Over the summer, I was reading Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs and was struck by something he said about the moral vision of Scripture. Often when we teach ethics in a Christian setting, we talk about how God created us as his image bearers and how the Christian ethic is rooted in how God has spoken to us through his revelation — both in nature and in Scripture. Most of the time three major philosophical systems are presented for how we might structure ethics, namely deontology focused on rules, consequentialism focused on outcomes, and virtue ethics focused on the type of person one is becoming.
When I walk students through these philosophical systems, we naturally take a good bit of time to ask which system best fits with the Christian ethic presented in Scripture and discuss how each system can have some helpful ways of thinking about the good. But taken alone, each system seems to fail to account for the fullness of the moral vision of Scripture. Wolterstorff notes this point in his discussion of deontology as well as certain virtue based systems of ethics. He writes that many virtue theories center around the early Greek concept of eudaimonia, which is an agent-oriented approach to full life. Eudaimonia is often translated as happiness in English. Wolterstorff then compares eudaimonism with the Christian Scriptures and finds it’s inward focus on the individual lacking as it is unable to account for the outward focused type of flourishing that we read about in the Great Commandment of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matt 22:37-39).
He takes aim at the concept of a “well-lived” life which is very popular in modern conceptions of utilitarianism as well as the early concepts of eudaimonia. He points out that “obeying this command (love your neighbor as yourself) requires rejecting the agent-orientation intrinsic to eudaimonism. Though eudaimonism is not egoism in the usual sense, nonetheless intrinsic to it is a definite ‘me-ism.’” (211) Given how the moral vision of Scripture seems not to fit any of the traditional philosophical systems completely and the individualism rampant in contemporary ethics, how might we define the nature of the Christian ethic?
The moral vision of Scripture, by virtue of its recognition of rights in general and of natural and inherent rights in particular, presupposes the understanding of well-being as the well-going life, the flourishing life; And as we saw a bit earlier, the existence of rights implies that the flourishing life has a tri-level structure to which I call attention. The ultimate maximum of action in the moral vision of scripture is, of course, the love command.
The philosophical tradition has no name for this particular moral vision. I have highlighted its differences from eudaimonism. but obviously, it is also not deontologism, nor is it consequentialism. If we want to name it, we need a new name. The flourishing life, thus understood, was called shalom by the Hebrew writers of the Old Testament, “shalom” being translated with the Greek “eirenē” in the Septuagint; The New Testament writers followed in the steps of the Septuagint translators. So if we need a name for this moral vision—this conception of the good life coupled with a maximum of action—best to call it eirenéism. (225-226)
As Christians, our ethical decision-making isn’t dictated or built upon the prevailing cultural moral attitudes, the in-crowd or prevailing ethic of the day. At the most basic level, the Christian ethic is a transcendent and revealed morality centered on who God is and how he calls us to live. His way of life leads to a fullness and peace that transcends understanding as well as the philosophical traditions of our day. It is concerned more with glorifying God than it is about our perceived individualistic happiness, comfort, or desires. The Christian ethic runs contrary to the prevailing moods and ethical outlooks of the day because it forces us to look outside of ourselves for truth and how we are to live, rather than hyper-focusing on our inner life and the things that we prefer or desire for ourselves.
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