Chapter 4, “Scripture and Obedience”
In chapter 4, O’Donovan turns to reflect on the authority of Scripture, and how it needs to figure into this whole discussion. Again, we will find that the argument of this chapter is primarily aimed at liberals, against whom O’Donovan insists upon a firmly evangelical account of Scriptural authority. But it is worth paying careful attention to the way he lays out his argument.
First, he seeks to guard against neo-orthodox attempts to drive a wedge between God’s authoritative self-revelation on the one hand, and witnesses to that revelation, such as the Bible and Church, on the other hand. “God’s authority authorizes, and it is through authorized persons and activities that we see the effective exercise of God’s authority in the world....Scripture is not the first moment of God’s self-announcement; that is the historical deeds themselves by which he raised up Israel and Jesus. But neither is it a moment after God’s self-announcement, a retrospective commentary that could be peeled away, leaving the core intact. Scripture is, we may say, God’s administration of his self-announcement, the record he has authorized to it and the seal he has set on it to confirm that it is true.” (54-55)
O’Donovan is quite aware that we must deal with the Scriptures as historical, human writings, but he insists that this detracts in no way from their authority: “If we glide from speaking of their humanity into implying some kind of inadequacy in them, as though their being human were a shameful secret that we have laid bare, a deficiency we are now in a position to patch up, then it is we, not they, that must stand charged with ignorance and superstition. The humanity of the Scriptures does not entitle us to patronize them….God truly attests himself and his deeds through this poetry, these letters, this history.” I don’t care where you’re from, but that’s a mighty fine statement of Scriptural authority, and I don’t want to hear any crap about “sick unto death.” (55-56)
O’Donovan notes that the liberal stance toward the authority of Scripture now stands in uncomfortable contradiction to its past. In 19th and early 20th-century liberalism, “the moral authority of the Bible, or at least of the New Testament, was simply self-evident.” Doctrinally, the Bible might be full of superstition; historically, it might be quite fanciful, but morally, it was reliable and authoritative. “So far have liberal convictions undergone a sea change,” O’Donovan notes—now it is precisely on matters of morality that liberals contest the Bible’s authority (of course, this is not to say that they have softened their judgments about its doctrinal and historical authority; no doubt it was to be expected that once those were tossed out, the moral authority would not be far behind).
In the present, O’Donovan asserts, we have rightly abandoned our pretensions (formerly shared by liberals and conservatives) that moral truths and ethical judgments were self-evident. We are recognizing again that our moral path lies dark before us unless illumined by the Word.
However, the illumination is not that simple…on moral matters, in particular, we have a double difficulty in discerning what Scripture has to tell us—we must first struggle to interpret what Scripture means, and then we must struggle to interpret what our current situation means, so that we can properly apply Scripture to it, or, as O’Donovan puts it (he’s always so precise in his wording that I might as well quote him): “There is the interpretative task of discerning what the text means, and there is the conscientious task of discerning ourselves and our position as agents in relation to the text, on the other.” (58) So, to use the example he gives, I must first interpret what the Bible means when it says “Do not bear false witness” and I must then determine whether the ambiguous statement I am planning to make is deceitful, or merely discreet.
The second question, the question of what our situation means, is usually much more challenging than the interpretive question of what Scripture might mean. Therefore, it is usually quite foolish to act like the answer to this question is clear, and then to come to Scripture armed with this “knowledge,” as, he says, has been a common temptation for many, whether liberal and conservative. “It hardly matters which,” he says provocatively, “since the two come closest to each other precisely at the point where they are both furthest from the truth. If the conservative thinks that all the scriptural witness to moral behavior can and must be honored somehow, and the liberal that only some of it, or only most of it, must be honored, what difference does that make if each thinks that conclusion has been reached from some self-evident intuition about what the times require, so that the appeal to the Scripture merely confirms what has already been decided? This is not to take Scripture seriously as an authority. And it is not to take living in the present seriously as a risky business.” (59-60)
But now he turns to address specifically liberal errors, since the next chapter will be primarily devoted to guarding against the dangers in the other direction. O’Donovan tackles head-on the liberal claim that “among the particular New Testament values and precepts….there are time-bound judgments of value and fact, and they show that the Holy Spirit has deepened moral sensitivity through the course of the Church’s history and the history of mankind.” (60—here he is quoting Heinz Schurmann) That we may need to say something of this sort of the Old Testament makes sense…indeed, the New Testament requires us to. But “to take the same way with the teachings of the New Testament, on the other hand, would be self-subverting. And to avoid this fall into incoherence, the liberal hermeneutic proposal faces, it would seem to me, a simple alternative. Either it posits some further climax of salvation-history over and beyond Christ, some ‘age of the Spirit’ such as Montanus or Joachim conceived of, or a Hegelian dialectical history with an Absolute Future, something, at any rate, that will allow a ‘deepened moral sensitivity’ to which the revelation of the incarnation looks immature and outgrown. Or else it makes a distinction between the normative position of Jesus himself and the subnormative position of the apostolic authors, refusing to claim on their behalf the kind of finality it claims for him. The difficulties into which each of these courses leads are too well known to be pursed in detail at this point.” (62)
What the liberals must learn to do, he says, is to bring to the text genuinely open questions—“one must purposefully look to the source from which an answer is sought, an answer not already contained in the question, which is therefore capable of reforming and refining the question, which is therefore capable of reforming and refining the question. And that is precisely what is meant by the authority of Scripture in Christian ethics.” (62) The liberal paradigm, he says, has been unwilling to live with the danger we all must face…the danger that we might be wrong. Instead, it takes its morality for granted, and is prepared to shove everything aside, including Scripture, in favor of that morality.
Scriptural authority, of course, is not an easy thing for us to live with—authority, we feel, takes away our freedom. But the authority of Scripture also sets us free to live well. We must accept its judgment upon us if we are to judge rightly how to live. But, of course, this applies to all of us. We are not free to use Scripture as a hammer of authority on others, while holding ourselves above judgment: “We had better not approach the famous biblical texts on homosexuality as though we were not personally affected! What business could we possibly have with them if our only interest were to frame a theory of sexuality, or perhaps a history of sexuality, for scientists and philosophers to discuss? We had better come to them knowing that we need the help of God’s word if we are to find our way through this idol ridden sphere, and that our own sexuality and idolatry—nothing less!—are under scrutiny in those texts....We had better stumble across homosexuality, our own or other people’s, as a genuinely unknown quantity; we had better ask about it as those who need to be told, rather than reckon we already know all there is to know.” (66-67) To do otherwise—to ask questions of Scripture when we have determined that we already know all the answers, is not to take its authority seriously.
O’Donovan’s words in this chapter ought to be heartening for evangelicals, representing as they do an uncompromising insistence on Scripture’s infallible moral authority, against all who would seek to gainsay or ignore it. But they are also a challenge—a challenge that we remember that if we appeal to Scripture, to Scripture we must go! Appealing to Scripture to justify our fears or prejudices cannot be substituted for actually submitting those fears and prejudices to what the whole of Scripture actually wants to teach us. We must be patient and thorough in discerning Scripture, rather than taking a cursory proof-text approach. We must realize that the Scriptures stand in judgment of us just as they do of homosexuals, and we must be able to learn how the condemnations of homosexuality include condemnations of our idolatries as well. And we must remember that crucial point that O’Donovan makes earlier in the chapter—discerning the meaning of our own situation is far more complex than discerning the meaning of Scripture, and we must be patient and careful as we bring Scripture to bear upon it.
It annoys me to have to say this, but since there has perhaps been some confusion on this matter thus far, none of these closing comments should be taken as hinting at any need to revise the Church’s teaching and stand against homosexuality, and I don’t think O’Donovan’s argument in this chapter is aimed that way at all either. Nor do these comments imply that evangelicals have failed to take note of these things—as my dad always used to tell me, “Just because I’m telling you to avoid something doesn’t mean I think you’ve been doing it.” These are simply valuable things to be mindful of in the midst of debate.