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“In 1964, Voegelin gave a series of memorable lectures on what he considered ‘the central German experiential problem’ of his time: Adolf Hitler's rise to power, the reasons for it, and its consequences for post-Nazi Germany.”

From the press release for the paperback edition of Hitler and the Germans, Detlev Clemens and Brendan Purcell trans. and ed., University of Missouri Press, 2003.  The text is taken from this page, to which linked on July 14, 2006.

For another critique of Received Opinion regarding Romans 13, see “The Powers That Be,” by Otis Q. Sellers elsewhere on this site.


Theoretical Inquiry into Romans 13

Eric Voegelin

And now, in concluding this investigation on the Evangelical side, a theoretical inquiry into Romans 13 for the Evangelical part, and then for the Catholic part an inquiry into the theological idea of the corpus mysticum Christi, so that the decadence I have repeatedly spoken of will come to light.

In all the documents, Evangelical and Catholic, with which those belonging to the communities were enjoined to obey Hitler, there are two texts from the Bible invoked by the clergy in order to com­mand obedience to the authorities. Among the two, on the Catholic side, in the documents I will present to you next time, the fourth commandment is preferred. That commandment is “Honor your father and your mother.” This father and mother is now interpre­tatively expanded as “Honor the state, carry out its laws, obey the authorities!” Please note that. Not a word of all that is in the fourth commandment—for the good historical reason that precisely in the covenant of Sinai, within which the Decalogue was announced, the people existed under God and not under authorities. There was no occasion for speaking about having to obey any kind of authorities at all. So it is unhistoric and anachronistic, and if such an alteration of an interpretative kind were made to a text in a secular context by a scholar, one would say: Absolutely barefaced falsification of the text! When theologians do it, then it is the church.

The same is now done with Romans 13, and here indeed the link is Luther, who in this regard is fully adopted by the Cath­olic Church, that is to say, that “everyone should be subject to authority.” That is the first sentence of the thirteenth chapter in the letter to the Romans in the Luther translation. Of this assertion, that “everyone should be subject to the authorities,” there is not an iota in Romans 13. I will now therefore undertake an investigation of Romans 13—which is always gladly referred to, especially this first verse—as a whole. I have for this purpose translated the text. The whole text of chapter 13 in the letter to the Romans falls into three parts: the first part, verses 1–7, the second part, verses 8–10, the third part, verses 11–14, and I will read out and comment on each of them. The first part, verses 1–7, reads, in literal translation:

Every soul must submit to the higher authorities, for there are no authorities except those under or by means of God. And the existing authorities are ordered by him. Therefore, whoever rebels against the order of the authorities, resists a divine order. And those who offer resistance will bring judgment [krima] down upon themselves. For rulers are not terrors for the good but only for the evil. If you do not want to fear the authorities, do what is good, and you will have their approval, for they are God’s assistants, in order to do good to you. However, if you do evil, then fear them, for they do not bear the sword without reason. They are God’s servants, who cause his anger to be felt by him who does evil. Therefore you should submit yourself to them, not only from fear of anger, but for conscience’s sake. Therefore also bear these burdens, for they are the servants [leiturgoi] of God, who dedicate themselves to this service. Fulfill all your duties, tax where tax, tolls where tolls, fear where fear, honor where honor, is due.

So that is the first part, of which only the first verse is ever quoted. The language Paul speaks here, in order to clarify the relation to the authorities, as he calls them, is conventional, taken from the Stoic philosophy of politics. The idea is that of a hierarchy of authorities in the cosmos, where God is in the highest place, in the lower places are the authorities in society, in the lowest place is man himself. That is the hierarchy of being in its order. So, whoever fits into this order must submit to the law of the world, which for whatever reasons has provided that there are also orders in society and representatives with the power of punishment, who must take care that men obey the moral law and that its violations are punished.

The presupposition of this entire instruction is naturally that one lives in the Roman Empire at the time when the Stoa had established the ethics of worldly order. That means that the im­perial government, its officials and their administration, in fact obey and sanction the moral law in the Stoic sense. That is the presupposition. There isn’t a word there that one should be subject to any authorities whatsoever, let alone, as we shall then see from the documents the next time, that one should have to be subject to the authorities even when they do evil. Let alone what Kant, for example, following Luther, read into obedience to authorities, that the authorities are holy or anything of the sort. Nothing of this. The passage is quite obviously directed toward persons in the Christian community who misunderstand the freedom of the Christian under God as meaning that one no longer has to obey the ethical order of society, that is to say, it is directed toward those who violate this ethical order. These are admonished that in this aion we find ourselves in, there is also a moral law, the one that will be sanctioned by these higher authorities. The kingdom of God, that comes only in the future. So, on the whole, it is not very different from Aristotelian politics, which also presuppose ethical behavior through orientation of the spirit and the continuous practice of the virtues.

It then presupposes the corrective—since people are inclined not to be virtuous—for violations of this order. The correctives in this case are the power of public order, the higher powers, the municipal authorities, the archontes of the polis, whose responsibility it is for restraining these violations or, if they still take place, for punishing them.

So it is classic politics, a bit Hellenistically changed in terms of vocabulary, but that is all. And always presupposed is the moral order as what these higher authorities make effective in this world. What now these men should really do is by no means merely to obey the authorities; rather that comes now in verses 8–10. There it says:

Owe no one anything, except love for the other, for whoever loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law. For the commandments “you shall not commit adultery, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” along with all the other commandments, can be summed up in this one rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love cannot do evil to the neighbor; the fullness of the law, therefore, is love.

If now we translate the language of Paul into the philosophical language of Aristotle, we would have to say this: All the different virtues from which the concrete commands follow are subordinated to what I call the existential virtues, in Aristotle, justice, philia, love, which is the fundamental ethic of the political community, as the philia politike in the spirit, the homonoia, the noetic virtue, that is positive order. Subordination is required under the existing authorities, whose precise goal it is to reestablish order, only if this positive order, which is enjoined here, is not kept.

Now the Christian element in this matter is something different. It is that all these negative worldly admonishments—subordinate yourself to the authorities or the powers!—should be existentially characterized by their positive accomplishment through love, which has then become one of the theological cardinal virtues. All of this becomes more urgent because the end of the world, spoken of in verses 11–14, is imminent:

And above all, you should be aware of the critical time [of the kairos] and the hour for you to awaken from sleep. [Demands formulated like this go back to Heraclitus,] For salvation is closer to us today than when we first believed. [That means, the time from now to salvation is shorter than from that point in time when we began to believe up to the present. So, in a short time, in our lifetime, the end of the world is coming.] The night is almost over and the day is near. Let us therefore cast aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live decently as in the day, not with feasting and drinking, with lust and fornication, with quarreling and jealousy. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ [as the armor of light], and do not turn your thoughts toward the desires of the flesh.

So, a carefully thought-out literary context aimed at those who are inclined to misunderstand the Gospel and the arrival of the aion as implying that one may now be licentious, that everything is permitted. But nothing of the kind. In this aion the higher powers, to which one must subordinate oneself, continue, and behavior toward the neighbor is positively characterized by love as the existential, spiritual virtue. And above all one should bear in mind that the end of the world and the second coming of Christ is close, very close indeed, closer than the time from the beginning of our faith, which has already run out, and that in this situation of the critical time one should therefore behave according to the kairos.

All of this has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with one hav­ing to be subject to any kind of authorities—above all, naturally, nothing to do with having to comply with the Hitler laws, as the bishops commanded, in their pastoral letters, by invoking the fourth commandment and, here, Romans 13. This scandalous mis­use of a literary text for subjugation—and, indeed, for unconditional subjugation—under the authorities in the sense of power politics, if it happened on the secular side, would also be considered a barefaced falsification. But again, in the theological sphere one may say such things about the relations of church and state, with which the New Testament has nothing to do.

However, of late, there has been a certain relaxation of these misinterpretations. In 1963 the Berlin bishop Otto Dibelius—I am now still speaking of the Evangelicals—published a study on the authorities.[1]  And already from the layout of the book, in the first part on Romans 13, you can see an interpretation not very different from what I have given you here. In the second part, he discusses Luther and the authorities, the bowdlerizing of this text through Luther’s notion of authority. Further, he treats of the objections, that Romans 13 also held good for the totalitarian state, and finally considers the freedom of a Christian. These would then be the problems of the second and third parts of the letter to the Romans. There we see that already something has been relaxed. But all of this relaxation takes place under a very ominous indication. I will read out this passage to you:

But when we speak of Romans 13, it is a question, firstly and above all, of a theological matter within the church.[2]

And a page later:

Once again: it is a question within the church how an important pas­sage of the Bible is to be interpreted. But certainly it is a question that must be considered by the Christian throughout the whole world.[3]

That is a masterpiece of barefacedness. Christ has come among men, but what he has said may only be interpreted by the theolo­gians. It is only a matter within the church. And if the theologians within the church interpret the passage of Romans 13 in such a way that their fellow citizens are slaughtered, not even then is it a public matter having to do with men and victims. Oh no, it remains even now a pure theological matter within the church. Here again you have this problem of the complete lack of human awareness among Christians. Christ is a private possession of the socially institutionalized organizations one pays church tax to. Even the lay people within the church have no say here and may not say, “Look, but that isn’t in the Letter to the Romans 13 at all.” And naturally whoever does not belong to the church, for example, Jews, who will be slaughtered, have no say, because these theologians have interpreted the letter to the Romans in this way.

So, there is this complete perversion in the treatment of Scripture, this complete failure to be a member of human society, this com­plete failure in the duty of being a citizen as well as a human being, this arrogance in treating Christianity and the words of Christ as a private matter for theologians, which then can cause horrible murderous wrong. That is still the attitude of Bishop Dibelius in the year 1963. That’s how things are!

[1] Otto Dibelius, Obrigkeit (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1963). Dibelius (1880–1967) Was general superin-tendent of Kurmark from 1925 until deposed in 1933. Deeply involved in the Confessing Church, he was bishop of Berlin, 1945–66; president of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, 1949–61; and a president of the World Council of Churches in 1954.

[2] Ibid., 72 (emphasis in the text).

[3] Ibid., 73.

Posted July 15, 2006

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