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.