O’Donovan on the Fifth Commandment

In his incredible little book, Common Objects of Love, Oliver O’Donovan offers a fascinating re-interpretation of the fifth commandment.  It’s one of those re-readings of a Biblical passage that seems so blindingly obvious that you wonder how you never saw it there before…particularly as it helps make sense of what otherwise has always seemed like an oddly arbitrary relationship between the command and the attached promise.

“The paradigm command of tradition is, ‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which hte Lord your God gives you.’  It appears to our eyes to be concerned with the duties of children, but this is a mistake.  The duties of children are purely responsive to the duty of parents to be to their children what their parents were to them.  This is a command addressed to adults, whose existence in the world is not self-posited but the fruit of an act of cultural transmission, which they have a duty to sustain.  The act of transmission puts us all in the place of receiver and communicator at once.  The household is envisaged as the primary unit of cultural transmission, the ‘father and the mother’ as representing every existing social practice which it is important to carry on.  Only so can community sustain itself within its environment, ‘the land which the Lord your God gives you.’  No social survival in any land can be imagined without a stable cultural environment across generations.  By tradition society identifies itself from one historical moment to the next, and so continues to act as itself.”

If this is accurate, that does not of course mean that the more familiar meaning–the duty of children to obey their parents–is thereby invalid, as the Apostle Paul’s use of the passage in Ephesians 6 demonstrates.  However, it may mean that the widespread Reformation tendency to broaden the passage into a directive to obey all authorities, particularly political ones, is quite a stretch.  Or rather, that the passage’s relevance to political authority (something O’Donovan is definitely interested in in Common Objects of Love) is somewhat different, meaning something like, “Value the heritage of your society and do your utmost to ensure its stability and continuity, which may well mean loyalty to existing political authorities, but may not.”

6 thoughts on “O’Donovan on the Fifth Commandment

  1. Ken Myers

    Brad,For some time, I have believed that the hegemony of popular culture, which creates a zone of autonomous individuals who ignore the past, amounts to an institutionalization of the breaking of the Fifth Commandment. Churches that have a "contemporary service" as an alternative to the "traditional service" are saying that obligation to a culture's trajectory is optional. They are saying that allegiance to the culture of the moment (usually sustained for commercial interests) is a commitment that must be honored liturgically, and those who object to such commitments are often dismissed as enemies of progress or fearful of change. There is no commandment requiring the embrace of all change. Law and wisdom agree that to be a people we must sustain intergenerational cultural experiences, not just a set of ideas.Thanks for your postings; I hope we can meet some day.Ken Myers


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Ken–helpful thoughts. All I would add, I think, is that when a church is dealing with an immature flock that is accustomed to contemporary worship and not ready for anything else, that it may be appropriate for them to offer multiple worship options. I can't say I'm really comfortable with it, but I'd hesitate to make overly sweeping statements on the subject.


  3. Ken Myers

    Brad,Your tactic would be fine, if the clergy treated the contemporary service as "junior church," and intended on discipling people into a tradition as a way of honoring the Fifth Commandment. I don't know of any churches that do this; most clergy I've talked to are clueless about the problem of generational apartheid, and uncomfortable with the idea of sustaining a tradition as a communal "way." They treat all forms as commodities, not as legacies. They do not believe that alienation from the Church's tradition is a sign of immaturity. It is in fact often regarded a sign of authenticity that must be honored by the Church. Authenticity trumps tradition every time. I think most clergy would object to O'Donovan's view of the Fifth Commandment and cultural tradition as an inauthentic reading. Here's another generalization for you. Musicians who have trained to sustain and extend the Church's musical tradition are much less valued than musicians who can tap into trends from the larger culture that are quite alien (even antagonistic) to the Church's musical tradition.Ken


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    True enough, Ken–and the way I described it is something of an idealization–very few churches seem to approach it that way. On the other hand, Paul warns us against a condescending attitude toward weaker brothers. If a church said, "Sure, we'll make a contemporary worship service for y'all, but only so long as it's clear that you are immature and we are mature, and you'll be junior Christians until you graduate to traditional worship" then that wouldn't be very Christian at all. So it does seem like a rather pastorally awkward business to maintain the importance of cultivating the riches of traditional Christian worship without offending sincere contemporary-worshipping Christians and making them feel unloved and unwelcome. So, if there are churches genuinely struggling with that dilemma, I am sympathetic. You are right, though, that very few churches seem to even recognize this as a dilemma, or to think twice about embracing pop-culture worship, and this is a real problem. But again, it is one that we have to figure out how to address patiently, without widening existing divisions.


  5. Bradley

    As far as liturgical tradition goes, there's the added dimension of parents vs. ancestors. Within a particular congregation, their parents might have employed 'contemporary' worship exclusively, albeit without electric guitars and drums. Therefore, they might feel understandably wary of abandoning 'the way we've always done things.' On the other hand, if they looked farther back a few centuries to their Christian ancestors, they might discover a different definition of 'the way we've always done things.' I think this is basically the point Bradford was making when he said "an immature flock…not ready for anything else." But let's not forget that one possible reason they might not be ready for it could be precisely a respect for their elders!Of course, progressive-newfangled contemporary worship is another animal entirely. Nobody's parents worshipped that way…which is kind of the whole point driving it.


  6. "Value the heritage of your society and do your utmost to ensure its stability and continuity, which may well mean loyalty to existing political authorities, but may not."Indeed, this is why I've been trying to persuade O'Donovan that the Greens may well represent (at least in some important respects) the least radical political alternative presently available. The premise of this claim is the truly radical social and ecological effects of contemporary consumerist-industrialist hyper-capitalism. A "tradition" that systematically undermines the (ecological and social) conditions of possibility for the transmission of cultural tradition ought to be viewed as a cultural disease.


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