Doctrine And Ethics -- By: Alister E. McGrath

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 34:2 (Jun 1991)
Article: Doctrine And Ethics
Author: Alister E. McGrath


Doctrine And Ethics

Alister E. McGrath*

A story is told about Kenneth Kirk, sometime professor of moral theology at Oxford University. His wife was once asked what she felt about her husband’s work. “Kenneth,” she said, “spends a lot of time thinking up very complicated and sophisticated reasons for doing things we all know perfectly well to be wrong.” This illustrates neatly the way in which moral theology is viewed by many people these days. I want to suggest that a recovery of Christian doctrine is fundamental to a recovery of Christian ethics. In other words, Christian doctrine is what sets Christian ethics apart from the ethics of the world around us. It defines what is distinctive, what is Christian, about Christian ethics. To lose sight of the importance of doctrine is to lose the backbone of faith and to open the way to a spineless ethic. I hope that the following observations will explain why I believe this to be the case.1

Commitment is fundamental to any but the most superficial forms of human existence. In his famous essay “The Will to Believe,” psychologist William James makes it clear that there are some choices in life that cannot be avoided. To be human is to make decisions. We are all obliged to choose between options that are, in James’ words, “living, forced and momentous.” In matters of morality, politics and religion we must make conscious choices—and, as James stresses, our whole life hangs upon the choices made.

Every movement that has ever competed for the loyalty of human beings has done so on the basis of a set of beliefs. Whether the movement is religious or political, philosophical or artistic, the same pattern emerges: A group of ideas, of beliefs, is affirmed to be in the first place true and in the second important. It is impossible to live life to its fullness and avoid encountering claims for our loyalty of one kind or another. Marxism, socialism, atheism—all alike demand that we consider their claims. The same is true of liberalism, whether in its religious or political forms. As Alasdair MacIntyre demonstrates so persuasively, liberalism is committed to a definite set of beliefs and hence to certain values. It is one of the many virtues of MacIntyre’s important work that it mounts a devastating critique of the idea that liberalism represents some kind of privileged and

* Alister McGrath is lecturer in Christian doctrine and ethics at Oxford University in England.

neutral vantage point from which other doctrinal traditions (such as evan-gelicalism) may be evaluated. Rather, liberalism entails precommitment to liberal beliefs and values. Liberal belief...

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