A great deal of ethical discussion today comes to us from Christian writers and ministries. Much of it is not really Christian at all. It may be advanced by Christians. And it may be supported by Christians. It may even be given in settings that appear to be Christian (churches, missions, radio and TV broadcasts by Christians, etc.) but in the end these arguments are not distinctly Christian at all.
Look, if an ethical argument can be made without any specific reference to Christ and the gospel then the argument being made is not Christian. It may be a solid moral argument. And it may well be right. But Christian ethics are Christian.
Oliver M. O’Donovan, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, wrote in 1994, that "The foundations of Christain ethics must be evangelical foundations, or, to put it more simply Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it could not be Christian ethics."
I think O’Donovan is quite right. I wish popular treatments of ethics by American conservatives would become more distinctly Christian. The ethics Christians should contend for are first and foremost ethics rooted in the gospel of Christ. The motive for obedience is also rooted in the gospel. Only by this kind of argument do we avoid the dangers of both moralism and legalism.
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Have you read Richard Hayes’s The Moral Vision of the NT? While I don’t agree with his every conclusion, I find his approach to Christian ethics stimulating and helpful. Stanley Hauerwas is also someone who comes to mind in this connection.
I heartily agree. Through various influences (including the book by Hays that Joel mentioned), I’ve found myself increasingly stupified by attempts to call various positions “Christian” without any other reference to Christ.
Of course, this raises an enormous question when we come to the Decalogue: what does it mean to read, hold to, and apply the Decalogue when we’re Christians? Is the general idea that we’re saved by the same God enough to transfer the document given to those “saved out of the land of Egypt” more or less directly to the church?
This is a subtle but most vital distinction. Circumventing the Gospel in any attempt to formulate Biblical ethics is simply wrong.
Great point, John!
If Christ and Christianity is truly woven into the very fabric of who one is, then I would suggest it is possible to write “Christian ethics” correctly and meaningfully without overt usages of either the name of Christ or biblical references. As a teacher of ethics from a Christian world view I have needed to do this in the secular university setting and recently in business seminars in the Ukraine.
“Christian ethics” is based on certain unchangable moral absolutes that require no defense and are easily established. Since all truth is already God’s, I would argue having to identify the Author of correct ethical behavior is unnecessary and it quickly becomes self-evident in a set of what can be called “natural laws.”
Could you apply what you said here to the book of Esther? God isn’t even mentioned and as a result, if I remember correctly, there has been controversy in history as to its place in the canon. I see a difference between Christian ethics without mentioning His name and non-Christian ethics saturated in it. I’m not completely sure which you are addressing.