“Obedience Without Cost”: The Necessity of Moral Thinking

I came upon another extraordinary passage from Oliver O’Donovan recently, this one in a lecture entitled, “What Kind of Communty is the Church?” (the 2005 Richard Hooker Lecture). It has considerable bearing, I think, on the ongoing review of Doug Jones’s Dismissing Jesus that I have undertaken here, and on what lies behind some of the concerns I have voiced.  It expresses, far more capably than I could, some of what I tried to express on this subject in reply to a comment on Pt. 1 of that review, and in a somewhat rant-ish post from earlier this year, “The Death of Evangelical Ethics“:  

“How is a true self-knowledge to be gained? Only when we place ourselves as practical agents and our situation as a practical calling in the light of Holy Scripture and allow it to illuminate and direct our practical reasoning by the truth. And that is when we acknowledge the authority of Scripture in earnest.

There is a danger that we may seem to take the authority of Scripture seriously while actually evading the challenge of this third stage. Practical reasoning can never be truncated by the reading of Scripture, as though we could arrive at our decisions without having had to reach them, merely by leaping from the quotation of a text. This danger is sometimes referred to as ‘literalism’, sometimes ‘fundamentalism’ – both quite inappropriate titles. What we have to do with here is a kind of hastiness: a quick glance that lights upon some moment in the biblical text, a quick glance that takes in some apparent feature of the contemporary situation, the immediate conclusion that this text and no other is precisely what this age needs. It is not an error confined to conservative Protestants, though we may think it typical of them; but there is justice-fundamentalism and inclusivist- fundamentalism as well as purity-fundamentalism, all of which have in common that they propose to evade the tasks of practical reason, which is actually cheating God. Scripture is given us to guide and to discipline our practical reasoning; it sets us free to engage in clear-sighted deliberation leading to decision.

Moral theologians, it sometimes seems to me, are in possession of a secret knowledge that is apparently concealed from all other theologians. They know that the most difficult question we ever have to answer is not, ‘What does Scripture mean?’, but, ‘What does the situation we are in mean?’ Those who have written about hermeneutics in terms of a fusion of two horizons, the horizon of the text and the horizon of the present day, have frequently conveyed the impression that we ourselves and our present situation are a perfectly known quantity, so that it only remains for us to go back to Scripture to pick out something relevant to what we already understand about ourselves. But Scripture proves its authority to us precisely by its capacity to shed light on ourselves and our situation at the points where we do not understand them, overcoming our preconceptions. The discernment through which we understand our own situation as agents is not given immediately in the text. It is given by the Holy Spirit as we frame questions under the illumination of Scripture about our situation. The Scripture tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbour; but whether this or that ambiguous statement we have it in mind to make to the next journalist who calls us up is false or merely discreet is something the Scripture, taken in isolation from our practical reasoning, will not tell us. We do not read about our own problems with the journalists directly in Scripture; yet it is from Scripture that we gain the categories of understanding that allow us to understand our situation and reach a judgment on how to handle our dilemmas.

To which I can imagine a certain resistance. ‘That is just another way’, someone will say, ‘of intellectualizing our relation with God. What ought to be a matter of immediate obedience becomes a rational exercise’. To which I answer. Yes, in a way; in another way, no. Yes, in that our obedience must be thoughtful obedience. Obedience without thought is obedience without cost; more exactly, it is not obedience at all, but disobedience. No, in that thoughtful obedience does not exclude the immediacy of encounter with the commanding God. On the contrary, it is as I give my mind to the witness of Scripture to God’s character and will that the Holy Spirit brings God near to me, convicts me of what God would have me do. Such moments of fear and trembling before the immediacy of the divine command may come to us, and we must be open to them. But they are not an alternative to reflective and deliberate thinking, the logike latreia, the ‘rational worship’ of Romans 12:1f., by which our minds are said to be renewed to dokimazein ta diapheronta, to ‘appreciate distinctions’.

A church living perpetually under the critical authority of Holy Scripture is protected from those hectoring voices that arise with shocking suddenness to propose radically new formal arrangements. Where such voices suddenly emerge with a terrifying and radical impact, it is a sure sign that the Church has slumbered, that it has not been attentive to its permanent task of self-reformation. For that task is a perpetual engagement in practical reasoning about the Church’s calling and mission, an engagement that has responded step by step to the new demands of its situation. A Church now waking up to find itself surrounded by fire alarms ringing on all sides must ask what it is about this task that it has been neglecting. And if we are ever to find our way out of the crisis in which we have come to be placed, it will only be by an intensive application to the tasks of thought more demanding than any that has been imagined by an intellectually complacent and sluggish Anglicanism that for generations past has squandered the once glorious legacy of reflection and interrogation that we have recalled gratefully in these two lectures.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s