Main Themes Of The Christian Life

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What makes a behavior, a praxis, or a way of life Christian? Is it one that follows the rules? Is there something deeper at the core of it all? What makes something profoundly Christian?

It is too easy in our Christian or post-Christian North American world to think our way of life is a Christian way of life. What our way of life is comes from a tradition of practice and socialization and enculturation and discipleship all rolled into one big ball that I will, for the sake of this post, call American Christianity.

One of the great themes in biblical studies is ethics, so it is to ethics I go today. To Pauline ethics, and to what has to be seen as one of the major books about Pauline ethics in the present generation of scholars.

In his remarkably interesting book on the ethics of Paul, called Solidarity and Difference: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Ethics, David Horrell proposes in conclusion the following seven themes in Paul’s ethics:

  1. The metanorms of Pauls ethics are most concisely described as the imperatives of corporate solidarity and other-regard. [SMcK: put differently, ecclesial fellowship and loving sacrifice for the other.]
  2. Corporate solidarity does not imply the erasure of difference: Paul is concerned to sustain diversity within the ecclesial community, including differences of ethical convictions and cultural practices, though only insofar as these fall within the limits of tolerable diversity determined in part by the obligatory metanorms.
  3. Within the context of corporate solidarity, other-regard is the moral imperative that enables the other to remain different, even in relation to ethical convictions. Yet this also implies the relativisation of these different identities and ethical stances, insofar as they are regarded as different possibilities encompassed within a wider basis for solidarity and identity, where certain moral obligations are incumbent upon all.
  4. The solidarity of the Christian community is depicted as that of a pure and holy community, standing in sharp distinction from the world. Yet the rhetoric of distinction is counterbalanced by the indications that ethical values are to a considerable extent shared in common and that social interaction remains in various respects open.
  5. Although Paul’s ethics are focused on the ecclesial community, there are explicit indications that he sees a common knowledge of good and evil as accessible to, and attained by, humanity in general. He also exhorts Christians to do good to all, by which he means that which all will recognise and affirm as good.
  6. Paul’s ethics are thoroughly grounded in the myth which constitutes Paul’s ‘theology’, the story which establishes the world-view and the ethos he promotes. His reflective moral arguments also depend upon this theology for their content and motivations. Christology is especially important in giving shape and substance to Paul’s ethics. [SMcK: I don’t think it is as one-directional as he makes it; there is a dialectic between theology and praxis and praxis and theology.]
  7. While Paul’s theology and especially Christology shape the substance of his ethics at the level of metanorms, provide the basis for moral argument and motivation, and determine the ways in which distinctive identity is conceived and practised, they cannot explain why Paul holds certain specific ethical convictions, for example, concerning what constitutes sexual immorality. These reflect substantive convictions shared with, and derived from, his contemporary world, especially Judaism.

Horrell poses two strands of contemporary social ethics, the communitarian of Hauerwas and the liberal of Habermas, and has these four conclusions, over against Paul to see what we can learn about social ethics today from Paul:

  1. Paul’s ethics exhibit a fundamental congruence with Hauerwas’s ecclesial ethics, and (thus) share basic characteristics of the communitarian approach.
  2. Notwithstanding the basic similarity of approach, there are various respects in which Paul’s way of doing ethics raises critical questions about the convictions and priorities of Hauerwas’s ecclesial ethics, not least concerning its polemic against liberalism.
  3. There are clear and basic differences between Paul’s ethics and the liberal approach represented by Habermas’s discourse ethics, but there are also notable and significant structural and substantive similarities.
  4. Notwithstanding the similarities between Pauline and liberal ethics, Paul’s approach to ethics supports certain criticisms of the liberal project emanating from the communitarian perspective.

Horrell’s big concerns, transferring Pauline ethics into the public sphere, is not my concern nor do I think it is that easy. He belongs more in the line of the Transformationalist in the Niebuhr model (Christ and Culture). Like most Christians. But I don’t think it as easy as some think to transfer the fundamental Christian ethic into public ethic.

What I see is an analogy between the politic of the Body of Christ and the body politic of public ethics. Where the analogies are close, transfer works; where not, transfer does not work. In other words, structural similarity between diversity within one group and another provides helpful material for a social ethical analogy from the church’s ethic.

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