O’Donovan Week

To refine my thinking about Just War, I am going to pause my biblical theology for a week or so, and instead come to grips with a prominent Just War theologian – Oliver O’Donovan. O’D has had a massive impact on recent graduates of Moore College, and is the major theologian (apart from my supervisor, who is a O’D fan) with whom I will be interacting/disagreeing.

For O’Donovan, ‘armed conflict can and must be re-conceived as an extraordinary extension of ordinary acts of judgment’ (JWR 6) By judgment, he means ‘an act of moral discrimination that pronounces upon a preceding act or existing state of affairs to establish a new public context.’ (WOJ 7) It is reactive; it involves consideration of a situation that is already in existence (WOJ 8). It is also public; the situation being considered must in some way be public, and the act of judgment must also be public (WOJ 10). Finally, it is future oriented; the act of judgment creates a new public context for the future of the community involved (WOJ 9).

This definition of judgment is very broad, and covers a wide gamut of discriminations within the public sphere, one of which is punishment. O’Donovan defines punishment as ‘a judgement enacted on the person, property or liberty of the condemned party.’ (WOJ 107) As a judgment, punishment is an act of pronouncing upon a wrongdoers action, not just a way of responding to it. The language of such judgment is force directed at the offender ‘for the simple reason that, materially, there is nothing else to exert.’ (WOJ 29) Such judgments assume due judicial process within a recognised governmental structure (). However, more exigent circumstances merit rapid actions: ‘when ordinary organs of judgment cannot function, extraordinary ones must be devised. This principle permits even a private citizen to exercise political authority in risking an assailant’s life to save a victim’s. The whole apparatus of government failing to be on hand when needed, the private citizen improvises it, rushing in to his neighbour’s defense with full  authority until the ordinary authority can arrive and take over.’ (WOJ 208)

This second concept of extraordinary judgment forms part of the foundation for O’Donovan’s theology of Just War. When a situation at the international level occurs that calls out for judgment, then it is not only the right of other nations, but their duty, to pronounce that judgment (JWR 6). As with punishment, this kind of judgment ‘has only the same material means available to it as the crime.’ (JWR 7) When a situation involves armed conflict, then the means of judgment is also armed conflict.

DOTN: Desire of the Nations
WOJ: Ways of Judgment
JWR: Just War Revisited


2 thoughts on “O’Donovan Week

  1. This week is more about summarising than engagement. I’ve done heaps of reading of OD, but need to take the discipline of putting his argument into 1000 or so words. I am fairly sure I know where I disagree with him, but by bring his argument from his 4 books together, I can hopefully put some focus on my NT biblical theology. I’ve been doing NT stuff, and realised that I’m all over the place because there are thousands of things that I can say. After this summary, I’ll return to the NT, then I’ll actually ‘engage’ with OD 🙂

    I’d really appreciate it if you think I’m off base with OD in any way.

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