Since Augustine used Jeremiah 29 in City of God to describe his “two cities,” the passage has played a significant role in political theology. Calvin used it to encourage obedience toward authorities and cooperation with the political order. John Howard Yoder extensively relied upon the passage to describe the “Jeremian shift,” or the dispersed and missional character of the Jewish people that should similarly characterize the church. Jacques Ellul used it in The Meaning of the City to describe the tension of living as captives and yet participating materially in the life of the city. Political theologians like Oliver O’Donovan and Luke Bretherton have drawn on Augustine’s use of the passage to construct theologies of government authority in modern liberal democracies. Other theologians have referenced the passage for political purposes only fleetingly (from Jerome to Bonhoeffer to Niebuhr), some are associated with it by later interpreters (Kuyper) and recent works continue to use it ways consistent with forbears in their tradition (VanDrunen, Leeman).
The frequent use of Jeremiah 29 raises important questions for the theology of the Old Testament: many theologians use this particular prophetic word as an image for a larger doctrine of dual authorities, a description not merely of instructions for Israelites in exile but for Christian cultural and political responsibility in the world, and as a set of guidelines for prophetic speech and action today. While an abundance of studies examine other central passages used frequently in political theology (such as Rom 13, the synoptic accounts of “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Luke 1:46–55, and passages from the book of Revelation), Jeremiah 29 has gone largely unexamined.
This paper pays special attention to Augustine, Calvin, and Walter Brueggemann as representatives of different uses of the passage, theological traditions, and historical and political contexts. Each theologian not only interprets the passage differently—Augustine as a model for Christian life in the “earthly city,” Calvin as an exhortation to obedience towards temporal authorities, Brueggemann as an image of exilic identity—they also display different methodological and interpretive tendencies. Whether they employ the text as metaphor, image, historically contingent instruction, or enduring general counsel is illuminative not only of their decisions about this passage but their general hermeneutical approach to interpreting the Old Testament prophets in the context of political theology. This paper contributes to broader questions about Old Testament interpretation and theology by considering the ways Jeremiah 29 has been used by central figures in political theology.