Fall 2011 · Vol. 40 No. 2 · pp. 258–260 

Book Review

Beyond Suspicion: Post-Christian Protestant Political Theology in John Howard Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan

Paul Doerksen. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. 230 pages.

Reviewed by Joseph Wiebe

The caricatures are dead. Doerksen’s comparative analysis of Yoder’s and O’Donovan’s political theology exposes the restriction of political activity to governments and statecraft as tired and passé. One does not need to “go back” to a chimerical golden age of Christendom in order to establish the social conditions in which discourse about God affects political thought. To reverse the relationship between religion and politics, which modern liberalism has put asunder, is not to fuse church and state. In short, the rhetoric dismissing the political import of the transcendent, on suspicion of being pre-modern, Catholic, and provoking religious wars, is a travesty of political theology. Doerksen has put forth two accounts of post-Christendom Protestant theology that offer different arguments for the role of God’s activity in conceptions of justice and the common good. Though it is a work of academic scholarship, Doerksen’s book is a clearly written, logically ordered exposition that can be read by anyone interested in thinking about the relevance of Scripture and church practices for modern democracy.

At the heart of political liberalism is a two-fold suspicion, which Yoder and O’Donovan exceed in their respective ways. First, it is alleged that, because civil institutions operate within a secular realm, politics mars Christian piety and mission. Doerksen debunks the two assumptions that Yoder responds to this suspicion by withdrawing from political engagements while O’Donovan responds by making political accommodations. According to Doerksen, both Yoder and O’Donovan argue that God’s rule encompasses all human order—including public and private life—and that political engagement does not necessitate the suspension of religious convictions. O’Donovan reclaims authority from the secular realm through an account of God’s reign in history. Israel’s claim that God is king reveals that all political authority derives from God’s primary sovereignty. God’s authority is neither the assertion of power nor wily persuasion, but is experienced by and instantiated in Israel’s monarchy such that Israel’s history is a resource for the ordering framework of society. O’Donovan thus reveals that there are political concepts and theorems rooted in the Bible that must not be bracketed out of political discourse. Yoder also draws on the history of Israel, although he focuses on its “antiroyal” strand, i.e., the prophetic tradition of monarchal critique. Here, Jeremiah’s call for Israelites to “seek the peace of the city” shifts the mode of political display from rule to suffering service. Both writers note the Hebrew emphasis on God’s activity in Israelite monarchy and prophecy. However, the upshot for O’Donovan is that the form of God’s rule is juridical, whereby conflicts between governmental violations and religious faithfulness are settled by appealing to a law whose authority is not located in any human order. For Yoder, it is the life of the exilic community that provides the witness of God’s rule in history with which secular authority should cooperate.

The second suspicion of political liberalism is that, because the state is the agent of freedom in society, the restrictive interests of one religious group will allegedly inhibit a just order. In Doerksen’s reading, neither O’Donovan nor Yoder suggest that the church should rule society; both allow for a secular space in which there is freedom of unbelief. O’Donovan argues that the resurrection and triumph of Christ enables a secular authority, albeit limited and provisional, which provides and ensures the social space necessary for the church to fulfill its mission. The rule of God is realized in the church, but the triumph of Christ reaches past this space to the rest of creation. Judgment—including the possibility of coercion and force—resides within secular authority; however, the church’s work for forgiveness and reconciliation shapes and conditions that judgment. Yoder argues that the cross reveals the form of God’s activity in the world. Church practices follow Jesus’ ministry and form the paradigm for society, but do not attempt to engineer life in the wider world. Yoder does not presume a secular space authorized to ensure the church’s mission, but rather stresses the tension in which the church lives before the kingdom of God is visibly consummated.

Doerksen summarizes nicely the difference between Yoder’s and O’Donovan’s political theology: “where O’Donovan searches for political theorems and architectonic structures, Yoder looks to the practices of the church to shape political theology.” O’Donovan provides a comprehensive theological vision in which God’s role in the world is politically authoritative; Yoder indicates that Jesus’ model of suffering servitude orders the church, the very shape of which is politically instructive. Doerksen exhibits each author’s arguments as options for constructive yet faithful Christian engagement with the principalities and powers that govern society.

Joseph Wiebe
Doctoral candidate in Religion and Politics
McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario