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Resurrection and Moral Order: The Authority of Christ

October 22nd, 2007 | 7 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 Seven: The Authority of Christ

O’Donovan, having articulated the orderly (teleological) structure of creation (including eschatology and history), the necessity of our knowledge of that structure for ethics, and having begun explaining the free response to this reality that the Holy Spirit evokes, turns now to divine authority as revealed in Jesus Christ.

When we speak of the authority of Christ, we can speak of it in two aspects: (1) the origination of his authority, which is from the Father, and (2) the appropriation of that authority to us, which is the work of the Spirit. O’Donovan, having already addressed the nature of the free response that the Spirit evokes, turns to the nature and origination of Christ’s authority.

The fact that the Father gives the Son authority has two implications.

First, the authority of Christ is not incommunicable. God has given the Son authority in public, in plain view of us all. As a result, divine authority is not an “inner compulsion of which we can give no account.” If we limit it to such, it reduces morality into individual vocation, which is one of the unsavory effects of voluntarism’s emphasis on the inscrutability of the divine.

Secondly, the authority of Christ will oppose the natural authorities in their rebellion, but will not oppose the created order as such. The ethic of the Kingdom is not to be opposed to practical ‘this-worldliness.’ For Christian ethical reasoning, the practical affairs of this world must be accounted for. If theological ethics are to be ethics at all, they must have some bearing on human life here and now.

But here we find ourselves at the foundation of all Christian ethics: the Incarnation. This “divine irruption is more than an irruption: it is the foundation of a renewed order.” Here particularity and universality collide. O’Donovan argues, curiously, that Christ’s particularity belongs to Jesus’ divine nature, while universality belongs to his human nature. “The meaning of the whole has been focused in a representative one.”

What is the form, then, of the divine authority in Christ? There are three interrelated questions that must be answered: how Christ’s moral authority is irreplaceable, how his moral authority can be good news, and how it can be historical.

The Irreplaceability of Christ

On the one hand, Jesus is unique. He is the one whom God has sent. On the other hand, his life “is the pattern to which we may conform ourselves.” This, however, presents a paradox: if Socrates, for instance, bears witness to the moral order, any individual might have done so just as well. He is, then, not unique. As Kant puts it, “Even the Holy One of the Gospels must be compared with our ideal of moral perfection before he is recognized as such.” In other words, Christ does not illuminate our standard of perfection at all.

O’Donovan attempts to resolve this dilemma by distinguishing two aspects of Jesus’ authority: “his ‘moral authority’ in the strict sense, in which he confronts us as teacher and as an object of imitation, and his authority as the divine Word by whom God proclaims the redemption of the created order.” O’Donovan continues in this key passage:

When God declares, in the resurrection of Jesus, that he will sustain, redeem and transform that which hea has made, his word is about the moral order but is not part of it. Rather, it has the character of the underlying fiat which holds the moral order in being. If, as an experiment in thought, we were to abstract Jesus’ moral authority from the authority of this divine word, we might say about him everything that we might say about Socrates…The point at which Jesus is irreplaceable is not here. He is irreplaceable because in his resurrection the moral order was publicly and cosmically vindicated by God. Saint Francis may teach morality as well as Jesus, but only Jesus has revealed God’s final redemptive word about morality.

This path, however, leads to a dangerous conclusion. If left to stand as is, then it seems Jesus has no special authority as a moral teacher at all. He only–as if that isn’t enough–provides the means to a moral life.

But Jesus does provide unique insight into the moral order. On the epistemological level, Kant’s claim does not take seriously the fact that we may not know the moral order as well as we might otherwise without the example of Socrates. If the moral law did appear a priori to our minds, then there is no need at all for moral teachers. Hence, Jesus has moral authority because of his exceptional life, which “is needed to show people things which, however universally true these may be, they are not capable of recognizing otherwise.”

On the ontological level, however, the uniqueness of Jesus is even stronger. “Jesus is not only a witness to the restored moral order, however indispensable; he is the one in whom that order has come to be… To participate in the new creation is, not provisionally only but for ever, to participate in Christ.”

Evangelical Authority

O’Donovan then turns to the second question, which is how the authority of Christ can be good news.

The tension between law and gospel points to a dialectical tension between the ‘command’ and the ‘promise.’ And this tension is a historical tension–it is a tension that is grounded in the historical development of Israel.

The experience of the law, then, is the experience of Israel when the fulfillment of the promise has yet to come. The command becomes “a hurdle one must overcome in order to experience blessing.” As such, it “evokes anxiety, but not anxiety for the future of the community so much as for the individual.”

Because the law confronts the individual as a “demand for community-adherence,” it reaches him in mediated fashion. The individual has no rights before the prophet, the priest or the king.

In what way, then, is Jesus’ moral authority evangelical? In the sense that it includes the message that (a) “God mercifully forgives our sins.” While this message is certainly present in the Old Testament, in Jesus’ message “this theme assumes a controlling immediacy, which allows Paul to contrast the gospel with the law as a life of faith as opposed to a life of works.” (b) Secondly, “the alienation and insecurity of the individual is overcome by the teaching of the Abba prayer.” (c) Lastly, the mediatorial function of the community is “countered by the criticism of externalized morality and religion.

Historical Authority

The coming of Christ has a historical authority because it is in his coming that history is given a climax. The revelation of God was “in these last days spoken to us by a Son.” His speaking “confers a unique meaning on the shape of world events,” a meaning that affects each and every event in history. “No deed of man can claim any longer to have autonomous intelligibility.”

Here O’Donovan addresses a key issue in Christian revelation: how should we understand, say, the commands of God to destroy nations in Joshua? I quote at length.

Historical authority can draw together in one narrative, to serve one historical end, contradictory movements. A story can encompass a change of mind, or a disagreement, and still remain a story with a single point, not in itself contradictory or divided. The dying thief can acknowledge Christ upon the cross, and in that moment of repentance bring all his life to brigandage to its fulfillment, not merely its last few hours. Historical authority can reconcile, where moral authority can only judge. We must expect to find, then, within the world-history which Christ shapes around himself, moral incompatibilities that are reconciled historically. When we read, for example, of the conquest of Canaan and the terms of the ban, we will understand the Christological significance of these events only if we suspend the moral question which we immediately want to put to them. The Christian reading of the Old Testament has been constantly baffled by a failure to understand this. The moral question has pushed itself forward, either in indignant protest or (worse) in sophistic justification. Like the elder brother of the prodigal son, Christians reading the book of Joshua need to learn how to ask other questions before the moral ones: the history of divine revelation, like the waiting father in the parable, is not concerned only with justifying the good and condemning the bad. This Old Testament history is concerned only to reveal the impact of the divine reality upon the human in election and judgment. We may wonder, of course, as we read the book of Joshua what attitude this God of jealousy and wrath will take to the worldly order of things; and that question will be answered for us only as we follow the story of his self-revelation forward to its climax in Jesus Christ. The demand which this part of the story makes upon our faith is not that we should struggle to reconcile in moral terms the form of the creaturely order which is shown us by Christ in Gethsemane with these unbridled acts of war, but that we should accept what is, perhaps, the greater scandal: a reconciliation in history of divine revelation which can embrace even such a contradiction to the moral order. In God’s self-disclosure something had to come before the vindication of the moral order: the transcendent fire of election and judgment had to be shown in all its nakedness, in all its possible hostility to the world, if we were to learn what it meant that in Christ the Word of God became flesh and took the cause of the world to his own cause. This ‘had to’ refers to an order of self-disclosure which was necessary if we were to understand the import of the incarnation, and not to any necessity imposed on God. The incarnation must never be taken for granted, as though it concerned a God who was, quite naturally, and in the course of things, at home in the world. Before we could learn of God as vindicator of the moral order we had to learn something even more basic.

Indeed. But the moral questions are not forgotten. Rather, they are answered in Christ, who vindicates the created order in a way “never anticipated in the book of Joshua.” As O’Donovan puts it, “To be among the chosen of Israel’s God means, in the end, to be conformed to the order of worldly life which God has created.”

This means, though, that the expression of religion in the Old Testament is contingent, not permanent, and the rejection of Jesus by the Jews is a rejection of their own status as God’s people.

Other posts in the series:

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