This book brings together leading theologians and ethicists to explore the neglected relationship between Christology and ethics. The contributors to this volume work to overcome the tendency toward disciplinary xenophobia, considering such questions as What is the relation between faithful teaching about the reality of Christ and teaching faithfulness to the way of Christ? and How is christological doctrine related to theological judgments about normative human agency? With renewed attention and creative reformulation, they argue, we can discover fresh ways of tending to these perennial questions.
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About the Author
F. LeRon Shults is professor of theology and philosophy at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway. His other books include Reforming the Doctrine of God and Christology and Science.
Brent Waters is Jerre and Mary Joy Stead Professor ofChristian Social Ethics at Garrett-Evangelical TheologicalSeminary, Evanston, Illinois, and the author of TheFamily in Christian Social and Political Thought,This Mortal Flesh: Incarnation and Bioethics, andFrom Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology andTechnology in a Postmodern World.
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Christology and Ethics
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2010 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Incarnation and the Christian Moral Life
The incarnation of the Word of God is the formative moment of the Christian moral life. In this act God completes the reconciliation with creation and its human creatures that was initiated in the covenant with Israel. In and through Jesus Christ there is both a divine judgment upon the sin that separates humans from their Creator, and a pardon that reinstates their fellowship; a simultaneous negation and affirmation of the human condition. Consequently, to speak of Christian ethics is unavoidably and properly to speak about Christology in general and the incarnation in particular.
Yet it must be emphasized that it is not only the birth and life of Jesus that bears the weight of Christian moral deliberation. Jesus is not merely an exemplary figure whose life and teachings should be emulated, but the one who through his death, resurrection, and exaltation is the savior of the world. The Word made flesh is also the end or telos of the creation that was created in and through Christ. The doctrinal claims of Christology, especially in respect to the incarnation, provide the proper vocabulary of Christian moral discourse. This is not to discount the life and ministry of Jesus, but to recognize that their revelatory and didactic power presupposes broader theological convictions and dogmatic confessions. Or in liturgical terms, the incarnation is not confined to the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, but permeates the entire calendar from Advent through Ordinary Time.
To illustrate this relationship between Christology and Christian ethics, this chapter examines and explicates (1) the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ as the culmination of the incarnation; (2) the corresponding virtues of charity, hope, and obedience which these events inculcate; and (3) how the church's worship, sacraments, and ministry form and enact these virtues. Given the broad range of these topics the following inquiry is necessarily terse, even cursory, but it serves to indicate what is at stake in the relationship between Christology and Ethics, and to plot terrain for further exploration.
Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Exaltation
The crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ mark the tripartite culmination of the incarnation. Together they establish the reconciliation between Creator and creation. Although these are not discrete events that can stand on their own — for none in isolation from the others has the power to save and reconcile — each may be examined separately in order to highlight a pertinent characteristic for the purpose of this inquiry.
In the crucifixion there is suffering. This is apparent in Jesus' pain and misery, but more extensively he is broken by bearing the weight of the sins of the world. Jesus, the Word made flesh, suffers the judgment of God against the sinful creatures among whom he has dwelt. In this respect, Jesus not only suffers with humans but also suffers on their behalf. Moreover, although Jesus bears the sins of the world, his death also amplifies the divine judgment against the sinful acts that result in his execution: the flesh which the Word became destroys the means of its own reconciliation with God. What remains unresolved at Golgotha is how this judgment will be rendered.
The gospel, of course, does not end with Good Friday, so the verdict is not announced until Easter Sunday. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ it is not only Jesus' life and ministry that is vindicated, but also the created order in which the Word of God is incarnate. In raising Jesus from the dead the goodness of creation is reaffirmed, and the promise of its full redemption and reconciliation with its Creator is vouchsafed. Following Oliver O'Donovan, in the resurrection God has not allowed the human creature to "uncreate" what God has created. The flesh which the Word became is not rejected and abandoned by God.
This steadfast refusal to abandon creation sets the stage for the joy of Christ's exaltation. The one who died for the sins of the world, and who in being raised from the dead vindicates its created order, is also the exalted one who governs creation and its creatures. It is Christ's rule that now governs the people, nations, and affairs of the world, even when that rule is not acknowledged. It is, however, a rule unlike any earthly governance, for it is predicated upon the supremacy of grace and forgiveness which temporal judgment and retribution have been ordered to serve. In conquering death Christ is made the reconciler who governs the vindicated creation as such. Consequently, the flesh which the Word became remains, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a suitable dwelling.
Although the characteristics of suffering, vindication, and joy have been noted sequentially, it is important to emphasize that they cannot be separated, for together they constitute the singular, but tripartite, culmination of the incarnation. No single characteristic can stand on its own, and if one is emphasized in isolation from or to the detriment of the other two the Christian moral life is distorted. This distortion may be illustrated by observing three instances.
When suffering, for instance, is emphasized to the virtual exclusion of a vindicated creation and the joy of Christ's exalted rule, there is a tendency to assign human suffering a redemptive significance it cannot bear. Lingering too long at Golgotha reduces Jesus to an admirable but tragic figure. Consequently, if Jesus' death is to have any redemptive purchase, then disciples of every generation must replicate his sacrifice in their own suffering. This premise turns suffering into the goal of discipleship rather than a possible, or in some cases probable, consequence. The disciple of Jesus Christ must partake of his suffering by joining him on his cross. This quest to suffer, however, fails to recognize that it is not Jesus' suffering that is redemptive. Rather, his suffering results from his obedience to God that cannot be borne by any creature but only by the incarnate Word. Followers of Jesus Christ are not called to suffer, but suffering may be a consequence of their obedient discipleship. In failing to give Easter Sunday and Ascension Day their due, the resulting moral vision is consigned to an endless repetition of Good Friday in which the world is never vindicated and is devoid of joy.
A similar distortion occurs if one remains fixed at the empty tomb. Christians rightfully celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the vindication of created order. Yet to remain fixated on this act is also to reduce Jesus to a heroic figure who has earned God's favor through his wise teaching and wondrous deeds, a figure not unlike Hercules of Greek mythology. Herein lies a subtle trap: if Jesus can earn God's favor then so also can his disciples. They too can become heroes. Consequently, God's vindication is corrupted into self-vindication. Easter is merely an object lesson demonstrating the power of the will to will the Good. Such a stance, however, fails to acknowledge that much of the suffering leading to Good Friday is a result of all failed attempts at self-justification, and also a failure to recognize that the rule of the ascended Christ is one of grace and not works. In elevating the vindication of the resurrection to the detriment of the suffering of the crucifixion and the joy of the exaltation, a Christian tries to become, following Karl Barth, her own savior.
In focusing too narrowly on the rule of the exalted Christ, there is a tendency to equate inclusion or association with what is good or right. To acknowledge Christ's rule is to place oneself on the right side of history; to affiliate with the victors rather than the vanquished. Consequently, whatever is presumably said or done for the sake of Christ's rule is by definition what is good or right, a stance that is contradicted by history and present practice. How may this contradiction be explained? It is a result of distorting joy into moral superiority. Such presumed and unwarranted superiority is insufficiently self-critical because of its deficient eschatology, for the joy of Christ's exaltation is largely anticipatory. It fails to recognize that the rule of the exalted Christ is an interim regime for the present time between the times.
In short, it confuses the ascension with the parousia, and in doing so fails to acknowledge that although suffering will be redeemed in Christ, that is not presently the case, and it fails to comprehend that a vindicated creation is not synonymous with its full and complete redemption. The end of suffering, the end of creation's redemption, can only occur with the end of Christ's rule. For the end of reconciliation with God is eternal fellowship with the triune God in which the political metaphors of the kingdom of God and Christ the King are discarded because they are no longer needed. Consequently, whatever moral judgments and acts are made in this interim rule of Christ, they are always tentative, penultimate, subject to critical appraisal and reform, and predicated upon grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Charity, Hope, and Obedience
For the purpose of this chapter, it is proposed that the characteristics of suffering, vindication, and joy promote the corresponding virtues of charity, hope, and obedience. "Virtue" refers not only to practices that form the character and shape the deeds of individuals, but also serve as metaphors that shape a moral vision in respect to broader issues of social and political ordering in light of the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ. These virtues are interwoven, presupposing and reinforcing each other, but again each one may be examined separately.
In his crucifixion Jesus surrenders his life for the sake of others. In this respect, it is the supreme act of charity, for the charitable life is a life lived for others. This is the central message of the incarnation, in which God freely gives himself for the sake of creation and its creatures. It is important to note, however, that this act is based on need and not desert. The Word becomes flesh not because humans deserve a reconciler, but because they need one. Charity, therefore, is primarily a response to the needs of others. A Christian, then, is called to live a life that is oriented toward satisfying these needs. On rare occasions this calling may require sacrificing one's life for the sake of others, but more routinely it entails acts, deeds, and participation in social structures and political institutions in which priority is given to providing what is needed and not necessarily what is deserved.
In his resurrection, the life of Jesus — and therefore as the Word made flesh — creation's order — is vindicated. In this respect this act embodies the virtue of hope, for the hopeful life is one that entrusts its destiny to God. The incarnation — and therefore the lives of creatures with whom the Word has dwelt and dwells — does not end with a lifeless corpse. Rather, it ends in eternal life and fellowship with the triune God. The virtue of hope requires humans to renounce any attempt at mastering their fate, as exemplified in a desperate striving to construct immortal lineages, histories, empires, or, in a fit of technologically inspired hubris, personal immortality. Christians instead entrust their destiny to that which was promised on Easter Sunday. Consequently, hope is the affirmation that it is God, not death, who speaks the final and eternal word of human life and lives.
In his exaltation, Jesus Christ assumes the authority to govern the world, inspiring in his disciples a response of joy. In this respect, to honor the rule of Christ requires the virtue of obedience, for the joyful life is also an obedient life. To obey the commands of Jesus Christ is a response of joyful gratitude for the gift of divine grace. Practically the rule of Christ is exercised by granting a limited authority to ecclesial, social, and political offices that are authorized to perform certain functions, issue commands, and render judgments. It must be emphasized, however, that such authority is always limited, for it is granted and exercised under the sovereignty of Christ's rule, and never in its own right.
It should be stressed again that the virtues of charity, hope, and obedience cannot be isolated from each other, for together they embody the suffering, vindication, and joy that characterize the tripartite culmination of the incarnation. None of these virtues is self-sufficient, and emphasizing one at the expense of the others distorts the Christian moral life. This distortion may again be illustrated by noting three instances.
When charity is sequestered away from hope and obedience, it may be corrupted into self-aggrandizement. A life lived for others is turned around and becomes a life lived for oneself, for the giving of oneself becomes an end itself rather than a means. Giving is effectively disfigured into receiving, for meeting the needs of others becomes the way of meeting one's own need to give. The giver draws attention to herself rather than the beneficiary, and more importantly diverts attention away from the one in whose name the charitable act is performed. What this stance fails to recognize is that the charitable act should not draw attention to the giver but to the one who commands that the gift be given. The charitable life, in short, is one that bears witness to Jesus Christ whose life was given to and for the sake of others. The needs of others are thereby satisfied in the hope of Christ's destiny, and in obedience to Christ's rule. When the virtue of charity is not tempered by the virtues of hope and obedience, a life for others becomes a life of self-justification. Somewhat like the suffering examined in the previous section, ends and means are transposed: suffering is sought for its own sake; one gives in order to receive. What remains unacknowledged is that Jesus' crucifixion is not only an act of charity, but also an act of hope and obedience.
When the virtue of hope is disentangled from the virtues of charity and obedience it may mutate into the vice of indifference. When one becomes fixated on a vindicated creation that is destined for a full redemption that lies beyond temporal and finite existence, worldly concerns are diminished. In its most extreme form such indifference is exhibited in a nihilism in which the moral categories of good and evil are rendered irrelevant. More prevalent, however, is an outlook that effectively replaces Jesus Christ as the proper object of hope with a projected desire of one's own making. Hope is not placed in a judge, savior, and reconciler that awaits creation and its creatures at the end of time, but in one's own timely efforts to achieve salvation and reconciliation on one's own terms, and in ways that try to evade divine judgment against those very efforts. This amounts to little more than a strategy to avoid suffering and undercut the authority of Christ's rule.
Charity is not so much an act to satisfy the needs of others as a calculated gesture of benevolence to protect the giver from potential suffering that may result from social unrest, and obedience is reduced to an expedient ploy to comply with commands and expectations that are seen to be based on raw power rather than lawful authority. A morality based predominantly upon hope is ineffectual, for it cannot recognize the origin and end of genuine hope, and therefore cannot align itself properly with the destiny of a vindicated creation. What remains unacknowledged is that the resurrection is the result of suffering and charity, and the prerequisite of joyful obedience.
When the virtue of obedience is emphasized to the diminishment of the virtues of charity and hope, it can be reduced to a slavish devotion to powers and principalities claiming a loyalty that is properly reserved to God alone. In short, obedience is distorted into idolatry. As was mentioned above, under the rule of Christ social and political structures have been granted a limited authority to govern creation in the time between the times. Consequently, Christians should joyfully respect, honor, and obey lawful commands that promote peace and justice. Yet as was also stressed, under the rule of Christ all earthly authority is limited. Consequently, Christians must also withhold their obedience from commands that clearly contradict or contravene the commands of Jesus Christ.
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Table of Contents
Prologue F. LeRon Shults....................1
1. The Incarnation and the Christian Moral Life Brent Waters....................5
2. "Where Christ Is": Christology and Ethics John Webster....................32
3. Trinity, Christology, and Community Kathryn Tanner....................56
4. The Whole Christ and the Whole Human Being: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Inspiration for the "Christology and Ethics" Discourse Bernd Wannenwetsch....................75
5. Forgiveness as New Creation: Christ and the Moral Life Revisited Lois Malcolm....................99
6. The Surprise of Judgment and Justice Jan-Olav Henriksen....................127
7. Should We Do What Jesus Did? Evolutionary Perspectives on Christology and Ethics J. Wentzel van Huyssteen....................149
8. The Philosophical Turn to Alterity in Christology and Ethics F. LeRon Shults....................179
Epilogue Brent Waters....................212
INDEX OF SUBJECTS AND NAMES....................217
INDEX OF SCRIPTURE REFERENCES....................222