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Honoring Oliver O’Donovan

Listener to the Word: Symposium Introduction

By Mark L. MacDonald, convener

The following symposium celebrates the life and work of the Rev. Canon Professor Oliver O’Donovan on the formal conclusion of his extraordinarily fruitful teaching ministry of 40 years. O’Donovan retires this year as Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the School of Divinity at New College, Edinburgh. Previously he served a distinguished tenure as Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and Canon of Christ Church at the University of Oxford (1982-2006), following shorter but no less influential stints at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (1972-77) and Wycliffe College, Toronto (1977-82).

Our offerings — by four former students and one colleague — are a labor of love. We have all been touched by the gentle and persistent compassion of Oliver’s ministry; we have all been challenged by the penetrating and insistent excellence of his teaching. In our personal encounters, each from very different contexts, we are convinced that his work has the capacity to illumine the extraordinarily diverse situations that are a part of contemporary Christian life. We present our essays in the hope that others will be interested enough to take a longer look. We are unanimous in our conviction that O’Donovan’s work is transformative and unique in its relevance to the Church’s present and future.

In our present theological climate, people tend to apply their personal checklist of necessary conditions before they will allow someone to become a partner in theological conversation. They are often seeking support, not challenge. That, as many have noted, is not easy to do with O’Donovan. One must look carefully and closely to begin to have a glimpse.

This is not to say that his work is inaccessible. Its difficulty is that it is often quietly confrontational. Though deeply and compassionately connected to our times and its troubles, O’Donovan’s work is energetically disconnected from the spirit of the age and the various schools of thought that twirl in it. The pattern of his teaching — clear, traditional, and logical — is often described as being, at the same time, surprising and unpredictable. To listen to him fully is to learn how to listen in a way that is not common in our time; it is to listen believing that Truth is an active force in our universe and that it will often nudge you out of well-worn and safe assumptions.

As a student, I found every aspect of O’Donovan’s work intriguing, even exciting. Since then, his dense and startling books have been companions, often informing and inspiring the unique work I do. Reading The Desire of the Nations — two and a half times and counting — I am moved, enlightened, and encouraged to live in this age as a disciple of Jesus. Though my position on violence and war has always been closer to Anabaptist opinion, his teaching on the just-war tradition has been illuminating and helpful. My time with his thought has allowed me to shape a biblical Christian conviction.

The way that Oliver listens to Scripture, the way that he shares it with others, has influenced my approach to mission and ministry the most. Though his purely biblical presentations are at a level more elementary and accessible than his scholarly work, it is clearly the basis of all his work and the heart of what he wishes to do: to present the Word of God so that it may be heard clearly. Many contemporary Christians will wish to begin a journey with O’Donovan at this level. They may find two collections of his talks, Common Objects of Love and The Word in Small Boats, are a good place to begin.

Though I would faint trying to summarize any aspect of O’Donovan’s work, it seems to me that he challenges contemporary church life at four essential levels:

  • God is not secondary to anything in life; our devotion towards God must rise above every other interest and affection.
  • This commitment is the primary element of Christian politics and ethics, fundamentally and comprehensively informed and shaped by the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus.
  • We have become so accustomed to using Scripture as a support for our commitments in life, personal and corporate, that we are unable to recognize our feeble capacity to hear the Word of God. O’Donovan challenges us to listen, truly listen, to the Word of God. He surprises many of us by demonstrating that to listen to the Word of God we must learn to really listen to each other.
  • Though we must be respectful and responsible to the insights and authority of the past, the living Word of God has a horizon in us and in our world that is unprecedented and glorious — if we can learn to listen.

We trust that this is the beginning of a new phase of the ministry and witness of Oliver O’Donovan among us, and hope, through these writings, to open or renew interest in his work. From my perspective, no one has challenged the contemporary church like Oliver since William Stringfellow. There are certainly few voices present today that so radically challenge us to the urgent necessity to develop the disciplines and attitude of heart that will enable us to hear the living Word of God.

The Rt. Rev. Mark L. MacDonald is the Anglican Church of Canada’s first National Indigenous Bishop.

Subscribe to TLC to read the other essays in this symposium:

  • “Recovering a Sense of Place” by Michael Nai-Chiu Poon
  • “Patient Teacher to All” by Peter Widdicombe
  • “One Under Authority” by John Webster
  • “Critic of Hubristic Modernity” by Daniel A. Westberg

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