‘True Political Concepts’: Engaging With Oliver O’Donovan, part 1

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July 19, 2016 by mattwilcoxen

abbaThe church is adrift on the choppy seas of modern political discourse. To be sure, her members have their political opinions, but more often than not these are built on presuppositions about government that have never been analysed, and result in positions on policy that therefore cannot be theologically justified. The result is that the church is largely impotent politically, co-opted by one or another political enterprise. This is no private loss for Christians, but a loss for the culture more broadly, since it desperately needs the salt and light of the people of God–whether it knows it or not.

The work of theologian Oliver O’Donovan, drawing richly on the classic resources of Christian political thought, offers to help us find our way forward. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts distilling the main contribution of two of O’Donovan’s works, The Desire of Nations and The Ways of Judgment. The arc of the two works, when taken together, is to elaborate the true political concepts revealed in scripture, in order to fund a robust Christian political ethics that can fund meaningful engagement with the institutions and practices of a given society.

In the first chapter of Desire of the Nations (DN) O’Donovan explains how the modern Western tradition came to insist on the separation of politics from theology (indeed, from morality). The mixing of the two became suspect on two grounds. First, inasmuch as the political order is about the advantage of certain people or groups over others, politics has the tendency to corrupt theology, domesticating it for its own ends. The second ground for suspicion runs the other way: theology tends to corrupt politics since it threatens the notion that political authority is derived from the bottom-up–from the will of the people. These two suspicions have been fused together in the modern world. Theology and its morality have been internalised, and the realm of politics has been abandoned as a contest of wills and interests, with no possibility of a critical appeal to moral principles.

There is a notable recent exception to this rule; Liberation Theology appeals to moral principles in order to critique the prevailing political order. However, the critique that Liberation Theology issues is rooted in Hegelian idealism. This idealism sees the critique as part of the historical process of thesis and antithesis ad infinitum, such that every political criticism will itself be unmasked as unjust. Thus the controlling-sources of Liberation Theology only serve to underwrite an ongoing scepticism of every political order. While criticism is necessary, criticism alone can never make a positive contribution.

Once totalised, criticism merely evacuates itself of content and turns into a series of empty gestures. One cannot gain a truer understanding of the world by criticism alone, any more than one can make a dish of mince with a grinder and nothing to put through it. Totalised criticism is the modern form of intellectual innocence–not a harmless innocence, unhappily, for by elevating suspicion to the dignity of a philosophical principle, it destroys trust and makes it impossible to learn (DN, p. 11).


Within the modern political discourse (theological and otherwise), it has been commonly advocated that political action arises from “reflection upon praxis”. The problem with this formula is that our action within the current political order becomes a predetermined limit for what God may or may not say to us. It allows no possibility of genuine freedom–freedom for repentance. In order for political theology to have this freedom, it must exist as a theoretical discipline. It must derive its concepts not merely from a given political order and the praxis it demands, but from holy scripture.

Liberation theology takes its decisive cues not from scripture but from the social sciences, and therefore it ultimately fails. This is because the social sciences preclude the important political concept of authority, typically narrowing its analysis to economic interests, “which are only a fraction of what a living society cares about” (DN, p. 16). Authority itself remains the target of suspicion and political theology as such remains no more than an instrument of criticism–helpful in its place, but devoid of any positive possibilities.

By contrast, O’Donovan’s thesis in DN is that by attending to the central biblical theme of the reign of God, political theology can win back the important notion of authority. By looking to the divine rule, political theology can see authority not merely as a devouring, absolute power, but as a teleologically-ordered power exercised for God’s redemptive purposes. Focus on divine rule also allows political theology to unmask the Western tradition of seeing authority vested in institutions per se, but in actions. Authority is here seen as “a moment of vocation”, a calling (from God) for power to be exercised on behalf of others.

Christians recover this constructive notion of authority by looking to the scripture in a particular way–as the revelation of the reign of God in the history of Israel. It will not suffice to cherry-pick certain passages here or there, but rather the whole of scripture must be taken into account. “Israel’s knowledge of God’s blessings was, from beginning to end, a political knowledge, and it was out of that knowledge that the evangelists and prophets spoke about Jesus.” So a coherent integration of the themes of the kingdom must be developed that focuses on the history of Israel that culminates in Christ. The Old Testament political entity that is Israel is not only a prefiguration of spiritual realities, nor is it merely the promise of an eschatological reality. Though it is both of these things, it is also a revelation of the rule God exercises over the entire world.



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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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