The Desire of the Nations, Chapter 1, part 4

O’Donovan provides four principles that he thinks should guide us as we read the history of God’s rule (in Israel and beyond). Bear with me: some of these are obscure, because O’Donovan is addressing some of the weird ways people have attempted to read the Bible when writing political theology.

First, Israel’s history must be treated as history – with each development read in the light of what came before. No isolating parts from the whole.

Second, it should not be read as a history of resistance, rebellion, revolution. Fashions in history-writing since at least the 1960s have slanted toward critique and sticking it to the man. This is an undergraduate attitude (sorry undergrads!). Real history is not just for angry bourgeois rabble rousers: it is for regular people and for people in authority. We must listen to the positive statements of Scripture, not just its criticisms. (When I read this I thought of Sojourners magazine and Stanley Hauerwas. If you don’t know who they are don’t worry about it.)

Third, it should not be read as a mere history of progress: from barbarity to reason, or whatever. That is a “modern” reading of history: all change becomes about change itself, not the actual things that happen. As Bill Clinton said, “Change is good.” Progress is definitely not a biblical concept. Reading the prophets and the psalms should tell anyone that.

Fourth, the history of Israel must be read as a history of redemption. This is the story of God’s purposes for his people. How those purposes play out over time must be the focus of our reading.

Very few Christians have any sense that the Gospel itself – the announcement of Jesus’s cross and triumph – has anything real with politics. God yes, the Gospel no. This is where O’Donovan’s work may prove crucial. Tangent to the curve, he is seeking to find a genuinely biblical understanding of political authority. So let’s see what he has to say.

The Desire of the Nations, Chapter 1, part 3

To the task

O’Donovan begins his task by pointing out that God’s rule over the world is basically pro-world, not anti-world. God made the world. He made it good, according to his own word. He loves it. He made it orderlyand he made us to dwell in it and act in accordance with that order. That is the root of Christian ethics: living according to the created order of the world.

He goes on to talk a bit more about what it means for an investigation into God’s reign to be “biblical.” He points out that it is easy to take pieces of the Bible out of context, and treat them as if they were the whole story. Instead, we have to wrestle with God’s rule as it is traced throughout the Bible: in slavery, nomadic wandering, conquest, monarchy, and exile; in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic; among histories, poems, prophecies, and proverbs.

O’Donovan’s warning to not take biblical passages out of context is an important one. This is precisely what we tend to do. A friend who has read James Cone extensively tells me that when asked about the relevance of, say, the Conquest or Monarchy in the Old Testament, Cone resorts to the tired excuses beloved by many mainline Protestants: the Bible is a human document, its relevance changes over time, etc. In other words, when the agenda I love is being discussed, the Bible is authoritative – but only then.

And it’s not just a “liberationist” problem: the right-wing “theonomist” movement in the 1970s and 80s portrayed the giving of the law and the conquest as the legitimate models for the church’s life on earth, and brush aside any discussion of whether the Exodus, Exile, etc. have much to teach us.

This is going to be hard work, but it will pay off. First of all, a political theology (because that’s what we are looking for) learned from all of these different circumstances and backgrounds will be more genuinelybiblical than one that focuses narrowly. It will be more likely true, rather than an irresponsible projection of our own agenda onto the Scripture. Second, it will be far more useful. The church has to deal with many different circumstances and challenges too: we want to be obedient in them all.

Now, throughout the Old Testament prophets and in the New Testament as well, one theme arises constantly: the promise of God’s coming rule (what Jesus called the kingdom of God). How are we to deal with that, as Christians? Does that rule happen when people repent and believe the Gospel, changing their lives as communities, tribes, or nations? Or will that rule only happen when Jesus returns, the New Jerusalem descends from heaven, and the world is judged with fire?

The answer is both. The rule of God will only be perfectly real when Jesus makes it so at the last day. But in the meantime, nations and communities experience that rule when they are righteous in response to the Gospel – just as Israel was called to be, over and over, by the prophets.

But it’s important to remember that Israel is not just a precursor, a necessary phase before Jesus arrived: it is the picture of God’s people in perfection. The Bible ends with the New Jerusalem come down from heaven – heaven and earth together, God with his people, the Garden and the City become one. Earthly communities are called to live the same righteous life that Israel was called because that life is the final destination of mankind. Israel never came close to fulfilling it perfectly – nor shall we. But the coming reality provides our basis for action now. God calls Israel and the nations of the world alike to righteousness in response to the Gospel.

The Desire of the Nations, Chapter 1, part 2

The question how to discover truly biblical political concepts is a crucial one as we try to live in the world. One group of thinkers who have tackled it is the Liberation Theology school of thought. They are mainly from the “Global South” (Asia, Africa, and especially South America) and are working to apply the Bible to the problems of poverty and inequality that those they care about have experienced. One of the theologians from this group, Gustavo Gutiérrez, has floated a couple of potential answers.

The first, “knowledge one from action,” essentially claims that “ideas that seem to be working” are true. In other words, if a concept seems to be useful in the fight against injustice and human misery, it’s true. But this can’t be right: without some other basis for truth we won’t even be able to define injustice, much less assert how things are “supposed to be.”

The second is “knowledge won from suffering” – the notion that ideas that show sympathy and solidarity with the oppressed are therefore true. But this can’t be right either. It very quickly becomes an embrace of romantic idealism: a perpetual call to revolution with nothing positive to offer on the other side.

The third option Gutiérrez offers is “knowledge gained in obedience” – gaining truth in the course of obedience to God’s revealed Word (the Bible). This, Gutiérrez and O’Donovan both believe, is the only way through.

So in order to find true ideas about politics, we should turn to the Bible. That’s a pretty big statement. If we are going to narrow our investigation, what should we focus on? In O’Donovan’s view the goal must be finding a biblical account of authority. And he proposes to do this by “developing [an understanding of] the reign of God,” (19).

The Desire of the Nations, Chapter 1, part 1

O’Donovan writes that during the modern era (think the 1700s on) all attempts to apply the Bible to politics have been sabotaged by suspicion – two suspicions, actually.

The first is the suspicion that politics might corrupt religion. Whenever we wonder whether a presidential candidate is going to church just to look good, this suspicion is at work. It is also at work in the attempt of many young evangelical Christians to “stay out of politics,” usually in reaction to the political activism of the Christian right in the 1990s.

The second is the suspicion that religion might corrupt politics. When a candidate’s religion is viewed as a liability, this suspicion is at work. This happened (but was overcome) with JFK. This happened with Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It continues to happen among the “Obama is a Muslim” crowd. In each case, people are worried that the leader’s religious commitments might lead them to do wrong.

Suspicion, in politics and just about all of life, has reached a fever pitch in our day. It comes into play when we think that we can learn some things about a person’s background and explain everything about them based on that background. Have you ever thought someone held an opinion because of their race, or whether they were rich and poor? We often hold that someone believes something because it will benefit them. We wonder if a wealthy Republican really thinks tax cuts are good for the nation, or if he just knows that they’re good for him.

We suspect, in other words, the people simply work for their own advantage, without real interest in truth. We wind up suspicious even of the idea of truth. And when the concept of truth is under fire we have very big problems indeed.

Lots of philosophers and theologians have worked to get around this suspicion and come back to truth. The central question is, “How do we know what is true?” This applies in all areas of life, including politics. Where will we get true political concepts, enabling us to obey God and do what is right in the world?