Here’s the second of two posts providing an 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.
3. I sympathise with O’Donovan’s model of Christendom which may surprise some people who know me, though I have significant reservations. Perhaps a comparison with John Howard Yoder (and especially Yoder’s classic work, The Politics of Jesus, Eerdmans) may be instructive. O’Donovan and Yoder seem poles apart. Yoder is the trenchant critic of Christendom, O’Donovan a defender of it (or at least a version of it).
But in fact the similarities are more striking than at first might be apparent. Both have a deep and sustained critique of empire. Both see the church itself as a political institution whose primary political responsibility is to be the church, to reflect the Christ-event in its own life. Both argue that in this way it will impact the surrounding culture.
The difference is that O’Donovan is more optimistic about what can be achieved in this way. The conversion of the powers can happened. It has happened. And it has left behind some positives legacies in Western culture.
O’Donovan is optimistic because the resurrection and ascension are to the fore in his theology. (As an aside I was blessed reading The Desire of the Nations for this reason: I was left optimistic about my own spiritual growth and that of others because of this resurrection-based hope.) O’Donovan critique of Yoder is, therefore, that he is too negative (151-152).
Yet in the end of I can’t help think that O’Donovan’s version of Christendom is it too rose-tinted. It is created by excluding all other deviant forms of Christendom.
The suffering church is present in The Desire of the Nations. (My main critique of Resurrection and Moral Order is that the cross does not sufficiently shape O’Donovan’s ethics.) But it is not the fore. I have a nagging sense that O’Donovan’s eschatology is overly realised. His four moments in the Christ event exclude the parousia. O’Donovan clearly believes there is future event. Perhaps he would argue that it is part of the ascension event – the triumph of Christ which s yet to be made manifest on earth. I acknowledge the link. The revelation of Christ is also the renewal of all things and the final judgment. In the meantime history bears the mark of the cross – the cross as the epitome of human hatred towards God and divine judgment against sin.
4. O’Donovan’s identification of sacramental actions looks somewhat arbitrary. In particular it is hard to confine baptism and the Lord’s Supper to the moments of the Christ-event to which O’Donovan assigns them. We are baptised into the death of christ and rise from water to share his new life. The Lord’s Supper not only looks back to Christ’s death, but also forward to the messianic banquet.
Nevertheless I think O’Donovan is on to something important. The significance of the church is expressed in concrete ways in the life of the church. Sacramental actions embody who we are and what we are about. They enact our story.