Appraising The Desire of the Nations – Part Two

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon UK

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).

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

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.

4 thoughts on “Appraising The Desire of the Nations – Part Two

  1. I was interested in your nagging sense that O’Donovan’s eschatolgy was overly realised. I was under the impression that his balance between “Vocation” and “Charisma” (both in “Desire” and “Resurrection”) safeguarded against the charge of being over-realised. So for example, in relation to marriage, he will speak about the importance of marriage as having been “relativised” but NOT in anyway “overturned” in light of Jesus resurrection. He does the same when discussing the social structure of Roman Slavery.

    In relation to “Resurrection and Moral Order” displaying an insufficient dependence on the cross – your comments encourage me to go back and check that out again. Certainly O’Donvan’s comments in his booklet on Capital Punishment and his treatment of Just War, he upholds Penal notions where a writer like Yoder does not. To me O’Donovan seems to offer deliberate critique of what he sees as an over-realised eschatology in Yoder, which ignores the “not-yet” of the time before Jesus return.

    In any case – thanks for your posts. I’ve found few critiques of O’Donovan that have been helpful. If you know of others, I’d love to hear of them.

    Many thanks

  2. Hi Steve

    I wasn’t questioning O’Donovan’s doctrine of the atonement! I was questioning whether the cross played a sufficient role in shaping his ethics.

    On Resurrection and Moral Order I would recommend: Stephen Williams, ‘Outline for Ethics: a Response to Oliver O’Donovan’, Themelios, Vol. 13, 1988, 86-91.

    I have a few unpublished documents on The Desire of the Nations.

    There is a book interacting with The Desire of the Nations:
    A Royal Priesthood: The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically (Scripture & Hermeneutics Series)

  3. Hi Tim,

    A few years back, I practically called you an Arminian in a comment on another blog post. :) I’m happy to take another opportunity to speak up, this time mainly to thank you for your and Timmis’s work in Total Church. It has been a practical help and blessing to me as a Presbyterian church planter on the East Coast of the USA.

    I’m also excited to see you working through and commenting on Desire of the Nations. I told my wife that this was a meeting of ecclesiological worlds! (As was publishing Total Church under the Re:Lit imprint!)

    One of the things I really appreciate about O’Donovan is his rediscovery of the ethical impact of the resurrection. At one point (in another work) he mentions “the characteristic Western neglect of the resurrection” – and he’s right! Think about how many popular Christmas carols there are: can you think of three “Easter carols” (aside from Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus)? What he points out is that a lot of Western theology is actually under-realized. I consider you and Steve, Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, and John Piper to be the most important pastors alive in shaping my own thinking and in contributing gospel-centered reflection on church. I’m uncomfortable with what I perceive as too much Yoder and Hauerwas (and in the background Lindbeck as well) and not enough O’Donovan. (The postliberal rejection of Christendom has also been adopted by Michael Horton and others at Westminster Seminary in California, heirs of a more “old school” Reformed ethos.)

    So I guess I’m asking: is it possible that O’Donovan is right in thinking that Christendom (in some sense) is built into the missionary endeavor? That it is the trajectory of the Gospel’s adoption? That it is the shape of obedience by rulers to the evangel? And is it possible that many have thrown out the baby of evangelical obedience by rulers with the bathwater of the historical imperfection of that obedience?

    Dinner calls. :) I’ll comment again later. If you want to e-mail me off the blog that’d be fine too. Blessings to you and yours.


  4. So here’s what else I wanted to say …

    I have read the book of responses to/from O’Donovan, titled A Royal Priesthood … It was a bit disappointing. A lot of guys talking past each other. Let me strongly recommend O’Donovan’s book on political *ethics* (as opposed to political *theology*) titled The Ways of Judgment. Seeing how his thought would (and does) work out in practice really helps. Also, his reflections on the Christian concept of conscience are priceless.


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