O’Donovan – Judgment and the Church

For the question at hand, two major questions arise from O’Donovan’s argument. The first is whether he is truly justified in his premise that war is ‘an extraordinary extension of ordinary acts of judgment’ (JWR 6). The second is, does this structure permit an individual Christian to participate in a war under the authority of their government?

Unfortunately, in the case of the first question, O’Donovan does not present us with his reasoning, instead he simply states his conclusion. To consider this, we need to perform a biblical-theological examination of war and its relationship to judgment (this is covered in the biblical theology that I have been developing). For the second question, we need to more closely examine O’Donovan’s division of Christ’s authority between the state and the church, in order to determine when and how an individual Christian falls under each one.

At first glance, it seems that that O’Donovan sees Christ’s rule as split between  the church and state, with no overlap; while the only role left to the state is judgment, the church is ‘a community that “judges not”‘ (DOTN 218). ‘The secular function in society was to witness to divine judgement by, as it were, holding the stage for it; the church, on the other hand, must witness to divine judgement by no judgement, avoiding litigation and swallowing conflict in forgiveness.’ (DOTN 259) ‘By embracing the final judgement of God Christians have accepted that they have no need for penultimate judgements to defend their rights.’ (DOTN 151)

However, O’Donovan makes an exception: ‘the sphere of public judgment constitutes a carefully circumscribed and specially privileged exception to a general prohibition of judgment.’ (WOJ 99) Thus, he paints two contexts in which Christian faithfulness appears quite different: ‘Staged against the supportive backdrop of the community of belief and worship, it takes a pastoral shape as mutual forgiveness, by which enemies who believe the Gospel are made enemies no longer. But it must also be staged missiologically against a backdrop of unbelief and disobedience, and here it assumes the secular form of judgment – not final judgment, but judgment as the interim provision of God’s common grace, promising the dawning of God’s final peace’ (JWR 6)

Even as he says this, O’Donovan recognises the conflict: ‘As we take the responsibility of judging upon ourselves, we set ourselves at a distance from the evangelical disposition of obedience and acceptance […] To step across into the role of judge is to leave the position of evangelical strength and to enter the sphere of human weakness and political shame. If there is a service to be rendered there, we may enter that sphere without ourselves ceasing from faith and obedience or leaving behind us the strength of God; yet the sphere is paradoxically related to the sphere of faith. Its way of confronting sin is not the evangelical way of patient suffering. Its way of hearing God’s judgement is not the evangelical way of humble and trusting obedience.’ (WOJ 86-87)


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