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Mission and Christendom

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.


  1. myles wrote:

    the more I read O’Donovan, the less convinced by him I become.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Darren wrote:

    “Hopes of winning the homage of the Empire are just not to be found in the early church’s self-understanding.” Even if this can be granted historically (though I’m not very well versed in early church era history (how early by the way?) I am sure there are some voices that did look toward an imperial Christianity)) wouldn’t OO respond that though the church did not expect it God willed it? I mean the early church did after all consider itself in the tradition of Israel and the prophets, including the prophets who foresaw all nations coming to pay homage to Israel’s king. What do we do with those passages? They don’t seem to be easily relegated completely to the eschaton.

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 3:36 am | Permalink
  3. Chris Donato wrote:

    Are you suggesting that the Fathers didn’t hope for the Empire to bend the knee to the King of kings? And that by staring down death (and thus participating, in a certain sense, in the death of Christ) in the face of pretenders to the throne tha there was no hope of bringing the future kingdom of Christ to bear on earth (as it is in heaven)?

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 7:52 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Sure, they hoped for that — with the second coming of Christ. That’s kind of the problem.

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  5. adhunt wrote:

    “Rather they understand their life and death as the enactment of a different sort of kingship altogether.

    I disagree. They understood their life and death as witness to a different King altogether. This is effectively what O’Donnovan seems to present.

    There is also the presenting issue of the fetishism of “the early church” or the “pre-constantinian church” which ends up being “whatever aspect or part of the early church that supports my argument.” I’m with the great Rowan Williams in his book on doing Christian history…it is strange that we should single out a particular period as being the sine qua non of being a Christian.

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Different king indeed, but the gospels make it pretty clear that Jesus’s kingship, his mode of ruling is fundamentally different and irreconcilable to other forms of lordship (cf. Matt 20:25-28).

    And who’s singling out anything as perfect or pristine? My only point is that O’Donovan’s construal of early Christian martyrdom is, on the whole, incorrect. What importance one accords that part of the church’s witness is another matter. All that matters to me here is the fact that O’Donovan is reaching to establish a certain sort of theological credibility for his own project by an illegitimate construal of early Christian martyrdom and the broad understanding of the church’s mission that obtained among the martyrs themselves.

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  7. adhunt wrote:

    Thanks Halden,

    I was commenting on the “early church” bit because of this brief closing comment: “Hopes of winning the homage of the Empire are just not to be found in the early church’s self-understanding”

    I know that Eusebius is often seen soley as villain but I think his revionist history cannot be merely a creation of his own mind. Considering the Empire was often viewed as “the world” it seems that Eusebius’s logic of Church conquering Empire must have drawn on previous Christian understanding of the Church’s telos.

    I’m not entirely sure I agree with everything O’Donovan says but I do think that a Christendom geography of Christian life and mission makes a lot of sense.

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    I’m curious which martyr’s you are talking about. It seems like you’ve got a lot more work to do than to simply assert that “the martyr’s didn’t think that way.” Even if that could be established, it’s not obvious how that would necessarily invalidate O’Donovan’s point, in the sense that the martyr’s self-understanding need not be exhaustive (and it almost certainly wasn’t, in any case) of the work accomplished in their life and death.

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  9. Andrew wrote:

    Well, the real issue here is probably pacifism (what Jesus’ kingship means for politics), but I think this:

    “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.”

    … needs to be qualified in light of this:

    “But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles *and kings* and the children of Israel…” (Acts 9:15). The rest of Acts describes Paul doing that: witnessing to the Jews, the the Gentiles, and to rulers. He says to Agrippa, for example: “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am–except for these chains.” (26:29). And of course, the entire narrative of Acts is about the Gospel going from Jerusalem to Rome, and obviously Paul was going to Rome to witness to Caesar himself.

    This doesn’t quite go the whole way towards proving that the martyrs thought their martyrdom would call the emperors to submission, but if you add the fact that the martyrs thought their martyrdom was a “martyring” (witnessing) to the above objectives of witnessing, I think we get the whole way.

    But again, the real issue is not whether the martyrs thought their martyrdom had the objective of getting the emperor to bow the knee; the issue is what “bowing the knee” means on the part of the emperor.

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, Andrew. I think this gets to the heart of much of this.

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    I think I’d have to write a lot more on this to answer it well. Suffice it to say for the moment that I’ve read a number of books on martyrdom over the last year that (I think) incline my thoughts in this direction. But to articulate that I think more writing would need to be done. I’ll see about what I can do . . .

    Friday, October 16, 2009 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  12. Hugh wrote:

    From O O’D’s response to his interlocutors in Studies in Christian Ethics vol 11 no2, (which I happened to be looking at this morning)

    “. . . the important thing is not to be for Chistendom or against it, . . . . . but to have such a sympathetic understanding of it that we profit from its politico-theological gains and avoid repeating its politico-theological mistakes. . . .”

    “That the kingdoms of this age are not in the business of saving subjects’ souls, is something it was hard for [Justinian] to learn. Yet Christendom learned it; and in the end, the ‘defence of Christendom’ amounts to no more than this, that any well-taken criticism of Christendom that we may think of turns out not to be ours, but theirs.”

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 6:10 am | Permalink
  13. Byron Smith wrote:

    Andrew, yes, that is indeed the crucial point. Whatever the objective of the martyrs, the crucial issue is “what is a king to do when he realises that he himself has a king?” That is, O’Donovan is not arguing for a particular (and perhaps novel) conception of the aims of Christian proclamation, but for certain historical effects of that proclamation.

    Halden: Thanks for your post, and for highlighting this review.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    Thanks Byron. The only thing that I would add is that O’Donovan is not merely arguing that Christendom was an effect of Christian proclamation, but that, in some sense it was an appropriate effect, something that rightly emerged therefrom.

    That, I think, is the $587 question.

    Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 8:28 am | Permalink
  15. Andrew wrote:

    Yes, exactly. (Though it should be noted that O’Donovan’s view of the “appropriate response” is a kind of Christendom that allows for religious freedom.)

    Friday, October 23, 2009 at 8:32 am | Permalink

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