Oliver O’Donovan on political theology

Two views of modernity
The political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and the political philosophy of Leo Strauss

In the last couple of papers I read to you I tried to suggest that theology is a mode of political hermeneutics. By that I mean that it is a practice of interrupting the simple statements the world makes about itself and by which the world always seems to want to close itself down, and of providing complex statements that keep the world open. Theology is a work of epiclesis, that is intercession or advocacy, of calling on the Holy Spirit to give the world more time. Today we will see Oliver O’Donovan argue that theology is a mode of politics and Christianity the best mode of politics because the God of Jesus Christ is our ruler and we may flourish under his rule. O’Donovan is replying to that modern political theology which believes that the church has wrongly tried to exercise a secular power, that it was captive to Christendom or Constantinianism, and that Christians must not make any such claim to exercise power. I shall be arguing that Christians are rulers: they participate in the rule of the one ruler. In The Desire of the Nations O’Donovan gives a historical sketch of the political framework as preparation of an ethics that is to follow. I will be trying to anticipate this ethics and present politics and ethics together. I will in other words make the assumption that political talk is indivisible from ethics talk, and ethics talk from political talk. In fact I shall make a still bigger assumption that was once a commonplace of platonic philosophy – that politics (the polis) and ethics (the man) and psychology (talk of our soul, emotions and religious inclinations) and cosmology and theology are all in service of one another. Christianity ironically has taken up some of the resources of thought about exercising rule which, inasmuch as we think of it now at all, we think of as the political philosophy of Plato or classical republicanism. For this tradition the ruler does much more than rule: he is a model and a teacher, and the law is a resource of positive description of what is good. I will present politics and ethics together not only to indicate how there is more to be said about the political framework even than O’Donovan managed to cram into The Desire of the Nations. I will keep referring this political theology back to the doctrine of God – to straight theology – to dissuade you from thinking that political theology is just a sub-section of theology proper – or the temptation of every seminar except this, that theology is just the theory that must occasionally be sat through before we can translate it into ‘practice’ and ‘what it means for us today’.
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John D. Zizioulas on the eschatology of the Person

It is an open secret that John Zizioulas, representative of Greek Orthodoxy on the international ecumenical scene, is himself one of the theological giants. He has not published much more than Being in Communion, and what there is, is almost gnomic and appears to be largely about inner-Churchly concerns. There is a growing number of people who have looked to him for a distinctive statement on personhood, but with it has grown the number who have read him in a hurry and missed the extent and distinctiveness of his thought.

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Robert W. Jenson on Time

Robert Jenson is a pioneer of the strong ecclesiology. He has put Israel in her proper place as the object of the election of God and established the trinity as the tool that keeps theology Christian. He is a champion of talk of temporality and exploring the notion that God has time for us. This has involved him in demythologising the modern notion that time is single, world-wide and culture-independent, and that time is forward, in a direction given by an orientation and cosmology never made explicit. Though the edge may be off the optimism, and we are now too sophisticated to use the word, the idea of progress is as constitutive of us now as it ever was. Time is not a concept that the West has amongst others, but rather the West is nothing more than the idea of time, is constituted by the set of mental-corporal bad habits that can conveniently be given this name.
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The confession of the Son

We are preceded by a conversation, the conversation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Like any other piece of theology this essay attempts to set out some of the logic of that conversation. It is going to give a narrative theology that set out an account of the gospel in passages of narrative, and in axioms that I state but don’t argue for. The narrative and the axioms serve one another and require one another. But as well as narrative this essay is also an attempt to demonstrate the advantages of a theology of the Word, which means broadly that God speaks and himself makes himself known to us. It does so by trying to show that a theology of the Word is also a theological logic of that word and that narrative. The logic – that is ‘philosophy’ – does not precede the Word – that is, the gospel – but it corresponds to it: word and logic are constituted together, so the theology and justification for this account of it must be kept together. This will allow me to say that the word is really word not when it is spoken, but when it is finally heard and an event is created by its hearing.
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The Eucharist

The eucharist asks us hard questions. It asks if our contemporary Church passes on the word of God to the world, or if withholds that word and leaves the world hungry. If the Church does not pass on what it has received, the world will fill itself up with substitutes, and the Church will gather only a poor harvest. Given the wrong diet, the world overeats, and there is a corresponding shortage being suffered by others outside its view. The Word of God is a form of medicine, that makes a sweet and a bitter drink. This paper then discusses what we mean by saying the Lamb has been sacrificed, and asks in what sense we do, and what sense we do not, eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus. It relates the presence of Jesus to the action of Jesus. In a final section I discuss some of these conceptual moves, and show how relating ontology to action allows the sacrament to judge our political relationships. The eucharist is intrinsically a semiotics and an epistemology, and it is these precisely because it is a doctrine about God who feeds and judges us, so the concept of sacrament does not need an further set arguments in justification of religious language..
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The Victor and his people

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. He planted his vineyard, making it the place in which his people could deal with each other with the generosity that they received from him. He gave them a share in this work of exercising all the care of the shepherd for his sheep, setting the older over the younger, giving those with more the task of providing for those with less. What more could have been done for this vineyard than he did for it? To find out how things stood and to give them his assistance and direction he sent his servants to them, one after another. But the tenants did not care to govern the vineyard under their direction, and yet without receiving the generosity of God, they had no resources from which to exercise generosity towards those set under them. God heard the pleas of those who received nothing, and had been seized for repayment of debt. He sent one more servant, but the reply was: This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and the inheritance will be ours.

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Sacrifice

Sacrifice is a catch-all concept. I will use it to mean the action of God that sanctifies and teaches us sanctification, which we could call the process of making the holy nation of God. so I am first using the word ‘sacrifice’ (sacri-ficere, holy/to make) to mean to be made holy. This is the proper place to start. We cannot sense of what is going on if we start by defining sacrifice as killing an animal for some propitiatory (to please/appease) or expiatory (cleansing, purificatory) purpose.

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The Letter to the Romans

God is righteous. He has published his righteousness to all. The pronouncement of the righteousness of God has come to Rome. It has arrived in the heart of the unrighteous idolatry of Caesar, the ruler who has set himself up over the whole world. Justice (dikaiosyne), or righteousness, is the goal of life, and it is the subject of all political philosophy. The aim is that each of us gets what belongs to us, what is just and right for us and all others. The man who is just (righteous) is the one who has his righteousness given to him by God who alone is righteous. Righteousness means nothing other than being rightly related to God, covered by God.
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