O’Donovan and Providence

What is it about the sphere of public judgment that allows a Christian to bypass the ‘general prohibition of judgment’ (WOJ 99), and ‘set ourselves at a distance from the evangelical disposition of obedience and acceptance’ (WOJ 86)? In O’Donovan’s mind, it seems, the answer is providence. God’s sovereign control of the world means that a government’s holding of authority ‘is a work of divine providence in history’ (DOTN 46). However, holding power does not automatically impose legitimacy, rather: ‘The appropriate unifying element in natural order is law rather than government.’ (DOTN 72) Thus: ‘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) That is, God’s providential authority is revealed in governments acting through the rule of law.

Though he never explicitly states it, O’Donovan seems to read this providential direction of the state as God’s approval (and even mandate) for Christians to participate in judgment. In a later argument, O’Donovan describes war-as-judgment as ‘a provisional witness to the unity of God’s rule in the face of the antagonistic praxis’ (JWR 7). ‘God’s mercy and peace may and must be witnessed to in this interim of salvation-history through a praxis of judgment’ (9). Engaging in such a war ‘is an expression of faith […] in the providential gift of honest judgment as a praxis in which the whole political community can be involved.’ (JWR 16) For O’Donovan, where God is working providentially, his people must witness to it by participating along-side.

The concern of this theology is that there seems to be no scope for God to be working above and beyond his people. The biblical doctrine of providence is that God is in control of his universe, and is constantly ordering its affairs for the good of his people. As a response, God is not calling his people to participate in all his activities, but to live the pattern life that he has laid down in faith that he will care for them.

It seems to me that O’Donovan’s doctrine of providence has reversed God’s command. Where God directs his people to forsake judgment, and to submit to the state in faith that that he is using it for his good purposes, O’Donovan has transformed it into a mandate for Christians to take judgment into their own hands.


One thought on “O’Donovan and Providence

  1. I think you’ve hit something sharply here, in that OD’s argument does seem to suggest, “if God is doing something providentially, faithful Christian witness means a willingness to be involved in that.” That doesn’t even work in the OT paradigms where God uses foreign nations for judgment purposes, but in a NT framework it creates a dual-personality for Christian fidelity.

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