The Sorcerer’s Lordless Apprentice: The Powers and Political Power in Barth, Yoder and Wolterstorff -- By: Jason A. Fout

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 43:0 (NA 2011)
Article: The Sorcerer’s Lordless Apprentice: The Powers and Political Power in Barth, Yoder and Wolterstorff
Author: Jason A. Fout


The Sorcerer’s Lordless Apprentice: The Powers and Political Power in Barth, Yoder and Wolterstorff

Jason A. Fout*

I

Nicholas Wolterstorff, in an as-yet unpublished essay on political power and the biblical “powers” suggests that a good deal of contemporary political theology is beset by ambivalence when it comes to power.1 He assigns responsibility for this ambivalence to the Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder, and the influence of Yoder’s political theology. He sees this as being a decidedly negative development, not least because it rules out certain types of human analysis and enterprise, namely, assessing better and worse governments and where possible, working to improve them, making them more just and attending more adequately to the conditions of well-being.2 Wolterstorff traces this neglect to Yoder’s account of the structures inherent in creation (including political structures) as being also the fallen powers which Paul speaks of in the New Testament. Wolterstorff seeks to critique this point in order to provide a political theology which will better hold together both the order of creation and the order of redemption.

This essay explores Wolterstorff’s critique of Yoder and attempts to repair Yoder’s account of created structures and the powers. It does so through an exposition of Karl Barth’s somewhat different account of the powers; in the process I raise questions about the adequacy of Wolterstorff’s way forward. Briefly, I contend, with Barth, that the powers are best understood as the necessary structures of creation mirroring human rebellion against God: as the human attempts to be absolutely self-determining and autonomous, and thus lordless, in the process inflicting pain and suffering upon herself, so the systems intended for the flourishing of creation rebel against humans, in an effort to be lordless, and so oppressing humans. Thus any effort to address the situation of actual states, whether for assessment or improvement cannot be undertaken apart from the situation of lordlessness which the state and its people find itself.

II

Wolterstorff invokes Barth early on in his essay on the “fallen powers”. He differentiates between a typical “creational-providential” approach to political authority (such as that pursued by Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin) and a “Christological” approach (as followed by the likes of Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan).3 Wolterstorff suggests that theologians have moved in the direction of a Christological or “redemptive-order” account because of t...

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