The Christian Philosophico-Political Problem

There is an interesting parallel between Peter in the Book of Acts and Socrates in the Apology. Both men are on trial, and they are on trial specifically for what they have been teaching. Socrates in put to death. Peter, at this point, is not, but one day he will be.

More substantively, however, each man explicitly recognizes himself as facing a fundamental and enduring political challenge.

In Acts 5, Peter is on trial for preaching Christ. The Jewish authorities led by the high priest–let’s call them the city of Jerusalem to put a political face on them–told Peter to stop teaching in Jesus’ name, or what the angel in v.20 called “the words of this Life” (ESV). Peter, of course, was willing to obey in many things, but here he says, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). With this declaration he states what we call the theologico-political problem, one important aspect of which is the division of loyalty within the Christian between earthly civic authority and the higher authority of the King of kings.

In the Apology, the city of Athens, through the charges of his three accusers and the threat of death, tells Socrates to stop teaching what he does about the gods and to stop interrogating respectable citizens in front of the young. Socrates is also willing to obey the laws of the city in many ways, even to the point of submitting to death as he argues in the Crito, but on this point he says he must disobey. “I, men of Athens, salute you and love you, but I will obey the god rather than you; and as long as I breath and am able to, I will certainly not stop philosophizing…” (29d; West, transl.).

This appears to be a pagan form of the theologico-political problem, but it is a unique god that Socrates invokes. It is a god he alone recognizes. I suspect it is a god he has created for rhetorical purposes. Elsewhere, Socrates presents what drives him as being his philosophic nature, an erotic love for wisdom, for the truth, for the good. Thus, what Socrates and Athens are facing here we may call the philosophico-political problem.

For a Christian, these problems converge. Devotion to Christ is not simply devotion to raw divine will. It is also devotion to the truth. The Lord is holy. He is not part of the cosmos, but the creator of the cosmos out of nothing. He is ground of all being and the author of all truth. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6; cf. John 1, Colossians 1). So devotion to Christ is inseparable from devotion to the truth in general. To be Christ centered in faith is to be truth driven in life.*

*Here, I paraphrase John Piper in A Godward Life (p.106): “Being God-centered in life means being truth-driven in ministry.”

— D.C. Innes, associate professor of politics, The King’s College, New York City

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