***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 Four: Knowledge in Christ

What is the nature of reality? That is the foundation for all ethics and for the Christian, that reality must be both teleological and eschatological. That is, it must appropriately understand the order of the created world, and the order of history in its relation to the eschaton.

In the first two chapters (or rather, Chapters two and three), O’Donovan has worked to elucidate the nature of reality. In this chapter, he turns toward epistemology (or how we know that reality). If the natural order, history and eschatology each find their basis and ground in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, how can we come to know what to do?

In other words, what constitutes moral knowledge of the objective created moral order?

O’Donovan identifies four aspects of moral knowledge:

(1) It is knowledge “of things in their relations to the totality of things.” In other words, what has sometimes been called ‘philosophy’ or ‘metaphysics’ is necessary for moral knowledge.

(2) This knowledge of the whole must be “from within.” In other words, it must participate in what it knows–it can not stand aloof and disinterested. As such, even though it is a knowledge of the totality of things, it is never a total knowledge of the totality.

(3) Such knowledge must be “from man’s position in the universe.” According to O’Donovan, “Knowledge is the characteristically human way of participating in the created order.” As a result, our knowledge stems from our faithfulness to our task in the world. For this reason, intellectual philosophies that do not accurately represent reality are nothing more than idols.

(4) Finally, such knowledge must be ”ignorant of the end of history.” Understanding the end of history is not the work of philosophy, but the work of prophecy. It depends upon a special revelation from God. “The finger of God must point to the place in history where the meaning and direction of the whole is to be found, and his voice must proclaim it: ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”

This sort of knowledge, which is necessary for ethics, is what is given to us ‘in Christ.’

But how can sinful beings have such knowledge? And what of those who do not have knowledge ‘in Christ’? Do their contributions to ethics have any value?

Here it is probably best just to quote O’Donovan himself extensively. He writes:

Knowledge of the natural order is moral knowledge, and as such it is co-ordinated with obedience. There can be no true knowledge of that order without loving acceptance of it and conformity to it, for it is known by participation and not transcendence. In disobedience our perceptions of it assume false and strange shapes. Yet even in our confusion and error we remain, by the merciful providence of God, human beings. We are not so visited with the fruit of our moral disorder that we find ourselves converted, like Odysseus’ sailors, into swine. In this sense it is true to say that the image of God is ‘defaced’ but not ‘lost’. We remain beings for whom knowledge is the mode of their participation in the universe. Even in confusion and error we do not simply cease to know; we do not become swine for whom knowledge is not a possibility. The ignorance, error and confusion which are attributable to us are all failures of knowledge, disasters which can befall those beings which we actually do know. For non-knowing creatures falsehood is no danger. We will speak more truly of ‘misknowledge’ rather than of simple lack of knowledge. Furthermore, even in the disorder consequent upon the Fall the universe, in the merciful providence of God, does not cease to be the universe. Disorder, like misknowledge, is attributable only to things which are in their true being ordered. And the universe, though fractured and broken, displays the fact that its brokenness is the brokenness of order and not merely unordered chaos. Thus it remains accessible to knowledge in part. It requires no revelation to observe the various forms of generic and teleological order which belong to it. An unbeliever or non-christian culture does not have to be ignorant about the structure of the family, the virtue of mercy, the vice of cowardice, or the duty of justice. Nor does such a one have to fail entirely to respond to this knowledge in action, disposition or institution…

Nevertheless, such knowledge is incomplete unless the created order is grasped as a whole, and that includes its relations to the uncreated. If the Creator is not known, then the creation is not known as creation; for the relation of the creation to its Creator is the ground of its intelligibility as a created universe.”

O’Donovan goes on to argue, though, that missing one part of reality entails that we know none of it. To use his analogy, if we only had Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to determine what a symphony was, we wouldn’t know partly what it was—we would have a completely false idea of it. “Knowledge of the moral order,” writes O’Donovan, “is a grasp of the total shape in which, if anything is lacking, everything is lacking.” Because of this, “revelation catches man out in the guilty possession of a knowledge which he has always had, but from which he has never won a true understanding.” Consequently, as Christians we cannot build our ethic out of anything except revelation, and while we need not fear any piece of knowledge the world has to offer us, we must evaluate it from the standpoint of the gospel.

But the notion that moral knowledge consists of knowledge of the whole raises two questions about Christian ethics. One, is there any room for moral learning? For instance, if we are given the whole “shape of things” in the first century through the revelation of Jesus Christ, then how can we continue to grow in our understanding of what is right and good (especially in light of novel developments such as bioethics proposes to us regularly)? Secondly, does this account take the ostensibly crucial role of compromise in ethics seriously?

With respect to the first question, O’Donovan argues that when ‘new’ problems arise, they arise not by virtue of the new techniques—like in vitro fertilization—but on account of the questions we ask of those new techniques. And we necessarily ask questions from a moral framework.

That is, we encounter new moral problems as moral problems because of our preexisting understanding of morality. But what new situations do is allow us to “know better what we already know in outline.” We may give a novel a cursory read and later discover “new” aspects to it that were always there. In this way, the moral order is static, even if our understanding of it developing. Even if we do not understand new situations such as those bioethics routinely places before us, we can expect to find “the known within the unknown.” Through all the new shapes and patterns with which life presents us, we will run up against “the same determinations, the same oppositions of true and false.” Finding “new” aspects to morality does not constitute a rejection of what has come before. Rather, it serves to illuminate the underlying unity of the moral order.

With respect to the second question, O’Donovan contends that the idea that moral knowledge is grounded in reality also provides justification for conflict, though not necessarily for compromise. The way of Christ demonstrates the conflict between true and false understandings of reality. “The death of Christ shows us the outcome of the true human life and the misshapen human life…” The true and the false are mutually exclusive, so ultimately no compromise is possible.

Hence, what is traditionally called casuistry–the practice of discerning what course of action to take in ambiguous situations–is not a coming to terms with evil, but rather a finding of “the right qualifications for action, that will recognize the truth about the circumstances in which one has to act.”

Other posts in the series:

Series Intro
The Created Order
Eschatology and History

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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. I’m finally catching up on this series, Matt. Excellent paraphrasing and commentary so far! A couple of thoughts:

    (2) This knowledge of the whole must be “from within.” In other words, it must participate in what it knows–it can not stand aloof and disinterested.

    Does this imply that in some sense the Incarnation is necessary for divine omniscience? Perhaps this will be picked up later…

    Hence, what is traditionally called casuistry–the practice of discerning what course of action to take in ambiguous situations–is not a coming to terms with evil, but rather a finding of “the right qualifications for action, that will recognize the truth about the circumstances in which one has to act.”

    This rings very true. As Dennis Prager has said, the existence of “moral absolutes” does not mean a particular action is right in all circumstances, but that in all circumstances there is a right action.

    In other words actions are not in and of themselves good or bad, their morality is based on the context. Slashing someone’s chest open is morally neutral: done in a dark alley it would be bad but done in a surgical theater it would be good. (To use an example other than lying to the Gestapo!)

    Thus even the Ten Commandments do not prohibit actions qua actions but actions with malicious intent. They’re against murder not killing, stealing not taking, covetousness not looking or admiring, perjury not lying. Obviously this goes back to generic morality vs. particular actions in the “Created Order” chapter.


  2. Matthew Lee Anderson October 22, 2007 at 10:40 pm


    I’m swamped now, but I’ll get to a response tomorrow or Friday.



  3. […] Matt Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy is doing a series of posts on Oliver O’Donovan’s book Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics. He is in chapter 10, and the posts are as follows: Series Intro The Created Order Eschatology and History Knowledge in Christ Freedom and Reality Authority The Authority of Christ The Freedom of the Church and the Believer The Moral Field The Moral Subject […]


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