***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 Five: Freedom and Reality

This chapter begins the second section in O’Donovan’s work. Whereas in the first section he was focused on the objective moral order, here he addresses the means by which we know that moral order.

In other words, how is God’s work in Christ made real in our lives? This is the turn from the ‘objective reality’ to the ‘subjective reality’. It will also clarify the Holy Spirit’s role in our ethical thinking.

But what does O’Donovan mean by the ‘subjective reality’? Two things: (1) The Holy Spirit makes “the reality of redemption…both present and authoritative” to us, and (2) the “Holy Spirit evokes our free response to this reality as moral agents.”

With respect to (1), the works of Christ happen in both the past and the future. The death, resurrection and return of Christ do not happen now. Hence, any sense in which they are said to happen now must be secondary. It is the Holy Spirit by whom we make the transition from then to now. While O’Donovan postpones the bulk of his discussion on authority, he highlights the fact that the Holy Spirit opposes the structures of the world—structures built on unrealities—with the truth. “The Holy Spirit brings God’s act in Christ into critical opposition to the falsely structured world in which we live.” Not only that, but he calls into existence a new and truer world. He both judges and recreates, which is the fundamental opposition between death and resurrection that cannot be collapsed.

With respect to (2), it is “freedom that makes Christian ethics meaningful, and indeed demands it. For freedom is the character of one who participates in the order of creation by knowledge and action.”

It is crucial, however, to understand the nature of freedom. O’Donovan argues that it is a meaningful choice which depends upon the limiting of possibilities, rather than the unrestrained possibilities that it is sometimes thought to entail. When a man enters into marriage, he does so freely and unconstrained—but in doing so he creates new limits, which do not cancel or restrain his freedom, but rather give it meaning. (Note: for the same argument for the necessity of limits, see Chesterton’s Orthodoxy).

Freedom can also produce unfreedom, if it is used to bind oneself in slavery. While a man will never become a stone or plant, he will be bound to the choice he made for unfreedom. This choice consists of rejecting the realities of the universe on which real possibility depends. That is, a man binds himself to slavery when he rejects the reality of the created order in Christ.

It is reality, then, on which both authority and freedom rest. The falling away from this reality stems from a divide between the reason and the will, between hearing and doing. O’Donovan highlights Romans 1:5, 6:16 and James 1:22 to demonstrate his point. Repentance, then, can not be a mere realignment of the will, since in sin they it has become divided from reason. Rather, “It is an event in which reason and will together are turned from arbitrariness to reality, an event which is ‘miraculous’ in that there are no sufficient grounds for it, whether rational or voluntative, within the subject himself.”

Clearly, we do sin sometimes. In those moments, we develop a self-awareness of the dividedness between our reason and our will, a “guilty self-awareness” that is often called the ‘conscience.’ O’Donovan argues that while this meaning of conscience is present in the letters of Paul, the medieval and moderns understand conscience as “the whole faculty of moral understanding and self-direction.” In doing so, they make the separation of reason and will normative, not an effect of sin, which “generates a conception of freedom as autonomy, the agent’s independence of reality.” That is, while Paul understood “conscience” to be part of the human response to sin, subsequent Christian thinkers made it an intrinsic part of human nature.

O’Donovan’s discussion of this unfortunate reality is very technical, and I pass over most of it here. He demonstrates, though, how as a result of this split Western thought has vacillated between rationalism and voluntarism. In both cases the goal was to establish the individual as self-sufficient and independent of the world. O’Donovan concludes:

“Reason has its importance only as the agent’s means of purchase upon reality, and not in itself: the authority attributed to reason is more properly understood to belong to reality. We speak of ‘authority’. The real world authorizes man’s agency in general by being the context of its exercise, and his particular acts by being the context in which they have a point.”

In other words, the grounds for freedom is reality—the reality that Christ reveals the Holy Spirit makes present to us. “Moral freedom can never be established on a basis of self-sufficiency and independence of the world. Freedom, if it is freedom to act within the world, must itself be of the world. Man’s status as agent is part and parcel of his created being in the world, and his acts depend for their significance on their context in the world’s history.” Consequently, we need only fear being cut off from the reality upon which our freedom depends.

Other posts in the series:

Series Intro
The Created Order
Eschatology and History
Knowledge in Christ

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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.

One Comment

  1. […] theology in the west was the development of the ‘conscience.’  Two years ago, I summarized Oliver O’Donovan on this theme: Clearly, we do sin sometimes. In those moments, we develop a self-awareness of the dividedness […]


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