The Desire of the Nations

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon UK

In forthcoming posts I’m going to blog my way through Oliver O’Donovan’s important work, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (CUP, 1996). Here’s the plan. This post is a summary of the book as a whole. I’ll then post a chapter by chapter summary. Finally I’ll offer some reflections by way of appraisal.

Now based in Edinburgh, Oliver O’Donovan was Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University. He is the author of a number of books, most notably Resurrection and Moral Order (IVP) which has become a seminal work in Christian ethics.

In The Desire of the Nations O’Donovan lays a foundation for political theology by exploring the theme of God’s reign. He identifies four key resonances that the reign of Yhwh has in the Bible: salvation, judgment, possession and the human response of praise. These map on to the modern concepts of power, law and tradition together with political recognition. O’Donovan then unfolds the political significance of the ‘Christ-event’ through four summary moments which then constitute the church as a political community in distinctive ways.

moments of Christ-event political character of church sacramental action
advent gathering community baptism
passion suffering community Lord’s Supper
restoration glad community keeping the Lord’s day
exaltation speaking community the laying on of hands
The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

The gathering community proclaims the rule of Christ through its mission. This creates suffering when this proclamation brings it into conflict with opposing powers. The glad community sees the resurrection as the affirmation of the goodness of the created order and therefore is involved social and cultural activity (recapitulating the argument of O’Donovan’s classic work on ethics, Resurrection and Moral Order, IVP). The speaking community proclaims the word of God to the world through prophecy and to God through prayer.

O’Donovan then re-evaluates Christendom. He rejects the idea that Christendom is the church seeking earthly power (though at times he acknowledges that it did sometimes take this form). Instead he sees Christendom as the fruit of the church’s mission (but not part of the mission itself). When the powers acknowledge the rule of Christ then the church must disciple those rulers in a responsible way. O’Donovan believes the overlap of the ages creates space for dual authority, though the authority of the powers is passing and will give way to the reign of Christ.

Finally O’Donovan identifies four positive legacies of the Christ-event and the community it creates in Western liberalism. But each of these have progressed in dangerous ways that bear the image not of Christ, but of Antichrist.

political character of church positive legacy dangerous progression
gathering community freedom absolute free choice
suffering community mercy in judgment unintelligible suffering
glad community natural right self-preserving rights
speaking community openness of speech language as reality generator

So, as I see it, O’Donovan is attempting the following:

— to lay a foundation for political theology in the reign of God in the Old Testament and in Christ

— to define the purpose of government as power, judgment and tradition with a focus on judgment (expressed in the Western tradition in constitutional law)

— to re-evaluate Christendom with a view to gaining a better understanding of the goal of political theology

— to identify four areas in which the legacy of Christian political involvement is becoming dangerously distorted so providing an agenda for continued Christian political involvement


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