Alex Abecina has a splendid review of what is arguably Oliver O’Donovan’s best book, The Desire of the Nations. I must say that I am quite impressed with Alex’s review precisely because it does what ever so many reviews fail to do: engage heavily with the text under review. Reviews such as this, especially blog reviews, deserve high praise.
The overall point of the review is that O’Donovan’s work should not simply be read as an apologia for Christendom. According to Alex, “far from being a defense of Christendom, O’ Donovan’s work is better understood as a defense of Christian mission.” However, I think this is just slightly wrong. O’Donovan’s work is certainly not merely a defense of Christendom to be sure. However what it most clearly is is a defense of Christendom as a legitimate (though, of course somewhat flawed) response to Christian mission (see esp. pp 212-17).
This is all deeply tied to O’Donovan’s account of martyrdom as “a powerful force” that is “effective” in its ability to influence political powers to give “homage” to the church (p. 215). That is to say, the witness of the disestablished church of the martyrs is in some sense to be understood as fulfilling its mission to the world by winning the allegiance of the world’s political powers to its cause.
Now this might indeed be a true account of the nature of the church’s mission — though I sincerely doubt it (cf. Rev 13:7-10). However, the point is that this is not simply “a defense of Christian mission.” Rather it is a defense of a very particular construal of Christian mission as an effective force which ought to expected to rightly incite the support and allegiance of the political powers of the world.
It is precisely because of this fundamental purpose to O’Donovan’s book that I believe it must be regarded as a glorious failure. Despite his extremely articulate and critical presentation, I find it truly impossible to believe that the witness of the martyrs can rightly be understood according to the construal of mission O’Donovan proposes. The reason for this is precisely because of the testimony of the martyrs themselves. They do not understand their witness as a force of of effective persuasion that they hope will sway the Empire to do them homage. Rather they understand their life and death as the enactment of a different sort of kingship altogether.
In short, O’Donovan’s notion of Christendom as a legitimate outworking of Christian mission is flawed precisely because no one in the church prior to the advent of Christendom seemed to think that that’s what they were doing in mission. Hopes of winning the homage of the Empire are just not to be found in the early church’s self-understanding. That’s why, ultimately, O’Donovan’s construal of Christian mission is unpersuasive.