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The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology Paperback – 12 Jan 2008

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; New Ed edition (12 Jan. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521665167
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521665162
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.8 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 674,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description


'Above all … it is the book's ability to stimulate and enrich debate about the shape of a Christian political ethic which emerges most clearly …'. Studies in Christian Ethics

'O'Donovan's masterful work should be read by everyone interested in the daunting complexities of the political theology of Israel, Christendom, and now post-Christendom.' Theological Studies

'… a powerful argument by a subtle thinker. The Desire of the Nations is a serious book to which anyone interested in questions of theology and politics must attend.' The Review of Politics

'There are real insights on almost every page into the history of politics and religion and the book is written with great confidence and certainty.' Scottish Journal of Theology

'… the author has presented us with a substantive statement of the postmodern political meaning of the Christian faith. The book should be read.' The Princeton Seminary Bulletin

'This is a substantial exercise in 'political theology'. The argument is highly distinctive: it is a defence of the idea 'christendom'. Most of the book is a dense and difficult discussion of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. To his credit he does attempt to grapple with the historical critical method and takes seriously the views of the Biblical scholars. … All libraries will have to purchase this text …'. Theological Book Review

Book Description

Combining biblical interpretation, historical discussion of Western political and theological tradition, theoretical construction and critical engagement with contemporary views, Oliver O'Donovan argues for an alternative to political theology, more politically constructive, more receptive to the Christian tradition.

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Amazon.com: HASH(0x8f5d65a0) out of 5 stars 5 reviews
31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9076ffe4) out of 5 stars Real political theology 5 May 2006
By D. H. Knight - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
`The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the roots of Political Theology'. O'Donovan sets out to rediscover what it means to say that `God is king'. God does not leave us to the tender mercy of our leaders and politicians. He is their ruler so they are responsible to him. When they do not rule us well we can appeal over their heads to God - we can pray to him - and he will dismiss them. Theology that is obedient to God must be done in the face of those political authorities, and often against their resistance. Christians have to name those illegitimate entities, centres of authority and modes of personhood that exercise a hidden power over us.

O'Donovan thinks that until, let us say, four hundred years ago, it was well enough understood that God is a ruler. Now it seems less obvious, with the result that modern people don't know how to give or take authority. They don't know how to tell one another what to do, or how to be told what to do. Moderns are driven by resentment - though it is difficult for them to say who they resent, who can be blamed for the way things are. They don't know what to do with other people, because they define themselves in opposition to other people. They tend to assume that being free, means being free from other people, not having anyone to tell you what to do.

Imagine it like this. Modern political thinkers are a group of college students. They go on strike against college authorities and stage a sit-in. To their consternation the college authorities join in, with the result that there are no authorities, no one to meet their demands. Nonetheless everyone declares that rules are an imposition, that no one can teach them anything, that we don't need exams because it is unfair to say that one student is better than another. Who wouldn't enjoy a strike, at least on the first day? But we know that in any protest movement, after the initial spontaneity, there comes one crisis after another - who is going to get the coffee, who is going to clean up, and using what for money? No one is responsible for anyone else. We follow whoever shouts loudest - but we do not manage to stick with what we agreed, but regularly reverse our collective resolutions. This is the environment O'Donovan believes is represented by modernity. I rob you, but if you take me to court I protest that the court has no right to try me or punish me. By what right do you intend to make me suffer any punishment against my consent? So then, it is a matter of my interpretation of my rights against your interpretation of your rights. When I play too rough, who is going to protect you from me?

O'Donovan says it though it may be a good thing to resist authority it may also be a good thing to suffer it. He shows that for hundreds of years Christians have shown how to suffer authority, and how to oppose illegitimate authority. They have something to measure authority against, and they know how to accept and suffer authority, good and bad. They show virtues and courage - they learned it, from previous generations of Christians, and from Christ. Without such virtue and patience and suffering you can never become one of the grown ups, you cannot be free of your own unfocussed resentments.

O'Donovan shown us how the modern distinction between the religious and the secular and political came into being. He has found two things. The first is that there is no necessary distinction between the two - theology is politics, because Christians confess that God is lord, he has real political authority over us. The second is that this distinction was itself the creation of Christian theology - the distinction between Church and state, and between `religious' and `secular', was intended to assert the prophetic responsibility of the Church to keep the leaders to the task of the formation of their people. So O'Donovan says that there is no such thing as secularisation as such, apart from this Christian prophetic office. O'Donovan provides a history of the West which is not a history of increasing secularisation. Modern political thought is the continuation of a pagan politics and a theory about nature that claims that man is master of himself, who feels no obligation to acknowledge the authority of any other, and who has therefore the greatest problem coming to terms with other people. The otherness of other people - that is the perennial problem, the one that systematic theology must cope with, in the future, as in the past. This political theology, willing to read back deep into the medieval tradition, has produced some much more political theology than the liberation theology that was the exciting thing thirty years ago. For the future of theology, O'Donovan stands for learning from the rich resources of Christian doctrine.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8ee2d054) out of 5 stars Magisterially done (no pun intended) 22 Feb. 2007
By Jacob - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback

Oliver O'Donovan (hereafter OO) meticulously sets forth the case for the Rule of Christ in contemporary society. Unlike modern-day authors who like a vague notion of "kingship" because it sounds like something Jesus might have said, OO develops a thorough biblical theology of "God's rule" and then applies it to tough situations.


1. Kingship is mediated through "judgment," "Law-keeping/giving," and "salvation." To "judge is to bring the already-present distinction between the righteous and unrighteous to light. The third point of reference, salvation, leads to the theme of "possession." "Political authority arises where power, the execution of right and the perpetuation of tradition are assured together in one coordinated agency" (46).

2. The individual is the lonely one who prophecies against the chosen people for the sake of the chosen people. He is commonly called to suffer for the sake of bringing wisdom to the community. He is the one who speaks both for Yahweh against the community and for the community in its anguish under Yahweh's blows. Ultimately, this is the servant of Isaiah 53. The individual in general, however, is the one who applies the mediated rule of Yahweh in specific applications.

3. Jesus' works of power were victories over and judgments against the demonic realm. He also proclaimed the coming judgment of Israel, which would ultimately redefine what it meant to be "Israel" and "Abraham's seed." In short, Jesus demonstrated power, judgment, and continuity in Israel.

4. The Kingdom of God is brought into sharp relief when it confronts the powers of this world. The Kingdom of God enhances our knowledge of "community." The Church is a model to the State of how God rules a community.

5. The Church is a political society. It is to find the nations (in mission) and to be the New World Order for the Kingdom of God. Its political character is discerned by faith (166).

6. "The Church represents God's kingdom by living under its rule and welcoming the world to its rule" (174). O'Donovan's strongest point is his discussion of "martyrology." Martyrdom is the focal point of a struggle between Christ and Society, with the powers inevitably bound to lose (179). We suffer for the sake and salvation of the world. As the church we are a glad community who rejoices in the receiving back of the created order.

7. Society and rulers--society is to be transformed while rulers disappear. OO defines Christendom as a Christian secular political order. The Church is to witness to the Kingdom of God and Christendom is the response to that witness. Christendom is the only way to legitimately maintain the two kingdoms doctrine. Christendom separates the priest-role from the king-role.


This book is written on the advanced level. It sometimes makes for slow reading. OO's best sections were on the church and Christendom. Why is Christendom such a radical idea? Surely if rulers get converted the will...well...maybe live and rule like....converted Christians! Seriously, this book gives hope for the Christian future and a challenge against naievete. A few flaws with the book: I would like to see these ideas put into a more concrete form. Secondly, the last chapter had too much information in it. I lost track of the argument.

Aside from the difficult read, this book is masterfully done.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8e4e1c78) out of 5 stars Well worth the effort to grasp an understanding of today's politics. 21 May 2014
By ross bob mullins, jr - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a tough read if you are not familiar with advanced theological philosophical concepts. However, it is well worth the effort to plough through and dig out the gems of wisdom and insight that O'Donovan has to offer. In his defense of Christendom, I found the connection between government and the Church that I have always thought was there but did not understand.
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8e4e3504) out of 5 stars Book Review: The Desire of the Nations by Oliver O'Donovan. Reviewed by Nathan Willis. 11 Jun. 2012
By Nathan Willis - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Oliver O'Donovan, is the Regis Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford and Canon of Christ Church.

This book takes a historical perspective, as its starting point in Public Theology. At the outset, it explores four main categories that O'Donovan feels are the roots of political theology: salvation, judgement, possession, and praise. Taking an etymological approach, O'Donovan argues for a broader understanding of these concepts in theology than has traditionally been taken within the modern era.

In the latter parts of the tome, O'Donovan develops his argument that God's kingship on earth is evidenced through political structures. He explores the implications for the church, rulers and society in this context.

In the final chapter of the book O'Donovan proposes that the Western worldview component of a secular and sacred contrast should be replaced with a secular and eternal contrast. O'Donovan, whilst acknowledging that Christendom is passing (or past), holds that this is occurring under the rule of God and that humanity has failed to recognise this rule. He believes that it was destined to pass away and that it's failure proves that all earthly leadership is subordinated to the divine rule of God.

O'Donovan concludes with a shot across the Atlantic by going further than most American readers would be able to tolerate and (perhaps unsurprisingly for an Englishman) targets the US First Amendment and the separation of church and state enshrined within it. He argues that any such separation is artificial and a denial of God's order. Instead, according to O'Donovan, Christology is an important element in a social construct for `to deny political authority obedience to Christ is implicitly to deny that obedience to society, too'. Dackson has criticised this chapter of the book, `This seems to reflect an inadequate understanding of the intentions of the articulators of American religious liberty as well as a lack of lived experience under that particular piece of legislation' (Dackson 1997).

Reference List:
Dackson, W 1997, `Book review: `The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, ` by Oliver O'Donovan' Journal of Church & State, vol. 39, no. 4, pp800-03. Retrieved September 17, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.
6 of 12 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8ee2d51c) out of 5 stars A specifically Christian political Theology 31 Mar. 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
In this important work, Oliver O'Donovan provides a political theology which does not require one to leave one's Christian identity at the door. It is a valuable contribution to a thriving conversation. For another important "theological" approach to political life, see William Cavanugh's "Torture and Eucharist."
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