With the constant press of present troubles, it is easy to forget the simple truth that our contemporary cultural concerns are not all there is. As we look for somewhere to anchor our ethics, it is easier to pursue fashionable schemes than to look for simple explanations in ancient books. It is easier, but often less helpful.
Oliver O’Donovan’s ethics, founded on the biblical storyline, are some of the most helpful for moving readers outside of their cultural context. Though his reasoning is nuanced, the basic principles of his ethics are simple. Ethics is founded on the objective reality in the created order. This order was distorted when Adam chose to sin. The resurrection of Christ began the process of renewal that will eventually restore all of creation to its objective, undistorted goodness.
We live in the time between the beginning of the restoration and the complete renewal of all things. As Christians, we stand with one foot in the fallen world and the other foot poised to step over the threshold into complete renewal. We have certain hope in the coming restoration, but equal certainty of the sinfulness of the world.
Ethics must continually seek to identify the order and coherence with which the world was created. This reveals the reality of the Creator and uncovers the way we should live within creation. Since the created order has been distorted by sin, special revelation––i.e., Scripture––is necessary to point us toward an undistorted moral order.
One of the most dangerous and popular fallacies, or logical errors, is the “naturalistic fallacy.” By definition, the naturalistic fallacy is improper reasoning from the way things are to the way things ought to be. For example, if most teenagers smoke, then it is morally acceptable for teenagers to smoke.
Using the example of smoking, which has been demonized by our culture, this fallacy seems unrealistic. However, if the example is shifted to pre-marital sex, its explanatory power is better revealed. According to the naturalistic fallacy, if many people engage in pre-marital sex, then it must be morally acceptable to engage in pre-marital sex. A logical corollary to this is that those who oppose engaging in pre-marital sex are either sexually repressive or even morally evil for opposing something that has been determined to be morally acceptable.
These conclusions stand in contrast to the traditional Christian perspective, as revealed through Scripture, that sex is designed to occur within marriage. However, this sort of faulty reasoning is common in contemporary ethical debates on issues well beyond sexuality. It is also trapped in a vision of ethics that assumes that morality is determined by social acceptance, rather than an objective standard. In other words, societal norms can be based on a statistical evaluation of present practice, without considering the true nature of the common good.
O’Donovan’s pursuit of an objective moral order that reflects the unchanging character of God frees us from the tyranny of contemporary trends and provides a way of arguing against the naturalistic fallacy. Although it does not rely on proof texts, it is profoundly biblical as it explains why Scripture is an absolute necessity for ethics and shows how Scripture should be applied to ethics.
For example, if an unchanging God created all things in a particular manner that was morally good, then it stands to reason there is a specific way of living that is consistent with that original ordering. That way of living would be an objective, moral good.
However, the status of the created order as morally good leads to a question as to why things are out of line with that moral good. The answer lies in the pages of Scripture, as Genesis 3 informs us that Adam chose to defy God’s command by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This set in motion the disordering of the created order. Humans became sinners and creation itself was put out of line with its original moral goodness.
Thankfully, God didn’t simply leave creation in its distorted state, but he set in motion his plan to restore it all. The resurrection of Christ punctuates that plan, as an exclamation point that points toward the complete restoration of the moral goodness of the created order. The resurrection event reveals the future renewal, but it also exposes the reality of the present disordering. No mere human action could restore the creation to its original moral goodness, it required the death of God himself in Jesus Christ.
In other words, Christ’s death, burial and resurrection are key events in ethics because they explode the myth that things are the way they ought to be. Instead, the radical distortion of creation set in motion by Adam’s sin needed a second Adam, who lived without sin, to set it right. However, to know this, we must have it revealed to us in Scripture.
All of this is freeing as we engage in moral reasoning. Instead of determining what laws should be passed based on current trends in popular opinion, we are freed to look for patterns that promote the common good and are as consistent as possible with the original, objective ordering of creation. While others may reject our proposals and indict us for not applying their reasoning, we can humbly pursue actions that best reflect the restoration of the created order that will come at Christ’s return.
The biblical pattern, built upon the objectivity of the created order and the resurrection of Christ, enables a Christian to seek a timeless ethics, rather than one driven by the winds of contemporary culture concerns.