The book had an unremarkable pale blue cover, and the author’s name was unfamiliar. The title, on the other hand—Resurrection and Moral Order—immediately captured my attention. “Resurrection” and “moral order” didn’t have any immediate connection in my mind. Then I started reading.
The book said moral life is fundamentally theological. I still recall the spiritual and intellectual rush of reading it for the first time. By the time I was done, I was corresponding with the author, Oliver O’Donovan, about becoming his student.
O’Donovan is a complex figure. He’s arguably one of the most seminal theologians of the last half century, and he’s spectacularly productive. He commands tremendous attention across a wide range of theological disciplines, yet remains something of a pariah. He is Anglican and Augustinian, but even these identifiers have interpretive limits. His contributions prompt new lines of theological discourse.
What accounts for his distinctiveness? O’Donovan is a churchly theologian. He poses the right questions, always begins with Scripture, converses knowledgably across theological traditions, and offers encouragement and instruction for living with God in the world.
O’Donovan was born in 1945 to two gifted writers. As a child he attended All Souls Church (London), where John Stott served for many years as rector. At Oxford he studied classics, culminating eventually in a doctoral thesis on the concept of self-love in Augustine, supervised by church historian Henry Chadwick (1920–2008).
O’Donovan’s first formal teaching position was at Wycliff Hall, Toronto, where he taught from the late ’70s to early ’80s. In Toronto he met his wife, Joan Lockwood, now a renowned Anglican theologian. In 1982 O’Donovan was appointed Regius professor of moral and pastoral theology and canon of Christ Church at the University of Oxford in 1982. There he remained for nearly 25 years, until assuming the post of professor of Christian ethics and practical theology at New College, Edinburgh, in 2006. The “emeritus” title was bestowed upon his retirement in 2013. Notable among his awards are fellowships both to the Royal Society of Edinburgh and to the British Academy.
The best way to understand O’Donovan’s theological project is to focus on the questions that animate his work:
- What is theology? Theology is thinking about God. As such, it is another way of describing discipleship, of learning from God how to think of God. Theology is neither boundless nor static; it is obedient belief toward action. Theology is thus an exercise in worship. Given its divine object, its achievements will always be modest, but as a discipline it constitutes the grammar for thinking about God’s self-disclosure.
- Why do theology? It is “faith seeking understanding.” When someone hears the good news of the gospel and believes, he does theology simply by being alive in the world. It can’t be helped. Vocational theologians devote themselves to thinking in a more disciplined way about God’s person and work. Theologians arrested by a vision of Jesus do theology both for God and for those God loves.
- How is theology rightly done? It is done from the starting point of Scripture, in conversation with voices of the tradition, and awake to the world. Theology has profound purchase on the real world; part of any theologian’s task is to show how theology speaks to the challenges we face. Theology is thus also done prayerfully.
- How does theology interact with the church? God’s people are witness-bearers, uniquely constituted under God’s authority. The kingdom of God is not just some abstract idea or concept—it is a reality. “Theology must be political if it is to be evangelical,” claims O’Donovan, and who indeed can make sense of atonement, justification, or even the name “Jesus” shorn of political significance? This isn’t your standard political theology as critical theory—this is constructive political theology glorying in the resurrected and ascended Christ who rules forever.
Resurrection and Moral Order is among the most important contributions to theological ethics in the last half-century.
Since these sketches oversimplify the breadth of O’Donovan’s work, here are a few additional reasons why his work deserves wide and careful reading today.
- Resurrection and Moral Order (1986) has influenced a whole generation of Christian theologians and ethicists. It is realist and evangelical, by which I mean it is theological ethics based on what God has said and done. As O’Donovan puts it in the opening lines of this book: “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 a Christian ethics” (11). O’Donovan outlines in Resurrection and Moral Order a way of understanding the resurrection as central to human life itself because resurrection is the act of God that liberates our action. Resurrection and Moral Order is among the most important contributions to theological ethics in the last half-century.
- Desire of the Nations (1996). Read it. Desire puts theological questions to modern political categories and demands truthful answers. The same can be said for the follow-up volume published years later, The Ways of Judgment (2005). Discerning a truly Christian conception of politics begins with the kingdom of God. Theology is political and politics is theological. This truth didn’t worry pre-modern thinkers in the slightest; it was presumed. Contemporary familiarity with this tradition, on the other hand, can be summed up in one word: ignorance (4). O’Donovan edited From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Political Theology (1999) with his wife to help correct this deficiency.
- O’Donovan addresses weighty questions facing the church today. Do theological principles still apply in modern warfare? May infertile couples utilize in vitro fertilization? Who is a person? Does theology have anything to say about nuclear proliferation? How should the church respond pastorally to novel beliefs about gender and sexuality? Is capital punishment necessary in developed societies? O’Donovan addresses all of these questions, and still more.
- O’Donovan extols everywhere the truth and power of the gospel. In his writings he always has an eye on it. The gospel is the church’s cherished gift and message. It isn’t some gnostic, otherworldly chimera, but good news. The gospel makes a claim on us, and so the believer responds by proclaiming that gospel in faith, hope, and love. Christ’s church should live as though this good news is so good that the whole world deserves to hear it announced and see it displayed.
Oliver O’Donovan is a man of learning, wisdom, and erudition. He’s also a man of profound pastoral sensibilities. I learned from him that theology could be done with joy and deference to Christ and his gospel, and I highly recommend that others read his books and learn from him as well.