Beyond Suspicion: Post-Christendom Protestant Political Theology in John Howard Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan

Kevin Derksen

The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 3 (Fall 2010)

Paul G. Doerksen. Beyond Suspicion: Post-Christendom Protestant Political Theology in John Howard Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009.

In a time when John Howard Yoder’s work is receiving unprecedented interest in a wide range of scholarly and ecclesial circles, it should not be surprising to find a study of his thought in conversation with the British Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan. What might be surprising is the common ground that Paul Doerksen finds between Yoder and this so-called state-church defender of Christendom.

Although the book ostensibly intends to demonstrate the otherwise elementary claim that Yoder and O’Donovan represent two different articulations of protestant political theology in a liberal, post-Christendom context, the structure of Doerksen`s comparative analysis suggests his more interesting argumentative direction. The author proceeds by treating Yoder and O’Donovan together on various theological themes and sub-themes. The result is an account of differences that derive not from disparate commitments to good theology but from a common rooting in the Christ event and its decisive importance for Christian political life. This is significant, because caricatured critiques of O’Donovan’s work often paint his interest in reclaiming the resources of Christendom as a Constantinian capitulation to worldly realism that finally fails to take Jesus seriously. This is an area in which Doerksen tries to move ‘beyond suspicion’ to open up a more charitable space for conversation in political theology.

The phrase the author takes for his title is borrowed from an early chapter of The Desire of the Nations, O’Donovan’s landmark study in political theology. It indicates for O’Donovan an interest in overcoming the purely critical suspicion of modern thought with regard to theology and politics that insists on separating each so as to avoid the corruptions of the other. According to Doerksen, this is a project in which Yoder is also engaged, particularly in his insistence on reading the church as a fully public and political community. For O’Donovan, however, thinkers like Yoder remain trapped in just this kind of modern suspicion to the extent that their work fails to move beyond critique or pastoral insularity into fully constructive engagements with contemporary political realities.

Doerksen traces the contours of these two attempts at navigating beyond the pitfalls of modern dualisms still at work in liberal, post- Christendom social orders. But he is also engaged in negotiating the mutual suspicion with which each side views the other’s theological tendencies. Quite often, this means blunting sharp critiques by demonstrating that their objects are at some remove from the position actually espoused by the other. For instance, Doerksen argues convincingly that the Constantinian shift which Yoder never tires of criticizing is not fairly equated with the Christendom tradition from which O’Donovan wishes to draw. O’Donovan’s positive assessment of Christendom, he claims, is built on a rigorous exegesis of God’s rule in scripture and a commitment to follow through the meaning of Christ’s victory in cross and resurrection. But Doerksen also frequently takes to task O’Donovan's facile complaints about Yoder’s supposedly modern impulses, particularly his ascription to Yoder of a liberal voluntareity and a purely critical (and so apolitical) stance. Doerksen offers a much more nuanced reading of Yoder that highlights both the latter's fully Christological ecclesiology and his efforts at constructive engagement.

One of the great virtues of Beyond Suspicion is its wealth of references to the texts of Yoder and O’Donovan, helpfully synthesized and topically organized. Anyone interested in Yoder’s reading of political authority and the state, for instance, will be quickly directed to a multitude of passages, including many from early or lesser-known publications. Of more ambiguous virtue are Doerksen’s suggestive hints at a dialogical openness cultivated in reading Yoder and O’Donovan together. The book’s title begs the question of what is to be found on the far side of suspicion, though if Doerksen intends a reply it is only by way of gestures. It is worth noting that Beyond Suspicion concludes with a nod to Yoder as more clearly embodying a stance of vulnerability in his engagement with the world. Yet for an Anabaptist readership particularly, Doerksen’s book becomes a space in which the unreceptive edges of Yoder’s thought are opened to contestation. At its best, O’Donovan’s Augustinian recognition of the hiddenness of God’s work in the world pushes Yoder’s tendency to an ecclesial triumphalism that collapses divine agency into the visible church. And at its best, Beyond Suspicion makes room for this to happen.

Kevin Derksen, Pastor, St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, St. Jacobs, Ontario