I have written plenty about Oliver O’Donovan’s political theology.  Or not so much “written” as quoted.  In many ways, I’m still in the midst of the long process of digesting his project in a way that allows me to reformulate it in my own words.

Which is why I was so impressed by William Cavanaugh’s synposis in Blackwell’s Companion to Political Theology.  He writes:

Oliver O’Donovan’s work…regards Christendom as the most significant practical instance of the conviction that theology is politics.  As O’Donovan sees it, Christendom is simply the unfolding drama of God’s rule as manifested in the Old Testament and as fulfilled in the kingship of Christ.

If Christology is given its due political weight, then after the Ascension the nations could simply not refuse to acknowledge Christ.  If Christ really is the fulfillment of the salvation history begun in Israel, then God must in fact be using the governing authorities for his own purposes in bringing about a new social order.

Nevertheless, the government is not the church; the church exists to serve as a distinctive witness, to remind the government of its temporary status.  As ruler, the ruler is meant to judge; as member of the church, the ruler is meant to judge with clemency; and the church is there to signal the inherent tension between the two obligations.

The church thus plays a central role in the transformation of the social order.  The church itself bears the fullness of God’s politics through history.  “Does the authority of the Gospel word confer no social structure on the community which bears it?  Does that community have no ‘social space’ determined by the truth?”  There can be no question of a disembodied Christianity that serves only, in a Gnostic fashion, to inform the consciences of individual citizens occupying an autonomous political space.”

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Government according to O’Donovan – http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/MereOrthodoxy/~3/LT6FKu7HX3g/

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


  2. Christopher Benson May 24, 2010 at 2:22 pm


    I am not well-versed in political theology or political theory, so I hope you can briefly answer these questions based on your blog post:

    1) O’Donovan’s definition of Christendom, according to Cavanaugh, sounds primarily theological rather than historical: “the unfolding drama of God’s rule.” Does O’Donovan, like some historians, ever locate an age in history (e.g., medieval Europe) where Christendom is most visible or does Christendom persist in all ages?

    2) O’Donovan, according to Cavanaugh, says “God must in fact be using the governing authorities for his own purposes in bringing about a new social order.” What does this new social order look like? Have we seen manifestations of it in history so far?

    3) O’Donovan emphasizes the “temporary status” of the government. Doesn’t the church also have a temporary status?

    4) “As ruler, the ruler is meant to judge; as member of the church, the ruler is meant to judge with clemency.” What are the implications in our secular nation-states, where the ruler is not a member of the church?

    5) What would an embodied Christianity look like in 21st America, where the theological and political spaces overlap? Isn’t that what we’ve got with the rise (and decline) of the Christian Right? If so, I am not very encouraged by social order that was attempted.


  3. Christopher,

    Fantastic questions, those.

    1) It’s both theological and historical, I think. In Desire of the Nations, his goal is to read the tradition to see if we can glean insights from its witness in order to understand our own day. His goal is to allow Christendom (as it was historically enacted) to teach us what it had to learn. So it is theological, but he’s got a reading of how the history played out as well.

    2) That was one line of Cavanaugh’s that I wasn’t TOTALLY confident in. I am not quite sure I’d frame O’Donovan’s thought that way (though I’d need to reread both Desire and Ways of Judgment to be sure). So I’m going to pass on the second part of your question, since I’m not sure about the first part.

    3) I am currently undecided about the temporary status of both government and church. Inasmuch as O’Donovan thinks that the government has a role because the eschaton is not yet, he’s committed to its temporary status. But I don’t think that necessarily commits him to viewing the church as temporary as well.

    4) Pray. : ) Which is the recommendation Paul gives in 1 Timothy.

    5) Do you mean that you’re not encouraged by the specific policy suggestions of the Religious Right, or the way the Religious Right conducted politics?



  4. Christopher Benson May 25, 2010 at 12:51 pm


    Thanks for answering the questions.

    You asked me: “Do you mean that you’re not encouraged by the specific policy suggestions of the Religious Right, or the way the Religious Right conducted politics?”

    Answer: Both. Like James Davison Hunter, I’m troubled that “the public witness of the church today has become a political.” In my interview with him, he said:

    “The state is the sole legitimate source of coercion and violence. When Christians turn to law, public policy, and politics as the last resort, they have essentially given up on a desire to persuade their opponents. They want the patronage of the state and its coercive power to rule the day. What makes this problematic, in my view, is that the dominant public witness of the church is political, rooted in narratives of injury and discourses of negation. The sense of deprivation among Christians leads to an ethic of revenge, or what Nietzsche called ressentiment. In different ways and to different degrees, the prevailing political theologies in American society today—the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and even the neo-Anabaptists—partake in that ressentiment and consequent will to power. And here’s the tragic irony: Whenever Christian churches and organizations partake in the will to power, they partake in the very thing they decry in society.”

    What’s the solution? Hunter said:

    “There are two tasks for a post-political witness. First, we must disaggregate the life of the church and the life of the nation. Second, we must renew a distinction between the public and the political.

    What would a post-political gesture look like in the pro-life movement? Borrowing an example from a friend, imagine ten thousand families signing a petition in Illinois that declares they will adopt a child of any ethnic background and physical capability. If they wanted to do something spectacular, they could go to city hall for a press conference, announcing that in the state of Illinois there are no unwanted children. That would be a public—but not political—act. Such an act leads with compassion rather than coercion.

    By focusing too much on political power, we overlook how social power plays out in everyday relationships and institutions. There are four characteristics to the social power that Jesus exercised. First, his power was derivative—originating from intimacy and submission to his Father. Second, his power was humble—rejecting the privileges of status and reputation, suffering indignities with joy. Third, his power was compassionate—serving the good of all and not just the good of the community of faith. And fourth, his power was noncoercive—blessing rather than cursing ‘the other,’ as we can see from his encounters with Samaritans and Romans.”


    1. Christopher,

      Couple points in reply: 1) separating out the public and political doesn’t necessarily mean that the Christian witness needs to be “post-political.” I haven’t finished Hunter yet, but I would be surprised if he went that far. And the principle is always abusus non tollit usum: abuse does not preclude a proper use.

      2) I have written in the past about distinguishing between the political and the governmental, which I think gets very close to the public/political distinction you highlight. So count me as completely on board for looking for non-governmental or legal means of bearing witness.

      3) You say, “By focusing too much on political power…” I actually would go one step further: we may be too focused on the political as power. There are other ways of conceiving the world than power relations, and it’s one of the features of late-modernity (or post-modernity) that it is almost entirely reducing everything to power. In that way, even the proposal to distinguish how social power plays out stays within the confines that it is trying to escape. I think we should go farther.

      I’d encourage you to read O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations, though. I think your points about social power are all good, but they don’t necessarily undercut the reality that the Church has a political witness in addition to its social witness.



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