Ethics Theological method

Some stimulating insights from Oliver O’Donovan

Oliver O'Donovan

I found many profound and stimulating statements in this brief interview with Oliver Donovan, one of the greatest minds and hearts at work in Christian ethics in our time.

I particularly enjoyed some comments on his use of other scholars. Here are a few to ponder:


I often feel that biblical studies get too close to the text actually to read it. But we need them, and owe an incalculable debt to them for their most important insights.


 My relationship to the systematic and philosophical theologians can also be difficult. A book can be too close up, its thoughts press in too hard and block the flow of my own thoughts, so that I feel suffocated. I need to strike a carefully balanced relation to a contemporary theologian, of a sort one cannot form with just anyone, that gives me the right combination of stimulus and breathing-space. A good book is one that leads me to the questions and then allows me to grasp hold of them; a lot of time with a theology text is spent striding about the room trying to get my mind around what I have just read, or at my desk, framing a few sentences of comment on it.


 Those few contemporaries who sit at just the right distance, close enough and far enough, and can address their questions with real mastery of their craft, offer me something I cannot get from historical texts — a sense of being exercised, compelled to follow every move of theirs with one of my own. They are like intellectual chess-partners. They belong as much to the intellectual world I inhabit as I do myself, and I haven’t picked them out of some period in history just because they suit my mood. What I learn from them is something about the task of a theologian in my own age, the task that I can never shrug off nor take for granted.

May God grant this good brother in Christ many more years to reflect on the riches of God’s truth and to share his insights with us.



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

One reply on “Some stimulating insights from Oliver O’Donovan”

Hi Terrance,
I read your reflections on Oliver O’Donovan’s interview comments. He appears to be a very intelligent man, a deep thinker, an experienced academic and widely lauded. It’s a fearsome thing for me, a simple-minded person, to say “I don’t agree with him” because others may say “it’s because you just don’t understand” (on account that I’m just not smart enough), and this may be very true.
Having recently read O’Donovan’s book “Church in Crisis – The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion” (2008), I was not enlightened nor my faith as a follower of Christ encouraged. Much of the book seemed very esoteric, used language unfamiliar to the regular Anglican parishioner and the philosophical arguments seemed to have errors in logic.
The only Bible reference in the book (excluding chapter sub-headings) had no relevance to the question of homosexuality (see p112). I was initially tricked by the reference because the citation was to the wrong book of the Bible (the story is found in 2 Samuel, not 1 Samuel) and talks about incest, not homosexuality. This mistake must be embarrassing, but the lack of lessons from Scripture is a greater disappointment and flaw in resolving the conversation on the acceptability (morality) of homosexuality with Christ’s church. One may argue it’s acceptable in a social organisation where standards are set by consensus, but it’s not acceptable in a Church where Scripture is the authoritative standard for behaviour.
Being concerned that the simple-minded me did not understand this learned dissertation, I determined to read O’Donovan’s next work on the subject, “A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the Gay Controversy” (2009), only to find it is an identical copy of the reviewed publication (sigh) albeit with a new ISBN registration. The observer must ask ‘is there no more to say on the subject, or had the subject been downgraded from a “crisis” to a “conversation waiting to begin”’. Perhaps the evangelical Anglican communion has previously discussed and rejected inclusion of homosexuality and the conversation has long since ended. Perhaps the liberal lobby is still trying to keep the conversation active so there is only one point of view continuing to be presented on the subject.
The reviewed publication has, however, given me a much clearer understanding of the persistence and strategies of the liberal lobby. The liberal lobby has superficial attraction for proclaiming ‘inclusivity’ of minorities and proclaiming ‘tolerance’ of all (including deviations from sound societal norms). The liberal lobby’s strategy is to continue ‘conversations’ until opponents lose interest and move on. Continuing a ‘conversations’ leaves the liberal lobby as the only and prevailing voice. This only voice then becomes the conscience of the uninformed emerging generations.
Perhaps that is why Scripture entreats us to “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) Using Scripture as the only authoritative guide for life can keep the God-reverencing person from being seduced into sinful living and alienation from personal communion with the Almighty God.
An interesting lesson from Scripture about compromising with homosexuality can be found in the big picture story of Lot (Genesis 13-19). Lot chose to commune with “the men of Sodom (who) were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord”. God brought catastrophic judgment on them for their behaviour and Lot escaped with only the shirt on his back and his two daughters. Jesus said (Luke 17v28-33) it will be just like in Lot’s situation when “the Son of Man is revealed”: the righteous will quickly and barely escape but the unrighteous will be catastrophically judged.
In reality homosexuality (as with all sin) has been with humanity for thousands of years – since Adam and Eve. God’s opinion on the subject has not changed: it is wicked and greatly sinful. The ‘conversation’ about homosexuality has been had and decided by God. Only those who wish to somehow justify wicked and greatly sinful behaviour (in contradiction to God’s authority) are those trying to start and have a ‘conversation’ about its morality. Those who submit to the God’s authority do not need to have any further direction or ‘conversation’ on the subject.
The bottom-line for the simple minded person is to not include into commune those who practice wicked and greatly sinful behaviour. Those who do commune with people who practice wicked and greatly sinful behaviour should follow God’s directions to escape quickly before the unrighteous are catastrophically judged. There is no more ‘conversation’ to be entertained for those responding to the authority of Scripture.
It appears Oliver O’Donovan is a very intelligent man, a deep thinker, an experienced academic and widely lauded, but I wonder if he just doesn’t like agreeing with or submitting to any authority. I wish him well in his career and pondering the deep issues of life, but more importantly, I hope he finds deep solace in a personal relationship with a loving Heavenly Father through the saving grace of Jesus the Messiah.
Kind regards in Christ
Peter Harper

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