Christology in the Political Theology of Oliver O’Donovan
Abstract: Jesus Christ plays a central role for Oliver O’Donovan’s Christian ethics generally, as he sees the resurrection as the basis for moral action and as the vindication of creation. This fundamental argument of Resurrection and Moral Order, extended in his political theology, is displayed in his important book, The Desire of Nations. Political theology too is shaped by the Christ-event, and is crucial to what O’Donovan calls the “ecclesiological mode of political theology.” Key to the ecclesiological mode is Christology. However, O’Donovan is clear that this is not some simplistic following of Jesus, or “Jesuology.” I hope to show that despite the central role given by O’Donovan to the Christ-event, especially in political theology, there is an ironic relativizing of Jesus Christ because the politics of the life and death of Jesus are not given appropriate credence in O’Donovan’s work – that is, Jesus is central to O’Donovan’s political theology, but the politics of Jesus are not.
Oliver O’Donovan’s scholarship in the field of Christian ethics is important and provocative. His impressive body of work thus far ranges across issues of Augustinian thought, Anglican theology, bioethics, just war theory, deterrence, liberation theology and more. His most recent work has focused more specifically on political theology, with the publication of The Desire of Nations, and a massive collection and translation project entitled From Iranaeus to Grotius. O’Donovan’s work is important to the Anabaptist-Mennonite theological tradition because of his attempt to provide a coherent and systematic Christian political theology, something he claims that Anabaptist-Mennonites have yet to do.
O’Donovan’s work is unabashedly theological in nature. Underlying much of his work is a critical posture toward modernity both in its technological dimension and its tradition of radical suspicion. He does not accept “the modern liberal separation of religion from politics, nor the view that there can be some universal, non-particular moral discourse to mediate between these two particular, historically contingent realms.” Nor does O’Donovan attempt to read moral order off the face of creation or nature; that is, he describes himself as agreeing with Stanley Hauerwas regarding the “non-self-evidence of the creation order.” Man’s fallenness is, in fact, in O’Donovan’s view, a persistent rejection of the created order, and thus there is an inescapable confusion in the perception of that order-therefore we can only know how or when or where the natural order is violated theologically, since our knowledge depends on God’s disclosure. O’Donovan focuses this argument further by insisting that true knowledge according to the Christian Gospel is knowledge in Christ, “given to us as we participate in Christ.” O’Donovan’s point is extended in The Desire of Nations, whose stated purpose is to “push back the horizons of commonplace politics and open it up to the activity of God.” In pushing back these horizons, O’Donovan is seeking to move beyond suspicion “in order to take up the prophetic task and accept history as the matrix in which politics and ethics take form and thus affirm history as the history of God’s action, and not merely as sheer contingency.”
Thus O’Donovan’s grounding for Christian ethics, whether discussing moral order more generally or political theology specifically, is fully theological in nature. Central to this way of proceeding is the notion that Christian ethics must arise from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. O’Donovan argues for the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ to Christian ethics, but his intention is to maintain concern for all moments of the Christ-event, with all of those moments interpreted from the central moment of the resurrection. That is, Jesus Christ plays a central role for O’Donovan’s Christian ethics generally, and he sees the resurrection as the basis for moral action and as the vindication of creation. Such is the fundamental argument of Resurrection and Moral Order, which is further applied in his political theology, as seen in The Desire of Nations. Political theology too is shaped by the Christ-event, and is crucial to what O’Donovan calls the “ecclesiological mode of political theology.” Key to the ecclesiological mode is Christology. However, O’Donovan is clear that this is not some simplistic following of Jesus, or “Jesuology.”
Yet, ironically, despite this central role given by O’Donovan to the Christ-event, especially in political theology (seen most clearly in The Desire of Nations), O’Donovan’s work ultimately relativizes the place of Christ because he does not give appropriate credence to the politics of the life and death of Jesus-that is, Jesus is central to O’Donovan’s political theology, but the politics of Jesus are not.
This way of putting the matter immediately brings to mind the seminal work of John Howard Yoder regarding political theology and ethics. Indeed, it might be said that O’Donovan and Yoder have put forward equally ambitious projects that both seek to call into question the pervasive suspicion of theology within politics. However, there are important differences as well as significant similarities in their work, which point toward the fact that Anabaptists have much to learn by entering into conversation with O’Donovan. Such a conversation has already begun, as can be seen in the work of Stanley Hauerwas and Travis Kroeker, and in O’Donovan’s own ongoing commentary on the work of Yoder. So while this essay is not primarily comparative in nature, it does seek to contribute to the important conversation with O’Donovan in which Anabaptists are currently engaged.
Because of the richly nuanced structure and content of O’Donovan’s work, it is extremely difficult to provide a brief overview of his thought. But one might begin by recognizing his contention that a theologically oriented politics is world affirming because a redeemed and vindicated creation grounds political authority in a realistic analogy of political acts as divinely authorized acts. Thus O’Donovan’s account of political authority entails a recovery of biblical and theological themes in which the Old Testament discloses God’s kingship in a nexus of power, law and tradition. Political theology then is primarily a reflection on and explication of what is revealed in Israel. As God is the sovereign Lord of Israel, so does he rule over the nations of the world.
The context for this political theology must be traced back to Resurrection and Moral Order, showing how the resurrection of Christ is central to moral action, and therefore is important in understanding the argument of The Desire of Nations. Here O’Donovan argues that Christology is central to the ecclesiological mode of political theology. Ultimately, however, it is this way of understanding Jesus that leads O’Donovan to conclude that the political character of the church is hidden-a conclusion made possible, I will argue, by not taking the politics of Jesus seriously enough.
In the preface to the second edition of Resurrection and Moral Order, O’Donovan makes clear that theological ethics, if it is to provide evangelical content to moral reasoning, must follow the linkage between evangelical proclamation and moral inferences, a move possible within the belief that “a distinct behavior is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus.” This specific linking of resurrection and moral action is not some arbitrary choice of a most important “moment” in the Christ-event, or even some analysis of a concatenation of moments. For example, O’Donovan shows that Karl Barth’s attempt to work with a threefold pattern of creation-reconciliation-redemption creates problems for determining which of these moments might apply to a specific ethical issue, since often all three moments are necessary for reflecting on that issue. The reason O’Donovan refuses any such pattern is that he sees no self-evident principle for arranging the specific subject areas of ethics so that they can be fit into a particular moment of the Christ-event. So O’Donovan seeks to avoid both the difficulties of a monothematic program or some other structure based on multiple moments that apply to specific issues. He quickly moves to point out that his focus on the resurrection is not an example of a monothematic scheme. Indeed, his prologue in the second edition of Resurrection and Moral Order is in part an attempt to show his recognition (inspired in part by Hauerwas’s critique and the publication of Barth’s Ethics) that he may not have said enough about how resurrection ought to relate to the other christological moments. For O’Donovan, then,
Christian thought will be concerned with all the moments of the Christ-event and all the moments will shape the lives of Christians . . . yet when we think quite specifically about Christian action we have to single out the resurrection moment which vindicates the creation into which our actions can be ventured with intelligibility.
O’Donovan’s focus on the resurrection of Jesus as the basis of the vindication of creation allows him to level a critique of a natural ethic, which he describes as voluntarist at its heart-a morality that is a creation of man’s will by which order is imposed on the world. This voluntarism of course fails to take into account the reality of a divinely given order of things in which human nature itself is located. It is only in Christ that we can apprehend that order in which we stand, and the knowledge of it with which we have been endowed.  O’Donovan goes on to show how this basis of the resurrection of Christ functions eschatologically (Chapter 3), in an epistemological way (Chapter 4), as the basis of our freedom as moral agents (Chapter 5) and as the basis of authority (Chapter 6).
In the latter case, O’Donovan proceeds with a discussion of authority in general, then moves to a treatment of divine authority, and finally devotes a separate chapter to Christ’s authority. O’Donovan’s argument here is that God has conferred authority on Jesus at the resurrection. This means, among other things, that while God’s authority may oppose natural authority in its fallenness, it is not opposed to created order as such. Rather, it is the teaching and life of Jesus that are morally authoritative in that the particularity of Jesus has assumed universal significance. O’Donovan concludes therefore that Jesus’ authority is irreplaceable, because in his resurrection the moral order was publicly and cosmically vindicated by God-Jesus does not just teach, he reveals. All this to conclude that Jesus is precisely the one in whom the order has come to be.
O’Donovan’s emphasis on the centrality of Christology, and especially the resurrection continues in his work on political theology in The Desire of Nations, and indeed is intensified by his own description. In a response to an essay by Jonathan Chaplin, O’Donovan acknowledges a previously unnoticed contradiction between Resurrection and Moral Order and The Desire of Nations-“In Resurrection I assumed that the subordination of power and tradition to justice was typical of all political authority; by the time of Desire I had reached the conclusion that it was a fruit of Christ’s triumph.” Thus The Desire of Nations could perhaps be described as more fully christological in its argument than Resurrection and Moral Order. Despite the fact that the two books are not directly linked as part of a single project, the relation between them is strong, and is described by O’Donovan as having to do with history. That is to say, as ethics in Resurrection and Moral Order is grasped within the history of divine action (made possible by the resurrection) that is a vindication of the created order, so true ethics is grounded in politics that is the politics of divine rule. Thus O’Donovan’s political theology is a “retracing and elaboration of the work already done in Resurrection and Moral Order, with this simple connexion between history and politics made more explicit.”
As marked above, the stated purpose of The Desire of Nations is to “push back the horizons of commonplace politics and open it up to the activity of God.” To accomplish this, theology will have to have a full political conceptualization, and politics a full theological conceptualization. O’Donovan identifies authority as the core of this discussion, just as it was the “central theme of pre-modern political theology, which sought to find criteria from the apostolic proclamation to test every claim to authority made by those who possessed, or wished to possess, power.” Having set himself these tasks, O’Donovan proceeds to argue the following thesis-“that theology, by developing its account of the reign of God, may recover the ground traditionally held by the notion of authority.” Here I will focus on Chapter 3 to Chapter 5-the core of his treatment of the role of Jesus Christ on political theology. O’Donovan argues that God’s kingdom is demonstrated through Jesus’ public ministry (Chapter 3); that Christology is the key to the ecclesiological mode of political theology (Chapter 4); and that the church is therefore authorized to have a certain kind of political character (Chapter 5).
In Chapter 3, entitled “Dual Authority and the Fulfilling of Time,” O’Donovan shows that the terms “spiritual” and “political,” which are often the basis of discussion regarding the nature of political theology, instead take us to the very substance of the proclamation of the kingdom of God, which spans the two. That is to say, God’s rule in Christ spans both political and spiritual, and the task of Christian witness is to proclaim the unity of the kingdom. Nonetheless, it still remains the task of Christian reflection to understand the duality of these two concepts. It is important here to note that O’Donovan posits a duality, but not a dualism, by taking an Augustinian line in interpreting the experience of Israel as the archetype of the duality of this-worldly and divine rule. Two political entities can coexist at one time and place, but the duality can be interpreted either as the two social entities of Babylon and Israel that live side by side, or the two “rules” under which Israel finds itself-God and Babylon. In O’Donovan’s view, Jesus’ ministry demonstrates this duality fully in that he “did not recognize a permanently twofold locus of authority. He recognised only a transitory duality which belonged to the climax of Israel’s history, a duality between the coming and passing order.”
In Chapter 4, entitled “The Triumph of the Kingdom,” O’Donovan shows how it is possible to express the continuity and discontinuity of Jesus’ message with that of the apostles; that is, Jesus said the kingdom of God was coming, while the apostolic church told the story of what happened when the kingdom came, with the decisive resurrection of Jesus between the two. A variety of attempts have been made to express the balance of continuity and discontinuity adequately, but O’Donovan asserts that a political theology shaped by the Christ-event must undertake notions of public and political that are wide and generous. A crucial part of this political theology has an ecclesiological mode, “which takes the church seriously as a society and shows how the rule of God is realized there.” Key to this move is Christology, in that there are in Christ two roles-the mediator of God’s rule, and the representative individual. Christ is the decisive presence of God and is the decisive presence of God’s people. Thus the Christ-event, where we found the elements of God’s rule-salvation, judgment and identity-is presented in the narrative account as a decisive act, “an act in which God’s rule was mediated and his people reconstituted in Christ.” This act is marked by four “moments”: Advent, Passion, Restoration and Exaltation. It is that the kingly rule of Christ demonstrates God’s rule, now visible in the life of the church, but not only there. Demonic powers have been made subject to God, but we still await the final universal presence of Christ for all this to become fully present. It is precisely within this framework that a space for secular authority arises.
The description of secular authority in the New Testament follows from the understanding that the authority of the risen Christ is present in the church’s mission. . . . If the mission of the church needs a certain social space, for men and women of every nation to be drawn into the governed community of God’s kingdom, then secular authority is authorized to provide and ensure that space.
O’Donovan follows with an account of the authorization of the church. Jesus stands at the transition between the ages where the passing and coming authorities confront one another, and the future age has a social and political presence. Therefore, the dual authority tradition, in which we see two powerful and authorized political communities (although differently powerful and unequally authorized), is essentially sound according to O’Donovan. A theological account of how this world is ruled must proceed from and through an account of the church.
O’Donovan fleshes out this account of the church in considerable detail via two assertions about Christ’s rule in the church, a discussion of some positive criteria for ecclesiology and a description of the recapitulation of the four moments of the Christ-event within the life of the church.
The first of these assertions describes the church as having the true character of a political society, by which O’Donovan means
it is brought into being and held in being, not by a special function it has to fulfill, but by a government that it obeys in everything. It is ruled and authorized by the ascended Christ alone and supremely; it therefore has its own authority; and it is not answerable to any other authority that may attempt to subsume it.
The key point O’Donovan makes here is that the Israel does not represent the church-to lose sight of the church’s rooting in the Christ-event is to cease to understand it as a society ruled by another king, which opens the church to the danger of becoming accommodationist and territorial. Secondly, O’Donovan asserts that the political character of the church, its essential nature as a governed society, is hidden, to be discerned by faith. From within, the church is a community of freedom and obedience, a society formed by Christ; from the outside, the church presents the appearance of a functional religious organism rather than a political one. This results in the “paradoxical combination of independence and conformity to local law and custom.”
The positive criteria for ecclesiology put forward by O’Donovan have to do with the sacramental order of the church’s ministry prior to any other order of ministry. The sacraments bind the church together, and give some institutional form and order. From here O’Donovan shows how the life of the church recapitulates the four moments of the Christ-event that he is working with-in response to the Advent of Christ, the church is a gathering community; in response to the Passion of Christ, the church is a suffering community; in response to the Restoration of Christ the church is a joyful community; and in response to the Exaltation of Christ, the church is a community that speaks the words of God.
O’Donovan’s Christology, therefore, functions as the grounding of his political theology. He finds God’s rule present in the Christ-event,
presented in the narrative account of a decisive act, an act in which God’s rule was mediated and his people reconstituted in Christ. . . . We cannot discuss the question of ‘secular’ government, the question from which Western political theology has too often been content to start, unless we approach it historically, from a Christology that has been displayed in narrative form as Gospel.
However, O’Donovan’s recounting of the narrative of the Christ-event leaves him open to the criticism that he does not take the politics of Jesus seriously enough. While he has moved considerably in The Desire of Nations from an earlier focus on the resurrection-as shown in his dealing with the Christ-event as four moments-O’Donovan is still concerned about the danger of not focusing on the resurrection. To abstract the death of Jesus from the resurrection or to interpret death on its own is to radically depoliticize the central saving event of the Gospel, according to O’Donovan. The death of Jesus should be understood as a severance from the old, destroyed authority, and the resurrection the establishment of the authority of the new life. That is, Christ’s death takes place under the old authority-his death was the overthrow of God’s cause at the hands of rebellious Israel, while the resurrection was the reassertion of God’s triumph over Israel.
But what is missing from this account of things is the notion that the kind of a life led by Jesus, which resulted in his execution by political authorities, can also be seen as a display of what it might mean to be political in a certain kind of way. O’Donovan’s account of Christ’s death sees it as an exit from the old authority and the resurrection as an entrance into the new-but all of this in a way that is more formal than concrete. That is to say, the four “moments” are treated as important primarily because of the fact that they happened, without sufficient attention to the way in which they happened.
One can see further evidence of this dimension in O’Donovan’s work by noting his repeated concern, voiced especially in Resurrection and Moral Order, that if the resurrection is not understood as the center of the Christ-event, then other aspects of it can be interpreted in a destructive manner. For example, O’Donovan notes that a misconstrued focus on the cross of Christ runs the danger of becoming a symbol of Gnostic other-worldliness. If the resurrection is not central, then even a focus on Jesus can be destructive, when it collapses into what O’Donovan refers to as “Jesuology,” in which the life of Jesus is seen as analogical to creative political opportunities. But O’Donovan complains that such a political Jesuology, to model action on Jesus, is only a hopeful illusion that fails to take into account the defeat of Jesus’ program, or for that matter, the vindication of it by resurrection.
However, it need not be the case that a focus on the cross of Christ becomes Gnostic other-worldliness, or that finding political pattern in Jesus Christ is nave. O’Donovan has been questioned precisely at this point by Victor Paul Furnish. Furnish argues that Jesus’ exaltation is a far less prominent theme in the New Testament than it is in O’Donovan’s work. Rather, we have the resurrected, crucified Christ who is definitive for the church’s developing christological traditions. This emphasis leads Furnish to ask how a political theology principally oriented to Christ being lifted up on the cross would have to be configured. Unfortunately, Furnish simply deposits his question to O’Donovan at the end of an article, and offers no substantive discussion that might begin to show what kind of an answer Furnish might be thinking of, or even where such an orientation might point us to. O’Donovan’s frustration comes through clearly in his reply to Furnish, when he begs Furnish (and other biblical scholars along with him) to clarify his objections. And yet there is something to Furnish’s line of questioning. It is possible, for example, to see how an orientation to the cross of Christ can indeed serve political theology without being Gnostic other-worldliness, by taking note of the work done in this regard by John Howard Yoder. In his seminal book, The Politics of Jesus, Yoder addresses the question of what being a disciple of Christ might entail by looking at a series of scriptural passages, including admonitions that encourage the disciple to “take up the cross.” Yoder sees within such admonitions a “substantial, binding and sometimes costly social stance.” He goes on to point out that the “cross” is not a pastoral concept that is often seen in the sense of “bearing one’s cross.” Rather than some sort of difficult situation, the cross “was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Further,
There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds-but there it holds in every strand of the New Testament literature and all the more strikingly by virtue of the absence of parallels in other realms. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus-and only thus-are we bound by New Testament thought to “be like Jesus.”
Yoder’s argument is part of a larger one in which he shows that a close study of the narrative account of the Gospels will reveal a social ethic for Christians today, and not provide instead a way of ignoring or relativizing the message and life of Jesus, or of allowing a focus on the cross of Jesus to be pushed into the realm of pastoral care or other-worldly irrelevance or irresponsibility. Instead, it is the cross that determines the meaning of history. By this Yoder means that it is the cross, and not the sword, suffering, and not brute force, that determines the meaning of history. But Yoder does not here ignore the power of the resurrection. Instead, he notes that the triumph of right is assured because of the power of the resurrection, and not because of any other calculus. Thus, “the relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.”
It is tempting to say that O’Donovan and Yoder differ only in emphasis, but this is not entirely clear. Just as O’Donovan has warned of the dangers of focusing on the cross without the central role of resurrection, Yoder cautioned against seeing the cross only as a recipe for the resurrection, as a way of making things turn out right after all. Rather, for Yoder the crucified Jesus is a more adequate key to understanding what God is about.
It might seem as though this is an argument between cross and resurrection, but in fact it cannot be reduced to such a conclusion. Yoder does not ignore the resurrection, and O’Donovan does not leave out the life and death of Jesus. However, the death of Jesus, for O’Donovan, is treated as a leaving behind of the old in order to get to the resurrection, while Yoder takes the life of Jesus, which leads to the death of Jesus, as paradigmatic for God’s people. Indeed, Yoder goes as far as to suggest that the criteria for recognizing normativeness for the church in this world cannot be merely “christological” in some vague, cosmic sense, but must be “jesulogical,” a focus on the humanity of Jesus that does not seek to be free of the limits of Jesus’ earthliness, Jewishness and cross. It should be noted here then that while Yoder’s caricature of “christology” does not do justice to O’Donovan’s Christology, and O’Donovan’s characterization of “jesuology” does not fully circumscribe Yoder’s politics of Jesus, there is a significant difference here in that O’Donovan does not treat the earthly ministry, teaching and death of Jesus in the same way Yoder does.
It seems to me that the way O’Donovan moves from Christology to ecclesiology within political theology leaves him vulnerable to the kind of criticism directed toward his treatment of the church as having no visible political character. There is a tension here in O’Donovan’s work. He understands the rule of God to be made visible in the church, and insists that political theology must be grounded in the church, based on Christology, but this visible rule of God in the community founded by Christ too quickly drops from visibility when direct political substance is discussed. In other words, O’Donovan is seemingly unwilling to allow the existence of a churchly community to be the church’s political witness to the world.
O’Donovan sometimes seems very close to allowing for a more visible political character of the church. He describes part of his own intellectual journey in these matters as a conversation with books written by Hauerwas and Yoder-After Christendom and The Priestly Kingdom respectively-which led him to conclude that he would have to defend an analogy between the church and liberal order, and that he could do so by referring to Christendom, not to defend it, but precisely to show that the relation between the church and secular authority was dictated by mission.
This seems exactly right, but the shape of that mission is very important. O’Donovan acknowledges a danger inherent in his work, when he notes that perhaps The Desire of Nations “does not fully grasp the intimate connection between the desire to be ruled under law which finds its source in God, and the temptation to find in the law-governed state a scrutability in world affairs that removes uncertainty.” The politics found in the life and death of Jesus may well provide the resources to fully grasp such connections and temptations.
[*]Paul Doerksen is a Ph.D. candidate at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.
1. One indication of this importance is the high level of critical interaction given over to O’Donovan’s work, especially in response to his book The Desire of Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). See, for example, Studies in Christian Ethics, 11:2 (1998). The entire issue of this journal is dedicated to a discussion of The Desire of Nations, and a lengthy response by O’Donovan. See also Scottish Journal of Theology, 54.1 (2001). A major portion of this issue of the journal is dedicated to a discussion of The Desire of Nations, and a response by O’Donovan. And recently A Royal Priesthood? The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically-A Dialogue with Oliver O’Donovan, eds. Craig Bartholomew, Jonathan Chaplin, Robert Song and Al Wolters (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Press, 2002). The kinds of issues addressed in these sources are wide-ranging, and O’Donovan’s willingness to engage with the various interlocutors is impressive.
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. In what may seem like an exception to this observation, O’Donovan begins his book on deterrence by noting that in an ideally-ordered field of study, he would want to establish his right and method first, but that in cases of urgency, it is not prudent to do things in order, and so he goes on to proclaim the Gospel directly into the situation. Oliver O’Donovan, Peace and Certainty: A Theological Essay on Deterrence (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1989), ix. However, it seems to me that O’Donovan, whatever his stated preference, works from this urgency much of the time. He is not interested in establishing some neutral foundation before proceeding with his theological work.
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. O’Donovan’s concern regarding technology can be seen in the preface to Begotten or Made? in which he expresses a caution about the impact of technology on the self-understanding of human beings-a concern about the capacity of technology to change the essential characteristics of human nature. Begotten or Made? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), v. Regarding suspicion, O’Donovan makes clear in his work on political theology that modernity carries a twofold tradition of radical suspicion-the suspicion that politicians corrupt morality, and that politics is corrupted by theology. In the popular imagination, these two elements have fused together. See “Political Theology, Tradition, and Modernity,” in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, ed. Christopher Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 237-38. This same point is made in expanded form in The Desire of Nations, 6-8. See also Common Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002) for O’Donovan’s discussion of modernity in relation to tradition. Here modernity is seen as problematic because while it was “born of a lively discovery of the relativity of traditions, (modernity) concealed its own transmission of tradition by a tradition of scorn for tradition, so providing itself with a cloak to hide the nakedness of self-perpetuation. . . ” (38).
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. Travis Kroeker, “Why O’Donovan’s Christendom is not Constantinian and Yoder’s Voluntariety is not Hobbesian: A Debate in Theological Politics Re-defined,” in The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, 20 (2000), 42.
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. Ibid., 85. The point is part of a much longer argument in which O’Donovan points out that while knowledge “in Christ” is exclusive, the object of such knowledge is utterly inclusive.
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. Ibid., 12. O’Donovan makes an interesting move here that goes beyond the scope of this paper, but is worth noting. That is, he launches a criticism against the Southern school of theology (often labeled as liberation theology), which he sees as trying to proceed from knowledge won from praxis, a move that O’Donovan criticizes as being based on technological progress, and thus leaving far too little room for transcendent criticism.-The Desire of Nations, 13, 14. Peter Scott is extremely critical of O’Donovan on this point in his essay “Return to the Vomit of ‘Legitimation”: Scriptural Interpretation and the Authority of the Poor,” in Bartholomew, A Royal Priesthood’, 344-373
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. I am obviously indebted to John Howard Yoder for the general point, and especially to The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noste, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1994). This paper will not primarily be a comparison of O’Donovan and Yoder, although such a project would have great potential, it seems to me. While working on this paper over the past number of months, it has struck me just how similar many facets of these two theologians’ work are, a view which I would not have held previously. For example, their narrative approach to theology, their similar approach to the Scriptures and indeed their treatment of many of the same passages in their work. To trace these similarities is beyond the scope of this paper, but I suspect that differences between them are likely to be linked to their respective ecclesiological locations.
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. I make reference to these authors in the course of the paper. I recently attended a public lecture in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in which O’Donovan developed the themes of “Defence of the Common Good” and “Justice as Judgment.” It was interesting that a significant number of people attending these lectures at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church were Mennonites, obviously interested in O’Donovan’s work. The work of Hauerwas and Yoder was explicitly brought into the conversation during a question period. These lectures were held on Sept. 18 and 19, 2003.
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. I am following the way Brent Waters attempts to summarize O’Donovan. In “Desire of Nations-An Overview,” in Studies in Christian Ethics, 11:2 (1998), 1-7. See also, Craig Bartholomew, “Introduction,” in Bartholomew, A Royal Priesthood’, 19-39.
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. O’Donovan follows through with his recognition with the publication of The Desire of Nations. Here he continues to insist on the importance of the resurrection as basic to Christian moral action, but he includes resurrection as one of four moments of the Christ-event-advent, passion, resurrection and exaltation.
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. Ibid., 140-162. O’Donovan then goes on in the third part of the book to flesh out “The Form of the Moral Life.” He asserts that the basic form of the moral life is love, and then goes on to show how this is so in primarily Augustinian terms, in which O’Donovan’s earlier work on love in Augustinian thought is put to good use. See The Problem of Self-Love in St. Augustine, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980). He returns to these matters in his recent book, Common Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002). I will not deal with the validity of this assertion (love is the basic form of the moral life), except to note that it is not self-evident. See Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), where Hays argues that love and liberation are not sufficient focal images when finding coherence in the moral vision of the New Testament. He prefers instead, as the subtitle indicates, the focal images of cross, community and new creation. See especially 187-205.
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. The Desire of Nations, 19-20. While O’Donovan is clear that these two books are not companion projects, he does note that The Desire of Nations is to be the first panel of a projected diptych-the first is political theology, the projected second is to be political ethics, The Desire of Nations, ix. This separation of theology and ethics is predictably challenged by Stanley Hauerwas in an article co-authored with Jim Fodor, “Remaining in Babylon: Oliver O’Donovon’s Defence of Christendom,” in Studies in Christian Ethics, 11:2 (1998), 43-45. O’Donovan is unapologetic about the separation, stating, “they are not separate enterprises, but two moments in one train of thought.”-The Desire of Nations, ix. Hauerwas does a fine job of elaborating his objection to such separation and constructive work on how to challenge it in “On Doctrine and Ethics,” in Colin Gunton, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 21-40.
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. Ibid., 93. O’Donovan connects this section of his argument with the previous section of the book that we have not considered here, having to do with God’s kingly rule over Israel, which is marked by God’s acts of salvation, judgment and gift of an inheritance, a national identity. The same pattern holds in Jesus’ ministry, in which his works of power are acts of salvation from the demonic powers; Jesus proclaims the judgment of Israel and the gathering of the Gentiles; he makes an identity as God’s people possible by making it possible for the law of God to be written on their hearts. O’Donovan adds a fourth dimension here which is not a constitutive element of God’s rule but a demonstrative proof of it, that of the faith with which Jesus was received. This faith does not confer authority, but demonstrates it.- Ibid., 93-119.
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. Ibid., 174-92. There is a typographical error in the text on 181, where the third moment is named as Christ’s exaltation-O’Donovan means “restoration” here. O’Donovan’s book continues from this point to take up a very interesting discussion of Christendom, in which he makes the extremely important point that the church’s role within any form of Christendom has to be based on the church’s mission. Therefore, he is not “for” or “against” Christendom-as he puts it, “what earthly point could there be in either of these postures'”-The Desire of Nations, ix. Rather he wants to learn what can be learned from the Christendom that began in the Constantinian era (a historical era for O’Donovan, not a cipher for unfaithfulness, as in Yoder) and ended with the Declaration of Independence. Again, a discussion of O’Donovan’s take on Christendom is important, but beyond the scope of this paper. Perhaps a full-length comparative analysis of the projects of O’Donovan and Yoder is needed to bring some of these issues to light.
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. O’Donovan claims that the four moments constitute a division simply for exegetical purposes-the division “has no theoretical value and adds nothing that is not in the story itself. . . . The story of the Kingdom’s coming is the story the evangelists tell, not some formalized scheme derived from it.”- Ibid., 133. Various commentators find O’Donovan’s disclaimer here unconvincing, and indeed, want to raise other questions about the structure of his work. For example, Jonathan Chaplin, “Political Eschatology and Responsible Government,” Bartholemew, A Royal Priesthood’, 272; and Hauerwas and Fodor, who find it difficult to discern where an exegetical framework leaves off and a theoretical one begins.-“Remaining in Babylon,” 37.
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. Yoder expands this notion in the first two Chapters of For the Nations, entitled respectively, “First Fruits: The Paradigmatic Public Role of God’s People,” and “The New Humanity as Pulpit and Paradigm.” Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1994).
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. Kroeker, “Why O’Donovan’s Christendom is not Constantinian and Yoder’s Voluntariety is not Hobbesian: A Debate in Theological Politics Re-defined,” 58. Kroeker notes that it is the public witness of the church that has “no direct political substance, and its identity is not yet clear as its meaning is tied to the ascended Christ,” 58.
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. Daniel Carroll registers a similar complaint, and attributes the problem to the fact that O’Donovan’s eschatology offers no sustained exposition of the “not yet” of eschatology, that The Desire of Nations suffers from an absence of a “positive” tone in regards to Christian hope, from a lack of expansion of the impact of the eschatological vision-in other words, O’Donovan has neglected important aspects of the “not yet.” See M. Daniel Carroll R., “The Power of the Future in the Present: Eschatology and Ethics in O’Donovan and Beyond,” in Bartholomew, A Royal Priesthood’, 125, 126, 139. Also helpful here is Christopher Rowland’s essay in the same book. Rowland argues a point similar to the one I am trying to argue in this paper-i.e., that the politics of Jesus could be a helpful addition to O’Donovan’s political theology. Rowland makes his argument from his discussion of the Apocalypse-i.e., the story of Christ’s work casts its shadow over every human transaction, and readers of the Apocalypse are offered the resources to work out what faithfulness to the testimony of Jesus might mean-Rowland believes that Yoder’s theology, and indeed the spirit of the early Anabaptists, could fit well into O’Donovan’s political theology, whereas O’Donovan takes his work in a direction that is more sympathetic to the spirit of the magisterial Reformers. Christopher Rowland, “The Apocalypse and Political Theology,” in Bartholomew, A Royal Priesthood’, 241-254.
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. Jonathan Chaplin suggests that fundamental to O’Donovan’s theological vision is the conviction that the victory of Christ creates the church and that ecclesiology is prior to political theology. In this respect, O’Donovan is indebted to Hauerwas in asserting that the foundation of the church’s witness must be the existence of a faithful witnessing community. Where he departs from Hauerwas is his denial that the mere existence of such a community just is the church’s political witness to the world. Jonathan Chaplin, “Political Eschatology and Responsible Government,” 269.
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. I am grateful to Dr. Travis Kroeker (McMaster University) for several engaging and fruitful discussions around this paper, to Dr. Reinhold Kramer (University of Brandon) for his input and to an anonymous reader for several helpful suggestions.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Christology in the Political Theology of O’Donovan
MQR 78 (July 2004)