Nuggets from the O’Don

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.  

6 thoughts on “Nuggets from the O’Don

  1. It is perhaps worth noting that the Anglican approach is also shown as flawed by the touchstone of America. Relative to the Ecumenical Church, even the nation is local and parochial. In Europe the Church can appear unified, because in each location it is. But the Body of Christians is actually divided by place, by nation. Thus there are Anglicans in England, Lutherans in Germany, Dutch Reformed in the Netherlands, Swiss Reformed in Switzerland, and Presbyterians in Scotland. In any particular place, they are one. But when they all come together to one place–America–the plurality is exposed. Thus in America, not only do you have North and South Presbyterians (which is actually a feature of the War Between the States) etc. you have Episcopalians and Lutherans and Continental Reformed, and Presbyterians.Not only is the Catholic Church the only "denomination" which has remained national within the States, the Catholics, as opposed to the Protestants and Orthodox (for they too have this problem) are the only "denomination" which has been shown to be unified in coming to America.


  2. Kent Will

    This is fascinating and illuminating stuff. Given that God establishes the faithful and casts down the unfaithful, it has puzzled me for a long time that the Puritans, who really set the gold standard for faith and obedience in their day, could have failed so spectacularly in setting up stable and enduring political entities, while the rather more worldly and chequered character of the Anglican church of the same time, could have inspired the conservative institutions that defended England and the middle American colonies against radicalism for centuries.


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    "the rather more worldly and chequered character of the Anglican church"–heh, well, someone's been imbibing their Puritan historians well. 😉 No, honestly, I think that a "chequered" church is not necessarily a mark of unfaithfulness, but can be a mark of fidelity to the need to meet people where they are and embrace all those who call on the name of the Lord; Puritanical attempts to establish an artificial ideal Church based on exclusion of anything "compromised" are bound to "fail spectacularly" in the end.


  4. Kent Will

    Yep, I have a little Puritan influence left over from old days.Purism is always a mistake, though not always the same thing as Puritanism. But I was thinking of the "worldly and chequered character" of the Anglican leaders, in particular; especially around the time of the evangelical revivals.


  5. Brad Littlejohn

    I guess that depends what you're looking for. The easiest place to start is Common Objects of Love, which I've recently been posting on. That's less than 100 pages. Much meatier (if you're like me, you'll only get like a quarter of what's there the first time through, but that quarter will still be mind-blowing) is The Desire of the Nations, which many people seem to consider his best. But he's written in much else besides just political theology, so as I said, it depends what you're looking for.


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