An intro to Oliver O’Donovan’s Political Theology, part 1

I don’t like terms like “political theology” because they are academic buzzwords and hence doomed to future irrelevancy.  “Public theology” is much better, but either will work in this case.  When I was in seminary I was at an impasse between theonomy and its alternatives.   I wasn’t entirely convinced that Bahnsen’s exegesis was superior.  Yet, at the same time most of his institutional critics couldn’t really face him apart from veiled threats and power plays (see the background on Kline’s publishing “Comments on an Old-New Error”).   

I forget what drew me to O’Donovan, but I am glad of it.   O’Donovan drew richly upon the Christian tradition without simplistic reductions (e.g., “theocracy is impossible” or “all Christendom was theocratic”).  Not that his conclusions were always agreeable, but he provided a balanced model of Christian ethical reflection.

Below, I give a running commentary/outline of his Desire of Nations.

The Revelation of God’s Kingship (36-41)

Isaiah 33:22:   Yhwh is our king; Yhwh is our judge; Yhwh is our lawgiver.  He will save us.”  

Ideas are connected.  Kingship implies judgment, lawgiving, and salvation.  

Salvation

The early Hebrews saw this element in the Psalms.   While it included salvation from sin, the term is often used to show God’s victories of his people’s enemies.   

What is the purpose of these victories? (Ps. 13:5; 85:7).   They show God’s hesed, his enduring commitment to those in his covenant.  Hesed often stands in parallel to the Hebrew word for faithfulness (Psalm 98.3).  

These victories also show God’s tsedeq, righteousness.  In the Psalms God’s righteousness is a public thing.   When he shows his right hand and holy arm, the nations will know (98.2). This is an important point in later Israelite history.   You are an Israelite living in Babylon.   While you are the chosen people of God, you have been publicly shamed by a pagan power (and presumably, so has your God).  Therefore, when God acts to show his righteousness, it must be public:  Is. 45.5; 46.13;51.5-8;56.1;61.10; 62.1).

Judgment

The Hebrew root words relating to God’s righteousness often appear in connection with his shpt, judgment.  

This illustrates the problem with ancient Israel’s existence.  They were God’s chosen people yet they often worshipped idols.  If it is true that God vindicates his name among the pagans because he is a just God, how much more true will he vindicate his name among his people?  

What do we mean by the words “judgment” and “justice?”  The Hebrew word for “judgment” is mishpat.  When it is used in the Bible it is seen as a judicial performance.  When true “judgment” is present it is not a state of affairs but an activity that is carried out.  

The prophet Amos calls for mishpat to roll on like a river.  Isaiah says that the citizens of Jerusalem should seek mishpat by giving judgment in the cause of the fatherless and widow (1:17).  Isaiah even goes on to say that Zion will even be redeemed by mishpat (1:26ff).  

The judgments of Yahweh have lasting validity because all of his acts have lasting validity.  

This leads into what the Israelites believed about…

Law

If you look at the Old Testament law code, it is strange.   But maybe it shouldn’t be.   For us Westerners there is a sharp distinction between history and law.    This was not so for the Hebrew.  For Israel “history” is the telling of God’s acts to future generations.  Law was the telling of his judgments (mishpatim).

Psalm 119 is a case in point.  There are several terms of importance.   Testimony and decree. Interestingly enough, other Psalmists use the words in connection with a word we have just seen:  judgment.  See Psalm 81:4-5.  

When the kingdom of Judah had its reforming moments, it is evident that “testimony” and “law” were in the foreground.  2 Kgs 22:8-13.  Jer. 26:1ff.  In both cases we see that “law” is simply more than a “code.”  It is attesting that God will live out his judgments in Israel’s history.  

Look at how Psalm 96:10 unfolds:  the nations are to be told that Yhwh is king, that he established the world on firm foundations, and that he will judge the peoples with equity.

Without the consciousness of something possessed and handed on, there could never be a political theology, since it could never be clear how the judgments of God could give order and sustain a community (48ff).  

In other words, something needs to be possessed and handed down.  This traditional possession was not always identified with “The Law.”  Originally, the existence of Israel was mediated through the Land.  Possessing the land was a matter of observing the order of life which was established by Yahweh’s judgments (Psalm 37:29ff).  

Land = material cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule

judgments = formal cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule

Victories = efficient cause of Yahweh’s Kingly Rule

 

About Ephraim's Arrow

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Dutch Neo-Calvinism, Klaas Schilder.
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