A review for WebSalt:
Resurrection and Moral Order: an Outline of Evangelical Ethics by Oliver O’Donovan
When it comes to books, Iâ€™m a chronic margin-scribbler. Sometimes though, it only takes me until I finish the book before I go back to discover that my earlier interaction with it was completely unhinged. Actually, maybe thatâ€™s a measure of a really good book: the number of marks youâ€™ve made in the margin, and how wildly wrong you think they are when youâ€™ve finished. A good book changes the way you think, certainly thatâ€™s been my experience with Resurrection and Moral Order. Iâ€™m now on my second reading, Iâ€™ve got multiple layers of marginal notes, some of which are completely contradictory, and Iâ€™ve underlined so much of the text that Iâ€™m suspicious about the non-underlined sections. Maybe I should underline them just in case Iâ€™m missing the point?
At Uni, studying Philosophy and Ethics, I was fed a steady diet of scepticism and anti-realist epistemology. Consequently, any appeal to an idea of â€˜how things areâ€™ as a basis for right and wrong has tended to strike me as naÃ¯ve, not a little oppressive, and seriously unhip. For me then, reading Oâ€™Donovan was like watching someone take a blow-torch to my house of cards.
Oâ€™Donovan writes from the clear conviction that what God has done in Christ very clearly declares how things are in the world, and how they will be. And this declaration of how things are in Christ has an inescapable implication for what we must do: the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ calls us to repentance and the obedience of faith. You cannot seriously claim to be talking about ethics as a Christian without confronting the truth that this â€˜isâ€™ entails a very particular â€˜oughtâ€™. With this insight, Oâ€™Donovan strides out to bat. This is not a book that sets out to give guidance on appropriate Christian behaviour, or how Christians should deal with hard ethical cases. Rather, this is an exercise in what is generally known as â€˜meta-ethicsâ€™ what Oâ€™Donovan calls â€˜Christian moral conceptsâ€™. That is, the types of things that Christians are committed to believing about the world, and particularly about the ethical aspect of the world, in the light of what God has declared to be the case in Christ. As such, it is an exercise in elucidation, not a new framework for ethics, but making clear the framework presupposed by the gospel. The great value of this project lies with the recognition that Christian ethics will inevitably be crippled when we seek to build it upon underlying structures of epistemology and ontology that have no space for Christian claims about the world, i.e., the kinds of things we are taught in Philosophy courses at Uni.
Oâ€™Donovanâ€™s moral realism is a breath of fresh air – here is someone willing to take seriously the epistemological and ontological implications of the gospel, to reason powerfully from these commitments to a coherent framework of moral concepts, and to argue for their universal validity and applicability. Not many people have the guts to talk like him.
If youâ€™re a philosophy student, or doing a course in ethics, try reading his brief excursus into the relation between deontological and consequentialist ethics (pp. 137-139). Here Oâ€™Donovan comes closest to engaging with some of classic problems of modern moral philosophy and itâ€™s at moments like this that you can catch a glimpse of the incredible philosophical depth behind this â€˜outlineâ€™.
Resurrection and Moral Order is certainly not a book for every reader, but if youâ€™re studying anything at Uni that touches on philosophy or ethics, do yourself a favour: make sure you read this book before you graduate. Then go back and read your margin notes – see how much you change.