Deliberation, Obedience, and Scripture

Another gem from the O’Don, this time on the relation of Christian ethics to Scripture:

“Ethics reflects on the conditions of good moral thinking .  Were it to posit an ideal relation of text to action which, in the name of obedience to scriptural authority, effectively abolished thinking, it would abolish morality, and thereby abolish itself.  There is a necessary indeterminacy in the obedient action required by the faithful reading of the text.  Acts are ordered in a basic repertoire of kinds and types, and of these kinds and types Scripture has a great deal of normative force to tell us; but Scripture does not determine the concrete act itself , the act we must perform now .  If Scripture totally determined our actions, there would be no obedience, for there would be no deliberation.  Deliberation does not simply repeat what it has heard; it  pursues the goal of faithful and obedient action by searching out actions, possible within the material conditions that prevail, which will accord with the content of the testimony of Scripture.  On the conditions of success in this pursuit Ethics as a theological discipline reflects.  Those Anglicans between the Reformation and the English Civil War who took issue with the Puritan use of Scripture, did so in defense of faithful and obedient discipleship as they understood it.  Hooker’s advocacy of ‘reason,’ often misunderstood in later generations, saw it as a hermeneutic servant of the text, giving concrete deliberative form to the normative demand:

‘For whereas God hath left sundry kinds of laws unto men, and by all those laws the actions of men are in some sort directed; they [the Puritans] hold that one only law, the Scripture, must be the rule to direct in all things, even so far as to the “taking up of a rush or a straw.”  About which point there should not need any question to grow . . . if they did but yield to these two restraints: the first is, not to extend the actions whereof they speak so law as that instance doth import of taking up a straw . . . the second, not to exact at our hands for every action the knowledge of some place of Scripture out of which we stand bound to deduce it, as by divers testimonies they seek to enforce; but rather as the truth is, so to acknowledge, that it sufficeth if such actions be framed according to the law of Reason; the general axioms, rules, and principles of which law being so frequent in Holy Scripture, there is no let but in that regard even out of Scripture such duties may be deduced by some kind of consequence.’ (LEP II.1.2).”
—O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time , p. 77

(See also “Obedience Without Cost: The Necessity of Moral Thinking“)



Ethics as Spectator Sport

No sooner have I announced a blogging hiatus, than I have stumbled upon another gem of a passage in O’Donovan’s Self, World, and Time  (which I continue to dip in and out of) which simply must be shared.

“But here a danger arises: in its zeal to improve the quality of moral thinking Ethics can become programmatic, fastening on a single moment in the discursive processes of moral thought and constructing an account exclusively in terms of that moment.  The opening sentence of Kant’s Grundlegung  [“It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation, except a good will“]  is the paradigm instance of this zeal, so peremptory, so unqualified in its reconstruction of all our natural ways of thinking that it struck the mind of revolutionary Europe with the numinousness of a divine revelation, which unfortunately it was not.  Something very similar is afoot with Mill’s ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ principle, or, indeed, with R.M. Hare’s employment of the Golden Rule.  So there developed the fashion that anyone with an observation to make about a moral concept—H.R. Niebuhr’s useful observations on responsibility, for example—had to present it in the form of a new moral program, an ‘Ethic of X,’ which proposed to drive its rivals from the field.  Ethics became a Battle of the Titans in which the rival Grundmotiven pitted against one another their capacity to save the appearances while reconstructing moral thought in terms of a single ruling idea.  And as commonly happens with such battles, there was generated a secondary form of Ethics as a spectator sport, conducting a running commentary on the struggle from the sidelines: ‘Now the Utilitarians say this. . . . Now the Kantians reply . . .’ etc. etc.  In which stultifying form the educational cultures of Europe and North America, as though resolved to produce a generation more unfitted for life than any of its predecessors, imposed the teaching of Ethics (in place of religion) upon senior high school students.  The battles were less real than computer games, their protagonists never more than two-dimensional reductions of a dense and complex moral experience” (72-73).

And I had wondered all these years if it was just something wrong with me that I found the usual presentation of Ethics within higher education sterile and cartoonish.  No wonder I found myself inclined to do something useful with my life and become a teacher of Historical Theology instead. . . .  

Another Blogging Hiatus

Apologies to all for my inactivity these past couple weeks, which is likely to continue, I’m afraid, for another week or two.  I will be defending my Ph.D dissertation, “The Freedom of a Christian Commonwealth,” on October 2nd, and the demands of preparing for that, as well as travel, illness, and other responsibilities, have forced me to postpone completion of my Dismissing Jesus review, as well as most other writing, until at least after the defense. 

I have written a couple items for other venues, however, which Id encourage you to check out.  One, “On the Follies of Contraceptive Historiography,” is a critique of Peter Lake and the sterile methodological orthodoxy he seems to impose on historical theology, and was recently posted at The Calvinist International.  Another, a two-part series on Edward Snowden, surveillance, and the “right to privacy,” will appear this Friday and next on

Surely God Wouldn’t Let Climate Change Happen

There’s been a renewed burst of climate change contrarianism going around the interwebs, fuelled by the factoid that arctic sea ice has increased dramatically this year (never mind that it’s only risen relative to last year, by far the worst year on record).  The actual factual claims here have been amply debunked by others, but it’s led to a couple interesting discussions over the last week, including one with a friend who posed to me some of the arguments one commonly meets in American Reformed denialist circles.  My response grew long enough that I thought it worth sharing as a blog post. Read More

The Way of Enemy Love: Dismissing Jesus, A Critical Assessment, Pt. 7

In the past installments of this series of reviews, I have made an effort to tread the thin and delicate line of constructive criticism: on the one hand, I genuinely valued many of the things the book was trying to do, and wanted to affirm and advance them; on the other hand, I was genuinely concerned about points of confusion, unclarity, or just plain error, and wanted to draw attention to them when they were significant enough to have negative consequences.  In considering the ways of Weakness and Renunciation (chs. 2 and 3) I coordinated these two objectives by couching my reviews as calls for further clarification, and pointing out how the unclarity could in fact conspire to deprive Jones’s readers of exactly what they most needed—principles for practical action.  In considering the ways of Deliverance and of Sharing, on the other hand, my approach consisted more of attempting to ground a similar practical agenda (at least, so far as Jones’s practical agenda was discernible) in different, firmer theological soil, pointing out how failure to do so could render very good practices—works of mercy and of sharing—spiritually destructive.

In this chapter, I am afraid I shall have to take a blunter approach, although I hope that none will be offended.  In this chapter, the lack of clarity and equivocation is combined with so sweeping an attack on traditional Christian teaching that it is difficult to salvage anything constructive.  Taken alone, either of these might be frustrating, but might still leave us with a good deal to learn or at least converse with.  The real problem arises, as I sought to outline in Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 of this review, when these two tendencies are combined.  If you want to raise the stakes and condemn the mainstream of Christian practice and teaching for abandoning the way of Christ, this might be unfair or inappropriate, but if your terms are clear and your arguments incisive, you can at least prompt a fruitful debate and discussion.  On the other hand, if you write an ordinary work about theology or Christian living, and don’t define your terms all that well and lapse into occasional contradictions, readers might not gain that much from the book, but at least others may be encouraged to try and refine your arguments to more fruitful ends.  But if you raise the stakes—God vs. Mammon, the way of salvation vs. the way of destruction—and at the same time, indulge in constant equivocation, then the result can hardly be edifying.

PrintTo be sure, as a destructive takedown of contemporary American bloodlust and militarism, some of Jones’s polemics obliquely hit home; though for a somewhat clearer and more useful rendition of this, readers might simply skip to chapter 17, “American Mars.”  But aside from the general sense that many of us American Christians might be compromised by too permissive an embrace of the ways of war and violence, and that we might do well to take more seriously Christ’s blessing of “the peacemakers, it is,” readers are given very little which they can use, and quite a bit that they could readily abuse.

Don’t get me wrong.  None of this is to “dismiss Jesus” or the idea that we need to take a good, long, hard look at our attitudes toward violence.  Few Christians, perhaps, have given serious thought to what it means to love enemies (whether on the battlefield or in their personal lives), or wrestled earnestly with the ethics of war.  While I have, after much wrestling and questioning, settled fairly securely into just war camp, I have great respect for sincere and thoughtful pacifists, and have read with profit and appreciation the writings of Yoder and Hauerwas on this subject, as well as the just-war theories of Paul Ramsey and Oliver O’Donovan. Read More