The use of the Bible ethically and politically
Eds. Craig Bartholomew, Jonathan Chaplin, Robert Song, Al Wolters
Paternoster. 445 pages. £18.00
ISBN 1 84227 067 2
Here are three books of which it is hard to speak too highly.
Oliver O'Donovan's The desire of the nations: rediscovering the roots of political theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; ISBN 0 521 66516 7; 304 pages; £20.00) is one of the most profound, cogent, compelling and stimulating books that I have ever read. It is also one of the most theologically tightly argued. I have rarely, if ever, spent as long reading a single book as I have taken to read this truly great work. It is a thorough and faithful exploration of the theme of the Kingdom of God which pays particular attention to aspects of authority, government, society and politics, and which, along the way, provides the careful reader with an education in the nature of the church, the history of political thought, the many by-paths in church-state relations which have been taken down the ages, and much more besides.
In recognition of the work's extraordinary depth and significance, 17 theologians gathered for a conference in June 2001 with the sole objective of interracting with it. The papers delivered at that conference - each with a response from Oliver O'Donovan himself - are brought together in A royal priesthood. This is a worthy companion volume to The desire of the nations. Matters considered include 'The use of Scripture in The desire of the nations', 'Law and monarchy in the OT', 'Eschatology and ethics in O'Donovan and beyond, 'John's Gospel in political perspective', 'Paul and Caesar: a new reading of Romans', 'The Apocalypse and political theology', 'Revisiting Christendom: a crisis of legitimisation', and 'Acting politically in biblical obedience?'. The papers are contributed by leading biblical scholars, several of whom are self-declared evangelicals. The quality is almost uniformly high and the responses from Oliver O'Donovan unfailingly gracious and thoughtful.
By way of caution, however, it must be said that both of these books are very demanding indeed. They repay the effort which they require but there should be no mistaking what a lot of effort that is! Anyone looking for a reliable guide to the state of Christian political thought at its best could not find a better starting place than these two volumes. (And to state the obvious, it is silly to try and read A royal priesthood without having first read The desire of the nations.)
But read on. Relief is at hand. One of the most attractive and stimulating Christian writers on the North American scene, Peter J. Leithart, has written a small, eminently readable and accessible book which captures the key themes of O'Donovan and presents them pithily and amusingly. For those unfamiliar with Leithart, a PCA minister, let me mention a few of his best pieces so far. Wise words are children's stories based on the Proverbs which sparkle with humour and bristle with biblical imagery. Brightest heaven of invention is a Christian reading of six of Shakepeare's plays which should be in the hands of all Christian teenagers and others besides. A house for my name is an introduction to the Old Testament which is a pleasure to read aloud and gives glorious insights from biblical theology while teaching the reader to think in biblical categories as never before.
Well, puff-piece over, Leithart's Against Christianity (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2003; ISBN 1 59128 006 0; 154 pages; £5.00) is simply not to be missed. Written as 'bricolage' - that is a series of 'thoughts' each occupying a paragraph or so - it is inviting and readable. It summarises much of the argument of The desire of the nations but applies its central thesis - that the completed work of Christ has established a new civilisation and that the breaking in of the future in Jesus's cross and resurrection has inescapably 'public' consequences - in all sorts of fresh and challenging ways.
Richard Baxter used to warn that 'over-doing is undoing' but, willing to risk that, allow me to sum up: if you are willing to invest nearly £40.00 and a lot of time in the purchase and study of The desire of the nations and A royal priesthood, then I am utterly confident that you will not be disappointed. If this is not you but your interest is stirred in these matters then get hold of Leithart's Against Christianity without delay and, after a few hours of hugely enjoyable and spiritually exhilarating reading, like me, you'll soon be buying extra copies to give to your friends.