Gospel and ethics

“Certain forms of belief in natural law or in the opposition of law and gospel make a virtue of denying that ‘Christian ethics’ in the strict sense can exist. Such theories may allow that Christian faith has a bearing on ethics indirectly, in that Christian spirituality promotes a heightened concern for the moral dimension of life and a strengthened ability to cope with it. But the substance of ethical questions, they hold, is not open to special illumination from the gospel; the believer is in no more favoured a position than the unbeliever when it comes to discerning the difference between good and evil. But we must observe what follows from separating faith and morality in this fashion: we become either moralists or antinomians. By ‘moralism’ we mean the holding of moral convictions unevangelically, so that they are no longer part of the Christian good news, and can, therefore, have the effect only of qualifying it, whether as praeparatio evangelica, as a ‘ministry of condemnation’ (as Saint Paul said of the Mosaic Law, 2 Cor. 3:9), or as a rule which is supposed to govern an area of life which Christ has not touched or transformed. By ‘antinomianism’ we mean the holding of the Christian faith in a way that expresses disregard, or insufficient regard, for moral questions. Once it is decided that morality is not part of the good news that Christians welcome and proclaim, believers will have to choose between being thoroughly evangelical and ignoring it, and respecting it at the cost of being only half evangelical. A belief in Christian ethics is a belief that certain ethical and moral judgments belong to the gospel itself; a belief, in other words, that the church can be committed to ethics without moderating the tone of its voice as a bearer of glad tidings.” (Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, pp. 11–12)

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