Faith Ethics

Sometime near the year 220 the church father Tertullian asked a provocative question: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians?” 

That question touches a tension I felt in my career as a college and graduate school educator. I found myself asking a narrower form of his question: “What does Greek ethical theory have to do with Christian spirituality?” I also discovered Martin Luther to be a companion in asking that question.  His answer, as I paraphrase his sentiments here, was blunt: the relation is one of darkness to light; of unfaith to faith; of death to life. And I’m convinced Luther was biblically aligned and correct. 

An important caveat needs to be offered before we go on. This challenge does not dismiss careful thought in favor of nonsensical faith. Tertullian was a trained lawyer, philosophically engaged and well read. Luther, too, was an academic who knew his philosophy—as an educator his earliest duty was to teach Aristotelian philosophy. They were never anti-intellectuals. Rather they used their minds to challenge basic assumptions and values of the secular philosophers. They recognized that the human mind is not the problem. Instead the problem is in spiritually blinded hearts that underlie and direct the minds of unbelievers. 

The pagan philosophers assumed that human reason is able to discover and apply moral truth with the result of human righteousness and virtue.  Aristotle, for instance, wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics that, “men become builders by building houses, harpists by playing the harp. So, too, we become righteous people by practicing righteousness…” Christians, on the other hand look elsewhere in establishing righteousness.  Jesus, alone, is the living Truth and his word is truth that sets us free from enslaving sin. So that righteousness is found only through new life in Christ: “You must be born again.”

Luther identified this polarity when he posted 97 theses entitled the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology—a list of points he offered for debate nearly two months before his much more famous collection of 95 Theses. In the Disputation the source of real righteousness was stated in two adjoining theses: “40. We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds. This in opposition to the philosophers. 41. Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace. This in opposition to the scholastics.” [Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, p.16]. 

At this point let me be a bit autobiographical. For a number of years in my early career as a Bible College instructor I taught an overview course called “Doctrine and Ethics.” I prepared for the role by reading a load of books on ethics written by evangelical Christian scholars. I also adopted the text used by other faculty at our college who taught the same course. Along with that I read some secular works on Ethics. Yet after my second or third year with the course it dawned on me that I was spending more time in class debating the text I had assigned my students than agreeing with it. Finally I asked the really basic question: “Why this?!” 

The dissonance I felt was stirred by my Bible reading. What I read there was at odds with much of what I was covering in my Ethics course. So I finally asked, “What indeed has classical Greek ethics to do with the Bible?” In teaching the course I became convinced that what the Bible calls sanctification must be seen as the real basis for Christian morality; and not the more behaviorally-focused content in our Christian Ethics texts. In many respects the latter merely mimic the values and paradigms of Aristotle and others while ignoring Scriptural themes. It was with this cognitive discomfort that I traveled to London for three years of study and, in part, it was this question I wanted to answer through my research: just how did we get here? 

In London I discovered Martin Luther. A friend and fellow-student, Paul Blackham, alerted me to the Lutheran writings after I shared with him the split I saw among 17th-18th century English puritans over these issues. It was a “eureka” moment: Luther had gotten there ahead of me! I was pedestrian and Luther brilliant yet both of us reached the same conclusions by reading our Bibles! 

Enough of my personal story. The real question we need to consider is the “so what?” What difference is there between the two views and how does it make a difference in the real world of day-to-day life? 

It changes our moral focus. We turn away from self to Christ.  Rather than looking to our own moral progress in accord with the ethicists we now gaze at God as revealed in his Son, Jesus. We cease to put faith in our own moral capacities; instead we place our faith in Christ alone. The motivation of duty is replaced by desire.  We follow Jesus because he loves us and captures our hearts. This because we are “born again” and born “from above” as the Spirit of God pours God’s love into our hearts. We change morally as the character of Christ is formed in us by the Spirit’s work, from the inside-out, as Luther insisted. It is never achieved from the outside-in—by building virtues and adopting moral disciplines—as Aristotle taught. Instead we listen to Jesus and what he told the rich ruler: no one is good but God alone. So God is our sole moral resource and we live with goodness only through union with Christ—not through “keeping all the commandments from my youth” as the rich ruler presumed. 

When I returned from London I moved from teaching at the undergrad college to the graduate school. What, among other courses, was I asked to teach? Doctrine and Ethics once again! But this time was different. My course had a new focus: the ethics of faith in Christ. As Paul put it in Romans 14, “Whatever is not of faith is sin.” What, then, is the object of faith? Paul answered that succinctly in Romans 10:17—”So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Christ and his word is the focus of faith, and the source of our moral transformation. 

I continued teaching the course without tossing away the Christian works that draw deeply from non-Christian reflections, but now with a purpose to show the differences of focus between those works and what the Bible offers. And with that I increasingly praised God for his Son whose love for us captures us, and whose truth sets us free from our former slavery to sin. Looking to Jesus as the author and finisher of faith is, after all, the real basis for moral transformation.



  1. R N Frost

    This is an off-line exchange with a thoughtful friend who wanted to unpack what I wrote:

    Thanks for the post this week Ron. So how do you think a faith ethics approach responds to the “missionary going through immigration” situation. Are you a Christian? Are you here to convert people? Are you a missionary? A situational ethic approach would say to answer in whatever way will get you in because the ends justify the means. An absolutist position would probably say tell the truth, even if they kick you out for it (allowing for variations). Another approach might say evade the question since they don’t have the authority to demand that information of you as you’re serving God not man. And faith ethics?

    What say you?

    My Response:

    Yep, that’s a big question.

    I recall being asked that years ago by the Israeli visa authorities as I applied for a 6 month “Ulpan” Hebrew training program: “So, I see you are a Bible school graduate: are you coming to Israel to be a missionary?” My immediate response: “I’m coming to Israel to study Hebrew and to see the land I’ve read about so much; yet I am also deeply committed to my Christian faith and that is certain to come out in my conversations . . . but it is not the point of my visit.” Response: “That’s fine; you are welcome to join the Ulpan”.

    I can also recall another setting, when I was on my first day in a highly coveted Army office job:

    [Sergeant Crawford] “Just answer the phone today, Frost.”

    [Phone rings and I cover the mouthpiece after answering] “It’s Colonel Turner for you, Sergeant.”

    [Crawford] “Tell him I’m not in.”

    [Frost] utter silence………………………

    [Crawford, with a meltdown laser stare and a deeply threatening, very measured tone of voice] “Do we have a problem here, PRIVATE Frost?”

    [Frost, now braced by the certainty that I would be scrubbing mud off the underside of motor vehicles with a toothbrush for my next two years in the army] “Then you’ll need to leave the room, Sergeant.”

    The point is that I need to be a man who lives by faith, which means I am embedded in the teachings/word of Christ as the basis for how I respond in the split second that I’m asked a question. It’s who I am in Christ. So the basis for the decision is, “Lord, I want to please you in whatever I say and do”. So the more complex question might be the WWII situations in occupied France or Holland: “Do you have any Jews living in your home?” In a warfare situation I suspect I would, by faith, have the freedom of Rahab to align myself with the foes of the Gestapo (or, Canaanites, in her case), believing that would please God.

    Faith is not mere pragmatism, as in “what’s in it for me”, but the measure of what I know about God in dealing with a broken world, while having an ambition to live in a way that fits all I know of him.

    So, for instance, Christ’s response to Pilate: “Yes, I am a king, but my kingdom is not of this world”.

    The problem I see with any rule-based ethics is that the focus is located on behaviors, e.g. “automatic right answers”, rather than on Christ. Even if it LOOKS like I’m simply a law-keeper I insist on living relationally. We can even know of some automatic right answers, e.g. our response to “Can I ever commit adultery?” But our response still needs to be answered relationally, as modeled by Joseph: “No! How could I sin against your husband and against God?”

    So the real question, as always: where is our ultimate focus?

  2. Mike

    I remember being in your class and years later I am blessed to have learned from you and Luther.

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