O’Donovan Splits Ethics into Faith and Action

ODonovan_review_20191022Oliver O’Donovan. 2001. Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics. Leicester, England: Apollos.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I prepared to defend my doctoral dissertation, I got it all wrong. I practiced the detailed mathematical proofs, thinking that I would be tested on the depth of my understanding of economics. My committee examined me the economic fundamentals. Throughout my career since then, I have come to understand the wisdom of returning to the basics. Ethics works the same way.

In the prologue to Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, Oliver O’Donovan outlines his book with several important definitions:

“The principal orientations of the book are sketched out in the first part. Purposeful action is determined by what is true about the world into which we act; this can be called the ‘realist’ principal. That truth is constituted by what God has done for his world and mankind in Jesus Christ; this is the ‘evangelical’ principle. The act of God which liberates our action is focused on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which restored and fulfilled the intelligible order of creation; this we can call the ‘Easter’ principal. Each of these contentions has been challenged, or in some way qualified, in the recent literature in Christian ethics. They offer us, a grid on which to register some of the most important alternatives to the account of Christian ethics which this book advocates.” (ix)

Much of his book is devoted to explaining more fully what these definitions mean and imply with special emphasis on one fundamental truth: “Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (11)

Origin and Organization

Oliver O’Donovan (1945-) is an Anglican priest and scholar focused on Christian ethics educated at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.[1] He writes in twelve chapters divided into three parts:

  1. The gospel and Christian ethics

Part One: The objective reality

  1. Created order
  2. Eschatology and history
  3. Knowledge in Christ

Part Two: The subjective reality

  1. Freedom and reality
  2. Authority
  3. The authority of Christ
  4. The freedom of the church and the believer

Part Three: The form of the moral life

  1. The moral field
  2. The moral subject
  3. The double aspect of the moral life
  4. The end of the moral life (v)

These chapter is preceded by a preface and prologue, and followed by a bibliography and indices.

Two-Level Ethics

Although O’Donovan reviews creation ethics (natural law) at great length in part one on objective reality, he does not stop there. Redemptive history—creation, fall, and redemption—reduces to the dualist notion of “’from’ and ‘towards’, in which all the traditional language of good and evil is reinterpreted.” (63)

This two level of moral evaluation is not a novelty. O’Donovan writes: “There are conceived to be two levels at which moral thought proceeds: a fundamental level of intention—the will, in Kant—which makes a simple moral decision in favour of duty and the universal moral law, and a secondary level of empirical discernment which, as it were, merely administers that decision concretely.”(262)

O’Donovan articulates a similar two-level moral framework in Christian ethics. He writes:

“The ultimate and simple decision is not found in the books of human deeds, but in the book of life, where it is a question of Yes or No: either a name is there, or it is not.” (264)

In other words, the most important ethical decision is the intention to follow Jesus Christ. After that comes all other ethical decisions.


Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics provides a deep dive into Christian ethics beginning with a thorough review of creation ethics. This is a fascinating read for seminary students and pastors. I learned a lot. Perhaps, you will too.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_O%27Donovan

O’Donovan Splits Ethics into Faith and Actio

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