Politics in light of the Ascension
by Ken Myers
In 2005, moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan gifted the world with a new volume exploring central themes in political theology. The Ways of Judgment (Eerdmans) was something of a sequel to his seminal 1996 book, The Desire of the Nations (Cambridge University Press). As was the case with the earlier volume — and with the even earlier book on the foundations of Christian ethics, Resurrection and Moral Order (Eerdmans, 1986), O’Donovan devoted a good deal of space to describing the nature of authority.
In chapter 1, “The Act of Judgment,” O’Donovan argues that “the authority of government resides essentially in the act of judgment,” a claim he derives from the New Testament. In commenting on Paul’s argument in Romans 13, O’Donovan says that the New Testament view of the authority of government after the coming of Christ “forbids human rule to pretend to sovereignty, the consummation of the community's identity and the power of its ruler.” This limitation is the result of the new position of secular government within salvation history. “For Paul, no less than for John of Patmos, there is only one political society in the end, which is the new Jerusalem; sovereignty is to be found there and nowhere else. Israel’s identity is complete there, and the identities of other nations are of no account except insofar as they are found in Israel’s God and his Christ.”
In light of Christ’s sovereignty, “political authority in all its forms — lawmaking, war-making, welfare provision, education — is to be re-conceived within this matrix and subject to the discipline of enacting right against wrong. . . . [T]he terms on which the bearers of political authority function in the wake of Christ’s ascension are new terms. The triumph of God in Christ has not left these authorities just where they were, exercising the same right as before. It imposes the shape of salvation-history upon politics. The operations of the Holy Spirit in the world drive the political leaders back upon the tasks of justice, and so effect a transformation. This offers a distinctive perspective on the evolution of political forms in history. For the hero-warriors of Troy the ultimate test is the survival of the city, for the warrior-monarchs of Beowulf the survival of the tribe; but that is ground we can never really re-occupy. Even were the same conditions as once prevailed in Magna Graecia or Scandinavia to prevail again, we could not return to that state of mind in innocence; for something about our human vocation has been shown to us: we are called to a final destiny in the life of the new Jerusalem, subject to the throne of God and the Lamb. Only of that throne can it be said that by its sheer prevailing it gives life. All other thrones need further justification; their role is subordinated to the task of preparing the way for that final one. This was the ground of the distinction that arose within a Christian view of history between secular and spiritual authority, this worldly and ultimate rule.”
Within the Christian view, “political leaders are not simply denied their authority, but are constituted, on these new terms, as a secondary theatre of witness to the appearing grace of God, attesting by their judicial service the coming reality of God’s own active judgment. In the light of Christ’s ascension it is no longer possible to think of political authorities as sovereign; but neither is it possible to regard them as mere exhibitions of pride and lust for power.”
Additional excerpts from The Ways of Judgment are available here.