Beyond "Creation" and Natural Law: An Evangelical Public Theology
Beyond "Creation" and Natural Law: An Evangelical Public Theology

Beyond "Creation" and Natural Law: An Evangelical Public Theology

What Oliver O'Donovan can teach Kuyperians

This week's article launches a new feature at Comment: our occasional "Works in Progress" series will publish excerpts from books in development by Comment friends and authors. We will see ideas unfolding and get a first look at books that will shape future conversations. This week and next, "Works in Progress" will feature a selection from editor James K.A. Smith's third volume in his Cultural Liturgies trilogy.

Any properly Christian ethics depends upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead

A lot that traffics under the banner of "Christian" public theology has little to do with the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our imaginations have been sufficiently disciplined by the assumptions of liberalism to be uncomfortable and embarrassed by forthrightly Christian hopes for temporal government.

What, then, to make of Augustine's encomium for the emperor Theodosius who "was more glad to be a member of that Church than to be ruler of the world" (City of God, 5.26). Augustine celebrates not primarily his power or accomplishments but rather his Christ-like humility:

Nothing could be more wonderful than the religious humility he showed after the grievous crime committed by the people of Thessalonica. On the intercession of the bishops he had promised a pardon; but then the clamour of certain of his close supporters drove him to avenge the crime. But he was constrained by the discipline of the Church to do penance in such a fashion that the people of Thessalonica, as they prayed for him, wept at seeing the imperial highness thus prostrate, with an emotion stronger than their fears of the emperor's wrath at their offense.

Our allegedly "Christian" public theologies appeal to creation order and natural law, invoking norms restricted to general revelation and the dictates of "reason." But where does reason dictate penance? And where does the natural law commend forgiveness and mercy? Did creation order ever drive us to our knees in a passionate prayer of confession? And are not such practices and virtues germane to the image-bearing task of governing?

This scene from the City of God suggests a more integral link between the church and politics without simply conflating or identifying them. It suggests that the practices of the church as an outpost of the heavenly city are integral to the political goods of even the earthly city—that the liturgy of the body of Christ bears up those worshipers who are then sent to take up the vocation of earthly rule. This suggests a Christian political theology that is rooted in the substance of the Gospel and the specific practices of the cruciform community that is the church. The public task of the church is not just to remind the world of what it (allegedly) already knows (by "natural" reason), but to proclaim what it couldn't otherwise know—and to do so as a public service for the sake of the common good.

This vision is one of the key contributions of British theologian Oliver O'Donovan. In contrast to the various political deisms on offer, O'Donovan articulates a properly evangelical political theology. Rejecting the moral minimalism of the "natural law" project as a sub-Christian expression of political theology, O'Donovan also has important lessons to teach those of us Kuyperians whose "Christian" public theology too often settles for "creation order."

Rethinking Nature and Grace

A Christian public theology always already assumes a theology of culture which, in turn, assumes a theology of creation. And any "Christian" theology of creation has to articulate an understanding of the relationship between the order of creation and the order of redemption—how we should understand the relationship between nature and grace. O'Donovan's political proposals are nourished by a holistic model at this most fundamental level. As he puts it in the opening of Resurrection and Moral Order (RMO), "The foundations of Christian ethics must be evangelical foundations; or, to put it more simply, Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it could not be Christian ethics." Any properly Christian ethics, he emphasizes, "depends upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (RMO 13). Yet how many paradigms of supposedly "Christian" political theology operate as if this never happened?

However, this Gospel specificity is not a way to paint ourselves into a sectarian corner of cultural irrelevance precisely because the resurrection of Jesus is the reaffirmation of creation—"the confirmation of the world-order which God has made" (RMO 14). In the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus "the whole created order is taken up into the fate of this particular representative man at this particular moment of history, on whose one fate turns the redemption of all" (RMO 15). The resurrection is "[t]he sign that God has stood by his created order" (15). So there is no tension or choice to be made between a so-called "ethics of the kingdom" or an "ethics of creation": "This way of posing the alternatives is not acceptable," O'Donovan comments,

An evangelical public theology is one nourished by the specificity of God's revelation in Christ

for the very act of God which ushers in his kingdom is the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the reaffirmation of creation. A kingdom ethics which was set up in opposition to creation could not possibly be interested in the same eschatological kingdom as that which the New Testament proclaims. […] A creation ethics, on the other hand, which was set up in opposition to the kingdom, could not possibly be evangelical ethics, since it would fail to take note of the good news that God had acted to bring all that he had made to its fulfillment. (RMO 15)

Like natural theology, O'Donovan affirms the objective moral order that inheres in creation. But taking seriously humanity's fallenness (per Romans 1) undercuts the epistemic confidence on which natural theology programs depend: "In speaking of man's fallenness, we point not only to his persistent rejection of the created order, but also to an inescapable confusion in his perceptions of it. This does not permit us to follow the Stoic recipe for 'life in accord with nature' without a measure of epistemological guardedness" (19). We might rightly affirm

that man's rebellion has not succeeded in destroying the natural order to which he belongs; but that is something which we could not say with theological authority except on the basis of God's revelation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We say that this, that or the other cultural demand or prohibition […] reflects the created order faithfully, but that too is something which we can known only by taking our place within the revelation of that order afforded us in Christ. It is not, as the skeptics and relativists remind us, self-evident what is nature and what is convention.

While O'Donovan agrees with Kuyperians and natural law advocates that there are objective "ontological" norms of morality and flourishing inscribed in creation, the problem with natural law programs of public theology is that they also presume a universal ability to know and understand such norms: "The epistemological programme for an ethic that is 'natural,' in the sense that its contents are simply known to all, has to face dauntingly high barriers" (RMO 19).

What's Wrong With Natural Law?

I think this gives us a way to be frankly honest about why natural law programs fail to actually persuade in public debate (recent debates about marriage are a good case in point). What we rightly see as "rational" and "natural" itself depends upon illumination and intellectual virtues that are not universally available. Rightly discerning the lineaments of creation and natural law actually requires faith. Francesca Murphy recently made the same point in First Things: "A teaching that was once part of the common sense of society has now become an item of faith, and rather an esoteric faith. Only those with biblical principles, including those Catholics who use natural law, seem to be able to see the need to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples. The rational arguments we offer fall on deaf ears. We may as well be citing Scripture." Appeals to nature depend upon the illumination of special revelation.

Did creation order ever drive us to our knees in a passionate prayer of confession?

But this does not mean the norms only apply to the Christian community; they remain norms for a flourishing humanity. Thus she counsels continual public witness and argument on this matter from an unapologetically Christian starting point: "I think the traditional view of marriage has indeed become a matter of faith and we have to keep arguing for it to be on the law books, until and even after every state has ratified same-sex marriage." Recognizing the revelational conditions for insight into human nature does not preclude public proclamation.

How to Be Human: Practice Resurrection

Because creation is reaffirmed in Christ's resurrection, and because "nature" is only known "in Christ," then any Christian account of even "this-worldly" life has to be unapologetically evangelical, rooted in what we know in—and because of—the Gospel. This must include our political theology, even though our political theology involves an account of how to live with those who are not "in Christ." In our public and political witness, we ought not operate as if we are working the dark like everyone else, without revelation and illumination. Contravening King Lear, O'Donovan makes a bold claim in Desire of the Nations (DN): "God has no spies. He has prophets, and he commissions them to speak about society in words which rebuke the inauthentic speech of false prophets." An evangelical public theology is one nourished by the specificity of God's revelation in Christ, which is bound up in the canonical story unfolded in the Scriptures—the story of Israel.

This is why Christian political theology is at once evangelical and scandalously historical . "True prophets," he continues, "cannot speak only of the errors of false prophets. Their judgment consists precisely in what they have to say of God's purposes of renewal, his mercy towards even such weak and frangible societies as Israel and Judah, unstable communities on which the fate of souls depends. Christian theology must assume the prophet's task, and accepting history as the matrix in which politics and ethics take form, affirm that it is the history of God's action" (DN 11-12). This is exactly O'Donovan's exercise in Desire of the Nations: to read Israel's history as both "a history of redemption" and as our history—yea, as part of the pedigree of democratic liberalism. This is to read Israel's history "as the story of how certain principles of social and political life were vindicated by the action of God in the judgment and restoration of the people" (DN 29).

"Nothing in modern democracy has changed the fact that political existence depends upon structures of command and obedience," O'Donovan remarks (DN 18). Thus the heart of a Christian political theology is discerning the nature of authority which, in Scripture, is bound up with the reign of God. But once again, O'Donovan emphasizes the continuity with creation here: "[T]he history of divine rule safeguards and redeems the goods of creation. […] When we speak of divine rule, we speak of the fulfillment of promises to all things worldly and human" (DN 19). This is why the Christian political vision is its own sort of humanism: Jesus is the image of God humanity was always made to be and hence he is the exemplar of and for humanity. His resurrection is the realization, not the trumping or overcoming, of humanity. "The moment of the resurrection does not appear like an isolated meteor from the sky but as the climax of a history of divine rule" (DN 20). Scandalously, it is the particular life of Jesus that shows us what human flourishing looks like.

This is why a coherent and prophetic Christian political theology cannot operate under the guise of methodological naturalism , pretending the revelation of God in Christ is somehow irrelevant for our so-called "penultimate" political life. His life and revelation are the only way we could possibly understand how political life should be rightly ordered. Thus "political theology must go beyond such general conceptions, and take on the character of a proclamatory history, attesting the claim that Yhwh reigns. Its subject is God's rule demonstrated and vindicated, the salvation that he has wrought in Israel and the nations. Unless it speaks in that way it can only advance a theological type of political theory, not an evangelical political theology, a 'Law,' in the theological sense, rather than a 'Gospel'" (DN 81).

This means that political theology is unashamedly rooted in the specificity and particularity of God's self-revelation in Christ and the equally particular history of his covenant with his people Israel and the new covenant people that are the church. The body of Christ is that polis in which we participate in Christ, in which our perception is sanctified by the Spirit so that we might be able to discern the reign of God and thus be equipped for public proclamation of good but disconcerting news that submission to Yhwh's reign is the way humanity is liberated.

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?