With the current discussion of Christian nationalism, and the apparent lack of biblical exegesis in Stephen Wolfe’s book, it seemed appropriate to provide a clear model of real political theology from Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations.
The Revelation of God’s Kingship (36-41)
Isaiah 33:22: Yhwh is our king; Yhwh is our judge; Yhwh is our lawgiver. He will save us.”
Ideas are connected. Kingship implies judgment, lawgiving, and salvation.
The early Hebrews saw this element in the Psalms. While it included salvation from sin, the term is often used to show God’s victories of his people’s enemies.
What is the purpose of these victories? (Ps. 13:5; 85:7). They show God’s hesed, his enduring commitment to those in his covenant. Hesed often stands in parallel to the Hebrew word for faithfulness (Psalm 98.3).
These victories also show God’s tsedeq, righteousness. In the Psalms God’s righteousness is a public thing. When he shows his right hand and holy arm, the nations will know (98.2). This is an important point in later Israelite history. You are an Israelite living in Babylon. While you are the chosen people of God, you have been publicly shamed by a pagan power (and presumably, so has your God). Therefore, when God acts to show his righteousness, it must be public: Is. 45.5; 46.13;51.5-8;56.1;61.10; 62.1).
The Hebrew root words relating to God’s righteousness often appear in connection with his shpt, judgment.
This illustrates the problem with ancient Israel’s existence. They were God’s chosen people yet they often worshipped idols. If it is true that God vindicates his name among the pagans because he is a just God, how much more true will he vindicate his name among his people?
What do we mean by the words “judgment” and “justice?” The Hebrew word for “judgment” is mishpat. When it is used in the Bible it is seen as a judicial performance. When true “judgment” is present it is not a state of affairs but an activity that is carried out.
The prophet Amos calls for mishpat to roll on like a river. Isaiah says that the citizens of Jerusalem should seek mishpat by giving judgment in the cause of the fatherless and widow (1:17). Isaiah even goes on to say that Zion will even be redeemed by mishpat (1:26ff).
The judgments of Yahweh have lasting validity because all of his acts have lasting validity.
This leads into what the Israelites believed about…
If you look at the Old Testament law code, it is strange. But maybe it shouldn’t be. For us Westerners there is a sharp distinction between history and law. This was not so for the Hebrew. For Israel “history” is the telling of God’s acts to future generations. Law was the telling of his judgments (mishpatim).
Psalm 119 is a case in point. There are several terms of importance. Testimony and decree. Interestingly enough, other Psalmists use the words in connection with a word we have just seen: judgment. See Psalm 81:4-5.
When the kingdom of Judah had its reforming moments, it is evident that “testimony” and “law” were in the foreground. 2 Kgs 22:8-13. Jer. 26:1ff. In both cases we see that “law” is simply more than a “code.” It is attesting that God will live out his judgments in Israel’s history.
Look at how Psalm 96:10 unfolds: the nations are to be told that Yhwh is king, that he established the world on firm foundations, and that he will judge the peoples with equity.
Without the consciousness of something possessed and handed on, there could never be a political theology, since it could never be clear how the judgments of God could give order and sustain a community (48ff).
In other words, something needs to be possessed and handed down. This traditional possession was not always identified with “The Law.” Originally, the existence of Israel was mediated through the Land. Possessing the land was a matter of observing the order of life which was established by Yahweh’s judgments (Psalm 37:29ff).
Land = material cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule
judgments = formal cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule
Victories = efficient cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule
Mediators of Yahweh’s Rule
Yahweh’s authority is image-less, like Yahweh himself. However, Yahweh is immediately present in conquest, judgment, and law. Israel still had a problem in its history: it could never consolidate. It had land, judgment, and victories (though never absolutely), but it had no stable means of passing it down. Even acknowledging the sacred writer’s criticism of monarchy (1 Sam. 8), it must be acknowledged that monarchy exercised a stabilizing influence when contrasted with the Judges period. Most importantly, monarchy allowed the passing down of the tradition (Land, Judgments, Victories).
Two cities; two rules. Israel and Babylon side by side.
The foreign sword, exile gives Israel a chance to separate from idolatrous connections (84).
Empire is necessarily unstable
The fulfilling of time
Jesus’s words of God’s reign were confirmed by power. The point: instruction runs parallel to authority (Mark 1:22, 27: Luke: 4:36).
The previous duality is transformed: The Two Cities (Babylon/Jerusalem) were indicative of Israel’s alienation. They were soon to be replaced by the Two Eras (93). Israel previously owed its existence (30-49) through Yahweh’s victories, Judgments, and gift of Land. This is transformed in Jesus’s ministry
- Works of Power; demonstration of God’s rule. Their function was to draw attention to his preaching.
- Jesus proclaimed the coming judgment of Israel: Matt 8:11; this judgment creates new situations and new conditions.
- Jesus, Israel, and the Law:
- Sabbath: The law is reinterpreted so man could fully realize God’s welfare for him.
- Disciples: Forming a new community. Authority has been refashioned on how God models his own authority.
- Fulfilling the law: Law is treated as a kind of promise. It anticipates a righteousness for which the faithful hungered.
Triumph of the Kingdom pp. 120-157
The Representative (120)
Jesus proclaimed Kingdom; apostolic church did not. This is no accident. The latter proclaimed/illustrated what happens when the Kingdom came in conflict with principalities.
Progressive mediations: “God’s rule was discerned through the judicial tasks of angels and kings in all the nations; it was discerned in special covenant through the vocation of the Davidide line. But now the last layer of the veil is drawn back”(124).
In Ezekiel we see the immediate disclosure of Yahweh’s rule in the Davidic line (Ez. 34:1-31).
OO’s critique of classic republicanism: 127.
Representation and Authority: our life under Christ’s resurrection is service to righteousness (129). Resurrection establishes authority of new life (NB: Note the important connection between resurrection and reigning).
Representation of Israel → Representation of human race: OO rejects “replacement theology” (131). Jesus is Israel’s identity. Servant passages in Isaiah. Israel’s public tradition (Romans 9:1-4) is continuous.
Moments of the Representative Act (133)
- Advent: Jesus mediates kingdom in his personal being. Fulfills all God intended (Isaiah 42).
- Passion: judgment has two acts: separation of innocent and guilty; and affirmation of the innocent. Both are seen in cross/resurrection: Christ is set in opposition to guilty Israel and vindicated before Israel. Pilate’s irony: “The answer to his (Pilate) question is that his own authority, which he tries to assert by threatening, is also dependent on a source. Is that source Caesar, or is it God? The question is left open for the moment, but the answer will come: because it depends on Caesar, it depends on God, since Caesar is destined to fulfill the role God designed for him…(continuing 141).
- Restoration of Christ: judges Israel’s sin and reaffirms Israel’s new identity in Christ.
- Exaltation: royal imagery (Ps. 2:1). Power put forth, judgment effected, gift of communal identity.
Subjection of the Nations
To what extent is secular authority compatible with the Christ-mission?
Romans 13:1ff; government’s purpose is judgment. To this degree is secular authority compatible with the Christ-mission: it has the role of judgment. Mishpt. This reflects the New Christian situation.
Secular authorities do not mediate the rule of God (rule = judgment, victory, law); they merely mediate his judgment (151). Their victories and such are rendered irrelevant by Christ’s victory.
The church has no distinct social presence: its witnesses call back to the Holy City. Interestingly in Revelation 18ff we see a converging of Israel, the Eschatological Church, and the Antichrist Empire.
The Authorisation of the Church
The dual authority assumes a distinct form. OO is somewhat confusing on this identity. He says he isn’t defending Christendom, but its hard to see otherwise.
- OO asserts the church is a political society. At the very least this means that the church is an independent society (161). It is authorised by Pentecost.
- The church prolongs the ancient faithfulness of Israel, not replaces it.
- Its essential nature as a governed society is hidden, to be discerned by faith. This helps protect us from claims that such-and-so a church government is the essence of the bride of Christ. OO rebuts Ignatius on p. 168ff. Ministerial orders are derived, not posited. They are disclosed from heaven.
- The relation of the church to Christ is a recapitulation of the Christ-event (171). The church’s sacraments authenticate its ministry, not the other way around.
Moments of Recapitulation
The Christ-event is the structuring principle for all ecclesiology.
- In response to the Advent, the church is a gathering community. (Some thoughts on unity form 176-177). The unity inheres in the confession of Jesus as God’s Son. This is only possible by the Holy Spirit (177). [NB: Unity is a spiritual thing, not a material or tangible thing. Therefore, Protestants should not be embarrassed by supposed “fractures”]
- The church is a suffering community.
- It is a glad community (181). A Delight in what God has done in Christ.
- Moral life of the church: vindication of God’s rule in Christ’s resurrection.
- Keeping of the Lord’s day: Ground of all moral principles in the church (Barth). OO tries to steer a mediating path between the Patristic denial of the Lord’s Day = Sabbath (radical newness) and the Reformation identifying the two (conservative sameness).
- It is a prophetic community. The church is authorised to deploy the powers of the kingdom of God. These powers are displayed through speech.
- The presence of prophecy directs us to the charism.
- To prophecy: to speak a word from God to the church in the here and now. OO denies that it is merely synonymous with preaching.
Our narrative of the church is the inner logic of the sequence of the kingdom of God (191).
The Obedience of Rulers
Christendom: The Doctrine of the Two
OO: society and rulers have different destinies: the former is to be transformed, shaped in conformity to God’s purpose; the latter to disappear, renouncing their sovereignty in the face of his (193). Nice statement, but Revelation speaks of kings being healed by the New Jerusalem.
Contrary to critics, OO is not advocating Christendom. He is merely noting it is a historical response to Christ’s witness (195).
OO offers good reading of Constantine and the interpretations that followed. Per Eusebius, Constantine filled the place of the Parousia (which seems to echo Moltmann’s contention that the church ceased being premillennial because it became Constantinian).
Redefining the Boundary
Church contrasted the roles of emperor and bishop as a transition from old age to new (199). This is best exemplified in Ambrose of Milan.
Gelasius deconstructed Augustine: he translated the duality from the level of society (two loves made two cities) to the level of government (two there are by whom this world is ruled; 203).
Problem arose: who inherited the kingly aspect of Christ’s ministry, emperor or bishop?
Supremacy of Spiritual Authority
soul of Christendom is church. body is king. Soul superior to Body. highly neo-platonic (205).
The Authority of Word Alone
What does spiritual authority mean? property meant power; power meant jurisdiction; jurisdiction meant authority, and authority meant a proper role for the church’s shaping society (207). Franciscans rejected this line of thought.
Marsilius of Padua offered a good, even eschatological perspective: since Christ’s judgment is still future, it is impossible to represent it now by any single icon of political government (208).
Restoring the Balance
Mission or Coercion
The doctrine of the Two was best seen as a doctrine of two ages (211).
State forms outer circle; church inner circle; kingdom the center. The Church reminds the state and the state bears witness to Christ’s rule (per Barth, OO, 213).
Antichrist: the convergence in one subject of claims to earthly political rule and heavenly soteriological mediation (214ff).
Martyrdom is the witness of an alternative Lord.
OO is at pains to say that a Christian state need not be a coercive state. Logically, he is correct.
Christendom and the Liberal Tradition
OO gently rebuts Chesterton’s Catholic neo-Medievalism. OO notes that the sources of modernity lie within the Christendom tradition and not simply Protestantism (228).