***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 Three: Eschatology and History
As we saw in the previous installment, Christian ethics must take the structure of creation seriously if they are to be “Christian.” But to stop at the order of creation is to stop too soon. The Christian message—the Gospel—is, after all, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Because the saving work of Jesus presupposes the existence–and goodness–of the created realm, we speak of the “recovery of something given and lost” when we speak of his redemption. But the recovery of creation is not a mere restoration–we do not return to Eden. Rather, we are restored to that toward which Eden was originally directed. That is, we do not return to the beginning, but to the end which we were always supposed to reach. The story of the world is not cyclical, but linear–it has an end toward which we are moving.
This fact—the fact that history has an end toward which it is moving—means that for the Christian, history is not simply the events that happen nor the retelling of those events. Rather, it is “[the events’] inherent significance and direction which makes them intelligible and narratable. The Christian understanding of this idea, of course, is only to be reached through a Christian understanding of the end towards which events are directed, that is, through eschatology.”
History and eschatology, the past and the future–both sets collide in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which “appears in the Gospels…as the restoration of Jesus from the dead and as his glorification at God’s right hand.”
What does this collision mean for Christians here and now?
According to O’Donovan, like the resurrection, Christian ethics “looks both backwards and forwards, to the origin and to the end of the created order. It respects the natural structures of life in the world, while looking forward to their transformation. This can be seen, for example, in the First Epistle of Peter, which starts with a general characterization of the Christian life in terms of ‘hope’, which is set ‘fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ’, and then elaborates a special ethics in terms of respectful submission ‘for the Lord’s sake’ to every institution of human life, especially the institutions of government, labour and marriage. There is no conflict here between what might be thought of as the ‘radical’ character of the general outlook and the ‘conservatism’ of the specific counsel. A hope which envisages the transformation of existing natural structures cannot consistently attack or repudiate those structures. Yet the ‘conservativism’ (if it is proper to use the word) includes a sense of distance, which springs from a sharp awareness of how much the institutions need redemption and how transitory is their present form.”
This, then, is the paradox for Christian ethics. In hoping for the transformation of earthly institutions and structures, they must submit to those institutions. Yet their submission must be a Christian one, that is, it must point to the flaws of, and the subsequent hope for the transformation of those very structures.
O’Donovan then turns to dismantling historicism, or the notion that history carries with it its own meaning. In this case, history is a “closed system.” It moves not to an ending outside of itself, but is itself the ending.
This is contrary, however, the Christian view, wherein the “fulfillment of history is not generated from within history.” It comes from without–it is an act of grace from God, which is why history depends upon eschatology rather than teleology. Contra Leo Strauss, the meaning of history is not “scrutable to sufficiently enlightened men.” The significance of each act in history is only completely understood in light of the eschaton.
This point is crucial for O’Donovan’s overall argument (as we will see later). Because of that, historicism is a significant threat. He spends the rest of the chapter arguing forcefully against it, which I will pass over as they do not necessarily contribute to the substance of his ethical proposal.
Other posts in the series:
Other posts in the series: