Christian Ethics anyone?

Posted: October 18, 2012 by Ty in Musings, Spirituality
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Ancient Wisdom, Modern World

Ancient Wisdom, Modern World (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church http://www.stjohnsashfield.org.au, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Introduction

A treatise on Christian ethics, Living in the World: Christ and Culture, and Living by God’s Grace: Spiritual Maturity (hereafter referenced as Treatise) is a unique primer by an unknown author on how a Christian (by their definition) should come to ethical conclusions in life. The work has a strong beginning as the author attempts to present his Treatise as bias free.

The first step is as any good Reformed Theologian will do, they tie it to a Pauline (in this case Pseudo-Pauline) epistle in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (New International Version):

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking,                                   correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a]                              may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

This writing to young Bishop Timothy is used by Treatise to stipulate that all is God breathed so we may live righteously (p.8) due to the fact that “theology is the application of the Word of God by persons to all areas of life” (Treatise, p. 8). This is one of the foundation stones for the moving forward of this treatise, but the essence is that this is an ethicist from the Reformed tradition that is using the Reformists works (and catechisms) before them as a cornerstone in postulating their own primer (p.22).

This treatise takes until page 125 to create a clear thesis statement that one can then reflect on the past 124 pages and the rest of the work. This thesis is simple: “The light of God we are to walk in is our ethical guide… God is ethically pure and reveals moral purity to humanity and calls us to live in it” (p.125). As with any treatise, or more manifesto the question is does the author(s) accomplish the task of proving their thesis? From summary to interpretation this is the question that hopefully will be answered by the end of this article.

Summary

The unknown author(s) of Treatise is quite thorough in their presentation of how to form a Christian ethic. Within the second chapter they thoroughly lay out a glossary of terms so the reader understands the definitions and terminology they are crafting the ethic under. The work continues throughout the treatise as they take the reader through a history of Christian and secular philosophers and ethics. It is a classic back and forth point, counterpoint exploration.

Where some religious writers may avoid the conversation of bias, the writer of Treatise opens up that they come from a Christian Reformed background, and believes that this form of Christianity is closest to the Biblical (p.35) and that he wants his work to show a correlation between ethics and God’s lordship (p.22). This is the Treatise’s answer for the Christian tendency to break ethics into two camps of conservative or liberal (p.10) as this should not be the dichotomy but one should seek the Biblical ethic (p.10).

This is how Treatise lays the groundwork then to work through the history of ethics, and lay out theorems of the triads to discover if something is ethical, which the genesis within the treatise is good works…the outcome of God’s Lordship for the believer.

Treatise (p.30) stipulates that good works has three parts:

  1. A heart purified by faith.
  2. Obedience to God’s Word.
  3. Work to the right end which is to God’s glory.

This theory as presented of good works then flows into Treatise’s three types of Christian Ethics (p.33):

  1. Command – the authority of God’s moral law.
  2. Narrative – the history of redemption in which ethics are shaped through the story of salvation.
  3. Virtue – this is the inner character of the regenerated person from virtues listed in passages such as Romans 5:1-5; Galatians 5:22-23; and Colossians 3:12-17.

It is this revelation of God that forms an organism (p.124) and becomes the light that we walk in as our ethical guide (p.125). This leads to the Word of God as the believer’s norm that is in, you guessed it, three parts:

  1. Revealed in nature and history (p.126)
  2. Revelation through persons (p.128)
  3. The word as spoken and written (scripture) language (p.130/132).

It is the third point that is then broken out into Sola Scriptura (p.147) and gives us two separate triads within scripture (p.135):

  1. Clarity, power, authority.
  2. Sufficiency, necessity, comprehensiveness.

These triads and the reliance on the sufficiency of scripture is then built upon to give one the three creation ordinances: (a) God (worship, Sabbath); (b) natural world (replenish, subdue, dominate); and (c) man (marriage, procreation, labour) are the basic forms of human existence (p.191).

The treatise wraps up with revealing the three forms of law found within scripture: moral, ceremonial, and civil (p.201-202). From these the Treatise grows a point counterpoint exploration of the history of Christian ethics, that then explores “hot” button ethical issues as it builds back to the conclusion of the foci being the lordship of God in life.

At first blush all seem rather good, yet is the writer as non-biased a reporter as first intended?

Interpretation

When one first enters the Treatise it appears to be something different from the norm of Christian ethical documents with the commentary that it is not about liberal or conservative ethics, rather it is about biblical ethics (p.10). Unfortunately, as the old adage goes when something seems too good to be true it probably is. The Treatise contradicts itself when the author ousts all liberal theologians/ethicists as heretics (p.65). This creates a miscue for the reader of this primer because the unrevealed bias is put firmly on display.

By this declaration, one begins to understand that what begins to form is not seeing scripture and understanding of scripture as something that is changing rather revelation from scripture becomes static and tied to the literal word on the page understanding. It causes the reader to renew what a Reformed Christian is, and what this means for the ethics being put forward, but also for the material that is to follow opening up the history of ethics and philosophy to the reader. The work would have been better to spend time going point counter point on the liberal-conservative answer to questions, then putting forward the Biblical answer and holding to his original statement from page 10 in regards to this foundation.

This contradiction brings the reader back to the statement of God’s revelation being an organism (p.124) as we know through personal revelation, also known as science, that all organisms adapt, grow and change…are we then to be led to believe that there is no changing within the revelations of how to continue to live in our ever evolving world? How do we become salt and light to a world that is vastly different from the one Christ was used to speak into creation, to the one He walked with his disciples on, to the one now where humans have walked on the moon and in space?

The idea of God’s revelation as an organism is not wrong, what is wrong is the idea that as a living organism that it cannot be multi-faceted that speaks to many different varieties of believers in a plethora of circumstances. It also calls into question his earlier conclusion that one can be ethical without Christ, yes the Treatise wraps it in the idea of a missing piece but with the illumination of the non-starter on bias then is this truly a held belief or just one more throwaway line for the heretics as viewed?

The Reformation ideal of Sola Scriptura is a stumbling block for many. A major premise of the discourse is that scripture has all the sufficiency necessary for a believer to craft their life. It is what leads to the old chestnut of the acrostic poem of:

B – Basic

I – Instructions

B- Before

L – Leaving

E- Earth

 

This has created an ethical system of abuse as those with the “education” are then able to create a system of indulgences. The examples are alive from pseudo-Christian movements (Jehovah Witness, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints); to cults (Koresh, Jones) to the prosperity gospel movement. When the scripture becomes the final word, what actually sadly happens within the communities is that the interpreter of the scripture becomes the final authority.

While the Treatise attempts to cushion this with the 3 ways that the Word of God is norm:

  1. Revealed in nature and history (p.126)
  2. Revelation through persons (p.128)
  3. The word as spoken and written (scripture) language (p.130/132).

It is unfortunately all tied back to the scriptural understanding of these norms, which is not just a “Biblical” norm as the Treatise postulates, but rather a Conservative-biblical norm as those that do not fall in line with the narrow understanding are heretics.  This is the problem with anonymous treatise being published is that it becomes harder for the reader to compare with previous writings or teachings to be able to see if there is a central theme in the texts or a growth/change of ethos.

Having walked through all this it comes down though to whether or not the thesis of the work: “The light of God we are to walk in is our ethical guide… God is ethically pure and reveals moral purity to humanity and calls us to live in it” (p.125) still holds up in spite of the unrevealed bias of the presentation?

Yes or No to the Thesis?

It is not lost on the reader the symbolism inherent within the Treatise. The core symbolism presented for the arguments that unknown wanted forward was a triad or “Trinity” as this is what comes to mind’s eye of the believer while reading and looking at the diagrams: the Tri-unity of the Godhead. This synergy created to support this thesis, the writing around the sufficiency of scripture, the creation ordinances, the three types of law that grow out of scripture, the insufficiency of secular philosophy and the inherent heresy of any non-conservative (Reformed) ethics creates a long winding road to an agreeable outcome.

However, this writer does not believe that the road taken is the only way to get to the right end, which is God. For the Anglo-Catholic methodology for coming to ethical-theological decisions is the four pronged stool (the 2.0 version of the three legged stool): scripture, tradition, reason and experience (experience being the newly added leg).            The essence being the true living out of the three point revelations of God that the Treatise shared, while Treatise worked towards this understanding of Sola Scritpura, there is wisdom in the revelations.

For scripture is the beauty of revelation through God’s living word, which is not just the 66 books of the Protestant Bible (more in other Christianities), no the scripture, the Word of God is the living Word that became flesh and walked with us—Christ Jesus. Tradition is not just the 21 ecumenical councils, but the early church fathers and mothers, the monastic’s, the mystics, the exorcists, the lay readers, the whole people of God and how faith has been lived out over the past 2016 years since the birth of our Lord. This is a wealth of living revelation of God in creation. Reason is just what it sounds like, the art of discourse, the ability to think, to problem solve and to be able to understand good and evil (the knowledge tree of which Adam and Eve ate from). As one Father once said to me, the grey matter in our heads is there for more than just keeping our ears apart and our heads from caving in. It is within the mind that revelations happen whether it is reason as we understand logic, dream revelation, prophecy, for it is through the mind/brain that these messages are then communicated inwardly and outwardly. The final piece of the stool is experience. Each and every individual believer is a piece of the Living Body of Christ here on earth, yet each and every one of us is an individual with our own collective (communal) and individual (personal) experience of coming to know God’s love and living within and without it.

Each leg holds up the seat which is how we understand the ethic of God. How we understand the light of God in which we live. The thesis of the Treatise is correct, and the Treatise gets there in one way, while the Anglo-Catholic tradition shows yet another way to arrive at the same blessing. One needs only to ponder what may happen within an Orthodox or Coptic methodology to arrive at a Christian ethic.

Conclusion

One goal, many methods or perhaps one well, many rivers as our aboriginal brothers and sisters may phrase it. The thesis we worked through the Conservative Reformed Christian perspective and methodology was: “The light of God we are to walk in is our ethical guide… God is ethically pure and reveals moral purity to humanity and calls us to live in it” (p.125). Through answering whether or not this thesis was correct it was noted that another biased methodology will aid someone in arriving at the same conclusion. The challenge along the path is a rambling path, but the speed bumps and detours that are created happen when non helpful language is employed in the discourse to reach the heart of God.

The non-helpful words? Heretic is the most powerful. Once that is taken off the table, for to be a heretic is simply to make a choice of one or another (liberal or conservative; scriptura sola or four-legged stool; Reformed or Roman Catholic) and can come down to a matter of perspective. As long as Christ is the centre, and then the goal is to build God’s reign the dialogue has the cornerstone to move forward, the next step is to ask the Holy Spirit into the discovery.

This is what truly shines through Pseudo-Paul’s words to Timothy, Evangelist in Ephesus in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (New International Version):

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking,                                   correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a]                              may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

For living in Christ (the living scripture) creates the right environment for believers, when open, to recreate the world into the Reign that Jesus called us to in the Gospels. It makes every believer not just an ethicist, but truly a theologian for “theology is the application of the Word of God by persons to all areas of life” (Treatise, p. 8). To truly live into the love of God is to truly live one’s life out of that transformational love. A treatise on Christian ethics, Living in the World: Christ and Culture, and Living by God’s Grace: Spiritual Maturity may be from one tradition’s perspective, but when one enters into reading it and allowing the Spirit to move, what is revealed is that truly our ways of knowing God and the spirit behind it may not be that different.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reference

Unknown. A treatise on Christian ethics, Living in the World: Christ and Culture, and Living by God’s Grace: Spiritual Maturity.  Retrieved from https://ntsmoodle.com/mod/resource/view.php?inpopup=true&id=122 on 13 October 2012.

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