Critical Reflection on Christian Ethics from Allen Verhey, D. Stephen Long, and Samuel Wells

Posted: May 31, 2013 in Book and Article Reviews, Spiritual Formation, Theology and Faith
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Each of these books (John Wesley’s Moral Theology, Improvisation:The Drama of Christian Ethics, and Reading the Bible in the Strange World of Medicine) brings up some valid points for considering the wider issue of Christian ethics. First, it is important to note that ethics and theology should not be separated out as two separate entities. Rather, they are intimately and integrally connected and cooperative. Separating ethics and theology makes for poor theology and ethics. First, theology lacks practical application without ethical consideration. And, ethics based upon the “Logic” of people can lack a moral anchor. The end of ethics without theology is the same end for modernism: nihilism. Thus, it is vital that both be held in tension together.

Theology and Christian ethics cannot merely be speculation or intellectual rumination. Rather, like a drama, they are meant to be embodied and lived out in tangible ways. It must combine both “heart” and “head.” As with a drama, we are enacting each “scene” in light of the whole story: Creation and Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, and Eschaton. But, “embodied” living is not sufficient.

Wells and Long both note that what we do is not the only thing that matters. Granted, we must embody the story and practices of the Church, yet those practices are dead if they are not enlivened by the Spirit. Our call is to be connected to the very life of God, not simply the practices of the Church. At the same time, the practices of the Church are indispensable.

Verhey emphasizes the value and importance of Scripture for discerning ethical action. And, he highlights the need for the community of believers for proper interpretation of that Scripture. Long and Wells, I believe, would posit similar positions. However, Verhey seriously neglects the value and importance of Church practices, tradition, and sacraments as viable icons for ethical living. Granted, the Scripture is extremely important. The use of Scripture, however, also assumes a living tradition (not traditionalism).

For this reason, Verhey’s implementation of Scripture betrays his own assumptions, which I believe to be an assumption about natural law. If that is true, the assumption of natural law is not readily obvious to everyone in the Church and it is likely to succumb to some of the same ends as modernism. In fact, natural law became the basis for Deism. This creates some of the same issues as found in the Baconian project that Verhey is trying to subvert.

However, I do agree with Verhey’s basic proposition concerning the necessity of Scripture. Undoubtedly, Scripture is a vital source for connecting our story with God’s larger story. In other words, it is through the reading, remember, and enacting of Scripture that our lives our joined with God’s life in Christ through the Spirit. It is all God’s work. Thus, we learn that we are not God, that we need salvation, and that God enters bodily into our very suffering. Because of this fact, we are invited to “take up our cross” and suffer alongside those that are experience pain and sorrow.

In addition, Verhey mentions that the task of the theologian is to talk to anyone about God, to anyone willing to “hear,” and to talk within the Church about God. I believe this is fundamentally true because Scripture reveals that God is dialogical. Brueggemann contends that God is consistently and continuously dialoguing. In the Old Testament God engages four dialogue partners: Israel, humanity, the nations, and Creation.

God speaks and invites response. Not only does God act upon those partners; those partners can act upon God. We see this in the crucifixion. That dialogue is extended in the New Testament to the Church. God calls and invites response. As we are gathered into the very life of God as the ecclesia, we are called to invite others to enter into this divine conversation.

Speaking, honestly and humbly, is the calling of the Church. However, I think that this is only partially correct. God does speak first, yes. Yet, dialogue is only able to happen with another partner. Furthermore, one only becomes a partner in dialogue in as much as they are willing to hear the “other.” Thus, the community, Scripture, prayer, and sacraments all become vitally important in “hearing” God’s call to us as the Church. And, “hearing” in the Hebrew understanding is really about obedience.

This obedience shapes and is shaped by character. Liturgies, thick practices, form us as the community of believers who are becoming Christ-like and living with cruciform compassion toward the “least of these.” We must always be suspicious of ethics, or theology, that neglects either Scripture or the practices and the traditions of the Church. But moreover, we must really be on guard when ethics, or theology, lacks any reference to God’s character and nature. Without that basic understanding, we are walking blind and without discernment in the midst of difficult issues.

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