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Fruits of his maturity

01 April 2016

Robin Gill listens to a ‘crucial theological voice’


Finding and Seeking: Ethics as theology, volume 2
Oliver O’Donovan
Eerdmans £20.99
Church Times Bookshop £18.90


THIS IS the middle volume of the mature work of Oliver O’Donovan — for some time now a crucial theological voice in the Anglican Communion — with wisdom on almost every page. He is now fully retired from posts in Edinburgh and Oxford Universities, and is free to focus on his “Ethics as Theology” trilogy.

On the cover of the book, Robert Song depicts this volume as “a richly rewarding and luxuriatingly textured meditation on the nature of practical reason, theologically understood”. Each of these adjectives and adverbs is fully justified. Readers of the Church Times who take the time and trouble to read carefully will learn much here.

Successive chapters run as following: Spirit and Self; Faith and Purpose; Faith and Meaning; The Good Man; Wisdom and Time; Love and Testimony; Hope and Anticipation; Deliberation; Discernment. The content of these chapters is too nuanced to summarise, but taken as a whole this is a theological feast.

Readers need two warnings, however. The first is that this book needs to be read slowly. Professor O’Donovan still uses Latin tags, prefers readers to understand several languages, transliterates Greek and Hebrew only in the text not in footnotes, returns to his earlier (Barthian) practice of putting detailed digressions into smaller print, and retains archaisms such as engendered language about God and an authorial “we”.

Even the title “Finding and Seeking” is puzzling. Why was is it not “Seeking and Finding”? Readers have to wait until page 101 to discover his explanation: “We find in order to seek again.” As an undergraduate I was taught by professors with such conventions (all educated, as I was, in Classics), but today they appear antique and cumbersome.

The second warning is captured by Professor Song’s well-chosen noun: this is a “meditation” and not a standard academic monograph. Apart from the digressions in small print, there are relatively few footnotes or citations (almost wholly male) and no bibliography. O’Donovan seems to assume that readers will know the authors behind the points that he affirms or disputes. With some of his most Olympian claims this, too, can be puzzling. For example, there is this striking one-sentence summary judgement of what others term “scientism”: “Those who make of science a modern priesthood — few of these are good scientists, since the practice of science encourages awareness of the reductive nature of experimental inquiry and consciousness of the virtues and values that underlie it — are the modern gnostics, the successors of those who liked to boast of the deep secrets of Satan.” This is evocative and epigrammatic, but also problematic, because the unexplained term “reductive” is understood so differently in the sciences (reducing a thing to its basic parts) than in the humanities (reducing a thing to something that it is not).

I particularly enjoyed his careful meditations on the ambivalence of virtues, passions, and desires, such as anger and love. Here he follows Aquinas, adding his own nuances together with everyday illustrations and plentiful biblical allusions. I shall quote these for some time to come and await with interest his final volume.


Robin Gill is the editor of Theology and Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent.

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