Peter Byrne

The notion that theology should have practical applications in social and personal life is integral to thinking about its status as a discipline of intelligence. Is it a mode of enquiry that leads to genuine insight or not? If it has nothing interesting to say about the practical dilemmas facing human beings, the answer can only be 'no'. All the chapters in this Part are committed to the conclusion that theology does offer insight into human affairs and seek to show what that insight might amount to in a number of areas of the ethical life. However, there are major problems in working out what that insight might be.

These chapters collectively, and James Gustafson's broad survey of the field of Christian ethics in particular, point to the unavailability in the contemporary world of simple models of the application of theology to ethics. They show that we cannot expect theology to offer a set of dogmatic claims about human life, or a set of biblical precepts, and then deduce moral conclusions from these. Dogmatic construction in our age is too aware of its own relativity and of the diversity among dogmatic theologies to provide that kind of basis for ethics. Biblically based ethics, be it drawn from teachings of the Bible or the exemplary portrait of Jesus, is likewise too aware of relativity and diversity in the understanding of Scripture to function in that geometric fashion.

This is to suggest that the theology from which moral insight may be drawn is no longer of the kind that could lead to a straightforward deduction of morals from dogma. Moreover, we must reflect that there is a new diversity in the ethical life to which theological insight is to be applied. This diversity arises in part out of the fact that theological moralists, even those in Western Europe and North America, no longer speak to a predominantly Christian culture. This latter fact suggests a crucial dilemma for the contemporary application of theology which is raised both in Gustafson's chapter and in John Morgan's on medical ethics. To the extent that substantive theological principles and models are used to guide moral reflection, that reflection runs the risk of simply being ignored as irrelevant to society at large. To the extent that theological ethics speaks to a wider culture in a moral language it comprehends, then it risks having no specific Christian theological content at all. Secular thinkers will see this dilemma as the basis for a rebuttal of the very possibility of theological ethics. The rebuttal can proceed further by noting that it is an apparent definitional truth about moral thought that its conclusions and modes of reasoning should be publicly accessible. Publicity and universality are what distinguish morality from a private code and moral reasons from mere personal hunches. Therefore, there could not be a distinctive ethics which was the result of the application of theology to practical life, since the price of its being distinctively theological would be that it was no longer ethics but rather the code of a closed group.

There is a theoretical response to be made to this secularist rebuttal of the possibility of the practical application of theology, but its possibility still leaves much work to be done in individual areas of the ethical life. The fact that modern culture is no longer Christian does entail that theological ethics must face with renewed determination the problem of how it can be ethics and theological. It must surely see itself as a contribution to a conversation whose goal is the moral advancement of humankind. To engage in that conversation with profit is to recognize theology's obligation to speak from itself but with a universal voice. All partners in this conversation—that is, all traditions, all reflective human beings—must likewise speak from themselves but with a universal voice. There is no prior, neutral language of ethical insight into which the traditions and viewpoints that engage in the conversation must first translate their contributions; so to think is one of the errors of contemporary, secular liberalism. The conversation will be enriched to the extent that those participating respect their own distinctive voices but use them to promote universal conclusions. In other words, the dilemma of particularity and universality in practical theology is to be solved by being true to particularity in the starting point of ethical reflection, but to seek universality in its endpoint.

One way in which Christian ethical teaching can maintain its relevance for a non-Christian culture is through seeing itself as a contribution to a natural law understanding of moral reality. This is in essence how Barrie Paskins treats traditional Christian perspectives on violence and warfare. It is his contention that the just war doctrine of moral theology remains relevant as a source of necessary moral restraints upon the conduct of warfare. It is not his concern to interrogate the theological sources in order to discern whether an authentic Christian concern should embrace a total pacifism. Rather, he judges the viability of moral teaching on warfare by reference to whether it makes sense of political realities. In the light of these, a just war ethic based in natural law remains valid, he concludes.

Edward Norman's chapter on the nature of the state is also concerned with the relations between Christian ethics and the political. Using the terms of this Introduction, we may say that one of his chief concerns is that the conversation between practical theology and contemporary, non-Christian culture has become too one-sided. That is to say, it is characterized by too ready an acceptance by theology of the final validity of contemporary political liberalism and its affirmations of the possibility and importance of the pursuit of human well-being through political advance. He characteristically affirms the existence of what he sees as an older wisdom which places limits on the final importance and success of reforming politics.

If Norman's chapter displays an attempt to free practical theology from too great an accommodation with secular modes of thought, Jack Dominian's attempt to set forth an ethic of pastoral counselling exhibits a readiness to reshape theological attitudes by drawing upon insights from outside. His theme is the manner in which theological attitudes towards sin and the sinner need development in the light of Freudian and post-Freudian depth psychology. The result of his reflections is not the abandonment of theological models in the understanding of personal growth, but rather a re-examination of them in the light of insights from psychology. The ethic of counselling offered is still theologically driven, but the theology has altered in dialogue with external sources.

Dominian's chapter illustrates the shift in contemporary Christian ethics away from thinking that theology supplies ethics with a set of rules for conduct. This modest shift towards a more antinomian, personalist ethics is further illustrated in Helen Oppenheimer's general discussion of personal ethics. The person- and relational-centred paradigms for the ethical life she explores are, of course, partly in vogue because of developments, social and moral, in society as a whole. Like Dominian, she shows how such acceptance of external influences leads, not to an abandonment of theological resources in ethics, but to their revaluation. She also clearly demonstrates, through her critique of extreme libertarian emphases on autonomy as the be-all and end-all of ethics, that those resources have the power to correct and modify its partner in dialogue.

John Mahoney's discussion of the ethics of wealth exhibits a clear concern to relate the most pressing of contemporary concerns about wealth and social justice to theological fundamentals, in particular the Old Testament's prophetic tradition and the central Christian beliefs in creation, sin, incarnation and completion. He finds in these sources a complementary message which licenses both an injunction to individuals to use their God-given creativity to make wealth and an injunction to regard that wealth as having a social purpose and function.

The final two chapters in this Part illustrate the development of theological resources to cope with newly emerging problems. Medicine and medical ethics are not new. But the emergence of scientifically based health care in the twentieth century has brought a range of problems with it which cannot easily be catered for in the traditional humanist and theological codes that governed pre-modern medicine. John Morgan's chapter brings out the diversity of response to this range of problems evident within modern theology. In this way he reminds us of the diversity within the modern theological discussion of ethics and takes us back to James Gustafson's initial survey. Despite this diversity, Morgan's chapter brings out the way in which contemporary theological ethics has distinctive and worthwhile things to contribute to the contemporary debate about the purposes and parameters of medical science.

Christian theology evidently contains a doctrine of creation but the notion that this creation faces an ecological crisis which requires a review of human responsibility towards the animate and inanimate world is a feature of the present age. Stephen Clark's discussion of environmental ethics takes on board the standard criticism of the Christian doctrine of the creation as the partcause of the humanly created ecological crisis. He nonetheless argues that Christian theology has resources to offer a better perspective on humanity and nature than the variety of 'pagan' responses he identifies in contemporary ecological thinking.

Careful study of the chapters in this Part will reinforce the point made in the beginning of this Introduction: the notion of 'applying' theology to practical life to produce a Christian ethics is too simple as it stands. Application involves construction and development. Contemporary theology bears upon practice and conduct via a process of dialogue. Dialogue is multifaceted. Theology is in dialogue with the practical problems themselves. Old problems acquire new aspects and entirely new problems arise. Hence existing theological models and doctrines must be looked at afresh in the light of new practical realities. Theology is in dialogue with other sources of insight into ethical life—at the cost of making itself irrelevant or turning itself into a private code for a sect. In the course of the dialogue that is ethics, theology finds its own modes of understanding under investigation. Hence, application leads to reexamination, construction and development in the ways illustrated by the chapters in this Part. The general problem for theology in this process, abstractly stated, is how to retain its identity and distinctiveness. These chapters collectively illustrate how that problem can be overcome.


Long before Christian ethics became an academic and ecclesiastical discipline there were writings that prescribed or commended particular moral actions for Christians; the sorts of outlooks, dispositions and ends they ought to have; the justifying reasons for them; and the powers that made proper forms of life and action possible, or restrained them. The Bible does not provide the Church with an abstract coherent theory of Christian ethics, and thus within it are the seeds of various ideas that developed in the tradition in relation to different cultural contexts, to practical social and moral issues that emerged, and to varying theological emphases that were articulated.

In the Bible there are moral/legal codes of conduct, e.g. the Holiness code in Leviticus, proscriptions of certain actions in Pauline writings, and general commands such as the commandment to love. There are passages which take the form of exhortation and admonition more than precise prescriptions; these are found in the parenetic passages in the Pauline letters, in exemplary parables in Luke and other Gospels, and the description of actions which are mimetic of the life and death of Jesus. Thus there is biblical precedent for normative Christian ethics to be developed in the form of rules, of counsels, of ideals, and of exemplary narratives. In Pauline writings, e.g. 1 Corinthians 7 and 10-11, one finds discursive passages which in effect state various points that Christians ought to consider in determining their proper conduct without a decisive closure.

Passages which are both descriptive of the life of Christians and their community, and exhortative of what they ought to be are common in New Testament writings. There is no theory of virtue, such as Aristotle's and Aquinas's, but there are qualities of life that are presumed to be present as fruits of faith, or are expected to be present if trust and faithfulness are present in the community. Certain qualities, as in Galatians 5, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control, are described as gifts of the Spirit. Other qualities and actions are described as belonging to 'lower nature' and thus condemned: fornication, impurity, indecency, idolatry, quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues and jealousies. The Sermon on the Mount has been widely interpreted to indicate conditions which are blessed by God. Thus, certain conditions of human persons should display the proper being of faithful people, and presumably will issue in appropriate actions.

The possibilities of these commendable qualities are credited ultimately to the work of the Spirit, to thankful response for the work of Christ (1 John 4), to faith, or to proper obedience. But there are realistic interpretations of the constraints that inhibit the realization of these qualities, the powers of sin that continue to plague members of the community, e.g. as in Romans 7. The anthropology of the New Testament is the basis for interpretation of the being and acts of human beings, including Christians.

The prescriptions, proscriptions and admonitions, and the praiseworthy and blameworthy dispositions and actions are all given justifying reasons which are based in doctrines, or beliefs, about God, about Christ and the Spirit, and about the human condition. Christian ethics, unlike 'secular' ethics, are always set in a theological context, and in a context of the life and experience of those who believe. Even those passages which are adduced as support for natural law, e.g. Romans 1 and 2, function religiously as well as morally; they show a basis for a natural morality but make the point that this leaves all persons without excuse.

Thus the idea of Christian ethics is set within the larger framework of the ends and purposes of God, particularly God revealed in Christ, and the ends and purposes of human life which are never reducible simply to the moral but always are, in some sense, related to the creative, ordering, or redeeming work of God. In the Christian context, morality is never an end in itself. It is related to what God has done (as in the Covenant or in the work of Christ) as an 'indicative' that grounds the 'imperatives' or the possibilities of fruitful and faithful lives and actions; or it is related to the purposes of God who is the creator and ultimate orderer of all things and whose ends, e.g. God's kingdom, are to be realized either in present time or in the ultimate future, or to God's authoritative law or commands.

The singular and determinative event for interpreting the Divine for Christians is Jesus Christ, and thus, in one way or another, for ethics to be Christian they must be grounded in some interpretation of his person and/or work. This particular historical feature also distinguishes ideas of Christian ethics from ideas of ethics based solely on presumably natural or purely rational principles. Even in the New Testament the person and work of Christ have various significances for ethics; he is a teacher with authority because of who he is, his life is a pattern to be followed, his death and resurrection are the conditions of the freedom of Christians to be lived out in acts of love; the coming of God's kingdom which he proclaimed, and of which his life is at least a sign, assures hope; he reveals the graciousness of God so that all actions are responsive to the Divine goodness; and the power of the Spirit enables a transformation of the lives of those who have faith and even of all of creation.

Given the 'excess of meaning' which the Bible provides for the Christian community, there are grounds for developing a variety of ideas of Christian ethics in the tradition, including our own time. Different strands of the biblical sources become related in different ways to historical conditions, moral and social problems, patterns of philosophical thinking, and human experiences. When the community confronts new events, experiences and knowledge, either as threats or as resources, the idea of Christian ethics takes particular shapes. And different historic traditions, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist and Anabaptist, tend to authorize particular emphases in their ideas of Christian ethics.

Comprehensive accounts of Christian ethics, it follows from all of the above, have at least a rough coherence between doctrines of God as creator, redeemer and sustainer, emphases in christology, doctrines of human life, views of history and nature, the kinds of life that Christians are enabled and required to live, and even the appropriate or prescribed ways in which persons and groups ought to make moral choices. For example, churches stemming from the Radical Reformation appear to have a distinctive emphasis in their ethics, an emphasis on an ethics of faithful discipleship to Jesus, which includes readiness to bear the cross as well as conform to his earthly deeds and teachings as described in the Gospels. But this emphasis is improperly understood if it is not set in the context of that community's shared beliefs with other communities in the justifying and sanctifying work of Christ, of its understanding of sin and 'the world', and of the kind of ecclesiology that is normative for Christians.

It is not possible in this chapter to develop fully all the points of reference that are adduced in various ideas of Christian ethics. (For a different approach to organizing these ideas, see Gustafson (1986 and 1978:139-43)). For interpretations of various christological to ethical themes, see H.R.Neibuhr (1951) and Gustafson (1968).

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