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.