I’ve finished Oliver O’Donovan’s latest book, which I have mixed feelings about. However, in light of my recent musings on the rhetoric of ‘decline’ within the evangelical world, I was intrigued to see O’Donovan offer his own critique of those approaches.

The following is part of one long paragraph, broken up into smaller bits for ease of reading online.

If on looking back we fail to see the order and history of the world presented to us normatively, we shall fall into a historicist despair of world-time. “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Eccles. 7:10). We cannot not see goods in the past, for the world God has made is good as a whole, and it is full of goods.  But we may see these goods from a distorted angle, as doomed to be swept away by time, constantly succumbing to entropy, by their impermanence attesting the triumph of de-creation over the good hand of the Creator.

We must look on the past not only as history but as the history of God’s world, a goodness sustained and upheld to the end. Thus in framing normative laws prudence becomes a way in which we can remain constant to the vision of God’s goodness that has been given us. Jesus connects “remaining in my love” with “keeping my commands” (John 15:10). In the goods of earth and heaven we find provision for our present agency, affording resources for the moment in which we are given to act.

The unwisdom which asks why past times were better than these has assumed a false position, that of an aesthetic observer valuing goods of different ages from some supposed time-transcending viewpoint. Our position in time is not capable of judging the present against the past, any more than it can judge the present against the future. It is a moment of deliberation, of making up our mind to act.

Many detailed cultural comparisons between different times are, no doubt, not illusory: if it is said, for example, that the examinations routinely passed by eighteen-year-olds in Britain half a century ago are too difficult for university graduates today, the claim may be put to proof But even if we validate it, we cannot extrapolate from one moment of proven decline to universal entropy. It is not wisdom to pretend to do so. Luxuriating with morose aestheticism in the decadence of our times, we rob ourselves of the normative significance of our knowledge as law, showing the ends and modes of action we may presently conceive: to teach the young, and teach them carefully!

I’m actually curious how that final paragraph squares with O’Donovan’s emphasis on the unwisdom of comparing the goods of various ages. O’Donovan’s main worry seems to be the architectonic approaches to history, and while the emphasis here is against ‘decline’ narratives, he might easily have critiqued ‘progressive’ approaches from the same point of view.


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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. This is an interesting piece of O’Donovan’s thought! “Luxuriating with morose aestheticism in the decadence of our times” is a vivid description of that tendency to love complaining while functionally despising action.
    Without having read the rest of O’Donovan’s book, I’d guess he’d be very comfortable critiquing a Whiggish or Hegelian narrative of history too. The thrust of this passage seems to be the same point Lewis made about individuals in the Screwtape Letters – the simultaneous addictiveness and worthlessness of setting our attention or desire in “the past” or “the future.” Rather than spending energy making aesthetic judgments about the two periods, it’s more constructive (or the only constructive option, really) to be informed by past and present realities and act to cultivate the greatest goods possible in our present circumstances.


  2. I’ve often wondered whether it’s appropriate to think of conservative evangelicals as actual conservatives, or merely as inverted progressives who idealize some Arcadia of the past instead of one that’s in the future. It’s no accident that Thomas Kincaid’s “art” bears similarities to 18th Century American Romantic art, and not to realist art. Conservatives, at least in the Burkean sense, are concerned more about the process by which we make cultural judgments than they are about the actual content of those judgments.

    So, any criticism of decline narratives (inverted progressive narratives) are probably equally applicable to progressive narratives. The philosophical roots of “biblical worldview” thinking are fairly idealist. Dooyeweerd was hardly a realist.


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