The foundation underlying this discussion is O’Donovan’s theology of government. He argues that government holds an authority and mandate from God to execute judgment, and that this mandate is limited to judgment alone. This theology comes from his detailed biblical theology of authority and politics in Desire of the Nations.
His starting point for a theology of authority is the reign of God (DOTN 19), and he focuses on the history of Israel’s covenant with God ‘as a point of disclosure from which the nature of all political authority comes into view.’ (DOTN 45) O’Donovan proceeds to examine the OT narrative and highlights three prominent themes identified with the rule of God and expressed in Israel: Salvation (ישׁועה), judgement (צדק, שׁפט) and possession (נחלה) (DOTN 36-45, 49-64). From his examination of these three themes, he draws thee conclusions:
- ‘Political authority arises where power, the execution of right and the perpetuation of tradition are assured together in one coordinated agency.’ (DOTN 46)
- ‘That any regime should actually come to hold authority, and should continue to hold it, is a work of divine providence in history, not a mere accomplishment of the human task of political service.’ (DOTN 46)
- ‘In acknowledging political authority, society proves its political identity.’ (DOTN 47)
Unfortunately, O’Donovan does not spend any time defending his three themes against other important unifying themes, and so it is difficult to understand why he chose those three against other possibilities. Important questions need to be asked as to whether salvation, judgement and possession truly do encapsulate the totality of God’s sovereign rule as expressed through Israel. However, for the sake of this examination, we will assume that O’Donovan’s framework is essentially correct.
O’Donovan also highlights a rejection of absolutism in Israel’s theology of authority, and the role of the Law and the Prophets over and above the King (DOTN 62-65). This he sees as a precursor to constitutional separation of governmental powers, and the rule of law. ‘The authority of a human regime mediates divine authority in a unitary structure, but is subject to the authority of law within the community, which bears independent witness to the divine command.’ (DOTN 65) O’Donovan sees this political reality of a society as an expression of ‘Natural Law’ (DOTN 65).