The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology

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Craig Hovey, Elizabeth Phillips
Cambridge Companions to Religion
  • New York, NY: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , November
     317 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The editors of The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology, Craig Hovey and Elizabeth Phillips, have assembled a remarkable collection of compelling essays by some of the leading voices in contemporary conversations about Christian theology and politics. Representing a wide array of ecclesial traditions, methodological strategies, and theological and political concerns, the volume adeptly introduces the reader to the field of contemporary political theology by tracing its historical emergence, identifying its various streams of thought, and describing the central questions and most pressing concerns for the field today.

Hovey and Phillips are forthright in their admission that the volume does not attempt a comprehensive account of the field of political theology or an exhaustive geography of all the relevant thinkers, sources, or issues. The reader looks in vain, for instance, for particular chapters on black theology, feminist theology, or the emerging theological movements in the global south. Instead, the volume attempts a kind of argument about how the discipline of political theology has emerged over the last century, taken on multiple different forms, and identified several central issues and theological loci as its primary concerns. That argument is inseparable from the act of telling a certain story about political theology, and so the volume is best characterized as an attempt to narrate the story of Christian political theology. The argument, in fact, is the narration.

The book is structured in two parts. Part 1 traces the shape of the discipline as it has emerged from several mid twentieth-century theological movements and expanded into new domains. The opening three chapters on “European political theology,” “liberation theology,” and “public theology” sketch three related, but nevertheless distinct, streams of thought in which contemporary political theology can be said to originate. Hak Joon Lee’s chapter on public theology, especially its formation in North Atlantic contexts, helpfully identifies some of the chief similarities and key differences between the three streams of thought. All represent attempts to respond to the loss of Christianity’s “politicalness”—to use Sheldon Wolin’s term—though they do so “with differing social catalysts, sources, interlocutors, and themes” (xiii). This politicalness of Christian practice rediscovered in twentieth-century movements had not been entirely lost, of course, and two chapters in the first part of the volume are devoted to two discourses intimately related to political theology. Lisa Sowle Cahill’s chapter on Catholic social teaching and D. Stephen Long’s account of Protestant social ethics both detail the way theology has approached the political in these respective traditions. Finally, part 1 concludes with accounts of how a new generation, facing new theological and political challenges, has reimagined the inherited work of earlier political theologians. Postliberalism, radical Orthodoxy, and postcolonial theology are identified as three instances of contemporary improvisations within political theology.

If part 1 of the volume exhibits a description of the discipline of political theology by telling a particular narrative about its historical emergence, part 2 does so by identifying some of the central themes and questions common to its various expressions. Chapters on scripture and the Augustinian and Thomistic traditions demonstrate the ways contemporary political theologians negotiate their relationships to traditional sources of Christian thought. Three additional chapters on political liberalism and democracy, global capitalism, and secularism detail several pressing issues in contemporary politics that recent theological writing on the political has attempted to confront. Finally, the concluding two chapters take up the telos of political authority, theologically conceived, and the relationship of eschatology, apocalyptic, and creation in theological thinking about politics.

While many of the chapters in this volume are predominantly descriptive in their aim, several stand out as more intentionally constructive and provocative. D. Stephen Long’s account of American Protestant social ethics exhibits a sharpness and critical edge some will no doubt find objectionable; nevertheless, its shrewdness invites serious attention, especially by American thinkers, to thinking about the inheritance of social ethics and the baggage it might entail. Additionally, Eric Gregory and Joseph Clair set forth a compelling and stimulating argument against the conventional opposition between Augustinian and Thomistic political thought. Their attention to neglected components of Augustine and Thomas’s writings and their proposal of a more synthetic Augustinian-Thomistic political theology should capture the interest of many, and will certainly provoke the responses of thinkers in both traditions.

One notable absence in the volume is an extended treatment of the notion of sovereignty. Given that sovereignty emerged in the writings of Carl Schmitt as perhaps the principal category of political theology, and has thus occupied a central place in the discourse of political theology since its inception, a discussion of Christian thinking about sovereignty would strengthen the volume significantly. Though hinted at in several places in the volume, one wonders if the subject deserves a chapter of its own. Additionally, a question that arises throughout the volume for this reader, especially with the attention grassroots democratic practice receives in several important places, concerns the relationship between democratic politics and those ecclesial traditions characterized by hierarchy and unilateral authority—that is, those traditions often thought of as “undemocratic.” How do such institutions negotiate their relationship to democratic life? Do they face unique challenges in doing so? This is not so much a deficiency of the book as it is a difficult question the volume raises, if only implicitly. The question may be the subject of future writing on political theology and democracy, especially by writers in more high-church traditions.

Very few “companion” volumes are able to articulate the central features and key issues of a contemporary discipline with the cohesion and coherence The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology shows forth. Its editors are to be commended for weaving together a collection of insightful and provocative essays into a compelling argument about the past, present, and future of Christian political theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicholas Krause is a doctoral Student in Theology and Ethics at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
October 15, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Craig Hovey is Associate Professor of Religion at Ashland University and Executive Director of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence. His publications include Bearing True Witness: Truthfulness in Christian Practice, Nietzsche and Theology, and To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today's Church.

Elizabeth Phillips is Tutor in Theology and Ethics at Westcott House, an Anglican seminary affiliated with the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.


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