Wednesday 27 July 2011

Craig Bartholomew et al. on Oliver O’Donovan

The following review was first published in Anvil in 2003 or 2004...

Craig Bartholomew, Jonathan Chaplin, Robert Song, and Al Wolters (eds.), A Royal Priesthood? The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically: A Dialogue with Oliver O’Donovan, The Scripture and Hermeneutics Series Vol. 3 (Carlise: Paternoster, 2002), xxiv + 445pp., 0842270672.

How do we move from Scripture to Sudan, from Abraham to Afghanistan, from Jesus to jihad? The use of the Bible in ethics and political theology is the burden of the third volume in the now well-established ‘Scripture and Hermeneutics’ series, grown out of consultations nurtured by Craig Bartholomew. Mercifully not yet in a rut, this is different from the previous volumes in that it provides a sustained dialogue with an individual author, Oliver O’Donovan, and particularly his The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), a work of political theology which devotes significant space to biblical interpretation. Individual contributors interact with O’Donovan from their own disciplinary perspectives, all of them respecting his work even while questioning and disagreeing with it here and there. O’Donovan responds to each of the essays, which allows readers to eavesdrop on the discussion that went on in the original symposium.

O’Donovan is a significant figure for such a dialogue given his commitment to the Bible as Christian Scripture and the possibility of a unified biblical ethic, and the place he gives to theology in formulating ethics: notably, for example, the resurrection as a starting point because of what it says about God’s vindication of creation and so of created life. O’Donovan shows how theological constructs mediate between Scripture and ethical issues, but in such a way that moorings with Scripture are not lost. His 1996 work called for a biblical and theological ethic which can find appropriate political expression. All this and more is outlined by Craig Bartholomew in his excellent introduction to the volume, looking at how the Bible has been used in Christian ethics, before summarising O’Donovan’s work and the papers that follow.

The first ten chapters consider O’Donovan’s use of the Bible in his political theology, with the following contributions: Walter Moberly on the history of Israel and the relationship between the OT and the NT; Gordon McConville on law and monarchy in the OT, with particular reference to Deuteronomy; Craig Bartholomew on the centrality of the creation order in wisdom literature; M. Daniel Carroll R. on eschatology related to Latin American liberation theology and in dialogue with Amos and Isaiah; Andrew Lincoln on the overlooked contribution of John’s gospel to political theology; Tom Wright on a political reading of Romans; Bernd Wannenwetsch on the relationship between politics and ecclesiology in the light of Romans 12; Gerrit de Kruijf on Romans 13; Christopher Rowland on the message of the Apocalypse for politics.

There follows a brief reflection by Gilbert Meilaender on the difference exegesis makes to political theology; this was written after the consultation and is the only piece not followed with a reply by O’Donovan. The remaining chapters then look at different aspects of O’Donovan’s political theology and ethics, with contributions from Jonathan Chaplin on Christian liberalism, Colin Greene on the kingdom and the history of Christendom, Peter Scott on the theology of authority in the context of liberation theology, Joan Lockwood O’Donovan on the idea of the nation-state, and James Skillen on political action in the sphere of public justice.

There can be no doubt that some chapters are demanding, especially for those unfamiliar with O’Donovan’s work. And with a volume of this breadth and depth, no-one will agree with every detail. More significant, however, is the larger vision offered, and the model of dialogue between peers, seeking to strike creative and faithful ways forward in Christian engagement with the contemporary world. The volume as a whole commends the need to read the Scriptures with eyes tuned to politics, the need to move beyond exegesis of individual passages to the shape of the Scriptures in their entirety, the need to read the Scriptures in such a way to yield theological concepts that are authorised by the Scriptures, and the need to read together and in open and respectful conversation with each other – as biblical scholars, theologians, and ethicists. All in all then, a crucial volume for all those committed to wrestling with the significance of biblical interpretation for today’s world.

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