The relations between theology and ethics

1 Theology is clearly prior to ethics in determining the content and structure of ethics. The procedures for authorizing the ethics might be quite strict deductive logic based on metaphysical theology or on themes of biblical theology. Or the theology might be used to provide vindicating beliefs which set the basic direction of Christian ethics and the parameters within which it develops, i.e. not relying on strict deductions.

2 A coherent correlation between theology and ethics can be developed without claiming strict priority of authority for one or the other. This position opens the possibility of particular inconsistencies when the general coherence has failed; either the theology will get preference over the ethics, or vice versa.

3 The ethical is clearly prior to the theological. What are judged to be necessary theological or metaphysical assumptions to defend the ethical position become the theology in some cases. In others, more common in recent literature, various theological principles and themes are adduced, or simply borrowed, to show a plausible theological justification for the ethical.

The authority and role of the Bible

1 The Bible is understood by some to be the revelation of prepositional truths about God, and to be a revealed morality, though selection is made of which 'propositions' are more valid and which moral prescriptions are absolute.

2 A more common position among Protestants is that ethics must be grounded, informed and directed by biblical exegesis. Judgements have to be made about which theological and ethical themes of the Bible are critical in determining both the form and the dominant content of motifs of the ethics.

3 Examples of different themes are law and Gospel; liberation; eschatological ethics of hope; orders of creation; love as the central reality of God and thus of Christian ethics; transformation of moral agents through grace; theosis—the gracious transformation of the cosmos; faith and participation in the sacraments; ethics of the imitation of Christ or discipleship; and the kingdom of God as an ideal moral social order; humans as deeply corrupted sinners, etc.

4 Differences with reference to form are the interpretation of God in terms of active agent in events, and thus ethics as a response to God's prior action; God as law-giver and commander which can lead to more casuistic ethics or ethics of divine commands; and God as the ordering power of the right relations of all things to each other as they move to their telos, issuing as the ethics of natural law.

5 The Bible can be understood as the sole source of sacred doctrine, as the divine revelation about salvation, while ethics has a somewhat independent grounding available to all humankind, as in classic Roman Catholicism.

6 The Bible places particular obligations on Christians following from their faith, e.g. to live a life of self-denying service, which are not incumbent on all people, in addition to obligations they share with all others.

7 The Bible is an informing and corroborative authority for ethics without being decisive for particular moral actions.

The adaptation and use of non-biblical, non-theological materials

This heading refers to philosophical, scientific and social scientific, literary, experiential, and other resources that play ancillary or decisive roles in the formulation of Christian ethics. The scope of this heading is vast; only suggestions of what materials are used and how they are used are listed.

1 A moral theory, Kantian, Aristotelian, neo-Platonic, utilitarian, pragmatic, or other, provides the morphology of a position in Christian ethics.

2 A social theory, Marxist, hierarchical, consensual, feminist, or other, is used to analyse circumstances being addressed, and as one basis for the desirable outcomes of intentional moral activity.

3 Epistemological theories are used to analyse critically other positions and to provide backing for a position espoused, e.g. the current debate between 'anti-foundationalism' and 'foundationalism'.

4 Interpretations of the nature and activity of humans are adapted in forms of moral anthropology, e.g. historically, the free-will controversy; more recently, various positions from psychology, cultural anthropology, biology, and other sciences.

5 Issues that emerge in the society and culture give direction to the practical and theoretical issues addressed by Christian ethics, e.g. in recent times, sexism, racism, classism, emancipatory vs. oppressive forms of expression in literary and other cultural and social activities, etc. A focus of the agenda is shaped by issues emerging from technology and science as well, e.g. the ecological crisis turns authors towards the descriptive and analytical materials that depict that problem and affect the selection of theological and ethical themes.

6 Quite untheoretical observations are made about various human experiences, and about the nature of historical events which are adduced as evidences or as illustrations of Christian ethical positions.

The reconstruction of Christian ethics in the light of recent movements

1 For example, some innovations of the past decades have not had lasting influence, e.g. radical situation ethics, theologies of secularity and of the laity. Others have become so widely accepted that they are conventional wisdom, particularly theologies and ethics of liberation. At the time of writing, feminist Christian ethics are being developed in various parts of the world, but no dominating account has emerged.

2 The interaction between historic non-Christian and new religious movements with Christian theology has been the focus of more attention than the relations of the ethics and ways of life of these movements to Christian ethics. Comparative religious ethics is likely to develop more rapidly than it has in the past decades during which it was formed as a sub-discipline in religious studies. 3 The persisting issue, discussed more fully above, will remain how Christian ethics will maintain a historic identity while at the same time communicating and supporting or criticizing not only secular ethical theories but also public policy and moral issues of modern society. These junctures can be addressed from two directions:

(a) efforts to resolve the general and theoretical issues of the relations of historically particular ethics to some universal form of ethics, or

(b) focus on specific areas of moral activity and social policy to find such consensus as is possible, when supporting views from different background beliefs, including Christian ones, are adduced.

This 'conclusion' does not exhaust the continuing issues for the idea of Christian ethics; it is suggestive enough for readers to extend it, and to make its implications more precise. One conclusion can be made with certainty: there will continue to be various patterns of Christian ethics with various emphases on different forms, themes, contents, and problems. The surplus of meaning in the Bible, the continuing effect of different historic traditions, and the emergence of new and different contexts for writing have this effect. What will be interesting to watch is this: whether coalitions of Christian ethics around particular themes and issues, e.g. liberation, feminism, spirituality, and ecology which already cross boundaries of historic traditions will lead to radical reformulations of ideas and thus to an alteration of historical alliances and identities, and perhaps to formulate novel issues of Christian ethical theory. Feminist Christian ethics, so far mostly addressed to particular social and moral issues, and public affairs is likely to become innovative in radical ways.

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