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 Four: The Triumph of the Kingdom
O’Donovan criticises what he calls ‘Jesuology’ (pacifism, liberation theology) which focuses on the life of Jesus without reckoning with the death and vindication of Jesus. Instead he focuses on four ‘moments of the representative act’. These are merely exegetical summaries that represent the structure of the story. They have not conceptual or theoretical function.
Jesus comes meditating God’s rule and representing humanity.
We see judgment in the story of Jesus in the plot against him, his passion and his resurrection. Jesus unsettled the post-exilic two kingdom conception by claiming the kingdom of God had swept away existing orders of government (137). But, though passing away, Gentile rule persists. This creates the conflict that climaxes in the cross.
The resurrection signifies judgment against Israel and for Israel – overcoming Israel’s sin and affirming Israel’s new identity in its representative (Romans 4). This rejection and affirmation take the form of the conquest of death so makes Israel’s restoration representative of the wider human race (Romans 5). Restoration (to bodily life) and empowerment (to a spiritual body) (1 Corinthians 15). (Resurrection is unfolded in two events: resurrection and ascension – reminding us that not everything is accomplished: creation as all history will be renewed.)
Daniel 7 is fulfilled on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1) (144). All authority belongs to Christ. But this authority awaits the final universal presence of Christ before it is apparent.
Between these assertions there is opens up space for secular authority. Secular authority is authorised to provide space for mission (1 Timothy 2:1ff).
O’Donovan argues that in Romans 13 Paul sees the powers in the context of Christ’s victory (the phrase ‘the prevailing authorities’ alludes to the defeated principalities and powers). Government no longer secures national identity. Commenting on 1 Peter 2:13-17, O’Donovan says Christians are aliens because we have our own political identity. The role of secular authority is judgment (and the taxation required to this end). So respect is due to secular authorities because of this judicial function. But fear belongs only to God and love only to the brothers. The roles of power and possession no longer pertain, only judgment.
Secular authorities are no longer in the fullest sense mediators of the rule of God. They mediate his judgments only. The power that they exercise in defeating enemies, the national possessions they safeguard, these are now rendered irrelevant by Christ’s triumph. This is what might properly be meant by that misleading expression, the ‘desacralisation’ of politics by the Gospel. No government has a right to exist, no nation has a right to defend itself. Such claims are overwhelmed by the immediate claim of the Kingdom. There remains simply the rump of political authority which cannot be dispensed with yet, the exercise of judgment. (151)
By limiting the state’s role, state idolatry could be condemned as it was in the book of Revelation (152).