Last week, I had my first opportunity to lecture for undergraduates. The course was “Christian Ethics: Sources”; the topic, “Law and Scripture”; the text, Oliver O’Donovan’s 1975 (!) lecture “Towards an Interpretation of Biblical Ethics” (published Tyndale Bulletin 27 (1976), pp. 58-69). The lecture is very introductory, and has to cover a very wide range of issues in very cursory fashion, so don’t expect anything profound. But as the role of Scripture as an authority for ethics (and particularly the role of Scriptural law) is such an important and contentious issue in today’s discussions, and so central to my own projects, hopefully this lecture may provide a useful orientation.
So here is the first half (with all Q&A and references to Keynote slides expurgated):
Rick Santorum is one of many conservative American Christian politicians who will say that the Biblical prohibition on homosexuality must be reflected to some extent in our laws today: God has made clear that marriage must be between a man and a woman and that homosexuality is deviant behaviour, therefore, a Christian president must pass laws forbidding homosexual marriage and discouraging homosexual conduct.
This might seem, here in Europe, a pretty hardline position, but someone could conceivably argue that it’s not hardline enough. After all, if we are taking the law of Scripture as our standard, we might well observe that in the Old Testament, homosexuals were not merely forbidden to be married, but they were to be stoned. Does that mean that a Christian president who wants to take the Bible seriously should actually campaign for homosexual execution? And if not, then is he really taking the Bible seriously? What is his ground for not taking such a hardline?
Here are a few options:
- judicial law to be distinguished from moral law—OT judicial rules no longer binding on a Christian polity, which may enshrine the same principles in a different way.
- concept of a Christian polity has been done away with, since the political identity of the people of God was done away with in the New Testament
- Jesus has taught us a different way, one of overcoming evil through love, so while a Christian may oppose homosexuality, he will not do by means of law.
- Jesus’s gospel proclaims love and acceptance of all, so homosexuals are not to be excluded in any sense.
- The Bible is a story of liberation for the oppressed, and this overarching hermeneutic must trump any particular passages; homosexuals are the oppressed in our day, whom the God of the exodus will liberate.
Now, someone might also say, “Regardless of what the Bible says on homosexuality, we should not take it seriously for ethics or law?” Three common forms of this objection are:
- Regardless of what the Bible said, it cannot be taken seriously because it gives us only the morality of a group of Near Eastern people 2,000 years ago.
- Biblical teaching on this goes against other sources of ethical knowledge—e.g., science, or consensus.
- The Bible legitimates all kins of patriarchy and oppression; it enshrines an ideology of power and injustice, and we are required to critique it.
Now, just to prove that all this Biblical law stuff is not all negative, let me use another example for you.
Leading up to the year 2000, a large number of Christians began to campaign for a “Jubilee” at the turn of the millenium, a massive forgiveness of Third-World debt. It was cruel and unjust that millions of desperately poor people in the Third World should continue to bear the burden of huge, unpayable debts racked up by dictators three decades ago, while the First World countries prospered at their expense. Many involved in this campaign used an explicit Biblical rationale, hence the name “Jubilee.” In particular, they draw on the “Year of Jubilee” law of Lev. 25 and the “Sabbath year” law of Deut. 15.
Now, here too, someone, on the basis of taking the Bible seriously, might suggest that the Jubilee campaigners were not going far enough. After all, they were only cancelling debts (Deut. 15); they weren’t making sure that all real property was returned (Lev. 25) to these poor nations. Someone else, though, could easily show that the whole project was misguided by attending carefully to the text. If we’re using the Bible as rationale, do we need to make sure to follow seven-year and fifty-year cycles? Do we need to insist that these Third World nations neither sow nor reap their fields in the year of this debt release? Perhaps most seriously, what about in Deuteronomy, where it says that this only applies to fellow Israelites, not foreigners? Doesn’t that mean that this whole idea of forgiving the debts of other countries is misguided? Or does it mean we should only forgive the debts of other Christians?
One can readily see how some of the points we made earlier about homosexuality could be brought to bear on this discussion. We could say that the transition from Old to New means that this Jubilee principle now should be widened to include everybody, not just those of our own nation, or we might say that as it was a law specifically for the political entity of Israel, which is gone, it shouldn’t be applied by any political entity today. We might say that the principle is fulfilled in Christ, who declares his Jubilee mission in Luke 4:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Of course, this might mean that we are to try to apply this principle all the time, or else we could say that it had a spiritual application, which Christ has fulfilled, so it no longer applies.
We could use other criteria, such as a hermeneutic of liberation, to say that regardless of the specific OT law is, Christians should apply the liberating message of Scripture as a whole to forgive Third World debt. Or we might dismiss the ethical normativity of a 2,000-year-old text altogether and make our decision, for or against forgiving the debt, based on independent criteria of natural justice.
These two examples, then, highlight for us the many obstacles confronting the attempt to adapt the law of Scripture for ethics and law today; but hopefully, they will also show that such an attempt is not pointless, and may teach us a great deal.
Now, let’s summarize some of the issues that have been raised here, and that are often objected when we talk about Biblical law as a foundation for morality.
- To what extent does “law” imply a political embodiment of morality? Does the political form of much Old Testament law make it un-generalizable?
- The category of “law” treats morality as coming to us a set of general, universalized rules. In fact, we might want to say, moral demands can only ever be addressed to the individual, summoning him to particular actions in a particular time and place in accord with his particular vocation.
- Alternatively, we could complain that Biblical law is too particular a category. The concern here is the relation of natural law to biblical law—are Biblical commands binding “just because God said so” or because they point us toward what is already the good, which we ought already to be able to recognize as such? Dr. Northcott has raised this issue in Tuesday’s lecture, and the quarrel between “natural law” and “divine command” theories in his previous lecture. There’s no reason that an appeal to Scripture as the highest authority requires a rejection of natural law or the acceptance of a “divine command” theory. However, certainly many forms of “biblicism” have tended in this direction.
- The problem of historical distance—can 2,000-3,000-year-old texts be meaningful for us today? This claim can take the modernist form, which denigrates Scripture because it fails to rise to the level of “enlightened reason,” by which we can judge Scriptural morality and find it wanting. Or it can take the postmodernist form, which denies that any particular era’s claim to morality can be normative—every age is bound within its own assumptions and circumstances, and no past era can claim to provide the norm for any future era.
- The ideological suspicion of Scripture, as providing the justification for oppressive regimes. This is another version of the postmodern critique, insisting as it does that every community and culture has its own values, which are in fact power-plays on the part of some privileged elite, and that we can recognize these in Scripture and condemn them as immoral for their oppressive results
- The diversity of the Scriptural text: Old Testament vs. New.
- The diversity of the Scriptural text: a variety of contrasting voices within each Testament, some of which seem to call us toward moral actions that are condemned by others.
Most of these issues are addressed in some fashion in the O’Donovan article, and I will address them in some depth in this lecture. Those which are not are addressed elsewhere in O’Donovan’s work and we will give brief attention to them as well in what follows.
First, though, an introduction to O’Donovan’s life and work may be helpful.
O’Donovan was born in 1945 and did his Ph.D on St. Augustine under the great Augustine scholar Henry Chadwick at Oxford. From 1972 until 1977 he taught at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and then until 1982 at Wycliffe College, Toronto. There he married Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, who has since become an eminent scholar in Christian political thought in her own right. After that, he received the Regius Professorship of Moral Theology at Oxford, where he remained until 2006, at which point he came to take up the Professorship of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology here in Edinburgh. He has written many books, though not as many as you might expect over such a long career—he prefers to pack several books’ worth of thought into each volume he publishes, and to take his time before bringing out another one. His three most significant works are Resurrection and Moral Order (1986) which provides a general framework for Christian ethics; Desire of the Nations (1996), which provides the principles of a Christian political theology; and The Ways of Judgement (2005), which applies those principles in an account of how political power should be exercised.
Although he has been writing on ethics now for forty years, his work has been remarkably consistent across that period; indeed, you can recognize in this 1975 article features of his thought that he has continued to develop in his writings up to the present:
—evangelical Anglican: O’Donovan identifies with the historic Reformational commitments of the Anglican Church, and thus his thought is grounded in the authority of Scripture, and more importantly, in the revelation of Jesus Christ attested in Scripture. All of Christian ethics must be a response to the authority of Christ, and it must always be ready to return to its starting point in Scripture. For this reason, O’Donovan gives a central focus to Scripture and its exegesis throughout his work, which is in fact quite a rare trait among Christian ethicists of his generation.
—historically grounded: O’Donovan is, much more than most modern ethicists, very interested in the history of Christian ethics; this is particularly striking in his focused attention on the history of Christian political thought, which is generally neglected among modern ethicists who think the principles of a “Christendom” era simply irrelevant to today’s pluralist context.
—an apologist for Christendom: Although that is an oversimplification, and one with which he wouldn’t be comfortable, O’Donovan does believe both in the possibility and the importance of a political order being self-consciously Christian, and has opposed the popular Constantinian accounts (like that of Yoder) which see Christendom as a corruption of the Church as it tried to seize power.
—keen sense of history: Related to this, O’Donovan is, in good Anglican fashion, very attuned to the complex, shifting nature of historical circumstances which require the ethicist to be always provisional in his judgments and prescriptions. However, he is resolute in his opposition to “historicism,” which is the idea that moral norms as such must be historically contingent.
—importance of creation: O’Donovan opposes historicism by appeal to the objective ground of creation, of the ordered structure of the world which God has established, and the ordered shape of the moral life which follows from this. In this respect, he is in large measure within the natural law tradition, which emphasises that morality finds its ground not in arbitrary divine commands, but in the structure of the world which God has created. However, he balances this Thomistic orientation with a dose of Barthianism, which insists on our inability to rightly grasp the order of creation apart from its revelation in Christ, who is the centre to which it all points and from which we perceive its meaning.
Having highlighted these issues, we are now in a good position to revisit some of the problematic questions facing the use of Scripture, and especially Scripture as law, as the standard for ethics today. How might O’Donovan address the seven issues we identified above?
- The political implications of the concept of law. O’Donovan certainly believes that not merely individuals, but politics, must be responsive to the law of God, but he is certainly careful to distinguish the way that Scripture speaks to both of these dimensions today, as well as distinguishing the way these two dimensions are addressed in Scripture itself. Some biblical law is political law for the society of Israel, whereas some is moral law of enduring significance. The article we are looking at will deal with this in much more depth.
- “Law” addresses itself to all without distinction, whereas morality must address individuals in their particularity. O’Donovan addresses this objection to in the article, and we will look at it in more detail in a bit.
- The relation of natural law to biblical law. O’Donovan does not address this in this article, but elsewhere in his work, he makes clear that there is a natural law, to which biblical law draws our attention, rather than replacing it. But we are too prone to err on our own, so natural law is not sufficient; plus, natural law cannot reveal to us Christ or the and the particular shape that he confers on morality.
- The problem of historical distance. O’Donovan will address this directly in the article, so we will wait and return to this one as well.
- Scripture as legitimating oppression. O’Donovan does not address this directly in this article, but we may say a thing or two about how he would reply. The accusation, of course, in protesting against injustice, assumes some standard of justice whereby Scripture can be called to account: there is a moral authority that can be used to judge Scripture. But for the Christian, the highest moral authority can only be Christ. Some of the attack on Scripture as ideology, then, proceeds from a value system at war with the Christian value-system, and hence cannot be accepted. Some are legitimate complaints, but a close and sympathetic reading of the Biblical texts shoes that they in fact misreading Scripture in making their criticisms. Finally, some would be legitimate complaints if portions of Scripture were to be read in isolation from one another, but by taking Christ as the centre, who makes sense of the whole, we can recognize the moral problems with these portions of Scripture, without thereby attacking Scripture as a whole.
- The diversity of the Scriptural text: Old Testament vs. New. Again, if we accept Christ as the centre, the different emphases and trajectories between the two Testaments can be in large part resolved narratively. There will still be tensions and difficulties, but not necessarily irreconcilable ones. The article we are looking at will address some key questions regarding the relationship of Old and New Testaments, so we will return to this.
- The diversity of the Scriptural text—contrasting voices within each Testament. O’Donovan does not address this in the article, but some of the points he makes there could help us here. If we are attentive to the particular contexts in which various moral commands are given, and the particular justifications for them, and if we look at these within the whole narrative of Scripture, we will find that the tensions which we thought were so irresolvable are in fact usually in harmony.
(to be continued…)