Appraising The Desire of the Nations – Part One

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon UK

Here’s the first of two posts providing some kind of appraisal of Oliver Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (CUP, 1996). Click here for other entries in this series summarising and assessing The Desire of the Nations

It is hard to evaluate a work of such scale. It certainly invidious to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ The Desire of the Nations. I will restrict to a number of observations.

1. I am not sure O’Donovan has laid sufficient emphasis on the servant nature of God’s rule. God’s rule in Eden was life-giving, loving, peaceable and just. It was the Serpent lie to portray God as tyrant, holding humanity back.  Humanity’s problem thereafter has been twofold: (1) we believe God to be a tyrant and therefore we believe we will be more free without God than under his rule; (2) we typically rule in image of Satan’s lie (i.e. tyrannically) rather than in the image of God’s rule as we were intended to. Richard Mouw writes:

The story of the reclamation of fallen humanity directly confronts the revisionist doctrine of God [put forward by the Serpent] that precipitated the fall into sin. Over and over, human beings must hear the refrain, ‘You have misunderstood; that is not what it means to be a “lord”.’ Finally God himself must become a member of sinful humanity … The lie of the Tempter is decisively exposed when the incarnate Son says, ‘Look! This is what it means to be a “lord”:’ and ‘he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant … and become obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:7‑8). (Richard Mouw, Politics and the Biblical Drama, Baker, 1976, 41.)

2. O’Donovan seems to suggest a limited role for government. This is not the small state so beloved on American Republicanism. In The Ways of Judgment (Eerdmans), for example, he argues for the state provision of child benefit. Nevertheless O’Donovan argues that after Christ the role of government is simply that of judgment (though he also seems equivocal on this as in other places he allows for a continued, albeit lesser role of power and tradition.)

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

I think the move to judgment alone needs more justification than is provided. It almost seems to occur by slight of hand. Somewhere in the dense prose the move is made and it is not until some time later that you realise that the move was significant. The role of the state in Romans 13 to punish wrong doing seems the main plank in this argument (though O’Donovan elsewhere critiques those who proof text a political theology from Romans 13). Yet even in Romans 13:4 the ruler is not only ‘an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer’, he is also ‘God’s servant to do you good’.