his sovereign liberation and claim, Christians now serve the extension of his reign.” [12] How does Ziegler understand how both work with and against the other? Bonhoeffer wants to acknowledge that it is this world where the reconciliation of God’s revealed truth, which carries with it ontological and forensic significance. Käsemann is insisting that Christ’s work is not only to reconcile the world to God but to unmask – “exorcise” even – the lordless powers that control the world. Themes of liberation, freedom, are at work here. To be sure, the sovereignty of Christ’s Lordship is at play in both, but each seems to offer, on this reviewer’s reading at least, different emphases on what exactly is “militant” about God’s grace. 

Finally – a note of thanks. This book came into my life at the end of my second semester in seminary. Thirsty for an account of theology that was both exciting and unapologetically Protestant – which is hard to come by – Militant Grace offered just that. I hope that many who read this work will not only drink from its political wisdom – though there is that – but the theological vision. One that pushes back against the fetters of this world to hear the God of the gospel once more.


[1]Militant Grace, 185

[2]Ibid., 30

[3]On this see Paul Lehmann, The Transfiguration of Politics

[4]Militant Grace, 131

[5]Lauren Winner, The Dangers of Christian Practice

[6]Bonhoeffer, After Ten Years 

[7]Judith Shklar, The Faces of Injustice

[8]Militant Grace, 163

[9]Ibid., 138

[10]Ibid.128

[11]Ibid., 178

[12]Ibid., 66