A Royal Priesthood? the Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically: A Dialogue with Oliver O'Donovan

By Sprinkle, Joe M. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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A Royal Priesthood? the Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically: A Dialogue with Oliver O'Donovan


Sprinkle, Joe M., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


A Royal Priesthood? The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically: A Dialogue with Oliver O'Donovan A Royal Priesthood? The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically: A Dialogue with Oliver O'Donovan. Edited by Craig Bartholomew, Jonathan Chaplin, Robert Song, and Al Wolters. Scripture and Hermeneutics series. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, xxiv + 446 pp., $34.99.

This work grew out of papers presented at the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar at Cheltenham, England in June of 2001. This seminar gathered scholars of various disciplines to discuss the theologically based political philosophy of Oliver O'Donovan, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, especially as expressed through his work The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1996; hereafter DN), a work Colin Greene in his essay calls "one of the most original, comprehensive and thoroughly biblically grounded works of political theology to appear in recent years," and to a lesser degree his work Resurrection and Moral Order (Eerdmans, 1994). Most of the contributors express appreciation for O'Donovan's works, even if they express reservations.

Craig G. Bartholomew begins by outlining O'Donovan's system. The unifying biblical theme around which O'Donovan builds his political theology in DN is the kingdom of God, first embodied in historical Israel and then fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Associated with the divine rule in the OT are the concepts of salvation, judgment, and possession that provide for O'Donovan a framework for exploring the major questions of authority in Western tradition. In his view, before Christ one might speak of two kingdoms (Babylon and Israel) under two rules (Babylon and Yahweh), but Christ unsettles the two-kingdom concept by bringing in God's kingdom, disarming principalities and powers, and sweeping away existing orders of government. Authorities are then reduced to the role once held by Israel's judges. Secular governments are not agents of Christ, but are Christ's conquered enemies. And yet they bear indirect testimony to his sovereignty and his dawning glory, just as the moon's face bears witness to the bombardment of meteors. O'Donovan goes on to defend the idea of Christendom as an expression of Christian mission and claims the affirmations of early modern political liberalism (freedom, mercy in judgment, tempered justice, openness to speech) are the positive legacy of Christendom in this post-Christendom age.

Various questions are raised concerning O'Donovan's use of the OT. O'Donovan seems to be a theological moderate in the tradition of Barth who holds, for example, to the 7th-century BC dating for Deuteronomy. R. W. L. Moberly warns O'Donovan that his acceptance of mainstream biblical criticism undermines his arguments from the history of the kingdom of God in Israel since the history of Israel reconstructed by critical scholarship deviates considerably from the story of Israel presented by the Bible. Moreover, Moberly finds O'Donovan's dependence on the Psalms for his OT theology of the kingdom of God to be out of balance, suggesting O'Donovan should have given greater weight to the Mosaic Torah, which is more clearly foundational to OT religion.

J. Gordon McConville, like Moberly, finds fault with O'Donovan for not utilizing to a greater degree the Torah and its associated concept of covenant. Specifically, O'Donovan gives insufficient attention to elements of political theory in Deuteronomy that allow a king contingent upon the king's being subject to the Torah and limiting his privileges (Deut 17:14-20). This shows (contra O'Donovan) that the OT limits absolutism, and it provides "no single or final ideal political structure," but permits a considerable degree of innovation. In fact, says McConville, when Deuteronomy provides for judges, priests, courts, and other officials of state, it provides a form of "separation of powers" under the "constitution" of the covenant.

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