Oliver O’Donovan on the practical character of Ethics

Oliver O’Donovan on the practical character of Ethics

Ethics is not distinguished from other disciplines by an “object” or “subject-matter” which defines its territory over against those of other studies of other objects. What kind of thing is this morality, of which Ethics undertakes to speak? Clearly not a thing among other things, a segmented object of inquiry standing in relation to other objects as the locus of a certain body of evidence. Ancient Greek History may point to its archaeological monuments, its epigraphical inscriptions, its historiographical texts, which distinguish it from, while making it comparable to, Medieval Islamic History. For Ethics, there is no such determinate body of evidence; everything is grist for its mill. Nor can it treat its material with the same spirit of observational detachment, for what is involved in speech about living, acting, and doing is simply the very stuff of our actve engagements. Ethics is distinct by being a practical discipline. That is to say, it is concerned with good and bad reasons for acting.

[…] The new sciences reported on how humans behaved as individuals and communities in response to circumstantial pressures, and proposed explanations for their responses, but always from the observer’s, not the actor’s point of view – a subtle nuance conveyed in the word “behavior.” That meant that they never ventured upon the ground of moral reason, with its determinations of good and bad reasons for acting. The distinction may seem unimportant […] But all the observation and explanation in the world for behavior patterns, individual and social, for desires, feelings, aspirations, values, norms, and so on, may include not a single word about why something should be done, or what is to be valued above what. The discourse of Ethics concerns ourselves, the life we are living, the action we have in hand. Even when pursued at a high level of reflection, it is of a different order from a discourse about patterns of behavior demonstrated in the past or probable in the future. “Ethics is not practical merely by having as its subject matter human action,” wrote John Finnis shrewdly. Something similar may be said about the newly recovered fashion for evolutionary accounts of moral thinking, such as those, based on comparative neuroendocrinology which emphasize the role of the hormone oxytocin. Some “why?” is being asked and answered, to be sure. Some account is being given for ways in which we habitually feel and rule our feelings. But it is not the internal “why?” of the moral thinker; it does not inhabit the categories constitutive for moral thought. That means that such accounts have the effect of “knowing better,” of describing moral thought away by situating it within explanatory sequences which bypass the questions and propositions that those who practice moral thinking for themselves might recognize.

from Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology, Vol. 1, (Eerdmans, 2013), 69-71.

On the peccability of the Church

On the peccability of the Church

A. Lesslie Newbigin

The Catholic is right in insisting that the continuity of the Church is God’s will. He is wrong when he suggests that the doing of that will is the condition of our standing in His grace. As for the individual, so also for the Church, there is only one way to be justified, and it is to say, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’

from The Household of God, (SCM, 1957), 86.

B. Bruce Marshall

The unity of the church is a unity among sinners; the continuing reality of sin in the lives of all the church’s members has no bearing on the church’s unity. The currently much-debated question whether the church itself, like all the individuals in it, can be regarded as simul iustus et peccator should also, I think, be answered in the negative. That is, the church as a whole, as a community, cannot be conceived of as a sinful individual (or perhaps several such individuals) over against Christ. What makes the church to be, and so to be one (that is, to be an individual) is the very unity of being, knowledge, and love by which the triune God is one, into which human beings are drawn by the missions of the Son and the Spirit, so creating the church. Apart from the missions of Christ and the Spirit and the divine unity that is their gift to the church, the church is not an individual at all, and a fortiori not an individual “over against” Christ and the Spirit. Thus, it seems that while everyone in the church is an individual “over against” Christ, the church itself is not. Apart from or over against the missions of Christ and the Spirit, the church lacks that unity specific to it and constitutive of its reality as church; it is simply a collection of individuals and not the community for which Jesus prays in John 17. So if the church turns out, visibly and empirically, to be divided, this does not show (according to the stringent logic of John 17) that the church is a sinful individual over against Christ—it shows rather that the bond uniting Christ to the Father is broken, and thus that the triune God does not exist.

from “The Disunity of the Church and the Credibility of the Gospel,” Theology Today, vol. 50, (1993): 85-6.

C. Robert Jenson

Can simul iustus et peccator apply to the church? Luther called the church magna peccatrix, the “greatest sinner” and some Lutherans have taken this as a cue to apply the simul not only to the believers who make up the church, individually or all together, but to the church as she is a singular agent. The ecumenical protest this generates is surely justified. The church as the mother of all believers is not personally sinful nor has she ever been, however many sins may have been committed by her members in her name. Ecclesia iusta et peccatrix just does not fit the situation. The peccator I still am after baptism is precisely my “old man,” my pre-baptismal self, reaching from that past needing to be thrust back again and again. There was a time, however brief, between my birth and my new birth at baptism, and this fact remains as the base of the old man’s excursions. But the church had no such time antecedent to her birth as the body of Christ. There never was an “old church” which might emerge and need to be killed again. What then of Luther’s magna peccatrix? Whatever Luther may have had in mind, the phrase can serve if taken as a christological slogan. The church is the great communal sinner in that she is the body of that Christ who “was made to be sin for us.” Christ is the magnus peccator, not because he was once a sinner but because precisely as one “without sin” he could take all history’s sin as his burden. Just so his church as his body, his available presence in the world, is the world’s great sinner not because she has any sins of her personal own but because Christ’s body of course is laden with his burden.

from Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, (ALPB, 2011): 73-4.