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Resurrection and Moral Order: Authority

October 20th, 2007 | 6 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

***Note: I am precising Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics this week here at Mere-O. I hope you will work through the challenging and provocative theological ethic that O’Donovan articulates.***

Chapter 6: Authority

So far, O’Donovan has articulated the content of reality and the need for our understanding of “moral freedom” to be compatible with that reality. In fact, he has argued that moral freedom is only compatible with that reality.

O’Donovan had posited that the Holy Spirit makes the objective revelation of Jesus Christ subjective to us in two ways: (1) by making it present and authoritative and (2) by evoking our free response.

Before O’Donovan addresses the way in which the Holy Spirit makes the objective revelation of Jesus Christ authoritative for the Church and the Christian, he turns to understand the concept “authority” itself.

What, then, is ‘authority’? According to O’Donovan, when we speak of “an authority,” we mean “something which, by virtue of its kind, constitutes an immediate and sufficient ground for acting. Beauty, community and truth are sufficient grounds for action in themselves.” These “things” which invite our action are a part of the teleological structure of the world. The ‘authority’ is, then an arche–it is a beginning because it is the reason for action, and a rule because it is binding on everyone (which sets it apart from a personal goal).

O’Donovan then identifies two types of authority within the created order: natural authority and truth. With respect to natural authorities, O’Donovan identifies four such loci: “beauty, age, community and strength (a word which includes the whole range of natural virtue, from might to wisdom).” Our responses to these authorities, however, is not above scrutiny. Rather, we may respond to these authorities critically or uncritically. The person who listens to music may act ‘reasonably,’ but we will only know whether they act morally when we critically evaluate her action–was she ignoring some event that she should have prevented? Was she simply being idle? This critical evaluation submits the lower, ‘natural’ authorities to the higher–the authority of truth.

Though the authority of truth is inherent in the created order, we become “conscious of it only as we attempt to comprehend the world as an ordered whole. Its authority belongs to the order of things as a totality, whereas those other authorities belong to differing elements within it. Reflection in obedience to truth is reflection about the relations of things.”

O’Donovan points out that he is simply reformulating what he has said prior about the created order in which actions attain intelligibility (chapter two). He is only reformulating it now around authority in order to demonstrate that nothing needs to be added to the created realm to give it authority. That is, while the created order is made by God and there is no authority except from God, “That gift was really given. Authority really is vested in creaturely existence. God, in creating, has effected not only other beings, but other powers, yet without in any way diminishing his own sovereign being and power.”

Such a conception, which seemingly isolates “truth” from God, may be thought to leave little room for divine authority. Before addressing the relationship between the authority of truth and divine authority, however,, O’Donovan turns toward political authority, as he aims to show how “the interpretation of divine authority has been influenced by the political model.”

Political Authority
O’Donovan argues that political authority is a fusion of two forms of authority, the natural authorities and the moral authorities. With respect to natural authorities, it draws from might and tradition (or strength and age). While it is tempting to think of authority as only might, it is clear that we do not acknowledge the authority of those who can only enforce. As O’Donovan writes, “For true political authority to flourish, there must be a stronger motive of obedience than is furnished by fear of sanction and habitual conformity.”

On the other hand, political authority must not be assimilated into moral authority. While the law may tell us what to do and hence impose obligations upon us, there may be cases where what the law requires is already morally required of us. What distinguishes political authority is its “formal commitment to righting wrongs.”

Hence, when these three authorities are exercised by a person–the authorities of might, tradition and “injured right”– they are “endorsed by a moral authority which requires that we defer to them” (emphasis mine). When these conditions obtain, the political becomes the moral. As O’Donovan puts it,

Political authority, then, cannot take form without these three elements: sufficient might to govern, sufficient identification with the tradition of the community to govern legitimately, and sufficient commitment to righting wrong to govern, within the relative possibilities open to human powers, justly.

This, however, raises a rather interesting problem. Because political authority is interested in preserving public right action, it can only bear an “indirect relation to the demands of truth and goodness considered absolutely.” An individual may act like Socrates and hold firm to his principles even to his own death. The politician, while obligated to the same moral truth, “must hazard not only his own survival but the survival of political authority in his society…”

He is constrained by the limited possibilities for action in the public sphere, limitations arising from its dependence upon tradition and might, and for him it is a matter of principle, not merely of expediency, not to strain those possibilities to their breaking point…So political authority is arbitrary…in the more problematic sense that its correspondence to the demands of right is compromised.

In other words, the political sphere is a sphere where the truth is necessarily compromised. The politicians must sometimes reject the philosophers for the sake of the polis. O’Donovan contends that this fact is distinctive to the Christian political tradition. While Moses is the divine lawgiver for the people of Israel, in Jesus’ eyes he compromised the truth: “Because of your hardness of heart….”

Divine Authority

The paradox of political authority is that we may be obligated to pay, for instances, “taxes to support government programmes which [we] think immoral.” In other words, its “moral claim is to a degree independent of the moral claim of its particular demands taken on their own.” Under O’Dovonan’s conception, “Political institutions can confront us with a morally arbitrary demand which is morally obligatory to obey.”

O’Donovan limits the scope of what might be termed the “arbitrary character of political authority,” as one might expect. But the paradigm is parallel that of divine authority, which also can can “transcend the judgment of our moral reason.” And when the divine commands, the reason must submit.

But as O’Donovan points out, the political paradigm presents the road to rapprochement between the will and the reason.

The concession to political authority is, after all, strictly circumscribed: like Galileo, we mutter under our breath as we make our act of conformity. And that means that sovereignty properly belongs not to law but to truth, for only a perception of the truth can lead us to whole-hearted action. The marvel, we may say, is not that the community can demand conformity; the marvel is that conscience can secretly transcend that conformity and pass judgment upon it in light of truth.

Here, though, lies the crucial difference between divine authority and political authority. If the divine authority is to command our obedience, it must “command us as supreme reality.” Divine authority is only authoritative if it “belongs to the first reality upon which truth is grounded.”

Here again we find ourselves at the crossroads of rationalism and voluntarism, and with good reason: the issue is at the heart of theological ethics, the main question of which is, “How does God’s word engage our obedience when it would seem that our obedience is already committed to the authority of the created order as presented to our reason?” More simply, what is the relationship between the divine command and the order of creation?

In answering this question, the rationalist tradition prefers continuity: “God speaks through the order which reason perceives.” Voluntarism, on the other hand, emphasizes the discontinuity: “God’s command cuts across our rational perceptions and relativizes them.” Left on their own, each of them devolves into humanism, with their own respective character and vices. But, O’Donovan argues, we must be instructed by each in understanding divine authority.

The value of theological voluntarism is that it reminds us that human judgments must be criticized in light of the divine. Human reason is not transcendent, and so when we encounter the divine, we must assume a posture of trusting obedience.

But here too rationalism must have a voice. As O’Donovan puts it, “If obedience is to be trusting, it must also be hopeful. The disciple who obeys the divine word in defiance of his own limited perceptions of right is genuinely trustful only if he believes that the paradox is not an ultimate contradiction of reality.”

The divine purposes, then, are scrutable–but not yet. The eschatological character of knowledge must not be ignored, as it is in rationalism.

This combination of voluntarism and rationalism is clear in the person of Jesus, who speaks with an authority that is, on the one hand, novel–“A new teaching with authority!” On the other hand, Jesus is still recognizable as the divine—though his ultimate reasons are inscrutable, his divine authority is recognizable. As O’Donovan puts it, “The new teaching vindicated itself by vindicating and restoring the old creation.”

Other posts in the series:

Series Intro
The Created Order
Eschatology and History
Knowledge in Christ
Freedom and Reality