Can we go back? Stanley Hauerwas and the place of Christian Ethics
What exactly is Christian ethics, and how is it to be understood in our lives and the life of our church? This is a question to which I have started to give serious consideration, and a topic on which I intend to weigh in a lot over the coming months. Today’s post is the beginning of this journey and, like all beginnings, is heavy on excitement and questions and light on knowledge and sources.
The notion of Christian ethics is a modern invention.
This is the contention held by Stanley Hauerwas in his 1997 essay How “Christian Ethics” Came to Be. In this essay, he substantiates this claim by giving an overview of the history of ethics in the Church, starting with the Church Fathers. Like their ancient pagan compatriots, for whom philosophy was a way of life, ethics, for the Church Fathers, “was not some “aspect” of life, but rather inclusive of all that constituted a person’s life.” In Tertullian and Augustine, two of the chosen examples, Hauerwas explains that there is not a distinction between theology and pastoral direction. Nevertheless, he does see in St. Augustine especially the roots of what would become Christian ethics and (in the City of God) Christian social ethics.
This recap of philosophy/theology as a way of life in the Church Fathers should come as no surprise but Hauerwas’s next turn was, to me, unexpected. Looking not to theological developments specifically, but to the life of the Church, he traces the next major shift in Christian ethics to the emergence of the penitential system. The Penitentials, books that aided confessors in providing appropriate penance for sins, “became the way the church grappled with the complexity of Christian behaviour through the development of casuistry, that is, close attention to particular cases.” The church then assigned theologians to standardize, and provide theological backing for, these penitentials, leading to the field of moral theology. Ethics was still not something separated from theology, however, since both theology and moral theology “presumed baptism, penance, preaching, and Eucharist as essential for the corporate life of the church.” This is perfectly seen, Hauerwas explains, in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. “The Summa [Theologica], rather than being an argument for the independence of ethics, as it is sometimes characterized, is concerned to place the Christian’s journey to God squarely within the doctrine of God.”
Where do ethics really start to emerge as their own field? According to Hauerwas, after the Reformation. Worried about the relationship between moral theology and “works,” Reformers eschewed the topic of ethics and focused on sanctification and holiness. Everyone knew what it meant to be a Christian and should strive, through grace, to act accordingly. But as Hauerwas explains, this inevitably led back to ethics, but this time ethics as a separate area of inquiry.
“As it becomes less and less clear among protestants what it “means” to be Christian there have increasingly been attempts to “do” ethics. The difficulty is that no consensus about what ethics is or how it should be done existed. As a result, theologians often turned to philosophy for resources in their search for an ethic—resources that ironically helped create the problem of how to relate theology and ethics because now it was assumed that “ethics” is an autonomous discipline that is no longer dependent on religious conviction.”
Hauerwas then traces the development of modern ethics, focusing especially on Kant and Schleiermacher and finishes the essay by looking to Karl Barth. Unlike his predecessors, who separated theology and ethics, for Barth, “there can be no ethics that is not from beginning and end theological.” Against the abstract notion of “the good” or Kant’s “Categorical Imperative,” Barth grounds his ideas of ethics in God’s revelation in Christ. There are essentially no prescriptive ethics; rather, we must wait on God’s command in each situation. Because of this, Hauerwas explains, Barth “has returned theology to the presumption that there can be no “ethics” separate from theology, particularly when theology is understood as an activity of the church.”
This thinking is not limited to Barth but can be found also in his near contemporary Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann is not mentioned in Hauerwas’s essay, and, to be fair, it is a short essay and sources are limited. But it strikes me as a little unfair, since he portrays Barth, the theological conservative, as the corrective force to the previous theological liberalism (and its widening separation between ethics and theology). However, when it comes to the relationship between theology and ethics, we can see the same type of thinking in Bultmann’s work as Hauerwas highlighted in Barth’s. Bultmann holds that, while they are distinct, you cannot separate “kerygmatic standards of the New Testament from theological ones.” Bultmann rejects a separation of the “act of thinking” from the “act of living.” This separation “leads to the misunderstanding that theology, conceived as the right teaching,” is the object and content of faith, when actually it is only the kerygma that may be regarded as the “right teaching” which is the object and content of faith.” In other words, Bultmann did not believe in an objective theology separate from the lived life of the believer. This kerygma, of course, is not a collection of universal truths but rather is characterized as “personal address in a concrete situation.” In Bultmann’s conception, then, ethics cannot be a separate branch stemming from an objective theology but rather obedience to the kerygma experienced in each person’s concrete situation.
Where does that leave Christian ethics? It seems, at initial glance, that the short period of time when ethics and theology were divorced was a mistake. Certainly I find it foreign to believe that what a person does should be separated from who a person is; that Christ’s revelation can be separated from his call to follow, from his call to holiness. At the same time, I cannot bring myself to agree with entreaties (found in some books, blogs, and lectures) that Christians return to the “holistic” understanding of life as it is found in the Church Fathers, as tempting as that may be. For one thing, there is a simple practical question: can we go back? Knowing what we know, and belonging to another culture, can we simply return to (part of!) a previous way of thinking? I think not. It is certainly not the case that Hauerwas, in this essay, advocates a return to the thinking of the Church Fathers, though it is clear that he objects to the gulf between ethics and theology. Can we find our solution in the thinking of Barth and Bultmann, whose thought on many other theological issues is so diverse? How do we understand to place of Christian ethics? I’m not sure. But I’ll let you know what I discover.
 Stanley Hauerwas, “How “Christian Ethics” Came to Be” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (London: Duke University Press, 2001), 37.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 40; emphasis his.
 Ibid., 41.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 48.
 Ibid., 49.
 Yes, I realize that this is a slightly unfair characterization, as Barth rejected most strains of both liberal and conservative theology and struck out on his own. However, insofar as conservative theology is characterized by actually believing the narrative of the bible to be historically true, I am comfortable calling him conservative.
 Rudolf Bultmann, Rudolf Bultmann: Interpreting Faith for the Modern Era, The Making of Modern Theology series (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 238.
 Ibid., 239.
Latest posts by Robyn (see all)
- I’m A Man But I Can Change? Human Nature and Human Enhancement - December 12, 2016
- The Nicene Creed: “…to judge the quick and the dead…” - July 4, 2016
- Can Hermeneutics be Ethical? Ricoeur and the War - June 7, 2016