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Spring 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 1 · pp. 74–78 

Book Review

Entering into Rest

Oliver O’Donovan. Ethics as Theology v. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017. 236 pages.

Reviewed by Henk Bakker

Reviewing Oliver O’Donovan’s trilogy, a sort of magnum opus of the emeritus ethicist at the University of Edinburgh, feels more like a privilege than a duty. After all, the three books somehow contain and summarize his thinking and present, in a mere 650 pages, much of his extensive oeuvre. On every page the reader is caught and surprised by O’Donovan’s mature presentations of complex issues. Because of their reflexive and meditative character, most of the chapters of the three volumes are highly accessible. This set of books is likely to become a classic trilogy.

The title of this trilogy, Ethics as Theology, points to the orientation O’Donovan sets out to develop. Its program unfolds the idea that doing ethics implies doing theology. But this is not to say that for O’Donovan {75} the work of ethics equals the work of theology, merely that any ethicist doing their work properly will work towards doing theology as well, and vice versa. Accordingly, the core of ethics is fundamentally theological because the focus of sound theology is on lived religion and the conditions of moral life in the presence of God. Just as for James Wm. McClendon the work of theology cannot be done properly without considering the storied life of those who theologize, so for O’Donovan good theology consists of moral direction. Speaking the word “God,” or “humankind,” or “world,” or “life,” or “time,” we inevitably and simultaneously think of interconnections in terms of “should,” indicating that we evidently live in a moral universe. Life is all about relatedness and, therefore, obligations, requirements, urges, and exhortations (cf. the German müssen, dürfen, sollen).

Self, World, and Time, the introductory volume, explores and presents the foundations for Christian ethics. For that reason, the basic dimensions of “self,” “world,” and “time” in the first chapter are clarified and supplemented with the trajectory of “faith,” “love,” and “hope” in the final chapter. After all, awareness of selfhood establishes itself by means of faith, just as awareness of the world does by love, and awareness of time in hope, taking the reader from moral thinking to moral communication, and from moral theory to moral theology. O’Donovan carefully elucidates both that moral thinking is all about practical reason and that it depends on authority and communication. The heart of the matter revolves around “moral theory and the narrative of salvation.” Here, moral theory addresses itself to questions of “What is required if ethics is to be studied as theology?”

For ethics to become moral theology, it needs to clarify the conditions of a faithful correspondence of action (obedience) to the normative text (Scripture). However, there’s no shortcut from the text to our lives. Deliberation (i.e., good thinking) is the first and most necessary condition. Ethics is not absorbed by (literalist) text-interpretation but by “deliberated and free action, and in no other way.” This free action, especially deliberation, finds its way into convictions, which may be doctrinal but are not absorbed by theology either. In a sense, all theology is moral, yet both theology and morality must make their own discoveries.

Of course, theology begins and ends in doxology (e.g., the patristic maxim, lex orandi, lex credendi). But as the response of the audience of Peter’s message at Pentecost reveals, the core question for ethics is, “What are we to do?” (Acts 2:37). It was a next thing that they asked about, not something that was already told. If ethics is absorbed by simple exegesis or simple theology, the door to the next thing may be blocked. The question regarding how we must live is fundamental. {76}

In the second volume, Finding and Seeking (an inversion of the saying of Jesus, “Seek, and you shall find”), O’Donovan implicitly affirms that the seeking never ends. The door to “next things” should always be open, without giving the impression that life does not give any answer to live by, and that humanity is steeped in uncertainties and falsities. Not at all. Life is more like a discovery, full of surprises and fresh ideas. Anabaptists would certainly name this a kind of “further light” principle because its focus is on improvement, not on failure.

Here, O’Donovan again discusses the virtues of faith, love, and hope. The three remain forever and together form the moral space for the Christian to find and seek the life codes for existence. Faith gives purpose and meaning to Christian action and attitude. Love is the ultimate sphere in which God’s wisdom is worked out and celebrated. Hope makes Christians anticipate and expect that they can persevere and reach out for future blessings. So, faith, love, and hope make up the very backbone of life’s spiritual dimensions, which we are to nurture by the faculties of prudence, deliberation, and discernment. Altogether these virtues and faculties help us understand and make us receptive to the gift of practical wisdom, the “gold” that Jewish wisdom literature overtly praises. Without practical wisdom Christian life has no stability.

Hence O’Donovan’s digressions into the essence of sin: sinning against selfhood (which is against faith), sinning against the world (which is against love), and sinning against time (which is against hope). The overall message of the book hinges on these three paragraphs. The human being holds himself responsible for moral action because, looked at from the perspective of practical reason, he is able to sin. The possibility of sin emerges from the responsibility to act wisely, in accord with practical insight. Consequently, the moral obligation of faith is sinned against by doubt, the moral obligation of love is sinned against by folly, and the moral obligation of hope is sinned against by anxiety. O’Donovan adds a fourth sin by pointing at pride as neglecting to recognize love as the highest objective of life. Arrogance (hybris, superbia) runs counter to love as it fuels the sins of fear, folly, and doubt. As such, sin cannot but be essentially oriented against the inner and the outer obligation to assume the responsibilities of love, hope, and faith.

In other words, deep distrust (doubt) as sin against self and selfhood basically means that a person destroys their faith. The sense of reality is blurred by lack of trust in life and the reluctance to make responsible choices. Life is not taken as it is but is de facto denied by life’s delusions of self-despair, shame, escapist behavior, and melancholy adjustment. For Martin Luther, this was the tyranny of the sinful person, whose inner and outer perspective is “curved in” on the self, incapable of seeing the {77} world (and self) as it really is. While seeing, sinners are blind, because they need the eyes of faith and the courage to be. In the end, doubt results in loss of reality.

Sinning against the world is destructive as well because, in so far as it abandons the moral obligation of love, it is folly. Folly deliberately passes by the practical wisdom that is well known and understood. For example, many know that there’s no real difference between races in terms of superiority and inferiority, dignity and self-esteem, predisposition and talent. But folly knowingly and willingly tries to fool itself and others into believing otherwise.

In the same fashion do fear and despair sin against time so as to crush and wipe out hope and expectation from the face of the earth. Fear undermines confidence in life, self, and God. Consequently, greed and impatience dominate, because people live in fear of having insufficient time, property, and goods. All energy and attention are focused on the here and now, filling the realms of space and time with a sickening hysteria and monomania. People are relentlessly seduced into chasing the latest delusion, thinking that self-gratification might fulfil their appetite. However, time is a gift and requires reflection, yes, even postponement and boredom. Time is not all about me—this is cold historicism. Time discloses me to serve others. The otherness of others turns time into a revelation for me.

The third volume basically underscores the major premise of the trilogy as a whole, that is, the Pauline presupposition that love surpasses everything and anything in life. This theme leads O’Donovan to the beloved subject of Augustine, the church father who dealt with the mystery of love throughout his life. Only love brings human beings to their destiny, which is conceived of as entering into rest. Here we ascertain the deep intentionality of human action as such, as it is and as it will always be. Human deeds are means to an end, aware or unaware, and strive after “rest,” the ultimate community of love, of God and friends. The state of life called “rest” is conditioned and envisaged within a community of faith, grounded in gospel-love, sprung from and qualified by the story of Christ.

Christian life lived in this community takes part in the world, in the open, and in accord with the two-sidedness of its care—care for its own and general care. Thus, it seems that the church is committed to a mixed reality, or even to two realities. After all, general care for the world does not always match the church’s agenda of redemptive love. Augustine, in his City of God, describes the tension arising from this existential binary. There are two cities, the city of mere man and the city of God, which are not simply to be equated with church and state. The two cities represent two different societies, which somehow overlap and diverge at the same time. One establishes a political-societal community, the other forms a {78} community of prayer. One serves the general interest, the other serves God. Now, the question for Augustine is, How can the church pursue good if the God’s wrath over the city is imminent? Should the church care for worldly causes? Are Christian politicians merely serving insignificant and transient causes?

These cities are both in competition with each other and complementary. Both cities seem to offer what the other promises—sometimes the city of God looks like a city of charm and short-term satisfaction, and sometimes the city of mere man looks like heaven or paradise—but neither cities can promise what the other offers. Moreover, the city of God promises and offers “rest,” and therefore encompasses all short-term objectives of the city of mere humans.

Christians cannot but have dual obligations to fulfil: towards God’s city and towards man’s. The implication is that the human obviously fails in fulfilling every one of these obligations. Sinning in this respect pertains to frustrating the sanctification of life and its structures, yes, even its powers and principalities. For example, social structures may be sanctified and dedicated to the cause of redemptive life, yet our arrogance hinders this from happening. Friendship, too, may be a sanctifying power to prepare us for the friendship of God’s presence (the church) and God’s future (heaven). The lasting love of God within the community of care carries people through hardships and suffering into the eternal rest in the city of God.

Interpreting O’Donovan in this way, the trilogy is surprisingly non-trendy and mature. This is an ethical project that will certainly be read and reread for decades. Yet, the major issue I would raise involves the Augustinian approach. I doubt whether the friendly reciprocity of both cities as expounded by Augustine and Augustinian scholars nowadays works, since the increasing secularism in the Western world apparently demands new and more creative measures.

Prof. dr. Henk Bakker is James Wm. McClendon Professor of Baptistic and Evangelical Theologies at the Faculty of Religion and Theology, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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