Transforming the World? The Gospel and Social Responsibility

I recently received my author copies of a new book entitled Transforming the World? The Gospel and Social Responsibility (Apollos) purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US edited by Jamie Grant and my good friend Dewi Hughes. (I know, it’s the same title as the book by David Smith I recently reviewed; even down to the question mark – I did point this out to them.)

It’s a collection of academic papers on Christian social involvement. My chapter on is on eschatology and social involvement: ‘Eschatology and the Transformation of the World: Contradiction, Continuity, Conflation and the Endurance of Hope.’ In some ways it’s a summary version of my book Mission and the Coming of God. Anyway, here’s the line up …

Introduction – Jamie A. Grant and Dewi A. Hughes

1. Protecting the vulnerable: the law and social care – David L. Baker

2. Failing the vulnerable: the prophets and social care – M. Daniel Carroll R.

3. ‘Why bother with the vulnerable?’ The wisdom of social care – Jamie A. Grant

4. Biblical paradigms of redemption: exodus, jubilee and the cross – Christopher J. H. Wright

5. The compassion of the Christ – Alistair I. Wilson

6. Luke’s ‘social’ gospel: the social theology of Luke-Acts – I. Howard Marshall

7. Theology in action: Paul and Christian social care – Jason Hood

8. The Servant solution: the coordination of evangelism and social action – Melvin Tinker

9. Understanding and overcoming poverty – Dewi A. Hughes

10. The biblical basis for social ethics – C. Rene Padilla

11. Public execution: the atonement and world transformation – Anna Robbins

12. Eschatology and the transformation of the world: contradiction, continuity, conflation and endurance of hope – Tim Chester

13. Evangelicals and society: the story of an on-off relationship – David W. Smith

14. An appeal to moral imagination and commercial acumen: transforming business as a solution to poverty – Peter S. Heslam

And here’s the blurb …

Evangelical Christianity has long been plagued by a dichotomy between evangelism and social action. The debate about whether evangelicals should attempt to make this world a better place in tune with God’s will as well as prepare people for life in a better world is the background to this stimulating volume, which seeks to demonstrate that there is no tension between the task of evangelism and the Christian’s obligation to care for those in need. The issue should never have been one of ‘either/or’ but rather should always have been voiced in terms of ‘both/and’. The Bible’s teaching makes it plain that God’s salvific work is both spiritual and physical.

The first seven chapters survey relevant material in the Old and New Testaments; the second seven explore the theme of world transformation from the perspective of social ethics, systematic theology and church history. The clear message is that the proclamation of God’s salvation must address both the desperate spiritual need of a sinful humanity and the desperate physical need that is all too apparent in our troubled world – and that there is theoretical and practical work yet to be done as we think and work under the dominion of Jesus, who as a result of his death and resurrection has been given all authority in heaven and earth.

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Evangelicalism and social class

Here is the second installment of my notes of David Smith’s address at the Reaching the Unreached conference in which he provides an historical reflection on the social location of evangelicalism in the 21st century under the title ‘How Did We Get Here? Class, Culture and the Gospel’. If you want to pursue the themes in these notes then a warmly recommend David’s book, Transforming the World? The Social Impact of British Evangelicalism purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

The nineteenth century saw enormous changes in the nature of British cities and society. Glasgow is a good example of this.  In the 18th century it was a small town clustered around its cathedral. Its population had not changed much for centuries. The cathedral was Reformed so Glasgow might be said to represent a holy commonwealth as envisioned by the Reformers. Within decades that city was completely overwhelmed. It became the workshop of the world, the second city of empire. Its population was swelled by huge numbers of immigrants from depopulated highlands and devastated Ireland. It was this cheap labour that made the industrial revolution possible. But it resulted in increasing social division. Glasgow was divided between a west end (leafy and middle-class) and an east end (down wind from the effluent of the factories, comprising working class slums). The same was true in London, Karl Marx and William Booth both arrived in London in the same year and both were shocked by the condition of the working class. Indeed, both likened it to Dante’s description of the circles of hell.

The same century saw the rise of evangelicalism with massive church growth and a huge programme of new church building.

How are these two things related to each other? In other words, how did emergent evangelicalism respond to the poverty of the industrial poor? The answer is complex.

On the one hand, in the city of Glasgow the new west end was the key location for the building of new churches (many now converted into nightclubs). In the nineteenth century they were filled with the emergent middle class.

In 1840s the Chartists (demanding fundamental human rights and social justice) organised a series of demonstrations in churches. They asked vicars to preach on texts from James. They rarely got the sermons they requested. In most cases they did not get beyond the door. In one case they were refused entry by armed police. In Manchester a vicar provoked a walk out by chartists by taking as his text, ‘My house is a house or prayer but you have made it a den of thieves.’

Smith argues that working class movements became more radical and more humanist by the negative response of evangelicals to the Chartists. In the early days the Chartists were inspired by Christ, but the establishment also used Christianity to defend the status quo. So the working class became much more radical and sometimes Marxist. In 1855 Karl Marx was in Hyde Park to witness another huge Chartist demonstration. Marx was delighted to see the response of the crowd to a woman returning from church. As she passed she held out a prayer book from her carriage. The crowd responded by telling her to give it to her horses to read.

Yet the same period witnessed preachers inspired by the Scriptures developing a powerful prophetic approach to contemporary problems. They recognised a distressing similarity between the contemporary church and the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3). They recognised the corrosive power of money. Examples include:

  • Charles H. Spurgeon, the London preacher who reached working class people, planted churches in slums and founded an orphanage
  • William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army who wrote Darkest England and the Way Out
  • Thomas Guthrie, the Edinburgh minister and founder of the Ragged Schools
  • Norman Macleod, the Scottish preacher who earned the name ‘Caraid nan Gaidheal’ (Friend of the Gaels) for his advocacy of famine relief in the Highlands

But they are included a host of other preachers whose names we don not know because they buried themselves in situations of great social need.

These preachers began to impact middle-class Christianity by the end of the 19th century. In Glasgow it was recognised that the cholera epidemics were caused by the lack of clean water in the slums. A scheme was devised to bring clean water, but it was strongly resisted by middle-class rate players who resented paying for improvements among the poor. But evangelicals spoke up for the scheme and evangelical lay people entered local politics to see it enacted. The result was an extraordinary scheme to this day.

It was not just middle-class Christians who brought about change. It was working-class Christians who retained a living relationship with Christ and who pursued social justice inspired by the gospel. An example is Kier Hardie, a founder of the Independent Labour Party and the first Labour MP. Hardy grew up in poverty. As a young man he got a job with an evangelical firm. One day he arrived a few minutes late because he had been nursing his sick brother. He was summoned up to appear before the family who owned the firm. While they dined on a sumptuous breakfast, they lectured him on his lateness. Two weeks later he was again late again because he was nursing his brother. This time was summarily sacked. But Hardy did not turn from the gospel, but to the gospel, reading the Gospels and finding inspiration for the pursuit of justice. Later in his career Hardy confronted Overton, a millionaire Christian who paid his workers small wages and refused to allow them Sunday off (despite being an active member of the Lord’s Day Observance Society). Hardy challenged him as a fellow brother.

‘The impression has gained currency that to be a Christian and more especially an evangelical you have to be a traditionalist and a proponent of the status quo.’ Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Westminster Conference, 1975

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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 corruption 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 two)

In the part of chapter seven, as we noted in a previous post, O’Donovan identifes four positive legacies of Christendom in Western culture:

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

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

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

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

These four legacies, however, have progressed in dangerous ways that bear the image not of Christ, but of Antichrist. O’Donovan entitles this section ‘Modernity and Menace’.

1. Absolute free choice

We break free not just from oppression, but from social constraint. Christians believe the individual is the measure of social good, but also that society is the measure of individual good. Modernity has replaced natural communities with communities of will. We are embarrassed by the sense of being owned by a family or a neighbour.

2. Suffering becomes unintelligible

There can be no duty to suffer death since in a contractual view of society the point is to ensure individual safety and well-being. Punishment furthers the agenda of someone else.

3. Natural rights become about self-preservation

Reconstructed from below, natural rights become about self-preservation. Since ‘nature’ has no teleology, natural rights become natural necessities (e.g. ‘we can’t buck the market’).

4. Language as the generator of reality

Modern society totalises speech. ‘Because the normal content of political communication, furthermore, has come to be the conflict of competing wills, speech has lost its orientation to deliberation on the common good, and has come to serve the assertion of competing interests.’ (282) We no longer deliberate, we spin.

This is the end of my chapter by chapter summary of The Desire of the Nations. In future posts I’ll offer some reflections by way of appraisal.

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.)

Reclaiming 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 Six: The Obedience of Rulers

The triumph of Christ led to the expectation that pagan empire would yield to Christ – and so it appeared with the conversion of Constantine. O’Donovan re-examines Christendom. The Desire of Nations has been described as a defence of Christendom. In the preface to the paperback edition, O’Donovan says he did not intend to defend Christendom, but to learn for it. In reality, though, he does defend a particular form of Christendom. Sometimes he concedes there was other forms; sometimes he argues they were not of the essence of Christendom. We cannot accept Christendom as tradition because in the twenty-first century its continuity is broken. But it does offer a witness. We are its denouement (or even its ‘debacle’). So Christendom helps us understand political concepts and ourselves.

Key to O’Donovan’s argument is his claim (contra Hauerwas) that Christendom is not the church seeking earthly power. It is the church responding to the rulers becoming subject to Christ (223). ‘The political doctrine of Christendom was discovered and elicited form the practical experience of Christian political discipleship, in which Christian rulers were accompanied and assisted by the wider church.’ (219)

It is not, as is often suggested, that Christian political order is a project of the church’s mission, either as an end in itself or as a means to the further missionary end. The church’s one project is to witness to the Kingdom of God. Christendom is a response to mission, and as such a sign that God has blessed it. It is constituted not by the church’s seizing alien power, but by alien power’s becoming attentive to the church. (195).

In effect O’Donovan is asking, ‘What would you do if the powers submit to Christ? It is not enough to say Christians should not seek political influence. How will you disciple the ruler who converts?’

The service rendered by the state to the church is to facilitate its mission. The state itself cannot pursue the mission of the church, for it is not consecrated to that task and its weapons of coercion are not fitted for it. But it may facilitate the mission of the church, or impeded it. It may facilitate, it, first, simply by performing its own business responsibly and with modest pretensions. In the Christ era there is no neutral performance on the part of rulers; either they accommodate to the energy of the divine mission, or they hurl themselves into defiance. (217)

Christendom did sometimes coerce but this is not necessary to the Christendom ideal. ‘The story-tellers of Christendom do not celebrate coercion; they celebrate the power of God to humble the haughty ones of the earth and to harness them to the purposes of peace.’ (223) The state should not ‘defend’ the church.

Imagine a state that gave entrenched, constitutional encouragement to Christian mission not afforded to other religious beliefs, and expected of its office-holders deference to these arrangements as to constitutional law. Such a state would have no need to restrict the civil liberties of any non-Christian, even to the point of allowing the highest offices to be free of religious tests. When it could not do, of course, would be to protect its arrangements against constitutional reform, should that secure the necessary support. (224)

The suspicion of Christendom lies in the neo-liberal (post-modern) suspicions of doctrine and conviction. So any system that is built on convictions (albeit one that allows dissent) is deemed suspect. Our preference for ‘pluralism’ may itself be a form of cultural accommodation.

More dangerous than coercion is the danger of civil religion. The perils of post-Christendom are the same of those of Christendom, namely, negative collusion: the pretence that there is no further challenge to the rulers to be made in the name of Christ – especially to unified political and theological authority other than that involved in Christ’s own person (= Antichrist).

Finally, O’Donovan traces the legacy of Christendom in Western liberalism (though he finds it hard to land on a term and also emphasises it diversity).  The ‘state’ (not in the sense that the UK is a state, but in the sense in which we talk about ‘church and state’ – i.e. less that society but more than government) is a Christendom legacy. It is a new notion occasioned by the ascension of Christ which confronts the powers with another political authority. The esse of the responsible state is power, judgment and tradition. The bene esse is now judgment. But it still needs all three, though now they are subject to judgment. So O’Donovan identifies the role of constitutional law as a significant and positive legacy of Christendom: ‘The legal-constitutional conception of is essence of Christendom’s legacy.’ (240) Later the ruler’s responsibility shifts from being a responsibility to divine law to a responsibility to the people whose supposed act constituted him. The nation reappeared, this time defined not by blood but by a common political will. And so the nation-state was born. ‘On all sides pundits proclaim that the nation-state is in trouble. The truth is, it has been in trouble ever since Christ rose form the dead. The challenge issued to given, a priori political identities has been a persistent Leitmotiv of Christian thought.’ (241)

The political character of the church

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 Five: The Church

O’Donovan next turns to the political character of the church. He begins by arguing that this is not to be equated with structural order. Catholicity is prior to order so we should not equate ministerial order with political identity. So ‘informal Christian phenomena are found all around the margins of the structured church, and to deplore the untidiness of these is simply to betray an ignorance of what that rock is upon which the church is founded.’ (170)

Instead, the Spirit unites us to the authority of Christ so that we recapitulate the Christ-event. So the political identity of the church corresponds to the moment of the Christ events (171):

moments of Christ-event political character of church
advent gathering community
passion suffering community
restoration glad community
exaltation speaking community

Our order is a sacramental order. The sacraments ‘knit together’ the church (quoting Augustine and Cranmer) – making the church a visible society. (173) So to each moment of the Christ-event and the corresponding character it gives to the church, O’Donovan identifies a sacramental action:

moments of Christ-event political character of church sacramental action
advent gathering community baptism
passion suffering community Lord’s Supper
restoration glad community keeping the Lord’s day
exaltation speaking community the laying on of hands

1. Gathering community

The church is a missionary church. It is not ‘gathered’ as that implies the coming of the kingdom is complete. Gathering also presupposes a clear core which is the apostolic confession of Christ. Baptism is the sign that makes the gathering community. Each new believer sets aside existing collective identities to be replaced with a new collective identity.

2. Suffering community

We suffer pressure, trials and martyrdom. Our suffering (like Christ’s) is vicarious: it is for others. We suffer to hold our the suffering of Christ to the world. The Eucharist is the sign that makes the suffering community.

3. Glad community

Gladness is a moral attitude, a disposition appropriate to the goodness of creation, now recovered and renewed in the resurrection. This creates a moral life. Though O’Donovan does use the language of social responsibility, in effect this is what the glad community is doing.

When we care for our neighbour’s welfare, it is because we are delighted by our neighbour: by the sheer facticity of this other human that God has made; by the fact that God has given, and vindicated, a determination of our neighbour to health, rationality and relationship. When we make artefacts and machines to exploit the forces of nature, it is because we delight in nature, both in its raw givenness and in its possibilities for co-operation, and we are glad that God has restored it to fulfil his purposes for it. At the heart of making and doing there lies discernment of what the world is and is meant for. Activity is responsive; otherwise it becomes tyrannous and destructive. (183)

Keeping the Lord’s day is the sign that makes the glad community: celebrating the completeness of creation and its recreation through the resurrection of Christ.

4. Speaking community

This involves speaking the words of God to the world and speaking the word of God to God in prophecy and prayer, exercising the authority of the kingdom in speech. ‘Prophecy is the archetypal charism, the paradigm of all the others.’ (188) The laying of the hands is the sign that makes the speaking community = the formal prayer for the gifts of Christ to be manifest in the service and discipleship of particular members. (Later used in confirmation, ordination and the anointing of the sick.)

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 politics of Jesus and dual authority

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 Three: Dual Authority and the Fulfilling of the Time

The rule of Jesus reflects the rule of Yhwh in the Old Testament.

1. Works of power (victories over demons)

Spiritual enemies made colonial power secondary. This looks like spiritualization, but hunger and disease are depoliticising. Overcoming them is an empowering act. The empowerment of Israel was more important than the disempowerment of Rome. The exodus was not only a conquest of Egypt, but also of the sea. Moreover Jesus can be ‘casual’ about Roman power because it is passing (Matthew 17:24-27). It is ailing so does not require resistance. (91-93)

2. Judgment against Israel

We see this in Jesus’ widespread condemnation of ruling classes in favour of the poor (98) as well as his apocalyptic pronouncements against Jerusalem (Mark 13). But judgment can also reconcile the alienated as when Jesus decides for the tax-collectors.

3. The possession of the law

‘Jesus believed national restoration had to come through the re-appropriation of the law.’ (Matthew 7:24-27) His critique of the Pharisees shows the interpretation of the law mattered of Jesus. But he was concerned for law in the heart.

If the law was Israel’s possession then those who possess the law are Israel. So Jesus forms ‘a decisive Israel’ = disciples. The disciples bear the authority of the kingdom

— power (as they cast out demons)

— judgment (as they preach the rule of God)

— possession (as they form a new community)

4. Faith

Faith in Jesus as the messianic king and the Son of Man (Daniel 7) is an act of political recognition.

In chapter three O’Donovan argues that the two cities approach of Augustine finds support throughout the exilic and post-exilic Old Testament writings. Imperial subjugation presented an opportunity for separation and an opportunity for influence, but this influence was perilous because of the potential for compromise and because of the inherent instability of empire. In chapter four he suggests the overlap of the ages leads to a recovering the post-exilic two kingdoms approach (1 Peter 2:13-17). In chapter six he develops this idea of dual authority as follows:

The doctrine of the Two was, before all else, a doctrine of two ages. The passing age of the principalities and powers has overlapped with the coming age of God’s Kingdom … Secular institutions have a role confined to this passing age (saeculum) … The corresponding terms to ‘secular’ is not ‘sacred’, nor ‘spiritual’, but ‘eternal’. Applied to political authorities, the term ‘secular’ should tell us that they are agents of Christ, but are marked for displacement when the rule of God in Christ is finally disclosed. They are Christ’s conquered enemies; yet they have an indirect testimony to give, bearing the marks of his sovereignty imposed upon them, negating their pretensions and evoking their acknowledgement. Like the surface of a planet pocked with craters by the bombardment it receives from space, the governments of the passing age show the impact of Christ’s dawning glory. This witness of the secular is the central core of Christendom. (211-212)