These are challenging times for Christians who want to live out the full Gospel, especially for those who seek to understand how their faith intersects with the public realm.
On the one hand, Christians must understand and distinguish themselves from the radical Islamicists who ground their moral lives only on the will of God. This was the thrust of Pope Benedict’s speech at Regensburg.
On the other hand, while Christians must ground their ethics in rationality, they must also build them on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. That is, they must do so if they wish to develop a Christian ethic. But this means building an ethical system on a set of rules that is incomplete, in one very important sense. Scripture is “incomplete” in that it does not contain within it prescriptions for every moral situation the Church faces (which is not surprising, but an important point nonetheless). Determining how revelation guides ethics here and now is the task of Christian ethics.
But there are further challenges for modern Christians. The relationship between Church and state is clearly a confusing one. Yet politics—as Aristotle pointed out—is the culmination of ethics. A Christian ethic must provide guidance on how to behave politically as well as personally.
For Christians, building an ethical system that is persuasive, that is comprehensive, and that is thoroughly Christian is no easy task. The ethicist must take two poles, if you will, of history into account: the creation of the world and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics is Oliver O’Donovan’s attempt to formulate just such an ethic. On the one hand, he has in mind natural law theorists like John Finnis, who affirm what he terms “creation ethics.” On the other hand, he sees ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, who focuses on the coming eschatological reality as a basis for ethics (or “kingdom ethics”). In his challenging work, O’Donovan attempts to chart a middle course. He writes:
Creation and redemption each has its ontological and its epistemological aspect. There is the created order and there is natural knowledge; there is the new creation and there is revelation in Christ. This has encouraged a confusion of the ontological and the epistemological in much modern theology, so that we are constantly presented with the unacceptably polarized choice between an ethic that is revealed and has no ontological grounding and an ethic that is based on creation and so is naturally known. This polarization deprives redemption and revelation of their proper theological meaning as the divine reaffirmation of created order. If, on the other hand, it is the gospel of the resurrection that assures us of the stability and permanence of the world which God has made, then neither of the polarized options is right. In the sphere of revelation, we will conclude, and only there, can we see the natural order as it really is and overcome the epistemological barriers to an ethic that conforms to nature. This nature involves all men, and indeed, as we shall see later, does not exclude a certain ‘natural knowledge’ which is also part of man’s created endowment. And yet only in Christ do we apprehend that order in which we stand and that knowledge of it with which we have been endowed.
In other words, from the resurrection we look both backward to creation and forward to the fullness of the Kingdom of God. For this reason, Christian ethics–which means discerning how to live here and now, before the fulfillment of the Kingdom–must be resurrection ethics. The resurrection is the key to the moral order to which we must conform. O’Donovan’s work moves along this pattern, transitioning from the objective moral reality (Section One), to the subjective reality of our life within that universe (Section Two), to the way these two interact to form our moral deliberation (Section Three).
Over the next two weeks, I’m going to précis the chapters of O’Donovan’s book in order to prompt dialogue here at Mere-O about the important issues I outlined above. While I have my own thoughts on O’Donovan’s work, I will largely withhold comment for brevity’s sake and because I in large part found myself in agreement with it. My margins are replete with “Yes!” and “Yup” and “Of course!” At many points, I found myself nodding in agreement as O’Donovan articulated intuitions I have held both privately and publicly.
A word of caution is required: these précis will be longer than normal blog posts, and probably more difficult. I have attempted to clarify technical portions, but can only do so much. It is my hope that if these précis do not at least challenge you to read the book for yourself, they will foster your own reflection on the intersection of Christianity and the modern world, both politically and personally.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.