Paul’s Political Debate Against Augustus

May it be my privilege to establish the Republic safe and sound on its foundations, gathering the fruit of my desire to be known as author of the ideal constitution, and taking with me to the grave the hope that the basis which I have laid will be permanent.

These are the words of the best of the best emperors, Octavian, Divus Augustus, according to Suetonius.1 Augustus had a dream: Restore the Roman state to its glory, end the internecine strives and civil wars, establish it safe and prosperous and victorious and ruling over all the world. It wasn’t Pax Romana yet, for the view of imposing the Roman peace upon the other nations had not yet been crystallized in the official ideology of Rome. But one thing was there: Augustus’s dream was to re-create the Roman family in the Roman Republic. The Roman family was the old clan family, a family where a patron commanded the loyalty of his clients, and all had their assigned positions in life, serving the community organized around the house altar of the patron’s family. There was not individual liberty in the Roman social views; the individuals – whether the patron himself, or his children, or the client families who served the patron family – existed for the sake of the community. De Coulanges tells us that we “have deceived [ourselves] about the liberty of the ancients.”2 There was no liberty in our modern sense. All existed for the family. And Augustus gave his subjects a concept that was familiar to them and could excite them and energize them, except that now he moved the “family” to a higher level: Now all existed for the Republic. And he aspired to become the author of that “ideal constitution” of the ideal greater clan, the Republic. Once that ideal community was created, history would stop, and no changes will threaten the prosperity of the world.

And the purpose of government was that: create and maintain the “ideal constitution” for the new, greater family, the imperial state, with individuals as its clients, serving the Emperor as the ultimate Patron.

Many opponents of Christendom within churches and seminaries today claim that Apostle Paul never issued a challenge against the political order of the day. “Jesus wasn’t a social reformer,” they claim, “and neither was Paul. In fact, they called for total obedience to the civil government, and claimed that the civil government – even the worst civil government – was instituted by God.” Some claim that Christendom – the complete Christian civilization which subjected all of life, including political life, under the Word of God, was only a temporary stage in history, a “mistake” even, a deviation from the original intent of Jesus and the Apostles. Some Neo-Reformed even go to the length to claim that the Reformers were against the idea of Christendom and they preferred a religiously neutral civil government, subject not to God’s Law but to “natural law.”

And why not? It looks like Apostle Paul himself in Romans 13:1-7 speaks reverently about the civil ruler, and lays down principles for government which are just “natural” for all people. Really, whether you are a pagan or a Christian, you would agree with Paul on what the civil government should do. Isn’t it a great example of the “natural law” which should govern politics, if it is acceptable to all? And didn’t Paul recognize the governments of the day as legitimate, after all?

This is a very shallow approach to what Paul said. It misses a very important fact: That Paul’s philosophy about civil government sounds normal and natural only to our modern ears, trained and conditioned by centuries of Christendom history. Yes, it is true that modern non-Christians would heartily agree with Paul when it comes to civil government, as he explains it in Romans 13. But that is only because these modern non-Christians all live in the context of Christendom, and they are not consistent with their own non-Christian presuppositions.

But in the context of the times, and against the official philosophy of government of the Roman Empire, the Pax Augusta, Paul was not only not endorsing the civil government of the day, he was issuing a full-scale ideological challenge against the very tenets of that Pax Augusta, challenging the ideas about the role and purpose of government as no other political theorist before him had done.

I am talking, of course, about Paul’s words in Romans 13:4:

For he is a minister of God to you for good.

Normal and natural to the modern mind, yes? But to the minds of the ancients it was a revolutionary statement. It challenged the reigning philosophy of government, and it paved the way for the future Christians to teach and preach a new concept of government.

The greatest stumbling block in that statement, of course, was that the ruler is a minister of God. Now, that a ruler would do the will of the gods was not a new concept; we see it in Babylon and Persia, for example, heavily influenced at the time of Daniel by the religion of the Hebrews. But even there, with the possible exception of Nebuchadnezzar and Darius, the state was considered a “minister” in a different sense, as a necessary link in the “great chain of being” from the gods to the mortals. The ancient kings considered themselves mediators between men and gods, and responsible for keeping both men and gods under control. Pharaoh’s reaction to Moses, “Who is Jehovah?,” was a declaration of political sovereignty, that Jehovah may be a god but he still needed the approval of the Egyptian state to lay any claims to anything. The gods needed the state more than the state needed the gods; rulers could change their gods if the gods failed to act favorably. In places like Athens or Rome, temples to different gods were built at public expense and by a political decision. The Pantheon in Rome was the ultimate example of such belief about the role of the state: A god deserved his place in the Pantheon only after a decision by the Senate. (Ironically, Jesus Christ was a few votes away from getting His place there, under Tiberius Caesar.)

The Roman Republic had disposed of that superstition, “the will of the gods.” While the gods were still venerated and sacrificed to, they were steadily pushed out of the system of political decisions. In its last days, the Republic emerged as a strictly secular ideal stripped of supernatural religious meaning. In fact, by the time of Augustus, it was a religious concept itself, and perfection for the political and social order was sought in terms of that new religious concept, the Republic. That’s why Augustus could speak about the “ideal constitution” and the Republic “safe on its own foundations” without mentioning the gods. Pagan religions start with the state being the focus of the gods’ activities, only to end with the state being a god itself, with no need of other gods to sanction it.

And yet, given the history of the pagan political thought, Paul’s statement that the ruler was a minister of God could have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for the context: “to you.”

Now, that was a game-changer. The state wasn’t the center and the culmination of mankind’s meaning and purpose anymore. God, or the gods, were not the Hegellian gods who needed the state to develop their hidden potentialities. The state wasn’t a source of meaning, perfection, or divinity. God talked directly to the individual subjects of the state, He had a purpose and plan for them, and the state was only an instrument of His purpose. To add insult to the injury, Paul added, eis to agathon, that is, “for good.” But even worse, Paul was speaking to the Christians, those same Christians who already had declared that there was another King, one Jesus (Acts 17:7). There was “good” that God had for the individual Christians, and the civil ruler was only a servant of God to these Christians for their good.

Paul’s statement was far from being a meek acceptance and legitimization of the Roman political authority. True, it did not call for a violent political overthrow of the Roman Empire. But not because the political order of the day was just and Biblical. Paul knew the Old Testament Scriptures and he knew that the stone in Daniel – the Kingdom of Christ – would crush the last of the four kingdoms, Rome, and “put an end to it” (Dan. 2:44). Paul was laying the foundation for a new, Biblical understanding of civil government and politics, one that is according to the Law of God and obedient to God. A political revolution in his time, without a radically new concept of government, would only re-create the old government, if it was successful. He did not raise a sword against the Roman social and political order; but he raised his pen. And he challenged its very philosophical and religious foundations. He did not even mention “Rome” or the “Republic” when he described his ruler; only the generic exousia, that is “power,” without mentioning the Republic or Rome or anything. As if he viewed the political power as simply an errand boy, a servant with no other purpose but to serve its master to the good of his children. There was no “ideal constitution” in itself; in fact, no constitution was necessary in the first place, for who needs a “constitution” for a servant. Perfection was not to be found in the political order – after all, who is looking for perfection in a servant?

Paul’s political philosophy was something completely new. It sounds just normal and natural to our modern ears, living in the context of Christendom. To the classical world, it was blasphemy. And a declaration of war.

Augustus’s political philosophy survived for a couple of centuries. Not only this, it was self-consciously used as a judicial foundation for the persecutions against Christians. Thus Galerius, Diocletian’s junior co-emperor, after Diocletian’s withdrawal from political life, started his edict of toleration of 311 with the following words:

Among the other measures that we take for the use and benefit of the state, we have previously desired to correct anything not in accord with the ancient laws and public order of the Romans, so we made provisions that also the Christians who had abandoned the beliefs of their own ancestors should return to sound opinions.3

In AD 311, pagan emperors still found it expedient to use the formula of the Pax Augusta and find purpose in the state itself. And not only that, but the state was the ideal of perfection which could justify intervention by the civil rulers into the religious beliefs of all the subjects, and force them to accept a certain form of religious worship (the ancient laws of the Romans). The state was god itself, and it decreed and sanctioned religious observances. Apostle Paul’s words denied the state this privilege and prerogative. Romans 13:4 was his ideological condemnation and defiance against this philosophy.

And he won. Just two years after Gallerian’s edict – which never went into effect anyway – Constantine issued his Edict of Milan (313).4 The edict does not mention the state, or the Republic, or any of the other formulas of the Pax Augusta which gave philosophical justifications for the policies of the previous emperors. It does make a general mention of “general welfare” and “public good.” This may have meant “the state,” or it may have meant something else. That it meant something else is evident from other clues in the text:

First, the repetition of the word “freedom” as applied to individuals in their decisions what gods they want to worship. Constantine rejected the claim of the pagan state to perfection, and stripped it from the power to decide for its citizens what form of worship would be considered legal. He did not strip the state from its prerogative to maintain public order, as we can see from his legislation later in his life. But by transferring from the state to the individual the responsibility for the decision of what god or gods should be worshiped, he only followed Paul’s view of the state as a limited institution which can not be god itself, neither the center of God’s plan.

Second, Constantine did include language which presupposed an equal standing of the ruler and his subjects under God: “so that all the divine and heavenly powers that exist might be favorable to us and all those living under our authority.” Not only the state was not in the center of God’s plan anymore, it was not a direct mediator between God and men either. In terms of standing before God, the ruler was equal to his subjects; he needed God’s favor just as much as all those living under his authority. Constantine’s toleration to Christians was proclaimed in an entirely un-Roman way: not by politically granting Jesus Christ a place in the Pantheon but by a religious decision for the state to drop it claims to divinity.

The political revolution Paul started in the 1st century AD achieved its victory in AD 313. It wasn’t a complete victory; many more centuries were needed for the Christendom to crystallize its view of government and politics. But, unquestionably, the foundation for it was laid in Romans 13. Paul debated with Augustus, and won.

Share on Facebook
  1. Suetonius, Augustus 28. []
  2. Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (Doubleday Anchor Books: Garden City, New York, 1956),  p. 11. []
  3. Eusebius, Church History, 8.17. []
  4. Ibid., 9.5. []

About Bojidar Marinov

A Reformed missionary to his native Bulgaria for over 10 years, Bojidar preaches and teaches doctrines of the Reformation and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. Having founded Bulgarian Reformation Ministries in 2001, he and his team have translated over 30,000 pages of Christian literature about the application of the Law of God in every area of man’s life and society, and published those translations online for free. He has been active in the formation of the Libertarian movement in Bulgaria, a co-founder of the Bulgarian Society for Individual Liberty and its first chairman. If you would like Bojidar to speak to your church, homeschool group or other organization, contact him through his website: http://www.bulgarianreformation.com/
No comments yet.

Leave a Reply