Towards An Interpretation Of Biblical Ethics -- By: O. M. T. O’Donovan

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 27:1 (NA 1976)
Article: Towards An Interpretation Of Biblical Ethics
Author: O. M. T. O’Donovan


Towards An Interpretation Of Biblical Ethics

O. M. T. O’Donovan

Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture 1975*

* Delivered at Tyndale House, Cambridge, July, 1975.

My title, “Towards an Interpretation of Biblical Ethics”, may be taken by different people to promise different things. By speaking of an “interpretation”, for example, I may appear to have in mind the programme of what I understand is called “a hermeneutic”, a series of value-judgments for our age which I myself could endorse and which I believe to be derived, or derivable, from the Bible. On the other hand, “Biblical Ethics” may suggest an examination of the categories which the Biblical writers themselves used as they approached the task of moral reflection and counsel: “covenant”, “law”, “Spirit”, and so on. But I have neither of these projects in hand here. Instead, I wish to pose some more formal questions about the interpretation of the Bible’s ethical material which I hope may serve to loosen a stubborn and intractable methodological knot.

These questions are “ethical” in what, following R. M. Hare, I may call “the strict, philosopher’s sense”. That is to say, they are “questions about the meanings of moral words”, distinguished on the one hand from questions of “normative ethics” and on the other from questions of “descriptive ethics”.1 Normative questions have answers of a normative kind: “Therefore we ought to turn the other cheek”. Descriptive questions have answers of a descriptive kind: “Jesus said (or, We cannot be sure that Jesus said) we should turn the other cheek”. Theologians have interested themselves largely in these two classes of question: the first has tended to draw

the systematic moralists, the second has been the province of the Biblical scholars; and the result has been an unhappy divorce between the study of the Bible and the formation of Christian moral judgment. Suppose we put some “ethical” questions, neither “normative” nor “descriptive”, but “ethical” in “the strict, philosopher’s sense”: suppose we asked, leaving aside for the moment the questions of whether Jesus said it and whether we accept it, what exactly is implied by someone who says we ought to turn the other cheek: could such an approach help us repair the hiatus in our moral thinking? That is what I want to explore in this lecture.

But before I start I must define the scope of what must be considered as “ethical material” within the Bible, even though in so doing I shall have to state without argument my position on some c...

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