Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Theocracy and Its Political Implications

The Appeal to the “Kingly Rule of God” in Early Modernity

Prof. Dr. Kai Trampedach


This research plan has as its focus the relationship between religion and politics using an extreme example: theocracy, i.e., the idea of divine rule on Earth. “Theocracy“ is thus not conceived as a constitutive idea, placing to the side ideas such as monarchy, aristocracy or democracy. Rather the notion of God as an acting ruler characterizes a particular normative understanding which can be evoked independently of forms of rule. Theocracy forces all people in the same way, regardless of their respective social or political status, to acknowledge certain divine norms, adjusting their behavior accordingly. They are supposed to obey God’s laws or example, as these are transmitted in writings acknowledged as holy. For disobedience inevitably has as its consequence divine punishment. According to such a normative understanding, worldly laws and traditions are less important or even illegitimate if they contradict the divine norms.

This notion is inherent in the monotheistic religions as a potential, as Jan Assmann has pointed out in his study of the “Mosaic distinction.” Yet as a political argument, theocracy is only really effective in certain cultural contexts, with relevant consequences for the stability of political rule: the situative reference to the “kingly rule of God” was capable of stabilizing or of calling into question existing political institutions and processes. It offered as a result opportunities as well as risks for the bearers of political rule. Whoever always made use of the theocratic argument therefore had the possibility of overstepping the constitutionally-established course of political rule.

This research project attempts to develop a model which considers the various types of conceptions of theocratic rule, thus enabling a typological classification in comparisons which extend beyond cultures and periods. In particular, it should be asked in which forms the theocratic argument made its appearances, which actors or status groups made use of it, and which political and social implications were associated with it. At the same time, various types of theocratic rule, according to our starting assumption, permit us to see the entire range of integrative and disintegrative potential in religion. They thus make it possible to make statements about the interplay of religion and rule as a whole—at least in the periods and spaces in which both have not yet been distinguished into separately functioning (partial) systems.

Specifically, the plan is to complete in the period of the grant two empirical studies, one on antiquity and the other on early modernity; both studies are directly connected to the mutual research project:

1. Kai Trampedach: "Monarchy versus Theocracy: Legitimations of Rule in Antiquity in the Jewish-Christian World. The biblical phrase, the “kingly rule of God,” allowed monarchy to be understood both as a realization of and a counterweight to theocracy. It is noteworthy that each variant permitted access to opposing fields of discourse. A monarchy which dresses itself in theocratic garments has to be measured upon a strict standard of law or the imitation of Christ. The author would thus like to examine the ambivalent effect of theocratic legitimation of rule using the example of the Jewish-Hellenistic dynasty of the Hasmoneans (165-66 B.C.) as well as that of the Roman empire in Constantinople (5th-6th centuries A.D.) in late antiquity—on the discursive level as well as in its practical implications for the stability of the respective monarchies.

2. Andreas Pečar: “Biblicistic Rhetoric: The Stuarts Monarchy under Jacob VI/I and Charles I ( 1584- 1642) – Embodiment or Negation of Theocratic Rule?” This scholar understands under biblicism a type of argumentation that has recourse to the formulation of political statements, demands and goals using primarily biblical maxims and exempla. This form of argumentation assigns the Bible the role of a decisive authority in speech about political rule. The point of departure for his considerations is the fact that there is an intense debate underway in the historical research on the English Civil War and the Stuart Monarchy in the first half of the 17th century. The debate asks what significance religion has for political thought of the period as well as in the outbreak of the civil war in Scotland (after 1637) as well as in England (after 1642). Interestingly, one field that has not been given sufficient attention in answering this controversial question is the biblicist rhetoric of the period, especially the biblicizing talk of monarchy and rule.

In addition to the individual studies—and at the same time as an analytic consequence of them—both scholars wish to advance their mutual work on developing a model that goes beyond epochs and cultures, with the goal of presenting them as soon as possible in a short collective monography or a long programmatic essay. In addition, the plan is to present for discussion the results of the conceptual considerations at an appropriate time at a conference sponsored by the Excellence Cluster.