Wyclif: Dominion by Grace

This was an old seminary paper I wrote.  I was young and idealistic.  I stand by most of what I wrote, though I wish I had spent more time with John Wyclif (and I wish RTS Jackson was an institution that took scholarship seriously and sought to develop it).

Scholarship has advanced a good bit on Wyclif since I wrote this (though many of his most important writings are still in Latin).   My main problem in this essay is that I tried to read Wyclif through the lens of post-theonomy debates, rather than letting him set his own views.

What are one’s ethical duties between church and state? How does one’s citizenship affect his witness against the world? Augustine wrote his monumental tome City of God in response to the Fall of Rome. It was the result of a lifetime of scriptural wisdom in reflection on the current ethical and political crisis. Western culture, however, never had a consistent interpretation and application of Augustine’s vision. Did the worldview of The City of God necessarily lead to “triumphalism” or did it encourage Christians to political inactivism? [Modern Day Reflection:  This is mostly true, and scholars are divided on Augustine on this point, but this really wasn’t Wyclif’s main point]

Even then, the answer seemed none too clear. While one could consistently choose either triumphalism or monasticism, ethical problems would soon follow. The ethical duties seemed clear when Augustine wrote The City of God. Barbarians sacked the cultural center of the world and fingers were pointed at the Christians. “The world seemed to at its foundations, and the pagans knew the answer! In their eyes, the catastrophe was the recompsense for abandoning the old guardian divinities and the traditional religion; the new Christian God of the empire had obviously proved impotent, and had failed” (von Campenhausen, p.241). Although Augustine convincingly refuted his critics, and a consistent political theology was established, Christendom was troubled with new tensions between politics and theology.

Medieval thought saw society as an indissoluble unit under the suzerainty of God’s visible and manifest authority. According to the ruling ecclesiastical interpretation of the later Middle Ages, the church was not only the continuation and extension of Christ’s authority upon earth, but the bearer of His authority and kingship over all things in the universe. According to the familiar words of Boniface’s Bull “Unam Sanctam,” 1302:

We learn from the words of the Gospel that in this Church and in her power are two swords, the spiritual and the temporal…Both are in the power of the Church,’ the spiritual sword and the material. But the latter is to be used for the Church, the former by her; the former by the priest, the latter by kings and captains but at the will and by the permission of the priest…The one sword, then, should be under the other, and temporal authority subject to spiritual…Thus, concerning the Church and her power, is the prophecy of Jeremiah fulfilled, ‘See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms,’ etc. (Jer. 1:19). If, therefore, the earthly power err, it shall be judged by the spiritual power; and if a lesser power err, it shall be judged by a greater. But if the supreme power err, it can only be judged by God, not by man; for the testimony of the apostle is ‘The spiritual man judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man’ (I Cor. 2:15)” (Bettenson, p. 159ff).

 Some of Christendom’s doctrines were an offense to plain interpretations of the Bible and to a rational mind. John Wycliffe’s teaching called into question the doctrine of transubstantiation. But worldviews do not exist in a vacuum. If Christendom’s doctrines fall, does not that suggest a defect in the social order itself? Whether he was conscious of it or not, John Wycliffe brought to the forefront what Augustine had raised: the relation of church to state. Wycliffe’s work would focus around several issues in which appeal to a king is possible. Should Wycliffe (and his followers) appeal to the State to solve ecclesiastical turmoil, particularly the Eucharist? [That is true regarding Christendom, and yes, Wyclif did address those points, but he did so in the theme of “Evangelical Lordship,” without which his argument doesn’t make any sense]


John Wycliffe was born in the early 1320s in Wyclif, Yorkshire, in England. He emerged from relative obscurity after 1366 in response to Urban V’s demand for payment of tribute promised previously by King John. John Wycliffe began his career supporting the Crown’ right to tax the church, including entering sanctuaries to ferret out crown debtors. Wycliffe’s metaphysic stood in the realist tradition and was a response to the nominalism of William of Occam. This most likely led to his denial of transubstantiation. 

William of Occam (1285-1347) was a proponent of the via moderna school of nominalism. Nominalism denied universals in favor of particulars (McGrath, 35). Occam also held to the voluntarist position, asserting the primacy of the will over the intellect. Thomas Bradwardine, the Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1349) set the intellectual and theological groundwork for John Wycliffe. Urban V (1362-1370) was the pope for the beginning of Wycliffe’s ministry. He was the sixth of the Avingon popes. [Bradwardine himself was unique.  Something of a voluntarist yet not an Occamist and yet still, a precursor to Wyclif]

There were other incidents that affected the relationship between church and state. The Donation of Constantine was a document forged in the 8th century in defense of papal interests. As Jaroslav Pelikan notes, “The Donation did not prove that what the emperor had was originally the property of the Pope; it did prove that the temporal possessions did not eo ipso corrupt the holiness of the church, and that the Pope should share his wealth with the church” (Pelikan, p. 91).


There were people in England who were deeply concerned with the corruption of the church. Many scholars were declaring that the seat of corruption lay in Rome. There was an externalism in religion. Man could live the most dissolute life yet participate regularly in the sacraments, and this man was considered a good Christian. As long as one did not break the rules, what one believed, and what one’s moral character was made no difference. England was emerging from the Middle Ages as a distinctive nation. Wycliffe labored in England in the midst of religious and political turmoil, not to mention the “Black Plague.”

The University system became a medieval novelty wherein the power of the church was again compromised. One of the persistent problems of medieval life was the relationship of church and state. It was seen that it was the claim of the Roman see that the Church was beyond the reach of secular law and subject only to its own authority. The medieval university, from which Wycliffe came, made a similar claim, positing autonomy from both church and state.

John Wycliffe was born around 1330. He began his education at Oxford while still young. Between 1356 and 1360 Wycliffe was elected Master of Balliol. Minor details of scholarship would occupy him in the next decade. He received a commission in service to the crown in the 1370s. It was in this time period that he wrote his works on Divine and Civil Dominion. He landed himself into some minor political troubles in the late 1370s, including an in-house arrest. He remained quiet until 1381.

While any number of incidents in Wycliffe’s life or in the lives of those who ministered with him highlight the tension between the church and the larger world, Wycliffe’s attack on the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation is an example of crack’s in the papacy’s armor. Wycliffe set forth 12 theses demonstrating the inadequacy of the medieval doctrine. The result from the church was understandable. Historian Phillip Schaff writes,

For the first time since the promulgation of the doctrine of transubstantiation by the Fourth Lateran council was it seriously called into question by a theological expert. It was a case of Athanasius standing alone. The mendicants waxed violent…Without mentioning Wyclif by name the judges condemned as pestiferous the assertions that the bread and wine remain after consecration, and that Christ’s body is present only figuratively or tropically in the Eucharist” (Schaff, p. 320).

Wycliffe was unimpressed with the rebuttals and went on preaching and teaching similar doctrines. The head of the university summoned a council to condemn Wycliffe and threatened any who supported him. Wycliffe held other views on church matters that were no less controversial. He believed, for one, that good government is seen when a king rules in accordance with God’s commands. This requires, controversially, the renunciation of political dominion by the church. Moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan notes on Wycliffe’s political theology,

Inasmuch as the de facto ecclesiastical authorities, enjoying both civil wealth and jurisdiction, live in manifest contravention of God’s will, it belongs to the righteous king, ruling by grace, to promulgate and enforce God’s law by depriving corrupt and avaricious clergy of their property and forcing the whole estate to live on freely donated tithes and offerings” (O’Donovan, 484).

Such was the ideal, but the sword cuts both ways. This would be a sign of true justice in the hands of a righteous king. It would be something quite different in the hands of a tyrant or a Roman puppet.

Soon after this episode an event happened that on first glance seemed to support the rights and interests of the common man over the wealthy church. It would seem at the outset Wycliffe would be sympathetic to the movement. The peasants of the land revolted due to the strain of living placed on them. Wycliffe, however, appeared uninterested in the struggle, except that church lands should be given to the wealthy. While Wycliffe did not support the rebels, he was blamed for their actions. The charges cannot be substantiated, given Wycliffe’s earlier strong royalism.

One tempest seemed to follow another. Wycliffe’s enemy Courtenay, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called an assembly of ecclesiastical nobles. He was backed by Pope Gregory XI. Gregory called for the condemnation and investigation of Wycliffe’s teachings and threatened the University if they did not comply (Kelly, p. 226). Wycliffe’s challenge to transubstantiation and his silence in the Peasant’s Revolt provided ammunition for his enemies. On 21 May an earthquake occurred and Courtenay interpreted it as a sign that God was purging the land of false doctrines. Of the 24 propositions attributed to Wycliffe without mentioning his name, ten were declared heretical and fourteen erroneous. What exactly did Wycliffe teach?

What was in the Eucharist was ‘the body of Christ in the nature of the bread, since what is there is the nature of the bread and not the nature of the body of Christ, as it is in heaven…’ As long as Wycliffe did not insist on any specific theory of the presence, but spoke of it being ‘in some manner or other (quodammodo).’ He did insist that the words of consecration, though figurative, were unique, not merely one blessing among others. Thus the body and the blood were in the Sacrament ‘truly and really, but figuratively’ or ‘spiritually and really’ or ‘in a sign but not without being there really and truly’” (Pelikan, p. 58).

There had been recent debate on whether metaphysics or biblicism gave the first impetus to this opinion, the issue that led to his final breach with the status quo.

To fully prosecute Wycliffe, Courtenay needed the help of the State. He needed the King’s approval. Here a disjunct appears with the reality of Wycliffe’s views on the State’s authority over a corrupt church and Wycliffe himself being persecuted by a corrupt church via the arm of the State. Should Wycliffe remain consistent with his principles even when they are being wrongly applied?

Wycliffe’s quarrel with the Papacy centered on the nature of obedience to higher powers and the morality of those to whom the Christian/citizen is to obey. Wycliffe challenged the Pope’s authority on the grounds that the Pope represented Christ, and Christ was poor; therefore the Pope ought to be poor. Secondly, when church and the Bible conflict, we must obey the Bible. Thirdly, when conscience and human authority conflict, one ought to follow conscience.

Wycliffe predicated his attack on the Papacy from his doctrine of the church. The Pope’s power of excommunication and threat faded in the light of God determining who is in the church. Wycliffe modified Augustine’s ecclesiology. The church was the congregation of the predestined by God and not an institution governed by the Pope (p. 32). The church and its members are called to be witnesses to the supernatural Lord, God incarnate, and to His redemption, power, victory and life. The church is a convocation, a group called together by a higher power—God. When Wycliffe wrote of his English Bible that “This Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” his statement attracted no attention insofar as his emphasis on the centrality of Biblical law was concerned. That law should be God’s law was held by all; Wycliffe’s departure from accepted opinion was that the people themselves should not only read and know that law but also should in some sense govern as well as be governed by it. The infrastructure for a Christian re-orientation of society was already established-the just rule of a King under God. Ideally this was the case. In practice, as Wycliffe’s life demonstrates, this was not necessarily the case. Still, the question remained, “Can a King, even one who is not a Christian, protect the church from a corrupt hierarchy of the Church?”

Wycliffe spent the last two years of his life in the parish ministry unhindered by ecclesiastical or political squabbles. In 1382 he suffered his first stroke and was partly paralyzed. It was for this reason he was unable to answer a citation to Rome. He died soon after on December 31, 1384. Having never been excommunicated he was buried in consecrated ground but his bones were dug up in 1482 by order of the Council of Constance, burnt, and thrown into the river.


How should man live with the knowledge of the Bible’s claims on one hand, and respect for the social order on the other hand? It seemed too simple to simply build the Kingdom of God on earth. That had been fraught with problems in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, “Christendom” did further the Church and protect the those who sought to worship God. Constantine established the “Christian magistrate,” so it would seem. New preachers on the scene–John Wycliffe and others–suggested the renewing of the office of the magistrate even further: if the magistrate would heed the claims of Christ he could do much to renew the church. But this raises problems: true, if the magistrate is a devout Christian he could thoroughly pursue justice in the land. But if he were Christian in name only, then he could use his office as a club to bludgeon the church. In other words, such a move—a Christian renewal of the state for the sake of the church—while having beneficent effects in the short run, could nominalise Christianity in the realm. Wycliffe’s challenging of the church later to be backed by the state set a dangerous precedent, but one that had to be taken seriously.


The issue that John Wycliffe faced goes beyond Augustine to Constantine. What are the ramifications of a “Christian state?” Dangers appear in either direction. While persecution did in some cases allow the church to flourish, is persecution necessarily the norm? Does not persecution eradicate some communities? Indeed, if a godly ruler passed just laws, would not this further the temporal prosperity of a nation while simultaneously allowing the church to preach the gospel unhindered? On the other hand, would a Christian ruler nominalise Chrisitanity and make it acceptable while robbing it of its prophetic force? Was not the Medieval Church in large measure an example of this?

But many in the early church were witnessing to the Lordship of Christ. They went to their deaths for saying that Christ, not Caesar is Lord. And to draw an ethical implication from this: those who held power became subject to the rule of Christ. The martyr church had as its goal the renewal and reorientation of the Empire under now Christ. As O’Donovan said, Christendom meant not “the church seizing alien power, but alien power becoming attentive to the Church” (Oliver O’Donovan, p. 195)

Bettenson, Henry. Documents of the Christian Church, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943.

Fountain, David. John Wycliffe: The Dawn of the Reformation. Southampton, UK: Mayflower Christian Books, 1984.

Kelly, J.N.D. The Oxford Dictionary of the Popes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Books, 1994.

O’Donovan, Oliver. Desire of Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

O’Donovan, Oliver and Joan. From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: The Reformation of the Church and Dogma vol 4. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Schaff, Phillip. History of the Christian Church vol 6. . Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980


Szarmach, Paul. ed. “John Wyclif,” Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998, 821-822.

von Campenhausen, Hans. The Fathers of the Church. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.



Notes on Wyclif from O’Donovan.

A running series of notes I’ve made on John Wyclif over the past decade, with help from Oliver O’Donovan.

From his talk “The Human Person, Economics, and Catholic Social Thought”

On the term “communication.”

His view of lordship does not depend on property.  Wyclif sees property as “lordship on unequal terms.”  

God exercises his Lordship by “communication,” lending (not giving away, since God cannot alienate himself), by giving fellowship (communication) to human beings. God shares creation as a whole with mankind as a whole.

What is man’s response to this communication?  For Wyclif, every righteous man is lord of the whole world, and in receiving anything we receive the whole world with it.  Communicating the good of creation with each other, we discover a radical equality in our creaturely relation to God’s communication.

Summed up in this formula:  This mine is ours.

From Irenaeus to Grotius (with Joan Lockwood O’Donovan)

Evangelical lordship is the “natural, nonproprietary use of necessary things universally open to human beings” (484).  Following Augustine, Wyclif will argue that a just lordship of earthly goods involves a rightly-ordered love towards them, which depends on a true knowledge of them available only in Christ (485; cf. Augustine City of God, BK 19).  

Does this mean that we can overthrow tyrants since they don’t have a Christological understanding of rightly ordered loves, and hence no just lordship?  Not so fast, Wyclif would say, it is true they do not have just lordship, but we as those having true dominion in Christ bear witness that they have a “defective use of these goods” (Wyclif, 494). Tyrants posses “an unformed power” (Wyclif 510) but not true lordship.  Rather, it is the believer who has the epistemological authority to judge the failures of church and state  (O’Donovan 483ff).  

Communication and Sharing

“God communicates them (spiritual gifts) to mankind with no alienation or impoverishment to himself the giver” (Divine Lordship, bk. 3 ch. 1. 70c).  

Outline from Bonds of Imperfection eds O’Donovan and O’Donovan (Eerdmans).

The Proprietary Subject and the Crisis of Liberal Rights

Key point:  The possession of rights is always proprietorship; all natural rights (for the West) originate in property rights (Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, 75).   This originated with Pope John XXIII (1329 AD).  He saw man as created with full lordship and ownership as possession (dominum).  His point was to discredit Fransiscan theologians who insisted on radical poverty.

This is the rights culture that would spring full-bloom in the modern world.  The problem it created was how to have community if the above take on rights is true.

Patristic Foundations of Non-Proprietary Community

The fathers thought men should share as an imitation of God’s sharing his goodness with us.

Augustine’s Achievement
Augustine distinguished between two objective rights:  (a) divine right, by which all things belong to the righteous, and (b) human right, in which is the jurisdiction of earthly kings (79, quoting Epistle 93).


  • Justice for Augustine is a rightly-ordered love seen in the body politic, which would mean men loving the highest and truest good, God, for God’s sake.
  • Therefore, the bonum commune is a sharing in a rightly-ordered love (City of God, BK 19.21).
  • Because this sharing is spiritual, it is common and inclusive.  Thus we have a republic in the truest sense of the word:  res publica, public things.
  • Conversely, a disordered love in the soul is the privatization of the good.
  • Therefore, a disordered love will see the destruction of community.
O’Donovan comments,
It is the regulated interaction of private spheres of degenerate freedom, secured by the protection of property and enhanced by the provision of material benefits at the hands of unscrupulous tyrants (80).
Fransiscan Poverty: The Evangelical Theology of Non-Possession
  • Renouncing property right means that the viator is not a self-possessor, but rather is possessed by Christ and receives his powers (85).
Wyclif’s Ecclesiological Revolution
Irony: Wyclif’s reform program actually owed a great deal to Pope John XXIII’s reflections.
  • Non-proprietary posession belonged not only to Adam’s original state, but all the way forward to the episcopolate today: this should be seen in the church militant (88).
  • Divine lordship (dominum):  per Wyclif’s predecessor, Fitzralph, God is the primary possessor and enjoyer of creation.  Therefore, his giving of creation to Adam is a communication and sharing of himself, rather than a transfer of Lordship (89).
  • For the church, for Wyclif, this is God’s gift of himself as the love of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 13).
  • Therefore, all of the “justified,” who coexist with Christ’s love, share (communicant) in this lordship directly from Christ.
  • Therefore, just dominion involves rightly-ordered love towards these communicable goods, which in turn depends on true knowledge of them available in Christ.

Barth on the Sacraments

Barth, Karl.  Church Dogmatics IV/4.4

This is Karl Barth’s treatment of the ordinance of baptism.  Like other volumes in this series, it shares both Barth’s strengths and weaknesses.  It should be noted that this only a fragment of what appeared to be a larger work-in-progress.  Still, it seems to contain the mature essence of Barth’s thought.

Barth begins on a promising note:  he grounds his theology of baptism on the decisive act of Jesus Christ in ushering in the new creation (11).  Readers of Oliver O’Donovan will note similar themes.  This means that Jesus is the origin and the beginning of the Christian life.  There are echoes of eschatology here:  Jesus’s resurrection discloses, if only briefly, the coming eschaton of the Regeneration (Mt. 19:28).

From this we see that Jesus is the True Israelite.  In his baptism Jesus takes upon himself, not only the identity of Israel, but also the coming judgment (Barth 56).  This, of course, is heavy with themes of mediation (and as long as Barth stays on these topics, he cannot help but triumph).  There are classic statements that Jesus is the Elected Israelite and Eschatological David (61).  How much better than can you get?

As is often the case with Barth, his historical critiques are always insightful.   He neatly outlines the Reformed view of baptism:  baptism does not cause salvation, but mediates its cognitio and certitudo (105).  He then moves to a stunning critique of hyper-sacramentalist traditions.  At no point in the New Testament is mysterion used for baptism or the supper.   It is an event of God’s positive will in space and time (108).  This is a place where Calvin can be legitimately criticized: he failed to break with the medieval tradition on the use of sacramentum, something Zwingli was much more successful at doing.  At this point in the narrative he praises Zwingli’s work, but he will pull back.   He knows that Zwingli’s theology inevitably led to infant baptism.

More pointedly, he notes that those who say the “water” saves (usually with reference to Titus 3:5), must account for the following:  1) they must make the dia loutro in Titus 3:5 carry the whole weight of justifying action; 2) they must show that the aim of the Savior’s appearing in space and time to save men is actually to illustrate that men are being baptized (LOL!); 3) they must give to the term paliggennesias a meaning quite devoid from Matthew 19:28.

So, do we agree with Barth?  Sadly, from here on we must part ways.  Not surprisingly, given his commitment to crisis-theology and existentialism, Barth champions believer’s-only baptism.  For him baptism is the decision of decisions, something an infant cannot make.  However, Barth is too keen a reader of Calvin to ignore the counters to his position. He then proceeds to critique the doctrine of infant baptism (and here he rehashes the standard baptist critiques).

What do we say in response?  I grant to him that Calvin’s treatment is often less than adequate.  Following Oliver O’Donovan I agree that the church is an eschatological society which is joined by leaving other societies.  However, adult baptism risks confusing the particular decision to be baptised with the ultimate decision that baptism represents (O’Donovan 178).  Infant baptism, by contrast, does not confuse my decision to be baptised with the eschatological decision of following Christ.

At the end of the day it must be acknowledged that neither Barth’s position nor that of the paedobaptist can claim 100% certainty.  This is because, as Barth makes clear earlier, the New Testament really doesn’t say all that much about the theology of baptism.  It is important and people do it, but the New Testament stops there. I believe the paedobaptist position is warranted because of inferences from God’s covenant promises.

Self-Love and Augustine: Analytical Outline

This is an outline of Oliver O’Donovan’s The Problem of Self-Love in St Augustine.
Thomas Aquinas identified three different froms of self-love: friendly, hostile, neutral.

      1. Augustine’s own use of it identifies with the eudaimonist tradition (O’Donovan 2).
    1. Four Aspects of Love
      1. Dilectio and caritas are words better-suited than amor.
        1. There is no caritas about evil things; only cupiditas.
      2. The loving subject stands in a complex relation to the reality he confronts.
        1. “Order” is a teleological notion.
        2. The subject discovers this order.
      3. The final good.
        1. Augustine initially thought this meant happiness.
        2. The supreme Good can’t be below or equal to man; it is above him.
        3. Using language like finis bonum introduces a positivist note (17).
      4. Cosmic love
        1. Metaphysical/ethical realism.
        2. The love of God is a metaphysical movement of the human will towards its final cause.
          1. But this doesn’t really account for deviations.
          2. Augustine then said that the movement of each thing is “proper” in that it occurs without any exterior force as an intervening cause.
        3. Augustine’s “Neo-Platonism.”
          1. The good of each degree is identified with the degree above it.
          2. Yet Augustine the metaphysician had to admit that only one object of love was permissible.
      5. Positive Love
        1. For the early Augustine “use” was opposite of love.
        2. Distinction between things and signs
          1. Things are subdivided
            1. Objects of enjoyment: you cleave to something for its own sake.
            2. Objects of use: not all use of temporal things is love.
        3. This is classical eudaimonism: the end is something one posits (28).
      6. Rational Love
        1. Love is estimation, appreciation, approval, not appetite or movement.
        2. The lover’s response to the object of his admiration is dilectatio.
          1. The basis of this delight is rational.
          2. Love’s order is given by its comprehending conformity to the order of reality.


  • Self-Love and the Love of God


      1. The pyramidal ordo amoris supposes that every subordinate good derives its value from its final orientation to God.
      2. Knowledge: We require God’s merciful self-communication
        1. The human mind
          1. We also need subjective criteria: the mind loves itself.


  • Self-Love and Self-Knowledge


      1. Love follows knowledge.
      2. Matter and Mind
        1. To be in matter is to be in space.
        2. The intelligible realm is “in itself.”
      3. Soul and Presence
        1. Self-presence: the soul detached from the world of matter
        2. Distance-from-self: the soul in matter.
        3. Augustine identifies the inner self with conscience (71).
      4. There is a gulf between self-knowledge and knowledge of God.
      5. Commentary on De Trinitate
        1. First three-fold division
        2. Amans, amata, amor
          1. This was the Trinity of external love.
          2. The subject-object-copula only yielded two terms.
          3. New triad can yield three: mens, notitia, amor.
        3. Memoria, intelligentia, voluntas


  • The Primal Destruction


      1. Self-love is to reject the good common to all, God himself, in favor of some limited personal good.
      2. Platonic echoes: Augustine sees the soul of man occupied in the middle place of the universe.
        1. We must view the soul as expanding (reaching towards God) and contracting (sin).
      3. Your private interests should not clash with another’s, for the only true interests have to be communal because the only true goodness was God, who gives himself freely to all (103).
        1. Neglecting the common good is neglecting the transcendent good common to all.


  • Suum has become an ontological category (104).


Thesis: Self-love is notorious to define, be it pagan or Christian.  And it isn’t always clear what Augustine means by it.  O’Donovan, however, does point the way through the morass and gives us something like the following: Augustine takes classical eudaimonianism and gives a “communal” and eschatological cast to it:  self-love finds its true expression in love to God, which orders my love to others (138).

O’Donovan ends with an outstanding presentation of Christian Eudaimonism.  Such a view will have to take a positivist view of the finis bonum.

But in some ways more important than the above is O’Donovan’s wise, judicious handling of the history of ethics in the ancient world.  Among other things, he gives us an outstanding commentary on the latter half of De Trinitate.

Outline of Resurrection Moral Order

Labour of love a long time in the making.

O’Donovan, Oliver.  Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics.  Eerdmans, [reprint 1994].


Easter Principle

In Christ’s resurrection creation is restored and fulfilment promised; ethics had a foundation (xv).

Difference with Hauerwas:  OO begins ethics with the Christ-event and resurrection; hauerwas with the practices of the Church.

Ethics and final redemption:  Jesus sits at God’s right hand and gives the spirit as a guarantee.  We can be confident about reconciliation because of Christ’s work on the cross.

Sub-thesis: “Love is the principle that confers unifying order both upon the moral field and the character of the moral subject” (226).

The Gospel and Christian Ethics

Resurrection and Creation

“The raising of Christ is representative, not in the way a symbol is representative, expressing a reality what has independent and prior standing, but in the way that a national leader is representative when he brings about for the whole of his people, whatever it is, war or peace, that he effects on their behalf.” (15)

Kingdom ethics/creation ethics:  no dichotomy.   God ushers in the kingdom in the raising of Jesus, which also reaffirms creation.

Natural Ethic

There is an objective reference to the God-made order.

The Spirit and Christian Freedom

The resurrection focuses our participation forward.  It allows me to respond as a moral agent to God’s order (23).   The gift of subjective freedom must be an aspect of our being-in-Christ. The coming of Christ throws off the law as pedagaigos. It makes us adults in God’s order.


Created Order

creation:  the order and coherence in which the world is composed (31).  It generates an ethical terminology:

  • end–A is ordered to serve B;
  • Creation’s being for Christ is related to being in Christ
  • kind: creates which have generic equivalence in Christ can be ordered to one another teleologically (here O’Donovan avoids the scale of being, but allows at the same time that man is probably more important than rocks).
  • Here OO (34-36) tries to navigate the problems of how creation’s subordinate ends are ordered to each other (per Hegel, Hume, etc).

St Basil’s Two Kinds of Order:  natural and deliberative (37ff).  

The attack upon kinds: the freedom of God

We must not assume a uniform pattern of God’s activity in all ages, for example before and after the coming of Christ (42ff).  

The attack upon ends: the polarity of will and nature

reality without “kinds” is nominalism.  Reality without ends is voluntarism.  Abstracting man from teleological concerns opens the danger to a mechanization of man (52).


Created order cannot be itself while it lacks the Christ-redeemed rule of man that was intended to it (55).  Eschatology answers the question of what creation’s temporal extensions mean.  The ascension is an unfolding of the significance of the resurrection (57).  This means Christian ethics looks both backwards and forwards.  

Natural Ends and History

historicism:  all teleology is time-bound, historical teleology.  It implies that the fulfillment of history is generated from within history (64). The Reformers’ insistence on sola fide/gratia cut this move off at the pass.  “Grace alone” means God is at work from the outside.   

  • Platonic form: per Pannenberg it incorporates not only the Parmenidean arche, but the Socratic arete.   The notion of the good contains an element of futurity.  
  • criticism:  when history is made the categorical matrix for understanding reality, then it can no longer be history.  For a story to be a story, it has to be a story about something (and not just a story about the idea of story).
  • The patristic response:  if creation is extended infinitely in time, then it has infinite possibilities.   By speaking of creation ex nihilo, as finite, they could say the possibilities in history were defined in terms of creation’s being God’s gift (63).  

Historicist Ethics

strong tendency to manipulate and intervene.  Nature does not have meaning from some transhistorical given, but arises from within history by natural forces.  

Western political theology was able to keep a distance from historicist conclusions (for a while, anyway).  It starts from the assertion that the kingdoms of this world are not yet the kingdoms of the Christ, since they do not reflect his judgments.  This allows the believer, who is absolutely subject to Christ, to be relatively subject to earthly powers.  This relative subjectivity opens a “space” between the believer and the powers.  Further, since politics does not have to reconcile the world, it can get along with its own God-ordained business (72).  

If there is no locus of value outside of history, then history will supply its own.  In this case the kingdom of God becomes a form without content.  


Knowledge has subjective/objective aspects.  

  • knowledge of things in their relation to the totality of things (77).  Grasping the shape of the whole.
  • The NT contrasts faith/sight, not faith/reason.  
  • subjective aspect: the more encompassing an object is, the harder it is to transcend it and remain neutral.  
  • universals:  our conception of “kinds” (genera) is always open to new particulars. However, the knowledge of the created order from within avoids the empiricist’s dilemma opposed to a knowledge of universals from above.  
  • knowledge is a human way of participating in the created order (81).  
  • knowledge is therefore tied to man’s faithful performance of a task.
  • In summary, knowledge is a knowledge-of-things from within the created order and is vindicated by the resurrection of Christ, who vindicates the created order and gives it back.  Knowledge is a knowledge hidden in Christ.  

Exclusive Knowledge

This knowledge of things in Christ is not of an ethereal Logos, but a particular human.  It is a particular knowledge of the whole order of things created and transformed (85).  

  • Natural Law: how to avoid the ambiguity which attributes universality, not only to knowledge, but to being.  First principles, for Thomas, are self-evident (ST II.I.94.2)
  • It is moral knowledge of the natural order co-ordinated with obedience (87).  It is known by participation, not transcendence.  

Moral Learning

Moral understanding is a grasp of the whole shape of things (90).   Moral learning is all the time “thinking,” the intellectual exploration of a reality (92).

Conflict and Compromise


Freedom and Reality

Goal of chapter: to show that the redeemed creation does not merely confront us as moral agents, but enables us to participate in it (101).

  1. The Spirit makes the reality of redemption present to us (102)
    1. Any doctrine of the Spirit must first be a doctrine of the Spirit in Christ if it is to avoid the problem of Montanism.  
    2. The Spirit makes the reality of redemption authoritative to us.
  2. The Holy Spirit in John 16:8-11 (105); each of these three moments of judgment is included in the one act of God’s redeeming and fulfilling creation.
    1. crucifixion: the world’s judgment on Christ
    2. resurrection/ascension: The Father’s judgment on Christ
    3. Parousia: Christ’s judgment on the ruler of the world.
  3. The Spirit evokes our free response.
    1. he restores us as moral agents, as the subjects of our actions (106).
    2. freedom is the character of one who participates in the order of creation by knowledge and action (107).  
    3. Freedom is potency, not possibility.This rejects existentialism’s “absence of limits” and libertarianism’s “infinite possibilities.”
    4. Freedom is teleological (Gal. 5.13).
    5. The Holy Spirit restores our access to reality (112).

Alienation and Conversion

  1. Augustine: knowing and willing must be entirely proportionate and coextensive.  The corrupted mind knows something without loving it, or without loving it proportionately (110).  It does not know it in order to justify its love (De Trin. Book 9). The mind in perfect possession of truth loves and wills–reason and will are one.  
  2. The problem of the relationship between reason and will: springs from a disjunction between hearing and doing
  3. Repentance cannot simply realign our will to its continuity with the past.  Something must break that continuity.

Conscience and Autonomy

  1. Guilt: a dividedness of the will with itself.
  2. Conscience:
    1. Thomas Aquinas:  it is bad for the will to be at variance with reason. If you have a mistaken conscience, anything your will does will be sin. Thomas’s larger point, even if we don’t like how he got there, is to caution against an autonomous conscience.
    2. Later 18th century moralists set up conscience as an arbitrary tyrant.


authority:  something, which by virtue of its kind, constitutes an immediate ground for acting (122).

Christian neo-Platonism: every movement of the human soul is inspired by God; mediated through a diversity of created objects

Natural Authority and the Authority of Truth (cf Ways of Judgment, pp. 131-132).

Political Authority

concurrence of natural authorities of might and tradition (128).  Political authority searches for a compromise while bearing full witness to the truth.

Divine Authority

“What is the relation of the divine command to the created order” (132)?

  • theological rationalism: God speaks through the order reason perceives.  Ps. 104:5; emphasizes the security of the created order.  Emphasizes ontological continuity, tends towards neo-Platonism.
  • theological voluntarism:  God’s command cuts across the rational order.  These psalms emphasize destability (Ps 97.5).  Tended toward immediate contingency of morality upon the revealed will of God.  

Deontic and Teleological Language

Deontic: morality is a matter of command and obedience.  The moral claim is encountered apart from any consideration of the subject’s wish or fulfillment.  

The Authority of Christ

The spirit bears witness to the Resurrected Christ’s authority.  Spontainety and tradition are dual aspects of the same error: failure to critically evaluate the Spirits.  What is tradition but spontaneity in slow motion?  They are not necessarily wrong; just not self-evident.  

The authority of God is located in the public realm (Resurrection).  Moral authority is the authority of the renewed created order where ends and kinds participate.  

Evangelical Authority

*  “When the apostle contrasted law and gospel, he was pointing to the dialectical tension in Israel’s history between the experience of God through promise and the experience of God through command” (151).

  • to experience moral command as “law” is to encounter as from a point in the history of salvation in which God has not yet given the total blessing to his people.
  • “mediated through angels” = the created authority of the community.

Jesus’s authority

  • It is “evangelical” because the moral order he proclaims is the Kingdom of God.
  • Abba prayer:  disciples are invited to share Jesus’s relationship with his father.
  • criticism of externalized morality and religion

Law is command through reciprocal bargain.

Historical Authority

The coming of Christ is the word that re-shapes the events of history (and their teloi).

The Freedom of the Church and the Believer

thesis:  Christ evokes the freedom of the Kingdom of God within us (163).  

  • however, our humanity is destined for the shared life of a city.

The difficulty in classical ethics:

  1. The call of the good, per Plato, meant a solitary and tragic opposition to society.
  2. Aristotle saw that human good always presupposed a social context.
  3. Augustine tries to solve this in City of God: eschatological transcends the tensions between individual and society.

The church isn’t simply a community that speaks to mankind, but is the community that is spoken to.

The Roman view of command and counsel:

  1. it suggested (contra Lk 17:7ff) that God’s demand was limited and less than the total claim of the Good (170).
  2. dangerous wedge between divine command and ultimate realities of good.
  3. Metaphysical ethics must be unitary.  If an act is obligatory, it is so by virtue of its relation to the good, and by virtue of that same relation the performance of it is free.
  4. Therefore, this distinction destroys the very ideas of both freedom and obligation.

Part Three: The Form of the Moral Life

The Moral Field

The form of the moral life is love, the bond of perfection (Col. 3:14).  This section deals with what St Paul calls “The fruit of the Spirit” (182).  

Thesis: The gospel tells us of agents rendered free before the reality of a redeemed universe.  The form their agency assumes will correspond both to the intelligible order which they confront and the freedom in which they act (183).

  • their moral life will be an ordered moral field of action (i.e., human acts)
  • moral ordered subject of action (I.e., human character)

An ordered moral field

Different options

  • to see the moral life as human acts is to see it broken down into a series of discrete and distinct events of human agency, a plurality of responses to the world rather than a single response (183).
  • Fletcher and situation ethics: no matter how problematic Fletcher’s proposal is, it did show the true colors of historicism.  Historicism needs a transhistorical mediation and Fletcher tries to show that doesn’t work.
  • anticipation: divorced from Christian reflection, this is a consequentialist ethic.
    • evaluate acts solely by the consequences they produce
  • Wisdom ethic: “the perception that every novelty, in its own way, manifests the permanence and stability of the created order, so that, however astonishing and undreamt it may be, it is not uttlery incommensurate with what has gone before” (189).
    • Wisdom’s re-presentation as law: declares the central point of Israel’s faith as the meeting of life-in-the-world with life-before-God.


indirect voluntary acts: similar to foresight.

direct voluntary acts: intention

the above distinction  advises us that there is a difference between directly intending  an evil effect of one’s action and merely foreesing that it will follow; b) that one may foresee an evil effect of one’s action without desiring it, and c) that one may licitly act in such a way as will foreseeably produce an evil effect (192).

This should be reframed, O’Donovan suggests: it originally arose as a way to understand the differences beween murder and other kinds of killing.  It cannot be used as an ‘analytic a priori” (194).


Aquinas’s approach: good and evil in human acts in general

  1. act-as-such
  2. object
  3. circumstance
  4. morality

This demands insight into the craeted order


The Moral Subject

Thesis: “Human morality is a series of disclosures in which reality (the heart) forces itself into the realm of appearances (deeds and words) and declares itself, tearing apart the veil of pretense” (206).


The Epistemological Priority of Act

  1. The character is known through the acts.
  2. Knowledge of an agent’s character contributes to evaluative moral thought, not deliberative.

The Plurality and Unity of the Virtues

Aristotle: all activities strive for some perceived good, happiness (eudaimion). What is the unifying virtue?  Love.  “True virtue is love for God” (223). The four cardinal virtues are manifestations of this love in typical social relations.

The Double Aspect of the Moral Life

Main point, glossing love your God/neighbor: the love by which we love reality must be twofold in the same way that the reality which we love is twofold: the secondary object derives from the primary object (227).

  • We are to love the neighbor because the neighbor is ordered to the love of God.
  • Yet, love of the neighbor is love of something that is not God (it is also affirming the genuine otherness of creation).

The Ordering of Love

The love to God is not merely one claim among many, but the claim that orders other claims.

Two loves: love to God and love to neighbor

  1. The relation of the two loves is an ordering of means to ends.
    1. Augustine’s “use” and “enjoyment.”
    2. “Res”
      1. Proper objects of “use” (utenda) and proper objects of enjoyment (fruenda)
      2. But Augustine’s reading seems to say that we “use” our neighbor, and O’Donovan rejects this proposal. 235
  2. What is a “person?”
    1. Originally classical Christian thought said that “individuality” resided in reason (nous) or soul (psyche).  When applied to Christ, this was disastrous (238). This either made him two individuals or one individual without a whole range of human attributes.
    2. The solution was to draw a sharp divide between person (hypostasis, individual existence) and nature (a set of attributes).
    3. Modern Kantianism and Hegelianism, in reducing person to “will” and self-consciousness is actually a reversion back to pre-Christian categories.

The End of the Moral Life

The Christian moral life looks to the divine disclosure of God-in-Christ through the Spirit.

Love and its Reward

The idea of reward must always be clarified by something like ipse praemium.  God himself is the gift.  The present hiddenness of God’s new creation demands the public manifestation of the Son of Man in the cosmos.

Love demands that the good be actualized.

Kant downplayed the object of affections/desires/etc in favor of an inner disposition (251).

Various Terminology:

created order: “the structure of the world in its objectivity…its authority to evoke our action” (191).

moral field: “the world as it presents itself to us at any one moment as the context and occasion of our next action.”

Wisdom: “knowledge of the created order.”

casuistry: application of the moral law to action in particular cases.

historicism: the history of an idea is its reality (34). The problem is that the end of a thing is no longer a given ordering-to, which allows free response, but merely historical necessity.

universal in Christ:  his particularity belongs to his divine nature, universal to his human nature (143).  A universe of meaning


Barth and Ramsey on Political Power

This is a summary of Oliver O’Donovan’s essay of similar title, found in Bonds of Imperfection.  What’s important is not so much the conclusions reached, but how they are reached.

Ramsey: The crux of the difference between pacifists and justifiable-war Christians turns on the person and work of Christ (Ramsey, Speak up for Just War or Pacifism 111, quoted in O’Donovan 247).

  • While this sounds pious and truistic, it has a very precise meaning for both thinkers.
  • For Barth it concerns the proper location of the political order within the covenant of Reconciliation between God and man (OO 251).
  • For Ramsey it means that Christ assumed one common humanity: there is no ontological disjunction between homo politicus and any other kind of man/order.


O’Donovan summarizes Barth’s ethics in several stages:

    1. Despite some of Barth’s shifts on election, there is a stable stream of ethical reflection–grudgingly acknowledging the state’s right of force but noting the abnormality of it.


  • Romerbrief may be discounted as “anarchist” and “backwater” (O’Donovan 249).


  1. Barth’s wartime writings veered closer towards a realist use of the State’s force.  His later writings veered towards a more anabaptist view.
  2. This is because of a dialectic within Barth’s thought that is never fully settled.
  3. This is partly the case because Barth doesn’t (will not?) imagine the possibility of both a peace-state and war-state within the same framework.

Here is where possible confusion arises:  Ramsey will critique “liberals” on pacifism and note they follow Barth.  What does he mean by “liberals?”  I don’t think it is simply “those who reject the Bible.”  I think he has in mind Niebuhrian liberalism.

Paul Ramsey

Key Point: The Legitimate Use of Power

  1. The use of power, including the use of force, is of the esse of politics
  2. The use of power is inseparable from the bene esse of politics.

As a foil, Ramsey will have Barth say:

B3: War should not be seen as a normal, fixed, or necessary part of a just state (CD III/4, p. 456).

Back to Ramsey’s theses.  We may add another

R4: The use of power implies the possible use of force.

Ramsey’s argument presupposes a proper ordo of politics, the connections of iustitia, lex, and ordo.

  • Ordo = the disposition of power.

R5: The cross casts a shadow over politics, not pure light (OO 259).  

Politics, community, and the cross should meet in that area where light and shadow meet.  

R6: “The task of politics is to be a sign of the rule of Christ, disclosing right, preserving community and determining the basis of community in right” (259).

Political reflection based on the gospels should not begin with the Advent, as important as it is, but with the fact that Christ has come in history.  O’Donovan: “He [Messiah] has reached for the crown which will allow no rival crowns beside it.  Because he has come, history has divided into two, its back broken on this outcrop of rock which it cannot negotiate” (260).

Corollary: There is a disjunction within the community of election (visible/invisible church), not in the works of God as such.  

Problems with Barth’s Political Ethics

For Ramsey, God accepts Christ’s regnant new humanity.  For Barth, God rejects the old humanity.  This seems to mean that God also rejects extra-ecclesial orders as such.  When Barth comes to war as such, he does not interact with Just War reasoning but simply lists the evils of the Second World War.

Ramsey can point to “monuments of grace” in such a horror, even to legitimate uses of State force.  Barth can only suggest a delaying action (CD III/4, p. 456).  As a result, notes O’Donovan, Barth “ends up precisely in the place he intended to bypass, in a politics that can only be viewed soberly and not with evangelical faith or hope” (O’Donovan 264).

A Way Forward With Ramsey

Ramsey has what Barth needs: a way to bridge the gap between homo politicus which is redeemed in Christ and homo politicus that is in need of redemption. We are back with the distinction between esse and bene esse.  The latter terms also suggests something along the lines of goal or end. Ramsey is speaking of true political activity.  

Is Barth an Apollinarian?

Ramsey offers a model in which political power is both used appropriately and judged:  the Incarnation, homo assumptus.  This means that Christ takes on the fallen order, including homo politicus.  There is no radical “Other” realm to which Christ has no access.  As O’Donovan notes, “Only so can the homo politicus that is redeemed be the same homo politicus that was in need of redemption” (266).

Barth will not grant this.  But in not granting it, he is partitioning off a section of man’s redemption.  To be fair, Barth resists this temptation in Christology but not in politics.

Who is Ramsey’s “Liberal?”

A liberal for Ramsey is one who splits politics and military doctrine.

Liberalism for O’Donovan: the inadequacy of every human attempt to render justice.  A magistrate’s power should be limited.    Therefore, power is suspect but necessary (270).

What does Ramsey mean by Just War and International Politics?  So, O’Donovan: “The international sphere was a constitutional vacuum, but by no means a moral or political vacuum” 271). Ramsey suspects there is a continuum that links violent with nonviolent resistance. Indeed, is not democracy justum bellum (Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience, 126)?  Jesus never said to resist evil by ballot boxes.


Review of Politics of Jesus (Yoder)

Eerdmans, 1994.

While I think this book is wrong on several levels, it marked a valuable turning point in Evangelical ethical reflection. To say Jesus’s message was political is commonplace today. It wasn’t when Yoder wrote.

Thesis 1: Jesus’s ministry has a political claim that we often hide from ourselves (Yoder 2).

Yoder is against a “Creation Ethic” (8). While his primary target is natural law ethics, he also lists “situation ethics” under the same label: we discern the right be studying the realities around us (9).

Thesis 2: Because of Jesus’s “humanness,” there is the possibility of a distinctively normative, Christian ethic (10).

Yoder is against any kind of “natural law ethic,” and for him natural law = creation = nature = reason = reality. While I suspect Yoder paints with a rather broad brush, one can’t help but note a few points he scores: these models are usually “ascribed a priori a higher or deeper authority than the ‘particular’ Jewish or Christian sources of moral vision” (19).

His exegesis on “Kingdom” anticipates many of the gains found in NT Wright’s own work. Yoder’s argument concerning “Jubilee” is quite interesting, though not without difficulty. He sees Jesus in Luke 4 as inaugurating the New Jubilee. In fact, he can call the “Lord’s Prayer” a “Jubilee” prayer, since debts are wiped away (64). Bottom line: Those in the Kingdom must practice Jubilee. Corollary: to practice the Sabbath without practicing deliverance and Jubilee is not to practice the Sabbath.

(3) The point of OT violence was not violence, but that God acts to save his people without their needing to act (76-77).

(4) Jesus’s kingdom is not simply “internal” but is outward and social.

(5) The universe was made in an ordered form and is called “good” (141).

Be that as it may, Yoder insists “we have no access to the good creation of God” (141). Strong stuff. He does expand upon this language, drawing upon Paul’s words in Acts 17:22-28.

(5a) These power-structures were created by God and today provide a network for our existence (142).
(5b) They rebelled and fell.
(5c) God uses them for good.

My only problem at this point is (5b) seems to think that the powers = angels of one sort or another. That could work but the evidence is slim.

Romans 13

This is the most controversial chapter in the book. I’ll begin by noting some positives. Yoder is correct that Paul is not arguing for a positivist reading: i.e., whatever the state says is just/right by definition (this is the official position of the United States Supreme Court regarding its own rulings). Most controversially, he asserts that the sword, the machaira, is not a weapon as such but a symbol of authority. Therefore, this can’t mean that the state is just in war or taking a life.

By way of response:
>He says God did not create the powers that be, but only orders them (201). Assuming that these powers are not self-existing, then yes, God did create them.

>He says Rom. 13 cannot be used as a proof-text for police/military functions (203). But what of the soldiers who came to John the Baptist? What of the centurion whom Jesus commended so highly? In neither case were they told to quit their unjust professions.

>His claim that the machaira can’t be used for death simply won’t hold. The state is said not to wield it in vain. But if it is merely symbolic and can’t restrain my actions, then the state is wielding it in vain. Jesus reaffirms the death penalty in Matt. 15.


*Yoder does a fine job demonstrating that Jesus didn’t come to offer a Kantian kingdom and a Kantian, spiritual ethic.

~1. It’s hard to reconcile Yoder’s claim that the State is the embodied evil of the demonic powers with Paul’s claim that it is a minister of good.

~2. Yoder wants to posit a good creation with good structures (as he should), but given Romans 13 and the fact that God commanded wars in the Old Testament, how can one then critique Just War Theory and the use of the sword?

~3. Yoder almost always dismisses dissonant voices as “unaware of Jesus’s social dimension,” of whom he usually means “Christendom” (whatever that means).

~4. Yoder’s claims in (5a-c) need an additional premise: (5d) Creation has been restored and reaffirmed in the resurrection of Christ. To be fair, Yoder approaches this point (144-145). Yet, in this section he doesn’t mention the Resurrection. He does hint at it on p.239.

~5. While correctly rejecting the Enlightenment project, Yoder uses a lot of its rhetoric. He continually contrasts the “traditional” or “Constantinian” reading with a fresher reading.

~6. What’s the value of positing a good creation if we have no cognitive access to it (141)? In fact, and most devastatingly, how does Yoder even know creation is good if we have no cognitive access to it? In any case, the Bible doesn’t follow this reasoning, since it tells us to look to nature and creation for wisdom (“Go to the ant, thou sluggard!”).

Now that I think about it, this is why Oliver O’Donovan spent so much


A valuable and welcome read. His exegesis of Luke is outstanding and he doesn’t opt for easy answers, even when I think he is wrong.

Readings in Christian Ethics (O’Donovan list)

Focusing mainly on more classical and patristic texts.  These are the texts in the O’Donovans’ work.  So, if you wanted to read in the patristic tradition and how earlier Christians engaged in political reflection, this is a good list.

Justin Martyr,

  •  First Apology. Sections 1, 2, 4, 10, 11.
  • Letter to Diognetus 5-7

Irenaeus of Lyons: Empire as a demonic force; Christ’s coming into the world was already an act of judgment (O’Donovan 16).

  • Against Heresies V.24-26.  Also contains some of his eschatology.

Tertullian. A strong rejection of military service, though Tertullian’s later arguments begin to shift…

  • Apology 4, 30, 38.
  • “Military Chaplet,” 11
  • Against Marcion, IV:16.

Clement of Alexandria: Contrary to Plato, philosophical kingship is already present because God manifested it in His Son (O’Donovan 31).

  • Stromateis I:24-28.


  • Against Celsus 8:68-75.

Lactantius: The meaning of property is given by the structures of community relations in which material goods are communicated (O’Donovan 47).

  • Divine Institutes III:21-22; V:5-7, 14-15; VI:10.

Eusebius: The Word (Logos) of God mediates the kingship of God.

  • Dedication Holy Sepulchre 16

Ambrose of Milan: emergence of episcopacy; renounced private property in favor of an “ecclesial sociology.”  Institutionalized charity.  Explores different forms of economic slavery (O’Donovan 69ff).

  • Epistle 75a, 1-8; 24-37.
  • Story of Naboth, 1, 2, 4, 11, 12, 36, 37, 52, 53, 63.
  • Letter 7:4-19
  • Letter 50
  • Duties of Clergy I:28-29; II:15-16

John Chrysostom: aesthetic of Christian government: “the drama of overcoming wrath with mercy” (O’Donovan 91). In giving charity, the giver reasserts the original community of goods.

  • 24th Homily on Romans
  • 17th Homily on the Statutes
  • 11th Homily on Acts
  • 12th Homily on 1 Timothy

Augustine: the law of Christ can be obeyed in time of war if the right attitude is sustained.   Civil justice prepares the way for penitence.  We must look behind the tasks of authority to the society that gives authority its rationale (O’Donovan 109).

  • On Free Choice of Will I:5
  • Against Faustus, 19:18, 19, 25, 26; 26: 74, 75, 76
  • Letter 153
  • Letter 93: 3, 5, 12
  • Letter 189
  • Letter 24
  • City of God II:20; IV:3-5; V:24-26; 14:28; 15:1, 2, 4, 5; 19:5, 7-15, 16, 20, 21, 24-27.


An Ethics Bibliography

With some autobiographical vignettes.  One theologian I have repeatedly came back to over the past ten years is Oliver O’Donovan.  His command of Scripture, Theology, and the Western Philosophical tradition is awe-inspiring. He forms the backdrop of this post.  The following texts are generally from easier to harder.

Section 1

General text: Holmes, Arthur.  Ethics.  Basic, but covers the issues from an Evangelical perspective.
Classical Text:  Augustine, Confessions.  With special attention to book 10 and following.
Classical, contd.  Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.  Almost every ethical treatment derives from and presupposes him in some fashion.

Section 2

General Text: Davis, John Jefferson.  Evangelical Ethics.  A bit more thorough than Holmes but same general vision.
Classical text: Clifford, “Will to Believe.”  Essay.  Holds to the skeptical position that we can’t believe or act on a belief unless we have sufficient reason for that belief.
Response:  James, William and passim.  Clifford’s thesis has been destroyed in every generation since he wrote it, but liberal philosophy of religion profs are still impressed by it we have to keep responding to it.

Section 3

General Text: Geisler, Norma.  Ethics: Issues and Options.  Surprisingly good.  Holds to the (probably correct) position of graded absolutism and gives fairly good treatments on abortion and capital punishment.  Annihilates Fletcher’s “situation ethics.”
History:  MacIntyre, Alasdair.  Greg Bahnsen recommended this work.  MacIntyre had just converted to Christ from Marxism, so there are some inaccuracies in this work.  But…probably the best succinct treatment of the history of ethics without sacrificing depth.
Classical: Augustine, City of God.  This will take a while but it is the best thing ever written on ethics.

Section 4

General Text: Murray, John.  Principles of Conduct.  Classic Reformed primer.  Mostly outstanding.  Fumbles (and ultimately contradicts himself) the chapter on “lying.”
Specialized: Moreland and Rae, Body and Soul.  Some very technical conversations, but the best thing written on anthropology and defense of pro-life.

Section 5 (These are more difficult)

General text: O’Donovan, Oliver.  Resurrection and Moral Order.  OO isn’t trying to give answers to “what should I do in _______?”  Rather, he is showing you the Augustinian vision and letting you apply it.
History.  O’Donovans.  From Irenaeus to Grotius.  Readings on Christian politics in church history.  The O’Donovans’ introductions are worth a graduate course in themselves.
Specialized.  O’Donovans, Bonds of Imperfection.  My favorite text. They take some major themes in the above text and develop them in larger essays.

Section 6.

General text:  Budzizewski, J. Written on the Heart.  I’m not sure of his natural law conclusions, but there are some excellent discussions of Locke, Bentham, etc.
History:  Budzizewski, J. Evangelicals in the Public Square.  Lucid treatments and critiques of different “transformational” options in modern Evangelicalism.  Covers Carl Henry, Schaeffer, Kuyper, and Yoder.
Specialized.  MacIntyre, Alasdair.  After Virtue.  Explores the role “virtue” played in ancient societies and how it might play in post-Nietzsche ones.

Section 7 (Difficult)

General Text:  O’Donovan, Oliver.  The Desire of the Nations.  Explores the role of “political theology” from ancient Israel to the modern liberal nation-state. Peerless. Contrary to popular thought, he is not advocating “Christendom.”  He is simply noting that “Christendom” is a historical effect of the church’s witness to power.
Specialized: O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment. Continues some themes in DoN and clarifies some ambiguities.  Shows how moderns use terms like “judgment” and “representation” without knowing the convoluted genealogical mutations of those terms.  Very difficult read but worthwhile.

Honorable Mention

Hauerwas, Stanley.  Resident Aliens and passim.  Very accessible introduction to the neo-anabaptist option.  Kind of smarmy and really doesn’t deal with any challenges to his position.  Hauerwas has more substantial essays elsewhere that are quite fun and rewarding.

Frame, John.  Passim.  I don’t know which Frame text to recommend.  They are kind of all the same.  His “perspectivalism” is important but I am unsure on how far to take it.

O’Donovan.  Space, World, and Time.  This is a more accessible treatment than RMO.  I have not read it so I can’t comment further, aside that it will probably be outstanding.

Milbank, John.  Theology and Social Theory. Probably the last thing you should read.  Advanced treatments of Augustine, Foucault, Nietzsche and others.  Still, the sections on Augustine are illuminating.

Markus, R. A.  Saeculum.  Tries to make Augustine out to be a modern neo-liberal on international order.  See O’Donovan’s essay on Augustine for a decent critique.  However, Markus does successfully argue that Augustine “shifted” from a theocratic imperialism to a softer “realism” by the end of City of God.

Feinberg, John.  Ethics for a Brave New World.  Soft dispensationalist treatment of ethics.  Very thorough discussions on sexual ethics and bio-ethics.

Nietzsche, Fr. Genealogy of Morals.  Classic critique of godless bourgeoisie from a godless perspective.  Suggests “ressentiment” as a category of modern ethical thought.

Plato.  Republic.

Romano-Germanic Kingship

Again, from From Irenaeus to Grotius.

The O’Donovans are tracing the development of Christian political reflection after the time of Late Antiquity (post-Gregory the Great).

The Church found itself in a position of responsibility when Rome fell.

  1. Late Antiquity.
    1. Gothic warrior-rulers furnished a royal alternative to the divinizing emperor cult. It drew upon Ciceronian and senatorial conceptions of Roman Rule, and upon Augustine and Gregory.
  2. Post-Justinian Dark Age
    1. Gregory I was inspired by cataclysmic manifestations of God’s judgment and a sense of missional urgency.
    2. “Rule” (rector) was oversight and administration.  It is conformable to the pattern of Christ.  King David was a model.
  3. Carolignian Empire.
    1. Pope Stephen II (752-757) launched Western Christendom on a novel course when he appealed to Pippin of the Franks, ultimately bestowing upon him the title patricius Romanorum.
    2. This muted somewhat the opposition to the idea of a divinizing emperor cult, since the emperor was not invested with quasi-sacerdotal powers.