Here’s the next instalment in my series summarising and assessing Oliver Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (CUP, 1996). Click here for other entries in the series.
Chapter Two: The Revelation of God’s Kingship
The reign of God also connects us with the history of Israel. Recently political theology has moved beyond isolated texts (like Romans 13). But it still only draws on eclectic themes (exodus, jubilee, shalom). It lacks an ‘architectonic hermeneutic’ (22) to bring together these themes.
Yahweh’s reign does not legitimate certain forms of political order (not even the David king). So can we learn anything useful from Yahweh’s for political theology? ‘We can, if we explore the resonances of a wider range of terms that are used to develop the idea.’ (35) O’Donovan undertakes an exegetical task (although he does not show his workings) to identify these resonances:
We shall take three common Hebrew words as primary points of reference: yeshū’āh (salvation), mishpāt (judgment) and nahalāh (possession). Yhwh’s authority as king is established by the accomplishment of victorious deliverance, by the presence of judicial discrimination and by the continuity of a community-possession. To these three primary terms I add a fourth, which identities the human response and acknowledgement of Yhwh’s reign: tehillāh (praise). (36)
This creates three themes (that tend towards one another):
1. Salvation (mighty acts, victory)
The paradigm for this is the exodus. Salvation is an exercise of Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness (hesed) and righteousness (tsedeq).
2. Judgment (righteousness)
Judgment of Yhwh involves both vindicating the righteousness of Israel in the face of the nations (through military victory) and vindicating the righteousness of God in the face of Israel (judgement against Israel).
This includes both the land (as a national possession, later focused on Jerusalem, and family inheritance) and the law. It also encompasses Yahweh’s possession of Israel.
As the book progresses O’Donovan equates these (without stating this correlation) as follows does this: salvation = power, judgment = right, possession = tradition – thus making them recognisable as concepts in Western thought. (45)
This analysis creates the first of six theorems:
First theorem: ‘Political authority arises where power, the execution of right and the perpetuation of tradition are assured together in one co-ordinated agency.’ (46)
Second theorem: ‘That any regime should actually come to hold authority, and should continue to hold it, is a work of divine providence in history, not a mere accomplishment of the human task of political service.’ (46)
O’Donovan adds a fourth theme: Human beings respond to these three dimensions of the divine rule with praise. ‘We may say that the land was the material case of Yhwh’s kingly rule, as judgment was the formal cause and his victories the efficient cause … praise is the final case of God’s kingdom.’ (41, 48)
Third theorem: ‘In acknowledging political authority, society proves its political identity.’ (47)
The recognition of political authority involves a worship of divine rule explains (49):
— the persistent connexion between politics and religion
— why political loyalties can go so badly wrong
— the moral debilitation of the Western idea of political authority as a human creation to protect individual purposes
The authority of Yhwh (like Yhwh himself) is imageless. But it is mediated through human mediators (in addition to cataclysmic events). But human mediators, especially the king, are idolised because they are relativised by the prophetic movement (65).
Fourth theorem: ‘The authority of a human regime mediates divine authority in a unitary structure, but is subject to the authority of law within the community, which bears independent witness to the divine command.’ (65)
Can law be applied to the other nations? In the Old Testament we see both judgment proclaimed against the nations, and also the prospect of co-operation and co-worship. The same legal expectations are applied to the nations. They are accountable to the same divine court (Psalm 82:3). The great Mesopotamian empires are God’s sword or servant of judgment. There is also a critique of empire – of both its military and cultural hegemony. So the eschatological vision of Israel is of an internationally plural order, free from the unifying constraints of empire (71).
To summarise: the rule of Yhwh was conceived internationally; it secured the relations of the nations and directed them toward peace. But at the international level there was to be no unitary mediator, Israel never entertained the apologia for empire which we find developing in patristic and medieval sources, that the rule of a single world-power represented and mediated the universal rule of Yhwh as high-god. Yhwh’s world order was plurally constituted. World-empire was a bestial deformation. It was in this providential disposition of events that Yhwh’s rule was seen; and it was mediated only through the authority of prophets and the prophetic people. Israel did not speak of a ‘Natural Law’ because it felt no need to go back behind its own prophetic role to explain how Yhwh made his name known; Israel was itself the messenger. But it thought in terms of a law which could and would bind the nations universally. To propose a generalised statement: the appropriate unifying element in international order is law rather than government. (72)
This is O’Donovan’s fifth theorem.
Fifth theorem: ‘The appropriate unifying element in international order is law rather than government.’ (72)
No political structure can claim to encompass all humanity (73). Law can shape relations between nations, but not government. There are always ‘others’ whom we must respect and encounter.
Israel has a fundamental collective identity. But there is an emerging role for the individual. This creates O’Donovan’s sixth theorem:
Sixth theorem: ‘The conscience of the individual members of a community is a repository of the moral understanding which shaped it, and may serve to perpetuate it in a crisis of collapsing morale or institution.’ (80)