EDIT: It was brought to my attention by one of the commenters that the tone of this post was unduly flippant, harsh, and caricaturing. In short, I violated my anti-pontification blogging rule. I stand by all the concerns articulated here, but they should have been voiced in more measured and moderate tones. Given that lots of people have already seen the post, I won’t attempt to re-write it accordingly, but read it with this apology in mind.
A strange anomaly afflicts our conservative Reformed institutions of higher education. No other institutions can be relied on to insist, at every possible opportunity, on the importance of our theology for all of life. As the leader of one such institution often puts it, “Theology should come out of our fingertips”; another common slogan is “Faith for all of life.” At such institutions, you will hear, nonstop, the need for Christians to “engage and transform culture,” to bring every square inch of creation under the lordship of Christ, etc., a legacy of the neo-Calvinist triumph of the last century. The great bogeyman in such circles is “Gnosticism,” which refers to any account of the Christian life that is overly intellectualist, insufficiently “incarnational,” which is more about having the right ideas in your head than concrete Christian living. Given all of this, you would expect such institutions to be zealous for the recovery of the lost tradition of Christian ethics, eager at every opportunity to flesh out a theological account of the moral life, as it relates to business, to politics, to family, to creation, etc. Surely, such institutions above all would be interested in answering the question posed by Francis Schaeffer, a giant in these circles, “How shall we then live?”
Apparently not. A consultation of the course catalogs of four leading Reformed-worldview colleges yielded very slim pickings indeed when it came to ethical subjects. At one school, only 2 courses out of 37 in the Bible and Theology department dealt with ethics, although in fairness, some courses in the philosophy department did as well. At another school, it was 1 of 34 (plus, again, a few philosophical ethics courses). At a third, it was 1 of 31, with 2 other courses incorporating substantial ethics content. At the bottom of this ranking, one school dedicated only one half of one course, out of a total of 24 Bible and theology courses, to the Christian moral life, and didn’t supplement this with any business ethics, political ethics, or philosophical ethics courses. Of course, this is a rather rough method for determining the actual teaching at those schools, since ethical issues could be woven into other courses, even when they’re not the subject of a separate course. However, a little leaven of ethical reasoning in a business course is no substitute for systematic and historical reflection on the Christian ethical tradition. The dismal picture that emerges from this survey confirms, in any case, what I have found autobiographically, impressionistically and anecdotally. And while my indictment here is focused particularly on Reformed institutions, the same could probably be said of most of American evangelicalism—we simply don’t know the first thing about the history of Christian ethics or about how to go about the task of moral reasoning. And it shows when we look at the level of much evangelical discourse in contemporary ethical and political debates.
Why this depressing dearth? Some might be quick to point the finger at Protestantism’s core doctrine: justification by faith. Justification by faith means that we’re saved by having the right ideas in our head, not by what we do. So what we do doesn’t matter at all, and isn’t worth reflecting on. Theological concepts, though—what we believe—matters immensely, and need to be fine-tuned extensively. Even when we talk in Kuyperian terms about transforming culture, we can’t help but think that it’s the right ideas in our heads that transform culture, not how we act. Is this the problem?
Perhaps part of it, although insomuch as it is, it’s due to a serious corruption of the Protestant teaching on faith, rather than the genuine article. The Reformers were passionately interested in faith working through love, and dedicated vigorous reflection to matters of moral theology. And most evangelicals today have no hesitation in saying that it matters immensely what we do; they are capable of getting very worked up indeed about moral issues.
So where’s the problem? I suspect the culprit lies in another Protestant doctrine: the perspicuity of Scripture. Of course, again, we are dealing here with a corruption of the doctrine, rather than the original, which was intended simply to safeguard the clarity of the gospel, the power of Scripture unto salvation. Quickly, however, the perspicacity of Scripture came to mean for many Protestants that everything the Bible taught was clear and straightforward. Combine with this with a corrupted concept of the sole sufficiency of Scripture, and you arrived at the conclusion that everything the Christian needed to know about ethics was given, clearly and simply in the words of Scripture. All we have to do then is to obey. Of course, obedience to God’s will is difficult, but that’s due simply to the weakness and corruption of our wills, not due to any difficulty in discerning his will. Given this assumption, it follows that anyone who feels the need to puzzle very long over the question “How shall we then live?” is doing so only because they want to disobey. Like the serpent, they are asking “Did God really say?” when it is quite obvious what He said.
We still conclude, somehow, that theology proper is complicated stuff, that it takes years of study to plumb the mysteries of God and understand the order of salvation. But ethics is comparatively easy. Obey God’s commands. This is an odd conclusion to reach, given that there are some reasons for supposing, on the contrary, that ethics would take more reflection than theology proper. After all, the study of doctrine is the study of eternal verities. What is true about the ordo salutis, if we can once determine it, is true everywhere and at all times. You are saved by grace through faith every bit as much in Guatemala in the year 2000 as in Hungary in the year 1000. But the study of ethics is the study of changing human circumstances, and while there are unchanging moral norms, the particular imperatives that they generate differ dramatically depending on the time and place to which they are applied.
Whatever its causes, the effects of this neglect of moral theology are serious indeed. In Reformed and evangelical circles, it tends to generate at least four baleful responses (note that these are all perhaps, to some extent, caricatures—though I think we can all recognize the types—and I would hesitate to judge any member of one of these types as harshly as I describe the caricatures here):
1) The Apathete
For many, the self-evidence of ethics is an excuse for not worrying much about the subject at all. We can simply take as given the moral norms handed down to us by our parents, and reinforced by our subculture, no matter how unreflective these norms are. In a contemporary American context, many of these norms are deeply compromised by the conditions of bourgeois modern life, which steadily water down the demands of the Gospel and encourage compromise with the world. In Reformed evangelical settings, we are pretty good at resisting this compromise when it comes to matters of sexual ethics, but are woefully prone to it on matters of economic ethics, social ethics, political ethics, environmental ethics. We have no concept of a just wage or a just war anymore and just can’t be bothered to. Such ideas are so alien to us that they must, we assume, be the result of “secular liberalism.” Thus do we quietly euthanize our long-forgotten theological ancestors and toss the inheritance they have given us in the trash out back.
2) The Radical
Appalled at this compromise, this easy, bourgeois living, some young Christians conclude, rightly, that this isn’t how Jesus intended us to live. So how? They have, alas, no concept of any alternative to the de facto “Christian ethic” in which they’ve been raised, no concept that there is any tradition of Christian ethical reflection which could be drawn upon to critique this degeneracy. But, after all, why would there need to be? It’s all supposed to be quite straightforward, right? The only reason we haven’t seen the moral demands that we’re called to as Christians is because we are weak-willed, and have suppressed the truth in our unrighteousness. We just need to get serious about following Jesus. It’s all there, plain as day, in the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels, if only we have the guts to actually live it out. And no matter that it’s hard to give any coherent account of how it could be lived out on a large scale. What about protecting the innocent? Sorry, Jesus calls us to pacifism. What about fulfilling our vocations? Sorry, Jesus calls on us to all give up all our possessions. Maybe taking all this without any qualifications will only work for a small sect of the dedicated, but that’s OK—to heck with the world! Anyone who wants to pause and try to work through the details of a Christian social ethic is already wavering and compromising, so such must be left behind. Just follow Jesus and all will be well.
3) The Culture-Warrior
Many young evangelicals, possessed by the conviction that ethics is easy and straightforward, and the only reason to complicate things is ungodliness, simply hold in contempt their “liberal secular” adversaries (which includes, in fact, most other Christians) on almost any ethical issue that arises. Abortion and homosexuality are of course the hot-button issues, but for many on the Religious Right, a quasi-libertarian account of government has become almost as central a commitment. Although they talk a great deal about “engaging” and “transforming” culture, all these people really know how to do is to conquer it, or ignore it. They cannot begin to engage, because they do not think there is a rational discussion to be had. Anyone who suggests that there is a need to make careful ethical distinctions has succumbed to the temptation to be respectable in the eyes of the world, and we mustn’t dare to stop and listen to such a person, lest we be led astray as well. In their blind opposition to ethical nuance, they often end up opposing principles that are in fact the legacy of centuries of Christian moral reflection. (Culture-warrior types can quite often also be members of Class 1, the Apathetes, their apathy on most issues being compensated for by their aggressive passion on a select list of pet issues)
4) The Illuminati
Other young evangelicals, disgusted with the culture-warriors and convinced that there really is something to be learned by detailed ethical reflection, resolve to inform themselves about the ways of the world. Unlike all of the first three categories, this group recognizes that ethics is not, in the end, a piece of cake. However, like the first three, they have been brought up ignorant of the fact that there exists two millennia of Christian moral reflection, which has weighed carefully how to balance God’s demands on us in the realms of business, family, politics, care for creation, etc. So, eager to illuminate themselves about ethics and leave behind their benighted co-religionists, they turn to the only resources for ethical reflection they encounter. These, while usually flavored by bits and pieces of the Christian ethical tradition, are by and large the products of modernity, offering solutions to the problems of wealth and poverty, authority and freedom, cultivation and stewardship, etc. that differ sometimes subtly, sometimes radically from those which Christian moral theology has generally offered. Seduced by the superiors sophistication of this reflection to the simplistic ethics of their upbringing, these young evangelicals end up joining enemy ranks, thus confirming the suspicion of the culture-warriors that to ask hard ethical questions is already to compromise.
Of course, in referring to “the Christian ethical tradition” I do not mean to imply that there is a unitary set of answers to any moral problem that has been bequeathed to us by our theological ancestors. That would be to repeat the same error of perspicacity, only with reference to tradition, rather than Scripture. What we find instead in the nineteen centuries of Christian moral reflection is patterns of moral reasoning and argument that we can make use of, treasuries of resources for moral reflection, warnings about dead-ends in moral reasoning that we will arrive at if we start along certain paths, and examples of the other paths that have proven particularly fruitful, and may be worth treading anew. To learn all of this requires rigorous and systematic study, every bit as much as the study of Scripture or dogmatic theology. It is high time that evangelical and Reformed higher education begin working to recover this lost heritage.
16 thoughts on “The Death of Evangelical Ethics”