God is Greater than Our Hearts

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Edinburgh

Palm Sunday 2013 (March 24th)
1 John 3:18-24

Lord, we thank you for the blessing of your Word.  We thank you, as we enter into Holy Week, that through the death and resurrection of your Son we have confidence to enter into your presence, and receive from you anything we ask.  We pray that we would receive from you hearts open to your word, hearts free from condemnation and ready to hear your comfort, minds attuned to what John is trying to tell us here.  I pray that your Spirit would speak through me today, that I might speak truly about you, and that I would be able speak to the hearts of all those present.  In the name of Christ and the power of the Spirit we pray.  Amen.

When we were very young—around age 10, I think—my sister and I went through a period of spiritual doubt.  Being a no-nonsense sort of guy, even at that age, it didn’t last too long or strike too frequently for me, but I recall that for my sister, it was something of a regular ritual.  We had picked up from somewhere—not from my parents, certainly, or even our church, but perhaps just from breathing the air in the Bible Belt—that we were supposed to “get saved” by “asking Jesus into our hearts” in a moment of prayer and penitence.  The mechanics were frustratingly vague, but the idea was that, if you prayed really hard and really meant it, that you would experience a sudden wave of peace, and confidence that Jesus was in you, and had saved you, and you now had a free pass that you would you get you to eternity, and needn’t worry again.  But of course, worry we did.  After awhile, we would wonder, “Yeah, but did I really mean it?  Did I say the words in the right order?  Did I really feel Jesus in my heart, or did I just think I did?  Maybe I should try again, to make sure.”  And so it would go, time after time.  I think my sister, being blessed with earnestness but cursed with a short attention span, must have gotten saved at least two dozen times.

By now this seems a bit silly.  But we were, in our own little way, struggling with the problem that has tormented millions of souls through the centuries—the problem of assurance.  How do we know that we belong to the truth?  How do we set our hearts at rest before him?  In hindsight, it seems clear why we had so much difficulty gaining genuine assurance this way.  “Let us love in actions and in turth, and not with words or speech.”  This prayer was just talk, and so it seemed much too easy.  The momentary peace would pass, and we would ask, “Really?  That’s it?  Nah, that can’t have done the trick; I have to try harder.  There must be more to it than that.”  And in a way, we were right.  There is more to it.  To know that we belong to the truth, we have to live it.  To know that God’s love abides in us, we must abide in love.  When God loves us, and we receive that love, he makes us into channels of his love, pouring it out on our brothers and sisters.  By living out that love, John says, “we know that we belong to the truth.”  

But this leads to the opposite problem.  If we must love in actions and in truth, how can we ever be sure that we’ve loved enough?  Have we really loved as we should?  The best of us fail over and over again.  How then can we assure our hearts before him?  One man’s struggle with this question may be said to have changed the course of history.  Many of you probably know the story of Martin Luther, and how he spent years as a devout monk, fasting, praying, ministering, doing everything he could to “love with actions and in truth” in order to set his heart at rest, and finding instead that because of it he loved God less and less.  He later wrote, “But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.”  For him, the moment of liberation came when he realized the meaning of the verse, “The just shall live by faith.”  “All at once,” he said,” I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light.”  Actually, this experience helped Luther see this passage in 1 John in a different light, as we shall see in a bit.

So John, like any pastor really, finds himself having to address both types of people.  Some people think that following Jesus is easy, a matter of saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts.  To them, John has stern words in this chapter: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”  But he knows also that for others, these stern words will be a source of anxiety.  Some people are following Christ seriously, are abiding in God’s love, and yet worry that they’re never doing enough.  For these, he wants to offer comfort.  There are some of us here who probably need to hear each message—perhaps each of us, at different points in our lives, need to hear both.  How is John to fit both messages together?  John loves to speak in paradox and in poetry, and in this passage we find him at his richest, most elusive, and most paradoxical, as he seeks to show us that abiding in love, and having faith, are not two different things, but two sides of the same coin.  For even when he speaks of our “knowing” that we are of the truth based upon our acts of love—and John uses this sort of language repeatedly in the epistle—this kind of “knowing” turns out to be not an evidential knowledge, but an experiential knowledge, a knowledge of faith.

This theme of knowing is an obsession of John’s in this epistle.  This tiny letter contains 1/10 of all of the New Testament’s occurrences of the word for “know”—ginosko.  Another 1/4 of the New Testament occurrences occur in the Gospel of John.  Why this obsession?    Well, you may remember that the context of John’s writings, especially 1 John, is the appearance of “Gnostic” groups within the church.  The word “Gnostic” comes from ginosko, because the Gnostics claimed a special inner knowledge.  They had received true enlightenment, they had received certainty.  Because they had the right ideas, they knew that they were of the truth.  How could the other Christians know?  “By loving one another?” they sneered.  How could that ever give “knowledge”?  John wants to reassure his readers that by abiding in the love of God, they can know, but their knowledge is one that comes through the experience of loving and believing, not from mystical illumination or philosophical insight. 

John is also here intentionally recalling a passage from the Gospel of John—Jesus’s Last Supper Discourse in chapters 14-17—the words and themes from that passage appear over and over in these verses.  As we begin Holy Week, we should imagine what it was like for Christ’s disciples that night, when Jesus suddenly tells them that he is about to leave them.  Jesus begins his discourse there by saying “Let not your hearts be troubled” (14:1), even though, from now on, they will have to walk by faith and not by sight.  But how will they know that Jesus is with them?  How will they know they are still following in his footsteps?  They ask this question, the same question with which we struggle, several times, and Jesus never gives a direct answer.  He never gives them a scientific or philosophical proof.  “Believe” he says.  “Love” he says.  “Abide in me,” he says.  “Listen to the Spirit.”  John gives the same answers in this passage. 

He begins by saying that we can know that we are walking with Jesus if we love in actions and in truth.  (Even though in the NIV that some of you have there, it looks like verse 19 is beginning a new thought, John is more likely starting off by referring back to verse 18.)  Now John doesn’t mean that we earn God’s love by our love for one another, but that this is how we show it and experience the reality of it.  God’s love in us can’t help but overflow into our love of one another, and our love toward one another can’t help but overflow into love God.   We love, because he loved.  This is why John says that “by this we shall know that we belong to the truth.”  

But still, we worry, with Luther, that this answer doesn’t help us.  Because we often don’t experience ourselves as loving one another in actions and in truth.  Given that we are all sinners, how can we even begin to know we are of the truth based on our actions?  Here we get to see John’s witty word-play.  In verse 20, he says, “For whenever our heart condemns us”—the word for “condemn” there is kata-ginosko—literally, “to know something against.”  This is our problem after all, isn’t it?  Our consciences know us too well.  They know about that time that we did close our heart against a brother in need, that time when we hated our sister, that time when we refused to forgive our parents, that time when we envied our coworkers or spoke evil of our boss.  If we stop to ask ourselves, “Do we love in actions and in truth?” our hearts will rush forward like a crowd of tattling children, ready to accuse us before God, to remind us just how unloving we are.  We want to know that we are in the truth, that we abide in God, but instead, our hearts know too much against us.  No, we can’t be.  Maybe we’re just not cut out to be Christians after all.  

But what looks like humility here turns out to be pride.  In our pride, we refuse to listen to what God says about us, we refuse to hear the word of forgiveness.  Soren Kierkegaard speaks of “a pride too cowardly to submit to being helped, anguish for sin which shuns holy cleansing as disease shuns medicine.”  And in one of his books he has a great discussion of what he calls “the sin of despairing over one’s sin.”  When we do this, we may feel like we are hating sin more than anything, by recognizing how serious it is, but actually, we are giving ourselves over to sin.  We are listening to sin and to Satan (who is called “the Accuser” throughout Scripture) instead of to God.  When we do this, says Kierkegaard, sin “insists on listening only to itself, on having dealings only with itself; it closes itself up within itself, indeed, locks itself inside one more inclosure, and protects itself against every attack or pursuit by the good by despairing over sin.”  When we do this, we often say, “I can never forgive myself.”  This is technically true, because indeed we have no power to forgive ourselves; only God can forgive sins.  But then we go further and say, “God can never forgive me.”  What is this but to set ourselves against God?  To tell him that he can’t do what he’s promised?  This is us pretending to be greater than God.  But no, says John.  You are not greater than God, whenever your heart condemns you.  “God is greater than our hearts, for he knows all things.”  Your heart may think it’s so clever and sophisticated and serious about sin, because it knows something against you, but guess what?  God knows all that and more.  God is greater.

John’s image here is like a courtroom, in which we are arguing with our conscience, trying to convince our heart of our innocence, despite everything it knows against us.   We are losing the battle.  Witness after witness is called in on the other side.  But then in steps God, and he has the trump card.  “I know everything,” he says, “and you need not fear.”  

But why should this be a comfort?  If God knows everything about us, shouldn’t we be more terrified?  If our heart knows something against us, and God is greater than our hearts, how much more must he know against us!  He knows every evil thought, and secret desire, every bad motive, from when we were conceived until now.  Actually, this is how most scholars had been reading this verse all through the Middle Ages.  You had better love in actions and in truth, because if you don’t, and your heart condemns you, God is greater, and knows more, and will condemn you all the more.  But Luther came along and said no, that is not what this verse means; that is not what John is trying to tell his readers.  “If you lack works, yet you should not lack faith.  Even if persuasion is lacking, yet faith and hope are greater.  Although we should consider ourselves unworthy, yet we should accept the grace that is offered and the Gospel.  Even if our conscience makes us fainthearted and presents God as angry, still ‘God is greater than our heart.’  Conscience is one drop; the reconciled God is a sea of comfort.”  God knows all things, he knows everything we ever did, and yet he says that he loves us.  Our conscience rushes forward, ready to condemn, “But what about the time I did this terrible sin?”  But God does not need to listen.  God already knows about that.  

We see this over and over in the Gospels.  Early in his Gospel, John tells us, “Jesus did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.”  This sounds ominous.  But then, how does it play out?  He comes to the woman at the well in chapter four, and “tells her everything she ever did,” as she puts it.  He knows that she has had five husbands, and is currently having an affair with a sixth man.  And yet what is his word to her?  “I will give you water springing up unto eternal life” (4:14).  In chapter 8, the Pharisees bring before him an adulterous woman.  He knows all about her sin.  And what is his word to her?  “Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more” (8:11).  And in Luke chapter 7, there is “the woman who was a sinner,” as she is described, who comes in to a dinner party and anoints Jesus’s feet with oil.  The host, Simon, is appalled, and mutters, “If Jesus were really a prophet, he would know how wicked this woman was and wouldn’t let her touch him” (7:39).  But Jesus does know, he knows all about it, and what does he say to her?  “Your sins are forgiven you.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50).  

See, God knows all things, which means he knows one thing certainly that we, in our sin, can never seem to get a handle on—who he is, what he is like.  He knows that he is a forgiving God.  More than that, he knows what Jesus has done, what he has done in Jesus.  This sacrifice, this forgiveness, is always before his mind, whereas we are prone to forget and doubt it.  There is a beautiful hymn that declares, “Between our sins and their reward, we set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.”  And that pretty much sums it up.  We are in a courtroom, our conscience condemning us, and we, powerless to defend ourselves, and in comes God, God who is greater than our hearts, and he holds up before the court a lamb, the lamb that was slain for us, and says, “Your sins are forgiven you.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

But we will still object.  How do we know this forgiveness is for us?  After all, it’s not for everyone, is it?  But John is speaking to us, us who have heard the word of life, who have heard Christ’s proclamation of forgiveness and his new commandment that we love one another, and who have tried to keep it.  This is why our heart condemns us, is it not?   If we didn’t even care about loving in actions and in truth, if we never bothered with the whole business at all, why would we find ourselves there, in an argument with our conscience?  Some people shut their hearts against their brother and against the love of God, and go their merry way.  But that’s not what John is talking about.  He is talking those who hear this command to love, and say, “Yes, I want to do that.  I want the love of God to abide in me.  But I’m just not doing good enough.”  “Aha!” says John, “Just what I needed to hear.  Come to Christ and hear his comfort. Jesus says, ‘Your faith has saved you.’”

I love the story in the Gospels about a man who begs Jesus to come and heal his demon-possessed son.  “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” he cries.  Jesus replies, “If you can?  All things are possible to him who believes.”  The man answers “Lord, I believe.  Help thou mine unbelief!” (Mk. 9:22-24).  Isn’t this all of us?  How often do we find ourselves crying out this way to God?  “Yes God, yes, I believe, or want to believe, your promise.  Please help my unbelief.  I want to love you, please help my unlove.”   And who is it who helps us in our weakness?  It is the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus promises to send in his Last Supper discourse.  And so we have the same promise here at the end.  How do we know that we abide in God and he in us?  How do we know that we are in Christ, that his love flows through us?  By the visible evidence of our love for others, yes, but that will not always be enough to convince our fickle hearts.  “By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”

By this we come to the point where our heart does not condemn us, where we have confidence before him, confidence that we are in the truth, confidence that the love of God will make itself visible in our lives, confidence that we can come into the presence of God in prayer, and ask him whatever we want.  John says here “we receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.”  This sounds odd, doesn’t it?  Whatever we ask?  So, if I obey God perfectly (which I won’t do in any case), I could ask him anything, and he’d just do it?  He’d make my son sleep through the night?  No, this isn’t the idea.  John returns to this in chapter 5—”This is the confidence which we have before him, that if we ask anything according to His will, he hears us.”  But isn’t that just circular?  What’s the point of asking if it’s already according to his will?  God’s already decided what he’s going to do.  But this isn’t John’s point.  The point is that when we are believing in Christ and obeying his commandment to love, we are becoming like him—our own wills are becoming conformed to his.  We abide in Him and He in us.  For this reason, we learn to want the same things he wants, and to ask him for the things he wants to give.  As we grow closer and closer to him, we have greater and greater confidence that we are walking in his will, and hence, when we come before him in prayer, we will receive that which we are asking for.  And again, our guarantee in this is the Spirit within us, who, as Paul says, comes to help us in our weakness when we try and pray: “for we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).

As we come to the beginning of Holy Week, we too should be turning, with John here, back to the words of Jesus in the Last Supper discourse.  “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he said.  Why?  Because although he was going away, it was for our sake that he went away, to make a way for us to come before the Father with confidence, fearing no condemnation.  And he promises that we will not be left alone, in doubt and worry.  For after Good Friday and Easter come Pentecost.  “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

Therefore, let us love in actions and in truth, let us love God whom we have not seen with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and let us love our brothers and sisters whom we have seen as ourselves.  And whenever our heart condemns us, let us listen not to the accusing voice of sin, but to the testimony of the Spirit, for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.

May God give us the grace to listen to Him today.

Eschatology: A Guide for the Perplexed

The following was presented as a lecture for the “Faith Seeking Understanding” course of the Partnership for Theological Education in Edinburgh on Tuesday, March 19.

Much of Christian theology is driven by the concept of salvation.  But what does it mean to be saved? Although we have a special name for the doctrine of salvation, “soteriology,” all areas of theology relate to this question.  For we must ask why we need to be saved—that is, what we are saved from; how we are saved and by whom; and what the point of it us, that is, what we are saved to.  Our doctrines of creation and the fall, of theological anthropology, attempt to tell us why it is we need to be saved, what it is we are being saved from.  Christology, soteriology  and ecclesiology all address the questions of who it is that saves us and how.  This leaves us with the question of just what it is we are saved to, and that is what “eschatology” is about.

In much of the tradition of Christian theology, but perhaps especially in Protestantism, and perhaps especially especially in evangelicalism, there has been a tendency to think of salvation almost exclusively in personal/individual terms, and almost entirely as a matter of the afterlife.  To be saved means to be promised that I, as an individual, will have a happy afterlife in the presence of God.  Of course, we also have all this biblical language about the end of the world, about “the new heavens and the new earth,” but this has often been treated as something quite different.  Eschatology, then (literally, the study of the “last things”), has often been subdivided into two branches, one concerned with our individual judgments at death, and the other concerned with the end of the world. Read More

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…)

Love and Law: A Protestant Conundrum

One way of characterizing an ongoing tension in early Protestant political theology, I will suggest, is as a tug-of-war between articulations of civil obedience in the key of Romans 13:1 and of Romans 13:8.  Both can claim Luther as an heir; both are attempts to square the crucial doctrine of Christian liberty with an ongoing duty to obey the legitimate authority of the magistrate.  On the one hand, liberty could be absolutely closeted away in the spiritual kingdom, and an uncompromising demand for obedience proclaimed in the civil kingdom.  Certainly many have seen this as the legacy of Luther’s political theology—Quentin Skinner in particular.  This strand of Protestant political thought rests exegetically on a peremptory invocation of Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  To the question, “How can we be conscience-bound to obey civil law if by Christian liberty, we are bound only to God” this line of argument answered simple, “To obey the magistrate is to obey God.  Therefore you are conscience-bound.”

 On the other hand, another line of reflection could take its cue from Luther’s fascinating “free lord of all/dutiful servant of all” dialectic, in which the Christian’s outward subjection in this life was compatible with his inner freedom because the Christian was one who, by love, subjected himself to authority for the sake of others.  As Luther puts it beautifully in The Freedom of a Christian:

“A man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body to work for it alone, but he lives also for all men on earth; ratherhe lives only for others and not for himself. To this end he brings his body into subjection that he may the more sincerely and freely serve others. . . . Man, however, needs none of these things for his righteousness and salvation.  Therefore he should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbour. . . . This is a truly Christian life.  Here faith is truly active through love, that it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.”  

This kind of political theology could be said to rest (although as a matter of fact, it very rarely did exegetically) on Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything except to love one another.”

Moreover, one might characterize Romans 13:5 as the real crux in this tug-of-war: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”  It was possible to take “wrath” to mean “human wrath and punishment” and “conscience” correspondingly to mean “fear of divine wrath and punishment,” since, after all, to disobey the political authorities is simply to disobey God in them.  This emphasis of course tends to have the effect of squelching the law-of-love approach, of rendering Christian liberty altogether irrelevant to the discussion.  But on the other hand, it was possible to take this “but also” as really a “but instead” and to take conscience as meaning “for the sake of love”; since “perfect love casts out fear,” the Christian’s political obedience is to be one motivated by love—love of neighbour preeminently—not fear (you will recall this as a common theme of some of my own reflections on Romans 13).  Martin Bucer was perhaps picking up on something like this in his exegesis of Romans 13:5: “But because it is necessary for us to be subjected to them from the soul and voluntarily, not coercively, it is then expressed: ‘Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not on account of wrath only, but also on account of conscience.'”


It is fascinating to observe this tug-of-war in two of the greatest early Protestant systematicians, Melanchthon and Calvin.  

We find the latter emphasis in Melanchthon’s 1521 Loci (“if they command anything that is for the public good, we must obey them in accordance with Rom. 13:5: ‘Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.’  For love constrains us to fulfill all civil obligations.”), but it is gone by the 1555 edition, where the passage is now glossed as reminding us that human laws “can bind us to eternal punishment.”  In the 1541 Epitome Moralis Philosophiae, this darker tone heavily predominates, with Melanchthon taking the first motive of 13:5 to refer to human wrath and the second motive, “conscience,” to refer to divine wrath: “And if we obey not, he saith that he will revenge it . . . with eternal torments after this life, except we do repent.”  Nonetheless, in his treatment of ecclesiastical laws, Melanchthon still emphasizes that our obedience is dictated by the law of love, our recognition that laws of order are necessary for the peace and edification of the church, and that to violate them will likely cause offense and discord.

Calvin’s emphasis is much clearer, carefully developing throughout IV.10 an account of obedience to church laws that it is dependent on the law of charity, rather than making such laws binding in themselves.  Moreover, unlike Melanchthon, he recognizes the need to apply the same standard to civil laws, which he discusses in explicit engagement with Romans 13:5, concluding, “human laws, whether made by magistrate or by church, even though they have to be observed (I speak of good and just laws), still do not of themselves bind the conscience.  For all obligation to observe laws looks to the general purpose, but does not consist in the things enjoined.”  The suggestion here is that insomuch as laws serve the common good, to obey them is to love the neighbor, and to disobey them, indeed, even to disobey otherwise unhelpful laws, will cause offence and disorder and hurt the common good; hence, the law of love calls us to free submission to the laws.  Nonetheless, even Calvin proves uneasy about the implications of this, implying as it does that, if a subject judges that a law can be disobeyed without hurt to the neighbor, he is free to disobey.  Accordingly, the explicit discussion of civil authority in IV.20 of the Institutes is developed largely within the key of 13:1, not 13:8. 


And what about for the greatest 16th-century systematician of them all—Hooker?  Ah, now that is an interesting question . . . and for the answer, you’ll have to wait for the thesis. 😉