Toward a New Cosmological Fourfold and the Apocalyptic Grounding of Early Christian Theology–Apocalyptic Political Theology Book Event

This is a guest post by Joel Kuhlin, doctoral student at the Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University.

The present response attempts to think with, rather than about, certain key-aspects of Thomas Lynch’s Apocalyptic Political Theology, from the perspective of a philologist. From a philological appreciation of Apocalyptic Political Theology, instead of a purely philosophical one, I would like to argue that resources are found to renew historical investigations into the ways in which early Christianity formulates a political theology. Here, apocalypticism plays a main role. Ernst Käsemann, for instance, famously states that the “apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology” (The Beginnings of Christian Theology, 1962), effectively making a discussion on an early Christian theology on the political impossible without reference to apocalypticism. However, as we shall see, it remains to be demonstrated whether apocalyptic thought was able to maintain a centrality for the emerging religion, regardless of how important this concept is for the founding of the political theological discourses found in the New Testament archive. Lynch’s work highlights with clarity the ways in which a movement such as Christianity of late antiquity not only came to accept “the World” in its theology, but most importantly through the Holy Roman Empire defined itself in terms of actually defending the World.

Toward a New Concept of a Fourfold World

A primary resource the concept of apocalyptic political theology offers a historical study of early Christianity and New Testament archive is the cosmological fourfold. Lynch’s analysis of the insufficiency of Carl Schmitt’s view on the making of a “world” looks to antagonistic divisions of nature-capital-race-gender.  I would argue that Lynch’s introduction to this new theological “fourfold” cosmology ought to be considered an important supplement to Irenaeus of Lyon’s fourfold gospel.
Irenaeus in Adversus Haereses believes that the World, and especially its four corners or overall fourfold structure, is a natural defense for why the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John hold authority over other early Christians gospels and should be seen together (along with the apostolic origin of each text). Through this highly influential and significant argument in early Christianity, a fundamental conception of a fourfold world lies behind the formation of a cornerstone for the New Testament canon. It remains to be seen what the full effect of Lynch’s new corners of the world would mean for this discourse, but Irenaeus’ defense of the four gospels against the background of the World can hardly be taken as an innocent mode of justification. In short, understanding nature-capital-race-gender as the four corners of the world, a renegotiate with the origin of the New Testament can take place.

An apocalyptic tendency is erased through Irenaues’ fourfold. Christian texts that came to be labeled as heretical and “gnostic” texts and gospels, (such as the Valentinian “Gospel of Truth”) was effectively pushed aside by theologians such as Irenaeus, through cosmological arguments that emphasized a fourfold unity. With Lynch’s antagonistic fourfold cosmology, a more dynamic view of early Christianity is possible, rehabilitating aspects of gnostic Christians, for instance. Gnostics Christians were highly skeptical of the world, as Jacob Taubes as argued in “The Gnostic idea of Man” (1955): “‘For the Gnostics the “cosmos is fullness of evil.’ The idea of cosmos was in the Gnostic terminology not a neutralized concept as in modern physics. In the Gnostic perspective the natural order of things was demonized and satanized, and the powers and principalities of the world, the archontes became the representation of evil.” The pessimism of these Christians (“cosmos is fullness of evil”), explicitly linked antagonism against this world with an apocalyptic disposition, seeking to escape its essential forms of violence and troubled the so called proto-orthodox theologians to the point of their excommunication. Significant political struggle within the early Christianity of the 2nd-4th century was therefore explicitly linked to texts and groups calling the neutrality of the world into question.

Apocalyptic Political Theology enables a convincing conception of the world and the making of a world as fourfold, and as such can help historians re-articulate questions of early Christian apocalypticism, heresy and canon-formation.

Schmitt, Peterson and Methodology: Re-opening the Case for a Christian Political Theology
A secondary resource of an apocalyptic political theology is found with its emphasis on a methodological focus “on the relationship between political and theological concepts” (Apocalyptic Political Theology, 7). While Lynch does not aim this method at the issue of origins and genealogical approach to the terms of theology- the political, the use of this methodology throughout the book makes it possible to use it in a discussion on Christians origins, for instance. In particular, I am thinking about the enigmatic exchange between fellow philologist Erik Peterson in Monotheism as a Political Problem (1935) and Carl Schmitt Political Theology II (1970), 10 years after Peterson’s death it should be added. I would like to argue that an apocalyptic political theology makes it possible to look at the heated debate between Peterson-Schmitt and emphasize a historical tension, or better yet relay, existing between theology and the political, that either party perhaps blinded by the time in which they write, risk missing.

Before I re-iterate the details of the Peterson-Schmitt debate on the issue of early Christianity and political theology, I would like to clarify what I find in Lynch’s methodological approach. Lynch’s book makes it clear that an apocalyptic political theology considers the relationship of the political and theology an immanent relation. In my reading, Lynch also makes it clear that Hegel, Taubes and Malabou can be seen as articulating a material approach to theology, which takes the relationship of theology- the political to be distinctively immanent. In other words, neither term is given the upper hand, in a hierarchical sense, but stand on equal footing. The question of what begets what is therefore irrelevant, and in its place one finds, what Daniel Colucciello Barber perhaps would call, a perplexing “namelessness” that characterize any attempt to signify or fixate an immanent relation (On Diaspora, 2011 chapter 1). To foreshadow the importance of this methodology, most of the significant theological concept of early Christianity can therefore be seen as theologized political concepts.

Back to 1935, and Erik Peterson’s weighing in on the issue of political theology. When Carl Schmitt publishes the sequel to Political TheologyMonotheismus als Politische Problem was its primary target. Why? Peterson’s book only mentions Schmitt in a footnote toward the end, but makes the case that Christianity can only ever argue for a political theology through Arianism, more or less directly arguing that Christians standing with Hitler find themselves outside of the domain of Christian theology. At the same time, Monotheism as a Political Problem also demonstrates that second-temple Jewish thinker, Philo of Alexandria, and many early Christian theologians, such as Justin Martyr and Eusebius of Cesarean actively argue for a political theology, where God is the divine monarch sometimes borrowing authority to God’s earthly representative. At least the divine monarchy can claim political allegiance, according to said thinkers. Peterson is thus making a theological argument rather than a historical one, since it is clear that political theologies where present both in second temple Jewish and early Christian settings of late antiquity.

Schmitt’s Political Theology II argues that Peterson cannot claim a theological refuge from history, precisely because he misses an examples of a vivid political discourse in early Christianity. However, in contrast to Peterson, I would argue Schmitt overemphasizes the political over against theology, believing that Peterson was trying to escape the grasp of the political (so to speak), while in reality Monotheism as a Political Problem sought to place religion and theology above the political rather than find loop holes ”within it.” In short, Peterson was not really making a historical argument at all.

Here is where Lynch’s methodology and immanent relation of theology-the political offers an opening. For, is it not the case that the Greek grammar of the New Testament archive and early Christianity it saturated with theologized political terms, like soter–soteria, parousia, basileia (theou), ekklesia, euangelion et cetera. Instead of getting caught up in an either-or of Schmitt and Peterson, a more helpful route can be found in considering the link of political theology to a Christianity that moves beyond pagan, Judaic, or even Christian monotheism (Peterson), or as an essential bond (Schmitt), but instead in the nameless relay of the political with theology, as such. Whenever the chance is given, theology will find reasons to use the political, and vice versa.

With a focus on the grammar of early Christian theology, political presence is inescapable. At the same time, it is far from clear that the New Testament writers, for example, were always, or even most of the time, interested in subverting the political order of its day (apocalyptically or otherwise). While it is not the time and place to make this argument in detail, perhaps previous studies of Paul for instance, have a tendency to put too much stress on particular political terminology in the Pauline vocabulary, a risk I believe the methodology of an apocalyptic political theology can help clarify. The immanent namelessness of the relation between the political in New Testament and its theologies is also a question that I find open to further investigation.

To conclude, from the perspective of a philologist, admittedly perhaps too tightly tied up with questions of Christian origins, I highly recommend Thomas Lynch’s Apocalyptic Political Theology be read by philologists and others seemingly outside of political theology or continental philosophy, and have read this work from a Deleuzian angle, as creating a concept that can be put to work in other areas of theology and religion. I have above attempted to pay tribute to how an apocalyptic theology challenges the study of early Christianity and the New Testament archive, in particular.