On the Moral Preoccupations of Christians

British theologian Oliver O’Donovan writes:

Once we have said that the law of love is architectonic and that ritual is secondary, how much more does the New Testament tell us about differences of gravity? Do our assumptions about the ranking-order of moral principles correspond to anything in the Scriptures, or are they imported from the common intuitions of our own time? Christians in any period of history, whatever their disagreements, seem to agree with one another on morality more than they agree with Christians of other ages on morality and more than they agree with one another on doctrine. Doctrinal preoccupations tend to be diachronic, linking past communities with present, while moral preoccupations are synchronic, characteristic of their day. The moral profile of Christians today is pretty recognizable across most varieties of church and churchmanship. They believe in international aid and fair trade; they believe in care for AIDS victims; they do not believe in racial discrimiantion; they believe in families; they tend to think the more abstract forms of capitalist financing morally perilous; they regard making money out of sex as debased, and so on. They have their major disagreements, it goes without saying, and perhaps these appear more ominous against the striking uniformity of their background. But this very uniformity marks contemporary Christians off from Victorian Christians, from early-modern or medieval Christians, and from the Christians of the New Testament era. If we ask why there should be such historical differences, the answer is simple: the priorities we hold are the result of shared judgments about the demands of the age in which we live and act. That is as true for us in our time as it was for the New Testament writers in theirs . . . .

The New Testament can and should exercise authority over our moral thought at both general and specific levels. Yet there remains a work of moral judgment that is properly relative to agents and situations, and this is what shapes the priorities that prevail in given periods. That is why it is more difficult for us to sympathize with the moral attitudes of earlier Christians than it is to share their doctrinal convictions; for with our contemporaries we share a common world with its urgent questions and moral challenges. The logic of human historicity is that living in a given age means having a distinct set of practical questions to answer, neither wholly unlike those that faced other generations nor mere repetitions of them. It is to be neither superior to nor independent of the past; but it is to be answerable for our own space and time and for its peculiar possibilities of vice and virtue.

Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion


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