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The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology Paperback – August 13, 1999

ISBN-13: 978-0521665162 ISBN-10: 0521665167

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (August 13, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521665167
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521665162
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #188,699 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"...a powerful argument by a subtle thinker. And it is a serious book to which anyone interested in questions of theology and politics must attend." Kenneth R. Craycraft Jr., The Review of Politics

"The Desire of the Nations is as significant a work of theology as I can recall reading in the last twenty years....this book is important....the book is carefully plotted." Gilbert Meilaender, First Things

Book Description

This book by Oliver O'Donovan is a work of systematic Christian political thought, combining biblical interpretation, historical discussion of the Western political and theological tradition, theoretical construction and critical engagement with contemporary views. It argues for an alternative to political theology, one that is both more politically constructive than the dominant models of the past generation developed under the influence of Latin American theology and more receptive to the Western Christian tradition. This book makes an important contribution to contemporary political theology and Christian ethics.

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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By D. H. Knight on May 5, 2006
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.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Jacob on February 21, 2007
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.
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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.
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Nathan Willis on June 10, 2012
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'.
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