Deliberation, Obedience, and Scripture

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

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

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

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



Ethics as Spectator Sport

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

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

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

“Obedience Without Cost”: The Necessity of Moral Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Purpose of Discussion

Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World and Time, pp. 45-47:

Discussion is a shared struggle to reach truth and overcome error.  It may often unfold in an eristic form, as an exchange of arguments and rebuttals.  (We see this especially in the phenomenon of the combative personality, the individual who has difficulty thinking through anything at all without picking a quarrel, thrusting discussion-partners into the role of opponents.)  The eristic form has its own right.  Differences at the outset provide the stimulus for thought to progress dialectically.  As we know from politics, the discussion cannot get off the ground if either party denies the other the right to its independent starting point; when the condition for entering discussion is that a key point is surrendered in advance, no discussion can occur.  Paradoxically, then, discussion depends at once on conflicting assertions and on mutual concessions.  But what is asserted and what is conceded are not the same.  We may enter a discussion in perfect confidence that we are in the right against our opponent.  We may be sure that once we have explained ourselves fully, no shred of an answer can be made.  Yet we may still sense the need to prove our impregnability in a clash of steel, to gain real knowledge of what the opponent actually says when confronted with our case and to discern, if we can, what alternative reasoning can be brought to bear against our own.  Even the most confident discussant can expect to learn something from the exercise.

Let us suppose that I disapprove strongly of the death penalty, and take up the cudgels against someone who defends it.  As our discussion proceeds, certain things will become clear.  One is that there are various reasons for disapproving of the death penalty, some of which may plausibly claim a perennial moral truth, while others are more circumstantial.  If my opponent forces me to think hard, I shall understand better what social and historical conditions have made the death penalty appear reasonable to past generations, and I shall have to ask whether those conditions could ever recur.  I shall come to see that my view of the matter is part and parcel of a wider philosophy of penal justice and governmental responsibility, and I shall be forced to elucidate that philosophy more fully and to test its capacity to shed illumination on other questions, too.  None of this could I have gained from talking to those who agreed with me.  What it amounts to is that if at the end of the day I still say, ‘I disapprove of the death penalty!’ I know much better than before what I mean by it.

. . . Individual moral thinking is social not only in its beginnings but in its ends.  Our most secret deliberations, our most independent conclusions, are directed towards a community of understanding.  We think as though trying to win the approval of a judicious audience hidden in the darkness of the stalls, ready to applaud our point of view when the lights go up.  It is not simply that without a community of inquiry our thought cannot begin.  If we cannot envisage a community of agreement our thought cannot have any end in view, either.

When parties to a discussion punctuate it with decisive stands expressed in the first-person singular (‘I passionately oppose . . . !’) that is neither the beginning nor the end of moral thought.  It is a moment in-between, a moment at which the common inquiry has broken down and the common agreement at which thought is aimed has disappeared from view.  The affirmation of the ‘I’-position is a strategy for regrouping and relaunching the discussion, as when a standard is thrust into the ground and the scattered soldiers gather to it.  Rhetorical inebriation may make the standard-bearer forget that he is part of an army, but that is the logic of it.  In the moment of affirmation the ‘I’ takes responsibility for the whole, making a decision on what must be held in common by all.  And so together with the right of a distinctive point of approach must be granted also an anticipation of persuasion.  Serious discussion is entered expectantly, with a view to finding a common perspective which makes sense of an object of hope, still to be looked for; yet it is something to be discovered, not devised.  It is not a negotiated add-on to the prior private convictions of the discussants; it is the realization of those convictions, which, though they may have been held privately, were intended socially.

Omni Cui Multum Datum Est . . .

This afternoon, I submitted my Ph.D thesis, “The Freedom of a Christian Commonwealth: Richard Hooker and the Problem of Christian Liberty.”

Vital statistics: 7 chapters; 99,999 words; 333 bibliography entries; 2 appendices.

The following text appeared in the Acknowledgments section at the beginning, and I tried to make it a slightly more engaging read than your average Acknowledgments page:

Like perhaps many other things in life, a Ph.D thesis is a disconcerting combination of, on the one hand, meticulous planning and disciplined execution, and, on the other hand, the completely unforeseen and fortuitous: the chance meeting and conversation at a conference or (more often perhaps nowadays) online, the furious footnote pursued into a treasure-trove of exciting discoveries, an offhand suggestion by your supervisor that blossoms into an important new line of inquiry, the epiphany that comes during the morning walk to your desk or over your third coffee as you muse on Rachmaninov’s Third. Unfortunately, it is only the first of these categories, by far the less consequential contribution, that the lowly writer can take credit for. For the rest, he can only say, non nobis, Domine, sed Nomini Tuo da gloriam! However, it smacks suspiciously of false modesty to wax eloquent thanking God on an Acknowledgements page, a way of not-so-subtly insinuating to one’sexaminers that everything before them has God’s personal stamp of approval, being His own handiwork. Thankfully, however, God works mostly through strange and fallible secondary causes, especially those that walk on two legs, and to these it is appropriate to indulge in effusions of gratitude.

Many of these (some long dead) have made their contribution primarily through the written word, sealed up between two covers of a book; these are honored in the appropriate (though depressingly formal) way in the footnotes and bibliography that accompany this thesis, so there is little point listing them here. I will make an exception of three only. David VanDrunen, given the rather merciless beating (although with all due academic decorum) he receives in a few of the pages that follow, deserves a word of thanks here. His book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms fortuitously came my way three years ago, and set me on a quest of refutation that led me unexpectedly to this thesis (in the process of which the nature of the refutation changed dramatically, and I learned a great deal from him). He was polite enough to meet me for a beer and a somewhat confusing argument about Calvin even after I had intemperately savaged him in print—and I have no doubt he will have the graciousness to do so again next time our paths should cross. In a very different way, my debt to Torrance Kirby in various ways is evident all over the pages that follow, although he will no doubt find much to quibble with. The rich insights I have mined from his books and articles have been complemented by his patient correspondence and feedback over the past few years, during the early part of which he displayed great perseverance in trying to drill the Reformational two-kingdoms concept into my thick head. Third, of course, I must thank Richard Hooker, “of blessed memory” (as Paul Stanwood likes to always add), who has been far more to me these past two and a half years than the subject of a thesis. I hope it will not sound like sacrilege to say that his words have been a lamp for my feet, and a light unto my path in more ways than I can count, many of them well beyond the scope of this research.

For introducing me to Hooker (or re-introducing, as I had made a passing though passionate acquaintance with him during a summer study at Oxford some years ago), I must thank of course my supervisor Oliver O’Donovan, who has throughout this process guided me with a gentle but judicious hand. His suggestions have been few but carefully-chosen, and have usually yielded abundant fruit—none more so than his absurd insistence that I spend my Christmas break two and a half years ago toiling through the eight books of the Ecclesiastical Polity, which had, I thought, little bearing on my anticipated thesis topic. His wife Joan has proved an extraordinary (though again, an unforeseen) secondary supervisor, meticulously flagging the least grammatical transgression or conceptual ambiguity throughout the process. Perhaps just as important as this formal supervision has been the quirky but unfailing advice of my friend and mentor, Peter Escalante. I have had the uncanny experience, ever since stumbling upon the topic and argument of this thesis, that I was simply unfolding an idea that he had mysteriously “incepted” into my mind sometime in autumn 2010. Of this thesis it might truly be said “Peter planted, Hooker watered, and God gave the growth.” I appreciate also Peter’s willingness to read over each chapter draft as it appeared, reassuring me that yes, it was coherent enough to pass on to my supervisors for their scrutiny.

Many other friends (some of them friends formed along the way) helped by their suggestions, conversations, feedback on drafts, and penetrating questions. Steven Wedgeworth and Jordan Ballor, in particular, gave me many helpful ideas and put a number of key resources in my path; the opportunity to work with Jordan on a project on 16th-century Calvinist church discipline was especially fruitful. Andrew Fulford read over several bits of the thesis at the crucial revising stage, helping me ensure that they were polished and comprehensible enough. I also owe a debt of gratitude to my old and brilliant friend Davey Henreckson, who will no doubt be the secure occupant of a professorial chair at Yale Divinity while I’m still trying to jerry-rig my own personal theological-paedagogical revolution from my parents’ basement a few years hence. Throughout the Ph.D process, he has asked many annoying but penetrating questions, and made a number of suggestions, many of which turned out to be very useful indeed—putting me onto John Perry’s Pretenses of Loyalty, for instance. And of course my faithful friend Brad Belschner has always been there to chat things through when we have the chance to catch up every few months.

Even the rare reader inquisitive enough to read through an Acknowledgements section is likely to skip along when he encounters the section thanking family, as it is sure to be sentimental, and almost entirely unrelated to the matter of the thesis. And yet for the writer of the Acknowledgments, no section could be more important. In particular, the bit where the author thanks his wife for her extraordinary patience and longsuffering over years of penniless and seemingly pointless toil (often in a foreign land, no less), can seem quite perfunctory, and yet it is anything but. To my wife, Rachel, I am indescribably and eternally grateful for her unfailing support at every stage of the way. It may sound trivial, clichéd, or maybe even sexist to single out for gratitude the extraordinarily fine dinners that I could look forward to at the end of a day of study and writing, but few things contributed so much to the relative ease and efficiency of my work. “An army can’t move except on its stomach,” said Napoleon, and the same is true of an academic. My four-year-old son Soren has been a source of frustration as well as delight along the way, but even the former has been invaluable in keeping me grounded—such as his resort to the blunt expedient of slamming my laptop shut and saying “Don’t work!” when it was high time to call it a day. My eight-month-old angel Pippa has provided constant joy and inspiration on the crucial last leg of the thesis (and to think I was afraid she would slow it down with sleepless nights!). To thank one’s mother may seem acceptable at a high school graduation speech, but frankly embarrasing in a Ph.D thesis Acknowledgements page. And yet I must thank her once more for teaching me to write—to write essays clearly, quickly, and effectively, from a young age. Too many writers must labor simultaneously with forming their ideas and forming their words; I have been fortunate enough to be able to focus on the former and let the latter take care of themselves, thanks in large part to that training many years ago. My dad too has provided an ever-ready ear, to chat about things thesis-related, or not-so-related, throughout my Ph.D work, keeping my morale up with his humor and his uncanny willingness to agree with me.

Finally, I will thank God directly—not for the content of the thesis, but for the joy it has brought me. For too many Ph.D students, it seems, a thesis has become stale and lukewarm by the date of submission, and they are only too happy to do to it what God wanted to do to the Laodiceans. I am happy to say it is not so for me, and it is with a fond farewell that I send this thesis forth upon its voyage of examination.