Kent and I have been doing some research for a project we are working on together and we decided to read D. Stephen Long’s chapter “Moral Theology” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology. This is an area I have wanted to pour myself in to but always seem to be pushing off this research for other projects that get in the way (who will save me from this body of death!). Here, I thought it would be fruitful to start a conversation about Long’s thesis.
Long starts with the dividing line that one would normally think of when they hear the term “moral theology” in distinction from “Christian ethics” – Catholic and Protestant. Both traditions have a demarcation between dogmatic theology and moral/ethical thought, even though, in the case of moral theology, there is a tighter relationship of independence. “The main difference between them,” Long asserts, “is that moral theology recognizes Christian dogma as essential to the moral life, while Christian ethics sees dogma as less important for its task” (457). Moral theology, therefore, “assumes an explicit doctrinal context.” In light of this distinction, these approaches produce distinct audiences – moral theology speaks primarily to the church, while Christian ethics understands its scope to be at the broadest level of society (universities, nations, corporations, etc.). Long characterizes these various inclinations by delineating the “universal category” for each discipline – for moral theology: doctrine; for Christian ethics: ethics.
In developing how moral theology functions Long points to two key Protestant proponents – John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards (I’ll let you guess which piqued my interest more!). Importantly, for Christian ethics as distinctively Christian, doctrine is not irrelevant. So the question becomes, which doctrines are most significant? Long offers some contrasts:
- “Moral theology begins with a vision of God. Christian ethics tends to begin with the commanding God” (459).
- “The vision of God comes first; only then can the significance of ethical obligations arise. This is less the case with Christian ethics, where the command itself becomes just as or even more important than the vision of the one who issues it.”
- “Moral theology tends to draw on an ethics of virtue while Christian ethics emphasizes an ethics of obligation…”
- Christian ethics tends to focus on the will whereas moral theology focuses on both intellect and will (read through “vision”). For moral theology, the moral life “is about both the will willing the good and the intellect pursuing truth.”
Moral theology starts with the question, “Have you seen God?” to talk about the good life. The law is only able to be kept by those who have been confronted with God. “Moral theology,” lastly, “is the interpretation of human life within the context of God’s economy in which he redeems the world in Jesus Christ” (473).
What do we think about his development (however brief) and contrast of these two disciplines? For those of you doing work in this area, any clarifications, criticisms, or expansions of his thought?