Ethics as Theology
Aristotle and the Early Church
This chapter tells the story of how Christian ethics came to be where it is today.
Aristotle saw humans as political beings. He saw the city-state as the unit of corporate life. Human flourishing lay in the appropriate conduct of these corporate relationships. This is politics. Politics concerns the discovery of common goods that would not have been identifiable without the discussions between people who might otherwise think of themselves as strangers. Politics thus makes possible the art of resolving issues in ways that do not lead to violence. Nonetheless Aristotle regards violence as inevitable too, and the virtues he commends are ones that are particularly suited to the soldier.
There are four significant statements here, of which the early church found two straightforward to accommodate, two more difficult. It was straightforward, first, to share Aristotle’s assumption that human flourishing is best understood corporately. Paul’s proposals to the Corinthians are that they consider what will build up the church. His frustration with them is that the stories he has heard about them concern destructive activities that are bound to be very damaging to corporate life. The notion of polis, city, could thus with some ease be translated into the notion of ekklesia, assembly (or church).
More difficult, second, was the character of the city-state. Humans may well be political, but this was not to be, for Christians, an abiding city. The New Testament was based around two stories: the journey of Jesus and his companions to Jerusalem, bearing the cross, and the journey of Paul and
his companions to Rome, bearing the gospel. The ekklesia
was a tent not a castle: it was not built on abiding foundations. The people of God were a pilgrim people—traveling light, on the move. Jerusalem was no longer the focus of the Promised Land; its temple was no longer the place where sin was forgiven and grace restored. Israel had lived by spatial notions of home and exile. The church was to transform these into temporal notions of past atonement and future reunion.
For a people sharing a common journey, Aristotle’s third conviction, that of virtue, was particularly appropriate. Virtue is a kind of power, the power of being good at something—a power that cannot be acquired overnight. Virtues are derived from repeated practices that a community continually performs because it regards them as central to its identity. Repeated practice nurtures skill, an excellence that derives from repeated performance. Skill develops habit, a disposition to use skills on occasions and in locations different from the times and places where the skill was developed. Habit develops instinct, a pattern of unconscious behavior that reveals a deep element of character. This is the language of virtue. The early church quickly developed key practices that became central to its identity. Chief among these were baptism and the Eucharist. The virtues required for a pilgrim people were ones that could be derived from a correct understanding and performance of such practices. A community like the Corinthians who were not practicing the Eucharist faithfully had little prospect of developing the subsequent virtues of justice, temperance, and love.
Where the early church most decisively parted company with Aristotle was in his fourth assumption, that virtue was bound to be shaped by violence. Pilate gave the crowd in the Praetorium a significant choice. They could take Barabbas, the man who offered a rapid solution through seizing control, or they could take Jesus, who claimed to be already a king. They chose Barabbas, but the early church chose Jesus. Thus the early Christians’ paradigm of virtue was not the soldier embodying the love of power but the martyr embodying the power of love. To the powerful Roman Empire, citizens who would not take up arms to defend the state were more insidious than revolutionaries who took up arms to destroy it.
The emergence of the church exposed what Aristotle had taken for granted. Now the character of the church was to be transformed, as in the fourth century the Roman Emperor and, in due course, the whole empire embraced the formerly subversive Christians. This revolution gradually exposed what the early church had taken for granted. The early church believed that its own fragile and vulnerable state was deceptive. In fact Christ had conquered the powers by his death and resurrection and ruled as sovereign. They demonstrated this faith
by maintaining nonviolence, the practice of confronting evil using only the weapons that Christ himself used. The early Christians also believed that they were a distinct people with a special vocation. Their form of life was dictated by no criterion other than faithfulness to Christ. This identity was expressed in baptism. They believed their common life and servant practice were at the heart of the gospel. They believed their calling was to show what kind of life was possible when communities lived in the light of God’s providence, and they embodied this faith in their celebration of the Eucharist.
The Sources of a Reasonable and Useful Church
The new Christian empire challenged these three assumptions. It challenged the commitment to nonviolence. Loyalty to the empire became the test of loyalty to Christ. One could hardly be loyal to the empire if one was not prepared to fight on its behalf; and in any case the struggles of the empire were in the service of Christ. Thus whereas for the early church faith in God’s sovereignty was expressed by nonviolence, for the church under the Christian empire faith in God’s sovereignty required fighting God’s battles.
Likewise the identity of the church was transformed. Far from being an often-persecuted minority, it became the government. Baptism gradually ceased to be a statement of membership of another country and became an affirmation of citizenship of the empire. The church became the arbiter of truth and justice for all people, not just those who by commitment and conviction shared its faith. The church became invisible.
And the heart of the gospel shifted. From being located in the common life of a pilgrim people seeking to discern God’s providence in their interactions with one another and the world, it came to be located in the imperial palace. Now that a Christian at last had the opportunity to exercise authority, the significant aspects of the New Testament seemed to be those that best informed the use of power. Thus the paradigm of the Christian moved from martyr to soldier or magistrate, and the beginning of Christian life moved from baptism to birth.
The Christian empire did not have long to develop these assumptions. The barbarian invasions and the breakdown of the Western empire took away the security offered by a single rule and a single faith. Christian life became a specialist pursuit, particularly associated with those in monastic communities and the ordained life, together with outstanding individuals, including Christian kings. Once again, the assumptions of a previous era were exposed. There was no longer the hope that one individual could unite Christendom
under godly rule. The location of the gospel thus moved again, this time to the monastery. The conflict with the pagan and Muslim world meant that baptism was a statement of allegiance, and violence was a necessary resort to ensure survival. There was a deep sense of a precious civilization that had been lost; whether that world had been one in which the church had been faithful seemed not to be the key question.
The revival of the culture of western Europe that followed this turbulent period was based partly on the recovery of much of the classical heritage. The culture of the church was a mixture of the culture of the two previous eras. In some respects Christian life exuded the confidence of a powerful Christian ruler, a secure citizenship of an earthly kingdom, and a philosophical assurance that the fruits of human reason coalesced harmoniously with the gifts of divine revelation. In other respects Christian life seemed a precarious struggle against the pervasive enemies of war, famine, and disease, and consequently future judgment, promising heaven and threatening hell, proved the greatest stimulus to faithful living.
The great conflicts within and between states and nations that erupted in the wake of the Reformation illustrated the rival notions of Christian life and the rival sociologies derived from them. The new world that emerged in western Europe in the seventeenth century once again exposed the assumptions of its predecessors. The two rival cultures of the Middle Ages, as I have described them—the secure and the precarious—shared an underlying sense of their place in history. They both understood that the classical period was a golden era, and that the more that could be recovered from it, the richer life would be. (They differed over the extent to which that was possible.) But now a new perception arose: progress. Scientific and philosophical developments encouraged the notion that the golden era might lie in the future, not the past. Salvation lay not in archaeology and theology but in biology and geology.
Religious wars appeared to have seriously dented the moral authority of Christianity. But in any case the movement was away from maintaining authority in external institutions, seeking instead to locate it in the moral individual. The seeds of salvation were now regarded as lying within the self, in the moral law written on every heart; those seeds were no longer assumed to lie outside the self, in the possession of one institution, the church. The drama of the universe ceased to be God’s unfathomable forces of life, death, and judgment, and the church’s negotiation of them through the preaching of the biblical narrative and the ministration of the sacraments. Now the center of attention was the human individual, the new self, and the drama was humanity’s struggle to know and command its environment.
When the center of gravity lay in the common life of the church, the Christian life consisted of faithful participation in the practices of that body in the light of the story of Israel and Jesus. When the center of gravity moved to the seat of political power, the Christian life was directed to ensuring that political power was governed by a greater authority. When the center of gravity was a lost and mourned golden era, a valid Christian life could be offered as a lone heroic gesture amid the encircling gloom. But when the whole notion of external authority and definitive practices was questioned, how could Christianity maintain a call on the new center of gravity—the choosing individual?
Many denied that anything had changed. It was still possible to argue that the center of gravity was political power. After all, the church remained visible at or near the center of government in many western nations. But for those who realized that the church’s feast was over, there were two ways of ensuring that Christianity maintained a place at the table. One way was to show that Christian faith was reasonable. Thus there was much work in historical and archaeological veins to demonstrate that the story told in the Bible was plausible and broadly (or wholly) true. Meanwhile there began to be work in a more psychological vein designed to show that religious experience was often genuine and may well correspond to the philosophical claims of the church. The other way was to demonstrate that Christianity was useful. It became common to show how the historical Jesus embodied and espoused the virtues most highly valued by contemporary society; the church could be seen as a community of ordered love promoting a society of sustainable peace. In short, whether or not Christianity was true, it certainly made people behave better. In an industrializing society where the ability of the urban poor to organize themselves was ever increasing, this argument proved very attractive to many of those in power.
These two strategies for securing the abiding relevance of Christianity, reasonableness and utility, share some assumptions. They share a sense that the convictions of the early church are largely unhelpful for informing ethical debate today. An ethic that is based on God’s sovereignty, on the affirmation of the distinct identity of the church, of the significance of its practices of baptism and the Eucharist—these convictions are seldom introduced into contemporary ethical discussion. If the center of ethics is the choosing individual, the theories that will prove reasonable and useful are those that make no distinction between persons and treat circumstances and issues regardless of the identities and characters of the people facing them, regardless of notions of overarching providence or everlasting destiny, regardless of the habitual activities of those involved. In this form of argument there may be a valid place for Christianity, as a system and tradition of thought that advocates certain
values, but there is little or no place for the church—for the church, like all corporate institutions, seems to represent the tradition of external authority, which has been rejected by contemporary ethical thinking.
The two strategies do, however, differ in a way similar to the way I have described the difference between the Middle Ages and the modern era. The former looked back to restore a lost security, whereas the latter looked forward to establish a new possibility. The claim that Christianity is reasonable is based largely on the reliability of its historical evidence. It is thus principally a retrospective argument. It corresponds with the conviction that ethics is an intrinsic matter, that is, actions are inherently right or wrong in themselves. This intrinsic view of ethics accords with the notion that a natural law, or law of created order, has been established, and the moral life is simply a matter of identifying it and sticking to it. Even when all theological reference is removed from the description of natural law, there is still a strong retrospective force at work. The sense is that there is a proper state of things, which has always been so, and that departing from it will violate, infringe, or unbalance this proper state.
By contrast the claim that Christianity is useful is not so much an appeal to the past as a commendation for the future. It is principally a prospective argument. It corresponds with the conviction that ethics is an extrinsic matter, that is, that actions are not necessarily right or wrong in themselves, but they should be judged by the likelihood of their bringing about desirable outcomes. This extrinsic view of ethics accords with the assumption that the person acting is the center of the moral universe, and that there is no agreed moral good other than the free activity of each individual so long as it does not impinge upon the free activity of another individual. It is the task of individuals to take their destiny in their own hands. The future is a land of opportunity that can be secured by appropriate action in particular circumstances.
These two approaches, the intrinsic (or deontological) and the extrinsic (or consequential), are the two principal forms of ethical argument today. They are the contemporary “establishment,” the norm in reference to which any other approach must define itself. The former could be called “ethics for anyone,” since it sees the individual as a universal category, the principles of whose actions could apply to anyone, anywhere, at any time. The latter could be called “ethics for everyone,” since it has a more democratic impulse, looking for outcomes that suit the most people in the most circumstances.
These are not the only approaches. They rest on the assumption that ethics is “for anyone and everyone,” that the same principles and procedures apply to all people in all situations. But as the modern era gives way to the postmodern, a growing number of voices point out the suppressed power
relations that underlie these approaches. The ideology of “ethics for everybody” is challenged by the conviction of “ethics for the excluded.” Feminist ethics, for example, points out the way conventional approaches frequently confirm the marginalization of women. Other voices speak with and for people excluded by race, class, or sexual orientation. Some of these advocates are modernists, as concerned for individual expression as the conventional approaches—they simply want individual liberty to be extended more justly. They accept the notion of ethics for anyone and everyone, but they want to see equality established so this ethics can take effect. Others regard the excluded group rather as the early Christians saw the church—as a minority community whose practices offer a rival model to the patterns of mainstream society. Environmental ethics extends the representation of the voiceless to the animal, vegetable, and mineral order. Sometimes these and other ethical issues are pursued by particular interest groups as single-issue questions. This represents a loss of confidence in the just conduct of the legislative process; it bypasses party politics in an effort to focus ...