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April 1980 · Vol. 9 No. 2 · pp. 32–37 

Issues in Christian Ethics Methodology: A Bibliographic Essay

LeRoy Friesen

In his Reason and Conduct 1 Henry David Aiken outlines what he calls “the four levels of moral discourse.” The first level is the “emotive,” the simple registering of feelings without reflection. The exclamation “O good!” is an example. The second level is the “moral” and includes a reflective dimension. “What ought I do?” or “What sort of person should I be in this situation?” are examples of the moral level. The third level is the “ethical” and involves the analyzing and validating of reasons cited in support of certain moral concerns or actions. The ethical thus involves reflection on moral reflection. The fourth level is the “postethical” and seeks to isolate what Ian T. Ramsey terms the “irreducible posit” of ethical thought. “Why be moral at all?” is the central question at this level.

This essay is a bibliographical study of several issues being discussed regarding the manner in which Christians are or ought to be making moral decisions. It by-passes almost entirely the emotive and moral levels, focusing on the ethical and, to a lesser extent, the postethical (or meta-ethical). The literature cited is primarily that of mainstream protestant ethicists in North America although infrequent reference is made to Catholic contributions to the discussion as well. The material cited is highly selective because of the brevity of the essay.


The first issue has to do with the role of the Scriptures in the task of Christian ethics. If, as Birch and Rasmussen contend, there is an emerging consensus between biblical scholars and Christian ethicists that the Bible is somehow normative, 2 what is the nature of that authority? In a 1965 article Edward Leroy Long established a typology of what he sees as the basic response to that question. 3 There is, first of all, the “prescriptive” approach in which the Scriptures are viewed as a book of law. John Wycliffe, John Calvin, the Anabaptists in general, {33} Charles Sheldon, Carl F.H. Henry, and C.H. Dodd are cited as examples of this approach.

A second way of using the Scriptures in Christian ethics is designated by Long as the “deliberative.” Harnack, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Ramsey, and the natural law tradition in Christian ethics are cited as examples of the articulating of the biblical norm in terms of philosophical categories. Such a view presupposes a certain compatibility between biblical teaching and man’s rational understandings.

A third type of Scripture use in Christian ethics cited by Long is one of “relation” or “response.” It views biblical morality as centered in Yahweh’s covenant relationship with his people. Faithfulness consisted of responding to Yahweh in relationship rather than conforming to prescriptive laws or principled categories. G. Von Rad and J. Muilenburg are cited as biblical scholars emphasizing such an approach to the Scriptures; Paul Lehmann, T.W. Manson, and Joseph Sittler are among the ethicists committed to working out the implications of such a view of Scripture for the life of the church. In his essay, and in particular in his later book, 4 Long refuses to identify with any of these three types, proposing rather a kind of “complementarity,” a recognition that the integrity of both Scripture and the discipline of Christian ethics requires an openness to the exercising of all three motifs.

In their Decision Making and the Bible H. Edward Everding and Dana W. Wilbanks, a New Testament scholar and Christian ethicist respectively, delineate three uses of the Scriptures similar to those outlined by Long: Rule, Rationalization, and Response. Dismissed as inadequate, however, are the Rule approach (the person abdicates responsibility) and Rationalization approach (ethical direction obtained elsewhere is read into the Scriptures), with most of the book devoted to the Response approach, a kind of rhythmic dialogue between the self, on the one hand, and both the Bible and the situation on the other. Everding and Wilbanks see four ingredients in this dialogue: 1) the centrality of faith, 2) images of God and human responsibility, 3) communal context, and 4) concrete response. The author’s discussion of this second ingredient, biblical images and pictures of God which shape the self confronting moral issues, is the principal contribution of the book. “The Bible does not prescribe rules or preach ideals so much as it provides pictures of decisions and actions that are faithful to the way God relates to us.” 5 “The primary thrust of the Response style is to suggest that the Bible has the capacity to shape who we are and the way we see and respond to situations of decision.” 6

Everding and Wilbanks’ emphasis is thus more upon the rule of the Scriptures as shaper of moral character than as guide for moral behavior. Such an emphasis emerged in certain protestant Christian ethics literature in North America only in the 1970’s. Earlier writings {34} were largely preoccupied with decision making in concrete moral situations, leaving to Catholic moral theology the field of the ethics of being. During the mid-1970’s, however, major works appeared by Stanley Hauerwas 7 and James M. Gustafson 8 which, together with the books by Birch and Rasmussen as well as Everding and Wilbanks, emphasized in varying degrees the function of Scripture as more unambiguously related to the ethics of being than the ethics of doing. 9

The thought of Gustafson regarding the function of Scripture in Christian ethics merits further examination. In an essay entitled “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics: A Methodological Study” Gustafson dismisses as inadequate the reading of Scripture merely as moral law, ideal, or analogy in favor of a much more encompassing recognition of the great variety of biblical norms, principles, precepts, images, parables, and paradigms which shape, qualify, and inform the character and actions of both the individual Christian and his community. 10 Or, in the concluding words of his essay “The Relation of the Gospels to the Moral Life,” “. . . the Gospels provide paradigms of action, intention, and disposition which flow into and inform the manner of life, the bearing toward one another, that arises from and is worthy of the gospel.” 11

The discussion regarding the hermeneutical linkages between biblical studies and Christian theology-ethics focuses finally on the question as to how Jesus is understood. The definitive work here is Gustafson’s Christ and the Moral Life 12 which combines historical analysis and constructive statement. Jesus Christ, contends Gustafson, tends to be viewed in terms of one of the following motifs or, in the words of Everding and Wilbanks, “images”: 1) the Lord Who Is Creator and Redeemer, 2) the Sanctifier, 3) the Justifier, 4) the Pattern, or 5) the Teacher. It is apparent that several of these images are oriented more toward “the good person,” several more toward “the right action.” Gustafson’s own statement regarding how Christians should view Jesus Christ is predictably inclusive. A work which struggles with the same question is Richard H. Hiers’ Jesus and Ethics: Four Interpretations. 13 He examines varying appraisals of the impact of Jesus’ eschatology on the meaning of his ethics for today.

Additional studies of the role of Scripture in Christian ethics have been done by Allen Verhey, 14 C. Freeman Sleeper, 15 Charles E. Curran, 16 David Kelsey, 17 Hendrik Kraemer, 18 Jack T. Sanders, 19 and Jose Miguez Bonino. 20


A second issue to be touched upon here is that of the role of the Christian community in the task of Christian ethics. The publication in 1963 of Paul L. Lehmann’s prophetic Ethics in a Christian Context 21 stands out in a decade of Christian ethics literature which remained individualistic {35} in emphasis. A somewhat greater receptivity to the communitarian dimensions of ethics developed in the 1970’s. Both Everding and Wilbanks as well as Birch and Rasmussen examine the role of the Christian community at some length in their discussions of the relationship between biblical studies and Christian ethics. Birch and Rasmussen suggest three ways in which the church ought to function as “the chief community context for Christian ethics”: 1) as shaper of moral identity, 2) as bearer of moral tradition, and 3) as community of moral deliberation and decison. 22 It is in the first two of these areas that the church functions as custodian and nurturer of the “images” which profoundly shape the moral character of both the community and the individual.

But what about the Christian community as the context for the making of concrete moral decisions? Although the ethicist Gustafson wrote an early book on the church 23 and entitled his 1971 collection of essays Christian Ethics and the Community, 24 he has little to say about the church in a “binding and loosing” capacity. Although Paul Lehmann stops short of a fully-developed view of the church in such a role, he establishes the theological foundation from which it can be inferred: “We might say, therefore, that Christian ethics is koinonia ethics. This means that it is from, and in, the koinonia that we get the answer to the question: “What am I, as a believer in Jesus Christ and as a member of his church, to do?” 25

It has remained for Mennonites to make a significant contribution regarding the church as the setting for moral decision making. In his 1967 essay entitled “Binding and Loosing,” John H. Yoder developed an ecclesiology which has towering implications for moral decision making: in Jesus Christ God has brought into being a new, alternative community to which authority has been given to forbid and forgive in the name of God himself. 26 Helpful articles of a similar nature have been contributed by J. Lawrence Burkholder 27 and Leland Harder 28 in addition to Franklin H. Littell. 29


The third issue of this essay, that of the role of extra-biblical insight in Christian ethics, can only be touched upon. The last fifty years have witnessed widely divergent views on this question. Those strongly influenced by the writings of Karl Barth, for example, have rejected the validity of natural law and moral philosophy, thus restricting the ingredients of the moral life to those factors directly dependent upon biblical revelation. At the other extreme is a scholar like Jack T. Sanders who in his Ethics in the New Testament contends that man is free from the bondage of finding in the Bible a coherent ethical position and is thus able to give priority to the humane and the right over tradition and precedent. 30 Between these two poles are a wide variety of positions calling for some degree of acknowledgement of both revelational and {36} natural truth. In his important essay, “Context Versus Principles: A Misplaced Debate in Christian Ethics,” Gustafson defined four base points in Christian moral discourse: social or situational analysis, fundamental theological affirmations, moral principles, and the Christian’s life in Christ. “Christian ethics can and does begin from at least four base points, and no matter which one is primary for a particular theologian, he moves toward the other three as he extends his moral discourse within a Christian frame of reference.” 31

The view restricting ethical direction to the Scriptures or some other sacred realm to the exclusion of other realms is nowhere as powerfully critiqued as by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the essay contained in his Ethics entitled “Thinking in Terms of Two Spheres”:

Ethical thinking in terms of spheres, then, is invalidated by faith in the revelation of the ultimate reality in Jesus Christ, and this means that there is no real possibility of being a Christian outside the reality of the world and that there is no real worldly existence outside the reality of Jesus Christ. . . . Whoever professes to believe in the reality of Jesus Christ, as the revelation of God, must in the same breath profess his faith in both the reality of God and the reality of the world; for in Christ he finds God and the world reconciled. 32


  1. Henry David Aiken, Reason and Conduct (New York: Knopf, 1962), pp. 65 ff.
  2. Bruce C. Birch and Larry L Rasmussen, The Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), pp. 45-46. Birch is an Old Testament scholar, Rasmussen a Christian ethicist.
  3. Edward Leroy Long, Jr., “The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics,” Interpretation, 19/2 (1965), 149-62.
  4. Edward Leroy Long, Jr., A Survey of Christian Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).
  5. H. Edward Everding, Jr. and Dana W. Wilbanks, Decision Making and the Bible (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1975), p. 49.
  6. Everding and Wilbanks, p. 151, emphasis added.
  7. See Stanley Hauerwas’ Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theological Ethics (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1975) and Vision and Virtue (Notre Dame: Fides, 1974).
  8. James M. Gustafson in his Can Ethics Be Christian? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975) devotes a major section to the formation of the moral agent, the “sort of person” one is.
  9. See William K. Frankena’s Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973) for a discussion of the ethics of virtue and the ethics of obligation in philosophical ethics. The current growth of interest in moral formation among Christian ethicists cannot be understood apart from reading the psychologists Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and Erik Erikson. Ronald Duska and Mariellen Whelan’s Moral Development: A Guide to Piaget and Kohlberg (New York: Paulist Press, 1975) is an adequate introduction.
  10. James M. Gustafson, “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics: A Methodological {37} Study,” Interpretation, 24/4 (October, 1970), 430-55. This essay is reprinted in Gustafson’s Theology and Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1974), 121-45. See also his “From Scripture to Social Policy and Social Action,” Andover Newton Quarterly, 9/3 (1969), 160-69.
  11. Gustafson, Theology and Christian Ethics, p. 159.
  12. James M. Gustafson, Christ and the Moral Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).
  13. Richard H. Hiers, Jesus and Ethics: Four Interpretations (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968).
  14. Allen Verhey, “The Use of Scripture in Ethics,” Religious Studies Review, 4/1 (January, 1978), 28-39.
  15. C. Freeman Sleeper, “Ethics as a Context for Biblical Interpretation,” Interpretation, 22/4 (October, 1968), 443-60, “Language and Ethics in Biblical Interpretation,” Journal of Religion, 48/3 (1968), 288-310.
  16. Charles E. Curran, “Dialogue with the Scriptures: The Role and Function of Scriptures in Moral Theology” in his Catholic Moral Theology in Dialogue (Notre Dame: Fides, 1972), pp. 24-64.
  17. David Kelsey, Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).
  18. Hendrik Kraemer, The Bible and Social Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965).
  19. Jack T. Sanders, Ethics in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).
  20. Jose Miguez Bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975). In his chapter entitled “Hermeneutics, Truth and Praxis” (pp. 86-105) Bonino sets forth a disturbing hermeneutic of interpreting the Scriptures from the perspective of concrete identification with the oppressed. See also Gustavo Gutierrez’ A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1973).
  21. Paul L. Lehmann, Ethics in a Christian Context (New York: Harper & Row, 1963).
  22. See the chapter entitled “The Church as Community Context” (pp. 125-41) in Birch and Rasmussen’s Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life.
  23. James M. Gustafson, Treasure in Earthen Vessels: The Church as a Human Community (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).
  24. James M. Gustafson, Christian Ethics and the Community (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1971).
  25. Lehmann, Ethics in a Christian Context. Lehmann’s most recent major work entitled The Transfiguration of Politics (New York: Harper & Row, 1975) deals with the relationship between Christian ethics and the larger human community.
  26. John H. Yoder, “Binding and Loosing,” Concern, pamphlet No. 14 (February, 1967), pp. 2-32. Aspects of this view of the church are present in Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) and “The Biblical Mandate” (Ron Sider, ed.), The Chicago Declaration (Creation House, 1974), pp. 88-116.
  27. J. Lawrence Burkholder, “The Peace Churches as Communities of Discernment,” Christian Century, 4 (November, 1963), 1072, and “The Church a Discerning Community,” Gospel Herald, 16 (February, 1965), 113.
  28. Leland Harder, “Resources for Congregational Decision Making,” The Mennonite (June 4, 1974), pp. 362-4.
  29. Franklin H. Littell, “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Group Decisions,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 51/2 (1960), 65-96.
  30. Sanders, p. 130.
  31. Gustafson, Christian Ethics and the Community, p. 117.
  32. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 200-201.
LeRoy Friesen, who holds a doctoral degree in Christian Ethics from the University of Iowa, is pastor of the College Community Mennonite Brethren Church in Clovis, California.

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