From Creation to New Creation book giveaway

The Good Book Company has recently re-published my introduction to biblical theology, From Creation to New Creation.  To celebrate, I am giving away one copy.

The usual rules apply:

  • This is open to all RSS or email subscribers to this blog.
  • All you have to do to enter the draw is to send an e-mail with your postal address and name to bookoffer [at] timchester [dot] co [dot] uk.
  • The deadline is Tuesday 14 December.

You can find a summary of the book here. To buy the book in the UK click here and to buy the book in the US click here.



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The kingdom of God and the atonement

I recently led a series of informal theological discussions on the theme of eschatology for leaders in our gathering of The Crowded House. This session continues our exploration of the kingdom of God and the coming of Jesus with a focus on the secret of the kingdom, the nature of the kingdom in the present age and the crucial link between the kingdom and the atonement.

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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.

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’.

The Triumph of the Kingdom: Christology and Politics

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 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.

1. Advert

Jesus comes meditating God’s rule and representing humanity.

2. Passion

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.

3. Restoration

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.)

4. Exaltation

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).

The Revelation of God’s Kingship

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 Two: The Revelation of God’s Kingship

The reign of God also connects us with the history of Israel. Recently political theology has moved beyond isolated texts (like Romans 13). But it still only draws on eclectic themes (exodus, jubilee, shalom). It lacks an ‘architectonic hermeneutic’ (22) to bring together these themes.

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

The Desire of the Nations - Amazon US

Yahweh’s reign does not legitimate certain forms of political order (not even the David king). So can we learn anything useful from Yahweh’s for political theology? ‘We can, if we explore the resonances of a wider range of terms that are used to develop the idea.’ (35) O’Donovan undertakes an exegetical task (although he does not show his workings) to identify these resonances:

We shall take three common Hebrew words as primary points of reference: yeshū’āh (salvation), mishpāt (judgment) and nahalāh (possession). Yhwh’s authority as king is established by the accomplishment of victorious deliverance, by the presence of judicial discrimination and by the continuity of a community-possession. To these three primary terms I add a fourth, which identities the human response and acknowledgement of Yhwh’s reign: tehillāh (praise). (36)

This creates three themes (that tend towards one another):

1. Salvation (mighty acts, victory)

The paradigm for this is the exodus. Salvation is an exercise of Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness (hesed) and righteousness (tsedeq).

2. Judgment (righteousness)

Judgment of Yhwh involves both vindicating the righteousness of Israel in the face of the nations (through military victory) and vindicating the righteousness of God in the face of Israel (judgement against Israel).

3. Possession

This includes both the land (as a national possession, later focused on Jerusalem, and family inheritance) and the law. It also encompasses Yahweh’s possession of Israel.

As the book progresses O’Donovan equates these (without stating this correlation) as follows does this: salvation = power, judgment = right, possession = tradition – thus making them recognisable as concepts in Western thought. (45)

This analysis creates the first of six theorems:

First theorem: ‘Political authority arises where power, the execution of right and the perpetuation of tradition are assured together in one co-ordinated agency.’ (46)

Second theorem: ‘That any regime should actually come to hold authority, and should continue to hold it, is a work of divine providence in history, not a mere accomplishment of the human task of political service.’ (46)

4. Praise

O’Donovan adds a fourth theme: Human beings respond to these three dimensions of the divine rule with praise. ‘We may say that the land was the material case of Yhwh’s kingly rule, as judgment was the formal cause and his victories the efficient cause … praise is the final case of God’s kingdom.’ (41, 48)

Third theorem: ‘In acknowledging political authority, society proves its political identity.’ (47)

The recognition of political authority involves a worship of divine rule explains (49):

—  the persistent connexion between politics and religion

—  why political loyalties can go so badly wrong

—  the moral debilitation of the Western idea of political authority as a human creation to protect individual purposes

The authority of Yhwh (like Yhwh himself) is imageless. But it is mediated through human mediators (in addition to cataclysmic events). But human mediators, especially the king, are idolised because they are relativised by the prophetic movement (65).

Fourth theorem: ‘The authority of a human regime mediates divine authority in a unitary structure, but is subject to the authority of law within the community, which bears independent witness to the divine command.’ (65)

Can law be applied to the other nations? In the Old Testament we see both judgment proclaimed against the nations, and also the prospect of co-operation and co-worship. The same legal expectations are applied to the nations. They are accountable to the same divine court (Psalm 82:3). The great Mesopotamian empires are God’s sword or servant of judgment. There is also a critique of empire – of both its military and cultural hegemony. So the eschatological vision of Israel is of an internationally plural order, free from the unifying constraints of empire (71).

To summarise: the rule of Yhwh was conceived internationally; it secured the relations of the nations and directed them toward peace. But at the international level there was to be no unitary mediator, Israel never entertained the apologia for empire which we find developing in patristic and medieval sources, that the rule of a single world-power represented and mediated the universal rule of Yhwh as high-god. Yhwh’s world order was plurally constituted. World-empire was a bestial deformation. It was in this providential disposition of events that Yhwh’s rule was seen; and it was mediated only through the authority of prophets and the prophetic people. Israel did not speak of a ‘Natural Law’ because it felt no need to go back behind its own prophetic role to explain how Yhwh made his name known; Israel was itself the messenger. But it thought in terms of a law which could and would bind the nations universally. To propose a generalised statement: the appropriate unifying element in international order is law rather than government. (72)

This is O’Donovan’s fifth theorem.

Fifth theorem: ‘The appropriate unifying element in international order is law rather than government.’ (72)

No political structure can claim to encompass all humanity (73). Law can shape relations between nations, but not government. There are always ‘others’ whom we must respect and encounter.

Israel has a fundamental collective identity. But there is an emerging role for the individual. This creates O’Donovan’s sixth theorem:

Sixth theorem: ‘The conscience of the individual members of a community is a repository of the moral understanding which shaped it, and may serve to perpetuate it in a crisis of collapsing morale or institution.’ (80)

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure …

Yesterday we had another ‘vision Saturday’ when the congregations and teams in the Edge Network come together. We’re looking at a series of ‘identities’ that are ours in Christ and which should define who we are and shape how we live. This time it was heirs of God. I began with a story …

Let me tell you a story that Jesus once told. Jesus said the kingdom of God was a bit like this.

A man was walking home from working in the fields when he decided to take a short-cut across a scrubby area that never seemed to be used for anything. There was no clear path through the field so he picked his way through as best he could. About two-thirds of the way across he tripped suddenly and fell into the long grass. A few inches from where he fell he saw to his surprise a piece of metal sticking out of the ground. Curious, he pulled away the grass and brushed off the top soil. It was the metal corner of wooden chest. He tugged away the tufts of grass and dug away at the soil. He pulled and twisted the chest until it was free. He paused. And then lifted its lid. Inside were jewels, pendants, gold coins – all covered in dust, but clearly extremely valuable.

What was he to do?

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