Is it possible to make allowances or accommodations within the structure of Christian ethics for behavior that we would, under other circumstances, think morally impermissible? One way to approach the question is by considering morally problematic behavior within the Old Testament, such as Abraham’s treatment of Hagar. God’s apparent sanction of such conduct raises fundamental questions about how we understand the consistency of God’s action and commands: it seems He acts toward Abraham in ways that we find dubious.
Such a question haunts Oliver O’Donovan’s wrestlings with history in Resurrection and Moral Order. A Christian ethic, O’Donovan forcefully argues, is irreducibly committed to the significance of history: we cannot do ethics as though God has never done something ‘new,’ or could no longer do something new. The Old Testament seems to sanction polygamy; the New struggles (at most) to permit remarriage after a divorce. We cannot pretend this alteration never took place, as though the history of salvation has nothing to do with how we understand the world around us. But neither can we collapse the logic of Christian ethics into the incoherency of situational ethics, in which God’s command has only to do with Abraham and not with us. Such a move would would make it impossible for us to learn from Abraham’s behavior.
While defending the universality of Christian moral reasoning head-on, O’Donovan also defends it from a sideways angle—by suggesting that it is necessary for historical development of moral knowledge to occur. In reading about God’s relation to Abraham, O’Donovan notes that the sense of development within salvation history doesn’t remove our intuition that the behavior of the patriarchs was bad, but gives us a “way of understanding why God should have dealt with the ancients in a morally concessionary, and thereby problematic, fashion.” (43) In other words, it helps us understand why God might concede certain moral terrain to sin, conforming himself in that time to patterns and structures that were disconnected from His created order. O’Donovan suggests that we believe “we can, in the light of history, make allowances for Abraham’s concubine.”
As a reading strategy, ‘making allowances’ on the basis of where bad actions fall within salvation history is a merciful approach to the past—one which is foreign to our own time, and which may thereby have much to teach us. Yet nice as that might be, I don’t think it generalizes to considering everything about the past: a merciful approach is necessary for Abraham because his life raises questions about the coherence and consistency of divine action and commandments. We have present reasons to reinterpret past actions in a more merciful light—rather than looking for reasons within the past to mitigate the badness of what’s been done (though that may also be licit).
O’Donovan turns the screws, though, with this point: it’s precisely in and through this logic of ‘making allowances’ that we show we’re in the same moral universe as Abraham was, that we’re speaking the same moral language. Whatever is ‘new’ about the New Testament doesn’t escape the Old: it stays within its horizon, modifying it and clarifying it and revealing it, but not destroying or undermining it. Paradoxically, the universal timelessness of moral realism is necessary to make history matter—if all we have is history, then moral judgments collapse into the distended form of the Tower of Babel.
One wonders, though, whether and how far this logic of ‘allowances’ on the basis of special divine action might be pressed. One might want to keep the ‘newness’ of God’s action closely tethered to salvation history, and presumably the witness of Scripture—but salvation history includes God’s ongoing providential ordering of the world on its way toward the eschatological fulfillment, which is the broader context in which O’Donovan’s reflections about ‘making allowances’ sits. We ‘make allowances’ here retrospectively, when we look backward after God has done the new thing to call into question what we thought we new of His life in the past. Yet what about our understanding of the ‘new things’ God might be doing in the present—how are we to determine the moral status of those alleged acts, when we do not have the luxury of reflection?
It is at this point that O’Donovan’s methodology on sex and marriage unfolds. He will later raise the possibility of the witness of gay Christians as having a distinct ‘vocation,’ and will raise the possibility of ‘accommodations’ (if memory serves) for same-sex unions that are complementary to marriage. On both marriage and biotechnology, the question of newness looms large. As he’ll write elsewhere, we should “admit that new questions present themselves, that the question of contemporary homosexuality is not simply self-answering, just as the question of genetic engineering is not simply self-answering…” When and how we are freed from the darkness of opacity is, it seems to me, the question.