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Sound thinking

“Whose kingdom shall have no end”

Oliver O’Donovan and his mentor, George B. Caird, offer lessons from the book of Revelation for thinking about politics

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

“Whose kingdom shall have no end”

In the Introduction to his 2005 book The Ways of Judgment, Oliver O’Donovan described a crisis in Western politics. “Western civilization finds itself the heir of political institutions and traditions which it values without any clear idea why, or to what extent, it values them. Faced with decisions about their future development it has no way of telling what counts as improvement and what as subversion. It cannot tell where ‘straight ahead’ lies, let alone whether it ought to keep on going there.”

I think Dr. O’Donovan would agree that this civilizational crisis has only deepened in the intervening fifteen years, and that it shows no signs of subsiding. As various confrontations in recent years have made clear, the very idea of political authority has become increasingly unintelligible in the modern West, largely due to fateful false steps taken in the development of modern ideas about society, community, personhood, freedom, historical change. For decades, O’Donovan’s work has borne witness to the claim he made in the opening pages of The Ways of Judgment: that Christian political thought – when pursued faithfully and in light of the testimony of revelation and of the theought of the premodern Church — “has an apologetic force when addressed to a world where the intelligibility of political institutions and traditions is seriously threatened.” Christian political theology has the capacity to defend “the coherence of political conceptions as such.” In fact, O’Donovan asserts, “this coherence depends in important and surprising ways upon the faith expressed in the creeds.”

In an age in which most Christians — scholars, politicians, and laypeople — strive to reduce the framework of their political reflections to terms that could be endorsed by civic-minded Deists or even atheists, O’Donovan has insisted that facts of the redemptive work of God in history — centered on the Incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, session, and coming return of Christ — must be perspective points for thinking well about politics. Consider, for example, his insistence that any adequate evaluation of claims about social or political “progress” needs to take into consideration the Biblical account of how the Christocentric ends of history are certain to be counterfeited, especially as modern Western societies strive to set aside their Christian heritage:

“The possibilities open to society with history and memory of the Gospel proclamation do not include naïve malevolence, but only a formation that is demonic to the extent that it is not redeemed and redemptive. . . . The redemptive reality within history becomes the occasion for disclosure of the historical possibilities of evil, an evil shaped in imitation and replication of the redemptive good. Personalised interpretations of the Antichrist theme, which lie buried like fossils in the palaeontological deposit of religious thought, have tended to conceal the importance of the Antichrist conception precisely as an interpretation of the dynamic possibilities of society. For society has become a historical reality within the saving purposes of God. Social evil is not always regression, barbarism, turning back to the primitive esse from the bene esse. It must, under historical conditions, become precisely misdirected progress, corrupt sophistication, the idolisation of historical evolution. Though political experience continues to be troubled by regressive movements, the worst, and the most characteristically twentieth-century, evils of political experience have been progressive.”

Readers may be forgiven their surprise at encountering referenced to the Antichrist in the work of a long-time Oxford professor. But one hopes their surprise gives way to humble receptivity. In a 1986 article titled “The Political Thought of the Book of Revelation,” O’Donovan acknowledged a debt of gratitude to New Testament scholar George B. Caird, “whose commentary (The Revelation of St. John the Divine [London: A. & C. Black, 1966]) taught me how to read the Apocalypse.”

In this tempestuous election year, I’ve been studying Caird’s commentary in the hopes of securing deeper understanding of our own political moment. Here are two extracts from the book, the first from the opening of his discussion of chapter 6, with its seven seals and four horsemen:

“For all the haunting quality of John’s poetry, the hymns sung by the heavenly choir in honour of the Lamb have not revealed any new truth. It was the common belief of the whole early church that the exalted Christ had taken his seat on the heavenly throne at God’s right hand, there to reign as Messiah and Lord; and this belief was based on a psalm which declared that the Messiah was destined so to reign until God had put all his enemies under his feet (Ps. cx. 1; cf. Mark xii. 35–37; Acts ii. 33 ff.; v. 31; vii. 55 ff.; Romans viii. 34; I Cor xv. 25; Eph. i. 20; Col. iii. 1; Heb. i. 3, 13; x. 12 f.; I Pet. iii. 22). If John has something new to communicate about the reign of Christ, it is because he insists on taking the traditional belief with the utmost seriousness. It is not enough to assert that Christ’s reign is already established in heaven and will ultimately be established on earth also at his Parousia; for heavenly events must have here and now their earthly counterparts. It is not enough for him to hold that the regnant Christ reigns over the hearts of those who love him, that he reigns only insofar as men by obedience and loyalty allow him to reign. He believes that Christ is already the ‘ruler of earthly kings’ (1. 5). Unless Christ can be said to reign over the world of hard facts in which Christians must live their lives, he can hardly be said to reign at all.

“During the last thirty-five years of his life John has lived through a series of grim events which might well seem a challenge to the Christian belief in the kingship of Christ: the earthquakes of A.D. 60 (Tac. Ann. xiv. 27); the humiliating defeat of the Roman army on the eastern frontier by the Parthian Vologeses in A.D. 62 (Tac. Ann. xv. 13–17; the persecution of the Christians which followed the fire of Rome in A.D. 64 (Tac. Ann. xv. 44); the four-year horror of the Jewish war which ended in A.D. 70 with Jerusalem in ruins; the suicide of Nero in A.D. 68 and the political chaos which ensued as four claimants battled for the imperial throne, and for a whole year the Roman world echoed to the tramp of marching armies; the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 which had obliterated the luxury resorts of the Bay of Naples and created a pall of darkness so widespread that men feared the imminent dissolution of the physical order (Pliny, Ep. vi. 16); and the serious grain famine of A.D. 92 (Suet. Dom. 7). John’s vision of the four horsemen is intended to assert Christ’s sovereignty over such a world as that.”

In the summarizing final chapter of his commentary, “The Theology of the Book of Revelation,” Caird sounds some similar notes:

“John’s faith in God is all the more remarkable because he was at all points a realist. He was a realist in his appraisal of the churches with their little strength and their variegated weakness, so realistic that we can still recognize in them the churches to which we ourselves belong; yet he never doubted God’s ability to clothe the church in the robe of purity and perfection which would make her a fit bride for the Lamb. He was a realist in his grasp of the power and splendour of imperial Rome and of her ability to crush the church, in his analysis of the real nature of the forces that were devastating the earth, so realistic indeed that his world, once we understand it, is very little different from our world; yet he never doubted that in the battle between the monster and the Lamb the ultimate victory would go to the Lamb. He himself had stood in a Roman court of justice, fortunate to escape with his life, and he believed that countless other Christians must stand where he had stood; yet he remained confident that every verdict of such a court must be either upheld or reversed before the superior court of the great white throne.”