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…)


The Bricks of Scripture

“The items in a code stand to the moral law as bricks to a building.  Wisdom must involve some comprehension of how the bricks are meant to be put together.  This has an immediate bearing on how wwe read the Bible.  Not only is it insufficient to quote and requote the great commands of the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount (and there are still many who need persuading of this, in practice if not in theory); but it would be insufficient even if we added to them, if we could compile a complete list of things commanded or prohibited; it would be insufficient even if we included in such a list, with a shrewd awareness of the relativity of semantic forms, principles derived from other modes of moral teaching in the Bible, such as stories, parables, and lments.  

We will read the Bible seriously only when we use it to guide our thought towards a comprehensive moral viewpoint, and not merely to articulate disconnected moral claims.  We must look within it not only for moral bricks, but for indications of the order in which the bricks belong together.  There may be some resistance to this, not only from those who suspect that it will lead to evasions of the ‘plain’ sense of the Bible’s teaching, but from those who have forebodings of a totalitarian theological construction which will legislate over questions where it would be better to respect the Bible’s silence.  But in truth there is no alternative policy if we intend that our moral thinking should be shaped in any significant way by the Scriptures.  For it requires only very limited talents at scepticism to raise doubts about the application of any biblical teaching, however plain, to any situation whatever; and if, when such doubts have once been raised, we are denied any biblical recourse in quieting them, then we are doomed to think the Scriptures inconclusive for any question that is worth stopping to doubt about in the first place.  The result will be tht all important moral questions will be settled explicitly on non-biblical lines.  It hardly needs to be added that it is constantly stressed in the New Testament itself that to understand the moral law of the Old Testament we must attend to the principles of order which are to be found within it.” — Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 200


Indifference that Makes a Difference

Just what are adiaphora–“things indifferent”?  Regular readers will know that this concept, so central to the magisterial Reformation, has become a key theme not only of my thesis work, but of my ethical and theological reflection in general in the past year.  They may also have noticed that, however important, it is a highly unstable and ambiguous concept.  In a recent thesis chapter draft, I explored three different contexts in which the term might be used, and was used during the Reformation–exactly how one correlates the three, I think, makes a great deal of difference.  

The ancient Cynics, who coined the term, sought to designate all externals as adiaphora, identifying virtue solely with the interior quality of the self-sufficient soul.  The Stoics, who adopted the term as well, were inclined to be more guarded, treating all externals as adiaphora but still distinguishing between those things absolutely neutral and those that were such as to be generally preferred or rejected, although not intrinsically and in all cases good or evil.  The extreme Cynic position had few subsequent takers, although it made a sort of reappearance in Peter Abelard’s radical voluntarism, which asserted that “apart from intention all human actions, considered in themselves, are indifferent.”

Many other Church Fathers and medieval theologians tended to adapt the Stoic usage, qualifying it still further, and seeking to correlate it with the class of actions neither commanded nor forbidden, but “permitted” by the divine law of Scripture.  Luther, who made the concept of adiaphora so central to his doctrine of Christian liberty, came close to reviving the Cynic radicalism of the concept by the way he tied it to justification by faith.  Since we are saved and accepted before God by faith and faith alone, Luther could argue, all human works are completely indifferent, and no deed done in faith and love is to be preferred or valued over any other.  Having unleashed this antinomian spectre, however, Luther was quick to qualify, dialectically balancing this stark solfidianism with a renewed emphasis on the usefulness of the law and the importance of works of charity within the Christian life.  

This very brief survey suggests already at least three different contexts for the term adiaphora: 1) moral philosophy; 2) epistemology 3) soteriology.  First, adiaphora could be employed in the moral philosophical context of determining what sorts of human actions were intrinsically good or evil, which were good or evil depending on intention, circumstance, and object, and which were absolutely indifferent considered in themselves.   (Of course, this question presupposes the ability to define an “action,” since, defined atomistically enough, any action could be considered morally indifferent, whereas defined holistically enough, even the most insignificant action could take on moral dimensions.)  One might also distinguish between actions so good that we are morally obliged to perform them, and goods that are merely recommended, not required, treating the latter as in some sense adiaphorous.  This distinction, with its sense of “things necessary” and “things accessory,” quickly connects up, in a theological context, with the soteriological dimensions to be explored below.

For the Christian, whose chief rule of moral conduct was the Scripture, the concept of adiaphora could be used in an epistemological dimension, to delineate those areas of action on which Scripture remains silent.  Where Scripture speaks, we have direct knowledge of the good and are obliged to act accordingly; where Scripture does not speak, however, the good has been left undetermined, and it is up to us to discern and apply it as we see fit.  Of course, this need not mean it is wholly undetermined–it may be thoroughly determined by natural law or other sources of moral authority–only that it is not prescribed in Scripture and has been left up to human discretion.  Unfortunately, this use of the concept only partially overlaps with the first sense, as there are a great number of actions that, from a moral-philosophical standpoint, are intrinsically indifferent, which are nonetheless either commanded or forbidden in Scripture (particularly in the ceremonial code of the Old Testament, but also, as Hooker will contend, in certain church orders and ceremonies of the New Testament).  So some things morally indifferent are not Scripturally indifferent; likewise, many things Scripturally indifferent are not morally indifferent.  

Finally, particularly among the Reformers, the concept of adiaphora takes on a crucial soteriological dimension.  Following from Luther’s assertion of justification by faith, and of the “two realms” of Christian existence, Protestant theologians could distinguish between the salvific “spiritual kingdom” of Christian existence coram Deo and the indifferent “temporal kingdom” coram hominibus.  The former contained those things “necessary to salvation” (on the most minimal definition, passive faith merely, though with suitable qualifications, others could be added to this category); the latter contained those things “accessory to salvation” and thus ultimately indifferent for Christian soul.  Again, important as this way of putting things was for supporting the Protestant edifice of justification by faith, it sat somewhat uncomfortably with the other dimensions of the adiaphora concept.  After all, just because lying to your brother does not exclude you from salvation does not mean that it was morally indifferent; nor, just because feeding the hungry cannot win heaven for you does not mean that there is no moral virtue in such a deed.  And, as both these examples show, many deeds could be either commanded or forbidden in Scripture even if, on this soteriological definition, they were “not necessary.”  


Clearly, a great deal was at stake in how one explained adiaphora–the relation of faith and works, of Scriptural authority and natural law, of visible and invisible Church–so it is no wonder that this became such a crucial battleground in Puritan-conformist polemics.  The Puritans, it seemed, were tempted to too closely identify the second dimension with the first, so that Scripture became the only rule to determine the moral goodness of an action–as Hooker summarizes, “That the Scripture of God is in such sort the rule of humaine actions, that simply whatsoever we doe, and are not by it directed thereunto, the same is sinne.”  By virtue of this confusion, anything commanded in Scripture was seen as intrinsically good, and anything forbidden intrinsically evil; there was no need for any other moral-philosophical criterion of goodness.  And lest by this erasure of other criteria, a large sphere of actions be left wholly indifferent, Scripture must be assumed to speak comprehensively on all morally relevant issues, so that very little could really be accepted as “adiaphora” in the epistemological sense.  Indirectly, this conception also tended to obscure the soteriological dimension, so that now matters formerly considered “accessory,” being commanded in Scripture and therefore morally obligatory, were taken to be “matters of faith and salvation.”  

The flip side of this was that conformist apologists, starting too from the second dimension but unable to see in Scripture the profusion of commands that the Puritans read there, could point to Scripture’s formal silence on an issue and conclude thereby that the matter was in every meaningful sense indifferent–left up to essentially arbitrary human judgment, morally and soteriologically insignificant.  Or else, still worse, they might exclusively emphasise the third dimension in a way that led to quietism and fatalism.  If only a very few things were necessary to salvation, then everything else was essentially free for human authority to devise as it thought best–even if Scripture addressed other subjects, its commands here were not to be taken in any permanently binding sense, since these matters were adiaphorous and changeable.  So Thomas Starkey could argue in the 1530s that that the English people should concern themselves with little more than the Apostles’ Creed; whatever else the authorities might see fit to legislate for the Church of England, they should not trouble themselves about it.  So Whitgift could contend in the 1570s, with Calvinist fatalism, that as the availability of right doctrine was the only prerequisite for God to call sinners to himself, it little mattered what other spiritual provision the Church of England offered.  

In this, as in so much else, it fell to Hooker to offer a more adequate statement, accepting the centrality of the third dimension without allowing it to arbitrarily trump the second, or become confused with the first.   

  


Public Theology and the Bible as Gift

Last summer at the Winchester conference, Andrew Bradstock, the director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, presented a brilliant paper entitled, “The Bible and Public Theology,” and was kind enough to send me a copy of the paper afterward (and permit me to share some of it here).  I have been intending, for the past four months, to post something here summarizing and reflecting on some of the most fruitful and provocative insights of the paper, and at last I am getting around to it.  

 

Bradstock began with the vexing questions that have lain at the heart of my own work for the past three years: “Is it appropriate to introduce the Bible into public debate and, if so, how, when and to what purpose? Is it sufficient . . . simply to quote texts and assume that that makes your point or ‘clinches’ the argument? Can we take it for granted that, because we may invest a degree of ‘authority’ in Scripture, others will too?”  As someone deeply engaged in the project of “public theology,” Bradstock is eager to put the Bible back at the centre of this project, while avoiding the pitfalls that accompany many naive attempts at Christian forays into the public square.   

What is “public theology,” though?  Bradstock offered the following definition: 

“public theology is concerned with bringing a theological perspective to bear upon contemporary debates in the public square, drawing upon the insights of the Christian faith and offering its contribution as ‘gift’ to the secular world.”

However, despite a widespread interest in making use of a “theological perspective” and the “insights of the Christian faith,” many public theologians, he said, had been reticent to say too very much about how the Bible relates to the public, perhaps because Scripture is rarely perceived as a “gift” by the secular world.  However, Bradstock argued forthrightly “that a genuine public theology must emerge from an honest and open engagement with Scripture” and that “it is surely difficult to define as authentically ‘Christian’ any form of theology which accords no significant place to the text held by all the main Christian traditions as to some degree authoritative with respect to faith and practice.”

This should not be difficult, Bradstock contended, since, as he quotes David Neville, “A collection of texts that begins with the creation of the cosmos and ends with its renewal in the form of a city can hardly be said to focus on the private, rather than public, sphere”–the Biblical narrative, and the kingdom that is established in the course of it, have profound and pervasive implications for political life.  

 

But having established all this, we are still left with the very difficult question of how a collection of texts written thousands of years ago in a completely different cultural and political context can have anything concrete to say to public issues in our own world today–either Scripture remains concrete and specific, and hence fails to correspond to anything within our own political lives, or else it is abstracted to such a level of generality that it becomes vacuous, and capable of supporting thoroughly contrary political programs.  

But perhaps our dilemma is not quite that insoluble: “what public theology will want to argue is that, while of course the specific contexts from which the Bible narratives emerged bear little or no resemblance to situations we encounter today, the essential nature of the world, and humanity, has not changed” and hence we will not need to look far to find analogies between problems our own world faces and problems addressed by the Biblical text.  The goal will then be not to try to “apply” Scripture “willy nilly to contemporary situations,” “but rather . . . to engage the two in a dialogic, conversational and altogether more ‘dynamic’ way.”

Such a dialectic, it seems, is necessary if Scripture is to genuinely become alive for our own world in our own day, but of course, it certainly risks privileging our own modern perspective in a way that silences the voice of the Biblical text.  I was particularly struck by this when Bradstock approvingly cited Bauckham, cautioning against arguing “that since education in biblical times was not a government responsibility it should nowadays be left purely to parental responsibility, as it was then, [which] makes no more sense than to argue that in accordance with biblical precedence governments should not legislate for road safety.”  

Of course, while I would tend to agree that in this particular example, the argument from Biblical precedent is illegitimate, I know a great many people who really do argue in this sort of way.  And the problem is that they do have a bit of a point.  How much can we really separate the form of Biblical political life from its content?  Can we take principles of justice for a decentralized, agrarian society and employ them in modern nation-states, while discarding the form of ancient political organization as entirely irrelevant?  Theonomists reject this form/content distinction, arguing, for instance, that it is not merely the list of crimes that is normative, but the penal code that addressed those crimes.  This is altogether too wooden, and yet one does not want to hastily cast out the idea that we can learn something about how a community should be organized and what sort of things a government should do by looking at the Biblical narrative.  For instance, can the Jubilee law simply be abstracted from its agrarian context into an ethical principle to be used in modern debt relief, or should we also be willing to consider the possibility that it has something to tell us about better forms of social organization–that perhaps we need to recover aspects of agrarian life?  If we are too careless with discarding the form in favor of the content, we risk “plundering the Old Testament ‘as though it were so much raw material to be consumed, in any order and in any variety of proportions, in the manufacture of [our] own theological artefact’” as Bradstock quotes O’Donovan warning.

Nonetheless, as Bradstock points out, “Scripture itself is subject to a constant process of reinterpretation and redefinition” and, again quoting David Neville, he says “within Scripture itself ‘traditions are often preserved while also being reinterpreted… the Bible itself witnesses to a process in which the preservation of tradition goes hand in hand with interpretative innovation.’”

In our own innovation, however, it is important that we be guided by a clear hermeneutic, one ruled by the texts’ own interior logic, if we are “to enable public theology to avoid simply choosing those parts of the Bible which suit its case.”  Bradstock does not want to rule out any sort of picking and choosing, however.  Rather, if public theology is to offer its contribution as “gift,” this will shape what resources of the text we decide to draw on.  “If an objective of public theology is to reflect the exhortation of the prophet Jeremiah (29.7) to the exiled community in Babylon to ‘seek the welfare of the city’, its choice of biblical resources will be shaped by that intent.” 

Here again I have some misgivings.  For although this text is frequently quoted, it is rarely observed that, though Jeremiah might advise this to the exiles in Babylon, he does not advise those in Jerusalem to seek the welfare of Jerusalem (at least, except in a very long-term sense), and he is certainly not seen by the authorities as interested in offering any kind of “gift” to the society.  Rather, his message is all one of pessimism and judgment.  Although this would probably not be a fair indictment of Bradstock’s own actual practice, I do worry that the principles he articulated could perhaps have a tendency to screen out the more unpleasant and challenging bits of Scripture and dwell too much on the more obviously appealing and “useful” bits.  There is a time to build up and a time to tear down, and the Scriptures have an essential role to play in both. 

In short, we must indeed offer the contributions of the Bible as “gift” to the secular world, but ever mindful that some of the truest gifts may seem painful and unwelcome at first.  

 

In any case, this reflection only skims the surface of Bradstock’s paper, and does not even touch on some of the richest insights of the latter part of his paper.  The full version will be appearing in the forthcoming The Bible: Culture, Community, and Society (the same volume as my essay “Sola Scriptura and the Public Square”), so I highly recommend checking it out there.