Why should Christians study ethics?

One of the (many) ongoing debates within the Church today centers around the usefulness of worldview studies and how we are to think about the nature of the Christian life. Some rightfully see that a key element of the Christian worldview is having the right beliefs about God, ourselves, and the world around us as revealed by Scripture. Often, this is seen in the high emphasis placed on studying theology throughout the Christian life.

A quick look at church history shows that when doctrinal beliefs are compromised, it leads to countless dangers and a watering down of Christian truth in hopes of accommodating more popular and culturally acceptable beliefs. Thankfully, many have sought to bolster the teaching and preaching of God’s Word throughout the years and to inculcate a love of theology in our churches, seminaries, and on the mission field. Theology matters, but is simply having the right beliefs really enough to sustain the fullness of the Christian life?

Juxtaposed to this emphasis on right doctrine and belief are those who seek to emphasize the priority of our “loves” and seek to give attention to our actions and practices. Proponents of this line of thinking argue that worldview studies is traditionally overly rationalistic and propositional, focusing exclusively on having the right beliefs to the neglect of our hearts and practice. These thinkers are often challenged by the first group saying that they focus too much on the experiential aspects of life; emphasizing our experiences and habits is too person-centric, which takes the focus off the transcendent and rational truths of Christianity.

The relationship between theology and ethics 

I believe this debate over the value and nature of worldview reveals a deeper chasm within Christianity, especially in Protestantism, over our understanding of the proper relationship between theology and ethics. To many, Christian ethics is seen just as the mere application of Christian theology, meaning it doesn’t need to be studied as formally as theology. It is often unintentionally downplayed — subsumed under the theological discipline rather than studied as a crucial element of the Christian worldview alongside theology. 

As a result, Christian ethics is frequently neglected in theological education. Many college and seminary graduates entering ministry receive at most one or two courses in ethics as opposed to numerous required courses in theology, biblical studies, and the languages — unless they choose an ethics or philosophy concentration. This emphasis on theology and doctrine is laudable given the biblical emphasis on knowing truth and the ongoing rejection of traditional Christian theological beliefs over the last century or so throughout society. But what good is a head full of knowledge if those beliefs either aren’t put into practice or are put into practice wrongly? It is true that God willingly discloses himself and certain truths throughout Scripture, but equally important is that God also reveals to us how we are to live in light of those truths. Unfortunately, our lack of emphasis on and formal study of ethics is seen throughout many of our churches today as our beliefs, too often, are not reflected in our actions. 

This confusion over theology and ethics was made clear to me by a friend who mentioned that he had considered studying ethics at the doctoral level but decided on the “real work” of theology instead. I don’t believe that he ever meant to denigrate the study of ethics, but his words reveal the attitude of many in evangelical life. Theology reigns supreme, and everything else is downstream from it. But as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer has written in Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine, “head knowledge, either of scripture or doctrine, is not enough to make disciples.” Indeed, something more is needed.

Studying both theology and ethics is crucial for the Christian life. It also helps overcome the tendencies of worldview studies to neglect the heart and the truth that what we do usually reveals what we truly believe. Dutch Reformed theologian and ethicist Herman Bavinck, writing in Reformed Dogmatics, reminds us that theology (dogmatics) and ethics are “not materially different,” yet they are “formally distinct.” He goes on to state:

“Dogmatics describes the deeds of God done for, to, and in human beings; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of and in the strength of those divine deeds. In dogmatics human beings are passive; they receive and believe; in ethics they are themselves active agents. In dogmatics, the articles of the faith are treated; in ethics the precepts of the Decalogue. In the former, that which concerns faith is dealt with; in the latter, that which concerns love, obedience, and good works. Dogmatics sets forth what God is and does for human beings and causes them to know God as their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; ethics sets forth what human beings are and do for God now; how, with everything they are and have, with intellect and will and all their strength, they devote themselves to God out of gratitude and love. Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God; ethics is that of the service of God.” 

Loving God and our neighbor

This intricate and beautiful relationship of theology and ethics is also seen in the words of German theologian Christoph Ernst Luthardt, who described the connection of theology and ethics as, “God first loved us is the summary of Christian doctrine. We love Him is the summary of Christian morality.” Thus, whether in worldview studies or the regular disciplines of Christian life, it must not be an either/or approach to theology and ethics, or placing a higher priority on one or the other. 

When we focus exclusively on having the right beliefs, we can fail to acknowledge that what we say we believe does not always align with what our actions reveal as our true beliefs. In our pursuit of the pure and unadulterated truth of God’s Word, we can neglect to emphasize how that truth informs our practices and especially how we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). We study ethics not only to understand how God calls us to live in light of these truths but also to see how the philosophical and ethical theories of our day routinely shape our approach to the text and the great moral challenges before us. These non-Christian theories can even blind us in justifying certain ungodly actions for some greater goal or right outcome.

Christians study ethics in order to love God and love our neighbor faithfully as we become more like Christ, not just in believing the right things but also in doing the right things. Studying ethics does not mean that we should neglect to study God’s Word through a theological lens, but it does mean that we must emphasize the rightful place of Christian ethics in our doctrinal study and pursuit of Christ — not just in the academy, but from our pulpits and discipleship strategies in the local church. The study of ethics can help us see the rich relationship of our beliefs to our practices, of the truths of God’s Word to their application, and of the rich relationship of both theology and ethics in the Christian life.