Moral Theology and Christian Ethics

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?

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10 thoughts on “Moral Theology and Christian Ethics

  1. Pingback: Moral Theology and Christian Ethics « Theology Forum « Ethics Find

  2. In academe, the word “moral” is used, when an ethical position is presented as firmly good and prescriptive, or normative. As a firm law. In contrast, the field of “ethics” is thought to be more academic, and open to new positions and speculation.

    Most people don’t know this, but much of Liberalism comes from this side of academic values: it is the essence of academe in general, to regard nothing at all, no form of knowledge, as absolutely fixed and final. To regard nothing “dogmatically”; to regard everything – in religion too – as being open to questioning, investigation, and new. discoveries.

    IF we can only verify and repeat past ideas, progress is logically impossible. So why would one just repeat past ideas … even in religion?

    In Theology, the word “dogma” seems to be taking on a slightly different meaning however. Barthes Outline or Intro to Dogmatics, states that dogma is specially, the doctrines or characterization of God, not “from heaven,” but from the churches. Dogma in Barthes, consists in things like the Apostle’s Creed; things that were not even in the Bible, but were more clearly, formulated by men. And churches. And since these things were not in the Bible? They can be discussed rather frankly, as having been partially created not just by God, but also men; as partially human creations.

    I don’t know if Barthes ever, later on, went on to suggest that things in the Bible itself were also, largely creations of a human institution. Though that view is increasingly popular in semi-intellectual circles in the Catholic Church. Though there, it seems to encourage a new arrogance: “we wrote the Bible,” elements of the Church say. And therefore? It is their right to write a new chapter, if they want. But here, people feel free to insert their political ideology, now, as dogmatic truth.

    Here even “dogma” becomes a field for – perhaps – all too human speculation, and special interests.

    Personally, I prefer Ethics; which presents itself usually, more tentatively. It presents itself openly in effect, as a largely human theory, or construction of God, to be questioned. Not as something that pretends to be absolutely firm, dogmatic … even as various human interests are manipulating the content.

    At the same time? The exception: Christian ethics can simply descend to being, ironically, more dogmatic and rule-oriented.

    Maybe what I’m talking about here therefore, is academic Ethics; vs. popular “Christian Ethics” handbooks written for the faithful.

    Personally, I’m interested in neither Dogmatics, nor Christian Ethics, in the two most common forms these are found say, in Christian bookstores. Both of these tend to be far too …. bossy. Less open to speculation, or interrogation. And therefore, intellectually naive. Both just try to bluff and bully people, with a false appearance of Authority. Neither seems open to discussion. Or really “open to Reason,” as the apostle James called for.

    I am however, interested in Ethics, proper. As an acaedemic field. Where no ideas whatsoever are forbidden; where new theories can be discussed. And any and all old ideas can be – and should be – continually questioned.

  3. It seems like Long draws off of the historic distinction between voluntarism and non-voluntarism; moral theology flowing from the various expressions represented by the latter. Per Long’s description, I would find myself clearly in the camp of his “moral theology;” since ethics from the “bottom-up” makes as much sense as a christology from the “bottom-up!”

  4. Bobby:

    But Nietzsche exemplifies one of the notorious problems, hazards, in deifying the “will.” His “will to power,” many said, began Nazi-ism.

    Or, in traditional Christian language: when you think you feel a “spirit,” the “will” of God, you may be actually feeling a “false spirit.”

    So there are problems with following our will. If say, you are thinking of the emphasis on “will,” as a way to God, aside from Faith.

    Though the Church at times seems to acknowledge our Reason, our rational “will,” as one way to God. Which would correspond to the author’s “Ethics”?

    • Brett,

      My point is that there aren’t “two wills” in God. That there is no “God behind the back of Jesus,” so to speak ;-).

      What you’ve said misses what I was getting at.

  5. This is an interesting distinction to make, and I suspect it is a matter of emphasis in the respective fields.

    1 John comes to mind as a text within which the need to live lives characterized by love for one another is prominent as a command, and at the same time this is grounded in Gods own love for us demonstrated in Jesus death. We love because God first loved us (4.7-11). God’s command for his people to love is grounded in God’s character as one who loves, and is to be shaped according to how God has loved us in Christ (3.16).

    As far as I can tell, the distinction Long observes between the contemporary disciplines of Moral Theology and Christians Ethics is not present in NT theology (atleast in 1 John). The need to love one another is communicated as God’s command (and it is truly a command, not a suggestion or good advice) and at the same time the reason for this is provided; God loves so we must too.

    • Eddie,

      Long’s point is not against commands or against God as commander, but against the idea that “commander” serves as the primary ground of ethical thought in such a way that once the commands are commanded you can get rid of the commander. The commands, as it were, do all of the work. Rather, for moral theology, being confronted with the God who commands – personally – grounds the enterprise. Therefore, this is moral “theology” rather than ethics because it is only for the church – those who have been confronted by God and who know him in a true sense. When you are working simply with commands, knowing the commander isn’t all that important, which is seen as a virtue, because it allows for these commands to have universal relevance.

  6. What I’m reading in Kyle’s excerpt from Long, is something more like … speaking from 1) the heart of a general moral longing (and the will to do good?), vs. 2) a rationalized construction of laws.

    Probably, as Eddie seems to suggest, both are important?

    • To my mind, this comes down to a reference to Luke 24: 13- 16. Verse 16 gives the point that I want to emphasize: “they were kept from recognizing Him.” If we have had anything like an Emmaus walk (Luke 24: 17- 35), really experiencing Jesus’ presence in our lives, then Long’s distinction becomes irrelevant. There is no difference between command and Commander — He is there in our lives doing it all, commanding, working through us to do the commands, reminding us to be diligent, the whole 9 yards.

      But that is not fundamentally where the church is, nor where it has ever been. We are in a confused world, where obligations to act this or that way abound, on the one hand, and spiritual leaders call us to “meditation” on the other. This is especially true in the industrialized west, where morals are thought to be higher because they can be easily identified with an objective God (e.g. the one on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). And so the church has to wade through all of this, morals and ethics, etc. In my view, God is there beside us, teaching us (shall we say) sanctified ethics. That is, making our best judgment/guess as to what Jesus would do if He were, oh, say, communicating on the internet, or drafted into the modern army, or volunteering for the Red Cross in Syria, or trying to get out of bed in time to be at work in a two-bit job that we’d rather not be doing. We must trust Him to be with us, wherever we are, above all.

  7. To my mind, this comes down to a reference to Luke 24: 13- 16. Verse 16 gives the point that I want to emphasize: “they were kept from recognizing Him.” If we have had anything like an Emmaus walk (Luke 24: 17- 35), really experiencing Jesus’ presence in our lives, then Long’s distinction becomes irrelevant. There is no difference between command and Commander — He is there in our lives doing it all, commanding, working through us to do the commands, reminding us to be diligent, etc.

    But that is not fundamentally where the church is, nor where it has ever been. We are in a confused world, where obligations to act this or that way abound, on the one hand, and spiritual leaders call us to “meditation” on the other. This is especially true in the industrialized west, where morals are thought to be higher because they can be easily identified with an objective God (e.g. the one on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). And so the church has to wade through all of this, morals and ethics, etc. In my view, God is there beside us, teaching us (shall we say) sanctified ethics. That is, making our best judgment/guess as to what Jesus would do if He were, oh, say, communicating on the internet, or drafted into the modern army, or volunteering for the Red Cross in Syria, or trying to get out of bed in time to be at work in a two-bit job that we’d rather not be doing. We must trust Him to be with us, wherever we are, above all.

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