The Death of Evangelical Ethics

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. Read More