WeeklyTech #184

What is the proper role of ethics in the Christian life?

In 1876, German Lutheran theologian Christoph Ernst Luthardt eloquently illustrated the relationship between theology and ethics. He wrote, “God first loved us is the summary of Christian doctrine. We love Him is the summary of Christian morality.”1 The wedding of theology and ethics was later embraced by generations of theologians and ethicists, such as Protestant titans Herman Bavinck and Carl F. H. Henry, who rightly understood the primacy of both theology and ethics in the Christian life. But at times in the recent history of the Protestant church, the study of ethics has been relegated to a mere application of theology and biblical studies rather than understood as a first-order discipline in rich partnership with the theological task.

The aim of the Christian ethic can be summed up in the words of Jesus in Matt 22:37-39. We, God’s people, are to “love the Lord [our] God with all our hearts and with all our souls and with all our minds … and to love [our] neighbor as [ourselves].” We hear echoes of this summation in the words of Luthardt, Bavinck, and Henry2, each of whom spoke of how God’s people are to love him as the summary of Christian morality. Thus, Christian ethics is nothing less than a primary motivation for those seeking to be faithful to God in all of life and live in light of how he has revealed himself in Scripture. Ethics as discipleship is a key theme throughout Scripture and one the church must elevate as we seek God’s face in the academy, in our churches, and especially in our personal lives as transformed creatures made in the very image of God.

While Christian ethics is a core element of God’s revelation to his people about how they are to live as his followers, it is also a distinct philosophical discipline that must be studied in consideration of the rich history of moral thought seen throughout the life of the church and the wider society. Much of today’s discourse about Christian ethics tends to focus on the mere application of theological or philosophical principles, rather than on understanding how these principles have been derived and refined over time in light of the massive metaphysical and epistemological shifts in the history of thought.

Given the recent tendency in wider evangelicalism at times to downplay the direct study of ethics in our curricula, in our church life, and in the task of discipleship, the Essentials in Christian Ethics series is designed to illuminate the richness of the Christian ethic, as well as how ethics is intricately woven into the whole of the Christian life. We have gathered renowned ethicists and leading figures in their fields of theological and philosophical inquiry who are passionate about proclaiming the biblical ethic to a world desperately in need of Christ.

The series is made up of short, introductory volumes spanning metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Each volume can be used independently as an introduction to the crucial elements of the Christian ethical tradition, including resources for further reading and key concepts for those seeking to dig deeper into the beauty of God’s revelation. They can also be used as supplements to a larger ethics curriculum, where a specialized volume could be used to augment a primary text or to give deeper insight into particular contemporary ethical debates.

As editors, we have longed for a series like this to be written by scholars who understand and apply the rich relationship of theology and ethics in their teaching, writings, and ministry. This series is designed to model for readers how the biblical ethic applies to every area of life both as a distinct theological and a philosophical discipline in the context of the Christian moral tradition from a robust Protestant viewpoint. We pray this serves the wider academy, those training in our colleges and seminaries, and especially those seeking to employ the riches of Christian ethics in the context of the local church.

From the Essentials in Christian Ethics series preface by C. Ben Mitchell and Jason Thacker

  1. Christoph Ernst Luthardt, Apologetic Lectures on the Moral Truths of Christianity, trans. Sophia Taylor (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1876), 26. ↩︎
  2. See Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics. ed. John Bolt, vol. 1, Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 91:58; and Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 486. ↩︎