SWBTS Journal of Theology, Volume 61, No. 2 – Spring 2018, 254–256
June 18, 2018
Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. By Larry Alan Siedentop. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2014. 448 pages. Hardcover, $35.00.
Larry Siedentop is Emeritus Fellow of Keble College, Oxford. He has spent his career specializing in British political philosophy. He is the author of Tocqueville (Past Masters) (Oxford University Press, 1994) as well as Democracy in America (Columbia University Press, 2001).
Siedentop’s central claim is that Christianity, as articulated in the writing of the Apostle Paul, gave genesis to the concept of political liberalism, based upon a change in the moral understanding of the self in relationship to society. This change is due to a new sense of justice that places an increased emphasis on the promotion of equality and personal control (autonomy). Siedentop believes that Paul’s identification of the self as a new creation in Christ is the impetus for a cultural shift that takes focus away from the social structures of family and polis, prominent at the time of Jesus Christ, towards a new path that develops into liberalism (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). Siedentop ranges across approximately two millennia of world history—from antiquity to the Enlightenment—to note the start, development, and culmination of this process.
The aim of the work is to acknowledge the Christian faith’s role in the rise of the present understanding of the individual within the context of society. Upon this acknowledgement, serious reflection should be given to ascertain what the implications are for both Christianity and society if the present result is the natural and inevitable development of a proper understanding of man’s identity relative to others.
Prior to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, Greek and Roman society had an integrated system with religion, politics, morality, law, and science under the social umbrella of the family and/or polis. These developments were in place from roughly 500 BC through the sack of Rome in AD 410. The impact of the Christian faith, as reflected in the Catholic Church and articulated by Augustine (354–430) in Concerning the City of God against the Pagans (De Civitate Dei contra Paganos), ultimately gave rise to shifts in society toward feudalism. Siedentop identifies Augustine’s articulation of the weakness of the human will, bound to sin, and in need of gracious help from outside itself in the form of God’s love and mercy as catalyzing a moral revolution in the understanding of the individual.
With the fall of Rome due to barbarian invasions, the Catholic Church would become the societal center of knowledge and learning. Due to the lack of coherent territorial leadership, the unity of the Catholic Church provided the grounding for its ascendency in shaping new attitudes towards spiritual and temporal powers as the Catholic Church gradually became more powerful politically.
The Catholic Church began to work intently on capturing the basics fundamental to law to ease the burden that was present in society. Ultimately, the Catholic Church toward the end of the feudal period would have strong powers consolidated in the position of the pope. Developments in the understandings of law and the individual started to give rise to the concept of natural law and rights. The development and articulation of natural law and natural rights shifted societal relations toward that of equality and reciprocity. With the advent of these ideas, a new model of government was taking shape, whereby individuals saw themselves as having the right through natural law and rights to make decisions based upon reason. This provided a power shift in society towards the people. Ultimately, it led to the creation of nation-states because individuals believed they had the ability to take charge over their temporal affairs, while the Church would maintain leadership in the spiritual realm.
Siedentop properly connects Christianity and its claim that all individuals are uniquely responsible for responding in faith to the soteriological call placed upon them by Jesus Christ to a societal shift that requires a proper understanding of the self. In correctly identifying this conception, it would have been helpful for Siedentop to articulate that while soteriological claims are individual ethical claims of how one acts and responds in society, these claims do not dissipate and become the prerogative of the individual. Failure to understand this key distinction leads to moral autonomy and removes God from the proper authority of how one is to respond to others.
This book is intended for an audience that is interested in the history of ideas and political philosophy. From the outset, Siedentop states that he is not interested in pursuing every single trail and idea that exists because he wants to stay focused on articulating a common thread across two thousand years so that the reader can grasp the central claim. Although I would have liked for Siedentop to take a less causal approach with the reality of the claims of the Bible and the Christian faith, I still heartily recommend this book for those who have an interest in the Christian role in shaping Western society’s concept of the individual.
Paul Golata, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary