Resurrection and Moral Order

Some of you all have got to be reading the book; what do you think?

Not for the faint of heart (forgive me; it’s a hard but great book) . . . .

Prepositions matter. This axiom, essential to understanding Koiné Greek where the appearance of eivj rather than evn can be determinative, is also essential in evaluating whether author Oliver O’Donovan accomplished his intended task in Resurrection and Moral Order, O’Donovan’s seminal work on Christian ethics.[1] O’Donovan subtitles his book “An outline for evangelical ethics,” and his choice of “for” rather than “of” is accurately descriptive. Evaluated as a summary “of” evangelical ethics, RMO would be a colossal failure, but as a plenary theological preparation for approaching “anything in ethics,” the book’s success requires very little substantive qualification.[2]

The Genesis and Style of RMO

O’Donovan’s impetus for writing RMO arose from frustration about his tradition’s standard approach to Christian ethics as a form of apologetics, with a focus on a defense of ethics against “difficulties,” without any underlying positive, stand-alone exposition of the topic that could “proceed on its way unimpeached.”[3] Having learned from one of his teachers that Christian ethics is “metaethics,” O’Donovan sought to overcome his own students’ blank stares (generated by the apologetic approach to ethics) with an approach that is primarily theological.

In RMO, O’Donovan develops this comprehensive theological approach to Christian ethics didactically, with interspersed sections of discursive analysis set off in a smaller font. O’Donovan carefully traces his contentions back through the history of their theological development, and he exegetes Scripture when his biblical points are not self-evident.[4]

The scope and depth of O’Donovan’s work match his credentials. The writing in RMO is dense and academic, but not gratuitously so in light of his purpose and audience. O’Donovan “is not introducing beginners to the field but giving a survey of the field to those [like O’Donovan] digging away in it.”[5] As O’Donovan himself notes, RMO is an “outline” and not an introduction; [6] it is comprehensive in scope and substantial in depth.

O’Donovan does not shorten the many long paragraphs of the work by using any footnotes or endnotes. He develops each point and subpoint in such meticulous detail that his failure to use these notational devices is a serious impediment to understanding for all but the most erudite reader. Footnotes or endnotes would have also been a good location for O’Donovan’s bouts of excursus. Though these are helpful and not overly tangential, their placement (and the placement of other details) in notes would greatly aid the ability of the reader to follow O’Donovan’s argument. Instead, one frequently finds oneself digging through the previous pages of a chapter to connect the thread of a new paragraph to its related main point where the two are separated by excursus or detail.

O’Donovan provides an extensive bibliography that includes every work cited in the text, taking care to include English translations of non-English works where available, and annotating the entries with a biographical date where a work’s publication date falls outside the author’s lifetime. He also includes Scripture, author, and subject indices. The subject index needs expansion and substantial further sub-categorization. Well over half of the subjects list 20 or more independent page citations (usually throughout the book) without subdivision. Though needed, this would be an extraordinarily difficult editorial task, given the vast extent to which O’Donovan interweaves discussion of the index subjects throughout his analysis.

RMO is so rich in content that it left me with a frustrated desire for a previous, deeper knowledge of the wide range of authors and topics that O’Donovan addresses in developing his thesis. Frequently, I felt like one who has only experienced Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw wine (lovingly known as “Two Buck Chuck”) when invited to attend a first-rate wine tasting with the world’s most knowledgeable connoisseurs. On the other hand, even an unsophisticated palate can sense when a wine is good, and O’Donovan’s vintage is excellent.

O’Donovan’s Thesis and Argument

The title of RMO contains the two fundamental pieces of O’Donovan’s theological vision of Christian ethics: resurrection and order. The former is the cornerstone of his vision, the latter the skeletal frame upon which the many rooms are constructed.

The Resurrection

The cornerstone of O’Donovan’s analysis is the “theological proposition that Christian ethics depends upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” because the resurrection is “God’s gift that carries the promise of ethical illumination with it.”[7] According to O’Donovan, the resurrection is both “God’s reversal of Adam’s choice of sin and death” and “a new affirmation of God’s first decision that Adam should live,” indeed one that “goes beyond and transforms the initial gift of life.”[8] Because the First Adam is rescued in the Second Adam, creation itself is no longer a lost cause. Rather, the resurrection destroys the Gnostic hope of redemption from creation and restores the hope and possibility of the redemption of creation. From the representative[9] promise of Christ’s resurrection that all shall be made alive (1 Cor. 15.22), flow: the importance of mankind’s life on earth; the order given that life by God; a demand that mankind deny all that threatens disorder; and a calling to “a progress towards a life which goes beyond this order without negating it.”[10]

The promise of 1 Cor. 15:22-23 directs us to the incarnation, through which we learn how the fate of the entire created order rests on this one man at this one moment, and to the eschaton, when “that particular and representative fate” is universalized in the general resurrection of mankind. In all of this, God’s commitment to His created order implies that God plans to restore it totally, at the last, according to his eternal intention.[11]

Part One – The Objective Reality to Which Human Morality Responds

The second key concept of O’Donovan’s analysis is the existence of a created order that is both given by God and objective:

The order of things that God has made is there. It is objective, and mankind has a place within it. Christian ethics, therefore, has an objective reference because it is concerned with man’s life in accordance with this order. The summons to live in it is addressed to all mankind, because the good news that we may live in it is addressed to all mankind. Thus Christian moral judgments in principle address every man. . . . They are founded on a reality that God has given it. . . . The way the universe is, determines how man ought to behave himself in it.[12]

An order created by God Himself rules out the possibility of a voluntarist ethic under which man imposes order on his own life by his own will, of which morality is a part. For O’Donovan, “[m]orality is man’s participation in the created order, [and] Christian morality is his glad response to the deed of God which has restored, proved, and fulfilled that order, making man free to conform to it.”[13] O’Donovan devotes part one of RMO to consideration of the manner in which Christian moral thought must respond to objective reality of the gospel – a world order restored in Christ. The gospel illuminates all aspects of God’s order including creation, the kingdom of God, and moral epistemology.

In Chapter 2, O’Donovan breaks this order down into two fundamental interdependent pieces – end (teleological) and kind (generic) – by which things within the created order relate to one another.[14] God’s freedom in His order is a teleological freedom – freedom because He is free to work in a way that might have been done otherwise and teleological because God relates to creation in a manner that accomplishes particular ends.[15] Thus God is free to act particularly in history at the same time that He creates a world and universe that reflects a generically ordered morality. Historical ends are particular and moral ends are generic.

Chapter 3 considers the eschatological transformation of the world as the historical destination and purpose of God’s original creation. The created order is redeemed with the promise of its transformation into something beyond the mere return to Eden to that greater end to which even Eden pointed. Neither repetition nor negation, the eschatological transformation wrought by redemption rules out the corruption and disintegration of the Fall (and thereby, Gnostic heresy) as well as the possibility that history could be a series of meaningless cycles without end. Christ’s resurrection, in connection with his death and ascension, vindicates the created order by redeeming it and Adam’s descendants from sin and death and transforming it through the elevation of a redeemed mankind to the seat at God’s right hand in the lap of the Son. So too, Christian ethics looks back to the origin and forward to the end of the created order by respecting the structure of the moral order but looking forward to its completed expression.

Chapter 4 explores the way in which moral knowledge is a function of its object. Human knowledge is existential knowledge of things in their relations to the totality of things from mankind’s position in the universe.[16] It is, however, ignorant of the end of history.[17] Knowledge is the means by which mankind plays his dominion role in the cosmic order. Such knowledge is given to us as we participate in the life of Jesus Christ, because in Him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and He is in us through the Spirit. In addition, moral knowledge is knowledge of the whole created order as a whole (including knowledge of the uncreated Creator). The new birth wrought by repentance and conversion “doesn’t deny our fragmentary knowledge of the way things are,” but rather transforms mankind’s mode of participation in the universe from suppressing the truth in unrighteousness to participation in the truth of gospel God-centeredness, which relativizes all “cultural constructs of human knowledge.”[18]

Part Two – The Subjective Disposition With Which We Respond to God’s Work

Although the Fall imposes substantial epistemological barriers on an ethic rooted in this order, the underlying ontological basis for Christian ethics is not destroyed. After the Fall, however, the right perception of the ontological basis for Christian ethics requires God’s own self-disclosure.[19] Appropriated by grace through faith, the redemption achieved by Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension enables the right subjective apprehension of the objective order. Thus, “[m]oral knowledge is also part of the subjective disposition with which we respond to God’s work, [and is] inseparable from the freedom and obedience to which it summons us.”[20] Two important assertions underlie this statement. First, though the reality of redemption is distant from us in time, the Spirit makes that reality both present and authoritative. Second, the Spirit evokes our free response to the reality known by our transformed understanding of the objective whole of the created order as moral agents within that order.[21]

O’Donovan develops the substance of this interplay between freedom and authority in Chapters 5 through 8. The self-disclosure revealed to us in Christ (whose resurrection allows us to look back on a vindicated creation order and forward to our eternal participation in that order) is applied to us in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives mankind real present anticipation and actual present participation in the telos of the objective order.

Through the Spirit, the objective renewal of the universe wrought in Christ touches man at the point of his moral agency, allowing him the subjective freedom to yield to God’s order and to take his intended place within it. Thus, freedom entails both man’s (1) liberation from bondage of the will, i.e., the “freedom to respond as a moral agent to what God has done for him,” and (2) actual participation in Christ’s authority in the created order. “[I]n Christ, man was able . . . to assume his proper place within [the created order], the place of dominion which God assigned to Adam.”[22] This participation in the created order is creative in that it is a restoration of Adam’s dominion authority to “designate the character of the reality which he encounters” by calling things by their names.[23] The authority of the natural order of God’s creation is not replaced, however, and the exercise of true freedom necessarily entails man’s “respect for the order in which he exists and over which he rules.”[24]

Like the individual Christian, the church has a correlative, collective freedom, such that both the individual and the collective are invested with both freedom and limiting authority. The church’s authority over the individual is rooted in the same freedom of moral action and limited by the same authority that inhabit individual Christians. The Church exercises this freedom under Christ’s authority within its calling to be both first obedient hearer and Kingdom messenger.[25] Contrary to systems in which the church mediates authority only, this view allows the church to transcend punitive application of church discipline to a discipline that is consistent with the gospel trajectory of redemption and reconciliation.[26]

Part Three – Love as the Form of the Moral Life

Chapters 9 through 12 expound the form of the moral life, namely love, formed and brought to appropriate expression by the Spirit. Love is the principle that gives unifying order to: (1) the moral field (the fulfillment of the objective moral law) and (2) the moral subject as the very form of virtuous participation in the created order. Depicted biblically, Luke relates two possible answers to those who ask “What shall we do?” upon apprehending the Gospel—one concerning the objective moral field, i.e., an action evoked by the substantive content of the moral law (Luke 3:10-11),[27] and one concerning the moral subject, i.e., the disposition of the moral agent (Acts 2:37-38).[28]

In his analysis, the moral field requires consideration of the ordered pluriformity of human acts and events. The wisdom of history is valuable, not in its reflection of the historically particular events (plurality), but in its revelation of the transhistorical order within particular circumstances. Plurality of events becomes pluriformity, such that events may be interpreted generically, using the simultaneous, intertwined development of conscientia and synderesis from natural law theory.[29] Pluriformity becomes universality through the unity of moral principles ordered by the love command.[30] O’Donovan explores the corresponding relationships in the moral subject or agent through the relationship of act to character, the epistemological priority of the former over the latter, the differentiation of virtues, and the plurality of moral character.[31] “Just as love is the one demand which is differentiated generically in the variety of commands in the moral law, so it is the one life-task which is differentiated particularly in the uniqueness of individual vocations.”[32]

In the final two chapters, O’Donovan first considers the two-fold aspect of the Great Commandment (from Deu. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18) as one love, held together and differentiated by an order parallel to the order of Creature to creator. He then distinguishes faith, hope, and love as having eschatological reference compared to the historical reference of spiritual gifts. Faith and hope qualify love. Faith allows us to conceive the future as independent and different from our present, standing in judgment upon it. But hope anticipates the future completion of love, promising that it will render intelligible the ambiguity of our present experience.[33]

Observations and Qualifications

Though O’Donovan forges very difficult and complex paths of analysis, they are worth treading. RMO is particularly important in light of my coursework in Christian Ethics because O’Donovan’s synthesis helps redeem the ethical perspective of the realist natural law tradition for Protestants by refining and extending that tradition with the perspectives of biblical theology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Three particular aspects of this work lead me to recommend the book highly, with small qualifications. First, O’Donovan’s thesis requires him to develop his vision of Christian ethics along the entire trajectory of redemptive history. This gives RMO the distinct feel and taste of biblical theology; the book is really an exposition on the ethical import of biblical theology. O’Donovan’s treatise has all the hallmarks of biblical theology, which gives close attention to: (1) the historic progressiveness of the revelation-process, (2) the actual embodiment of revelation in history, (3) the organic nature of the historical process observable in revelation, and (4) practical adaptability.[34] Thus, paired with David Clyde Jones’s more systematic approach in Biblical Christian Ethics, RMO fits the educational contour of my seminary training well, with its balanced emphases on biblical and systematic theology.[35]

Yet, with all its potential for practical adaptability, O’Donovan would better achieve his own purposes in RMO with more actual practical adaptation of his ethical vision to present human and cultural circumstances. The book is not devoid of such application, but it usually appears as an illustration to facilitate understanding of a particular subpoint, rather than a comprehensive adaptation of the vision to a particular issue or set of issues.[36] O’Donovan’s unique contribution to the field of ethics necessitates more explanation of how his ethical insights modify comparable ethical systems. O’Donovan gives so much reflective theological attention to the resurrection’s effect on the beginning and the end of the story, that readers lose focus on their need to use their arms and legs in actively following the way of the cross now.[37]

Second, RMO is extraordinarily helpful in its extension of Natural Law principles forward into redemptive history while validating and preserving its value. The resurrection vindicates the created order but does not leave its revelation of the moral order static, instead thrusting it forward with all that is necessary to complete the moral story and, in the present, to grapple with novel ethical challenges wrought by the technological creativity of man. RMO is rooted in the Augustinian-Thomist-realist tradition, and O’Donovan makes great use of its thinking throughout the book while frequently modulating Barth. Thus, O’Donovan brings theological ethics rooted in natural law forward to the present from near the place where the magisterial reformers like Calvin and subsequent theologians like Turretin left off.[38] Unfortunately, however, O’Donovan devotes little explicit attention to how his vision is consistent or in tension with the Natural Law traditions flowing out of the 12th through 16th Centuries.[39] In this way, RMO left me wishing for more.

Third, RMO is essential reading because its simultaneous breadth and depth makes it important well beyond the field of ethics. For example, O’Donovan’s ideas bear upon biblical hermeneutics. O’Donovan’s exposition of the historical authority of Jesus in which Christians participate explains how historical authority is important because it can draw contradictory movements into one narrative to serve one historical end. Thus, in order to read the Old Testament[40] faithfully, one must suspend the demanding moral questions raised, for example, by the contradictions between the conquest narrative in Joshua and Christ in Gethsemane:

The demand which [the conquest narrative] makes upon our faith is not that we should struggle to reconcile in moral terms the form of creaturely order which is shown us by Christ in Gethsemane with these unbridled acts of war, but that we should accept what is, perhaps, the greater scandal: a reconciliation in the history of divine revelation which can embrace even such a contradiction to the moral order. In God’s self-disclosure something had to come before the vindication of the moral order: the transcendent fire of election and judgment had to be shown in all its nakedness, in all its possible hostility to the world, if we were to learn what it meant that in Christ the Word of God became flesh and took the cause of the world as his own cause.[41]

Similarly, the implications of O’Donovan’s view of authority extend far beyond ethics proper into Christian preaching, teaching, pastoring, and living. As Christopher J.H. Wright summarizes, authority for O’Donovan is the “predicate of reality, the source and boundary of freedom.”[42] Christians’ participation in the authority of Christ allows them tremendous freedom of action at the same time that it sets reliable and good limits to the exercise of that freedom. Thus, the application of O’Donovan’s vision enables preaching and living that more faithfully connects “what is true” with “what to do” without resort to legalism. This is because Christians are free moral agents who have been given the authority of Christ himself to seek God’s good and fight decay and corruption in the universe of God’s already and not-yet Kingdom. What fear and hope this gift of authority inspires! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind our wandering hearts to Thee.


[1] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994). An Anglican minister and Canon of Christ Church, O’Donovan was Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford until August 2006, when he took up the post of Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh. The second edition of RMO differs from the first only in its addition of a twelve-page prologue in which O’Donovan interacts briefly with the main critiques of the first edition. Significantly, this prologue addresses some of Stanley Hauerwas’s criticisms of the first edition contending that O’Donovan (1) was using the resurrection simply as a means to back to a creation ethics rooted in Natural law, (2) wrongly ignores the church and its sacraments as communicators of moral practices and concepts.

[2] The distinction is essential to understand and evaluate RMO: “Theological principles not ethical particulars are the focus.” Stephen N. Williams, Review of Resurrection and Moral Order, by Oliver O’Donovan, Themelios 13(3) (April /May 1988): 86. O’Donovan intentionally teases and appetizes the reader with samples of applied ethics, but he sates the desire he builds for a picture of his ideas in action, nor even gives the reader an entrée-sized portion of applied ethics!

[3] RMO, 7.

[4] O’Donovan’s sporadic insertion of scriptural exegesis is very helpful in keeping some very abstract ideas rooted in the reality of Scripture. Although some commentators, like Williams, challenge O’Donovan’s exegesis of certain passages as potentially eisegetic, O’Donovan’s contentions about scripture appear to be uniformly plausible, though at times idiosyncratic. See, e.g., Williams, 88-89 (taking substantial issue with O’Donovan’s use of 1 Peter, where, according to Williams, O’Donovan finds foundational support for his thesis).

[5] Ibid.

[6] RMO, 8.

[7] RMO, 13. Notwithstanding this thesis, O’Donovan takes care to maintain all of the vital links between the resurrection and the other essential portions of Christ’s redemptive life and death, particularly Christ’s crucifixion and ascension.

[8] RMO, 14.

[9] The resurrection is representative not in the sense of a symbol, but in the sense of a national leader signing a peace treaty on behalf of a nation. See, e.g., RMO, 15.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] RMO, 17.

[13] RMO, 76.

[14] Kinds are generic because they are independent of any particular time and place; they order things in one time and place alongside things in others.

[15] RMO, 39.

[16] RMO, 77-81.

[17] RMO, 82.

[18] RMO, 90.

[19] RMO, 19.

[20] RMO, 76.

[21] RMO, 102.

[22] RMO, 24.

[23] Gen. 2:19; RMO, 24.

[24] RMO, 25.

[25] RMO, 164.

26] RMO, 168ff.

[27] Luke 3:10-11 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

[28] Acts 2:37-38 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. RMO, 182.

[29] RMO, 183-97.

[30] RMO, 201f.

[31] RMO, 211, 220ff.

[32] RMO, 223.

[33] RMO, 247.

[34] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Carlisle, PN: Banner of Truth, 1948), 5-9.

[35] Both treatments are largely consistent in content, but Jones takes a more systematic approach, organizing his analysis in logical categories and rooting it in the Shorter Catechism. In some ways the two works defy comparison because Jones’s work is written more as an introduction than as a comprehensive treatment. Nonetheless, as a measure of consistency, compare Jones’s summary of the goal, motive and direction of the Christian life to essence of the summary of RMO’s analysis above: “As the goal of the Christian life is to be like Christ, and its motive is love for Christ, so the direction of the Christ life is the law of Christ, that is ‘the whole tradition of Jesus’ ethical teaching, confirmed by his character and conduct . . . and reproduced within his people by the power of the Spirit.’” David Clyde Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 76, quoting F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 261.

[36] For example, in his discussion of moral learning as knowledge of the whole shape of things, O’Donovan states that moral learning is “the intellectual penetration and exploration of a reality which we can grasp from the beginning in a schematic and abstract way, but which contains depths of meaning and experience into which we much reach.” He then goes on to note that this conception enables man to grapple with in vitro fertilization and the advent of children with three biological parents and other new ethical challenges because the moral issue does not arise questions the new technique puts to us, but from questions we put to the technique “by virtue of that knowledge of the moral order which we have brought with us.” RMO, 92-93.

[37] Williams makes a similar point in pointing to the need for O’Donovan to take the crucifixion and the resurrection in much tighter unity, and in so doing, to take into account the more legitimate aspects of the spirit of liberationist theology. Williams, 90. See also Garrett E. Paul, “Whither Ethics? A Review Essay,” Word & World IX (Winter 1989): 65 (categorizing O’Donovan’s work as a work of “thin” ethics – abstract, detached, unemotional – rather than “thick” ethics – fully connected to a concrete social situation by a host of bonds, commitments, and passions).

[38] For example, compare Grabill’s discussion of Calvin’s practical conception of conscientia and synderesis , Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 95-96, with O’Donovan’s analysis and use of the same concepts. By analyzing these along with the Principle of Double Effect, O’Donovan carries the reader to the nuanced and extended conclusion that the work of synderesis is not already complete before one approaches conscientia, but the work of the former goes on in parallel with the latter, with difficulties of the latter providing new material for the former. RMO, 190-95.

[39] As stated before, O’Donovan is within the realist tradition. However, some explicit critique of even the realist tradition surfaces, such as O’Donovan’s disavowal of the term Natural Law because of its inability “to avoid an ambiguity in which universality has been attributed not only to being but to knowledge.” That is, O’Donovan rejects the notion that Aquinas’s primary principles are universally self-evident. RMO, 85-86.

[40] Although there were rare exceptions (such as his valuable exposition of Jesus’ use of Hosea 6:6, RMO 200-01), O’Donovan could also have taken much greater advantage of the ethical portions of the Old Testament (most often appearing in the Pentateuch and Wisdom literature, but also in the Prophets) which stand right alongside portions such as the conquest narrative. Such attention would have lent substantial additional Scripture-wide support to his core theses.

[41] RMO, 158.

[42] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), 53.

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