« Evangelicals have a morality problem »

The question of Christian “morality” or “ethics” is a deeply challenging, even troubling topic for Evangelicals, and indeed, for the entire Christian tradition. In the biblical / theological nexus of Law and Gospel, “morality” as such does not appear. The Mosaic Law (Torah) was to be received in its entirety not in parts, thus, the misnomer of a portion called: “moral law”. The text presents the problem of sin, not of immorality, to its hearers. Since the Bible is so often accused of imposing strict moral norms, is moral reform compatible with the Christian mission (e.g., Mt 28:16-20)? If not, what is the status of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, the Epistle of James and Paul’s apostolic counsel? Jesus is notable for intensifying Jewish ethics, but not in the way that the strictest sects of Judiasm did. Since the Bible is filled with moral teachings and warnings – how does this connect with the moral teachings of other systems and societies?

In historic terms, morals are a matter of setting personal and social boundaries, habitualizing oneself to respectful behavior with the expectation of rewards or punishments. As the apostle Paul knew all too well, the state values morality, indeed is only properly constituted according to moral norms (and is therefore profoundly interested in the connection between morality and political stability; cf., Ro 13:1-7). But political “stability” is also an end in itself where a community or state quickly develops tremendous resistance to moral correction or advancement, e.g., the modern declaration of the essential immorality of slavery or of mortal combat. While slavery and lethal violence have been justified for millennia, advancements in morality (to which Christianity has contributed much) make impossible any scenario of including such institutions within the sphere of moral goods. Morals help to define a civilizational goal but they also are a measure of how institutional authorities exercise their power. This includes the aristocratic construction of social status with different levels and kinds of honor: some are by station or caste moral superiors over many moral inferior whose work and activities are all oriented to their superiors. The famous dictum, “know thyself” from Athens, was originally understood to mean “know thy place” – with all the moral submissions and obligations attached to one’s station in society. Indeed, the subtext of Plato’s Republic is a morality for Greece modeled upon his vision of the cosmos. Morality and cosmology are closely tied in the public imagination and why religion is invariably enlisted to the task of creating a moral society. Under such circumstances. the inculcation of morals is an invariably coercive enterprise. In "traditional" societies, morality was / is the particular written and unwritten code of behavior and attitude (e.g., piety, reverence, patriotism, shame and honor). In traditional worlds, what is “moral” for a nobleman is not equivalent to what was “moral” for a soldier, for a commoner, let alone for a slave. The privileges and boundaries of station dictate the moral acts expected of one. At the point of moral reform, traditionalist reformers hearken back to an imagined historic norm but in so doing, fail to live up to real moral advancement in the present. On the other hand, the temptation of moral progressives is perhaps to fail to live up to the benefits of the moral tradition: moral sensibilities that  are in principle a matter of virtually permanent agreement cross-culturally and anthropologically.

The problem of morality comes to the fore at the points of authority, community and emotion. Moral authority carries with it the presumption of respect for it. Moral authority is embodied in leaders and regular members and responsible others within a particular community. But the history of law also shows that much legislation over time is necessary to provide protection of individuals and minority communities from mistreatment by majorities and capricious authorities. Moral communities invariably practice what is often termed “tribal morality” because of insider interests. This is where moral emotions are tested – and often found wanting. The most stunning example is racism and the historic connection with institutionalized slavery. For American evangelicals in the centuries prior to the Civil War, some of their most notable theologians defended the enslavement of the “black race” as original to the human order and, as Mark Noll points out, continues to disturb certain believers who are confident that the Bible condones slavery. It is conspicuous that evangelical abolitionists came to despair of evangelical slaveholders and their supporters. By the 1830’s many had come to the realization that the capacity for empathy that would lead to emancipation and equal recognition was nil. For generations, the interpretation of the “northern aggressors” was a godless immorality. Was the conflict merely a case of one tribal morality pitted against another? If one hearkens back to an earlier time to provide a basis for “moral reform”, one must be extraordinarily careful about the full testimony of history reveals about moral sentiments.

Evangelicals, like any other Christians, may fall into moral compromise, even bankruptcy, but their reform is not achieved through some reinvigoration of moral duty to state or society. Like the crisis that prompted the Barmen Declaration in 1934, which declared the church’s obligation solely to the Lordship of Christ, Evangelicals must be ever attentive to the clarion call reject any other “lord” or moral order. Evangelicals are called to heed “the whole counsel of God” of Word and Spirit through Christian living and faithful decision-making. The so-called Noahite law (pertaining to righteous Gentiles), the Mosaic law and sapiential texts all instruct in righteous living for Jews and Christians. As the discipline known as Comparative Ethics demonstrates, there is broad interreligious agreement as to what constitutes general moral norms (cf., C.S. Lewis’ favorite among his publications: The Abolition of Man, 1943). The pursuit of righteousness is far more than the achieving some kind of public morality. Like Roman piety, and Constantinian assimilation of Christianity, Western morality does not exist apart from codes of conduct or rational traditions that seek to define the limits and obligations of human action vis-à-vis other human beings and the self. The Reformers often acknowledged what they called “civic righteousness”: pagan virtues that accomplished much for state and people. But Evangelicals are troubled by this morality precisely because it goes against the righteousness that God requires founded upon “saving grace”. In this context, religious morality is seen as the greatest impediment to the sola fide and sola gratia of their principles. How can they answer the call to repent of the “filthy rags” of their righteousness (cf., Is 64:6) and then be told that it is of highest importance in civic life?

Ethics, morals, values, character, virtue, even etiquette, along with the ambiguities of the human condition, its history of violence and its unjust and deceptive ways, all make the question of morality problematic. Human beings often find themselves acting immorally while they are seeking to enforce or inculcate morality. Nothing illustrates this dilemma better than “Just War Theory”. Like all moral arguments, just war theory must contrast evil action with moral action. Whatever action is moral, is therefore an intrinsic “good”. But war as the collective action of killing can never be an intrinsic good. It even defies reason when it is contested as a “relative good”; e.g., in the case of defending innocent victims. But war exacts a rapacious toll on both populations and others as two sides engage each other in violent combat. The morality of militarism would have it that war is a moral good in terms of achieving manhood in personal discipline and the values for which one should be ready to die. Although self-defense is a right and a necessity, the means toward that end are never good as such. But self-defence is not the positive morality we are likely thinking about at this juncture. 

Suffice it to say at the outset, Christianity’s mission is not a moral one, it is far greater. If the separations with liberal Christians in the 19th and 20th centuries were about the reduction of Christianity to morality, the separations to come will be conservative Christian who have done the same thing. After World War II, one of the enervating declarations by some leading missional Christians was that the immoralities of East and West were equally bad. Of course rationalization based upon fewer tens of millions violently killed has no virtue in it. Indeed, many contemporary political theologies find it difficult to morally account for the 20th century. Still, there is a justified preference for the larger outcomes: the end of European fascism and communism. The contemporary rivalries over democracy and its economic forms within a cosmopolitan framework is exceedingly better than the second third of the last century.

Virtually every branch of the Christian tradition asserts that the human was permanently marred in the sin of Adam. Although the Catholic tradition is emphatic about sin, once committed, unavoidable apart from grace: non posse non peccare, the Augustinian tradition and its intensification in the Reformation in its main theologians saw predestination by grace alone as the necessary antidote to the incapacitation suffered by humanity in the fall. One cannot save oneself, only God can and has done so in Christ quite apart from any religious sacrifices or gifts. Indeed, it is this very nexus: gospel vs. religion which for centuries slowly contributed to the separation of state and religion for many evangelicals. Whatever “moral reform” meant, they did not believe in it. Only spiritual regeneration would do and that, by various means of the Spirit and the Word, but particularly through mass revival and the work of missionaries. It is often overlooked, that for Calvin, Geneva was not at all the missional goal, it was rather all of France, if possible, converting to the gospel.

Christian conversion has always been extoled above the political and moral calls for reform. One particularly interesting moment very early is found in Origen’s Contra Celsus. At a key point in his arguments with the posthumous work of Celsus, Origen refuses to offer philosophical arguments for Christian truth: there are none worthy of the one true God; instead, he offers what he describes as an argument from human transformation: 100 wicked men who have been turned to righteousness through following Christ. Thus, from very early time, particularly the church prior to imperialization, there was a conversionist / missionary mandate that cut every which way: not only to convert the pagans to Christ, but also to bind the church to this principle and none other, within the nations of the world.

Paul is convinced that life in the Spirit accomplishes the far more than morality, let alone the law, in vital faith. One passage the exemplifies what he means is Romans 12:1-2, a favorite with evangelicals on the “renewing of the mind”. Being a “living sacrifice” makes one “acceptable” to God. But the renewal of the mind makes the will of God “acceptable” to the believer. This reciprocal reasonableness between the believer and God is highly indicative of what Christian living (rather than morality) is about. Moral constraints and boundaries are real but they are not about the living and the freedom of the Christian that Luther, in perhaps his most important book, describes. Just as coerced faith is not faith, so also coerced obedience is not moral. Only voluntary obedience is moral; only voluntary and faithful embrace of the will of God makes doing God’s will possible. The great question in the scripture is not a moral one but a human one – what is the virtuous human being and how do Jesus and the apostles answer? If there is to be morality, it must be the result of pure intention. This intention must come from the new birth and the desires that emanate from it.

There are numerous, highly evocative passages in the NT conveying its moral vision. One of the most significant is from Paul in Galatians 5. Here, the twin principles are freedom and love in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are set free from sin and for love – when we are governed by the Spirit. Christian love encompasses all virtues and all commandments; indeed, love exceeds where obedience is too frail. For sure, that love is commanded requires careful unpacking. When Jesus claims that all the law and the prophets are to be reduced to the love command: love God with all one’s being and neighbor as one’s self, there is no relationship that is excluded from love as its guiding principle. But the love command has been derided in the context of moral and ethical debate. Love does justice but cannot be allowed to eclipse it; but does love not “cover a multitude of sins”? And then there is the matter of self-love. Love establishes its own way through Christ’s teachings that moral rule making cannot achieve. Paul focuses on the commandments of the revealed law but regards training in it as only a preparation for love. Luther, one of the great Augustinians of Christianity, too radically disjoined “law and Gospel”. Calvin, while much indebted to Luther, perceived that all revelation is grounded in the gracious God and therefore that the Gospel is the principle of all creation and redemption. At the level of church and state, both of them saw its role through a “magisterial” reading of Paul’s relative bond with the state as laid out in Romans 13 since God is the true sovereign of all. That said, however, it is clear from Paul’s view of faith that among human beings, the greatest source of sovereignty is the Holy Spirit governing and guiding the individual human conscience. All this happens of course in community but it cannot happen apart from each and every person’s conscious awareness and responsibility to think and to act.


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