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SIR ERNEST BARKER ON THE DYNAMITE IN CHRIST’S WORDS: “RENDER … UNTO CAESAR THE THINGS WHICH ARE CAESAR’S; AND UNTO GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S”

August 18, 2012

 Sir Ernest Barker (Photo: Walter Stoneman, 1944; in the National Portrait Gallery, London).

Sir Ernest Barker (1874 – 1960) was a British professor of classics and later political theory. He was a Principal at King’s College London (1920–1927) and also taught at the London School of Economics, and Oxford and Cambridge universities. Barker wrote, translated and edited several books.[1] Two of his books on political philosophy are: “Reflections on Government” (1942) and “Principles of Social and Political Theory” (1951). These can be regarded as classics on their own, and Barker’s mastering of the classics, language and political theory, which he skilfully used in producing his writings, in addition to his lucid mind, makes the study of his books not just a highly educating experience but also a great joy.

My regular readers will remember the article I wrote on the poverty of the Copts in political philosophy[2] and the meaning of political philosophy and what ‘ought questions’ Copts need to answer in order to develop a political theory that meets their needs.[3] One of the important queries that we have been defective in finding a clear answer for is the relationship between the State and Church, or, more widely, between the State and Society. Copts living under rule by Muslims since 640 AD are accustomed to Islamic answers to such a question, which is different from the Christian response. Christian philosophy believes in two parallel doctrines, “the doctrine of the two ends”, i.e. temporal and eternal, and “the doctrine of the two powers (or the two swords)”, i.e. State and Church, while in Islam the State controls the two ends and wields the two swords – in essence Islam returns back with us (but in this bit only) to the city-state or the city-empire of the pre-Christian age, where no distinction existed between State and Society, between State and Conscience.

But the Copts, and many other Christians, do not understand the basics of these two Christian doctrines and how they came to be accepted in Christian political thinking, and, most importantly, what and who laid the foundation for these doctrines. Here one can find no better than Sir Ernest Barker to explain:

The rise and spread of the Christian religion made a great break in the antique system of ideas: the system enshrined in the Greek Polis (and still visible in the Parthenon), and similarly enshrined in the parallel civitas Romana, which beginning on the Tiber (and still visible in the Roman Forum and on the Capitol) gradually made the whole of the Mediterranean world one ‘city’ and styled it the imperium Romanum. Beneath the ancient city-state there grew the catacombs; and from the catacombs there emerged an authority – the authority of the Church – which stood distinct from, and over against, the authority of a city-state now magnified into a city-empire. There is dynamite in the text, ‘Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew xxii. 21). Ultimately, it meant the sundering of the sphere of Society from the sphere of the State; and we may even say that in the field of social political theory (though that is only one field, and the explosive emergence of the Christian religion was felt in other and wider fields) this was the great result of the teaching of Christ. Immediately, and indeed for long centuries, which begin with the recognition of Christianity as a religio licita by Constantine, and extend into and through the middle ages, the effect of Christianity was the emergence of the doctrine of the two ends – the temporal end, which alone belongs to the State, and the eternal end which belongs to, and in the prerogative of, the Church.[4]

The city-empire claimed the absolute loyalty of its subject, and laid claims on both his temporal and eternal lives. There was only one power and one end: the State (the imperium Romanum) and the temporal end. That was the antique system of ideas. And then came Christ: many would prefer to see Christ as the meek preacher and miss the fact that he was a revolutionary thinker, and so often regard his command, “Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” as a give up to the State – surrendering of power rather than claiming power. But this is not so if one understands history and the evolution of political systems. As Barker says, “There is dynamite in the text, ‘Render … unto Caesar …’”. Christ by that sentence has actually sundered in history the tyrannical power and end of the imperium Romanum and claimed from it the sphere of ethics, conscience and religion to the individual.

Out of Christ’s words then emerged the doctrine of the two ends. That was the starting point. And we must understand that very well before we proceed further. In next articles we shall talk about the two doctrines of the two ends and the two powers, and much more. We must build up a comprehensive political theory – that is essential for our nation as we have already explained in previous articles.


[1] Some of his important translator and editing works “The Politics of Aristotle” (1946) and “Social Contract: Essays by Locke, Hume, and Rousseau” (1947), respectively.

[2] http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/03/05/political-philsophy-our-poverty-in-

[3] http://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/the-meaning-of-political-philosophy-theory-and-what-%E2%80%98ought-questions%E2%80%99-copts-need-to-answer-in-order-to-develop-a-political-philosophy-that-meets-their-needs-

[4] Sir Ernest Barker, Principles of Social and Political Theory (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 7.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2014 6:39 am

    Would like to know if the book “Winning the Crowd” by Ernest Barker is still available

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      January 27, 2014 2:21 pm

      Difficult to find except in rare books bookshops and university libraries.

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