David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham.
The Relationship of Doctrine to Ethics and Justice
It has been a while since I posted on Nicholas Wolterstorff’s books Justice: Rights and Wrongs and Justice in Love – life and work have been busy! Today I return to the theme of “justice.” However I will take a diversion from Wolterstoff’s particular thesis to address a question that underlies, and I think in some ways animates, his project: the relationship of Doctrine to Ethics and Justice. This seemingly arcane issue is timely and relevant because it goes to the heart of contemporary Evangelical debates such as Calvinism vs. Arminianism, the doctrine of final judgment and Hell, and gay marriage.
The question is this: do Ethics serve as a control on Doctrine? Or does Doctrine serve as a control on Ethics? Or do Doctrine and Ethics stand in a perfectly harmonious relationship? Or do Doctrine and Ethics stand in some more complex sort of relationship?
Rob Bell’s book Love Wins at times seems to suggest that Ethics control Doctrine. That is, if our ethical beliefs are offended by some construction of the doctrine of final judgment, then that doctrinal construction is wrong. Francis Chan’s book Erasing Hell and Mark Galli’s book God Wins at times seem to suggest that Doctrine controls Ethics. That is, if the doctrine of God’s sovereignty says “God can do whatever he wants,” and the doctrine of scripture says God’s word is inviolable, then the doctrinal belief that God has ordained the damnation of the majority of humanity cannot be questioned, even if this offends our ethical beliefs.
So who is right?
A helpful sketch of the options can be found in Alan Torrance and Michael Banner’s introduction to the excellent volume The Doctrine of God and Theological Ethics. Torrance and Banner trace the modern influence of the “Doctrine controls Ethics” theme to Emmanuel Kant. For Kant, who sought to establish ethics on the foundation of “pure reason,” “[e]ven the holy one of the Gospel must be compared with our ideal of moral perfection, before he is recognized as such.” The problem with this approach is that “God” becomes reducible to human reason – and thus ceases to be God.
Torrance and Banner cite Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonheoffer as champions of “Doctrine controls Ethics.” Barth famously rejected any “natural theology” and therefore refused to locate ethics outside of dogmatics – “dogmatics itself is ethics,” Barth said. Torrance and Banner do not mention Cornelius Van Til, whose presuppositionalist apologetic holds significant influence over American neo-Calvinists and many other Evangelicals. Van Til thought Barth was a heretic, but he was cut from the same mold as Barth concerning the priority of Doctrine over Ethics. The key difference was that Barth’s doctrine of revelation was Christological – for Barth, Christ was the ground of revelation and of ethics – whereas Van Til’s doctrine of revelation was Biblicist. The problem with the “Doctrine controls Ethics” approach is that “Ethics” become reducible to the pure exercise of power – and thus cease to be Ethics.
As Torrance and Banner note, however, a “control” relationship between Doctrine and Ethics is not the only option. Many great Christian thinkers have held that Doctrine and Ethics, properly understood, stand in a perfectly harmonious relationship. This was the view of Thomas Aquinas, whose theory of “natural law” remains the basis for contemporary Roman Catholic social teaching and also informs many contemporary Evangelical ethicists. For Aquinas, the “natural law” is part of the created order, which flows from the very being of God. Natural law, as part of creation, is knowable through natural reason. But the proper exercise of reason is never “pure reason,” apart from faith. Reason is rather a preparation for contemplation of the deeper truths of faith, which enrich and go beyond, but never contradict, the truths of reason. A problem with this approach is that it can tend to discount the effects of sin on nature and the consequent need for grace to overcome the corruption of nature. (This perceived priority of nature over grace was a key point of disputation between Martin Luther and the the Catholic apologists who opposed him).
It is also possible, Torrance and Banner suggest, that Doctrine and Ethics could simply occupy entirely different spheres of knowledge. In this heuristic, “Doctrine” is essentially the mystical contemplation of a God who is rationally unknowable, and Ethics represents what is necessary to get by in the material world. Torrance and Banner cite the Germen pietist and Anabaptist quietist traditions as examples of this approach. The emphasis for ethics here is withdrawal from the corruption of the world. We might add that some Eastern Orthodox and Pentecostal approaches fit this mold. (There is also, I think, a significant pietist / quietist strain in Mark Galli’s recent books, along with a “control” strain).
Finally, Torrance and Banner offer a hybrid approach, to which they clearly are partial: “the relationship – or better, relationships – between doctrine and ethics are more various and subtle than can be represented by any one of the positions thus far mentioned, taken in isolation.” This final position, they say, “will not simply reject these accounts; indeed it will think it likely that these accounts were founded on certain insights or seeming insights which must, in turn, be accommodated or accounted for in any satisfactory treatment of this matter.”
It probably would be no surprise to anyone who has read any of my essays and blogs that I tend to agree with this hybrid / dialectical approach, which of course must be carefully developed. But what do you think of this sketch of different approaches to the relationship between Doctrine and Ethics? How might a better understanding of the relationship between Doctrine and Ethics help inform our present debates about Calvinism, Hell, and social issues such as homosexuality or the welfare state?