I recently was introduced to the works of Oliver O’Donovan, Theology Professor at Oxford; I just finished reading The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology. O’Donovan laments the separation of theological thought from political theory, which has resulted from an overly vigorous (and overly secularist) separation of church from state.  I find myself in agreement with most of what O’Donovan suggests, and fascinated and contemplative of the parts where I am still unsure whether I agree with him or not.

Here are the points that resonate most with me:

  • We should learn from the mistakes of past missteps in trying to relate properly the realms of theology and political theory. O’Donovan regards both “civil religion establishment” and “pious individualism” as mistakes, at opposite poles to one another.  I agree.
  • In this vein, O’Donovan assesses the “Anabaptist reaction” to naïve Christian over-entanglement into political agendas (a reaction expressed strongly by John Howard Yoder, and more recently picked up by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon) as an alternative kind of relationship between theology and political theory, but in the end no better than what is reacted against; withdrawal is no less irresponsible and no more noble than subsumption; it is merely an equal and opposite error.  I’m inclined to agree again.
  • He is concerned that if Christians withdraw from the public square, the result is not a more rational public square, but a secular, rationalist one, that is simultaneously more vicious and more . . . well, evil.  He is aware of there being such a thing as religious fanaticism, which fair-minded people rightly fear. But there is also such a thing as fanatical secularism, and conceding the public square to it is foolish and harmful. I agree.
  • Interestingly, there remains in O’Donovan’s thesis several points of ambiguity that he acknowledges come from trying to fairly and responsibly answer hard questions that he still has not been able to answer in a fully satisfactory way; questions remain that need thoughtful and careful engagement even still. He also suggests that no government in history has achieved the correct, proper “balance of powers” between the realms of government and church, or between powers that seek to transform society at large, and the powers at work in the transformative covenant community of faith. I agree, and respect the candor and thoughtfulness with which he engages these matters.

I am interested in what you think about these uneasy matters.

This discussion provides a nice lead-in to the time with James Davison Hunter, author of Culture Wars and To Change the World (cf. the “Christianity and Culture lecture series,” being held at Biblical on December 2.


Todd Mangum is the Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Biblical.  He is ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Todd is the author of The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift, and of several articles seeking to bridge divides among Bible-believing Christians. He is married to Linda and they have three sons.  See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/todd-mangum.  

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