Part II – Toward an Evangelical Methodology
Chapter 6 – Toward an Evangelical Ethical Methodology.
By David P. Gushee distinguished professor of political science and director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron; and Dennis P. Hollinger, president and professor of Christian ethics at Evangelical School of Theology.
The authors open the essay observing that it is not clear that there is, or should be, an evangelical approach to doing ethics. Much depends on how you define the terms. Here is their take. (Heading are the authors.)
What is evangelicalism?
Gushee and Hollinger give a quick synopsis of the evangelical ethical influences and then note:
Notice that evangelicalism as seen in these varying movements had little explicit shared moral content, other than whatever might be derived from a return to biblical authority and careful biblical exegesis, as well as the motivation provided by vibrant personal faith. (118)
Fundamentalism emerged a pessimistic response to the radical intellectual and social changes of the twentieth century. As for evangelicalism in the twentieth century,
…the contemporary American evangelical movement can be understood more immediately as a mid-twentieth-century reaction to the rigidity, separatism, and anti-intellectualism of fundamentalism as it emerged in the early twentieth-century American religion. (118)
The authors repeat more of the evangelical history we have seen in earlier essays, noting that up through the 1960s, “evangelical” ethics tended to be highly individualistic and politically conservative. They point to the rise of Evangelicals for Social Action led by Ron Sider and the emergence of the “consistent life ethic” as a major turning point in evangelical engagement of ethical issues. Coming years would see the emergence of groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. (The authors suggest that these fundamenalist led movements made a successful play to co-opt "evangelical" and "born-again" labels to give greater political clout to their conservative agendas.) The end result has been a diversity of evangelical of ethics despite institutional and theological commonalities.
The authors conclude that holds evangelicalism together is:
A commitment to the authority of Scripture that motivates a reformist agenda whenever biblical truth is believed to be compromised or endangered. …Thus we believe it is best to understand evangelicalism as renewal movement within Christianity that continually calls the churches back to deeply committed biblical faith and practice. (120) (Emphasis in the original.)
So should there be a unique evangelical approach to doing ethics? The authors say no. Evangelicalism is about scriptural authority and not specific ethical application. Finally, the authors write:
Everybody else – everyone who breaks with the classic orthodox model of consensual Christianity grounded in the authoritative Scriptures – should simply be viewed as unorthodox, rather than labeling orthodox or reformist Christians as evangelicals. (121)
What is Ethics?
Gushee and Hollinger describe three connotations to the term “social ethics.” First, is simply the moral/ethical aspect of Christian thought throughout the centuries. Second, is the academic movement that began in the late nineteenth century as seminaries and universities took up studies of issues related to the Social Gospel movement’s critique of industrial capitalism. Third, is the founding of the Society of Christian Ethics (founded 1959) and the emergence of Christian ethics as bona fide academic discipline. The authors note that evangelicals (with notable exceptions) have been largely absent from the latter two forms of Christian ethics. Yet the authors believe that over the last twenty years or more, evangelical and orthodox ethicists have had influence in excess of their numbers.
Varieties of Evangelical Ethics
To flesh out the various approaches to Christian ethics, the authors identify some sample strands of evangelical ethical thinking and highlight thinkers indicative of those strands.
Mainstream Evangelicalism: Carl F. Henry
Henry saw ethics as doing the will of God and ethics as grounded in love. It is dependent on God’s self-disclosure and needs transcendent, dynamic empowerment. His ethic was very individualistic and only secondarily addressed the social order.
The Reformed Strand: Richard Mouw
Mouw believes “…Christian ethics is ultimately the command of God.” (127) But the command of God is more than just grammatical imperatives. The bible gives us a story that answers critical questions like: “Who am I? What’s wrong? What is the remedy?” (128) By entering into the each part of the biblical drama, we can discern ethical imperatives. The “fall” narrative makes it apparent that changed hearts alone will not change society. “Christians are called to show forth the rule of God in all spheres of human activity, not only in the church or personal life.” (129) Of course, this leads to the delicate issue of addressing Christian ethics in a pluralistic society. There is a need to avoid succumbing to the pluralism of the age while remaining civil and respectful of others.
The Anabaptist Strand: John Howard Yoder
The Anabaptist Christian is grounded in being a "countercommunity," especially in the “refusal to control history through the use of violence.” (130) The church addresses the conscience of society with regard to the political and economic order. Qutoing Richard Mouw and John Howard Yoder, “The church serves in turn as a paradigmatic society – an eschatological sign of God’s communal designs for the New Christian.” (132) Gushee and Hollinger note that this tradition is often accused of being dualist and sectarian but suggest that this is misread of the transformative power the countercommunity can have.
The Wesleyan Strand: Stephen Mott
John Wesley said that “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” (132) Gushee and Hollinger note that while Mott rarely uses the word holiness, it is holiness he is talking about. Quoting Mott, they write,
The essential thesis of Mott’s work is that “the heart of biblical thought mandates efforts to correct economic and social injustices in our communities” and that “the use of political authority to achieve justice should complement the stress upon the witness of the church as counter-community which is found in many recent writings.” (133)
The authors say that Mott grounds his ethics in the Scriptures the way most evangelicals do but he is more attuned to transcendent ideas. Quoting Mott again,
The transcendent ideas [in scripture] are addressed to concrete situations of another time. This fact affirms the importance of history but also creates difficulties in understanding both their transcendent character and their application to a different age. (133-134)
Identifying and applying transcendent ideas in our present context as a response to God’s love and justice, appears to be the focus of Mott’s ethic.
The Anglican Strand: Oliver O’Donovan
Gushee and Hollinger characterize the Anglican strand as grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ and more specifically the resurrection. Morality is our participation in the created order out of a response to the gospel.
Love therefore can only be understood within the framework of an evangelical ethic in which the resurrection of Christ vindicates the order of reality from creation, points us toward the fulfillment of that order in the eschaton, and allow us to participate in the Christ who himself makes love intelligible. (135-136) [I love this quote.]
Other Voices and Strands
The others note the absence of Karl Barth from their discussion. They note that his neo-orthodox approach raises questions in many evangelical circles. The go on to catalog other traditions that make contributions without discussing specific content: Baptist, Lutheran, African-American, and pentecostal/charismatic.
Common Themes in Evangelical Ethics
The central commonality the authors find is “a commitment to biblical authority and a consequent willingness to develop ethical norms within the parameters established by biblical teaching.” (137) This brings the authors full circle to their opening observation that an evangelical Christian ethic is essentially an orthodox Christian ethic. They catalog nine implications of this orthodox ethic but biblical authority through the Spirit is at the core.
The Christian moral life begins with God’s grace in Jesus Christ. But it continues with the grateful response of a church that loves its Savior, a response of obedience that is directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit. (138)
I found this to be a helpful essay. I have read Mouw, Yoder, Mott, and, while I haven’t read O’Donovan, I have read others who seem strongly influenced by his strand. Of the strands the authors highlight, I see strong influences in my own thinking from the Reformed, Wesleyan and Anglican strands and to a lesser degree the Anabaptist strand. I suspect some of the tension I have with some pockets in the Emerging Church conversation is the Anabaptist thinking (Yoder often explicitly championed) that is articulated. I have been around Anabaptists of one variety or another much of my life but I have never come to agreement with their level of disengagement (or maybe their alternative engagement) with social institutions. Anyway, lots to think about here.