Imagine that you are a young man and one day your father commands you to find the donkeys that have wandered off, like poor young Saul was commanded to do in 1 Samuel.

How will you do this? To find the donkeys will require much more than merely a knowledge of your father’s will, and more also than a knowledge of what the donkeys look like. It will require a detailed knowledge of the landscape, a good deal of perseverance, and perhaps, if you are unlucky, even the intervention of a seer.

The young man searching for the donkeys is, in a real sense, a picture of us as we try to live the Christian life. In carrying out the will of our Heavenly Father we are very often confronted with moral objects that can be achieved in more than one way, or in which the situation is constantly evolving, so that a detailed knowledge of the moral landscape, and a willingness to improvise, is required of us if we are to achieve the task required of us.

I am fond of quoting something that my doctoral supervisor, Oliver O’Donovan, once said, but which I unfortunately can never remember where to find the reference for, so this is a paraphrase:

“Too often when reading Scripture we are tempted to think that it is Scripture that is opaque to us, and our own situation that is transparent and clear, that our fundamental need is better exegesis. Quite often, though, it is Scripture that is clear enough and our own situation that is opaque to us, our own situation that requires more patient analysis.”

The same could be said just as easily of natural law; which is better understood as the background moral order of goods and proper ends, which we are called to discern and creatively live into, than as a collection of rules written in invisible ink. As David VanDrunen puts it,

“natural law directs human beings toward holistic ways of life that promote proper ends and goods. According to this conception, there is still an important place for identifying rules or precepts of the natural law. But the precepts themselves do not simply equal the natural law, but rather serve to summarize or point to a much broader and more complex moral order that advances proper human ends.”1

Thus it is that one of the most important features of natural law, according to Hooker, is the room it allows for uncertainty and flexible application. In introducing his concept of natural law (which he sometimes calls “the law of reason”) Hooker writes,

“the natural way to determine how we should act is the judgment of reason, setting down what is good to do. This judgment is either mandatory, showing what must be done; or else permissive, declaring only what may be done; or else advisory, revealing what is most prudent for us to do.”2

The permissive sentence of reason, argued Hooker, frequently permits things which are “naturally free and indifferent . . . left to our own discretion” (such as what kind of clothing to wear), “unless some higher bond of duty overrides that inherent indifference.”3 Sometimes Scripture provides this higher duty (such as when God commanded certain priestly garments for Aaron and his sons); sometimes some human authority will do so (such as, for Hooker, when the Queen required certain vestments for priests; or, in our context, when a church choir director might require certain robes of all choir members). And it should be emphasized that for Hooker (and all the Protestant Reformers) “indifferent” was a technical term that did not imply total moral irrelevance.

For something to be “indifferent” meant that it might be right or wrong depending on the circumstance, and one had to deploy other precepts of reason to decide; for instance, there are garments that would be right to wear to a wedding but wrong to wear to a funeral. But the crucial thing to note about this is that for Hooker, in many areas of life the background condition is one of permission, one in which God leaves us free to deliberate for ourselves, unless he specifically limits our freedom by an intervening command.

This was precisely the opposite approach to that of Puritan Thomas Cartwright, who had argued that the ordinary background condition was one of divine command, and the only way that something could become “indifferent” was if God deigned to permit it by not Scripturally requiring or prohibiting it. Hooker writes, “what makes things indifferent is not that Scripture specifies them as indifferent, but simply that it leaves them unmentioned, or at least unrequired”4—in other words, Scripture doesn’t have to first positively permit something for it to become indifferent. Thus he attacks the attempt to force Scripture to speak on matters where it simply does not, he insists that we must take as our starting point not what we think Scripture should have said (because of its moral importance), but what it has in fact said:

“When the question is whether God has delivered in Scripture a complete, particular, and immutable form of church polity, why do they presumptuously and superfluously attempt to prove that He should have done it, when the real question that matters is whether He has in fact done it?”5

Brian Tierney has recently drawn attention to these passages as marking one of Hooker’s most important contributions to the natural law tradition, specifically the idea of permissive natural law. Whereas Cartwright had required explicit Scriptural permission to make something indifferent, and Whitgift had wavered when appealing to reason as a standard, Hooker forthrightly argued that reason could and should tell us when actions were not so good as to be required and not so evil as to be forbidden.

A recurrent teaching that runs through Hooker’s work held that we need to be guided by both the law of scripture and the law of reason, or law of nature, in following a Christian way of life; and at the core of the argument was the assertion that reason and nature can teach us not only what is demanded of us but also what is permitted.6

Although such a notion of permissive natural law had been explicitly formulated and defended by many of the medieval canonists, shows Tierney, it was curiously absent from Thomas Aquinas’s account of natural law, which Hooker otherwise follows fairly closely. This is accordingly one point where, Tierney suggests, Hooker may have improved upon Aquinas by “making explicit what was implicit”7 in the Summa regarding the relationship between moral law and human freedom.

Called to Freedom

Of course, all that we have established so far is that the world in which we are called to live is a complex and ever-changing place, such that no set of moral precepts could neatly capture it, and a lifelong cultivation of wisdom and experience is necessary to live well in it. This, of course, is what the Book of Proverbs seems to teach. But why should it be this way? Why is the uncertainty a good thing?

We could begin by saying that the only alternative would be a world that was a great deal more boring and less glorious than the one that God has made. A world susceptible to easy moral navigation, a world bereft of uncertainty, could not be a world populated by human beings! Nor could it be a world overflowing with such a wealth of different goods, for it is precisely the multiplicity of goods that confront us which renders the moral task so bewildering. I can eat donuts or I can stay healthy; I can play ball with my son or I can get this important lecture written; I can give the benefit of the doubt to the aggrieved accuser or defend the honor of the accused. Decisions between rival goods must be made, and no rulebook can prescribe all the answers in advance.

This is perhaps answer enough. A world without uncertainty would not be a world worth living in. But I would like to say a bit more, reflecting on how moral uncertainty is necessary for us to grow up into the fullness of our vocation as sons and daughters of God.

By adopting us as sons in His Son, God elevates us again to share in the vocation of Adam, the first “son of God,” called to exercise dominion over the world. In this adoption, God frees us from slavery—slavery to sin and slavery to the law—and calls us to freedom. Now, what is freedom? We must be careful not to misunderstand, particularly in a society that manages to talk about freedom more than anything else but without ever stopping to define it.

Freedom, Oliver O’Donovan points out, is not primarily a matter of possibility—as if freedom were maximized by maximizing options. “In saying that someone is free,” O’Donovan notes, “we are saying something about the person himself and not about his circumstances. Freedom is ‘potency’ rather than ‘possibility’. External constraints may vastly limit our possibilities without touching our ‘freedom’ in this sense. Nothing could be more misleading than the popular philosophy that freedom is constituted by the absence of limits.”8 On the other hand, he notes, there must be some scope of possibility. “The ‘potency’ of freedom,” he notes, “requires ‘possibility’ as its object. For freedom is exercised in the cancellation of all possibilities in a given situation by the decision to actualize one of them; if there were no possibilities, there could be no room for freedom.”

Freedom, in short, is best understood as moral agency; it is the idea of being able to “participate in the order of creation by knowledge and action,” to again quote O’Donovan.9 It is this vocation of moral agency, exercising dominion over ourselves and our world, and learning to think our Father’s thoughts after Him, which we are called to grow into. Let us pause to consider the elements of this definition, but in reverse.

What do we mean by action? An action, as O’Donovan explains, is an intelligible deed—it is something that we can explain, if asked why it was done.10 And as Aristotle can tell you, that means speaking of final causality—of ends or purposes. To scratch my chin may be an operation, but it is usually not an action, unless perhaps I am a spy, and it is a pre-arranged signal. Actions, then, require ends; they are purposeful.

To act with a purpose means that I must act in knowledge. I must know something about the context within which I act and the ends for which I act. This is why we do not generally attribute moral agency to sleep-walkers.11

Finally, this purposeful action presupposes an “order of creation.” Why? Because to speak of ends or purposes is to speak of goods, of things that are perceived as worthwhile to do, either intrinsically good, or as means to other intrinsic goods. And to speak of goods is to presuppose a moral and metaphysical order in which some things are good, and thus worth pursuing by action.

The Good of Uncertainty

And now, to walk back through these, reversing the order again, we will learn why moral uncertainty is necessary for moral agency. Regarding the order of creation, we have already seen that it is a creation overflowing with a bounty of goods, a creation that offers a thousand gifts to us and imposes a thousand demands upon us. To intelligently participate in this order of creation is to become aware of these myriad demands and gifts and to recognize the worth of each, rather than prematurely screening most of them from view in order to simplify the moral landscape.

What about knowledge, though? Surely, if the goal God intended for us were knowledge, he could’ve made knowledge much more attainable for us by making things simpler. Knowledge is precisely what seems to elude us so often in the moral life, and I have argued throughout this lecture that if by knowledge we mean “certainty,” we are barking up quite the wrong tree most of the time if that is what we are looking for in either biblical or natural law ethics.

But of course, to reason this way—that more straightforward equals more knowledge—is to forget everything we know about teaching and learning. The student who prematurely grasps a mathematical formula without really understanding its broader context and the reasons why it works will run aground before long, whereas the student who has to wrestle with blood, sweat, and tears to make sense of it may prove in the end to have the surer knowledge. By struggling to know the formula, the latter student comes to know it from the inside out, as it were, while the first student may be stuck with a surface knowledge, one that he is unable to put to much use.

Or consider the whole domain of literature. Much of what we seek to teach students through literature are truths about human nature or history or morality that could be stated in much more concise form, but which would never be learned so deeply or truly as they are through the struggle and uncertainty of a really great story. Great literature, in fact, depicts for us precisely how it is that human beings grow into a fuller knowledge of themselves and their world through moral struggle and uncertainty; and by vicariously participating in their struggle, we too grow in knowledge. In moral reasoning, we only begin to properly learn the moral meaning of a course of action by weighing it in relation to other possible courses of action; and the more seriously we have to weigh these other possibilities as genuine potential goods, the more fully we grasp the actual moral landscape—the actual order of creation—around us.

Finally, then, we consider action; the intelligible deed, the deed that we can give an account of. In light of what we have just said about knowledge of the moral order, it should be clear enough why God wants us to bear the burden of freedom to discern and choose in the midst of moral uncertainty. To give an account of one’s deeds, one must be able to recall and re-narrate the reasons why one acted as one did.

This need not require an experience of profound moral struggle; sometimes it is enough to say, “The boy fell in the pond and was drowning. I saw at once what the situation required and I dove in after him” or, in a rather lower-stakes situation, “The woman was approaching the door while I was entering; I stopped and held it open for her because that’s what I was raised to do.” But if this were all our moral lives consisted of, we would be well-programmed automatons, not sons and daughters of God. As it is, we are called to walk the hard path of patiently seeking the will of God for us amidst rival goods and imperfect means.

In learning to rightly weigh these ends and means, we grow into that “reasonable service” that Paul calls us to in Romans 12:1—to use the older and better translation, strangely altered to “spiritual worship” in newer translations. The particular form of service that we are called to as God’s image bearers is a reasonable one, one that makes use of our reason and learns to give reasons for why one path must be taken rather than another.

Like the Israelites, delivered from bondage in Egypt and called to the high, hard, exposed path of freedom, we often crave the security of slavery, of being able to follow orders and let someone else decide for us. We even dress this up in pious tones, seeking “a word of God for all things we have to do,” and promising to zealously do whatever that word of God calls us to. This is a virtue, to be sure, but it is not the whole of virtue. It is not the virtue of wisdom that Proverbs describes, or what much of the Christian tradition has called prudence, the virtue of “right reason applied to action.”

The task of Christian ethics is lived out between two poles. The first is Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The Lord has indeed shown us what is good—both through his book of Scripture and through his book of nature. Often enough, our struggle is not to know the good but to buckle down and do it—to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

But the other pole is that of our “reasonable service” in Romans 12. Paul continues, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” By testing you may discern. This is what the renewal of our minds looks like: not a flash of sudden spiritual insight, not a comprehensive moral rulebook, but the hard, steady, patient, and teachable task of testing the path that lies before us—and being tested by it—that we may grow into what is good and acceptable and perfect.

This essay was adapted from Dr. Littlejohn’s lecture at the Davenant Institute Twin Cities Convivium Irenicum, 10/5/18. Watch the full lecture here.

  1. Forthcoming book, chapter 5.
  2. Hooker, Lawes, I.8.8, in Divine Law and Human Nature: Book I of Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization (Davenant, 2017), 40.
  3. Lawes II.4.4 (WGWM 16).
  4. Lawes II.4.5 (WGWM 17).
  5. Lawes III.11.21 (WGWM 139).
  6. Brian Tierney, Law and Liberty: The Idea of Permissive Natural Law, 1100–1800 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2014), 179.
  7. Tierney, Law and Liberty, 179.
  8. Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 107.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Oliver O’Donovan, Finding and Seeking: Ethics as Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 25-27.
  11. It should also be noted, although there is no space to discuss it here, that action requires self-knowledge, knowledge of myself as an agent, with a history—something that the sleepwalker lacks. See for instance O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 34-38.

Posted by Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is President of the Davenant Institute and author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.