Posted on: June 21st, 2022 O’Donovan’s Genealogy of Christendom

Despite the fact that I disagree (quite strongly) with its conclusion pertaining to the liberal tradition of political philosophy, Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations is an invaluable book.

Among its most conspicuous strengths, in my view, is its clear articulation of (what I call) the historia salutis of God’s people, and how, prior to any kind of grasp of a given political regime—say, the rule of the judges in the Old Testament, the monarchy of Jerusalem, the exile, or the restoration period—one must first attend to the distinctive character of each respective epoch. In other words, the character of each regime—together with one’s evaluation of it—is conditioned by the historical situation in which it took place. One is tempted, even, to venture that for O’Donovan, history is something like “first philosophy.” With all of this I am deeply impressed, and in profound agreement.

A second strength of the book—and this forms the bulk of this essay—is what I will call his “genealogy of Christendom.” How could one possibly know how to think about and to assess the role of the Church in modern western society/culture without closely attending to the various iterations, the various ways in which the relation between what I will often call “the priest” (that is, the Papacy, the Episcopacy, the Church) and “the king” (the emperor of the Roman Empire, the German tribal kings in the fifth and sixth centuries, the civil magistrate during the time of the Reformation, the modern nation state)? Each of these shifts traces the development which leads to our set of assumptions today, for example assumptions about the separation between church and state.

Before I rehearse the details of the genealogy, I want to emphasize two helpful points O’Donovan makes:

First, of the three roles/vocations/ministries/modes that we can discern in the way that the God of Israel implements his rule in the Old Covenant—“salvation,” “judgement,” and “inheritance”—only one falls under the appropriate ministry of “the king” after Christ: that of judgement. Salvation and inheritance (a rather complicated notion which for O’Donovan includes both the promised land of Israel, including how that is reconfigured in the New Covenant, for example in Romans 8, as well as the Torah of Israel, also reconfigured in the New Covenant) remain under the purview of the Church founded by Christ and the apostles.

Second, the specific destiny to which “the king”—the rulers, the civil magistrate—is called in the epoch of the of Church is (in O’Donovan’s language) is to disappear. That is, now that King Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father and has been seated on his throne at the right hand of the Father—an event complex he calls “the exaltation”—all other earthly kings are called to cede authority to him, to King Jesus.

I’d like to register a quick paradox here on this last point of O’Donovan’s (about the exaltation of Christ and the disappearance of the rulers): on the one hand, O’Donovan’s radical claim about the Christ’s exaltation & enthronement—that he really is the one true King of the world—commands respect and admiration. On the other hand, though, this radical claim itself forms the intriguing basis for his embrace of liberal democracy (or to use a term closer to his own idiom, liberal constitutionalism): uniquely in the liberal arrangement, he thinks, what one sees is that the rulers truly have, to a striking degree, disappeared. Insofar as constitutional regimes in the West have rooted authority in the peoples’ discernment of the will of God (note: not “in the people themselves, or in the will of the people”) they have succeeded in working out the inevitable vocation and destiny of politics in the west: to make the rulers—kings, autocrats, feudal lords—vanish, thus ceding authority to King Jesus.

It is, as I say, an intriguing claim. So much so that I wish it were true. And, had I read the book when it was published in the 1990’s, perhaps I’d have embraced it. Yet with the post-liberal cultural chaos we’ve witnessed over the last couple of decades—chaos which could be summed up by the word “nationalism”—I’m left unconvinced. (Alas, O’Donovan fails, in the main, to anticipate the rise of such neofascist waves.) That, plus the apparent comfort O’Donovan has with capitalism, give me extreme pause.

And yet, the rigor (including meticulous historical rigor) of the book do not fail to impress. Hence the following genealogy (with my own tweaks), crucial to any understanding of Christendom and political liberalism:

Eusebius of Caesaria: the “rout of the demons.” Standing on the Milvian Bridge, as it were, witnessing the emergence of a Christian, Constantinian political order, Eusebius’ attitude could be summarized as “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” (O’Donovan, 197). Eusebius identified the fulfilment of “the prophesies which pointed to a universal reign of God” as “the creation of a single empire” (198). For Eusebius, that is, “faith has become sight.” The victory of King Jesus (Col 2:15) has now begun to spill over, to be implemented, in the hic et nunc.

Ambrose & Augustine:  redefining the boundary.

Ambrose, who forced Emperor Theodosius II to do penance before him in the snow, clearly sees “the king” as subordinate to “the priest.” (Somewhat against the grain of O’Donovan, I see a deep continuity here between Eusebius and Ambrose.)  While Ambrose does hold that it is the special prerogative of “the king” to exercise judgement, he also believes that the church maintains the right “to judge the judge” (O’Donovan, 200–201).

Note: one key issue in the configuration of the relationship between “the priest” and “the king” is the issue of temporality versus spatialization. O’Donovan wisely sees the exilic period (as opposed to the Davidic/Jerusalem monarchy) as the paradigmatic configuration for the time after Christ, for it makes clear that the reign of God is an age to come. That is, its relationship to earthy rule/rulership is one of temporality, as opposed to the situation during the monarchy, in which the two reigns were superimposed onto one another such that the two rules are seen to occur within the same shared sphere. (One advantage of O’Donovan’s approach here is that it implies a full respect for the anti-kingship polemical strains we see, for example, in the book of Judges.)

O’Donovan also points out (on the other hand) the sense in which Ambrose does begin ever so slightly to see a kind of “shared sphere” of authority between priest and king: “a king bears the image of God, a bishop the image of Christ” (O’Donovan, 101). Although this quotation is not from Ambrose but rather from one (fourth century) Ambrosiaster, it nevertheless articulates the view from this perspective: yes, priest oversees king, but, to put it simply and directly, the king is beginning to “share the same space/sphere” as the priest.

Augustine, in turn, takes this dual spatial configuration and intensifies it. The two cities are seen as comingled, and the net effect, for our purposes, is to undermine the “victory of Christ’s exaltation” that we see Eusebius pointing to.

Gelasius: two rules. While Augustine said that “two loves made two cities,” Gelasius now says that “Two there are by whom this world is ruled as princes.” Hence he intensifies the shared sphere aspect of the configuration even further.

With the substitution of one word (“Two there are by whom the church is ruled”) Gelasius then crosses a line, subtly but really. From this point on the “notional distinction between the two societies is gone.” “One can no longer say that the Christian emperor ruled qua civil society but not qua heavenly city.” Now, the emperor rules the church directly. This separation now turns into an agonistic battle in which “priest” & “king” vie for superiority, as they argue: which should take priority, the temporal or the spiritual?

The “Gregorian Reforms”: the Supremacy of Spiritual Authority. O’Donovan ably narrates the attempt (a successful attempt, no less) of this reform (not unlike two others: the Mendicant movement of the thirteenth century and the anit-Erastianism of the sixteenth-century Calvinist and Tridentine [Suarezian] reforms, Cf. 196) to re-establish priestly/ecclesial supremacy over that of the king.

Here, the church is bolstered to make it competitive with the civil magistrate. The church now needs an elaborate structure of government supporting it” (O’Donovan, 205). There is a hardening of the principle that the spiritual must have rule over the secular. Rivalry with the civil rulers “on their own turf.” Both “natural law” and “salvation history” (“civilizational progress”) are appealed to for justification (O’Donovan, 206). Yet, the jurisdiction of these papalists was “not that of empire.” Wow: all property rights are now exercised in the authority of the pope, who now owns all property (O’Donovan, 206).

Marsilius of Padua & Luther: the Authority of the Word Alone.

With the rediscovery of Aristotle in the 13th [actually the 12th] cent., the contrast between “nature” & “grace” becomes a big deal, and of course “grace wins” (duh: who has the power, at first?). But, in a dynamic wh mirrors philosophy in general, the long-term effect here is the eventual triumph of nature over grace…. That’s how compelling Aristotle was (and also the nature of subversion, how “the underdog always wins”).

Franciscan row over “absolute poverty” (O’Donovan, 207). “From the ideal of absolute poverty it seemed to follow [like pulling a thread in a garment] that the church could play no role in society” (O’Donovan, 207). The long-term result: an attempt to formulate a concept of authority based on the authority of the word (the Word of God) alone” (O’Donocan, 207). The most important upshot: the idea that “Gospel truth has its own distinct authority,” unrelated to coercion/force.”

“With this distinction b/t different kinds of authority we suddenly confront some … modern dilemmas.” For an insightful list of examples, see 208.

“Both Lutheran and Anglican Reformers founded their view of church-state relations on this distinction of authority into disparate kinds” (O’Donovan, 209).Yet Luther’s apparent revival of Augustine’s “two kingdoms” duality “turns out to be an ideal one, requiring zwei Regimente to reinforce at a practical/functional level the zwei Reiche.” (O’Donovan, 209). Luther also converts the spiritual/secular distinction into inner/outer. Luther was influenced by “the king’s two bodies,” a medieval lawyers’ distinction.

Calvin & Suarez: Restoring the Balance.

“The Marsilian pattern, having triumphed at the Reformation, steadily lost ground thereafter. To recover equilibrium, rather than to stress the difference, was the chief object of the later sixteenth century and shaped the final phase of Christendom” (O’Donovan, 209–10). (Note: I think that what O is here implying is that, in the previous phase of “the authority of the word alone” what actually occurred is a lopsided power that was arrogated to the “the king,” to the civil magistrate.)

Suarez (and Vitoria, both members of the Salamanca school) advocated a position with the following planks:

The secular power was deemed “supreme in its own order.”

“The pope could not challenge the act of any secular (!) ruler for reasons lying within the ruler’s sphere of justice” (O’Donovanm, 210).

Vitoria said that “so long as a thing is not incompatible with the salvation of souls and religion, the pope’s office is not involved.”

“Political order was founded solely on the basis of Natural Law, and existed no less validly among pagans.”

Note how so much of this is founded upon a pernicious, scholastic division of nature and grace.  

The Calvinists. In response to the Erastian reforms (wh took power & influence from the church & handed it to the magistrate), the Calvinists were looking “to claim back the church’s social space.” Yet in so striving, they do not seem to want the church to be able to wield power over the state. Rather, with the “power” of church discipline, the consistory had a strong influence over society, especially if the ruler was a member of the church, and especially given the local jurisdiction of the consistory in each particular city-state (canton?).

Much to digest in this brief genealogy. In my next post I plan to offer some conclusions.

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Filed under: Bible, Book Notes (& articles, too), History / Genealogy, political theology | Comments Off on O’Donovan’s Genealogy of Christendom

Posted on: May 20th, 2016 Boethius for our Time

What an encouraging article by Anthony Esolen (scholar of Dante and of Lucretius, and of much else besides). Thanks, Theresa Kenney!

First, in addition to much helpful background and commentary, there is this Boethian wisdom (for anyone struggling with “why bad things happen to good people”):

But virtuous men are tried by God, for their good.  God protects some who are weak by giving them only good fortune.  He gives to some virtuous men the most terrible trials, that they may emerge victorious and shine as exemplars for their fellow men.  He gives an easy life to some vicious men, that penury may not prompt them to crimes even worse; or he may, as severe punishment, withhold from them the reversals that might prompt them to repent.  We do not know and cannot know what God may intend in his special providence for any individual.

Then there is this:

Boethius was the one man most responsible for bequeathing classical learning to the West, to survive the Dark Ages to come, until the Medieval world should burst forth in its wonderful light.  Yet I think that the Consolation may be meant for us now in a special way.  The barbarians are back.  Humane learning is forgotten or despised.  The Church is buffeted, while the gargoyles of the age caper and make mouths and laugh.  I imagine that the Gothic keepers of the jail cracked their jokes too.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius kept faith to the end.  No one honors or even remembers his accusers; but the Catholics of Lombardy honored and remembered him straightaway: Saint Severinus.  His bones rest in the cathedral of Pavia, where the bones of Saint Augustine also lie.

It is better for us to wait with that man in his cell, than to enjoy all of the vast earth among men gone mad, quite mad.  God give us the courage to do so!

Perhaps what I love most about all this is that it allows a Christian (Esolen might argue “a Catholic”) to “keep calm” in the midst of the “culture wars,” even while admitting that western culture is crumbling. (I am likely more willing than Esolen, more in line with Radical Orthodoxy, to admit the “upside” to such crumbling, but it is still quite sad, possibly even tragic.)

As CS Lewis well understood (see his Discarded Image) we need Boethius today more than ever.


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