My supervision meeting with Prof. O’Donovan today featured the usual generous sampling of entertaining and illuminating tangents, in which he deigned to share tantalizing tidbits of insight about political theology as a whole and that of the Reformation in particular. Here are a smattering of them (take these with a significant grain of salt as representations of O’Donovan’s thought, since he was speaking off the cuff and these thoughts are filtered through the narrow and potentially distorting limits of my own understanding and particular interests):
The point that the Calvinists are urging at the end of the 16th century is that the Reformation has not been completed because a true Church has not been established with independent integrity as a social body. The Anglicans respond that the Presbyterians are in fact wanting to reverse the Reformation, by re-establishing a new papacy, just a papacy of the proletariat. There is some justice in the charge, but there is also justice in the point the Presbyterians are urging; after all, the Papacy was not an all-bad idea. In fact, the Papacy was a historical development that grew out of the need to answer the same sort of question–namely, how do we give a locus of the Church’s identity as a unique institution in the midst of a Christendom society? The advent of Christendom and the Christianization of the Roman Empire called forth the Papacy as the solution, as a way of giving a clear visible form to the Church as something independent from Christendom. The problem did not go away, and the Presbyterians were right to raise the question again. Even Hooker recognizes this to an extent, giving the Church a certain kind of independent visible identity again, with its own laws and its own Convocation that govern how the monarch can govern it.
The invocation of the “Hebrew Republic” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was far from uniform. For many, it was not so much a desire to repristinate the Hebrew Republic in contemporary Europe, as it was a way of accounting for the historically-conditioned nature of the political structure of the Old Testament, and thus of putting it at a certain distance from contemporary politics. We see this with Grotius, for instance, who sees the legal system of the Old Testament as exceptionally elegant and wise, but not always applicable. To determine how much it may be applicable, we have to look at what Christ said.
In the Patristic period, a simple binary configuration is used for making sense of the OT law–there is the enduring moral law, and the obsolete ceremonial law. The criminal law can be subsumed under this latter, and thus comfortably done away with. The scholastic emergence of the third category, civil law, allows one to do more justice to the authentic value of the civil laws, but while enabling them to be historically relativized where necessary. The category of evangelical law emerges in the later Reformation. It is not present in Lutheran and the early guys (not present in Vermigli and Bullinger, for instance), who will have no truck with the idea that the Gospel imposes a new form of law–the Gospel is of a different order entirely. But with the Calvinists emerges the idea that that there might be a particularly Christian form of law that should affect how states operate, how justice is administered, how international affairs are run, etc.
The problem with the Puritans is that they simply wanted to copy Geneva, but the Genevan model, while very satisfactory for a small city-state, could not be so easily mapped onto a large kingdom, as Hooker recognized. If you tried to copy Geneva in England, what you ended up with was a political structure centralized in a national monarchy, and an ecclesial structure that operated on a town and parish level, resulting in a very unsatisfactory balance of power, unlike that in Geneva. This problem has become very evident in the American setting, where no tradition (except the Catholics) have been able to sustain a national church; the denominations have simply splintered into regionalized bodies, and ones in which effective sovereignty operates generally at the local level. Meanwhile, political structures have become increasingly concentrated at the national level, making it impossible for there to be any effective ecclesial counterweight.