O’Donovan: Ways of Judgment

This is a review from a decade ago.  I was never persuaded that Oliver O’Donovan advocated Christendom.  I think that’s obvious for two reasons:  1) he specifically rejected the idea and 2) Desire of Nations was more along the lines of examining the liberal order which resulted from the fading of Christendom, which itself was a result of the Church’s witness to politics.  Hardly a manifesto for Dominion.

Oliver O’Donovan (hereafter OO) argues that the authority of government resides in the act of judgment (3-4).  Judgment is an act of moral discrimination that establishes a new public context. Furthermore, judgment must be public in character. Private individuals (e.g., vigilantes) can never speak for the whole. Given the above definition of judgment, we can define punishment as “judgment enacted on the person, property, or liberty of the condemned party” (107).

Excursus on John Wyclif

This passage is just worth savoring (244):

In communicating the goods of creation with one another we discover a radical equality with one another in relation to God.  For none of us is the source of a communication that he makes with another, since we all hold whatever we communicate directly from Christ.

To communicate something is to hold it as a common possession.  We may summarize the logic in the formula “This mine is ours.”  (Cf. Acts 4:32).  This is a composite statement of what it means to call the early church a community, koinonia:  there was a unity of heart and soul and material goods….The material communication was essentially a way of understanding the meaning of property: Christians had “things that belonged to them, huparkhonta, but they did not see them as idia, “their own,” but as koina, “common,” not mine but “ours” .

OO’s discussions of judgment and punishment, always in a communal context, necessarily lead to discussions of international judgment. OO ultimately challenges our idols of democracy and the “liberal rights” tradition. We eventually see that all political orders are failing (and fading) and in their dimming light we see the rise of a more lasting–eternal–order of international judgment: the kingdom of God.

He does have a thoughtful section on electoral politics.

‘Electoral forms, then, not only fail to guarantee a just, or liberal, government; they are no guarantee of material representation either. The defense of Western democracy must, it seems, be even more modest than the most modest defense current among apologists. Perhaps it may take some form such as this: Modes of representation cannot be chosen in a vacuum; they are dependent upon the conditions of society and on the forms of spontaneous representation that arise unbidden. In a society that has lost most of its traditional representative forms to the unstable and shifting relations built on individualism and technology, but which can count on economic wealth, good communications, and general literacy, there is not serious alternative to the ballot box. Attempts to revive lost forms of loyalty are liable to be Ersatz and morally hollow; we had better secure ourselves against the temptations they present by setting a high procedural threshold for movement of spontaneous popular identity, and this electoral democracy provides.

“The case for democracy is that it is specifically appropriate to Western society at this juncture. It is a moment in the Western tradition; it has it own ecological niche. This allows us no universal claims of the “best regime” kind, nor does it permit the imperialist view that the history of democracy is the history of progress. Yet within its own terms it allows us to be positive about democracy’s strengths. The best regime is precisely that regimne that plays to the virtues and skills of those who are governed by it; and this one serves us well in demanding and developing certain virtues of bureaucratic and public discourse that the Western tradition has instilled. It is our tradition; we are bred in it; we can, if we are sensible about it, make it work’. – Oliver O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 178

Pros: As always, OO is judicious and balanced, writing from the mountaintops and not troubled with petty disputes. His use of Scripture, while sparse at times, is always timely and refreshing.

Cons: Much of this book will not make sense unless the reader is familiar with OO’s other two works, *Desire of the Nations* and *Resurrection and Moral Order,* both of them demanding (but rewarding!) reads. OO can be dense and the reader is tempted to shout, “Just get to the point!” Perhaps. Either way, it does make for slow reading. I had to read this book twice.



About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Book Review, john wyclif, politics, theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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