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The Vicarious Faith Ethic

This post is intended to highlight something of a lacuna in my own research and personal development over the last many years; that is in the discipline of Christian ethics. I have somewhat been neglecting this area, as far as my readings go, and so I have been reliant upon my exposure to ethics (as a discipline) way back in seminary (I graduated in 2003), and back into undergrad (I graduated in 2001). When I left seminary I would have told you I followed what my mentor and now former prof Ron Frost called Faith Ethics which was based upon Frost’s constructive development of Affective Theology, and attendant anthropology. Faith ethics repudiates decision-based or cognitivist based constructs of ethics, it repudiates natural-law based ethics, and instead operates more contextually as it places its ethical activity in relation to Christ and the other, and before self. This verse from Romans 14 was pivotal for the foundation of ‘Faith Ethics’:

 23 But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faithis sin. Romans 14:23

So the ground of this ethic sought to place itself within the relationship that inheres between the human agent and the divine agent; in contrast to naturalist or cognitivist based ethics. The ‘faith ethic’ was more concerned with the reception of the new heart of the New Covenant (see II Cor. 3), and as such operated out of a mode that emphasized union with Christ theology; a participationist relation between the human agent and God. And so moral values, in a faith ethic were not something intrinsically available to human agents by way of reflection upon nature (as if nature is imbued with the ‘moral goods’), or based upon decision-making actions determined by the virtual and moral self (so conceived); but for the faith ethic, ethics are something that are extrinsic to the human agent, and thus fully dependent upon what is revealed. It is within a community who as corollary finds its reality from what is revealed (the Christian church) wherein this kind of faith ethic can be cultivated within the drama of everyday life.

That said, I think a faith ethic, while commendable, and something that I would claim to adhere to needs some further qualification. I agree that an ethical construct ought to be understood as something that is extrinsic, revelationally-based, etc.; but I think the faith ethic needs a little more in terms of its theo-anthropology, and getting passed what Thomas Torrance has called the Latin Heresy. In other words, instead of positing a dualism between God and humanity, the faith ethic needs to be grounded in a theological anthropology that operates from the center of God’s revealed life in Jesus Christ. And so a properly construed ‘faith ethic’ would seek to find its ground and basis for conceiving of moral values in its lively connection, by the Holy Spirit, to Jesus Christ as Lord. So the church does not become the ground of determining moral value, but the church’s Lord does; the church only participates in and from the morality it gains by being in relationship with the only one who is good, who is God.

With the aforementioned noted, how would I describe my tentative ethical position (tentative, because like I said, this represents somewhat of a lacuna for me, which is in the process of being de-lacunaized)? I would integrate the faith ethic into my understanding, but with a desire to better and more theologically ground that in a Christ-concentration that emphasizes that the moral self can be found nowhere else but in union with the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. What best proximates this for me, with the options before me, is what Donald Bloesch calls Evangelical Contextualism (which is based in Divine Command Theory, but more of a mixed deontological theory qualified by a proper eschatological provenance–which I would have to try and explain later). Here is how Bloesch describes this position, and who he identifies with this position:

[E]vangelical contexualism [is] associated in our time with such luminaries as Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Helmut Thielicke, and Jacques Ellul. It has an unmistakable continuity with the Reformation, Pietism, and Puritanism….

This position is evangelical because it is based on the gospel and the law illumined by the gospel. It is biblical because the gospel and the law comprise the central content of Holy Scripture, the primary source of our knowledge of divine revelation. It is contextual because the ethical decision is made in the context of the fellowship of faith (koinonia), and it is related to the context of personal and social need. Its method is from the gospel through the church to the cultural situation.

The indefeasible criterion in this type of ethics is not the divine ordering in nature (as in Gustafson), nor the law of love (as in Reinhold Niebuhr), nor simply the spirit of love (as in the older liberalism), nor love with reason (as in situationalism). Instead, it is the divine commandment, which unites love and truth. This commandment also signifies the union of law and gospel, the divine imperative and the divine promise.

Our ultimate appeal is not to general principles (as in natural law ethics) but to the personal address of God as we hear this in and through the gospel proclamation. Karl Barth put it well: “General moral truths … do not have … no matter what their derivation, the force of the true command, for in them the decisive choice between concrete possibilities is still according to what seems best to us.” Nevertheless, we acknowledge the normative role of the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount, which give us some indication of the will of God for our particular period in history.

Our norm is derived neither from the cultural and historical situation nor from common human experience but from the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. It is therefore an extrinsic norm, one that transcends human subjectivity as well as cultural relativity. It is an absolute norm, but it is made available to us through the historical witness that constitutes Holy Scripture.

Although it is absolute in origin, it is concrete and specific in its thrust. It is always related to the actual situation in which we find ourselves. Its focus is never on an abstract ideal but always on the concrete good.

For the evangelical contextualist, the way of the cross is most adequately represented by agape rather than by eros or philia (brotherly love). Agape involves the denial of the self for the good of the neighbor. It ipso facto excludes both self-aggrandizement (as in power ethics) and self-sanctification (as in mysticism). The emphasis is on sacrificial service rather than mutual support (as is fraternalism). The focus is on vicarious identification rather than paternalistic benevolence (as in humanitarianism). The religion of the cross is characterized not by securing of the self from harm but by the forgetting of the self in love.[1]

Bloesch captures, pretty well, where I would situate myself[2]; although I would like to nuance it from an even more direct perspective that grounds its reality as an ethical option within a theological specter. In other words, I think, as I already underscored, that a theology of union with Christ, and an anthropology governed by the vicarious humanity of Christ within a participationist frame are very important towards placing the sources of this ethical theory within the realm of God’s Triune life and relationship. And this then eludes the problems presented by both natural-law and cognivitist theories, respectively, as moral values are not understood to be things derivable from nature (simpliciter), nor a humanity in abstraction (cognivitist) from its ground in Jesus Christ’s vicarious humanity. Vicarious faith, then, is what shapes the moral values within an evangelical contexutalist model, and avers the temptation of immanentizing ethics in an absolute nature (creation), or absolute self; but instead finds its shape from the absolute life of God revealed and continuously exegeted for us (Jn. 1.18), by the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14–17). And we as moral agents in this scheme, are continuously and being transformed from glory to glory (II Cor. 3.18), as we fellowship (koinonia) with God, and with each other in holy communion.

In closing, what a qualified evangelical contextualist ethical construct will not do (because it is not cognivitist based) is reduce ethics to a cluster of culturally induced ethical dilemmas (i.e. abortion, homosexuality, death penalty, etc.); nor will it reduce ethics to a universally accessible set of ethical norms (because it is not naturalist). What it will do is recognize that there are no genuine ethics unless they are provided for by God’s holy life, given to us in the cruciform shape of God’s life in Christ, and known by us, by the Spirit, by the faith of God in Jesus Christ. From within this frame we will act as moral agents, moment by moment, as we live from God’s life given to us, moment by moment by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.[3]

 

 

[1]Donald G. Bloesch, “Evangelical Contextualism,” in Readings In Christian Ethics, Volume 1: Theory and Method, eds. David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 157-58.

[2] I have read a forthcoming essay by Myk Habets that fits with my consideration very well; Myk places ethical thinking within the realm of theosis.

[3] I am obviously assuming a theological realist positionwhich then by mutual implication provides a morally realist trajectory for the ethical agents considered.

As far as sources for ethical consideration, Holy Scripture has been ear-marked, but only within a proper understanding of Scripture’s ontology within a properly construed Christian Dogmatic ordering of things which is given its best rendering, in my opinion, by John Webster in his book The Domain Of The Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (Great Britain: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012). Here is an example:

Countering the hegemony of pure nature in bibliology and heremeutics requires appeal to the Christian doctrine of God, and thus of God’s providential ordering of human speech and reason. Within the divine economy, the value of the natural properties of texts, and of the skills and operations of readers, does not consist in their self-sufficiency but in their appointment as creaturely auxiliaries through which God administers healing to wasted and ignorant sinners. What more may be said of this economy of revelation and redemption of which Scripture is a function? (p. 6)

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2 thoughts on “The Vicarious Faith Ethic

  1. Bobby,

    You might want to read Volker Rabens’ published dissertation, The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul: Transformation and Empowering for Religious-Ethical Life. Second revised edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

    Diagrams on pages 127 and 128 depict static and dynamic (relational) models for ethical change.

    “It will be argued that it is primarily through deeper knowledge of, and an intimate relationship with, God, Jesus Christ and with the community of faith that people are transformed and empowered by the Spirit for religious-ethical life” (p. 123).

    —John

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