Luke Skywalker Never Shot A Blaster Rifle (Or, a Couple Options in Progressive Revelation)

lukeblasterI’ve been thinking of the issue of progressive revelation a bit lately. It keeps coming up the rather feisty discussions around the nature of Scripture, the character of God, and what we do with the Old Testament. Often-times people on both sides of the growing split (and those somewhere in the middle) will appeal to the concept, agree that it’s important for Christians to acknowledge, and yet there remain significant, troubling differences between the conversation partners as to the way this idea ought to be employed in developing our thoughts about God. Actually, it seems that in the current discussions, there is not merely a debate about the application of the concept, but rather there seem to be two entirely different kinds of progressive revelation on offer. Bear with me as I think out loud here.

1. Consistent/Adjunctive. The first concept of progressive revelation I take to be the more traditional of the two. In this case, the progress of revelation means a real growth in the knowledge of God from the beginning of the narrative in Genesis to the end of the narrative in Revelation. At the same time, it is continuous, self-consistent knowledge of God that unfolds and expands as the story progresses. While in the First Testament, we learn that God is by nature one, the New Testament revelation of the Incarnation and the Trinity does not change that, though it significantly alters our understanding of what the confession of God’s oneness means.

In other words, we don’t go from monotheists to tritheists–we go from monotheists to Trinitarian monotheists. It is not the YHWH was lying when he said that he alone was God and that his glory he would give to no other. Instead, it turns out that the Son who took on flesh in Jesus Christ was always to be identified with YHWH. YHWH remains the same today, yesterday, and forever, and all that was said of him in the First Testament is true, but now it there is a deeper layer and dimension to that truth. In a sense, it is by addition, but it’s even more than that. To steal an image from Lewis, it’s less like simply going from a square to a bigger square, but understanding that the square is a cube.

2. Contradictory/Disjunctive.  This one we might call the “evolutionary” view in that it often coincides with an evolutionary understanding of religion inherited from the older history-of-religions approach popular in European scholarship of the last couple centuries. This kind of progressive revelation isn’t progression by way of natural narrative development, or by way of simple addition. Instead, it’s more about moving from higher to lower understanding, not simply less clear to more clear. Older, more primitive religious conceptions such as the worship of multiple gods (polytheism) gives way to the worship of a chief god (henotheism), and eventually to belief in one Creator God (monotheism).*  It includes the possibility not only of expansion in our knowledge of something, but the contradiction of it. For that reason, we may also term this a “disjunctive” kind of progressive revelation.

The most popular example I’ve been seeing lately is about God’s activity in history. The classic extreme version of this is the Marcionite rejection of the Old Testament God as the revelation of a vicious, deficient, Demiurge who is superseded by the revelation of the loving Father of Jesus Christ who wants to save us from our miserable creation. The more recent model, though, is not that extreme. Instead, many suggest that our knowledge of God progresses by learning that while the Ancient Hebrews had some real encounter and true revelation of the Creating and Redeeming God, the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament reveals that there was much falsehood and error mixed in, given their limited vantage point and backwards cultural presuppositions. The advent of Jesus then, “clarifies”, not only by sharpening edges still fuzzy in the OT, or adding a depth dimension, but by also by straightforward negation.  In many ways, God is actually not what Hebrew Scriptures have proclaimed, but only what Jesus in his incarnation reveals him to be. Of this sort of “christocentrism”, we have spoken before.

Revealing Luke Skywalker

Let me clarify illustrate the differences between the two types of progressive revelation by using Star Wars, because Star Wars.

In the first type, we find an analogy in the revelation in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader has actually been Luke Skywalker’s father the whole time. This is the kind of narrative revelation that is mostly consistent and adjunctive. This is a new fact about Luke that is a shock to the viewer, but it is primarily one that fills out his character, even while it does not contradict what we’ve come to see about Luke’s activities, characteristics, and so forth–at least insofar as we haven’t made our entire of Luke dependent on his not-being-Darth Vader’s son. Yes, our understanding is changed of him and that even changes the way we watch the first movie again. We reinterpret Obi-wan’s words, hearing resonances and layers we didn’t see before. But again, this is essentially a filling out of his character that forwards the narrative in ways that do no violence to what has come before.

Now, imagine a different kind of progression in the story. Imagine that in coming to Return of the Jedi, upon viewing Luke Skywalker’s near-exclusive use of light-saber, we are given to now understand that in the first couple of movies, Luke actually never used a blaster rifle, it being inconsistent with his Jedi ways; it was merely the way Leia and Han understood him at the time. On this scenario, yes, Luke is a character throughout the whole story, and yes, there are some strong continuities, but the narrative unity of the storyline is severely disrupted, rendering its coherence seriously suspect and the author rather confused.

None of the above is yet a straightforward argument one way or another, but more of an exercise in clarification. Of course, I do think that proposals which make greater sense of the unity of the narrative are inherently preferable for a number of reasons. First, they give us a greater sense that the ultimate Author of Scripture is the God of Scripture, and not simply a second-trilogy Lucas sans the special effects. This strengthens our ability to affirm a unity of revelation, and therefore the unity of covenant, or the good, saving purposes of the God of both Testaments.**

Still, clarifying our options can be a helpful exercise for further conversation and study on this point and any excuse for a Star Wars analogy in theology, right?

Soli Deo Gloria

*It should be noted that much of this European scholarship was heavily influenced by Enlightenment presuppositions of a colonialist, imperialistic, and Anti-Semitic sort.

**This also makes more difficult the inadvertent Anti-Semitism of the most history-of-religions approach to progressive revelation.

“Because I said so”: Epistemic Access, Our Current Moral Debates, and a Trustworthy God

My college philosophy program was a deeply formative time for me theologically. Many of the conclusions I came to in those classes are still with me and exercise a deep influence on the way I process certain divisive theological issues today. What’s more, looking back on things, I probably couldn’t have predicted at the time which insights would stick with me and which wouldn’t.

a fawnOne concept that’s been particularly important I picked up in my undergrad class on the problem of evil: CORNEA. Coined by Stephen J. Wykstra in, as you might have guessed, a piece of analytic philosophy, it’s an acronym for a very lengthy, nerdy term “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access”. Wykstra was arguing against a very famous reformulation by William Rowe of the problem of evil, specifically the evidential one.

The gist of Rowe’s argument is this: think about a baby fawn dying in a forest fire somewhere all alone suffering miserably in the process. This seems to be an instance of suffering and evil where there is no possible point this could serve–at least not one that we can see. Countless situations like this mar our world daily. History is replete with apparently pointless evil. Therefore, on the evidence, it seems highly unlikely that God exists.

Now, there are numerous problems with this, but Wykstra put his finger on what is to my mind the key one: the issue of epistemic access. It is here that he proposes CORNEA (forgive the philosopher speak):

We are, I propose, here in the vicinity of a general condition – necessary rather than sufficient – for one’s being entitled, on the basis of some cognized situation s, to claim “it appears that p.” Since what is at issue is whether it is reasonable to think one has “epistemic access” to the truth of p through s, let us call this “the Condition Of Reasonable Epistemic Access,” or – for short – CORNEA: On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim “It appears that p” only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.

– “The Humean Obstacle To Evidential Arguments From Suffering: On Avoiding The Evils of Appearance

Think of it this way: say you walk into a room in a seminary and find a man speaking an indecipherable tongue. Now, also consider the fact that in this scenario you know nothing of other languages having spoken only English your whole life. Is it reasonable for you to walk out and claim “It appears to me that they’re teaching nothing but a load of gibberish in there”? It could be a course in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, and yet, given your cognitive abilities–your total ignorance of other languages and such–you’re not really in a position to make that judgment. You have not, in Wykstra’s language, satisfied the “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access.” So, the idea behind CORNEA is that you’re only allowed to say, “it appears that such and such” if you’re in an intellectual position to reasonably make that sort of call.

With respect to the problem of evil, Wykstra says we’re in a similar situation:

We must note here, first, that the outweighing good at issue is of a special sort: one purposed by the Creator of all that is, whose vision and wisdom are therefore somewhat greater than ours. How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.) If such goods as this exist, it might not be unlikely that we should discern some of them: even a one-month old infant can perhaps discern, in its inarticulate way, some of the purposes of his mother in her dealings with him. But if outweighing goods of the sort at issue exist in connection with instances of suffering, that we should discern most of them seems about as likely as that a one-month old should discern most of his parents’ purposes for those pains they allow him to suffer – which is to say, it is not likely at all. So for any selected instance of intense suffering, there is good reason to think that if there is an outweighing good of the sort at issue connected to it, we would not have epistemic access to this: our cognized situation would be just as Rowe says it is with respect to (say) the fawn’s suffering.

In other words, given the sort of suffering that fawn is going through, if God had a good enough reason for allowing it to suffer in the fashion, do you really think its the kind of thing you and I could possibly understand? Is it reasonable for a finite creature of limited wisdom to be able to rule out the possibility that the infinite God has a reason you in your present state couldn’t possibly wrap your mind around? Not really. You can barely wrap your mind around high school physics. In which case, mounting the sort of evidential case Rowe wants to is very problematic. In order to claim that omniscience couldn’t possibly have a good reason for something, you would have an awfully high opinion of your own ability to plumb the infinite depths of knowledge and truth. One that, honestly, it’s quite unreasonable to have. (Incidentally, this is an excellent example of someone using philosophical refinement to make an eminently biblical point. Compare Job 38-41.)

What does any of this have to do with today’s moral debates as I implied in the title? Well, the key comes in with this phrase asking about the difference between God’s knowledge as Creator and ours as creatures:

How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.)

In many of today’s moral debates, many of us think we’re a lot closer than that. The assumption many make is that unless God’s reasoning on a subject is absolutely transparent or immediately intuitive to postmoderns, it simply doesn’t exist or, or it is completely arbitrary. The most obvious example comes in the sexuality debates. Given our culture’s new presuppositions when it comes to sexuality and human identity construction, much of the biblical logic just seems opaque and incoherent. To attempt to appeal to a natural order  that doesn’t seem “natural” to us is arbitrary and obscurantist no matter that it’s revealed in Scripture.

infantvaccineWhile in the past there was probably greater comfort in appealing to God’s unfathomable wisdom, today we balk at the idea that there might be some things we just have to trust him on. Even now, I can hear critics objecting to the example Van Wykstra used above of a the difference between an infant and a parent. That’s an infantilizing cop-out! You have do better than a parent’s “Because I said so.”

But here’s the thing, is there an appropriate time for a parent to simply say “Because I said so”? When a  3-year-old child is too small to understand mom and dad’s logic for allowing them to get stuck in the arm with a needle, it makes sense for them to say “Because I said so” doesn’t it? They know that the child doesn’t have the cognitive capabilities of understanding germs, vaccinations, and so forth. This is not an act of arbitrary enforcement of an irrational will, but the reasonable response to the limits of their child’s reason. It is an appeal to something that the child ought to know and can trust: that loving character of the parent. It is “because said so and you know enough to know me.”

For Christians, there is an added dimension to this appeal. In those situations where the biblical logic seems unclear or arbitrary, when it appears to you that God is simply saying “Because I said so”, it pays to remember that the “I” who commands is the same God of whom Paul testifies:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

And again, of God’s wisdom he says:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)

This is the God whose deepest wisdom for the salvation of the world–the mystery of God’s good purposes for those who love him–was one that the wisest of the day couldn’t recognize. This is the God who at times says “Because said so”, or “Trust and one day you’ll understand my very good reasons.” He has proven himself ultimately trustworthy through subjecting in Jesus to the apparently pointless tragedy of the cross. This is the good God with good commands even if we can’t always understand them.

Soli Deo Gloria

“I Used To Believe X For Reason Y…” And the Failure of Intellectual Imagination

thinking homerWe seem to live in an age that lacks intellectual imagination; at least when it comes to the thought processes of others. One of the most glaring (and personally annoying) examples of this is on display in many modern “intellectual conversion” narratives. It could be about any issue really, whether politics, or religion, or broader ethical issues. It’s very common to find a thread along the lines of:

“I used to believe position X for stupid, hateful Reason Y.  Reason Y must be only reason to believe position X.”

While it’s the kind of argument you can find in just about any type of conversion article, I see it most often with stories about conversion on the issue of same-sex marriage in the church, or just in the culture at large. It’ll be an article by a post-Evangelical, or someone else, that goes something like:

You know, I used to be like the rest of my coreligionists. I used to hate gays, and was taught that they were worse than anthrax. I was very insecure about the issue because I felt that they threatened my whole way of being. If I admitted they were properly human, or whatever, then, my whole world would collapse. But that was because I’d never actually met one. Now I have and I realize that they’re kind, gentle, loving people. Also, I found out there are books with Christians who say that same-sex relationship are okay according to the Bible. I never heard any of these arguments, but now I have. So, I’ve changed my mind.

Now, I don’t bring this up to settle the issue of same-sex marriage here. (Honestly, if you try to argue about it in more than a tangential way in the comments, I’m simply going to ignore it or delete it. That’s not the point.) Nor am I saying there isn’t a case to be made along those lines. What I am saying is that the move that comes next is simply a failure of intellectual imagination. You see, what often follows is something like:

See, that’s where people are. This is the only place they can be. These are the only reasons that someone could hold the position that I used to hold.

Because they used to be hateful and insecure in their former intellectual position, everybody must be. Because their opinion was held on the basis of flawed, prejudiced reasoning, everybody’s must be. What never seems to occurs to them is that you could hold a moral opposition to same-sex marriage all the while having no lack of personal warmth, goodwill, and so forth towards gay people. Or, that you could read some of that same scholarship and simply disagree on other intellectual grounds. And yet that really is the case. It’s like a child who only used to believe the earth revolved round the sun because his mom told him it was spun about by great strings and wires, but upon discovering that there were no strings and wires, thereby came to believe there were no other reasons to believe such a notion.

Again, this happens in other areas too. There’s many an article on Calvinism or Arminianism that covers the same, familiar steps. “I used to be an Arminian because I thought Calvinists were mean and I’d never read Romans 9. But then I read Romans 9 and met a nice Calvinist.” Or, “I used to be a Calvinist, but then Roger Olson told me about free will and John 3:16. If only people would read John 3:16 and read Roger Olson, nobody would be a Calvinist.”  Of course, these are ridiculously simplified, but you get the point.

This, as I said, is a failure of the intellectual imagination, and for reasons I’m not entirely sure of (and I’d love others to weigh in on), it’s one that seems increasingly common. I will say that I’m fairly sure it has something to do with the narcissism of human experience. The story we know best is our own and our human tendency is to shrink the world to fit our experiences. We take our personal stories, and instead of seeing them as one, particular, unique experience, we expand them out and unjustifiably universalize them. Did you have a bad time in a repressive, stale, and abusive Evangelical church? That must be all of Evangelicalism. Did your belief in God’s sovereignty collapse in the face of tragedy? Everybody’s must.

I suppose this is merely another angle on the problem with the absolutizing of personal experience that Alastair Roberts has brought up before, and serves to reinforce his argument that we maybe need to pump the brakes on how much we press the importance of personal narrative in theologizing. Still, I don’t want to entirely rule out the valid place that our own story has to play in the discovery of truth. My friend Preston had a very thoughtful post yesterday on the idea of midrash in exegesis. Ironically enough, though, it highlighted from a different angle the danger that occurs when we place an overemphasis on our own story as the locus of truth and meaning. By assuming everyone’s intellectual experience must be just like ours, we end up invalidating the intellectual and moral experiences of others that don’t fit our paradigm.

This, as I’ve mentioned before, is another reason to prioritize Scripture in our theological reasoning. As Bavinck reminded us, personal confession and experience is inevitably part of our reflections. Still, by focusing our reasoning and reflection on Scripture, we are submitting our own experiences, logics, and so forth, to the only Story or Word, that has any claim to be comprehensive enough to include, correct, and make sense of them all–God’s own.

Well, once again I’ve rambled far longer than I intended. For what it’s worth, don’t be an intellectual narcissist. Before you go extrapolating your own former experiences, thought processes, and prejudices to those who hold positions you used to, stop, have an actual conversation with them. You might be surprised at the results.

Soli Deo Gloria

Karl Barth’s 3 Aphorisms on Doubt

barthBarth devoted one of his lectures that formed the basis of his little work Evangelical Theology to the subject of doubt as an obstacle to theology. Having given some thought to the subject doubt recently, I pulled it off the shelf and I found it worth briefly outlining.

Two Types

Barth begins by noting two types of doubt that might arise for the theologian. First, there is the very “natural” doubt that comes with the territory, which is “susceptible to treatment” (pg. 121). When you’re doing theology, you’re asking questions about the nature of the faith. You’re taking things apart in order to put them back together again in a rational, coherent fashion. It is inevitable that in the process of taking things apart, you struggle or question as to whether the original shape made any sense. This is the doubt that comes with working everything through as thoroughly as possible because we do not possess God’s own knowledge of himself. Even though we work from revelation, we must eat “by the sweat of our brow”. The danger here is being a “sluggard” that fails to put things back together.

There is a second form of doubt, however. Barth says this one is far more dangerous, which is troublesome because his long-winded explanation of it makes it hard to pin down exactly. It seems to be an uneasiness that there is even any point to the enterprise of theology at all. It is the introduction of a note of embarrassment at the outset that renders the whole conversation suspect. It is the swaying between Yes and No as to whether there is anything to even discuss, or whether we’re not simply engaging in an exercise of trying to describe our own “pious emotions” (pg. 124). It’s not the honest doubting that comes naturally with the asking of questions, but the doubting that asks, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1) It doubts the connection between God’s works and words to the task of theology itself. It is the kind of doubt that isn’t dealt with in answers, but must be “healed.”

Three Sources

Barth then “briefly” notes three reasons this latter form of doubt might arise. (As if Barth could ever “briefly” do anything.) First, it might rise in the face of “the powers and principalities” of the world. In looking about at the worlds of economics, politics, art, the newspapers–the world of “real life”–the theologian might be tempted to doubt the relevance or reality of the message he preaches. What can the Gospel really say to that world conflict? Who has time for theology in the face of the truly pressing issues of the day? Could it ever really have said anything in the first place?

The Church itself is another source of doubt in theology. Theologians and preachers have to look at the church, its history, with all of the disunity, ugliness, and petty weakness on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly they may come away jaded at times. In the face of ecclesiastical horrors, wars, heresy trials, and nonsensical squabbles, it might seem perverse to labor at theology.

Saving the deepest root for last, Barth points out that it might not be that “the world impresses him so much or that the Church impresses him so little” (pg. 128), but that his own innate flaws as an individual might be the chink in the armor of his faith.  Complicating things, yet again, Barth subdivides this into two possible iterations.

The first is that of a theologian whose public theology does not match his private practice. He has a very solid public theology that is ordered under the word of God, but his practical life  is ordered by any passing whim or principle. In this sense, he has put himself in the place of a wounded conscience.  Of course, this source of doubt is not unique to theologians, but is the common provenance of all Christians.

The inverse possibility is that he has so engulfed himself in theology, he’s failed to have a normal life. His interests do not extend into the normal range of human affairs, to the point where theology or church-life all but consumes him. At that point, he is but a step away from burnout or boredom, which can lead to doubt.

Three Aphorisms on Doubt

At the end of these meditations Barth gives three “aphorisms” on doubt for theologians worth quoting in full:

  1. No theologian, whether young or old, pious or less pious, tested or untested, should have any doubt that for some reason or other and in some way or other he is also a doubter. To be exact, he is a doubter of the second unnatural species, and he should not doubt that his doubt is by no means conquered. He might just as well–although this would certainly not be “well”–doubt that he is likewise a poor sinner who at the very best has been saved like a brand from the burning.
  2. He should not also deny that his doubt, in this second form, is altogether a pernicious companion which has its origin not in the good creation of God but in the Nihilthe power of destruction–where not only the foxes and rabbits but also the most varied kinds of demons bid one another “Good night.” There is certainly a justification for the doubter. But there is no justification for doubt itself (and I wish someone would whisper that in Paul Tillich’s ear). No one, therefore, should account himself particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant because of his doubt. No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely  ashamed of it.
  3. But in the face of his doubt, even if it be the most radical, the theologian should not despair. Doubt indeed has its time and place. In the present period no one, not even the theologian, can escape it. But the theologian should not despair, because this age has a boundary beyond which again and again he may obtain a glimpse when he begs God, “Thy Kingdom Come!” Even within this boundary, without being able simply to do away with doubt, he can still offer resistance, at least like the Huguenot woman who scratched Resistes! on the windowpane. Endure and bear it!

-Evangelical Theology, pp. 131-132

As I mentioned, I’ve been giving some thought to the problem of doubt. There is a natural place for the first kind of doubt in the Christian life, as Barth notes. It’s fine to pick things apart and re-examine what you’ve learned–in a sense, doubting in order to believe. At the same time, I’ve also found that our culture, and recently certain wings of Evangelicalism, have taken to valorizing nearly all doubt to an unhealthy degree. Doubt is never to be talked about as something to be resisted, endured, struggled through, but is rather celebrated and romanticized as a sort of rite of passage into relevance and authenticity. It is either subtly or openly commended as a pathway to a “particularly truthful, deep, fine, and elegant” form of faith, brave enough to doubt even God himself.

The problem is, I don’t see scripture anywhere commending doubt in God. It allows for it. It acknowledges it. It forgives it. Much as Barth teaches us, there is room for it–there is a justification for the doubter. And yet, the state of doubt is not the end for which we strive. It is not a good place to be or even to praise. This is why I found Barth’s aphorisms to be filled with much biblical good sense. For those struggling or looking to counsel those who struggle, we find here a pastoral, humble note that acknowledges our frailty and sin, yet still exhorts us onward in hope and faith for that coming day when doubt will be overwhelmed by the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Morality of the Story (Mere-Orthodoxy Guest Piece)

So, I wrote a piece a while back on the way looking at our lives in the narrative key shapes the way we understand our moral situation. After some tuning up and heavy editing, Matthew Lee Anderson was kind enough to give me the honor of publishing it over at Mere Orthodoxy. You can read it HERE.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Love Song of Immanuel Kant

The man, the myth, the father of needlessly obscure German philosophers.

The man, the myth, the father of needlessly obscure German philosophers.

So one day when I was really bored in my modern philosophy class, a not infrequent occurrence, I wrote a poem using only Kantian terminology which I found, and still find, to be ridiculous. I presented it as a token of my affection to my TA at the time. She said I used all the terms properly, which I took as a victory. I present it to you now because it’s my blog and why not?

Depending on the response, more ridiculous poetry might follow. I have a classic one about neutering a dog and another about ties. My college years were fecund with creative rapture. Also, I had an intro to poetry writing class.

The Love Song of Immanuel Kant

The a priori concepts

which allow

Intuitions of your

Beauty

to be given to me

through sensibility

are more precious to me

than all

Other conceptions

of Metaphysical Reality.

I (taken as the thinking self)

would give up all other

a posteriori intuitions

for the possibility

of

a mere empirical

apperception of

You.

Just Because You Can’t See It, Doesn’t Mean It’s Not There – O’Donovan on Ethics

moral orderA great joy of mine is finding out that I’m not dumb. By that I mean, I love running across sections in works by legitimately brilliant people articulating something that I’ve been thinking for a while, but haven’t taken the time to write out anywhere, or I haven’t seen laid out clearly before. Reading Oliver O’Donovan’s brilliant piece of Christian moral theory Resurrection and the Moral Order has afforded me a number of those experiences. (Note: that wasn’t an intentional humble-brag, just an accidental one.) For instance, in one exceptionally helpful passage, he highlights the importance in separating out the epistemological questions involved in knowledge of the moral order and the ontological question of its existence.

What am I talking about? Well, in a nutshell, some moral thinkers, particularly in the Natural Law tradition, have made the point that if a rational God has created the world, he must have done so with a certain order to it, particularly a moral one consistent with his own nature, that ought to be intelligible (readable) to human agents within it. Indeed, there seem to be some self-evident truths about morality and life that transcend culture which give testimony to this indelibly-written law on the heart of humanity.

Others have pointed out that moving from culture to culture, and even within the same culture, there are large areas of dispute as to the moral character of the universe. Much of the content of our moral judgments that are “self-evident” to us in the West are largely rejected throughout the world and therefore seem merely cultural values, or perhaps, adaptively-advantageous norms, such that a real skepticism about framing any sort of moral judgments based on the natural order is a chimera. Indeed, on this basis many of them doubt that there even exists some order of this sort.

Into the confusion steps O’Donovan. While he argues quite forcibly for the necessity of grounding any ethical system in the created order, he acknowledges and explains the theological root of the non-obviousness of that moral order:

There is, however, another side to the matter which has to be asserted equally strongly. In speaking of man’s fallenness we point not only to his persistent rejection of the created order, but also to an inescapable confusion in his perceptions of it. This does not permit us to follow the Stoic recipe for ‘life in accord with nature’ without a measure of epistemological guardedness. The very societies which impress us by their reverence for some important moral principle will appal us by their neglect of some other. Together with man’s essential involvement in created order and his rebellious discontent with it, we must reckon also upon the opacity and obscurity of that order to the human mind which has rejected the knowledge of its Creator. We say that man’s rebellion has not succeeded in destroying the natural order to which he belongs; but that is something which we could not say with theological authority except on the basis of God’s revelation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We say that this, that or the other cultural demand or prohibition (the prohibition of incest, for example, or of racial discrimination) reflects the created order of God faithfully, but that too is something which we can know only by taking our place within the revelation of that order afforded us in Christ. It is not, as the sceptics and relativists correctly reminds us, self-evident what is nature and what is convection. How can we be sure that the prohibition of incest is not yet another primitive superstition? How can we assert confidently that Bantu and Caucasian races belong equally to one human kind that renders cultural and biological differentiation between them morally irrelevant? 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. But we are not to conclude from this that there is no ontological ground for an ‘ethic of nature’, no objective order to which the moral life can respond. 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 of his works.

-Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, pg 19

O’Donovan insists that keeping our epistemological judgments and our ontological judgments straight is imperative if we’re going to understand the nature of our moral situation. Admitting that the moral order isn’t obvious should not betray us into concluding it isn’t there. To do so would constitute a gross denial of the doctrine of creation and the moral character of God.

Instead, an acknowledgement of the Fall’s distorting effect upon our moral knowledge leads us to be humble in our judgments, and seek the truth of the universe as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. Not because Jesus points us to a moral order that was never there prior to his advent, although his coming does bring about a new moral situation, but because he points us to and renews the one that has been there since the beginning. Also because repentance (metanoia) must form part of our quest for moral truth. In repentance we reconsider our relationship to God’s created order which, in sin, we have rejected and misunderstood. Jesus Christ is the one who grants repentance by the power of the Holy Spirit to confused sinners whose moral judgments stand condemned alongside of them. Once again, even our knowledge of the moral reality we have violated comes down to the grace of the one who instituted it and redeemed it.

Soli Deo Gloria