The Ethical Authority of Creation

The created order contains “authorities” which have their own relative authority over us.’ (Oliver O’Donovan1)

Christian ethics will, rightly, devote great attention to reflection on Holy Scripture. But the God who inspired and reveals himself in Scripture is the same God who created, governs and reveals himself in all creation. Therefore, reflection on creation and culture also informs a fully theological Christian ethics.2 Here, I want briefly to address the controversial question of how culture and nature relate in shaping our ethical thinking. How we answer this question has important implications for contemporary ethical debates.

Oliver O’Donovan has recently described ethics as the task of being inducted into a reality that is already present to us, and of which we are already, at least dimly, aware. We already live in the interlocking realities of self, world and time, but in order to live morally and wisely, we must awaken to this situation. As we awake, ‘What seems like the beginning is not really a beginning at all. We wake to find things going on, and ourselves in the midst of them. The beginning is simply the dawning of our consciousness, our coming-to to what is already happening and how we are already placed.’3 We awake in medias res. Therefore, we awake to our place in time, which did not begin with us or start anew at the moment of our birth. We are born into an inheritance, a history of family, nation and world, and so we are born into a place in time and a tradition. In this way, we are placed into a culture that will mould and shape us in accordance with its own distinctive conceptions of the ideal human life. 

However, culture is not the only force working to shape our experience of life. As we awake, we become aware of the world. (Note that in what follows, I am not using ‘world’ in the negative sense that kosmos often has in John’s Gospel and letters; rather, here it is a neutral term, referring simply to the created order.) The world, with its structures and patterns existed long before we did, and also long before the culture we inhabit. As O’Donovan noted several decades ago, this world is not just the raw material out of which lives and cultures are formed; it is a creation, with an ‘order and coherence in which it is composed.’4  As a creation, the world is ordered externally, to its Creator:5 it originates from, and is ordered to, the One who made it for himself and sustains and directs its existence. It also has an internal order and coherence, precisely because it is an ordered whole, the unified creation of one Creator.6 Without order, there ‘would be a plurality of entities so completely unrelated that there would be no “world” in which they existed together, no relation in which they could be thought together.’7 There would be chaos.

Psalm 104 gives a beautiful poetic description of creation’s ordered coherence. There are diverse habitats for different species (vv. 10-18, 25-26), varied patterns of animal behaviour (vv. 11, 12, 14, 17, 18, 20, 21-23, 25-26), and humans with their unique place and pattern of life, including work (vv. 14-15, 20-23).Unlike the animals, for humans, the ground does not simply bring forth food; it must be cultivated for the wine, bread and oil that strengthen and gladden our hearts and cause our faces to shine.

The internal ordering of creation comprises both ‘teleological order’ (ordering to an end or telos), and ‘generic order’ (order of kind).8 Trees and birds are different kinds, but trees are ordered towards birds as habitat for them to nest in (cf. v. 12). Gazelles and lions are different kinds, but gazelles are ordered towards lions as food (cf. v. 21). Wheat, grapes, olives and humans are different kinds, but they are ordered towards man to provide bread for strength, wine for joy, and oil for anointing (vv. 14-15). Here, though, the picture is more complex. Bread, wine, and oil are all products of human skill, tradition, and social life. Where humans are involved, culture inevitably intervenes in the natural order (cf. agriculture, viticulture).

However, as this example illustrates, human culture is itself shaped by, and should respect, the natural order of the world with its discrete kinds and teloi. Soil does not provide food for man, wheat does. Or, rather, soil does provide when, as both natural and cultural beings, we respect the structures of creation and cultivate the ground—fertilizing, sowing, watering, reaping, rotating, resting—to bring forth wheat, grapes and olive trees. Precisely because we are cultural creatures—geographically and temporally located social beings—we are inheritors of a place and tradition, of natural and cultural resources. We are therefore summoned by our God-given nature to pass on tradition and place to those who follow. Humans are stewards, and if we are wise we will live in time and place in a way that at least does no harm. We will pass on what we have received in the condition we received it. Better yet, we will hand on place and tradition, nature and culture, enriched by our care. This requires wisdom, which requires loving attention to the structures of the natural world, so that our culture cultivates, rather than pillaging and depleting the natural order. Culture and society do not exist independently of nature. Unless they are to be parasitic and ultimately destructive, they must respect nature’s structures.9

In an illuminating discussion of authority, O’Donovan argues that ‘what we encounter in the world…makes it meaningful for us to act. An authority is something which, by virtue of its kind constitutes an immediate and sufficient ground for acting.’ Authority is ‘one aspect of the teleological structure of the universe,’ providing ‘“grounds” of action’.10 When we grasp the objective structures of the natural order, they call forth appropriate action, drawing us in particular directions, shaping particular forms of life.

Since God has ordered and sustains creation, its authority is God’s authority. The authorities within creation ‘owe their power, as they owe their being, to his creative gift and to his continual affirmation of that gift in sustaining providence.’11 However, this does not mean that all authority is onlyand directlydivine authority; the ‘gift was really given.’12 Authorities within creation ‘have their own relative finality.’13 Therefore, authority ‘really is vested in creaturely existence. God, in creating, has effected not only other beings, but other powers, yet without in any way diminishing his own sovereign being and power.’14

To argue for the importance of considering creation is therefore not to promote a purely ‘natural’ or ‘secular’ ethic. God really is the author and interpreter of creation! Moreover, in our fallen state, our understanding of created authorities is partial and often muddled, and as sinners we are reluctant to submit to them. We need Scripture and salvation! Nevertheless, contemporary evangelicalism has an impoverished theology of creation. And this leaves us vulnerable to those who argue that, for example, gender, sex or sexuality are purely culturally determined. A recognition that creation has its own, God-given structure and integrity will help us as we think, and pastor in the midst of these cultural realities. It’s time to recover what we have lost.

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline of Evangelical Ethics (Second Edition; Leicester: IVP, 1994), 122. Hereafter cited as RMO. The bulk of what follows is extracted from Matthew Mason, ‘The Authority of the Body: Discovering Natural Manhood and Womanhood’, Bulletin of Ecclesial Theology, 4.2 (2017): 39-57.

[2] Due to the influences of Barth and Van Til, contemporary Reformed theology is in some degree of disarray when it comes to thinking about natural revelation. For a recent magisterial account of classic Reformed teaching on natural theology as it relates to revealed theology, see Steven J. Duby, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics and the Task of Christian Theology (Leicester: Apollos, 2019), 59-131. More briefly, Scott Swain has some helpful ‘Theses on Natural Theology’. Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1995) is a concise and illuminating introduction, though its Roman Catholic perspective should be noted.

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology 1, An Induction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 2.

[4] RMO, 31.

[5] RMO, 31.

[6] RMO, 31.

[7] RMO, 32.

[8] RMO, 32.

[9] This paragraph is heavily influenced by Wendell Berry. Perhaps the place to start is The World Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry (London: Penguin, 2018). For a more philosophically rigorous account of our relationship to the world, which chimes very closely with Berry’s, see Roger Scruton, Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (London: Atlantic Books, 2012).

[10] RMO, 122. O’Donovan’s account of authority has developed over time; see Self, World, and Time, 53-59. For a penetrating discussion, see Andrew Errington, ‘Authority and Reality in the Work of Oliver O’Donovan’, Studies in Christian Ethics 29.4 (2016): 371-85.

[11] RMO, 124.

[12] RMO, 124.

[13] RMO, 123.

[14] RMO, 124.