Theology and Ethics -- By: Evan C. Hock
RAR 5:4 (Fall 1996) p. 33
Theology and Ethics
The most important gift for the church today is teaching, teaching, and more teaching!” This emphatic statement by John R. Stott in a graduate seminar in 1994 came in response to a student’s query about what spiritual gifts the church needs today.1 Stott’s remark reflects his larger concern that amidst glowing reports of evangelical advancement, ignorance and distortion of the basic Gospel message characterize much of its new life and leadership.
With Stott, many of us observe with alarm a distortion and “dumbing down” of doctrine and life. One issue striking at the core of this concern is how Christians continue to isolate theology from their ethics.2 This view resides in seminaries where Christian ethics is taught as an elective, not a topic intrinsic to the theological curriculum. The result is God viewed only as the “foundation,” not the source and substance of ethics. Driving it is the artificial idea that theology is speculative and ethics is practical. But is not our thinking about God a matter of obedience or disobedience? Does it not lead to lifestyle choices? If so, it is ethical!
This focus is manifested in the contemporary church scene where “things theological” are ruled out on the grounds that the pulpit must emphasize “real life” issues. But is a sound Christology or Soteriology not relevant to real life? Alister McGrath advises us here on a basic point:
In order for anyone ... to make informed moral decisions, it is necessary to have a set of values concerning human life. Those values are determined by beliefs, and those beliefs are stated as doctrines. Christian doctrine thus provides a fundamental framework for Christian living.3
The problem is faulty thinking about how living relates to knowing. Since medieval times, ethics and theology often existed as separate categories. But if Scripture is our norm
RAR 5:4 (Fall 1996) p. 34
for faith and life, this assumption must be challenged.
The theme and purpose of this essay address the ethics-versus-theology issue through the question: What do we really mean when we speak of a “Christian ethic”? The interest is theological, not philosophical,4 with an ethically oriented approach. Though this starting point may seem hazardous, the destination is not, for both ethics and doctrine are, in the end and throughout, inseparable.
Importance of the Issue
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