From O’Donovan’s *Desire of the Nations* Part 1

Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations was my favorite book for a while.  I lessened my praise of late, though.   His work is still thoughtful and if I am going to write a book on political theology, I want to interact with O’Donovan.  I’ve given the book away, unfortunately.  The good news is David Field has collated some of the more weighty quotes from O’Donovan. The quotes from Field’s page are in italics.  The actual excerpts from O’Donovan himself are in quotations.   My comments and reflections are in standard font.

The political language of the Te Deum. A ruler … achieved liberation … founded and sustained a community. “And at its centre is the breathtakingly unpolitical image of the Virgin’s womb.” 1

Take the first of these – ‘political theology’ – God has a real kingdom and human kingdoms are meant to follow and further that. And God’s kingdom and analogous human kingdoms meet in real history “that finds its goal in Christ, ‘the desire of the nations’.” 2 (This is a good point.  We do not swear allegiance to a “God-in-general,” but to a particular personal God who acts in history and meets with his people).

It’s there – the vocab of OT is political: “Almost the whole vocabulary of salvation in the NT has a political pre-history of some kind …” – salvation, justification, peace, faithfulness, the Kingdom of God. “Israel’s knowledge of God’s blessings was, from beginning to end, a political knowledge, and it was out of that knowledge that the evangelists and apostles spoke about Jesus.” (23)

Is 33.22 “Yhwh is our judge. Yhwh is our lawgiver. Yhwh is our king. He it is that will save us.” And “A poetry that depends especially on parallelism develops regular patterns of association, which offer a way to explore the connexions of ideas. ‘Kingship’ leads quite naturally to ‘judgment’, ‘lawgiving’ and ‘salvation’.” (35)

Salvation a sign of God’s hesed and tsedeq. Personal goodwill and vindicating justice. (By late Isaiah, salvation inevitably includes “public rehabilitation of a disgraced and humiliated people.” (37))

The essence of judgement: “to make a distinction between the just and the unjust, or, more precisely, to bring the distinction which already exists between them into the daylight of public observation.” (38) “Yhwh exercises his judgement by making the just and the unjust causes manifestly distinct, ending the irresolution of public ambiguity which the cunning of the evil-doer has cast around his deeds.” (38-9)

“It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this concept for a study of biblical political ideas.” (39). Not the same thing as classical / Aristotelian idea of justice as “appropriateness and proportionate  equality”. God’s justice/judgement is a personal performance, an activity, an event not a “state of affairs”.

But though event, activity, it is not ephemeral. It is an event, activity of God. It is part of history and relates to history as such. “If history, for Israel, is the telling of Yhwh’s acts to future generations, then law is the telling of his judgments, which, once given, are to be handed on.” (39) Law by precedent.

God’s immediacy and the need for / use of mediation in his kingly relationship with Israel 49.3 Resistance to the need for mediation – Numbers 16 e.g. “egalitarian philosophy” (50) in guise of spiritual claims re rel with God. (JA:  Very important.  Tie this in with the anti-monarchical tendency.  People can chant “No King but Jesus all they want,” but at the end of the day, someone–some man, some mediator–is still calling the shots.  Acknowledging that all sides recognize that Jesus reigns in some way, all sides inevitably admit mediation.  Admitting that, the Reformed Reconstructionist needs to find a new argument against monarchy besides “No King but Jesus.”)

On page 53 O’Donovan notes the Bible is ambivalent about monarchy.  It is neither good nor evil in itself.  On one level, this rebuts the claim that 1 Samuel 8 is normative for all times and all ages.

This relationship “constitutes a rejection of absolutism” (65). “But instead of rejecting the absolutist temptation by distributing powers, it permitted a unitary government subject to the independent authority of Yhwh’s law, which had its independent voice in society through the prophetic movement.” (65).  In other words, O’Donovan makes the common-sense claim (yet often ungrasped) that monarchy does not equal absolutism.

“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)  Monarchy mediates God’ s rule.   Brilliant!

summary: “the rule of Yhwh was conceived internationally; it secured the relations of the nations and directed them towards peace. But at an international level there was to be no unitary mediator.” (72) “Yhwh’s world order was plurally constituted. World empire was a bestial deformation.” (72) Very interesting.  Hints at the possibility of multiple monarchical nationalities, yet explicitly denies a single monarchical world ruler (e.g., rejects the rule of Antichrist).

eschatological argument – “the time had come for the royal prerogatives of David to be reasserted.” (103) Fulfillment – human maturity: “In fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel 2 (‘obviously pregnant with the meaning of Genesis 2’ (q Wright – NTPG, p.292)) God has conferred his authority upon mankind, represented in the triumphant Israel. In the exercise of this authority mankind is now free to interpret God’s law in a way that realises God’s purposes for mankind’s welfare. (JA:  This is a point often missed by theonomists:  God’s law in some sense is to be a model for society.  That is true, but it is not to be interpreted and applied in a wooden, uniform fashion).