Action Guides And Christian Ethics

One aspect of the idea of Christian ethics is how Christians do, or ought to, make choices which determine their actions. Two moments in this can be distinguished. What are the standards, values, ends, ideals, rules, or principles that ought to govern their actions? And, what processes of choice do, or ought, they to use? Casuistic applications of principles and rules, means/end calculations, intuitive insight, etc., are some of the alternatives.

The first moment points to the controverted issue of whether there are distinctive, specific or singular, unique standards that are obligatory for Christians, or whether the positive morality of Christians is in its content the same as for all other persons. Uniqueness is obviously the strongest claim; to establish it requires comparative historical studies. There can be distinctive emphases in positive Christian morality which are not unique, and there can be specific moral obligations or expectations for Christians which are not sufficient to determine their conduct in all areas of life. From such a position procedures of application of the distinctive emphases to general issues have to be developed. Claims that there is no distinctive positive Christian morality require philosophical and/or theological justification. These issues are very much a part of current discussion in Christian communities. (For positions taken in recent Roman Catholic and Protestant moral theology, see Curran and McCormick (1980 and 1991).) For the sake of verbal economy, 'distinctiveness' is used to cover all claims for a positive Christian morality.

Historically there have been strong claims for distinctive Christian morality. Some biblical bases have been alluded to above. The command to love not only one's neighbour as oneself, but also one's enemies; the exhortation to live so that conduct is mimetic of the life and death of Jesus and as literal adherence as possible to the 'hard sayings' of Jesus are examples. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship (1959), with its theme of suffering as the mark of Christian life, is probably the most powerful statement of this in our century. Part of the historical legacy has been the distinction between counsels of perfection that are not obligatory for all Christians but are for those with special vocations, and the standards of moral conduct applicable to all persons. Actions beyond normal standards are supererogatory. Countering this distinction have been the claims of some radical Reformation authors that Christians ought not to bear arms, not hold offices in the secular state, and ought to hold property in common, as well as Calvin's dictum that there is no supererogation in the Christian life. And certainly, in our time both within and outside the churches, Christian ethics is understood popularly to require behaviour according to historically distinctive standards; this is seen in the senses of guilt or inadequacy that many conscientious Christians feel in having to 'compromise' in their actions, and in the charges of moral hypocrisy that others often make against Christians.

For many students of Christian ethics, Ernst Troeltsch's differentiation of the ideal-type of the Church and its ethics from that of the sect and its ethics is used. The christology of the Church type is Christ as the universal Redeemer which recognizes that actions in 'the world' can be Christian even though they 'compromise' the stringent ideals and requirements of literal discipleship to Jesus. That of the sect type requires adherence to the pattern of life that the New Testament portrays Jesus as having led and taught since faithfulness to him is the fundamental mark of Christian ethics (Troeltsch 1949:1: 321ff).

Two contemporary American authors are the most visible proponents of distinctive positive Christian morality, John Howard Yoder and Stanley M. Hauerwas. Both establish their positions relative to their interpretations of the dominant forms of Christian ethics in both Protestantism and Catholicism. Yoder, in The Politics of Jesus, cites what he believes to be six errors in the ways 'mainstream' Christian ethics has interpreted Jesus and his teachings: as an interim ethic, as a Franciscan and Tolstoyan simple rural figure, as living in a world over which Jesus and his followers have no control, as an ahistorical message by definition, as a radical monotheist, and as the unique one whose life was given for the atonement of human sins. As a result of these kinds of interpretation it is claimed that Jesus had no intention 'to provide any precise guidance in the field of ethics'. Thus for the content of decision-making other sources have to be used (Yoder 1972:15-19). For Yoder, however, the lordship of Christ is the centre which must guide value choices 'or even to reject those values which contradict Jesus' (Yoder 1984:11).

Yoder's position is authorized, as implied above, by the acceptance of 'biblical realism' which is not to be confused with literal inspiration types of fundamentalism. His supporting argument is necessarily exegetical, and is theologically backed by the conviction that God has been revealed in Jesus in the Scriptures. Among the moral outcomes of this view is not just the establishment of an exemplary community but also a passive but resistant response to evils in the world. How choices should be made in the light of these convictions is through a 'hermeneutics of peoplehood' in the disciplined Christian community, a process of corporate discernment (Yoder 1984:15-45).

Hauerwas wrote that 'we Christians are not called on to be "moral" but faithful to the true story about God' who is perfectly faithful. The story is that humans are creatures under the lordship of God who wants nothing more than our faithful service; by this service we become not 'moral' but like God, 'holy'. Ethics is made Christian by the content of our conviction; 'it helps to understand the implications of the story for the kingdom' (Hauerwas 1983:67-9). Becoming Christian cannot be reduced to being human in some universal sense for Hauerwas; there is a specificity to Christian conduct determined by the Christian story whose truth is made personal by participation in the community. In one development of this position Hauerwas's polemic is against Roman Catholic moral theologians, Timothy O'Connell, Josef Fuchs, Richard McCormick, Gerard Hughes and others for whom the content of morality is 'the human', and not distinctively Christian (see below). For Hauerwas, the biblical revelation is the authorization of his view.

There are different ways in which authors who claim a distinctiveness for Christian ethics relate that to various choices about life in the world, personal and social. Love, for example, has often been claimed to be the distinctive feature of Christian ethics, and agape has been differentiated from other forms of love, e.g. eros, or philia (e.g. Nygren 1953; Earth 1958:727-51; Tillich 1963:135-40; Toner 1968; Outka 1972; Singer 1984:268-311). Precisely what agape means as an ethical term or reality is subject to a variety of interpretations. Gene Outka, in his cogent ethical analysis of agape stresses 'equal regard', i.e. 'regard is for every person qua human existent, to be distinguished from those special traits...which distinguish particular personalities' (Outka 1972:9). This focus requires critical assessment of other emphases, e.g. self-sacrifice, and the relation of agape to self-love and to justice, its application to human relations in which special traits of persons are important, e.g. friendship and its application by subsidiary rules. Central to the discussion is the possibility of agape being universally applicable. (Outka's is the most philosophically sophisticated examination of love as the distinctive theme of Christian ethics in the literature.)

Applications of love as the distinctively Christian theme in ethics vary according to how agape is defined and the procedures adopted by various authors. Paul Ramsey (1950:100) held a stringent view of agape as 'inverted self-love' which has to be applied through justice when the needs of two or more neighbours conflict. In later writing he continues to adhere to love and faithfulness as the mark of Christian ethics and 'in-principles' it so it supports just war theory and is applicable to many procedures of medical experimentation and therapy. Reinhold Neibuhr's view of love as self-sacrificial is applied in a dialectic between agape, mutuality and justice (Niebuhr 1943:68-90). His procedure always maintained a critical tension between these terms so that, e.g., justice without the judgement of agape tends to become less than justice, and agape without justice remains an inapplicable ideal for politics, economics and international relations. Interestingly, Ramsey's procedures relieve the tension that Niebuhr's create; Niebuhr always leaves one with a sense of remorse, if not guilt, for not fulfilling love.

Critics of agape as self-sacrifice adduce biblical, experiential, and philosophical evidences in their favour. Mutuality is seen to be a theme in the New Testament; Daniel Day Williams, for example, claims that love there 'is affirmed, not as a new ethical principle, but as the spirit of a new relationship of man and God' (Williams 1968:41, see 41-51). Feminist theologians find the emphasis on self-sacrifice to be a denial of the proper self-love of which women have been deprived and argue that Christian love builds mutuality and community rather than demanding radical self-denial (Andolsen 1981). Process theology provides the philosophical basis for mutuality as characteristic of reality, ontological as well as interpersonal, for Williams and other authors.

Others move from love to particular problems through the development of middle axioms which define, in a sense, general goals and boundaries of appropriate policies and actions without precisely determining them. James Nash, for example, begins with love as the distinctive Christian ethical principle (and motive) and states six axioms to be followed in the politics of environmental issues, e.g. that the economics-ecology dilemma must always be resolved, and that the interests of future generations must be protected (Nash 1991:192-221).

The issues involved in maintaining distinctive features of Christian ethics while engaging in 'public choices' with people of other religions traditions and with philosophers and others who eschew religious bases for morality receive heightened attention as Western nations become more pluralistic in their cultures and as Christian communities in dominantly non-Christian cultures seek to work with others to resolve social and political issues. (For an analysis of this issue in the ethics of Earth, Brunner, and Bonhoeffer, see Lovin, 1984). To put the issue in terms used by Josef Fuchs, what is the relation between the Christianum and the humanum in ethics (Fuchs 1983:53— 67)? For Yoder, Hauerwas and some others the Christian provides a prophetic critical stance towards the culture and society Christianity finds itself in as well as direction as to how the Christian community and its members ought to conduct their activities. For Ramsey, Niebuhr and many others not cited, the Christian ethic, whether by way of distinctive values, principles, or ideals, has to be applied procedurally to broader issues while retaining its particular identity. The other alternative is to claim that there is no distinctive positive Christian ethics, and that the humanum provides the content.

The contemporary forms of this general position have antecedents in the tradition. While Thomas Aquinas's treatise on natural law must be placed in its theological context of all things returning to God, it lays the ground for a rational basis for ethics in which all humans participate. The 'New Law' is not a different positive morality, but the work of the Spirit. Luther's ethics under the law are based upon rational determination of the forms of conduct that are appropriate to social roles and responsibilities which the Turk as well as the Christian can grasp. Richard Hooker laid a foundation for much subsequent Anglican ethics by developing reason and natural law as a basis for morality in distinction from the biblicistic 'Puritans' of his time. And many contemporary Protestants who wish to stress a distinctiveness to Christian ethics would agree with Gilbert Meilaender that 'although the Christian way of life is itself a particular one sustained within particular communities, it has within it more universal elements' (Meilaender 1991:20).

Recent discussion within Roman Catholicism has been particularly vigorous. Bernard Haring is the most prominent author who stresses the biblical images and bases for Christian ethics, while also absorbing natural law. In Free and Faithful in Christ (1978), as in his earlier The Law of Christ (1961), he combines New Testament theological themes with ethics in a way that has wide appeal for many Roman Catholics. The theology accents love, liberty and fidelity, and issues in guidelines and norms that are both binding and liberating. These norms 'depend thoroughly on faith and thus are distinctively Christian' (Häring 1978:1: 22-3). He distinguishes his position from that of Franz Böckle (1980), and by implication arguments similar to Böckle's, whose norms 'do not yield much in favor of a distinctively Christian ethics' (ibid.: 1:23).

Strong arguments against distinctive positive Christian ethics have been developed by distinguished Jesuit and other Roman Catholic moral theologians. Josef Fuchs, the Jesuit writer, concludes that the norms of Christian morality are valid 'to the extent to which they proclaim truth', that is, 'are universally human and therefore also Christian—hence not distinctively Christian' (Fuchs 1983:53). The categorical content of Christian morality is the humanum, a universal value and quality of human beings. Bruno Schüller comes to similar conclusions. Biblical ethics in his view is primarily exhortation, and he acknowledges that Christian faith and biblical ethics can be the 'genesis' of the morality of Christians. But the 'truth-value' of moral norms and insights is not dependent on their genesis. '[E]ven for the Christian the knowledge of the requirements of morality is, with logical priority, the object of his reason and not his faith' (Schüller 1986:41; see also Schüller 1991). The English Jesuit, Gerard Hughes, argues that the use of biblical material as the ultimate authority for ethics leads to exegetical, hermeneutical and theological difficulties and concludes sharply 'that an independent morality is an essential tool in interpreting Christian tradition, since it enables us to distinguish the voice of God from the human voices' that speak in the tradition. One will only discover what God is saying in the Christian tradition 'by patient methods of moral philosophy which enabled us to hear him in the first place' (Hughes 1978:24-5; cf. Kant 1960). These positions, interestingly, support the autonomy of ethics, a position argued for by many secular moral philosophers. (See also Curran and McCormick, and others in Curran and McCormick (1980 and 1991).) For all these authors it is reason and, in some sense, natural law that are the bases of ethics; for ethics to be ethics it must be universal and not historically particular. The distinctiveness of Christians' and the Church's moral activity is located elsewhere—in motivation, intentionality, interiority (see below).

Roman Catholic authors cite Protestant authors who come to virtually the same position on the non-distinctiveness of Christian morality, e.g., Rudolf Bultmann.Knud Logstrup, a Danish Protestant theologian, was influenced by Bultmann and Friedrich Gogarten in the development of his ethics. His descriptive promises do not rest on traditional natural law, but on a phenomenology of moral experience; trust and distrust are its fundamental aspects. There is an 'unspoken demand' in relationships that calls for obedient action. After the development of such themes, Logstrup has a chapter, 'The Impossibility of "Christian" Ethics'. In the proclamation of Jesus, God's demand to serve the other person's welfare is central; every word and deed should care for the other person. Decisions about what acts meet the silent demand are made by Christians 'on exactly the same bases as those upon which anyone else decides'. The Christian message is about the truth of our existence, and if one attempts to define specific Christian arguments about marriage, the purpose of punishment, etc., Christianity has become an ideology. The Christian 'must use reason, insight, and human considerations to clarify' action, and must appeal to the same sources in the other person (Logstrup 1971:111-21).

Other Protestants, who also appeal to the human, stress the transformation of people through faith and grace as necessary to grasp the universal. Paul Lehmann arrived at 'the human' or 'humanization' as the purpose of morality via a biblical theology, rather than by reason alone. God's activity in the world is 'to relate men to each other in and through the enterprise of the new humanity', that is through enabling human maturity (Lehmann 1963:131). This occurs in the context of particular events under ever-changing conditions. But formed by life in the community of faith, Christians can have theonomous consciences. 'The theonomous conscience is...immediately sensitive to the freedom of God to do in the always changing human situation what [God's] humanizing aims and purposes require' (ibid.: 358). The norm is the divine activity; conscience is the means to perceive what that is.

Knowledge of 'the human' is arrived at very differently by Fuchs, Schüller and other Roman Catholics and by Logstrup and Lehmann, but what is truly human is universally so. This literature also never takes much account of the diverse interpretations of the human, the right and the good, that moral philosophers, psychologists and other scientists, and creative writers offer. To suggest that 'the human' is the norm for Christian ethics only moves the controversy to another sphere. It resolves nothing in and of itself.

The second moment, how Christians make their choices, or ought to make them, has been alluded to in some of the above. H.Richard Niebuhr's typology of humans as makers, as citizens or law abiders, and as answerers or responders, while stated as appropriate to all moral life, is applied to the life of Christians (Niebuhr 1963). 'Maker' suggests ideals, or ends which activity realizes, or approximates, or compromises in particular situations.K. E.Kirk, in his classic study of The Vision of God as the telos of the Christian life, wrote that 'the principal duty of the Christian moralist is to stimulate the spirit of worship in those to whom he addresses himself, rather than set before them codes of behavior' (Kirk 1931: x). For some others the end is the kingdom of God which is to be 'built' on earth, or which is delineated as a kingdom of love with practical approximations in cooperative, just social policies, e.g. Walter Rauschenbusch. In such a view historical social reforms are the means to begin to realize the kingdom. For others love is the ideal; means/ends thinking is the procedure for fulfilling Christian duties or opportunities.

'Citizen' suggests rules to be obeyed or applied, or commands to be heard and obeyed. When love becomes primarily a rule term, the strategy to apply it properly is to develop principles or middle axioms which are generated by it. Similarly, the precepts of natural law have to be applied as precisely as possible to courses of action. For many Christian fundamentalists the Bible provides rules of conduct which are to be obeyed, though they are selective as to which have current or continuing authority. Reason functions in the application of principles or rules; it can issue in stringent rigorism, as it has in ascetic Christianity and some contemporary Protestant and Catholic materials, or in more probabilistic ways (see Jonsen and Toulmin 1988).

Obedience to the commands of God continues to be defended as the most fitting approach to Christian morality. Karl Barth's ethics, with its stress on the particularity of divine commands in changing and specific occasions is the most widely known twentieth-century programme of this sort. One is to hear the divine command; to make choices on the basis of traditional practical reasoning is to usurp the prerogative of God. But Earth permits a 'practical' casuistry informed by Scripture (since the gracious God's commands are recorded there and God will not command anything contrary to his grace) and reflection on the occasion of action (Earth 1961). More recently, Richard Mouw has developed a 'comprehensive' divine command theory in which virtue ethics, agapism, 'a divinely implanted sense of justice', and an ethics of 'external law' become diverse strategies for moral surrender to the divine will (Mouw 1990:2). Many Protestants have objected to the 'citizen' or law-abider view of ethics because it becomes heteronomous and legalistic, and can lead to works-righteousness, e.g. among others Paul Tillich.

For the 'responded type as developed by both H.Richard Niebuhr and Paul Lehmann the first question is not what humans ought to do, but 'what is God doing?' As seen above, for Lehmann, that is humanizing work perceived by the theonomous conscience; for Niebuhr it involves a complex process of interpretation of events in solidarity with the community to establish what actions are fitting.

These, and other procedures, all require that the specific sphere (Barth's term) or context in which human action occurs has to be interpreted. The debate of 'context vs. principles' that flourished for some years was, in fact, contention over which of the terms was to be dominant. The 'contextualism' of Joseph Fletcher (1966) and J.A.T.Robinson (1963) was an example of one extreme; neo-Thomist manuals of moral theology and Paul Ramsey's reaction to Fletcher, Robinson and Lehmann are examples of the other extreme.

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  • leah
    Where do christians confuse ethics with theology?
    1 year ago

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