Coming to Terms:
First, I better clarify what I mean by “conservative” and “progressive.” I’m not referring to any specific set of policies as held by Republicans or Democrats, or even to politics in general. Instead, I’m referring to a view of ethics as it relates to history. When I ask if Christian ethics is “conservative” I’m asking if it primarily looks to the past, looking either to maintain or go back to an earlier ethic? When I ask if it is “progressive” I am asking whether it looks to the future, looking for a progression in ethics to some ideal state.
The Case for Conservatism
Most people tend to associate Christian ethics with conservatism, and there’s good reason why. The first leg of a conservative ethics is the doctrine of Creation. When God made the world, he made it in an ideal state. There was no human sin or suffering. We lived in a perfect relationship with one another and with God. A conservative ethic aims to help us understand what life was like before sin entered the world and then act accordingly.
The second leg of conservatism is revealed law. God has clearly revealed aspects of his moral will and he cannot lie. Therefore, we are not permitted to add novelty to these commands. We cannot “progress” pass prohibitions against murder or adultery or lying or theft. The laws were there from the beginning and they are bound up in the unchanging character of God. These immutable moral laws are thus worth “conserving.”
A conservative ethic is based on Creation, and assumes that God’s moral law helps us live rightly within that created order, or restrain sin so that less damage is done to it.
The Case for Progressivism
Whereas a conservative ethic is based on Creation, you might say that a Christian progressive ethic is based on the future Kingdom of God. Yes, God created the world, but we’re not going to get back to Eden. Instead, we’re asking God to bring the Kingdom of God – some future reality – into the here and now. The aim of the Christian progressive ethic, then, is to imagine what this future reality will be, and then act accordingly.
In terms of moral law, a person more bent towards the progressive view of history would notice that there are shifts within the law given throughout Scripture. Much of the Old Testament law was not so immutable after all. The sacrificial system found fulfillment in Christ (and being obsolete was done away with). Circumcision was replaced (either by baptism or faith, depending on your theological leanings). Dietary laws were likewise made null. Some laws seem to be given for a specific time and place, bound up either in the cultural context of the day, or in the theocratic nature of Israel. The question, then, is whether those progressions continue in light of the present and the future, and how much?
Some problems for both conservatives and progressives
Both strict conservatives and progressives as described here face some major challenges. Conservatives look back to creation, but outside of a few chapters in Genesis, that idyllic state is lost to us. The fact is that we live in a world sin, and even our own moral perceptions are marred by sin. Often conservatives choose some later development – perhaps ancient Israel, perhaps the early church, perhaps an earlier time in American history – as the point to which we should return. But the problem with this is obvious. Sin has been a constant force throughout history. There is no “ideal time” to which we could return. The only real historical developments are the way in which sin changes form. In terms of the written code, strict conservatives face two challenges: First, it is not exhaustive, so we must always attempt to correctly apply broader principles to current events. Second, what should we do with the “progressions” we see throughout Scriptures listed above?
But strict progressives face a similar problem. Less is known about the future than the past. Ideals of the Kingdom of God can only be perceived in its relation to Creation and the sin that has marred it. Furthermore, once allowing for a progression within the moral law (or within the written code), are we then left with moral chaos? If the past systems can always be overthrown, who is to say whether overthrowing it is a good or a bad idea? If you think a certain moral revolution is in order, on what basis is it good? If it’s based on some prior principle, haven’t you reverted to a conservative mindset after all?
Resurrection and Moral Order
Oliver O’Donovan’s thesis in Resurrection and Moral Order is that Christian ethics depends on the resurrection as the event which brings these two trains of thought together:
“In the resurrection of Christ creation is restored and the kingdom of God dawns. Ethics which starts from this point may sometimes emphasize the newness, sometimes the primitiveness of the order that is here affirmed. But it will not be tempted to overthrow or deny either in the name of the other.”
“From the resurrection, we look not only back to the created order which is vindicated, but forwards to out eschatological participation in that order.”
As O’Donovan sees it, the resurrection is God’s affirmation, or vindication of the created order. The created order is the reality with which all people need to reckon. In the resurrection God makes it clear that he is not abolishing this created order, but is affirming it. But in the resurrection God is nevertheless doing a radically “new” thing, a true novelty. Furthermore, in Christ’s resurrection we, through the Spirit, can look forward to our resurrection. Indeed, we participate in that resurrection now through faith, having been raised with Christ in a spiritual sense. The resurrection, therefore, allows us to look backwards to creation, and forwards to new creation.
But the forward-looking aspect is not an overthrow of the past. The created order is not abolished, not are the laws of Israel or anything within the written code, but is fulfilled. They are not contradicted, but set within their proper context – both historical and theological. God does not “go back” on his previous word, but his word is clarified in light of the present and anticipated fulfillment in the future.
Because there is an unbroken relationship between creation and the kingdom of God, we see each other more clearly. We can understand creation more clearly because we see in Jesus the first fruits of the new creation. And we can see the future kingdom of God more clearly because we understand that what we are looking for is not demolition, but a redemption.
The test case of marriage
Helpfully, O’Donovan applies this concept to the concrete topic of marriage. A conservative ethic looks back towards Adam and Even in the garden as its template for marriage. But a progressive might point to Jesus’s statement in Matthew 22:30 “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” Does this mean that marriage can be radically altered beyond the creation mandate? Can we progress “beyond” marriage as understood in the first chapters of Genesis? O’Donovan understood it in this way:
“Humanity in the presence of God will know community in which the fidelity of love which marriage makes possible will be extended beyond the limits of marriage. To this eschatological hope the New Testament church bore witness by fostering the social conditions which could support a vocation to single life. It conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the whole Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond it to its eschatological transformation. But the coexistence of the two within the Christian church did not mean the loss of integrity of either. Each had to function as what it was, according to its own proper structure. The married must live as married, the single as single. Neither would accommodate itself or evoke in the other an evolutionary mutation. Marriage that was not marriage could not witness to the goodness of the created order, singleness that was not singleness could tell us nothing of the fulfillment for which it was destined.”
In other words, in a Christian ethic based on the resurrection, marriage is affirmed as marriage, affirming the created order, and singleness is affirmed as singleness, pointing to a future transformation in the kingdom of God.