A Plea for Political Prudence

It pains me greatly to say anything in defense of Mitt Romney, but sometimes even the worst villain can be attacked for unfair reasons, and those reasons may be worth refuting.  Few criticisms of Romney—from the right, at least—have been so common as charges about “what he did as governor of Massachusetts.”  He brought in an Obamacare prototype, he advanced, or at the very least did not oppose, very pro-choice legislation, he was big-government, he was liberal, etc.  Now this is to be expected, naturally.  Presidential candidates, or any candidates, for that matter, are almost always judged on their history—their voting record or their governing record, and indeed, what else are we to judge them on?  We can hardly judge them based on their words, because of their appalling disregard for the truth, or their promises, because they rarely expect to keep them.  So we have to judge them on their deeds.  By their works ye shall know them, right?

 Well, yes but….  For one thing, our leaders are not absolute dictators, so not everything done on the watch of a president or a governor or a mayor was necessarily their doing, and certainly it wasn’t necessarily their preference.  But more importantly, politics is not the simple one-to-one application of pre-existing ideological commitments to the real world—at any rate, it’s not meant to be, though one could be excused, in modern America, for thinking that’s what it is.  Politics is fundamentally the art of prudence.  And prudence is all about responding differently in different circumstances, depending on what those circumstances demand.  This is especially the case in politics.  What one people or political unit needs might be quite different from what another needs.  Even if they both ultimately need the same thing, the means of accomplishing the end may be quite different in the different situations.  Different legal precedents will exist in different places, different traditions, different expectations, different pressures, different powers for the various levels of government.  None of this is to deny that leaders should be men of principle, but principles have to be applied, and their application may look very different once prudently brought to bear on all these different circumstances.  

In short, it is quite possible that Massachusetts may need to be governed in a different way than Wyoming, or than the United States as a whole.  And it is quite possible that the same man, without reneging on any matter of principle, could insist that he is going to do things differently as president, than he did as governor of a particular state.  It is quite possible that he may have supported laws and policies for a state, whether because he thought them good for its people, or because they were at least the lesser of the evils available to him there, that he would not support for the country as a whole, whether because he judges that it has a different common good, or because political circumstances allow him more room to maneuver.  

Don’t get me wrong—I have little doubt that Romney is a sly, slippery, dissembling, waffly politician.  But I do want us at least to dispense with the blind ideology that demands that someone has a 100% pure pro-life record, or a 100% pure conservative record, or whatever the case may be, refusing to grant that politics is about governing, and governing is about real-world people and institutions, not abstract principles, and real-world people and institutions call for variation and flexibility.


Two Cheers for Coercion

This week, the world of competitive swimming was engulfed by controversy as South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh admitted to using illegal “dolphin kicks” in his gold medal-winning and world record-breaking 100m breaststroke swim last week.  Of course, revelations of cheating at the Olympics are a dime-a-dozen these days, and van der Burgh’s infraction was trivial according to most.  What made it fascinating from an ethical standpoint was the purpose of the admission.  Van der Burgh was not, it appears, laboring under a guilty conscience and desperate to unburden himself of his dark secret.  He was quite casual about his admission, and made no great show of penitence nor showed any intention of relinquishing his medal.  Nor was he being hounded and threatened with investigation, of being stripped of his medal unwillingly, and so confessed to cut his losses.  On the contrary, he runs no risk of losing his medal, because only the on-the-spot umpires can enforce such violations, and although a few questions had been raised in the media, there was no great controversy or public scrutiny until after he made his remarks.  

Rather, van der Burgh voluntarily fessed up because he wanted to invite further scrutiny and controversy, he wanted the rules to be enforced more strictly.  The problem, he complained, was that FINA had made rules about what constituted illegal swimming techniques, but then had not taken the necessary steps to enforce such rules (making use of underwater footage), thus leaving athletes with the duty to be self-policing.  Van der Burgh suggested that this was an unfair burden to lay on the consciences of athletes.  He even went so far as to admit that what he had done was probably immoral, but what else could he do, since almost every other swimmer was cheating as well?  Cynics will have little difficulty in pooh-poohing this as mere spineless excuse-making, but remarkably, van der Burgh’s rivals Brenton Rickard and Brendan Hansen made no attempt to lash back (particularly remarkable in the case of Hansen, who insists that he is not among the large majority that break the rules in this way).  Hansen said,“I give him credit for actually having the guts to come out and say something and be honest because maybe that’s what it’s going to take for the organizations running swimming to use the technology at their disposal to enforce the rules.”

And while we can hardly admire him, perhaps van der Burgh does have a point.  Perhaps it really is too much to ask of athletes to be self-policing, and it’s not just the rotten ones who cheat.  If you’ve dedicated your life to a competitive sport, and what separates success and immortality from lasting mediocrity is a few tenths of a second that can be gained by one illegal maneuver, that’s a lot of temptation to bear.  And once there are a few who have already succumbed to the temptation, it becomes that much harder.  Van der Burgh clearly thinks of himself as a basically clean, right-minded athlete (and he has an impeccable record), but one who is not going to stand aside and let all his training go to waste because only those with the fewest scruples will have a chance to win.  He would much prefer not to be a cheat, and to have all temptation taken away from him by proper enforcement:  ‘‘I think only if you can bring in underwater footage that’s when everybody will stop doing it because that’s when you’ll have peace of mind to say, ‘All right I don’t need to do it because everybody else is doing it and it’s a fair playing field.’ . . . [At one competition where such footage was used] it was really awesome, because nobody attempted it [the dolphin kick].  Everybody came up clean and we all had peace of mind that nobody was going to try. . . . I’m really for it. If they can bring it, it will better the sport. But I’m not willing to lose to someone that is doing it.’’

 

If we can resist the urge to be cynical, and to ask whether competitive sport ought to be the object of such wholesale devotion, we can glean from this episode a valuable insight about the roles that law and law enforcement play in human life.  (Indeed, Victor Austin argued in an excellent paper last fall at the conference of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics—now published in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics—that we can use sports as a paradigm for understanding the function of legal structures and various sorts of authorities in society.)   For we (and I speak here autobiographically) are often tempted to view law enforcement with a skeptical or scornful eye, as something oppressive and almost intrinsically violent, as “coercion”—which of course, it is, but what a negative connotation that word carries!  Law enforcement is perhaps a necessary evil, for the bad people out there who would otherwise murder and steal, but for most of the rest of us decent people, it’s an unwanted and unneeded imposition on our liberty.  

Increasingly, indeed, the whole concept of law is an unwelcome one, intrinsically at war with the highest value—liberty.  All the evil in the world, we are told, comes from people trying to force other people to conform, and everything would run so much more smoothly if everyone was allowed to pursue their own idea of the good.  This is like saying that the ideal sport is one without rules, and without umpires, in which each competitor follows his or her own sense of what the competition demands.  In economics, this libertarianism concludes either that all individual competitors will somehow conclude that it is not in their best self-interest to cheat, because then that would provoke others to cheat still further, or else that by everyone cheating out of their own pursuit of self-interest, a better sport for all would result (a 100m breaststroke in which the competitors now do nothing but dolphin-kick!).  Of  course, this libertarian mindset has a theological parallel in Anabaptism, which likes to think that laws and coercion should be needless, because everyone should just follow the law of love, and if we suffer from the evil people who don’t, we should count ourselves privileged.  

Or perhaps we grant that yes, laws are a good thing, because they define the good for us publicly, establishing a standard so that we all know how we ought to act and what we ought to aim at.  But the chief purpose of law is instructive, not coercive.  To be sure, coercion will be necessary because there are wicked people who will refuse to pursue the good to which the laws point, heedlessly harming others, and they must be restrained.  For the Christian, though, who recognizes all laws as specifications of the law of love, this coercion is needless.  The Christian is subject to the law, but not to the sting of the law, to the guidance, but not to the enforcement, because he doesn’t need it.  The ideal, from this standpoint, is to no longer need the heteronomy of law enforcement, because one has achieved the autonomy of a conscience wholly in conformity to the end of the law.  This is more or less the standpoint proposed in Johannes Heckel’s interpretation of Luther, Lex Charitatis.  And I have argued similarly at many points.  From this perspective, we should try to encourage people to become self-policing, as FINA was doing with competitive swimming; enforcing laws by penalties simply encourages people to do the right thing out of fear and compulsion, rather than genuine love of the good.

This is true, of course, as far as it goes.  But the flaw of Heckel’s interpretation of Luther is its forgetfulness of simul justus et peccator, and so we must beware of thinking that coercion is only for the wicked, for we are all wicked.  The self-directed conscience obedient to law out of love and in no need of outward policing is indeed a good ideal, but we mustn’t forget that it is for all of us in this life only an ideal.  For this reason, the invitation to self-policing is for many of us at many times not a free grant of liberty but an intolerable burden, as we are called to struggle against self-deceptive desires that constantly distort our concept of the good and sap our will to pursue it.  Particularly when we see others around us abusing their liberty, the pressure to abandon the struggle and join them becomes unbearable, and we long to be freed from the burden of such liberty.    When we as a society make laws and grant to others the authority to hold us to them, then, we are not merely trying to protect ourselves from evildoers without but from the evildoer within each of us, and asking the common authority to carry some of the weight of the burdensome task that otherwise falls entirely on our consciences.  From this perspective, law enforcement can actually be liberating, reducing the array of temptations that would otherwise paralyze us to a manageable number, empowering us rather than encumbering us in our pursuit of the good.


If Corporations are People…

After a spell of travel-induced inactivity, I return with some more half-baked musings loosely inspired by Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands.

If corporations are people, then shouldn’t they pay the same taxes as everyone else?  Why should corporate tax rates generally be lower than personal income tax (the US is an exception here, though exemptions and loopholes mean that many companies pay far less than the 35% rate)?  If corporations are people, then why can they relocate from one jurisdiction with relative ease, without having to go through immigration and naturalization?  Why, for that matter, can they split themselves into pieces and be in several countries at once?  I certainly can’t do that.  If corporations are people, then why can they live forever?  And why shouldn’t they be beholden to those who brought them into being (viz., the government—”The state is the only institution in the world that can bring a corporation to life.  It alone grants corporations their essential rights, such as legal personhood and limited liability….Without the state, the corporation is nothing.  Literally nothing.”—Joel Bakan, The Corporation)?  My parents had enormous authority over me through my first eighteen years, but corporations, we are told, should be free from regulation by the legal regime that brought them into being.  

If we’re going to push the concept of corporate personhood to insist on “human rights” like “free speech” for corporations, then perhaps we should be consistent.  As it is, corporations are not simply persons, but highly privileged persons provided by law with opportunities and powers unavailable to most people.  

 

On a related note—

If competition is the essence of a free market, then why should the market be exempt from the constraints we apply to other forms of competition?  If I wanted to participate in the Olympics, then I would have to go through a rigorous selection procedure to ensure that I was a legitimate participant and would have to meet relevant national and international codes and standards merely for the opportunity to compete.  Once I was in, I would be subject to general rules established to minimize opportunities for cheating, bribery, etc., and to extensive tests to prove that I was not using performance-enhancing drugs.  To comply with regulations against such drugs, I would have to avoid even a number of perfectly legitimate drugs that contained restricted substances (as Andreaa Rudican so tragically learned at the 2000 Olympics).  In addition, my particular sport would be governed by a lengthy list of rules that established the manner in which I was to compete and restricted me from taking any unfair shortcuts or conduct that would unfairly sabotage my rivals.  These rules would be enforced by referees who would closely oversee the whole event and would be authorized to nullify my results or eject me from the competition if necessary.   

Of course, no doubt we could complain in some cases about bureaucratic overkill, obsessive and demeaning drug-testing, and hyperactive refereeing.  But surely we would all admit that without extensive rules setting both the terms of participation, the nature of the game, and the legitimate means that could be employed in competition, most of the organized sports that we love would be impossible.  If sprinters could dope as much as possible, they might be incredibly fast, but no one would bother to watch—the races would no longer be athletic competitions, so much as medical experiments in responsiveness to drugs.  If football players could do whatever they wanted to get the ball to the end zone, then football would degenerate into rugby.  Ok, just kidding—even rugby has rules, and plenty of them.  Football would degenerate into a brawl.  

To be sure, in an amateur pick-up game, referees will probably be unnecessary, and even rules can be somewhat loose and flexible; general goodwill and commitment to gentlemanliness may ensure that competitiveness does not get out of hand.  But the higher the level and the higher the stakes, the more precise rules are necessary—exactly when does the race start? exactly what comprises the strike zone? when is a foul a flagrant foul?—and the less one can rely on the participants to self-regulate.  Indeed, the employment of outside referees should not be seen as an insult to the integrity of the players, but as doing them a favor—with an outsider charged with making sure the rules are followed, the players can focus on playing the game, rather than always watching the other players out of the corner of their eye for violations.  They can rest assured that, even if they get carried away by emotions in the heat of competition, there’s a reasonably objective third party who will still judge clearly.

 

Free marketeers love to invoke the idea of competition.  Competition is what makes capitalism work.  But then they are prone to turn around and deny that this competition needs the kind of rules and refereeing that any other competition needs.  And yet, if anything, in business, the stakes are far higher than in football or gymnastics.  A trophy or a gold medal might be exciting, but in the end, how much depends on it?  But businesses are engaged in creating and destroying people’s livelihoods; indeed, in developing countries, business competition can be a matter of life and death for some people.  And yet, we are assured, even if football players shouldn’t be allowed to regulate themselves, corporations should.  Again, if markets are all about competition, then let’s get real and start treating them like one.


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…)