O’Donovan, Law, and Scripture Lecture, Pt. 2

(see Part I for context)

Now, let’s turn to consider in detail O’Donovan’s article, “Towards an Interpretation of Biblical Ethics.”  In this essay, O’Donovan seeks to address the question, “Do the commands of the Bible apply to us?”  He does so in two stages.  First, he asks the question of the Old Testament, and looks at the way that the Church has traditionally wrestled with the question of the applicability of Old Testament law.  Then, he turns to consider whether a similar strategy could bear fruit when it comes to the moral content of the New Testament.

As soon as he raises the question, though, O’Donovan calls out attention to a distinction: between “claim” and “authority.”  If I am walking down the street and someone calls out, “Stop where you are and don’t move a muscle,” I have first to decide whether the voice is addressing me, or someone else—this is the question of “claim”—and second, whether the voice is one of someone whom I am obliged to listen to (e.g., a police officer), which is the question of authority.  Of course, even a voice without authority may be one worth listening to if it knows something that I do not—perhaps a passerby has noticed that I am about to step into a sinkhole and is trying to warn me of my peril.  In any case, though, O’Donovan says that when it comes to Scripture, including the Old Testament, the Church has from earliest times insisted that it does speak with authority.  The question, then, is one of claim.  To address whether or not Old Testament law laid claim to us—spoke to us, or merely to ancient Israelites—the Church developed a threefold distinction. 

There were three categories: the moral, which do continue to claim us, for they are in fact universal, claiming all people at all times; the ceremonial, which do not, but served only for Israel until the coming of Christ, to whom they pointed—once Christ came, we must still learn from them theologically, but need not heed them as rules for action; finally, the judicial, which were intended only for the political entity of Israel, so they do not continue to claim us directly, although, inasmuch as our own political circumstances may have some parallels, we should continue to learn from them and occasionally apply them.   

O’Donovan raises two chief objections to this categorization: (1) It is anachronistic, because Israel did not see its commands this way; (2) all the commands were contextually time-bound, including the moral ones.  The first objection, he says, misunderstands the purpose of the distinction, which is to say how we can subsequently analyse the commands, not how they were originally understood.  The second will be addressed in what follows.

Now, O’Donovan does not propose to use this distinction in its classical form, although what he ends up with, after drawing his own distinctions, is something quite similar.   


O’Donovan proceeds to show us three different sorts of Old Testament commands that would not continue to claim us: 

  1. Individual commands
  2. Socially-regulative commands
  3. Theologically obsolete commands

Let us look briefly at each of these.

First, he says, some commands are addressed to individuals (e.g., God’s command to Abraham to leave his home); others are addressed universally.   Although it is quite obvious that God’s command to Abraham is addressed only to Abraham (though we may still learn by example), this distinction does run into some objections.

First, some might like to say that all Biblical commands, because all divine commands, because all morality, should be understood to be particular, not universal.  This is the contention of Karl Barth: God addresses each one of us in a unique, immediate summons, and we cannot tell in advance what form this summons will take.  To this, O’Donovan offers the rather commonsensical response that even Barth himself cannot resist talking of summaries that can capture what God summons every individual to (e.g., the Ten Commandments, with universal commands such as the prohibition of murder).  Second, we might ask whether some of God’s commands to Israel were intended, not in as particular a sense as Barth has in mind, but for Israel as a people, a political unit.  This leads us to O’Donovan’s second category—socially-regulative commands.

We have a basis within Scripture itself for the relativization of this category, says O’Donovan: Jesus’s response to the Deuteronomic divorce-law.  

Why can Jesus take this cavalier stance toward Moses?  We might say, “Because the original command was context-dependent.”  But of course, all past commands are context-dependent in some sense, and that does not make them irrelevant.  Context can either tell us that the command did not in fact mean what we might take it to mean, or it might tell us the purpose for which the command or permission was given.  For instance, my son might protest, “But Mommy told me last week that I could watch movies in the afternoon for up to two hours,”to which I could respond, “That was only because you were sick, and she knew you didn’t feel up to anything else.  Now you need to go play outside.”

Jesus approaches the Deuteronomic divorce-law like this.  A complete prohibition of divorce, while ideal, would not have been practically achievable for Israelite society as a whole, so Moses compromised.  This sort of compromise is intrinsic to politics.  

Clearly, then, there are many Old Testament laws of this sort—laws by which God’s people are directed toward the good, but which get only partway there, and do not fully describe the good.  This does not mean they are useless for us; indeed, the Christian legislator, confronted with the same imperfection in society, may want to imitate some of these compromises, as for instance Britain did eventually do on the subject of divorce.

Finally, there are Old Testament commands such as the duty of circumcision, which the Apostle Paul makes clear are no longer binding on the Christian.  How can this be?  He does not see it as a merely particular command addressed to Abraham.  Nor does he argue that it was dependent on Israel’s identity as a political society, and not applicable after the exile.  He argues on theological grounds that the purpose of this command, and many others like it, has been fulfilled in Christ and thus they are superseded.  The early Church, however, only felt at liberty to make this sort of argument for commands of an essentially ritual nature, concerned with the liturgical and purity codes of the Old Testament.


So, what about the New Testament?

Many theologians have not wanted to speak of moral law in connection with the New Testament at all.  Jesus, we are told, offers gospel—good news—a proclamation of God’s embrace of sinners.  He does not come to condemn us by telling us more things that we are meant to do, and which we will surely fail to do sufficiently.  Thus, theologians have wanted to try and translate these imperative statements into descriptive statements—from, “This is what you should do” to “This is the sort of behavior that characterizes my disciples.”  Now, while there is something to this, in that Jesus obviously intends us to extrapolate from some of his specific commands to a more general way of life that we are to follow, we cannot get around the fact that this is a way of life that he is calling for us to follow.  He does not merely describe it as some interesting hypothetical—“wouldn’t it be interesting if people lived like this?”—but is summoning us to make this way of life our own.  So, the New Testament does contain authoritative moral commands.  We are then back to the question of claim: to what extent can we take these commands to be addressed to us?  We cannot, certainly, claim that they are theologically obsolete, like the ceremonial law of the Old Testament; for that was brought to fulfilment by Christ, and there has been no new Christ.  We must then argue that these commands were somehow particular, not universal.  

It is here that O’Donovan turns to face the biggest criticism brought against the concept of Biblical ethics: the problem of historical distance—how can we take seriously for today commands given two thousand years ago?  

To this, O’Donovan says, “We are perfectly entitled to say, if we wish, that a New Testament norm does not claim us, but we are bound to do more than appeal to the lapse of time to prove our case: we must show how circumstances have changed to make the New Testament norm inapplicable to our own situation.”

Now, very often, there will be very significant changes in circumstance.  For instance, many will argue that Jesus’s prohibition of divorce was given in a society where divorce meant that a woman was left entirely on her own resources, liable to fall into poverty and be exploited.  Nowadays, structures are in place to ensure, usually, that this is not the case.  That being so, might we not say that the command no longer applies?  It is as if my son were to say that he can’t walk in the kitchen, because his Mommy told him not to yesterday.  I might point out to him that she only said that because she had just mopped the floor and didn’t want him to walk on it while it was wet; as it is no longer wet, he may walk.  Does this mean that many or most New Testament commands will not apply to us?   The question, O’Donovan thinks, is too simplistic.  Inasmuch as the relevant circumstances have in fact changed, the commands have changed.  However, the fundamental human condition has not changed in two thousand years.  A great many of our experiences, our temptations, our needs, remain basically the same as ever they were before, and to this extent, when the Bible says “do not become angry with your brother” or “do not lust after a woman in your heart” as we saw in last week’s readings, it speaks timelessly.  Even when conditions have changed, though, the command is not thereby devoid of moral content.  Perhaps the kitchen floor is now dry, but the bathroom has just been mopped today.  My son now knows that he is free to walk in the kitchen, but he may extrapolate from yesterday’s command to conclude that he ought now to avoid walking in the bathroom.  We must, says O’Donovan, first exegete the command—determine its original meaning and purpose—and then “re-specify” it to fit a new context.  

Finally, O’Donovan briefly considers the possibility of “socially-regulative” New Testament commands, like the Old Testament judicial law: commands given by church authorities to regulate the life of the community, but not necessarily intended to directly convey enduring moral principle.  There do appear to be some examples, and here the principle of application will be the same—a modern church leader is not bound to follow them, but he should give them serious respect and attention, and inasmuch as circumstances have not changed, he should consider making use of the original law.


What then have we learned?  O’Donovan has tried to pick apart the common claim: “A text thousands of years old cannot be a moral authority for us now, but only for its own particular time and place.”  He has sought to draw our attention to the careful distinctions whereby we can discern which aspects of Scriptural moral teaching are universal, and which are particular, and how even those that are particular are not without any instructive value or enduring relevance.  Commands addressed to particular individuals of course lay their claim only on those individuals.  Commands addressed to humans as a whole will often continue to lay their claim on the human race inasmuch as the fundamental human condition has not changed, although changes in society, culture, and technology may render them inapplicable (though not thereby un-instructive).  Perhaps most liable to change will be those commands intended for the people of God as a social or political unit, since the changing circumstances of time and place render many of these only distantly applicable.  Moreover, in these commands, we should be alive to the possibility that something less than a full moral ideal is being given. 


Having learned all this, then, what might someone committed to the moral authority of Scripture say about the examples at the beginning?   

Specific Old Testament laws against homosexuality do not bind, to be sure.  Even in the New Testament, though, homosexual conduct appears to be condemned.  Perhaps we could argue, however, that this was due to particular forms in which homosexuality appeared in the ancient world.  If so, then inasmuch as circumstances have changed, perhaps the prohibition no longer applies.  We would have to look carefully at the Scriptural texts to discover how particular, and how universal, the rationale was.  Finally, mindful that public legislation does not necessarily aim at perfect morality, but at what is reasonably achievable, we might say that even given a Biblical condemnation of homosexuality, no Christian legislator should try to apply this at a societal level.

Likewise, specific Old Testament laws about debt release do not continue to bind.  Perhaps we would view them as specifically cultic in purpose, and hence entirely obsolete after Christ.  Or else, we would view them as specimens of judicial law, intended to help provide justice in the Israelite polity, but not binding on other polities.  However, inasmuch as the command is predicated on the universal concern that the poor not be exploited because God demands mercy, we might well ask how this command continued to lay its claim on us today.  We must “re-specify” in our own circumstances and look for creative opportunities to end the cycle of debt-slavery and landlessness that afflicts so many in developing countries today. 

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