Monday, March 20, 2023

Caesar, a god? Not so much

He does not explicitly contest Caesar’s rule—indeed, he can even see the authorities as allowed by God (Rom 13:1—7). Nor does he overtly criticize the imperial cult or judicial miscarriages or any other obviously problematical political practices. But he does, simply by placing all things under the dominion of Christ, help to create the political conditions under which Christian communities can live out the demotion of Caesar from “a god” to a servant of God. Implicitly, that is, Paul’s way of conceiving of Caesar’s authority is finally an uncompromising challenge to Rome’s construal of the emperor. For Rome, precisely because the emperor founds the political order and is the fulcrum on which it all turns, he requires ultimate and unchallenged allegiance. Caesar not only is “the Lord of the whole world," as an inscription in Greece once said of Nero, he can also be nothing less than what his politics require: a god, the extrinsic founder of the political reality called the Roman Empire. For Paul, however, such claims would smack of idolatry: for him, as for other Jews, only the true God can found a political order. All other political players are but actors on this more fundamental, God-given stage. As Paul tells the Corinthians, the Gentiles may well think there are “many lords and many gods” in the world—with Caesar among them—but “for us there is only one God … and one Lord” (1 Cor 8:6). At bottom, therefore, while Paul may remind the Romans to “pay taxes to whom taxes are due and give honor to whom honor is due," he does so only because he can judge such realities momentarily to cohere with the divine economy. When push later came to shove, congregants schooled in Pauline logic would have no difficulty discerning the Christian difference from Dea Roma, her emperor, and the wider religiopolitical practices that held them necessarily together. Final allegiance belongs only to Christ.—One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions, 107

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He develops this idea a good bit more in his earlier book, World Upside Down, which I read and excerpted from a few years ago (do a search on "World Upside Down" to find them). That book is also definitely worth your time—or as one of my theology profs used to say, "You owe it to yourself to read this book." Love that line!
</idle musing>

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