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Politics, peace, and making Jesus Lord

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

Paul Doerksen

Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009
230 pages

Winnipeg theologian Paul Doerksen has written a very well-informed analysis of the political theology of John Howard Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan. The thoroughly researched and fair treatment is always perceptive – at times brilliant. The four chapters deal with “‘God is King’; The Hebrew Scriptures,” “A Political Rendering of the Claim that Jesus is Lord,” “The Secular and the Eternal,” and “The Just War Revisited; The Just War Rejected.”

This timely comparison of Yoder, the radical Anabaptist ethicist and theologian, and Oliver O’Donovan, the eminent British Anglican scholar, is important for Anabaptists because the Yoderian perspective has become dominant in Anabaptist/Mennonite understanding of church–state relations.

Several shortcomings must be noted. First, at times, Doerksen’s writing becomes very challenging, especially for the average reader. Erudite writing need not be obscure.

One wonders why Doerksen treats so gently the weaknesses in the writings of both Yoder and O’Donovan. My criticism here involves not so much Doerksen’s statements but the actual content of Yoder’s and O’Donovan’s views which Doerksen presents in impressive detail. Some of those views strike this reviewer as being seriously flawed. Why did Doerksen not critique them more seriously?

The remaining criticisms deal with some of those views and Doerksen’s relatively muted evaluation. Yoder and O’Donovan try hard to construct political theology upon the Old Testament, particularly on their “three areas of thematic commonality”: “the kingly rule of God, the role of the monarchy in Israel, and the prophetic tradition.” Their successes are few. Theocratic realities in Old Testament times were profoundly different from the political dynamics of contemporary church–state realities, whether democratic or dictatorial. The two scholars have expertly developed Old Testament theology, but they have not developed political concepts for contemporary church–state politics.

Jesus is Lord?

Concerning the New Testament, Yoder and O’Donovan make much of “Jesus is Lord,” but attempts at practical application are unconvincing. “O’Donovan expects that the secular power must do what it is called to do by the reality of the triumph of Christ.” Try telling that to national governments today – to Muslim, Marxist, military, and other rulers!

Yoder believes “the particularity of the church is the universality of politics” (no political scientist would agree) and that the ethic of the church “can become real in non-religious society,” including government. Such reasoning is idealistic, even naïve. Moreover, since when do evangelical Christians expect discipleship ethics from non-disciples?

Given that neither Yoder nor O’Donovan can cite any national government that has attempted to govern by the ethic of the church, much less been successful in doing so, Doerksen should have not only reported but critiqued such misinformed idealism.

Some of Yoder’s and O’Donovan’s basic political assertions are puzzling. Yoder insists that “it is the church that is a truly international body, and thus forms the way to conceive of relations between particular states.” Try telling that to the UN or to any informed student of politics. Both O’Donovan and Yoder “refuse to understand politics as the imposition of the human will on the world” although that is exactly what politics is! Yoder supports the view “that secular power is not the appropriate bearer of justice.” “Rather, the church, as God’s people functions as the instrument of God’s justice.” That’s obviously not the case in the political realm, which is the arena under discussion!

Unfortunately, such inadequate understanding of both state and government is pervasive. Doerksen’s analysis, let alone critical evaluation, of such statements, was largely lacking.

Finally, Doerksen provides an excellent biblio-graphy. In contrast, the brief index is inadequate. Despite its shortcomings, involving mostly the offerings of Yoder and O’Donovan, and Doerksen’s failure to critique them seriously, this book should be read by all students of church–state relations, found in all church, college, and seminary libraries, and studied by pastors and Christian politicians.

John H. Redekop is adjunct professor at Trinity Western University, Langley, B.C. He is a member at Bakerview MB Church.

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