Quis contra nos?

On the radical demands of Christianity

The collapse and fall of Christendom has occasioned much myth-making. Whether it is the liberal myth of historical progress or reactionary nostalgia for imagined lost glory, the myths of modernity say more about moderns than they do the world. The attempts of some in the Reformed theological tradition to articulate a positive vision of a faithful future amid a secularizing culture is an interesting example: with their backs pressed up against the wall in dubious battle with their cultured despisers, the little band of Calvin’s warriors can feel the soil falling over their heads, and cry—quis contra nos! They are hardly the first to turn to St. Paul for their political theology, but like the Legione Fiumana, theirs is an incoherent and deadly misreading.

For millenia, the thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans has been made to serve the forces of order:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

The stately prose of the King James translators couldn’t settle the matter any better. Even the comparatively unruly Geneva Bible of 1599 heads the chapter: “He willeth that we submit ourselves to Magistrates”. No wonder the magesterial reformers acquitted themselves so well in submission to the landsknechte. But earlier martyrs to the English Bible were not so amenable to royal hermenutics—consider the words of Tyndale in 1525:

Let every soul submit himself unto the authority of the higher powers. There is no power but of God. The powers that be, are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth power, resisteth the ordinance of God. They that resist, shall receive to themselves damnation.

And of Wycliffe in 1384:

Every soul be subject to higher powers. For there is no power but of God, and those things that be of God, be ordained. Therefore he that against-standeth power, against-standeth the ordinance of God; and they that against-stand, get to themselves damnation

There is clearly here trouble over both being, reflexivity, and relation to God. Is every soul already subject, ought be subjected, or should make itself subject to the powers? And those powers—are they the actually existing governance, are they God’s powers, are they inhuman and other than yet nonetheless ordained by God? And is the menace of they who oppose the powers self-inflicted or received from without?

David Bentley Hart’s recent translation sheds light on these questions:

Let every soul be subordinate to higher authorities. For there is no authority except under God, and such as exist are are subordinated to God. So he who opposes authority has opposed God’s ordination; and those who have made opposition will invite a verdict upon themselves.

The higher authorities are in an ordered relation: both over every soul and under God. The authorities themselves are therefore not souls, but something else—authorities. There is then an ambiguity as to the verdict: the opposition invites it on themselves, but whether and whither it comes is left unsaid

What are we to make of the authorities? The word in Greek is ἐξουσίαις, and St. Paul uses it similarly in his Epistle to Titus chapter three:

Remind them to be ordered under rulers, under authorities, to obey authority, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, not to be belligerent, showing gentleness to all human beings. For in the past we ourselves were also witless, disobedient, led astray, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, passing our lives in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another; but when the kindness of love for humankind of God our savior appeared—not from exercises in rectitude that we ourselves had performed, but according to his mercy—he saved us by a washing of regeneration and a renewal of the Holy Spirit, which he shed upon us richly through Jesus the Anointed One, our savior, so that, having been made righteous by his grace, we might become heirs to hope of life in the Age.

The other use is his Epistle to the Ephesians, chapter three:

For this reason, I Paul am a prisoner of the Anointed One Jesus on behalf of you the gentiles—if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace given to me for your sake: that the mystery was made known to me by a revelation, as I briefly wrote you before—regarding which you can, by reading of it, understand my insight into the mystery of the Anointed—which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed in spirit to his Apostles and prophets: that the gentiles are fellow heirs, and fellows in a single body, and fellow participants in the Anointed One Jesus through the good tidings, of which I became a minister by the gift of God’s grace, which was given to me by the operation of his power. This grace was given to me, the least of all the holy ones, to proclaim to the gentiles the good tidings, the unfathomable riches of the Anointed, and to cast light upon what constitutes the stewardship of the mystery that from the ages has been hidden in God, who has created all things, in order that, through the assembly, the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the Archons and Powers in the heavenly places, according to the purpose of the ages, which he fashioned in the Anointed One Jesus our Lord, in whom, through his faithfulness, we have boldness and act in confidence.

St. Paul uses similar word elsewhere, for example ἐξουσίαι in the opening of his Epistle to the Colossians:

Hence we also, since the day we heard this, do not cease to pray on your behalf and to ask that you may be filled by the full knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, to walk in a way worthy of the Lord, wholly pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the full knowledge of God, being empowered with every power by the might of his glory, for all endurance and longanimity, with joy, giving thanks to the Father who has made you fit for participation in the holy ones’ allotment in the light, who delivered us from the power of the darkness and translated us into the Kingdom of his love’s Son, in whom we have the price of liberation, the forgiveness of sins, who is the image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation, because in him were created all things in the heavens and on earth, the visible as well as the invisible (whether Thrones or Lordships or Archons or Powers); all things were created through him and for him; and he is before all things, and all things hold together in him, and he is the head of the body, of the assembly—who is the origin, firstborn from the dead, so that he might himself hold first place in all things—for in him all the Fullness was pleased to take up a dwelling, and through him to reconcile all things to him, making peace by the blood of his cross through him, whether the hings on earth or the things in the heavens.

A survey of similar passages will find St. Paul everywhere overflowing with the same glorious announcement. These authorities are not flesh and blood at all, but heavenly—the host of bodiless powers common to the scriptures’ prophetic and wisdom literature alike. Whether St. John’s Apocalypse or Righteous Job’s lament the scriptures the angelic and demonic forces appear, mediating between God and man. When St. Paul admonishes his readers to “be subordinate to” these higher powers he is metaphysically marshaling them. In Romans chapter twelve, he exhorts the faithful to live according to the spirit in humility and virtue. He tells the Roman church that their various charismatic gifts: prophecy, exhortation, mercy, etc. ought be well-ordered. He instructs them to be at peace with all men so far as is possible, so that might “not be vanquished by evil, but vanquish evil with the good.”

And it is precisely here that the historical reenactors of the Genevan Consistory stumble: they flatten St. Paul’s cosmology. They read earlier in the same letter that “if God is for us, who is against us?” but forget the context: everywhere St. Paul writes of triumph he writes of the spirit over and against the flesh. They share with Hobbes, Heidegger, et al. the desire to gain this world, and take the Church for a useful institutional support. Yet they do not remember from St. John first Epistle that “the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” St. Paul makes clear the metaphysical nature of this struggle in the seventh chapter of his Epistle to the Corinthians:

Have you been bound to a wife? Do not seek divorce. Have you been divorced from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do indeed marry you do not sin, and if the virgin marries she has not sinned; but such persons will have great affliction in the flesh, and I am sparing you. But I say this, brothers: the time has been made short; so that, henceforth, even those who have wives might be like those having none, and those who weep like those not weeping, and those who rejoice like those not rejoicing, and those who buy like those possessing nothing, and those who make use of the cosmos like those who do not exploit it; for the frame of the cosmos is passing away. But I want you to be free from care.

If the will of the Lord was for his people to prosper and lord over their enemies in the flesh, why did he tell them that their struggle was “not against flesh and blood, but against principalities”? Why would the Holy Spirit not speak through the Apostle such words as “be fruitful and multiply”? Why would the witness of the Apostolic Fathers be so radically different from what the sessions of contemporary Presbyterians, as in St. Ignatius the God-bearer:

Seeing, then, all things have an end, these two things are simultaneously set before us — death and life; and every one shall go unto his own place. For as there are two kinds of coins, the one of God, the other of the world, and each of these has its special character stamped upon it, so is it also here. The unbelieving are of this world; but the believing have, in love, the character of God the Father by Jesus Christ, by whom, if we are not in readiness to die into His passion, His life is not in us.

Indeed, the Muscovites of the Palouse share rather the perspective of Pindar:

O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.

The eschatology of dominion seeks not only to resist the world but even overcome it by worldly means. They critique western apostasy from the comfort of western decadence. They inveigh against the ills of our epoch from within the logic of this age. They read the history of God’s salvation not as from one people to all peoples in a new creation but phyletically and according to the fall. They look to the present state of nature, red in tooth and claw, and call it very good. They uphold above all the family, forgetting both our Lord’s transformation of kinship and the teaching of St. Paul that to be married is no sin, yet tempts us to wedding this world—the cosmos whose “frame is passing away”. In the words of the wanderer Eardstapa, “all the Earth’s frame shall stand empty”—in the words of the prophet Isaiah,

Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.

In their dreams of conquest, of taking the Lord’s rod of iron and smashing their enemies like a potter’s vessel, they forget how the Gospel is a stumbling block. They ignore the prophetic verses from David to Hosea on the futility of arms before the power of God:

They—the chariots, and they—the horses, but we—the Name of the Lord our God invoke.

The king is not rescued through surfeit of might, the warrior not saved through surfeit of power. The horse is a lie for rescue, and in his surfeit of might he helps none escape.

But to the house of Judah I will show mercy and rescue them through the Lord their God. But I will not rescue them with bow and sword, and in battle with horses and with horsemen.

They forget even how our Lord surrendered himself in the garden. In the place of the heavenly scriptures they set before them tomes of worldly opinion, dead sophism and vain deceit. They read history not after the tradition of the ancient prophets but of their latter-day scholastics: all the inconvenience of the Gospel can be neatly packed away under this dispensation or that covenant. But these are merely intellectual justifications for inward rebellion against the Lord and against his Anointed.

For the root of this anthropotheocratic desire to lord over this world is refusal to take up the cross. These well-fed Puritans are happy with this world, and only fight so that they may laugh and feast a bit longer. Yet tomorrow they die, and the Gospel would have them die today. They know it is true, and so they bend it.

St. Paul proclaimed that we more than conquer in Christ. The desire to posses earthly seats of honor can only from ignorance of both what real power is and what the Christian mission in this world is.

What we know of God we know on account of the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God made manifest. It is he who opened the scriptures to the holy apostles so that they might understand and pass on the truth to us. From Moses we know that God abides in the cloud of unknowing, yet deigns to meet us despite our corruption. From David we know that God is with the righteous band, and that this is the generation of his seekers. From Isaiah we know that God is with us, and that no weapon forged against us can prosper. From the Gospel we know that our Lord came to fling fire on the earth, and that as God clothes the grass today which is flung tomorrow into the oven, so he will care for us. From the Apostle we know that if we live according to the flesh we die, but if we put the deeds of the body to death by the spirit, we shall live. And though we take no care for the morrow, none can stand against us so long as our life is hid with Christ in God—the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords.

Yet even as we would raise our arms to pray, Maranatha!—even as we prostrate ourselves before the ineffable mercy of the Lover of Mankind—there is an objection. Do we not care for the evil, for the sin, for the pain, for the abominations all around us? Can we sit self-satisfied in prayerful meditation as the innocent are devoured like bread?

First, we must quickly gesture towards the history of the Church and remind ourselves that the triumph of the Church in objective terms was not at the Milvian Bridge. It was not the banners of Roman legions but the blood of the martyrs that advanced the cause of Christ in the world. And if we are to consider the question of inward victory, who would dare to claim that these latter days are anything but a disaster? The Name has been more than taken in vain. Second, we must consider how Christians ought combat the evil of this world.

Following the paths of the scriptures and saints, at once we are faced with a sheer cliff: renunciation of the world. Unless we die to this world, unless we put to death the old man, unless we take up the cross we have nowhere to go. For evil is not only the intrigues of wicked men or the workings of Satan, but also our own heart's desire. As we begin the laborious climb, we uproot ourselves. The more we become aware of our own wickedness, the less room we have for anger at our neighbor's. By this very working of the grace of Christ in us we repair the world, from the inside-out. In the words of Laozi:

Return is how the Way moves. Weakness is how the Way works.

Heaven and earth and the ten thousand things are born of being.

Being is born of nothing.

The commentary of Wang Pi helps illuminate this passage:

Nonbeing is the function of being. This is its reversion. However we act, if we know that there is non-being, all things will interpenetrate. Therefore it is said, “Reversion is the action of Tao”.

Weakness and gentleness interpenetrate and cannot be exhausted.

All things in the world came from being, and the origin of being is based on nonbeing. To have being in total, it is necessary to return to nonbeing.

As in St. John's prologue, we see here that our self-denial and renunciation of the cosmos goes beyond moral edification: through the kenotic imitation of Christ we take our fill of God's image. And just as the true light shone in the darkness of this cosmos and the darkness did not comprehend it, neither are those who drink from the cup of immortality recognized by those languishing in slavery and bondage to the “Archon of the Power of the air, of the spirit now operating in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all also formerly conducted ourselves”.

There is no doubt that Christian politics begins with the personal struggle to be conformed not to this world, but to Christ-likeness. Yet here lies a chasm, a rift in which many a good intention have been lost. Vladimir Solovyov begins his lectures On Divine Humanity with this survey:

Contemporary religion is a pitiful thing. Strictly speaking, religion does not exist as the dominant principle, as the center of spiritual attraction. Instead, our so-called religiosity is a personal mood, a personal taste. Some people have this taste, others do not, just as some people like music and others do not.

Søren Kierkegaard would doubtless concur. Yet Solovyov goes beyond the struggle of the individual, and offers an eschatological optimism so brilliant as to bewilder even the most bellicose Christian soldier:

The proper relationship between Divinity and nature in humanity attained by the person of Jesus Christ as the spiritual center, or head, of humankind must be assimilated by all humankind as His Body.

Humankind, as reunited with its divine principle through the mediation of Jesus Christ, is the Church. In the eternal, primordial world, ideal humankind is the body of the divine Logos. Similarly, in the world of natural becoming, the Church is the body of the Logos incarnate, that is, of the Logos historically individuated in the divine human person of Jesus Christ.

This body of Christ, which made its embryonic appearance in the form of the tiny community of the first Christians, is growing and developing little by little. At the end of time, it will encompass all humankind and all nature in one universal divine-human organism, because the rest of nature is, in the words of the Apostle, awaiting with hope “the manifestation of the sons of God” […]

This manifestation, this glorious liberty of the children of God, which all creation awaits with hope, is the complete realization of the free, divine-human union in humankind as a whole, in all the spheres of human life and activity […]

As in the Divine-human person, the attainment of this in humankind is conditioned by the self-renunciation of human will and its free subordination to Divinity.

Here is a vision of the end: free subordination to Divinity. This is a theocracy not imposed from without, not merely the external acceptance of membership in an institution—but embraced from within, inwardly accepted. Solovyov details in these same lectures how Western Christendom tried and failed to subjugate evil by force: how the “Roman hierarchy succumbed to this temptation of the religious lust for power and dragged with it the majority of Western humankind”. This attempt was futile, for “true faith in Christ presupposes that the truth is more powerful than evil, and can lead people to the good by its own spiritual force.” The “falsity of this path” led to the Protestant schisms, Wars of Religion, and Enlightenment. The dialectical dance is not finished, however. Human reason alone has proved insufficient. Both the secularists and the Christian East come under critique in their turn. But the genius of Solovyov is to make room not only for a higher synthesis, but for difference: the “fructifying principle” of reason must be creatively and freely active in the union of the human and divine: giving “birth to a spiritual mankind”.

The role of the Christian in history is to labor for this: the Life of the world to come. By this we might understand David when he says “We urgently wait for the Lord.” Ours should be the prayer of Sergii Bulgkov: “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” We ought to imitate the great saints from St. Mary of Egypt to Mother Maria of Paris, from St. Elizabeth of the first and 20th centuries alike: fighting vigorously against the sins of the flesh, the violence of hate, the iniquity of ancient empire, and the madness of modernity. These women teach us how to live in free subordination to the Divine.

Let us never forget that God could only be made man and salvation were it not for the Virgin who freely chose to be the Lord’s handmaid. This is the ultimate icon of the faith all Christians should aspire to. And when we wonder how to live, let us never forget the Sermons of our Lord upon the Mount and Plain: blessings for the destitute, humble, and peacemakers—woe for the rich, replete, and honored among men. Let us sing gladly for the Lord's rescue, and in our God’s Name our banner raise. And let us never forget St. Paul when he wrote to the Ephesians:

Therefore I, the Lord's prisoner, implore you to walk in a way worthy of the call which you were called, with all humility and gentleness, with magnanimity, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in your calling's one hope; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Much has been written both in the ancient Fathers and latter-day theologians about how we ought relate to the thorny questions of war, wealth, and worldly concerns. Marx and Engels pale before Ss. Augustine, Basil, and Chrysostom in their denunciations of Mammon. From St. Isaac of Nineveh we find a love burning for all creation, down to the family of reptiles. And what creed could be further from Machiavelli's virtu than that of the martyrs? We are to be the wheat of God, ground by the teeth of suffering, that we may be found the pure bread of Christ. The Christian faith is radical to the point of fanatical extreme, but nothing less should be expected of those who preach wedding the human and divine. As Fr. Alexander Men taught before his murder:

The fact that we wonder about the meaning of our life and about our calling, it witnesses an amazing mystery inherent only to human being.

We're living the life which is unworthy of us.

Spirituality is the sphere where faith, love, and comprehension of beauty are being born.