The legacy of Christendom

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon UK

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 Seven: The Redemption of Society (part one)

Post-Christendom society still bears the marks of the church’s influence and therefore of the four moments in the Christ-event. And the main problems we face are not regressions from this (into barbarism), but progressions beyond it (into the Antichrist parodies described in the book of Revelation). so O’Donovan identifies four positive legacies of the Christ-event mediated through the church created by that event together with four corresponding distortions that we face today.

1. Freedom (corresponding to advent and the gathering church)

The proclamation of Christ’s authority loosens hold of all other authority leading to freedom. ‘In heeding the church, society heeds a dangerous voice, a voice that is capable of challenging authority effectively, a voice which, when they oppressed have heard it (even in an echo or at a distance), they cannot remain still.’ (252)

Christ justifies existing authority (within proper limits), but the primarily truth is that they are all now penultimate because Christ has (past tense) assumed all authority. ‘Advent is past-perfect, not future.’ (253)

Freedom, then, is not conceived primarily as an assertion of individuality, whether positively, in terms of individual creativity and impulse, or negatively, in terms of ‘rights’, which is to say immunities from harm. It is a social reality, a new disposition of society around its supreme Lord which sets it loose form its traditional lords. Yet individual liberty is not far away. From the implication of this new social reality is that the individual can no longer simply be carried within the social setting to which she or he was born; for that setting is under challenge form the new social centre. This requires she give herself to the service of the Lord within the new society, in defiance, if need be, of the olds lords and societies that claim her. She emerges in differentiation from her family, tribe and nation, making decisions of discipleship which were not given her from within them. Between the old and new lordships, then. is a step she must take on her own, a responsibility for individual decision; and that, too, is a contribution to liberty, not because it creates a vacuum in which the individual is momentarily free from any society – that is not liberty! – but because it allows her to enrich society by the gift of her self-donation to it. Individual decision, the act of heart and mind, has now become fully and consciously engaged in and for society; so that society itself is free, being upheld by the free self-giving of each member. A society founded in conversion and baptism is a society unlike all other. (254-255)

This is evangelical liberty (the freedom to obey Christ). But it leads (via the weaker brother) to freedom of conscience (the freedom to err).

2. Mercy in judgment (corresponding to the cross and the suffering church)

A society that knows its own judgment must still judge (that is the role of the state), but will exercise judgment with mercy. From the perspective of the resurrection we see the cross as an act both of judgment and reconciliation. Reconciliation is not the only purpose of judgment (it must also distinguish right from wrong), but it shapes the form of judgment. The state cannot bring repentance or regeneration, but it can be restrained.

3. Natural rights (corresponding to restoration and the glad church)

The vindication of created being evokes:

1. natural equality

2. affinity (family, community, national homes)

3. reciprocity (between homes without a unitary ‘super-home’)

It also creates creaturely cohabitation which is important in the face of the environmental problems we face, but O’Donovan does not develop this.

4. Openness to speech (corresponding to the exaltation and the speaking church)

‘Any voice within the public realm which could address the community about the common good had to be heard, lest the voice of true prophecy should go unheard.’ (269) This includes the recognition that all people (irrespective of social status) can be heard. (This is one element on what we call ‘democracy though this is an ambiguous and problematic term.)