O’Donovan on Objective, Ethical Orders

Part of the natural law debate depends on identifying an objective order in God’s creation.  I have no problem with such a task; my contention is on identifying the ethical content of such an order.  I will take my cue from Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order (1994).  O’Donovan gives numerous helpful discussions, and unlike the modern natural law theorist, he is fully aware of the problems in such a task.    A fresh tactic of natural law theorists today is to posit an objective moral order in which man lives.  This is much better than the old “pop-Thomist” account which posits a “two-storey” theology:  Jesus gets to have a spiritual realm while “natural” man gets to have an autonomous realm.  Jesus’s claims, specifically the Trinitarian claims, have to stay out of natural man’s claims (Geisler and Feinberg, 1997, 175-176).   This is known as “not inviting God to the party.   Ralph Smith gives the appropriate response, “This is a precarious methodology for both theology and ancient politics.  As Belshazzar discovered, God comes to the party whenever He pleases” (Smith, 2002, 66 n.9)!

O’Donovan notes, “The order of things that God has made is there.  It is objective and mankind has a place within it” (17).  I agree with O’Donovan 100%, and the natural law theorist probably does as well.   I take the argument a step further, though, and note a problem which O’Donovan clearly sees but the natural law theorist does not:  “The epistemological programme for an ethic that is ‘natural’, in the sense that its contents are simply known to all, has to face dauntingly high barriers” (19).  In other words, be specific about the stipulations in such an ethic.  This is why O’Donovan’s project is superior, for he adds the next premise:  “We may only conclude that any certainty we may have about the order which God has made depends on God’s own disclosure of himself and his works.”  This is why O’Donovan warns against divorcing “natural, creation” ethics from “kindgom” ethics (read: Special Revelation).  He says, This way of posing the alternatives is not acceptable, for the very act of God which ushers in his kingdom is the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the reaffirmation of creation” (O’Donovan, 15).   At this point any common ground between covenant-keeper and covenant-breaker evaporates.  We cannot as good Christian theologians talk about God’s creation apart from the rest of the story:  God’s re-creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (and the ascension).  At the end of the day it is not enough for a covenant-breaker to look at a squirrel and simply come to the conclusion, “I suppose there is an objective order after all.”  Rather, the goal is to get him to bow the knee to the Ascended and Reigning Christ.

The Objective Order and Demons

There is another problem with Christian theorists simply resting with a natural, objective order apart from the revelation and re-creation in Christ.   Paul writes, “When we were children we were slaves to the elemental spirits (stoichea) of the universe: (Galatians 4:3).  O’Donovan comments, “These elemental spirits are actually identified with the law given by the hand of angels on Mt. Sinai, and yet at the same time they are the beings which by nature are not gods, to which even the formerly Gentile pagans were in bondage (4:8-9)!  How can Paul so daringly associate the revealed morality of the Old Testament faith with the superstitious idolatry of paganism?  Because the order of creation, whether in a pure or impure form, can encounter us only as a threat” (22).

There is an evangelistic opportunity here, to be sure, but there is also an implicit warning with stopping at created order from an unredeemed perspective.  My goal here was not to refute natural law, but to ask an epistemological question–what is the content of natural law and to explore the limits of natural law.  We have seen the limits above; we shall yet see if the question is answered.

Works Cited

Geisler, Norman and Feinberg, Paul.  An Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective.  1980 reprint. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997.

O’Donovan, Oliver.  Resurrection and Moral Order. 1986 reprint.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1994.

Smith, Ralph.  Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity.  Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002.


One comment on “O’Donovan on Objective, Ethical Orders

  1. […] don’t disagree with that, but I would like to quote Oliver O’Donovan,  especially when theologians contrast an ethic of creation with any other biblical-motif ethic, […]

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