***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.***

When Christians talk about the “doctrine of creation,” what do they mean?*

For many people, it has been reduced to the proposition that God created the universe, and to subsequent defenses of that proposition. In this case, “creation” becomes an apologetic tool used to buttress the rest of the Bible.

The irony, however, is that this notion of “creation” is, in some ways, a devaluation of the doctrine that could stem from an overemphasis on eschatology. That is, dispensationalists (of whom I am probably one) and our emphasis on the end times have made the mistake of devaluing the structure of this world, viewing it only as worthwhile to argue for God’s existence and not worthy any more serious reflection or appreciation beyond that. After all, we’re going to “heaven.”

While admittedly a caricature, it misunderstands the importance of creation for the Christian life. As O’Donovan writes, “In proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, the apostles proclaimed also the resurrection of mankind in Christ; and in proclaiming the resurrection of mankind, they proclaimed the renewal of all creation with him. The resurrection of Christ in isolation from mankind would not be a gospel message. The resurrection of mankind apart from creation would be a gospel of a sort, but of a purely Gnostic and world-denying sort which is far from the gospel that the apostles actually preached.”

The created order, then, must be understood if a Christian ethic is going to be Christian.

But, O’Donovan points out, to speak of the world as “created” assumes that it is orderly. In fact, it assumes that it is ordered in two ways: (1) that it is ordered “vertically,” that is, toward the creator and (2) that it contains objects that are related to each other either alongside each other as members of a ‘kind’ (A is “like” B), or teleologically (A is ‘ordered to serve’ B).

There are, of course, different ways of characterizing this teleological ordering. Plato describe all teleology as “A is ordered to serve B,” which introduced the notion of transcendence into his cosmology. To what, after all, is man’s “divine reason” ordered? Alternatively, Aristotle described the teleological relationships without reference to other objects, so “A is ordered to flourish as A.”

But here the Christian faces a choice that will determine which direction his ethics takes. Will we recognize that teleological relationships exist in the world, or will we argue that such teleological relations are an imposition from our minds or wills?

If we take the former route, then we must carefully construe the relationship between the world and the reason that apprehends it. If the latter, then we cannot speak of moral “beliefs” at all, as there is nothing for them to correspond to. Because ethics must be in accordance with reality, teleology is inseparable from ethics. Either we will recognize the orderly structure of the cosmos, or we will ignore it.

While this decision is clear for the Christian, it is less clear for the humanist. As Christians, we find our “place” in the universe as servants of the Creator who are ordered to serve Him. As the Westminster Catechism puts it, “The chief end of man is to enjoy God and glorify Him forever.”

But if we are to ascribe any content to “humanity”, we must understand man as a “kind” and place him in the wider sphere of his teleological relations. That is, while the humanist is free to reject the Westminster Catechism’s answer, he cannot refuse the question: “What is the chief end of man?” if he is to have any sort of ethics at all.

O’Donovan links, in other words, ethical thinking to the “natural generic-teleological order.” That is, he lays the basis for deriving “ought” from “is.” Arguments against his position typically come from two fronts: those who deny the “kinds” of morality, and those who deny the teleology.

On the one hand, Christians have to affirm the freedom of God to act arbitrarily, which O’Donovan helpfully defines as “the right decision in matters where there is no reason for him to do one thing rather than another” (emphasis mine). But preserving this freedom of action while still basing ethics on his behavior in the world, though, poses a problem: how can such particularity of action exist when the generic order of the world is reflected in morality? That is, when God acts in a particular fashion, in a particular place, in a particular time, how do we generalize out from that to our own lives? Do God’s particular actions, such as his calling (the idea of vocation), his election, his grace undercut the notion of a general morality?

Not at all. O’Donovan argues that while we certainly acknowledge God’s particular actions, they are meaningful only if there is a generic order that exists previously. That is, while God works in history, it is only history because it is not chaos. While we each have individual vocations, our duties within them are moral duties–that is, generic. Hence, when Christians make allowances for aspects of the Old Testament like Abraham’s concubine, they defend the idea of a generic morality, not undercut it.

The second attack on the notion of teleological ethics stems from those who reject the notion of a telos. The attack stems from two converging streams: on the one hand, modern scientific thought wants “to free nature from immanent purposiveness; on the other, moral philosophy wishes to free the will from any purposiveness in nature.”

O’Donovan turns to the second critique first, arguing that while the moderns thought they were defending generic morality without teleology, they failed. Kant, for instance, with his “categorical imperative” singles out humanity as the only end-in-itself on the grounds that “Rational nature exists as an end in itself.”

To be frank, I do not understand O’Donovan’s response to Kant’s position, but I record it so you can help me. He writes: “But of course man does not necessarily conceive his own rational nature as making him part of humanity–Kant is quick enough to make the distinction himself at other points.” In more clear fashion, he goes on to point out that an individual may decide that his own rational nature “puts him in among a small class of Enlightened, or that it makes him one of those who are born to rule…” O’Donovan concludes, “If we are to determine that humanity is an ‘objective end,’ in a sense that the class of the Enlightened, or those born to rule…is not, we shall have to appeal to some teleological determinant situated outside the rational will itself.”

O’Donovan then turns to the next objection, which is that science has undercut the notion of teleology. O’Donovan incisively cuts to the core of the issue: “Granted the historical sequence, that voluntarist discomfort with Aristotelian teleology at the end of the Middle Ages bred the new experimental cast of mind, does that mean that natural teleology is false, or merely that the abstraction from it was a helpful ascesis for the scientific mind?” While nominalism encouraged the late Medievals to search for new generic orderings, “in the long run science found nominalism an enemy to its project; for science is interested in nothing if not regularities, and nominalism must deny that the regularities which science purports to observe are real.”

In other words, the nominalism that undergirds modern science—the rejection of essences, kinds, and purposes, that is—ultimately undercuts the scientific project, as it denies regularities that even science discovers.

But there are two additional reasons to refuse to reject teleology:

(1) it makes it impossible to know the universe as a whole. Because there are no teleological relations, there are only differing “fields of vision” which have no relation to each other. The “sciences” each lay claim to the same reality, creating nothing more than a territorial game.

(2) It creates “a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe.” Because there is no teleological order inherent in the universe, any teleology exists as a creation of man, as an imposition of man’s will on the world. In this case, science becomes subservient to techne.

In a moving passage, O’Donovan outlines what the rejection of teleology ultimately means for man. “Such a philosophy,” writes O’Donovan, offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things.”

No doubt this summary is far too long. But this chapter in particular sets the chief polarity that O’Donovan will revisit later in the work, namely, that of voluntarism and natural law theory.

*This chapter is actually chapter two. I am skipping the first chapter, as it is a summary of the whole work.

Other posts in the series:

Series Intro 

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.