The politics of Jesus and dual authority

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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 Three: Dual Authority and the Fulfilling of the Time

The rule of Jesus reflects the rule of Yhwh in the Old Testament.

1. Works of power (victories over demons)

Spiritual enemies made colonial power secondary. This looks like spiritualization, but hunger and disease are depoliticising. Overcoming them is an empowering act. The empowerment of Israel was more important than the disempowerment of Rome. The exodus was not only a conquest of Egypt, but also of the sea. Moreover Jesus can be ‘casual’ about Roman power because it is passing (Matthew 17:24-27). It is ailing so does not require resistance. (91-93)

2. Judgment against Israel

We see this in Jesus’ widespread condemnation of ruling classes in favour of the poor (98) as well as his apocalyptic pronouncements against Jerusalem (Mark 13). But judgment can also reconcile the alienated as when Jesus decides for the tax-collectors.

3. The possession of the law

‘Jesus believed national restoration had to come through the re-appropriation of the law.’ (Matthew 7:24-27) His critique of the Pharisees shows the interpretation of the law mattered of Jesus. But he was concerned for law in the heart.

If the law was Israel’s possession then those who possess the law are Israel. So Jesus forms ‘a decisive Israel’ = disciples. The disciples bear the authority of the kingdom

— power (as they cast out demons)

— judgment (as they preach the rule of God)

— possession (as they form a new community)

4. Faith

Faith in Jesus as the messianic king and the Son of Man (Daniel 7) is an act of political recognition.

In chapter three O’Donovan argues that the two cities approach of Augustine finds support throughout the exilic and post-exilic Old Testament writings. Imperial subjugation presented an opportunity for separation and an opportunity for influence, but this influence was perilous because of the potential for compromise and because of the inherent instability of empire. In chapter four he suggests the overlap of the ages leads to a recovering the post-exilic two kingdoms approach (1 Peter 2:13-17). In chapter six he develops this idea of dual authority as follows:

The doctrine of the Two was, before all else, a doctrine of two ages. The passing age of the principalities and powers has overlapped with the coming age of God’s Kingdom … Secular institutions have a role confined to this passing age (saeculum) … The corresponding terms to ‘secular’ is not ‘sacred’, nor ‘spiritual’, but ‘eternal’. Applied to political authorities, the term ‘secular’ should tell us that they are agents of Christ, but are marked for displacement when the rule of God in Christ is finally disclosed. They are Christ’s conquered enemies; yet they have an indirect testimony to give, bearing the marks of his sovereignty imposed upon them, negating their pretensions and evoking their acknowledgement. Like the surface of a planet pocked with craters by the bombardment it receives from space, the governments of the passing age show the impact of Christ’s dawning glory. This witness of the secular is the central core of Christendom. (211-212)