That Which is Not Negotiable

The sad news yesterday of Rowan Williams’s impending departure from Canterbury seems to call for a tribute of sorts, which, purely by coincidence, I was planning to post this week anyway.  The following is a fantastic passage from his essay, “Hooker: Philosopher, Anglican, Contemporary” in Richard Hooker and the Construction of Christian Community.  

Having summarized Hooker’s account of the mutability of human affairs, the need for a readiness always to revisit our conceptions of what God calls us to do in the realm of practical action, he asks why it is that the same liberty to innovate should not be permitted to us in doctrinal affairs, as in matters of action?  After all, few moderns are still prepared to take seriously Hooker’s happy confidence that Scripture affords us perspicuous access to objective truth, unconditioned by historical circumstance, when it comes to the fundamentals of faith.  Williams’s response constitutes a thoughtful and sensitive attempt to defend Hooker’s basic distinction, while translating it into theological terms more intelligible to our age:

“We cannot pretend that we are theological innocents, timelessly confronting the mystery of God’s action.  We are not here talking about a voluntary self-limitation, but about a call or imperative or transforming gift that ‘limits’ us, whether we choose or no.  There can be no beginning all over again here—the determinations have, in some sense, been made for us, first of all in creation, in our being the sort of beings we are, and then in a redemption whose point is to free us to be such beings.  It is not up to us to ‘choose’ our final ends, because we do not choose our nature.  In this case, then, even more than with matters of polity, how we act and talk is conditioned by a history—not a history, this time, of our decisions and their consequences, but a history of attempts to bring to speech that which determines us.  Doctrine, in other words, is always a catching up with something prior to us: we do not (in both the technical and the colloquial senses of the words) ‘have priority’ when we try to speak doctrinally.  When we reckon with the ways in which doctrinal history, like political history, conditions the questions we ask and how we ask them, the essential difference, in Hooker’s perspective, between the two kinds of conditioning is that political history is about means to the ends that doctrinal language specifies.  If we treat our doctrinal language as revisable in the same sense as our talk about polity, we risk treating our human ends as negotiable, as potentially under human control or at the mercy of human circumstances, and this fragments the whole underlying sapiential model, depending as this model does on our final determination by the nature of God as the object we find our bliss in contemplating, the life we are fulfilled in sharing.  

Hooker’s proscription of doctrinal revision, then, has a clear logic to it.  We may have more problems than he did about the historical conceptualities of doctrinal statement, we may well want to say that doctrinal utterance does involve human choices, human self-determination, unless we believe that revelation comes in well-formed statements to start with.  But the question Hooker poses for the doctrinal revisionist is a serious one, one that needs articulation in our contemporary theological debates.  Doctrine is about our end (and our beginning); about what in our humanity is not negotiable, dispensable, vulnerable to revision according to political convenience or cultural chance and fashion.  Deny this, and you must say that humanity or the human good is, in some significant way, within our power to determine: which may sound emancipatory for a few minutes, until you remember that, in a violent and oppressive world, it is neither good news nor good sense to propose that definitions of the human lie in human hands, when those hands are by no means guaranteed to be the instruments of a mind formed by contemplative reason—or even what passes for reason in the liberal and universalist ethos of ‘our’ democracies.  Doctrine purports to tell us what we are for, and what the shape is of a life lived in accordance with the way things are, and how such a life becomes accessible to us, even in the middle of the corruptions and unfreedom of a shadowed history.  Hooker’s general apologetic for revealed religion would need a fair amount of reworking in our more ironic age, but his general challenge is still worth listening to.  If we are not somehow bound by what God is and what we are, however stumblingly inadequately we can speak of these things, what possibility is there of sustaining a belief in the common good of human creatures beyond the terms of a minimalist discourse about survival?”

Et in Arcadia Ego

Here’s a little lighter fare after a series of rather meaty posts—an absurdly over-the-top, yet still powerful little passage from Stephen Fry’s autobiography, The Fry Chronicles, which I couldn’t resist sharing with the world:

“Further upriver, the beauty of the [Cambridge] Backs in late spring and early summer is enough to make the sternest puritan moan and shiver with delight.  Sunlight on the stone of the bridges, willows leaning down to weep and kiss the water: young boys and girls, or boys and boys, or girls and girls, punting up to Grantchester Meadows, bottles of white wine tied with string trailing through the wake to cool, ‘No kissing in the punt’—careful how you say that, hoho.  Revising finalists under chestnut trees, books and notes spread out on the grass as they smoke, drink, chatter, flirt, kiss and read.  Garden parties on every lawn in every college for the two weeks in June that are perversely designated May Week.  Dining clubs and societies, dons, clubs and rich individuals serving punch and Pimm’s, beer and sangria, cocktails and champagne.  Blazers and flanners, self-conscious little snobberies and affectations, flushed youth, pampered youth, privileged youth, happy youth.  

Don’t be too hard on them.  Suppress the thought that they are all ghastly tosspots who don’t known they’re born, insufferable poseurs in need of a kick and a slap.  Have some pity and understanding.  After all, look at them now.  They are all in their fifties.  Some of them on their third, fourth or fifth marriage.  Their children despise them. They are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics.  Drug addicts or recovering drug addicts.  Their wrinkled, grey, bald, furrowed and fallen faces look back every morning from the mirror, those folds of dying flesh bearing not a trace of the high, joyful, and elastic smiles that once lit them.  Their lives have been a ruin and a waste.  All that bright promise never quite matured into anything that can be looked back on with pride and pleasure.  They took that job in the City, that job with the merchant bank, stockbroker, law firm, accountancy firm, chemical company, drama company, publishing company, any company.  The light and energy, the passion, fun and faith were soon snuffed out one by one.  In the grind of the demanding world their foolish hopeful dreams evaporated like mist in the cruel glare of the morning sun.  Sometimes the dreams return to them at night and they are so ashamed and disappointed that they want to kill themselves.  Once they laughed and seduced or laughed and were seduced on ancient lawns, under ancient stones and now they hate the young and their music, they snort with contempt at everything strange and new and they have to catch their breath at the top of the stairs.”

Headship and Authority in 1 Cor. 11

This past Sunday, our senior minister approached with some trepidation 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, the passage which speaks of the subordination of women and their need to wear head coverings.  Also on the agenda was 1 Cor. 14:34-35, which states “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.  And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church”—although in the event, the sermon confined itself to the first passage.  These passages naturally can be quite a source of discomfort to churches committed, as ours basically is, to an “egalitarian” rather than “complementarian” position (though I hate those labels!) and to the legitimacy of women’s ordination.  But really, they will be a source of discomfort for almost any Christian today, however “complementarian.”  After all, Paul seems to go beyond a mere outward subordination to suggest that women are naturally inferior: women come from men, and are made to serve men.  Men stand in the same relation to women as Christ does to the Church.  Ouch.  Paul accordingly commands behaviors that only a few radical fringe groups of conservative Christians would actually observe—head coverings for women, silence of women in church.  

So I was genuinely interested in hearing what an egalitarian interpretation of these verses would look like. (The easiest route might to say that Paul was a product of his culture, and thus felt obliged to argue for something that was simply inconsistent with his teaching elsewhere; but I doubted our minister was going to take that route.)  The key argument hinged on the meaning of the word “head” (Gk. kephale) in v. 3, and suggested that of its three main meanings—”physical head,” “authority,” and “source”—it was the third, and not the second, which Paul was using here (in addition to the first, which is of course used in the following verses).  Man is not the boss of the woman, we were told, he is the source.   

However, this didn’t seem to me to be the anti-complementarian trump card that was desired.  What might it really imply to say that man is the “source” of woman?  I offer the following reflections with two major caveats: (1) I have not read any of what is no doubt the copious exegetical literature on this passage, so there will no doubt be a lot of re-inventing (and mis-inventing) the wheel here; (2) I am not trying to argue here for or against women’s ordination, or to provide a decisive solution to the dispute between “egalitarians” and “complementarians”—I am simply trying to trace out the logic of these concepts and of this passage, and see whether it might lead us to conclusions that could be attractive to both sides in certain respects.


So first, it’s worth noting that these three meanings of the word “head” are, after all, not three completely unrelated meanings, like the “bark” of a tree and the “bark” of a dog.  Clearly, they are closely related.  The physical head is the source and guide of all intelligible action in the body.  The head of an organization is the source and guide of all intelligible action in the organization.  The head of a river is the source of that river, that which sustains its existence, sends it on its way, establishes its direction.  Clearly, we have three closely interrelated and mutually-interpreting concepts here.  The concept of authority is deeply rooted in the concept of origin.  “It is the authority which has called the form of action into being.  The term ‘authority’ in this sense recalls the Greek word arche, which means at once both ‘beginning’ and ‘rule.'” (O’Donovan, RMO 122)  Obviously, kephale has a somewhat different field of meaning than arche, but I think the analogy with arche is significant.  It was not a coincidence that the Greeks associated rule with beginning.  

While the concept of authority is not exhausted by the concept of origin or initiation (for instance, the concept of “judgment” is generally a central part of what we understand by authority), this is clearly a central part of it.  If we want to know whether an action is authorized in any organization or entity, we will ask where it came from.  If we find out that some order just came from a coworker, then we can scoff at it.  It needs to be traceable back to the “head”—perhaps indirectly, by coming from someone authorized by the head to act in certain matters.  Of course, an individual within the organization may take action on her own accord as circumstances seem to dictate, but if the action is to be meaningful or constructive, it must fit into a shape conferred by the head.  One way or another, all intelligible action in an organization is traceable back to the “head” of the organization, who initiates and orients the actions that are to be taken.  For this reason, of course, the head is also the endpoint, the point where buck stops—the person finally responsible for actions that are taken.

So authority initiates, authority serves as an origin, rule implies beginning.  Is it the other way around though—does an origin always serve as an authority?  Does the “source” of something necessarily have an ongoing claim over it?  Does “beginning” imply rule?  Most societies seem to have thought so.  In early modern political debates, the question of origin was always paramount.  Did the society predate the king as a political entity, did it call the king into being?  Or did the king predate the society, and call the society into being as a political entity.  Who came first?  Who was the source of the other?  The answer to these questions largely determined one’s political theory, one’s judgment as to which was the highest authority, king or parliament.  Theologically, we root God’s authority over the world in the fact that he is the source of it.  He created it, therefore he is king over it.  Likewise, Christ’s headship, in the sense of authority, over the Church, seems inextricable from the fact that he is the source of the Church, that which has brought her into being and sustained her. 

Perhaps there is no reason that we should draw the inference that origination implies authority.  After all, in what sense does the source, the head, of a river have “authority” over that river?  Well, in the sense that it initiates it and directs it.  It gives shape to it.  The source determines which way the river will start flowing, and if the source dries up, the river will not continue flowing.  The river depends on its source, just as a subordinate depends on an authority.

So, if “head” in 1 Cor. 11:3 is not to imply authority in any sense, but only “source,” then what content are we to give to this attribution of source?  What does “source” mean?  The answer that our minister wished to give, it seemed in our conversation afterward, was “mere temporal priority.”  The man is the source of the woman in the sense that January 1st is the source of the new year.  The year does not depend on January 1st, January 1st exercises no directive power over the following year, but January 1st does happen to come first.  Now, the problem is that I am not at all sure, then, that we could meaningfully speak of January 1st as the “source of the year.”  I certainly don’t know anyone who has done so (though I was told that the ancient Hebrews did so).  As a concept, “source” simply has to imply more than mere temporal priority.  Perhaps more problematically, it is unclear how this line of argument could make any sense from the theistic evolutionist standpoint, which is of course the operative standpoint here.  For the theistic evolutionist, there can simply be no literal meaning in the assertion that man is the source of woman, unless perhaps we mean to say that the first hominid that God chose to designate a human being was in fact male, although there were of course a multitude of roughly equivalent female hominids, including his mother.  For the theistic evolutionist, it is hard to see how the narrative in Gen. 2:18-24 could be anything more than metaphorical.  And what then would the point of this metaphor be?  Well, probably something like what Paul seems to say about it—that woman is the glory of man, and woman was created for the man.  


Now, the point of all this is to say that it’s not immediately clear that substituting the meaning “source” really gets us away from the concept of “authority.”  But what it does do is to help suggest a new context for the concept of authority; no doubt part of the hostility to the use of that term stems from a misguided paradigm of what “authority” involves—an authority, we think, is someone who can command you to do something without good reasons, who can oblige you to obey whether or not you want to.  Authority, we think, is the opposite of freedom.  But O’Donovan, in his remarkable discussion of authority in Resurrection and Moral Order, invites us to see authority as “the objective correlate of freedom.”  What the heck does that mean?  Well, the concept of authority as initiator, which we have gestured at here, might help us out somewhat.  

At this point, we can finally turn to look again more closely at the passage itself.  We have a good clue that in fact the concept of “source” is central here, in v. 8, “For man is not from woman, but woman from man.”  Does this work with v. 2? “the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”  Well, let’s work back from the last.  The Father is certainly not “the boss” of the Son, to use the contrastive term our pastor used.  But the Father clearly can be legitimately said to be the “source” of the Son.  He is the fons divinitatis—the Son is eternally begotten from Him.  But although the Son therefore has dependence on the Father, the Father does not for this reason stand over against the Son then as the one who commands him, for the two are perfectly united.  The Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father.  If we look at the relationship of Christ and the Church, we have the same thing.  The point being made here is not that Christ has authority to command the Church, although that may be true in its own context.  The point is that Church has come out of Christ, it is the creature of the water and blood flowing from his side.  The Church has come out of the side of Christ, and therefore it depends on him, and he has defined its identity and its calling.  It exists in relation to Him. However, again, it is not separate from Him.  He is our King, but that is not the point here.  We are in him, and he in us.  Now clearly, these same points are being made about man and woman.  Woman was taken out of the side of man, just as the Church out of the side of Christ.  For this reason, woman depends on man, exists in relation to man, is oriented toward man.  However, likewise, as with the other two relations, the key point here is indwelling.  Eve was taken out of Adam in order then to be made one flesh with him.  

And this perhaps provides us with a helpful way forward.  For thus far, I expect, few egalitarians are going to be very satisfied with the implications of this concept of source and origin, with its inescapable connotations of dependency.  Woman is dependent on man?  Yuck.  Of course, one might reply, “Sorry, that’s what Paul says.  Deal with it.”  But I’d like to brainstorm some ways in which the egalitarian might take comfort from this passage.


First, one might point out that the language of priority is frequently subverted throughout Scripture.  The last shall be first, the elder shall serve the younger.  Throughout the Old Testament, the one who, by virtue of priority, has a claim to be “head,” turns out to be dependent on the one who comes after—Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David and Saul.  And of course, this repeated plot line turns out to be prophetic of the greatest reversal at all.  The Church comes out of Israel; Israel is the source, the head, of the Church, and yet the Church is greater than Israel.  The feminist could perhaps have a lot of fun with this plotline of reversal—sure, man may have come first, but now woman is in charge.  Naturally, this would be taking it a bit too far.  Indeed, if we look at the illustration of the Church and Israel, Paul cautions the Romans against just this sort of thinking (Rom. 11:16-18).  Yes, there has been something of a reversal, but neither should boast against the other.  Both have need of one another.  The reversal is one in which a relationship of dependency is transformed into one of interdependency.  If we look back at our 1 Cor. 11 passage, we see something very like this being expressed. “Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God” (vs. 11-12).  In the beginning, woman came from man, but then, God made it so that every man has to come out of woman.  The initial dependency is transformed into interdependency.  Or, to put it in other terms, man does not command, and woman obey; man initiates, and woman responds, as an equal, in perfect mutuality.

If we look back at Paul’s analogies, we see this picture confirmed.  The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and yet (without wanting to peer too far into the mystery of inter-Trinitarian relations), their relation is one of perfect mutuality.  The Father initiates, the Son freely responds.  The Son is the equal of the Father.  The Church comes from Christ, and depends on him, and yet Christ is the firstborn of many brothers.  We are co-heirs with him.  By grace, he treats us as equals.  Christ initiates, and his Church freely responds, in a relationship characterized by mutuality.

Of course, these analogies are imperfect—they are not even strictly equivalent to one another, much less to the man/woman relationship.  And yet, perhaps they provide a clue that the concept of headship, although implying a certain kind of authority, does not imply the kind of authority that egalitarians hate.  We still have a certain kind of “complementarianism” here, but the kind that seems unavoidable.  Any river has to have a starting point.  Any organization has to have someone who’s responsible for getting things moving.  Any conversation has to be initiated by someone, or else everyone’s just going to stand there awkwardly looking at their feet.  Every dance has to have a partner who’s ready to take the first steps.  But for the Christian, this initiation serves the purpose of initiating a relationship of genuine mutuality and complementarity, in which both partners are equal participants, responding to one another.  


Of course, this does not begin to address the particulars of Paul’s commands to women, and how much they might still apply today.  Most of us are quite happy to say that the head-covering command was a culturally specific one, though “keeping silent in the churches” (14:34-35) is a bit more contentious.  The prohibition on women teaching (1 Tim. 2:12) has seemed to many to have a permanence that the earlier commands do not.  There are important arguments to be had here, to be sure, and I will not attempt to enter in to them.  It is simply worth noting that the answer to these questions is, I think, underdetermined by 1 Cor. 11:3.  It is not clear that the concept of man as kephale in the sense of “initiator,” as I have spelled it out, constitutes a blanket argument against women in the ministry.  Indeed, if we lay our emphasis on vs. 11-12, where the initial relationship of dependence is revealed to be one of of interdependence, one might say that v. 3 constitutes no bar to women’s ordination.  This, I think, would be overly hasty, but so would the conclusion that it constitutes a decisive bar.

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. 

O’Donovan, Law, and Scripture Lecture, Pt. 1

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. Jesus’s gospel proclaims love and acceptance of all, so homosexuals are not to be excluded in any sense.  
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Biblical teaching on this goes against other sources of ethical knowledge—e.g., science, or consensus.  
  3. 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. 

  1. To what extent does “law” imply a political embodiment of morality?  Does the political form of much Old Testament law make it un-generalizable?  
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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
  6. The diversity of the Scriptural text: Old Testament vs. New.
  7. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. “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.
  3. 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.  
  4. 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.  
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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…)