In light of that picture of humanity, Christian ethics cannot merely concern itself with knowing the right or good thing to do, it must first attend to being or—more starkly—becoming the right or good sort of being, the kind of being who might then do good things. Grace, redemption, and salvation are elemental to Christian distinctiveness. That the good life might be a vision for the sinful enemy of God attests a remarkable break from Greco-Roman ways, where gifts were granted to those innately apt to put them to good use. Yet Paul sings the praise of a God who justifies the ungodly and even dies for his own enemies (Rom 5:3–10).
Christians do not have unique possession of the ethical, of what is good and right. The Greeks wrote of the good life; today many different guilds work carefully to police the professional ethics of their respective fields. And plenty of other ancient or contemporary settings witness to the seemingly global concern for knowing the good, doing the good, and even for being good. That being so, we do well to seriously ask what Christians have to say that is unique, which is singular, and that warrants the modifier Christian ethics.
This question may seem incapable of a singular or coherent answer. Christians vary regarding their ethical commitments and even their theoretical understandings of the good life. To be sure, Roman Catholics frequently do disagree with charismatics or with Lutherans here. It’s also important to say, however, that there are disagreements between virtue ethicists and those committed to divine command ethics, categories which cut across rather than run alongside denominational fault lines. Indeed, Christian disagreement regarding ethics may only seem to compound as we add new methodological approaches to the historical pedigree of our still-proliferating church traditions. In the face of these divisions among Christians, can we give a coherent answer regarding what makes for Christian ethics?
And yet Christian ethics does offer some common concerns that set it apart from other approaches and that provide it a noteworthy sense of coherence. Much catholic unity can be perceived in this arena of theology.
In the following, we’ll seek to appreciate the myriad ways that Christian ethics distinguishes itself among various ethical approaches: in other words, we’ll discover what makes Christian ethics Christian. In so doing, we’ll consider the definition of the good, the knowledge of the good, the good person, the process of becoming good, what sort of goods are involved, how virtue and command relate to the good life, and finally, to what end the good is done.
What Is the Good?
Christian ethics finds fullest expression in the works of Jesus and the preaching of his commissioned apostles, and yet it is rooted in the prophetic witness of the law and prophets of Israel. In other words, both the Old and the New Testaments speak into Christian ethics.
The language of “the good” does not appear very often in Scripture, though confession of divine goodness appears often (as in Ps 145). But paired terms do appear in telling ways. The Bible, in both testaments, speaks of the “right” or “righteous,” which can be rendered as the “just.” (English splits language of justice and righteousness, but the biblical languages did not have this divide.) Psalm 11:7 says,
The Lord is righteous. He loves righteous deeds.
The upright will behold his face.
The register may be that of judicial rectitude rather than goodness, but the conceptual logic remains telling. “God is this, and therefore God loves this—and therefore those marked by this are the ones who will see God most intimately.” Divine character defines godly will, which then gives shape to the nature of rightness here and goodness elsewhere.
Goodness or the good is not a mere whim. It is not an arbitrary nominalist choice. It is not the sum total of aggregated social mores. The good marks God’s own being and character, which then defines the character of those who will be with him. Herein Christian ethics offers a robustly theological rooting to the nature of the good.
How Is the Good Known?
If the good is defined by God’s own character, then the question arises: How on earth might one know what is, in fact, good? God’s own character is not a simple thing; it is not available at one’s whim or caprice. And it is, therefore, no easy reference point for us to plot the good. God is spirit; he is elusive, transcendent. God is fire, wind, spirit. To know the good as knowing the moral implication of this one is to know mystery itself. Katherine Sonderegger has insisted on just this point.
Divine mystery is not a sign of our failure in knowledge, but rather our success. It is because we know truly and properly—because we obey in faith the First Commandment—that God is mystery. His metaphysical predicate of Oneness, when known, yields mystery.1
Sonderegger presses home repeatedly that mystery is an intellectual achievement flowing from divine presence, not a limit owing to divine absence.2 The mysterious God is known—and, with him, so is the incomprehensible character of goodness. God reveals goodness—the ethical—by his powerful mercy. And how do we know it now? We turn to God’s holy word, wherein divine instruction has been granted.
The whole counsel of God’s word conveys the totality of the good. Here the sufficiency of God’s word relates to the wisdom needed to live ethically. We see this especially in one of the most well-known passages attesting the nature of Holy Scripture. Second Timothy 3:16–17 not only attests the word of God to be “breathed out by God” or “inspired by God” (3:16), but also to be useful to equip and teach “so that the man or woman of God might be equipped for every good deed” (3:17). The logic of this passage is this: all Scripture forms one for all good works. This implies a threat: if we tend to anything less than the totality of Scripture, we ought to expect to be readied for only some good works.
The totality of Scripture is custom-designed to conform us, to prepare us, for all the challenges and temptations ahead. We see that principle in play when Jesus himself faced temptation. The threats were varied: food for survival, authority to summon the divine, riches galore. Jesus could have simply rebuked the tempter. He was divine, after all. But in each instance, he modeled the way that holy Scripture formatively prepares one for every good deed in that he responded to each inviting offer with a scriptural quotation drawn from the Old Testament.
Who Does the Good?
Christian ethics also distinguishes itself in its characterization of the agent of the good life. Good persons do good things. Agere sequitur esse or “action follows being.” Metaphysics form morals, for good or ill. So Christian ethics refuses to jump past the subject of the good life simply to consider the good or evil action. We must always begin with description of the subject of the ethical life.
Christianity redescribes the nature of the human. Humans are good, created by God himself. They are “very good” by his design and play a uniquely charted role in his cosmic order. Humans are evil, fallen into sin in Adam. They are contemptible and accursed, having let loose death and corruption since that primal sin in the garden. Christian thought conveys a textured picture, then, of humans as moral agents marked by great privilege and responsibility on the one hand, and yet marked by tragedy and limitation on the other.