This realisation The Nature and Destiny of Man

By Reinhold Niebuhr

A Christian Interpretation (Re-printed 1943)



The struggle for justice is as profound a revelation of the possibilities and limits of historical existence as the quest for TRUTH. In some respects it is even more revealing because it engages all human vitalities and powers more obviously than the intellectual quest. The obligation to build and to perfect communal life is not merely forced upon us by the necessity of coming to terms with the rather numerous hosts, whom it has pleased an Almighty Creator to place on this little earth beside us. Community is an individual as well as social necessity; for the individual can realise himself only in intimate and organic relation with fellowmen.  Love is therefore the primary law of his nature; and brotherhood the fundamental requirement of his social existence.

Since man is a unity of vitality and reason, the social coherence of life can never be purely rational. It includes an interpenetration of all powers and potencies, emotional and volitional (the act of willing, choosing, or resolving) as well as rational (having reason or understanding: relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason). But the power of rational freedom [to choose] gives human communities a higher dimension than those of nature. Man’s freedom [to choose] over the limits of nature in indeterminate regression means that no fixed limits can be placed upon either the purity or the breadth of the brotherhood which men strive in history. No traditional attainment of brotherhood is secure against criticism from a higher historical perspective, or safe from corruption on each new level of achievement.

The indeterminate character of these possibilities of both good and evil in social and political relations justifies the dynamic interpretation of the social process. The facts of history may not support the conclusion that historical process has continually purified and perfected social relations; but they certainly prove that the breadth and extent of historical communities have been consistently increased. Every age, and more particularly the age of technics, has confronted men with the problem of relating their lives to a larger number of fellowmen. The task of creating community and avoiding anarchy is constantly pitched on broader and broader levels.

These facts have presented modern culture with what seemed irrefutable proofs of its progressive view of the social task. The “Kingdom of God” seemed to be an immanent force in history, culminating in a universal society of brotherhood and justice 1--12. The secular and liberal-Protestant approaches to the socio- moral problem, based upon this presupposition, are too numerous to mention. Modern sociological treatises are practically unanimous in assuming this view of history. The Marxist interpretation of history deviates from it. But the deviation is only provisionally radical. Its catastrophism is finally subordinated to a progressive and utopian concept of history. The liberal Protestant version has added little but pious phrases to the interpretation.

The definition of the Christian view of human destiny as presented must lead to other, and partly contrary, conclusions. The conclusions are not completely contrary because they do not refute the dynamic character of history or the significance of its continually expanding tasks and obligations. They do, however, challenge the identification of historical growth with moral progress. According to our interpretation, “grace” is related to “nature” partly as fulfillment, and partly as negation. If the contradiction between “nature” and “grace” is not recognised, and the continued power of “nature” in the realm of “grace” is not conceded, new sins are brought into history by the pretension that sin has been progressively eliminated.


1 Corinthians 15:50 KJV Now this I say, brethren, “that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption”  




If we apply this formula of the Christian interpretation of life to human society it may be well to begin by translating the terms so that they will be relevant to the socio-moral issue. “Nature” in this case represents the historical possibilities of justice. 1 It may be helpful to recall that in Christian usage “nature” when set in juxtaposition to “grace” never means the finite or natural process as distinguished from rational freedom [to choose]. It means the “sinful nature” of man, as distinguished from the state of emancipation [freedom, to choose] from sin.

“Grace” would correspond to the ideal possibility of perfect love, in which all inner contradictions within the self and the other, are overcome by the complete obedience of all wills to the will of God

Translated into these terms the Christian conception of the relation of historical justice to the love of the Kingdom of God is a dialectical one (Dialectic or dialectics (Greek: διαλεκτική, dialektikḗ), also known as the dialectical method, is a discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject but wishing to establish the truth through reasoned arguments) Love is both the fulfillment and the negation of all achievements of justice in history.

Or expressed from the opposite standpoint, the achievements of justice in history may rise in indeterminate degrees to find their fulfillment in a more perfect love and brotherhood; but each new level of fulfillment also contains elements which stand in contradiction to perfect love. There are therefore obligations to realise justice in indeterminate degrees; but none of the realisations can assure the serenity of perfect fulfillment. If we analyse the realities of history in terms of this formula it will throw light on aspects of history which would otherwise remain obscure and perplexing; and will obviate mistakes which are inevitably made under alternative interpretations. Higher realisations of historic justice would be possible if it were more fully understood that all such realisations contain contradictions of, as well as approximations to, the ideal of love. Sanctification in the realm of social relations demands recognition of the impossibility of perfect sanctification.

The paradoxical relation between justice and love is expressed on various levels. We have previously explored the relation between sacrificial and mutual love 1 Vol II, Chapter III In that analysis it became apparent that mutual love (in which disinterested concern for the other elicits a reciprocal response) is the highest possibility of history in the sense that only such love is justified by historical consequences; but also that such love can only be initiated by a type of disinterestedness (sacrificial love) which dispenses with historical justification Thus the pinnacle of the moral ideal stands both inside and beyond history; inside in so far as love may elicit [bring forth] a reciprocal response and change the character of human relations; and beyond history in so far as love cannot require a mutual response without losing its character of disinterestedness. The love commandment is therefore no simple historical possibility;


Matthew 22:38 KJV This is the first and great commandment.


Exodus 20:3 KJV Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.


Mark 12:31 KJV And the second [commandment] is like, namely this, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” There is none other commandment greater than these.


The full implications of the commandment(s) illustrate the dialectical relation between history and the Eternal.




The relation of justice to love contains complexities analogous (corresponding) to the dialectical relation of mutual to sacrificial love. These complexities may be clarified by considering them in two dimensions.


1.      The first is the dimension of rules and laws of justice.

2.      The second is the dimension of structures of justice, of social and political organisations in their relation to brotherhood.


The difference between the first and second dimension obviously lies in the fact that laws and principles of justice are abstractly conceived, while structures and organisations embody the vitalities of history. The contradiction between actual social institutions and arrangements and the ideal of brotherhood is obviously greater than between love and the rules and laws of justice. All systems, rules and laws governing social relations are on the one hand instruments of mutuality and community; and they contain on the other hand mere approximations to, and positive contradictions of, the ideal of brotherhood. These aspects of the character of rules of justice must be examined in turn.

Systems and principles of justice are the servants and instruments of the spirit of brotherhood in so far as they extend the sense of obligation towards the other;

a)      from an immediately felt obligation, prompted by obvious need, to a continued obligation expressed in fixed principles of mutual support;

b)     from a simple relation between a self and one “other” to the complex relations of the self and “others”;

c)      finally from the obligations, discerned by the individual self, to the wider obligations which the community defines from its more impartial perspective.

These communal definitions evolve slowly in custom and in law. They all contain some higher elements of disinterestedness, which would not be possible to the individual self.

In these three ways rules and laws of justice stand in a positive relation to the law of love. It is significant that the rational element is constitutive in each of them. An immediately felt obligation toward obvious need may be prompted by the emotion of pity. But a continued sense obligation rests upon and expresses itself in rational calculations of the needs of others as compared with our own interests. A relation between the self and one other may be partly ecstatic; and in any case the calculation of relative interests may be reduced to a minimum. But as soon as a third person is introduced into the relation even the most perfect love requires a rational estimate of conflicting needs and interests. Even the love within a family avails itself of customs and usages which stereotype given adjustments between various members of the family in such a way that each action need not be oriented by a fresh calculation of competing interests.

The definitions of justice arrived at in na given community are the product of a social mind. Various perspectives upon common problems have been merged and have achieved a result, different from that at which any individual, class or group in the community would have arrived. The fact that various conceptions of a just solution of a common problem can be finally synthesised into a common solution disproves the idea that the approach of each individual or group is consistently egoistic. If it were, society would be an anarchy of rival interests until power from above subdued the anarchy (Intervention by God)

Interests may indeed clash to such a degree that no arbitration of the conflict is possible, in which case the conflict is ended either by the victory of one side or the other, or by the submission of both to a superior coercive force. Martin Luther’s and Thomas Hobbes’ political views are informed by the belief that all conflicts of interest are of such a nature.

The achievements of democratic societies refute this pessimism; and with it the purely negative conception of the relation of government and systems of justice to the ideal of brotherhood. History reveals adjustments of interest without the interposition of superior coercive force to be possible within wide limits. The capacity of communities to synthesise divergent approaches to a common problem and to arrive at a tolerably just solution proves that man’s capacity to consider interests other than his own. Nevertheless, the fact that a synthesis of conflicting interests and viewpoints is not easy, and may become impossible under certain conditions, is a refutation of a too simple trust in the impartial character of reason. It would be as false to regard rules and principles of justice, slowly elaborated in collective experience, as merely instruments of the sense of social obligation, as to regard them merely as tools of egoistic interest.

An analysis of the development of social conscience on any current social issue, as or instance the community’s sense of obligation to the unemployed, may clarify the complex factors involved in this development. The unemployment benefit which the community pays to those who are out of work is partly an expression of the sense of obligation of the more privileged members of the community towards those who are less fortunate. They find an advantage in meeting this obligation according to fixed principles instead of relying upon their own occasional feeling for this or that needy person. They know furthermore that their own knowledge of comparative needs is very inadequate and that they require the more impartial and comprehensive perspective of the total community, functioning through its proper agencies. This function of principles of unemployment relief presents the most positive relation between specific rules and the sense of brotherhood.

On the other hand the benefits which are paid to the unemployed are almost always higher than the privileged would like to pay, even though they may be lower than the poor would like to receive.  Some members of the privileged classes in modern communities have in fact obscured the issue of justice in regard to this problem by the most obvious and transparent of all ideologies. They have sought to maintain that the unemployed are the victims of sloth rather than the caprices of an intricate industrial process; and that the fear of hunger might cure their sloth. The actual schedule of payments upon which the community finally decides represents the conclusions of the social, rather than any individual, mind, and is the consequence of a perennial debate upon the subject. It is probably a compromise between conflicting viewpoints and interests. It certainly is not an unconditionally “just” solution of the social problem involved. The privileged may in fact accept it for no better reason than that they fear the revolt of the poor.  This aspect of the situation proves the impossibility of completely separating the concept of “principles of justice” from the hopes and fears  the pressures and counter-pressures, of living communities, expressed below the level of a rational calculation of rights and interests.

The solution may nevertheless become a generally accepted social standard; and some privileged members of the community may welcome it, because it expresses their considered sense of social obligation upon which they would prefer to rely rather than the momentary power of pity. The poor as a whole may receive less from these benefits than an individual needy person might secure by appealing to a given sensitive and opulent (rich) individual. But they will certainly receive more than if all of them were dependent upon nothing but vagrant, momentary and capricious (inconstant) impulses of pity, dormant unless awakened by obvious need.

This positive relation between rules of justice and the law of love must be emphasised in opposition to sentimental versions of the love commandment, according to which only the most personal individual and direct expressions of of social obligation are manifestations of Christian agape (love of God). Both sectarian and Lutheran analyses of the relation of love to justice easily fall into the error of excluding rules of justice from the domain of love. 1 Emil Brunner succumbs to this error when he writes: “The believer’s most important duty….always remains that of pouring the vitality of love into the necessarily rigid forms of the order [structure of justice]….The end is the personal relation itself….To improve it [the order] is not a hopeless task, nor is it unnecessary but it is still only a matter of secondary importance. The one thing that matters is to do what can be done from the standpoint of faith, namely, to love our neighbour ‘In Christ,’ and to serve Him in any way we can….it is supremely important to emphasise the TRUTH that what is decisive always takes place in the realm of personal relations and not in the political sphere, save where we are concerned with preserving the whole order from a general breakdown.” The Divine Imperative, p233.

Brunner’s consistently negative interpretation of the political task and his idea of its secondary importance is a Lutheran heritage in his thought. He is, of course, correct in asserting that no system and schemes of justice fulfil the law of love so that the possibility of giving them a higher content by personal attitudes and actions be obviated (anticipated).

Laws and systems of justice do, and however, have a negative as well as a positive relation to mutual love and brotherhood.  They contain both approximations to, and contradictions of the spirit of brotherhood.  This aspect of their character is derived from the sinful element in all social reality.  They are merely approximations in so far as justice presupposes a tendency of various members of a community to take advantage of each other, or to be more concerned with their own weal than with that of others. Because of this tendency all systems of justice make careful distinctions between the rights and interests of various members of the community. The fence and the boundary line are the symbols of the spirit of justice. They set the limits upon each man’s interest to prevent one from taking advantage of the other. A harmony achieved through justice is therefore only an approximation to brotherhood. It is the best possible harmony within the conditions created by human egoism. The negative aspect of justice is not only characteristic, as has been previously observed.  Even if perfect love were presupposed, complex relations, involving more than two persons, require the calculation of rights. The negative aspect is nevertheless important.

The more positive contradiction to brotherhood in all schemes of justice is introduced by the contingent and finite character of rational estimates of rights and interests, and by the taints of passion and self-interest upon calculations upon the rights of others. There is no universal reason in history, and no impartial perspective upon the whole field of vital interests, which compete with and mutually support each other. Even the comparatively impartial view of the whole of society, as expressed particularly in the carefully guarded objectivity of its juridical institutions, participates in the contingent character of all human viewpoints.

Such rules of justice as we have known in history have been arrived at by a social process in which various partial perspectives have been synthesised into a more inclusive one. But even the inclusive perspective is contingent [dependent] to time and place. The Marxist cynicism in regard to the pretended moral purity of all laws and rules of justice is justified. Marxism is right, furthermore, in regarding them as primarily rationalisations of the interests of the dominant elements of a society. The requirements of “natural law” in the mediaeval period were obviously conceived in a feudal society; just as the supposed absolute and “self-evident” demands of 18th century natural law were bourgeois in origin.

The relative and contingent character of these ideals and rules of justice refutes the claim of their unconditioned character, made alike by Catholic, Liberal, and even Marxist social theorists. 1 Marxist theory as usual detects the taint of interest in theories other than its own. But it also has the equivalent of a “natural law”. In that law the dominance of the ideal of equality is, for instance, clearly “ideological” It is informed by a justified resentment of the poor against inequality but fails to recognise the inevitability of functional inequalities in society.    

Both Catholic and Liberal social theories (and for that matter the Stoic theories in which both had their origin) make a distinction between “natural law” and the “positive” or “civil” law. The latter represents the actual and imperfect embodiment of the rules of justice in specific historical communities.  The contingent and relative character of the latter type of law is recognised; but finality is ascribed to the former. This fundamental distinction must be challenged. It rests upon an untenable faith in the purity of reason; and it is merely another of the many efforts which men [and women] make to find a vantage point of the unconditioned in history. The effect of this pretended finality of “natural law” is obvious. It raises “ideology” to a higher degree of pretension ("the pretension that current political arrangements serve everyone's interests"), and is another of the many illustrations in history of the force of sin in the claim of sinlessness. 2 Catholic theories of “natural law” are no less pretentious than secular theories, even though they subordinate the virtue of justice, enjoined in the natural law, to the virtue of love, achieved by grace. According to Catholic theory “natural law” is the part of the “Divine” or the “Eternal” law which is manifested in human reason. The endless relativities of historical rational perspectives are obscured. This unconditioned claim for an essentially universal reason is the basis of the remarkable degree of certainty with which Catholic moral theology is able to define “justice” and “injustice in every possible situation. CF Vol I, Chapter 10

There is of course a tenable distinction between ideals of justice and their embodiment in historical or “civil” law. The latter is the consequence of pressure and counter-pressures in a living community. It is therefore subject to a greater degree of of historical relativity than “natural law”. In so far as thought is purer than action “natural law” is purer than “civil law”. Furthermore it is important to recognise the validity of principles of justice, rationally conceived, as sources of criticism for the historical achievements of justice in living communities. If the mediaeval and modern secular theories of natural law claim too much for these rational principles of justice, both secular and Reformation relativists frequently dismiss them as irrelevant or dangerous. Karl Barth’s belief that the moral life of man (and women) would possess no valid principles of guidance, if the Ten Commandments had not introduced such principles by Revelation, is absurd as it is unscriptural;1 

1 It is in conflict with the Pauline assertion: For when the Gentiles which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.” Barth’s exegetical effort to eliminate the force of this Pauline doctrine is tortuous. Cf, his Epistle to the Roman, pp 65—68.


Romans 2:14 KJV For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:


The practical universality of the prohibition of murder for instance in the moral codes of mankind is just as significant as the endless relativities [relating to], which manifest themselves in the practical application of the general prohibition. There are essentially universal “principles” of justice moreover, by which the formulation of specific rules and systems of justice is oriented. Both “equality” and “liberty” are recognised in Stoic, mediaeval, and modern theories of natural law as transcendent principles of justice; though the modern theories (both bourgeois and Marxist) falsely regard them as realisable rather than as transcendent principles. An analysis of one of them, the principle of equality, will serve to reveal the validity of both as transcendent principles of justice.

The perpetual recurrence of the principle of equality in social theory is a refutation (opposing points of view) of purely pessimistic conceptions of human nature, whether secular or religious. Its influence proves that men do not simply use social theory to rationalise their own interest. Equality as a pinnacle of the ideal of justice implicitly points towards love as the final norm of justice; for equal justice is the approximation to brotherhood under the conditions of sin. A higher justice always means a more equal justice. Special privilege may be frowned upon more severely by those who want it than those who have it; but those who have it are uneasy in their conscience about it. The ideological taint enters into the discussion of equality when those who suffer from inequality raise the principle of equality to the definitive principle of justice without recognising that differences of need or of social function make the attainment of complete equality in society impossible. 1 This  is the aspect of the problem recognised in Stoic and mediaeval theories, according to which equality belongs to the golden age or to the perfection before the Fall.

The beneficiaries of special privilege emphasise, on the other hand, that inequalities of social function justify corresponding inequalities of privilege. They may also assert, with some, but less, justification, that inequality of reward is a necessary inducement for the proper performance of social function. But they will seek to hide the historic fact that privileged members of the community invariably use their higher degree of social power to appropriate an excess of privileges not required by their function, and certainly not in accord with differences of need.

The validity of the principle of equality on the one hand, and the impossibility of realising it fully on the other, illustrate the relation of absolute norms of justice to the reactivities of history. The fact that one class will tend to emphasise the absolute vaidity of the norm unduly, while another class will be inclined to emphasise the impossibility of achieving it fully, illustrates the inevitable “ideological taint” in the application of a generally valid principle, even if the principle itself achieves a high measure of transcendence over partial interest. 2 The Stoic and Catholic distinction between relative and absolute natural law is a helpful recognition of the necessity of accommodating absolute principles to relative and “sinful” historic situations. But the idea that the requirements of “relative” natural law can be stated absolutely proceeds from the failure to include the human mind in the relativities of history.  Here Emil Brunner’s criticisms of this distinction are admirable. Cf The Divine Imperatives, pp 626—632.

Brunner, however, erroneously follows the Reformation disparagement of the function of reason in the realm of social ethics and arrives at a consequent dismissal of the idea of equality as merely a “rational” and therefore unchristian norm. He writes: “The egalitarian law of nature does not belong to the world of the Bible but to the context of Stoic rationalism (One who is seemingly indifferent to or unaffected by joy, grief, pleasure, or pain). The egalitarian (The Christian egalitarian view holds that the Bible teaches the fundamental equality of women and men of all racial and ethnic mixes, all economic classes) ideal des not arise out of reverence for the Creator but out of the desire to dictate to the Creator how things ought to be, or the presupposition that the Creator ought to treat everyone alike.” ibid page 407.

Any parent who has sought to administer justice and to compose childish disputes will know how spontaneously children appeal to the principle of equality as the correct principle or arbitrament (arbitration), and with what difficulty they must, on occasion, be persuaded that differences of age, function, and need, render the principle inoperative, or make it only indirectly relevant. The children may lack proper reverence for the Creator of inequalities; but on the other hand they have certainly never heard of, or been spoiled by, “Stoic rationalism”.

The complex character of all historic conceptions of justice thus refutes both the relativists who see no possibility of finding valid principles of justice, and the rationalists and optimists who imagine it possible to arrive at completely valid principles, free of every taint of special interest and historical passion.

The positive relation of principles of justice to the ideal of brotherhood makes an indeterminate approximation to love in the realm of justice possible. The negative relation means that all historic conceptions of justice will embody some elements which contradict the law of love. The interest of a class, the viewpoint of a nation, the prejudices of an age, and the illusions of a culture are consciously and unconsciously insinuated into the norms by which men regulate their common life. They are intended to give one group an advantage over another. Or if that is not their intention, it is at least the unvarying consequence.




If rules and principles of justice ideally conceived and transcending the more dubious and ambiguous social realities of living societies have an unequivocal [clear] relation to the ideal of brotherhood, this twofold character is even more dubious and apparent in the structures and systems, the organisations and mechanisms, of society in which these principles and rules are imperfectly embodied and made historically concrete. We have already noted the distinction between “natural law”, as a rational statement of principle of justice and “positive” law, which designates the historic enactments of living communities. But an analysis of the equivocal [unclear] character of the “structures” of justice must include more than a mere consideration of “civil” or “positive law”. It must look beyond legal enactments to the whole structure and organisation of historical communities. This structure is never merely the order of a legal system. The harmony of communities is not simply attained by the authority of the law. Nomos [law] does not coerce the vitalities of life into order. The social harmony of living communities is achieved by an interaction between the normative conceptions of morality and law and the existing and developing forces and vitalities of the community. Usually the norms of law are compromises between the rational-moral ideals of what ought to be, and the possibilities of the situation as determined by given equilibria of vital forces. The specific legal enactments are, on the one hand, the instruments of the conscience of the community, seeking to subdue the potential anarchy of forces and interests into a tolerable harmony. They are, on the other hand, merely explicit formulations of given tensions and equilibria of life and power, as worked out by unconscious interactions of social life.

No human community is, in short, a simple construction of conscience or reason. All communities are more or less stable or precarious harmonies of human vital capacities. They are governed by power.

1.      The power which determines the quality of the order and harmony is not merely the coercive and organising power of government. That is only one of the two aspects of social power.

2.      The other is the balance of vitalities and forces in any given social situation. These two elements of communal life—the central organising principle and power, and the equilibrium of power—are essential perennial aspects of community organisation; and no moral or social advance can redeem society from its dependence upon these two principles.

Since there are various possibilities of so managing and equilibrating the balance of social forces in a given community that the highest possible justice may be achieved, and since the organising principle and power in the community is also subject to indeterminate refinement,  communal order and justice can approximate to a more perfect brotherhood in varying degree. But each principle of communal organisation—the organisation of power and the balance of power—contains possibilities of contradicting the law of brotherhood. The organising principle and power may easily degenerate into tyranny. It may create a coerced unity of society (to compel by force) in which the freedom and vitality of all individual members are impaired. Such a tyrannical unification of life is a travesty of brotherhood. Again, the principle of the balance of power is always pregnant with the possibility of anarchy. These twin evils, tyranny and anarchy, represent the Scylla and Charybdis between which the frail bark of social justice must sail. It is almost certain to founder upon one rock if it makes the mistake of regarding the other as the only peril.

No possible refinement of social forces and political harmonies can eliminate the potential contradiction to brotherhood which is implicit in the two political instruments of brotherhood—the organisation of power and the balance of power. This paradoxical situation in the realm of social life is analogous (corresponding in function, but not evolved from) to the Christian conception of the paradox of history (A statement that seems contradictory or absurd but is actually valid or true.) as discerned in other realms of life. In order to explore the meaning of the paradox more fully it will be well to begin with an analysis of the nature and meaning of “power” in communal life.


1 The Unity of Vitality and Reason

The perennial importance of power (lasting for an indefinitely long time) in social organisation is based upon two characteristics of human nature.


1)     The one is the unity of vitality and reason (The capacity to live, grow, or develop), of body and soul.

2)     The other is the force of human sin, the persistent tendency to regard ourselves as more important than anyone else, and to view a common problem from the standpoint of our own interest.


The second characteristic is so stubborn that mere moral or rational suasion does not suffice to restrain one person from taking advantage of another. Legal authority may be more sufficing; but there is no legal authority which does not imply sanctions or the threat of coercive action (Coercion may involve the actual infliction of physical pain/injury or psychological harm) against recalcitrance (resisting authority or control).

The first characteristic, the unity of vitality and reason in human nature, guarantees that egoistic purposes will be pursued with all vital resources which an individual or collective [state] will [of power] may control. Therefore social restraints upon these anti-social purposes must be equally armed with all available resources.

Disputes may of course be composed and conflicts arbitrated without recourse to all such resources. Conscience may appeal to conscience and reason to reason. There in fact no conflicts in which these appeals are not made, even when the conflict has become physical. But in every conflict of interest the possibility of marshalling every possible resource on either side is implied.

Most human conflicts are composed, or subdued, by a superior authority and power, without an overt appeal to force (an open act that can be clearly proved), or without the actual use of force, either violent or non-violent. But the calculation of available resources on each side is as determinative in setting the outcome of the struggle as more purely rational or moral considerations. 1 A strike in industry is a case in point. It may be arbitrated but the compromise between the two sides or the yielding of one side to the other is partly determined by the shrewd calculation of either side of the resources of social and economic power of which the other side could avail itself in case the conflict became overt, and of the possible position which government and public would take towards it. 

The threat of force, whether by the official and government representatives of a community, or by the parties to a dispute in a community, is a potent instrument in all communal relations. It may not be frequently used in a stable and well-ordered community; but if either government, or a party to a dispute, explicitly disavowed (To disclaim knowledge of, responsibility for, or association with) any resource at its disposal, it would upset whatever equilibrium of social forces existed at that moment; it would thereby increase the possibility of successful recalcitrance or resistance on the part of the group or interest, prepared to use every available resource. The prospect of successful resistance naturally also increases the probability that a venture (an undertaking involving uncertainty as to the outcome) in resistance will be made.  2 This is how a Liberal Democratic world, dreaming of progress towards purely rational and moral resolutions of all social conflicts, stumbled into a, “total war”.  A sensitive conscience may be revolted by the tragic and brutal realities of man’s social life and decide to disavow all power. But if this powerless is not accompanied by an [attendant] concomitant disavowal of social responsibility it leads to the moral confusions in which secular and religious perfectionists are usually involved. Complete non-resistance may have moral meaning, If it is understood that unprotected rights and privileges will probably be lost, and that in many social situations they are practically certain to be lost. Non-violent resistance has meaning as a pragmatic technique (factual); for it is well to explore all methods of achieving justice and maintaining peace, short of violent conflict. But non-violent resistance as a moral or political absolute is a source of moral and political confusion. The implicit and explicit aversion of the democratic world to violent forms of dispute was a factor upon which proponents of “total war” calculated. It increased the possibility of their success and therefore the certainty of their venture.

The rational calculation of the powers and vitalities, involved in a social situation, is thus an inevitable accompaniment of the rational calculation of rights and interests, involved in a socio-moral problem. The invariable correlation (mutual relation of two or more things, parts, etc) of the two is a nice symbol of the unity of vitality and reason in all social existence.


2 Types of Power in Social Life

The spiritual and physical faculties of man are able, in their unity and interrelation, to create an endless variety of types and combinations of power, from that of pure reason to that of pure physical force. Though reason is commonly supposed to be transcendent, rather than partial, it is hardly necessary at this point to prove that reason may be the instrument of the ego in advancing its claims against another. When it is so used it is a “power” which supports the claims of one life against another. The shrewd do take advantage of the simple. A rational solution of a conflict may be a very unjust one, if the more robust “overpowered” the weaker intellect. But there are other spiritual faculties which may serve the same purpose. One man may keep another enslaved purely by “soul” force. 1 Gandhi’s identification of “soul force” with non-egoistic motives and “body-force” with egoistic ones is almost completely mistaken. The type of power used by the will to effect its purposes does not determine the quality of the purpose or motive. 

Such soul force may consist of spiritual vitalities of various kinds, mental and emotional energy, the possession or the pretension of virtue, the prestige of an heroic life, or of a gentle birth. Pure physical force is always a last resort in individual relations. It is determinative in these relations only on primitive levels. All civilised relations are governed more by spiritual, than by physical, facets of power. It is significant that they are not, for that reason, naturally more just.

The forms of power which are developed collectively display an even wider variety of types. On the whole social power rests upon differentiations of social function.

·        The soldier is the bearer of physical force in advanced societies, not because he is physically strong, but because he has the instruments, and masters the techniques, of physical conflict.

·        The priest has social power (especially potent in the organisation of early empires) because he mediates the authority of some ultimate majesty and endows the political authority of a given oligarchy with this sanctity.

·        The ownership and the control of property and economic process represent partly physical and partly spiritual power.

1.      It is physical in so far as the wealth created by the economic process is physical. 

2.      It is spiritual in so far as the right to use and control this physical force is derived from law, custom, the prestige of function and other similar considerations.

3.      The modern belief that economic power is the most basic form, and that all other forms are derived from it, is erroneous.

The first landlords were soldiers and priests who used military and religious forms of social power to possess and acquire land.

Economic power, before the modern period, was derivative rather than primary.

It was used to enhance the comforts of the oligarchs (An oligarchy is a form of government in which a small group has all the power unlike an aristocracy) of society, and to insure the perpetuation of their social eminence from generation to generation. But it did not give them their initial eminence,.

·        In modern Germany (1930s), Nazi political oligarchs transmute political power into economic power.

·        In the bourgeois period economic power did tend to become more fundamental and to bend other forms to its purposes.

·        In democratic societies it was, however, always under some restraint from the more widely diffused political power of the common man, inhering in the universal right of suffrage.

1 It has been an error in both Liberal and Marxist social interpretations to identify ownership [material] with economic power [financial]. The control and manipulation of economic process is also a form of economic power. It gives workers minimal power resources to set against the power of ownership; and the managers of economic process are acquiring an even larger share of power. James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution is a one-sided correction of the error of identifying ownership with economic power too simply. The error contributes to the political miscalculations of Marxism. For when it abolishes economic ownership, it may merely merge both economic and political power in the hands of an oligarchy which controls both political and economic processes.

All historic forms of justice and injustice are determined to a much larger degree than pure rationalists or idealists realise by the given equilibrium or disproportion within each type of power and by the balance of various types of power in a given community. It may be taken as axiomatic [a statement] that great disproportions of power lead to injustice, whatever may be the efforts to mitigate it (to make less severe). Thus the concentration of economic power in modern technical society has made for injustice, while the diffusion of political power has made for justice. The history of modern democratic capitalistic societies is on the whole determined by the tension between these two forms of power.


·        In this history the economic oligarchy has sought to bend political power to its purposes, but has never done so with complete success (Conservatives).

·        On the other hand the political power of the common man (proletariat) has been an instrument of political and economic justice; but it has also not succeeded completely in eliminating flagrant forms of economic injustices (Labour).


This tension is unresolved, and may never be completely resolved.                

At the moment the justice achieved by this tension in the democratic world is under attack from a tyranny created by the emergence of political, economic, and religious power in a Nazi oligarchy, and by its more or less intimate partnership with an older military oligarchy (Holy Roman Empire) Political power deserves to be placed in a special category, because it rests upon the ability to use and manipulate other forms of social power for the particular purpose of organising and dominating the community. The political oligarchy usually possesses at least two forms of significant social power. In all early empires these two forms were;


1.      The priestly and the military power, which were either merged in one class,

2.      Or which were combined through intimate collaboration between the military and the priestly class.


Modern democracies tend towards a more equal justice partly because they have divorced political power from special social functions. They endowed all men with a measure of it by giving them the right to review the policies of their leaders. This democratic principle does not obviate the formation of oligarchies in society; but it places a check upon their formation, and upon the exercise of their power.

It must be observed, however, that the tyrannical oligarchy, which now challenges the democratic world, arrived at its eminence by the primary use of political power (the demagogic manipulation of the masses)

Demagogic or rabble-rouser is a political leader in a democracy who appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the lower socioeconomic classes to gain power and promote political motives. Demagogues usually oppose deliberation and advocate immediate, violent action to address a national crisis; they accuse moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness. Demagogues have appeared in democracies since ancient Athens. They exploit a fundamental weakness in democracy: because ultimate power is held by the people, nothing stops the people from giving that power to someone who appeals to the lowest common denominator of a large segment of the population. Then gradually acquired the other forms of power:


·        The control of economic process, (through Quantative easing. Printing money, keeping down interest rates &c).

·        The pretension of religious sanctity (Pretension is defined as a reason for something or a claim to something, or is something done to impress others)

·        The control of, or collaboration with, military power (Self-evident).


The shifting interrelations of various types of power in human society are determined by a wide variety of historical developments from the technical to the religious level of social existence. Thus the development of modern commerce gave the middle classes new economic power. They used it to challenge the priestly-military oligarchy of feudal society. They determined the power of land-ownership with the more dynamic economic power of the ownership of bank stock. The development of modern technical industry had a twofold effect:


·        It both enhanced the economic power and wealth of the owners and manipulators of economic process (Conservative)

·        It gave industrial workers a form of power (exercised for instance by their refusal to cooperate in an interrelated economic process), which the common men of agrarian societies did not have. (Labour).


Sometimes a shift in power relations has a much more spiritual origin [e.g. Tony Blair Labour]. Who can deny that the development of prophetic religion, which challenges rather than supports political majesty in the name of the majesty of God, helps to destroy priestly-military oligarchies and to create democratic societies? In this way the prophetic elements in Christianity have contributed to the rise of modern democratic societies, just as conservative elements in the Christian tradition have strengthened the pretensions of oligarchies by their uncritical identification of political power with the Divine authority.

The complexity of the technical, rational and prophetic-religious factors which contributed to the rise of modern democracies, illustrates the complex and intimate involvement of all these factors in the whole historical process. The interweaving of these various strands in the total fabric of historical development refutes both vitalists and rationalists, who would interpret the social process either as merely a chaos of vital forces, or as a simple progressive triumph of reason over force.

“Reason” and “force” may be the “end terms” of human spirituality and vitality. But no sharp distinction can be made between them at any point. Nor are there absolute distinctions between any of the intermediate manifestations of human vitality, which history elaborates in endless variety. No form of individual or social power exists without a modicum of physical force, or without a narrow pinnacle of “spirit” which transcends the conflict and tension of vital forces. But the tension and balance of such forces in any given social situation include vitalities and powers which manifest the complex unity of spirit and nature, of reason and force, in the whole of human existence. 


3 The Organisation and Balance of Power

Our primary concern is with the twofold relation of structures of justice or various forms of communal organisation to the principle of brotherhood. These structures invariably contain, according to our analysis, both approximations and contradictions to the ideal of love. This thesis must now be examined more closely in the light of the conclusion that all social life represents a field of vitality (The capacity to live, grow, develop, and choose) elaborated in many forms, which are related to each other in terms of both mutual support and of potential conflict. Since human history defies, rather than observes, the limits. in which nature confines both mutual dependence and conflict, it becomes a task of political contrivance in human history to mitigate conflict and to invent instruments for enlarging mutualities of social existence.

Human brotherhood is imperilled by two, and possibly three, forms of corruption. Will seeks to dominate will. Thus imperialism (the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over foreign countries) and slavery are introduced into history. Interest comes in conflict with interest and thus the relations of mutual dependence are destroyed.  Sometimes the self, individual or collective, seeks to isolate itself from the community and to disavow communal responsibilities. This evil of isolationism is, however, a negative form of the evil of conflict, and therefore does not deserve a special category. The domination of one life by another is avoided most successfully by equilibrium of powers and vitalities, so that weakness does not invite enslavement by the strong. Without a tolerable equilibrium of powers and vitalities, so that weakness does not invite enslavement by the strong. Without a tolerant equilibrium no moral or social restraints ever succeed completely in preventing injustice and enslavement. In this sense equilibrium of vitality is an approximation to brotherhood within the limits of conditions imposed by human selfishness. But equilibrium of power is not brotherhood. The restraint of this will-to-power of one member of the community by the counter-pressure of power by another member results in a condition of tension. All tension is covert or political conflict. The principle of the equilibrium of power is thus a principle of justice in so far as it prevents domination and enslavement; but it is a principle of anarchy and conflict in so far as the tensions, if unresolved, result in overt conflict. Furthermore social life, when not consciously managed and manipulated, does not develop perfect equilibria of power. Its capricious [inconstant] disproportions of power generate various forms of domination and enslavement. Human society therefore requires a conscious control and manipulation of the equilibria which exist in it. There must be an organising centre within a given field of social vitalities.

·        This centre must arbitrate from a more impartial perspective than is available to any party of a given conflict;

·        it must manage and manipulate the processes of mutual support so that the tensions inherent in them will not erupt into conflict;

·        it must coerce submission to the social process by superior power whenever the instruments of arbitrating and composing conflict do not suffice;

·        and finally it must seek to redress the disproportions of power by conscious shifts of the balances whenever they make for injustice.

1 This is done in the democratic state, for instance, when the taxing power is used not merely for securing revenue but also to counteract the tendency towards centralisation of power and privilege which inheres in the technical and highly centralised industrial process (Google and other large corporation’s spring to mind).          

It is obvious that the principle of government, or the organisation of the whole realm of social vitalities, stands upon a higher plane of moral sanction and social necessity than the principle of the balance of power. The latter without the former degenerates into anarchy.  The former is, however, a more conscious effort to arrive at justice than the latter. It belongs to the order of the historical, while the former belongs, on the whole, to the order of the natural. 2 Rousseau’s and Hobbes’ social contract theories of government have such contradictory estimates of the “state of nature” because both fail to understand the ambiguous [unclear] character of social equilibrium (state of rest) without the interference of government. Rousseau sees only the elements of harmony within it, and Hobbes only the elements of conflict and anarchy. Rousseau on the other hand sees only the principle of domination in government and Hobbes only the principle of order.

It is nevertheless important to recognise that government is also morally ambiguous (Open to more than one interpretation: an ambiguous reply) It contains an element which contradicts the law of brotherhood. The power of the rulers is subject to two abuses. It may actually be the dominion which one portion of the community exercises over the whole of the community. Most governments until a very recent period were in fact just that; they were the consequence of conquest by a foreign oligarchy. 1 The Norman unification of England, The Tartar conquest of Russia, and the Manchu conquest of China are a few of the many examples of foreign conquest as the agent of unification of a society

But even if government does not express the imperial impulses of one class or group within the community, it would, if its pretensions were not checked, generate imperial impulses of its own towards the community. (Imperial is that which relates to an empire, emperor, or the concept of imperialism) It would be tempted to destroy the vitality and freedom [to choose] of component elements in the community in the name of “order”. It would identify its particular form of order with the principle of order itself, and thus place all rebels against its authority under the moral disadvantage of revolting against order par se

This is the sin of idolatry and pretension, in which all government is potentially involved. This evil can be fully understood only if it is recognised that all governments and rulers derive a part of their power, not only from the physical instruments of coercion at their disposal, but also from the reality and the pretension of “majesty”. The un-coerced submission which they achieve, and without which they could not rule (since coerced submission applies only to marginal cases and presupposes the un-coerced acceptance of the ruler’s authority by the majority) is never purely “rational” consent. It always includes, explicitly, or implicitly, religious reverence for “majesty”. The majesty of the state is legitimate in so far as it embodies and expresses both the authority and power of the total community over all its members, and the principle of order and justice as such against the peril of anarchy. The legitimate majesty of government is acknowledged and affirmed in the Christian doctrine of government as a divine ordinance

But there are no historic expressions of the majesty of state and government without an admixture of illegitimate pretensions of majesty and sanctity. These can most simply be defined as the tendency of states and governments to hide and obscure the contingent and partial character of their rule and to claim unconditioned validity for it.

The whole development of democratic justice in human society has depended upon some comprehension of the moral ambiguities which inhere in both governments and the principle of the equilibrium of power. It is the highest achievement of democratic societies that they embody the principle of the resistance to government within the principle of government itself The citizen is thus armed with “constitutional” power to resist the unjust exactions of government (Exaction definition, the act of exacting; extortion: the exactions of usury). He can do this without creating anarchy within the community, if government has been so conceived that criticism of the ruler becomes an instrument of better government and not a threat to government itself. 1 The Presbyterian constitutionalist of 17th century Scotland, Samuel Rutherford, expresses the distinction in the words: “We teach that government is natural not voluntary; but the way and manner of government is voluntary.” Lex Rex (1644), Question IX.

The achievements of democracy have been tortuously worked out in human history partly because various schools of religious and political thought had great difficulty in fully comprehending the perils to justice in either one or the other instruments of justice—the organisation of power and the balance of power. Usually the school of thought who comprehended the ambiguities of government did not understand the perils of anarchy inhering in uncontrolled social life; while those who feared this anarchy were uncritical of the claims and pretensions of government.  History had to stumble by tortuous process upon the proper techniques for avoiding both anarchy and tyranny, against the illusions of idealists and of realists who understood only one or the other side of the problem. In this process the Christian tradition itself seldom stated the full truth of its twofold approach to the political order in such a way that it would give guidance in the complexities of political and social life. The mistakes which were in comprehending the paradox in the political sphere conform to the limitations of the various Christian and secular traditions, which we have examined in other spheres. They can then be stated fairly briefly.





The development of Christian and of modern secular theories is determined by interplay of;

1)     Classical (Plato & Aristotle).

2)     Biblical


approaches to stuff of the political order. The Bible contains two approaches which, taken together and held in balance, do justice to the moral ambiguities of government. According to the one, government is an ordinance of God and its authority reflects the Divine Majesty. According to the other, the “rulers” and “judges” of the nations are particularly subject to Divine judgement and wrath because they oppress the poor and defy the Divine Majesty

These two approaches do justice to the two aspects of government.  It is a principle of order and its power prevents anarchy; but its power is not identical with Divine Power. It is wielded from a partial and particular locus [location] and it cannot achieve  the perfect the perfect union of goodness and power which characterises Divine power. The pretension that its power is perfectly virtuous represents its false claim of majesty. This claim elicits alternate moods of reverent obedience and resentful rebellion in history. 1 It is significant that the first Biblical record of the institution of monarchy is interpreted from two perspectives according to two traditions embodied in the book of Samuel. According to the one, Samuel anointed Saul King at the behest of Yahweh.


1 Samuel 8:22 (KJV) And the Lord said to Samuel, “Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king”. And Samuel said unto the men of Israel, “Go ye every man unto his city.”


According to the other the desire of the people for a king was was regarded as an affront to God, who was Himself King of His people:


1 Samuel 10:19 (KJV) And ye have this day rejected your God, who Himself saved you out of all your adversities and your tribulations; and ye have said unto Him, Nay, but set a king over us. Now therefore present yourselves before the Lord by your tribes, and by your thousands.”


The various expressions of these two approaches towards government cannot be fully traced here. The critical attitude of the prophets towards government has been considered in another context. On the other hand the idea that the King is is the Lord’s anointed runs through the whole of the Old Testament as does the appreciation of the necessity of government.


Judges 17:6 (KJV) In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.


In the New Testament Jesus on the one hand recognises the legitimate authority of government;


Matthew 22:20—21 (KJV)

20 And He saith unto them, ‘Whose is this image and superscription?’

21 They say unto Him, ‘Caesar's.’ Then saith He unto them, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.


But on the other He sets the dominion of kings in contrast to the mutual love and service of the Kingdom of God


Romans 13:1-3 (KJV)

1 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.

2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:


This unqualified endorsement of government and the unqualified prohibition of resistance to its authority is justified by the mistaken assertion that government is no peril to virtue but only vice. History proves that the power of government is morally ambiguous. It may on occasion imperil  not evil but “good works”. The best possible government cannot escape from such a possibility. It must be recognised that the Pauline justification of government was valid enough in the particular historical context in which it was made. It was undoubtedly a warning against the irresponsibility towards government which the eschatological mood of the early church encouraged. The fact that it became a vehicle for a too uncritical devotion to government by its indiscriminate application in subsequent centuries illustrates one of the perils of Biblicism. Biblical observations upon life are made in a living relation to living history. When they are falsely given an eminence which obscures this relation, they can become the source of error and confusion.

But its influence was fortunately never able to extinguish the power of prophetic criticism upon the evils of government in Christian history.

As against these two approaches to the political order in the Bible the classical world thought of politics in simpler more rational terms. Government was primarily the instrument of man’s social nature. Its function of preventing anarchy, so strongly emphasised in Christian thought, and so unduly stressed in the reformation, was appreciated only indirectly.  For Aristotle the purpose of government was fellowship (κοινώνία); and Plato studied the state in his Republic as a macrocosm (the universe considered as a whole)

which would reveal all the laws of harmony in larger outline relevant to the microcosm of the individual soul/ 

In both Aristotle and Plato the harmony of society is practically identified with the constitutional structure—the principles by which it is governed. The approach is, in the parlance of modern philosophy, “non-existential”. 1 Aristotle declares that “the constitution (πολιτεία) is the life of the polis” (Politics VI, IV, 11). In Plato’s Laws the Athenian Stranger declares: “When there has been a contest of power, those who gain the upper hand so entirely monopolise the government as to refuse all share to the defeated party….Now according to our view such governments are not politics at all, nor are laws right which are passed for the good of particular classes and not for the good of the whole state….That stae in which the law is subject and has no authority, I perceive to be on the highway to ruin; and the state in which the rulers are the inferiors of the law has salvation.”

The idea that the practices of state must conform to rules and principles of justice is of course tenable and necessary. But both Plato and Aristotle underestimate the dynamic and vital elements in the political order. They obscure the fact that political life is a contest of power, no matter by what laws it is governed.

They are always looking for forms and principles of justice, for constitutions and arrangements which will bring the rough vitalities of life under the dominion of the logos [Word]. They do not of course trust the mere force of law  to do this. But when they look for the best human agencies to interpret, apply, and enforce the principles of law, and try to construct some transcendent vantage point from which government may operate against the conflicts of partial interests (in the case of Aristotle particularly against the conflict between rich and poor) they find it in some class of virtuous and rational men. It is the superior reason of such men, or their specialised knowledge in affairs of government, which endows them the virtue of disinterestedness.

Greek political theory believes in other words in an elite class. The perils of anarchy according to classical thought arise primarily from the ignorance of common citizens who are unable to comprehend the total needs of the community. Plato seeks to cultivate the disinterestedness of the rulers by semi-ascetic disciplines, (A person who renounces material comforts and leads a life of austere self-discipline) as well as by rational excellency.

In any case the realm the realm of politics, as a field of vitality [life] and as a contest of power, is inadequately comprehended. The Stoic theory, particularly in its distinction between the absolute and the relative natural law, comes closer to the realities of politics. But even the Stoics, and particularly the Roman Stoics, have a too optimistic conception of the political order. Cicero gave a highly moralistic account of politics in general and of Roman imperialism in particular. He regarded the state as a compact of justice, and had little understanding of the power realities which underlie the compact.

The Christian ages, after the dissipation of the eschatological hope and the concomitant political irresponsibility of the early church, worked out a political ethic in which Gospel perfectionism and Biblical realism were combined with classical (particularly Stoic) optimism. Augustine was the first to to introduce a new and more Pauline note into the field of thought, as he did in so many other fields. Making the criticism of Ciceronian rationalism and optimism his point of departure he denied that the state is a compact of justice, and insisted that “there is not any justice in any commonwealth whatsoever but in that whereof Christ is the founder and ruler 1 De, civ, Dei, Book II, ch 21. He regarded the peace of the world as an uneasy armistice between contending social forces’ it is “based on strife”. It is not so much justice as “the harmonious enjoyment of that which they love” which holds the Civitas (City) together 1 (Civitas is a practice of landscape architects). De civ Dei, Book XIX, ch 24.

Augustine sees the social life of man as constantly threatened either by conflict between contending forces, held in an uneasy equilibrium, or by the tyranny of the dominant power which “lays a yolk of obedience upon its fellows”, This interpretation may not do full justice to the constructive elements of order in either the (holy) Roman Empire or in any res publica  (State) or commonwealth of history. He may have taken the conditions of a declining, rather than a healthier, Roman Empire as definitive; and he may have sharpened the contrast too much between the Civitas Dei and the Civitas terrena, so as to produce a perfect antithesis between the love of God in the one and the love of self in the other.  But despite these errors of over-emphasis, the Augustinian conception of the political order gives a much truer picture of both the dynamic and the anarchic elements in political life than classical political theories.

Despite Augustine’s great authority, his political realism had only a moderate influence on the course of mediaeval political theory. The latter incorporated a much larger classical element than is evident in Augustine’s thought. Mediaeval Catholicism succeeded in fact in creating as imposing a synthesis (integrated whole) in the realm of political theory as in other fields of thought. The synthesis is still superior to many alternative systems which have developed since the destruction of the synthesis; but it is, of course, subject to the general limitations of its larger principles of synthesis.

Mediaeval political theory manages to incorporate both strands of Biblical thought with classical perspectives. The prophetic-Biblical criticism upon the injustice and the pride of rulers is never lacking; but unfortunately it becomes the instrument of the papal-ecclesiastical claim of dominion. The Stoic Christina idea that government is a requirement of the relative, rather than of the absolute, natural law, prevents the inequalities and the coercive necessities of government from being regarded as finally normative. The distinction preserves a minimal note of criticism upon government. There is thus a moderate mediaeval constitutalism which makes the ruler subject to both natural law and civil law.1 To civil law because the natural law implies a covenant of justice between the ruler and the people. According to Carlyle mediaeval constitutionalism represents an unbroken tradition until the 15th century and does not allow the idea of the absolute and unconditioned rights of the ruler to arise. Carlyle, op, cit, Vol. Vol. VI.

The authority of the ruler and the idea of necessity of government are upheld at the same time both by Biblical authority and by the Stoic idea of government as a necessity in an imperfect world. The more classical element in mediaeval political thought is revealed in an essentially rationalistic approach to political problems

, tending to obscure the tension of vitalities and interests as a perennial factor in all social life. The peril of tyranny, in the power of the state, is not regarded as arising inevitably from its nature as a centre of power, and from the natural inclination of power, including state power, to become excessive.

Instead mediaeval theory makes moralistic and too absolute and clear cut distinctions between the justice and tyranny of rulers. 1 Aquinas defies tyranny as “ruling which is not directed to the common good of the multitude but rather to the private good of the ruler.” De regimine principum. = (The government leaders). It does not comprehend that the justice and peace which the power of the state achieves is always subject to some degree of corruption by reason of the inordinate character of the power, and the particular interests of the ruler.

Mediaeval constitutionalism contains abundant moral justification for resistance to tyranny, but the idea is not implemented politically and Lord Acton is therefore slightly extravagant in regarding Aquinas as the fountain of democratic theory. 2 Aquinas did believe that the people had the right to appoint the king and therefore an equal right to depose him. (De regimine principum. I. 6) John of Salisbury even justified regicide (The killing of a king) as a remedy for tyranny. This critical attitude towards the injustices of government is far superior to modern theories of state absolutism; but it is not democratic in the sense that it provides no constitutional means of resisting the inordinate claims of government or of placing its power under continued popular scrutiny. Cf Mcllvain, op cit, pp 326—28.

Mediaeval theory failed to comprehend the political order as a vast realm of mutually dependent and conflicting powers and interests, and to appreciate the contingent and relative character of any “justice” which might be achieved at a given moment by the power of government and by the specific equilibria of forces existing at that moment. This failure was one cause of its inability to deal realistically with the new forces, and the consequent disbalances introduced into the mediaeval political economy by rising commerce. 1 A modern Catholic historian regrets that Catholicism was so long in overcoming the influence of Augustinian pessimism, and thinks that the essential optimism of Thomas Aquinas came just a little too late to save the structure of mediaevalism (Cf Alois Demph, Sacrum Imperium, = Mass Control, p 30). Holy Roman Empire (Territory) The Holy Roman Empire was a multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until its dissolution in 1806

With the decay of the mediaeval synthesis, the various elements in the compound of political thought took their own more consistent way, as was the case in other realms of thought. Many of the new political theories may be less true, and are certainly less balanced, than the more comprehensive mediaeval interpretation of the political order. But most of them contain facets of TRUTH which do more justice to the highest possibilities and the darkest realities of the political order than was possible in the mediaeval synthesis. 

The Renaissance in its secular streams of thought developed two fundamental tendencies, Secular = (of or relating to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests)

1.      The one embodied the rationalistic-optimistic approach to the problem. We cannot trace this tendency in all of its elaborations. It is expressed in the many varieties of the “liberal” approach to politics. In some of them the laissez-faire pre dominates. It is believed to be a simple matter to achieve a stable equilibrium of social interests if only the inordinate power of government is eliminated. In others the power of government is regarded as a simple rational authority over rational men, which will become more just and more universal as reason is extended. One contemporary fruit of this stream of Renaissance thought consists in theories of world government, according to which the self-will and moral autonomy of nations could be destroyed by the simple expedient (tending to promote some proposed or desired object; fit or suitable for the purpose; proper under the circumstances) of depriving the sovereignty of nations of its legal sanctity (saintliness or holiness. 1 Cf, inter alia, G Niemeyer , Law Without Force. Other theorists are slightly more realistic and hold that international government must be supported by predominant power (having ascendancy, power, authority, or influence over others). But they would create the central pool of power abstractly (thought of apart from concrete realities) by some kind of social contract between the nations, without reference to the organic and vital processes through which equilibria of power and the centralisation of power are actually effected in history.

2.      The Renaissance movement, however, developed anther stream of thought which appropriated some of the insights of Christian realism and pessimism. It recognised the perils of conflict in the dynamic elements of social existence,; but it was prompted by these insights to elaborate absolutistic theories of the state. It failed, in other words, to appropriate any of the prophetic-critical elements in the Christian tradition.


To this strain of thought we must, in cursory terms, assign Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Jean Bodin, in some respects Hegel and Bosanquet, and of course a host of other lesser men. Sometimes as in the case of Machiavelli, the political pessimism degenerates into moral cynicism. Marxism has the distinction of being the only pessimistic realistic school of thought in the modern period which directs its realism against the moral ambiguities of the power of government, rather than upon the perils of social anarchy which government is designed to mitigate.

The strong Biblical basis of sectarian radicalism makes it advisable to consider it in this context in juxtaposition to the orthodox Reformation, rather than in relation to the Renaissance movement. So conceived Protestant Christian theories of politics, in their totality, describe a full arc from the extreme pessimism of the Lutheran Reformation to the extreme optimism of the more radical sects; from the uncritical sanctification of government in Luther to the uncritical rejection of government, as such, in the anarchistic sects; from the uncritical acceptance of inequality as a consequence and remedy for sin in Luther, to the uncritical belief in equality as a simple historical possibility in the communistic sects. In this wide variety of thought the greatest contribution to democratic justice was made by those Protestant groups which came closest to an understanding of both the vice and the necessity of government, and both the peril and the necessity of a free interplay of social forces. Among those who came nearest to this understanding were moderate Anglicans who combined Catholic with Renaissance perspectives and whose political theories are most systematically expressed in the thought of Thomas Hooker; semi-sectarian movements like English independency; and finally the later Calvinists, who rescued Calvinism from its earlier and too consistent pessimism.

This rather sweeping judgement demands historical substantiation, though the limits of this treatise necessarily restrict the analysis of the vast historical material

Luther’s uncritical moral and religious sanctification of the power of the government (particularly based upon Romans 13) has been previously considered.  It prevented Lutheranism from having any vital relationship with the development of democratic justice in the modern world, with the possible exception of the Scandinavian countries. 1 I say “with the possible exception of the Scandinavian countries” because I have been unable to find authoritive material on the relation between the impressive development of constitutional democracy in Scandinavia and the dominant Lutheran religion.

The development of political theory in modern radical Reformation thought is instructive because Barth is on the whole more Lutheran than Calvinistic in his approach to political questions. He has been Lutheran, at least in his general indifference towards problems of political justice, though he has not quite shared Luther’s uncritical acceptance of political authority. His strong emotional reaction to Nazi tyranny has, however, persuaded him to change his emphasis.. He now criticises the Reformation for having regarded government as an ordinance of Divine providence without at the same time setting under the judgement of God. Nevertheless the influence of Reformation perspectives is so powerful in his thought that his doctrinal justification for his opposition to Nazi tyranny is hardly sufficient to explain that opposition. 1 Barth defines a just state [Rechtsstaat} = constitutional state; as follows: “It will realize its own potentialities in so far as it gives the church the freedom [to preach the Gospel of Justification] What human justice is cannot be measured by some romantic or liberal conception of natural rights but purely by the concrete right of the freedom [to choose] which the church must claim for its word, in so far as it is God’s Word.” Rechtfertigung und Recht, = [Justification and legal], page 46. This is a very minimal contribution to the problem of justice in the state. The freedom to preach the Gospel of Justification means of course that that the state would thereby permit the Word of Divine Judgement to be spoken against its pride and pretensions. But none of the intermediate problems of justice are illumined by the this final word of judgement.

In his letter to British Christians Barth declares that “it was probably wise of the government to allow 9sic) the british public to discuss peace aims” but he thinks that “ British Christians should….take as little advantage of this permission as possible.” This Christian Cause.   

As Against the uncritical sanctification of established political authority, and the pessimistic acceptance of coercion, inequality (the condition of being unequal; lack of equality) and conflict (discord) as necessary conditions in a sinful world in Lutheranism, sectarian Protestantism in its many forms manages to express all the various aspects of the critical-prophetic strain of Christian thought.

In the more extreme sects this is done to the point of obscuring the other side of the TRUTH. The perils of government are appreciated, but not its necessity. The contradiction between the majesty of government and the majesty of God is emphasised; but the legitimate majesty of government is not apprehended (to take into custody; arrest by legal warrant or authority). 2 

2 In the “Certain Queries Presented by Many Christian People” to Lord Fairfax, Lord General of the Army of Parliament, he is warned: “Not to take that honour to yourselves that is due to Christ, nor be instrumental in setting up a mere natural and worldly government….whereby the public interest of Jesus Christ will be banished.” Quoted by Arthur S Woodhouse: Puritanism and Liberty, P242.

George Fox’s indictment of the “magistrates” as “usurpers” reveals the same uncritical lack of appreciation of the necessity of government.

Usually the failure to appreciate the necessity of government is from perfectionist illusions in regard to human nature and human society. 1 Many forms of American liberal-Protestantism are implicitly anarchistic in their social theories, as they are explicitly sanctificationist in their theories of redemption Cf, inter alia: E Stanley Jones, Christ’s Alternative to Communism.

 Sometimes government is accepted; but the libertarian emphasis is so strong that all coercive acts of government are morally repudiated. 2 This position is taken for instance by the “Leveller” sect. Its leader, John Lilburn, declared: “It is unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked, unjust, devilish, and tyrannical for any man whatsoever, spiritual or temporal, clergyman or layman, to appropriate or assume unto himself power, authority and jurisdiction to rule, govern, or reign over any sort of men in the world without their free consent.” From A Freeman’s Freedom Vindicated (1646). The idea is legitimate if it means the “free” acceptance of the authority of government in general. But in sectarianism it frequently excluded the coercive power of government in specific instances, thus making for anarchism.

Sometimes the requirements of the absolute natural law, the ideals of liberty and equality, were rightly restored as principles of criticism and final judgement upon all relative justice and injustice in history; but the inevitability of relative distinctions in history is usually not understood. The 18th Century secular theory of equality as a simple “law of nature” is rooted in 17th Century sectarian theory. 3 Cf Woodhouse, op, cit, pp 68—69.

The sect of “Diggers” anticipated, and may have inspired, the Marxist theory of government as primarily a tool of the privileged classes. 4 Cf David Petegorsky, Left Wing Democracy in the English Civil War. The theory is of course partly right in the sense that oligarchies tend to seek their own advantage. It is wrong, however, in the sense that the corruption of a principle cannot explain the principle. The special privileges of a ruling class were the fruits of their special power. Their special power was partly derived form the necessity of government in the community, which they supplied, however imperfectly. The necessity of government, by which special privilege is created, is antecedent (prior) to the corruption of government.

Though the extremer sects always went too far in challenging either the pessimism of the Reformation or the circumspection of Catholic theories, they did of course provide much of the leaven of modern democratic development. The more inclusive and comprehensive conceptions of political life were developed by the semi-sectarian Separatists (Roger Williams the Independents, (John Milton), and by the later Calvinists.       

The development of Calvinistic thought from a conservative justification of political authority to a living relation with democratic justice deserves special consideration because, in its final form, Calvinistic theory probably came closest to a full comprehension of all the complexities of political justice.

Te earlier Calvin was almost as uncritical as Luther in his sanctification of state authority, and in his prohibition of resistance to it. 1 Cf, Instruction, IV, xx. “Wherefore, if we are cruelly vexed by an inhuman prince, or robbed and plundered by one avaricious…let us remember our offences against God which are doubtless chastised by these plagues….and let us consider that it is not for us to remedy these evils….but to implore the aid of God in whose hands are the hearts of kings….”.

Fortunately he permitted some exceptions to this position. He, himself, extended these to some degree under the stress of history, and later Calvinists developed them into a full-orbed democratic outlook. He allowed disobedience, though not resistance, if the political authority came in conflict with God’s demands upon the conscience; 2 Instruction, IV, xx, 32. “But in that obedience….due to rulers…..we must always make this exception….that it be not incompatible with obedience to him, to whose will….kings should be subject.” It must be admitted that this qualification did not have the force it might have had because it was applied narrowly. It meant that men must not allow rulers to interfere with their profession of the right religion. He objected only to private and not official resistance to the authority of the ruler. The “lower magistrates” were not only allowed, but enjoined to resist tyranny of kings. It was a simple matter for later Calvinists to think of any elected representatives of the people as lower magistrates, who resisted tyranny officially and not privately.

The later Dutch, French, and Scottish Calvinists distinguished between government as an ordinance of God’s providence and the particular form of government which might obtain at a given moment. Thus they freed the religious conscience from undue reverence for any particular government and established a critical attitude towards it; while yet preserving religious reverence for the principle of government. They understood, as the proponents of the secular social contract theory of government did not, that it is not within the power of  conscious human will to create government. The formation of government and statehood belongs to the slow processes of the ages and its roots are antecedent to any human decision. Government deserves reverence not only because it is necessary; but because it is a gift which man did not consciously contrive. But unlike Calvin the later Calvinists did understand the importance of human action in the formation of particular governments [i.e. Tyrannical] and the responsibility of men for the achievement of justice. 1 Calvin declared that “the correction of unbridled governments” is a “revengement of the Lord” and “it is not committed to us to whom is given no other commandment but to obey and to suffer” (Instruction, IV, xx). In contrast Samuel Rutherford, the Scottish constitutionalist, declared: “It is not in men’s free will that they have government or no government….or to obey or not to obey the acts of the court of nature, which is God’s court.” But he advised that we must “distinguish between the power of government and the power of government by magistracy.” The latter the people may  “measure out by ounce weights….no more and no less, so that they may limit, moderate and set banks and marches to the exercise,”….they “may give it out….upon this and this condition.” Lex Rex, iii, iv (1644).

Calvin believed that kings had a covenant with God to rule justly and the people had a covenant with God to obey. But he denied that this double covenant with God implied a contract between the ruler and the people. It was a simple matter for later Calvinists to insist that this covenant was triangular, between the ruler, the people, and God; that it was a covenant of justice; and that if the ruler broke it by injustice, the people were absolved of obedience. 2 In the words of Rutherford: “There is an oath betwixt the king and his people laying on by a reciprocation of hands, mutual civil obligation of the people to the king, and the king to the people.” Ibid.

In the important French Huguenot anonymous tract Vindiciae contra tyrannos = Verdict against tyrants (1579) the same argument is advanced: “It is certain that the people require a performance of covenants….The people ask the king whether he will govern justly. He promises he will. Then the people answer, and not before, that whilst he govern uprightly, they will obey faithfully. The king promises….the which failing to be accomplished the people are quit of these promises.”  

Thus justice, rather than mere order and peace, because the criterion for government; and democratic criticism became the instrument of justice. 1 It is not possible in this context to trace the development of the idea of democratic election of rulers from the idea of the right of resistance. Samuel Rutherford argues that since even royalists admits the right of the people to elect inferior magistrates in the cities, “ergo many cities have the power to create a higher ruler; for royal power is but the united and superlative power to inferior judges.” Ibid.

The difference between the democratic tempers of later Calvinists and the undue and uncritical reverence for political authority in the early Reformation, both Lutheran and Calvinistic, is well illustrated in John Knox’s interpretation of Romans 13. Being asked how we could square his defiance of royal authority with this scriptural injunction in Romans 13, he answered: “The power in that place is not to be understood as the unjust commandment of men but the just power wherewith God hath armed His magistrates and lieutenants to punish sin.” Advised that this interpretation implied that subjects could control and judge their rulers, he replied: “And what harm should the commonwealth receive if the corrupt affection of ignorant rulers be moderated and bridled by the wisdom and discretion of Godly subjects so that they would not do violence to any man.” John Knox, History, II, 282.

Too much must not be claimed for either later Calvinism or Independency in establishing democratic justice in the Anglo-Saxon world. The vindication of the right of self-government and the elaboration of effective constitutional forms for the expression of the right, was the fruit of many secular, as well as religious, movements. But the secular movements were inclined to libertarianism in their reaction to the evils of government; or to lose their democratic theories upon the idea of goodness of human nature; and consequently to underestimate the perils of anarchy, while they directed their attention to the perils of tyranny. 1 American constitutionalism owes more to the circumspection of James Madison’s essentially Calvinistic approach to the problem of government than to Thomas Jefferson’s simple libertarianism, Jefferson as a statesman more frequently acted, in fact, upon Madison’s presuppositions than upon his own.  

Whatever may be the source of our insights into the problems of the political order, it is important both to recognise the higher possibilities of justice in every historic situation, and to know that the twin perils of tyranny and anarchy can never be completely overcome in any political achievement. These perils are expressions of the sinful elements of conflict and dominion, standing in contradiction to the ideal of brotherhood on every level of communal organisation.  There is no possibility of making history completely safe against either occasional conflicts of vital interests (war) or against the misuse of the power which is intended to to prevent such conflict of interests (tyranny).

To understand this is to labour for higher justice in terms of the experience of justification by faith Justification by faith in the realm of justice means that we will not regard the pressures and counter-pressures, the tensions, the overt and the covert conflicts by which justice is achieved and maintained, as normative in the absolute sense; but neither will we ease our conscience by seeking to escape from involvement in them. We will know that we cannot purge ourselves of the sin and guilt in which we are involved by the moral ambiguities of politics without also disavowing responsibility for the creative possibilities of justice.




In the crisis of world history in which we stand, we have a particularly vivid example of the twofold character of all historic political tasks and achievements. The economic interdependence of the world places us under the obligation, and gives us the possibility, of enlarging the human community so that the principle of order and justice will govern the international as well as the national community.  We are driven to this new task by the lash of fear as well as by the incitement of hope. For our civilisation is undone if we cannot overcome the anarchy in which the nations live.  Tis new and compelling task represents the positive side of historical development and reveals the indeterminate possibilities of good history.

Unfortunately, however, many of the idealists who envisage this new responsibility think they can fulfil it best by denying the perennial problems of the political order. They think that world government is possible without an implied hegemony [dominance] of the stronger powers. This hegemony is inevitable; and so is the peril of a new imperialism, which is inherent in it. The peril can best be overcome by arming all nations great and small with constitutional powers to resist the exactions of dominant powers. This is to say that the principle of the balance of power is implied in the idea of constitutional justice. But if the central and organising principle of power is feared too much, and the central authority is weakened, then the political equilibrium degenerates once more to an unorganised balance of power. And an unorganised balance of power is potential anarchy.

Thus we face all the old problems of political organisation on the new level of a potential international community. This new international community will be constructed neither by the pessimists, who believe it to go beyond the balance of power principle in the relation of nations to each other; nor by the cynics, who would organise the world by the imposition of imperial authority without regard to the injustices which flow inevitably from arbitrary and irresponsible power; nor yet by the idealists, who are under the fond illusion that a new level of historic development will emancipate history from those vexing problems.

The new world must be built by resolute men who “when hope is dead will hope by faith”; who will neither seek premature escape from the guilt of history, nor yet call the evil, which taints all their achievements, good.  There is no escape from the paradoxical relation of history to the Kingdom of God History moves towards the realisation of the Kingdom, but yet the judgement of God is upon every new realisation.