Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

As Rick’s last post indicated, Jeff and I graduated last weekend. The weekend gave me a sense of finality, even though I still have some course work to finish up. It might be appropriate to offer some post-graduation reflections here, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of any. So instead, I thought I would post my (finally) completed thesis, in case anyone felt the need to slog their way through it. It’s about the relationship between theological anthropology (theological account of what it means to be human) and Christian ethics in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The full title is: Life in the Humanity of Christ: Theological Anthropology in the Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I realize that it’s much longer than anything I would expect anyone to read in their spare time. If you’re pressed for time, but you still want to look it over, I think you could easily skip the second half of the introduction (pp. 14–24, the lit review) and most of chs. 2–3 (pp. 25–61; pp. 66–68 briefly summarizes the crucial parts of both chapters). Chapters 4–5 are more central, and the final chapter tries to draw out some practical implications. As usual, I would gladly welcome any comments, questions, or criticisms—assuming anyone reads far enough to have any!

All of my fellow bloggers here deserve thanks for helping me get through this. Each one has sustained lengthy and probably taxing conversations with me about my topic—both in person and online; and Jeff even took the time to read through it (!) and offer his insights. Thanks guys!

Life in the Humanity of Christ

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Approximately one year ago, our former professor Chris Holmes released his excellent book, Ethics in the Presence of Christ (London: T&T Clark, 2012). I thought I would post a review I wrote on it (slightly modified from its original form as a class assignment), if only to remind those of you who haven’t had a chance to read it yet to do so, and hopefully to encourage those who aren’t aware of it to check it out.

Ethics in the Presence of Christ, by Christopher Holmes, is a profound and refreshing exploration of the foundation of Christian ethics. I say foundation because Holmes devotes little space to the practical “application” of his ethical vision (for reasons which will become clear below) and even less to specific ethical issues. Instead, he lays fresh groundwork for Christian ethical reflection, following in the theological footsteps especially of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and T. F. Torrance. He writes from the conviction that Christian ethics must not only begin with Jesus Christ, say, with his teaching or his example; it must be a function of Christ’s presence. Thus the title of his book encapsulates his overall vision: ethics occurs in the presence of Christ, which means it is participant in the reality established and revealed in him. An ethic that does not rely on Jesus as the One who is present, that can make due with Jesus’ teachings or his example alone, is inadequate for the Christian because it treats Jesus as if he came to offer humanity “something that lies beyond himself” (24). It results in moral maxims and static ethical principles which have no basis in the identity of Jesus and therefore can be abstracted from his person and work. This is problematic, because it fails to account for the resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus who is thereby alive and active in the world today. If Jesus is really present to humanity through the Word and by the Spirit, human behaviour ought to participate in his contemporary ministry. Holmes thus rejects the question, “What would Jesus do?” to ask instead, “What is Jesus doing?”

As far as I can discern, Holmes’s ethical account grows out of at least four key convictions. (1) The presence of Jesus Christ is the basis of Christian ethics. This basic insight is the kernel of Holmes’s essay, one that he unpacks meticulously and methodically throughout, with particular reference to the presence of Christ in his ongoing ministry of power, truth, and love. (2) The presence of Jesus Christ is determined by the being or identity of Christ. Christ is not other than what he does; he does not appear to us in one way while concealing another sort of identity behind his actions. He truly is in eternity who he appears to us in time, and he is present to us today as the One he truly is. (3) The presence of Jesus Christ is guaranteed by the resurrection. Apart from the resurrection, Christ’s actions would remain dead in the past. Because of the resurrection, Christ’s presence is an ongoing reality. (4) The presence of Jesus Christ means that human action does not need to (nor could it possibly) bring about a new reality that God desires. God’s will is already reality in Christ, and all human action can do is bear witness to and participate in God’s reality in Christ. (Here, Holmes is particularly close to Bonhoeffer.) The revelation of Jesus thus functions as a “reality-indication” (38, a term Holmes borrows from John Webster), a disclosure of the way things really are.

Holmes’s basic method is a seamless integration of biblical exegesis, theological exposition, and pastoral reflection. His main chapters are structured as follows: (1) Starting with a key text of scripture (in this case, a portion of John’s Gospel), he describes the nature of Jesus’ ministry of power, truth, or love in its historical particularity; (2) interacting with this picture, he develops the christological significance of Jesus’ economic ministry for his immanent being; (3) with this understanding of the being and identity of the Son, he describes how Christ is still present in ministering his own being as power, truth, or love; (4) finally, he reflects on how ethics is a participation in the contemporary ministry of Christ in the presence of his power, truth, or love. Holmes thus takes us from the gospel narratives about Jesus of Nazareth, to the identity of Jesus Christ as revealed in history, to a description of the eternal identity of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, to a description of the contemporary ministry of Jesus as ministering his own being to humanity by the Spirit, where we finally have the “presence of Christ” that forms the basis for ethical action. This summary probably obscures Holmes’s logic, which is really quite straightforward: the Jesus who is present today is the same Jesus narrated in the gospels, so by attending to who Jesus is shown to be in the New Testament witness, we come to know the one who is present and active in the world today.

He concludes his book with a chapter on his hermeneutical method. He argues that Holy Scripture is not a book of timeless truths waiting to be brought across the hermeneutical gap and applied to a new time and context. Rather, Scripture testifies to the living and active God, the God who is active precisely through the Word of Scripture insofar as he takes it up by his Spirit and uses it as his chosen instrument to testify to himself. The truth of Scripture thus cannot be divorced from the One who is the Truth, a Truth that is dynamic and alive. Scripture, in Holmes’s words, “construes ethical reality.” It testifies to the One who is, the One who is only as One who is present, the One whose presence implicates human beings in response. Scripture, in other words, points to Jesus Christ and says, “This is the way things are”—a message that cannot be heard and believed apart from a response.

Though Holmes’s account seems to remain rather abstract and theoretical, it fits with his initial intention, stated in the very first sentence of the book: “In this essay I present a descriptive account of the presence and ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ, specifically the character of his power, truth and love, and the import of this power, truth and love for ethics” (1). In this, he has succeeded. The three main chapters offer a robust “descriptive account” of the ongoing presence of Jesus, even if they are thin on ethical “application.” The application is thin precisely because of Holmes’s convictions about the nature of Scripture. Scripture cannot be “applied” because this implies a fundamental gap between the text and our world, as if we need to take something from the text and figure out how it works in the “real world” (by which we mean our contemporary context). Holmes insists that “talk of applying suggests that Scripture might well tell us how things are, but it is nonetheless we who are responsible for bringing what it discloses into being. . .” (146). For Holmes, Christ’s presence and ongoing ministering relativizes the “hermeneutical distance” between the Bible’s world and our own. The Bible is a testament to reality, and “reality . . . cannot be applied. It can only be heard and obeyed” (148).

This is not a book for those seeking an ethical guide to provide particular examples of what sorts of actions are morally right or wrong. Indeed, the standard question, “Is this right or wrong?” (with its exegetical corollary, “Does the Bible say that this is right or wrong?”) is, for Holmes, an inadequate model. It assumes ethics is about appealing to eternal moral laws and that the Bible contains statements of these moral laws, if only we have eyes to see them. All of this has no need of a living, an active, and, crucially, a present Jesus. Holmes has driven home the point, for me at least, that ethics must begin with the assumption that, however I may choose to act in any given situation, Jesus is already acting, and he does so in accordance with his identity and his will for humankind, an identity and a will that are attested in Scripture and activated by the Holy Spirit. In testifying to Jesus Christ, the Bible testifies to ethical reality, revealing the way things are in a way that implicates me. Ethics is not blind obedience to a static moral code but the dynamic life lived in accordance with who Jesus is and in participation with what he is doing.

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I just watched an intriguing series of videos (thanks to Matthew Miller) where Miroslav Volf discusses a number of issues related to his newly released book “A Public Faith”. He discusses the place for religion in the public sphere and how it ought to look despite its necessary ambiguity at some level in detailing the specifics of that engagement. Good stuff (as I’m sure the book is). I could hear echoes of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics throughout these clips.

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