Oliver O’Donovan

Brent Waters

Oliver O’Donovan has made substantial contributions to the field of Christian moral theology. His work, however, is not confined to the academy; indeed, it informs the church’s mission and ministry. This brief essay cannot do justice to either the breadth or depth of his work, but some of the more significant strands can be sketched by focusing on three themes: (1) nature and social ordering, (2) eschatology and moral ordering, and (3) the church and political ordering.


O’Donovan is an ordained priest in the Church of England. Prior to his appointment as Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh in 2006, he was Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, and Canon of Christ Church at Oxford. O’Donovan has served on a number of ecclesiastical committees and commissions, and is the author of many books, articles, and essays.


Much of O’Donovan’s early work is devoted to issues related to marriage and family, and human sexuality. His principal task is to examine why, in late modern societies, embodiment is perceived as a problem rather than a defining feature of human life. The most illuminating focal point of his inquiry is his critique of reproductive technology. In Begotten or Made? (Oxford University Press, 1984), O’Donovan notes that the Nicene Creed affirms that the Son is begotten, not made by the Father. They are alike, sharing a common being; true God from true God. The same cannot be said for creatures that are made rather than begotten by their Creator. Creatures, such as humans, are not like God.

The relationships between Father and Son, and Creator and creature are often misconstrued by late moderns. The bond between parent and child, for instance, is increasingly perceived in terms of the latter relationship; children are made, not begotten. This perception erodes the underlying equality between parent and child, for the child is reduced to an artifact of the parents’ will. The relationship between a creator and artifact can never be one of equality, for what is created bears the emblem of its creator’s will. The creator and created are not alike, and therefore alienated from each other. We beget beings that are like ourselves; we make things that are foreign from ourselves. Consequently, when children are made instead of begotten, the parent-child relationship is distorted by an implicit alienation.

Reproductive technology exacerbates this distortion. This is seen especially in how technology separates sexual intercourse from procreation through contraception or assisted reproduction such as in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Ironically, the body grows increasingly irrelevant other than being a problem to be overcome (infertility), or a resource to be exploited (donated gametes and surrogacy).

More broadly, O’Donovan contends that this transformation exemplifies the larger late-modern project of using technology to subject nature to the mastery of the human will. All forms of human life are ultimately artificial constructs of what we will them to be. We make babies and we can remake our bodies; indeed we make our identities, relationships, and social and political institutions. Effectively there is nothing natural about being human, thereby precluding the possibility of given norms against which humans should order their lives accordingly. If this late-modern presumption is correct, then it poses a daunting challenge to Christian theology.

If nature is a problem to be overcome and a resource to be exploited, then how may Christians talk about creation as God’s good gift? O’Donovan offers a detailed answer to this question in Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Eerdmans, 1986). His central thesis is that in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead God vindicates created order. In this act, God does not allow humans to “uncreate” (14) what he has created. The resurrection does not merely vindicate the life and ministry of Jesus, for then he would be little more than a heroic figure who has been rewarded by God. Rather, since Jesus is the incarnate Word the “whole created order is taken up into the fate of this particular representative man at this particular point of history, on whose one fate turns the redemption of all” (15). Easter culminates what the Incarnation affirms, namely, that creation has not been forsaken by its Creator; it remains God’s good gift.

This vindication of created order enables O’Donovan to propose a “natural ethic.” This ethic is teleological, orienting relationships and acts toward given ends and purposes. It is natural, for instance, that women and men are drawn to each other and beget children. The purpose of this good desire, however, is not to fulfill their will to make a child, but that a couple shares their being with another by welcoming a child who has been entrusted to their care. Consequently, marriage and family are not artificial constructs, but moral structures ordained by God to order this natural desire. The same principle applies to other forms of association that humans are naturally drawn toward such as commerce or education. Here again the institutions ordering human sociality are not artificial constructs, but are designed in accordance with given ends and purposes. The purpose of banking, for instance, is not to commit fraud but to enable economic exchange.

The natural ethic is neither preservationist nor restorationist. Although the created order has been vindicated it is not yet fully redeemed. The resurrection also anticipates creation’s destiny of its redemption in Christ. Consequently, the task of moral ordering is to neither preserve creation as it is, nor is it to restore a lost, pristine condition. Rather, the goal is to align the temporal unfolding of created order with its destiny in the resurrected and exalted Christ, directing it toward the promise of a new heaven earth, not a rebuilt Garden of Eden. This eschatological orientation in turn demarcates the temporal tasks of moral, social, and political ordering. Although these tasks are important they should not be given any ultimate significance. The destiny of creation does not depend upon any particular family, organization, or nation, but upon the reign of Jesus Christ. Moreover, the roles that are played in performing these temporal tasks will be transformed in the fullness of time. The roles of spouse, parent, child, banker, ruler and the like will be displaced by sisters and brothers in Christ.

Although the hope of the world is its destiny in Christ, this eschatological orientation does not diminish the significance of the temporal ordering of creation as it is being drawn toward its appointed end. To say that these tasks do not have ultimate importance is not to say that they are unimportant. This is especially true in respect to political ordering, and O’Donovan has written detailed accounts of political theology and political ethics in his books, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and The Ways of Judgment (Eerdmans, 2005).

O’Donovan addresses the endless critique and skepticism that is endemic to late-liberal politics. To fall into the trap of a hermeneutic of suspicion violates the prophetic tradition, for the prophet does not have the luxury of “perpetual subversion.” Rather, there is the need and responsibility to govern creation under the sovereignty of God. Moreover, since God has entrusted humans with the task of governance, political ordering is a work of divine providence, and O’Donovan identifies several formative political concepts.

O’Donovan turns to Christendom as an exemplar in developing these formative concepts. He is not arguing for the restoration of Christendom, but uses it as a conceptual resource to inform contemporary political thought. Christendom refers to a historic era (roughly 313 with the Edict of Milan to 1791 with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) in which the idea of a “professedly Christian secular political order” was put into practice. Admittedly that practice was often far from ideal, but Christendom provides a background against which we may better understand our present circumstances, for it was the “womb” that gave birth to our late modern world. Even the rejection of Christendom is indebted to moral and political principles that it propagated. A central concept is that in response to the revelation of Christ and witness of Israel, humans acknowledge and enact a divine rule of creation that renews its inherent goods. Specifically, the goal is to acquire knowledge of action that is obedient to Jesus Christ.

A prerequisite for obedient action is that it is grounded in legitimate authority. By “authority,” O’Donovan means that God has authorized certain people to perform specific acts in virtue of the offices they hold. Exercising this authority, however, is not an arbitrary assertion of power. Rather, if one is to be in authority then one must also be under authority. This is a crucial concept in respect to political ordering. In his exaltation Christ has subjected the nations of the world, and they are already under his rule whether they know it or not. Consequently, all authority is derived ultimately from Christ as the ruler of creation. A queen, for instance, has the authority to appoint magistrates because she has divine authorization to perform this act in virtue of her office. Admittedly, she may be either obedient or disobedient in performing this act, but the point to be stressed is that no temporal leader can claim ultimate authority.

Exercising limited authority is the centerpiece of political ordering, for its abuse diminishes evangelical freedom. In the absence of legitimate authority there can be no genuine freedom, for the two are directly correlated. The loss of authority leads inevitably to the loss of freedom. In the absence of parental authority, for example, children are not free to mature; in the absence of a teacher’s authority, students are not free to learn; in the absence of political authority, a civil community is not free to pursue its common good. Consequently, obedient political ordering establishes communities of law, for people are not free to act until their leaders can command authorized action.

The law O’Donovan has in mind is not simply a mechanism of social control but the embodiment of the law of Christ that empowers evangelical freedom. Law is not (or should not be) a tool that the powerful use to assert their will over the weak. Rather, law establishes an equilibrium between relative positions of strength and weakness in various relationships. Under the authority of Christ, for instance, children command their parents to exercise proper parental discipline; students compel their teachers to instruct them truthfully; civil communities insist that their leaders enact and administer policies that promote the common good.

Those in positions of authority must have the power to act, otherwise political ordering is ineffectual. In the absence of sufficient power the acts that God has authorized rulers to perform languish. O’Donovan does not treat power as a naked relationship among competing individuals and groups. Power is the means that is employed to accomplish the divinely authorized acts of governance. Such power is admittedly misused, but this does not negate its necessity. If a regime lacks legislative, executive, and judicial power it cannot sustain a community of law.

The more salient features of exercising such power can be seen in O’Donovan’s concept of judgment. An act of judgment is an acknowledgment of the given limits of political ordering. The practice of judgment forbids temporal governance to pretend any ultimate sovereignty. If a regime is to exercise the authority to govern, then it must also be under authority and its power is thereby limited. A court, for example, may pass judgment against a criminal act, but it cannot judge the soul of the criminal.

The enactment of law entails a moral discrimination between right and wrong. A legislative body determines that this is right and that is wrong, while courts decide whether accused persons have or have not committed prohibited acts. It may be determined, for instance, that it is right for individuals to own property, and wrong for others to trespass or seize property without the permission of the owner. Judgment must also be rendered whether or not a particular individual violated these prohibitions, and if so assign a fitting punishment. Acts of judgment in turn vindicate the peace and order of a community of law by forbidding personal vengeance. An individual, for example, is not authorized to use whatever force is required to regain her property or to punish the perpetrator.

The practice of judgment provides necessary closure—that is, finality to a complex process of discerning what is right and what is wrong, and what is a fitting response to the wrongs that have been committed. The act of closure, however, creates a new public space in which such judgment may be reexamined as needed. Laws governing private property, for instance, may be judged to have been too narrowly or broadly conceived, and punishments assessed as being too lenient or too harsh. Such closure upon the past and opening of new space for the future are both needed. Refusing to close and move on marks the failure to assert the authority of setting the necessary constraints that make freedom possible.

O’Donovan believes that a more vital understanding of authority and practice of judgment need to be recovered to resist the “menace” of late modern politics. That menace consists of the idolatry of a “totalizing politics.” In a world in which everything is political, then nothing is properly political, for there is no demarcated space in which authority and judgment are exercised within given constraints. In the absence of such a space we are left with a “politics” of the naked will and ceaseless war of conflicting interests and with it a diminished freedom because there is no authority to be freely obeyed.

In contrast, O’Donovan portrays the church as a “post political” (cf. Ways of Judgment, 240) community, a koinōnia that is “authorised by the ascended Christ.” Consequently, the church “has its own authority; and it is not answerable to any other authority that may attempt to subsume it” (cf. Desire of the Nations [1996] 159). It is, in short, a community that bears witness to how life should be lived within a vindicated creation being drawn toward its destiny in Christ; a life of obedient freedom under the authority of Jesus Christ.

Posted Apr 01, 2008