Ethics and the Promise of God: Moral Authority and the Church’s Witness


We have lost our moral compass... The ethical consensus of our society has been steadily eroding... The church urgently needs to speak clearly and forthrightly to this situation of growing moral anarchy....

[1] Such concerns and convictions are common today. Moreover they have been a perennial complaint in virtually all societies. Within the church, however, there is more to this moral malaise than the widespread perception that our society is in an ethical tailspin. Some persons of faith also fear that the church might too closely resemble society. They are convinced that the church has lost its grip on its own moral authority and with that its moral courage. They fear the church is a trumpet that blows an uncertain sound.

[2] Yet even if the church summoned the moral courage for a powerful witness in our ethically foundering world, it would first face a number of stubborn uncertainties. In matters of both personal choice and public policy, we are constantly mired in the ambiguity of life in a fallen world. How do the theological resources of the Lutheran tradition help us to cope with that reality? Secondly Christians often struggle with one another in profound disagreement over the complicated issues of contemporary life. Does a Lutheran approach to ethics and authority in ethics speak helpfully to this state of affairs? Thirdly there is continuing debate and attendant uncertainty over how far and in what ways it is appropriate for the church to engage in social concerns and public policy. Can Lutherans resolve their historical and theological tensions in this regard? Finally having dealt with our own internal diversity, how do we witness effectively in a world of increasing diversity? Does the Lutheran heritage have something to contribute in this twenty-first century situation?

[3] Let me combine these concerns into one question to focus the discussion: "How do we as Christian people and as a Lutheran church speak with courage and confidence to ethical issues even in the most complex and disputed of circumstances?" In addressing this question, I will consider some key themes of Lutheran ethics in order to gain a better understanding of moral authority and ethical deliberation in the Lutheran tradition and to encourage our witness as a church.

Ethical Witness and the Vocation of the Church

[4] Lutherans have not always been clear or consistent about their mandate for ethical witness, though we have usually been somewhat more comfortable and confident in the personal sphere than in the realm of public policy. The seeds of this ambivalence are in the thinking of Luther himself and most especially in subsequent interpretations of Luther.

Ethical Witness in the Two Realms Tradition

[5] Although the term "doctrine of the two kingdoms" was not coined until the 1930s, Luther's teaching of God's two modes of governance has certainly been a prominent feature of the Lutheran heritage since the publication of his "Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed" in 1522. In this and subsequent writings, such as the "Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount," Luther set forth his well-known distinction between God's two governments, the spiritual and the temporal, and with that the twofold ethical response demanded of Christians. A great deal of scholarship and debate has gone into what Luther really intended and taught.[1] I will first track how his twofold formula became dualistic.

[6] In an influential nineteenth century essay on Luther's ethics, Christian Ernst Luthardt wrote in connection with Luther's doctrine of two kingdoms that:

To begin with, the Gospel has absolutely nothing to do with outward existence but only with eternal life, not with external orders and institutions which could come into conflict with the secular orders but only with the heart and its relationship to God, with the grace of God, the forgiveness of sins, etc. . . . Thus Christ's servants, the preachers, likewise have no reason to espouse these secular matters but are only to preach grace and forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ. As for secular concerns, "the jurists may advise and help here on how this should function."[2]

[7] Ulrich Duchrow has written that Luthardt's essay typifies the very dualistic conception of the nineteenth century that still continues to obscure our view of Luther's doctrine. In this understanding of "two spheres of life," "Christianity is restricted to the personal, inner sphere; the preacher is forbidden to comment on political matters."[3]

[8] The extreme consequences of this nineteenth century mindset were observable in the United States. In a statement that seems unimaginable today, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod theologian Wilhelm Sihler wrote that the gospel had nothing to say to the issue of slavery. The gospel's message is one of spiritual liberation from the slavery of sin, not external liberation from the bonds of servitude. Thus he concluded, "Nor can the gospel stipulate it to be a matter of faith and of love, that is, a matter of conscience, that the slaveholder grant his slaves their physical freedom on the grounds that they too are his brothers in Christ."[4]

[9] James Echols, while attempting to show points of conceptual convergence between Lutheran two kingdoms thinking and African American Christianity, nonetheless sees the behavior of the two traditions standing in stark contrast. African American Christians have been activists for liberation from oppression from slavery to the present. Lutherans have tended toward quietism and the status quo under the influence of dualistic interpretations of God's twofold governance.[5]

[10] Helmut Thielicke has spoken of three potential dangers in Luther's doctrine of the two realms: bifurcation, secularization, and harmonization. These seem to be three variations of dualism. Bifurcation is the separation of the two realms into the personal versus the official, leading to a "double morality." Secularization dualistically separates the gospel from the world; the world is divided into autonomous spheres of activity under the sway of totally secular authorities. The final danger of harmonization refers to the impression Luther sometimes gives that the two kingdoms stand side by side in mutual harmony, each having different laws from the other.[6] In all three variations there is a dual morality-personal versus social-and quietism in the church's relation to the world.

[11] Most of us who are the "senior citizens" of Lutheranism in America, or nearly so, can testify to some form of this dualistic thinking as a staple of our theological formation. Citing a 1970 study in the United States, Karl Hertz noted:

Among the laity and many of the clergy we find an approach that strongly emphasizes the distinction between the secular and spiritual spheres of life. Christians must indeed live in the world, but the church nevertheless-apart from the demand for individual piety-has no ethical advice to direct the conduct of believers in society. . . . The sharp distinction between the two realms (which are often falsely identified as church and state) serves to justify this ethical position.[7]

[12] Certainly the impulses toward dualistic and quietistic interpretations of the two realms are there in Luther himself. In "Temporal Authority" Luther made the provocative comment, "You have the kingdom of heaven; therefore, you should leave the kingdom of earth to anyone who wants to take it."[8] Then again in commenting on Matt. 5:38-42, Luther explained the distinction between seeking justice and turning the other cheek:

"Each should move in its own sphere, and yet both should be effective. A Christian may carry on all sorts of secular business with impunity-not as a Christian but as a secular person-while his heart remains pure in his Christianity, as Christ demands. . . .Thus when a Christian goes to war or when he sits on a judge's bench, punishing his neighbor, or when he register's an official complaint, he is not doing this as a Christian, but as a soldier or a judge or a lawyer."[9]

[13] While it is not difficult to see how these and similar statements by Luther could lead to a double morality of personal versus social and a retreat from the social witness of the church, the larger context of Luther's writings suggests a more balanced perspective. Consequently Thielicke can speak of an objective and subjective link holding the two realms together. The objective link is forged by God ruling in both spheres: God's love is operative in both modes of divine governance. The subjective link is the love with which the people of God respond in both their immediate relationships with their neighbors and in service to their neighbors in fulfilling their vocation in the orders of earthly authority. Love does not belong solely to the personal sphere nor law to the social and political sphere. Love is the determinative principle in all spheres.[10]

[14] Earlier in this century, the great Luther scholar Karl Holl made a similar point regarding love: "By interpreting the orders of secular life as means for the exercise of love, and by charging Christians to keep improving them in this sense, [Luther] demonstrated the possibility of retaining love as the ruling motive in every situation and every moment[11]." Holl's insight is echoed in the splendid essay on the two kingdoms doctrine by Heinrich Bornkamm. Bornkamm rejects the notion offered by some interpreters that the love involved in seeking justice is different from the love of sacrifice for the neighbor. Love is indivisible even though it takes on different forms for different tasks.[12] Finally Gustaf Wingren says: "It is the neighbor who stands at the center of Luther's ethics. . . . Vocation and the law benefit the neighbor, as does love born of faith. . . . Love born of faith and the Spirit effects a complete breakthrough of the boundary between the two kingdoms, the wall of partition between heaven and earth, as did God's incarnation in Christ.[13]"

[15] More recent interpretations of Luther echo Wingren's judgment. José Miguez Bonino, while critical of the more quietistic versions of Luther's thought, follows Wingren on vocation. "At the ethical level gospel and law, power and love, come together in the life of individual Christians, in whatever 'Stand' (social or vocational location) they may find themselves in society."[14]  In a similar vein David Steinmetz wrote, "For Luther, the vertical relationship to God and the horizontal relationship to the neighbor are so inseparably joined in the act of faith that one is unthinkable without the other. . . . Freedom in faith and freedom to love can only be isolated from each other with disastrous results for both."[15]

[16] The common emphasis of these Luther scholars on the indivisibility of love and the linkage of the two realms in terms of God's comprehensive love and our response in all venues of life mitigates the influence of dualistic thinking. It opens the door to a renewal of the church's social conscience and involvement. It helps us to avoid the danger of double morality by showing the intimate connection between personal and social ethics in the concept and dynamic of Christian neighbor love. "Faith active in love" is simultaneously "faith active in love seeking justice."

[17] The quest for justice driven by love is also shaped by the realism that is so much a part of Luther's two realms thought. There would not be a "left hand" rule of law if true Christian love really prevailed. Yet it does not, and therefore in providential love God has provided for government and other forms of authority. As Miguez Bonino has pointed out, Luther had a positive view of the purpose of government and could therefore call it to be true to its God-given mission of keeping justice.[16]  Indeed Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his resistance to the Nazi regime took this very tack. While recognizing the proper and distinct roles of church and government, he nonetheless claims it is the duty of the church to confront the state and even become involved in direct political action when it is apparent that the state has failed in its function.[17] While the distinction between Luther's two kingdoms remains among the thinkers we have sampled, their separation in the ethical witness of the Christian community is precluded.

[18] Reappraising Luther's thought and the force of courageous witnesses like Bonhoeffer have helped Lutherans find their way into the church's social witness in our time. The social statements that multiplied in the churches of American Lutheranism since the socially turbulent sixties display a new sense that both Luther and the Augsburg Confession provide encouragement for taking up the cause of justice and peace. The distinction between the two realms remains, and with it a distinction between the church's ethical witness and its gospel witness. Nonetheless there is a clear statement that the church and the secular order operate in "functional interaction" and that the church has the authority and vocation to speak to ethical issues in the secular sphere even while respecting its integrity.[18] William Lazareth's essay, "Luther's 'Two Kingdoms' Ethic Reconsidered," written for the World Council of Churches, is reflective of the new consciousness of the sixties. Lazareth concludes his reconsideration this way:

In short, what Lutherans need desperately today is a prophetic counterpart to the priesthood of all believers. Evangelical Christians will be reverent to God's Word as well as relevant to God's world by expressing both their priestly Yes, through faith active in love, and their prophetic No, through love seeking justice.[19]

[19] Significantly Lazareth unites the concerns of the two realms in the vocation of the church and defines the activities of the church in both realms as activities of love. At the same time he distinguishes between the church's priestly vocation as belonging to one realm and its prophetic vocation as appropriate to the other. For many this is probably a satisfactory solution. It overcomes the social quietism of the past and avoids what many fear could be a confusion of law and gospel if the cause of justice were linked too closely with the message of justification. For others the ethical witness of the church-including the cause of justice-and the gospel witness of the church are more closely linked. They see faith active in love seeking justice as a single, unified vocation of the church. Within this vocation distinctions of law and gospel and of the ultimate and penultimate can be maintained.

The Eschatological Perspective

[20] Hertz recognized an attitude of negativity toward the world that is hard to escape in much of the two kingdoms tradition. He picked up the insight of Paul Tillich that a truly transforming or revolutionary social ethic was not possible as long as the realm of creation and that of redemption did not share the same eschatological future. Identifying salvation with the individual apart from any expressed hope for the human community and the universe frustrates efforts to mount an ethical witness that takes the future of worldly matters with utmost seriousness. Hertz believed that necessary distinctions between the ultimate and penultimate in the two realms tradition can be sustained within the framework of an eschatological ethic that unites the ethical vocation of the church with its evangelical calling.[20]

[21] Lutheran theologians during the past several decades have been prominent among those systematically appropriating the importance of biblical eschatology. The recovery of the Bible's historical-eschatological character placed new emphasis on the promise of God's coming future reign as the fulfillment rather than the antithesis of history. As the whole of God's historical creation comes under the promise of God's future, ethical striving within the world becomes more than a holding operation; it is suffused with hope. In short these theological developments move us toward Hertz's hope for a closer relationship of the church's ethical vocation to its evangelical calling.

[22] Wolfhart Pannenberg has developed this eschatological perspective most powerfully in Lutheran theology. Reflecting on the two kingdoms doctrine, Pannenberg has observed: "Like Augustine before him, Luther did not do justice to the positive relationship between the hope for the Kingdom of God and the themes of political life, but instead regarded the latter as only an emergency measure against sin."[21] Pannenberg recognizes the validity of Luther's distinctions in defining and respecting the different roles of church and government. Luther's realism is important because secular force is needed as a hedge against fanaticism and unrealistic enthusiasm for social transformation. Yet Pannenberg laments that "nowhere in Luther can we find any inspiration to transform political conditions by the powerful vision of the eschatological vision of the Lordship of Christ which already illumines the present world."[22]

[23] In an earlier essay on Augustine's influence, Pannenberg observes that Augustinian ethics are marked by a dualism and pessimism regarding the world. This seems to correlate with Augustine's eschatology that Pannenberg describes as suffering from an "otherworldly distortion." Eschatological hope is understood to be with God in God's transcendent otherness and separateness from the world. Yet if consistent with biblical eschatology we understand God to be the future of the world, then the promise and hope of eschatology is for the transformation and fulfillment of the world in the kingdom of God. Pious striving for God is no longer a matter of leaving the world behind for God's sake. Rather our striving in love is converted into concern for the world: "The most constructive consequence of this conversion to the world is the Christian idea of love that affirms the present world in transforming it."[23]

[24] Carl Braaten has also recognized a critical point made by Pannenberg. The idea of the transforming activity of love in Christian "conversion to the world" is not to be construed as a retread of liberal Christianity's overly optimistic hope that the kingdom of God can be the product of our ethical striving.[24] Rather:

The clue to the relationship of eschatology to ethics may be discovered by establishing the nature of the presence of the eschatological future in the person and activity of the historical Jesus. The key term is proleptic; there is a proleptic presence of the eschatological kingdom in the activity of the historical Jesus. The kingdom of God which is really future retains its futurity in the very historical events which anticipate it in the present. Christian ethics is not to be understood as the means of producing the future kingdom of God, but only as annunciation, anticipation, and approximation, let us say as "signs of the coming kingdom."[25]

[25] I have picked up these themes in my writings by speaking of the church as the community of promise called to live out an ethic of anticipation. When our hope for God's final reign is recast in biblical terms as a hope for the fulfillment of God's intention for the whole creation, then the gospel promise by which the church is established becomes a promise for the whole person and the whole world. The worldly ethical concerns for both the spiritual and physical well-being of individuals, the common good of society, and the care of the earth point to or anticipate dimensions of the gospel promise for God's reign. The kingdom of God provides a vision, a horizon within which we can see the purpose and trajectory of our ethical endeavors. At the same time this promise gives birth to the faith, hope, and love that strains toward that future. Thus the church's ethical vocation is one of anticipation. As such its ethical vocation works in tandem with its evangelical vocation.[26]

[26] The various trends sampled here lead from dualistic thinking to a more unitive vision of the relationship of love and justice, personal and social ethics, and ethical and evangelical witness. This vision seems evident at various key points in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's social statement, "The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective." The statement sees the witness of the church in society as flowing from the community's life in the gospel. "Faith is active in love; love calls for justice in the relationships and structures of society. . . . The Gospel does not take the Church out of the world but instead calls it to affirm and enter more deeply into the world. Although in bondage to sin and death, the world is God's good creation, where, because of love, God in Jesus Christ became flesh. The Church and the world have a common destiny in the reign of God."[27]

By What Authority and By What Criteria?

[27] The ethical witness of the church in society regarding issues of both personal choice and corporate life is an integral part of the church's vocation to witness to the gospel of God's coming reign. Understanding the vocation of the church as the community of anticipation is fundamental to what we can and cannot say about the church's moral authority and ethical voice.

Authority and Certitude

[28] In an eschatological perspective, the realism of Luther's two realms doctrine is preserved in the tension between the future revealed and present in Christ's victory and the present of brokenness and sin. The existential tension of the individual as simul iustus et peccator projected on the large screen of human history shows the very pattern of our world's eschatological existence.[28] Again the ELCA social statement on "Church in Society": "Through faith in the Gospel the Church already takes part in the reign of God announced by and embodied in Jesus. Yet, it still awaits the resurrection of the dead and the fulfillment of the whole creation in God's promise future. In this time of "now . . . not yet," the Church lives in two ages-the present age and the age to come."[29]

[29] Within this perspective Luther's ethic is reframed in temporal rather than spatial terms. The horizon is a holistic vision of God's promise for the future of history, revealed definitively in the person and work of Jesus the Christ. This reframing serves to mitigate the dualistic tendencies traced above. Yet two key theological insights at the heart of Luther's formula remain intact: its realism (already noted) and the distinction but constant interaction between the two realms. The distinction and interaction are sustained in the dynamic of the "now . . . not yet" structure of reality. The "not yet" character of our sinful world requires the structures of God's "left hand" rule and marks them off from any confusion with the ultimate reign of God announced in the gospel. At the same time the "now" reality of that promise creates and sustains Christian love in its zeal for transforming the conditions of our world as a witness to its hope and in obedience to God's Word. Embedded in this tension and distinction is a realism concerning the fragmentary and anticipatory character of our fallen, not-yet world. The interplay of law and gospel, the pulsebeat of both corporate and individual life, remains in the interplay of the "now . . . not yet."[30]

[30] The coincidence of the simul of our personal existence and the simul of the world's eschatological existence corresponds to the unity of personal and social ethics in a Lutheran understanding of the ethics of the kingdom of God. Both personal and social ethics are an integral part of the church's witness to both God's judgment and promise. Both personal and social ethics participate in the ambiguous character of our "not yet" reality and must deal with the uncertainty that often comes with it.

[31] Also central to a Lutheran understanding is that Christians have the freedom in the gospel to face this reality in the confidence of God's favor. We thus take the responsibility to make our ethical witness to the world even when that means "bold sinning." According to Luther's "Treatise on Christian Liberty," we are perfectly free in the gospel from the judgment of the law and therefore free to bind ourselves in love to the needs of our neighbor.[31] The gospel promise, the faith it engenders, and the love that springs from faith is the beginning and sustaining ground of the Christian ethic. We are free in the gospel to embrace the commands of God with appreciation and expectation, not fear and trepidation, even though they continue to accuse us and the world in which we live continues to drive us into circumstances fraught with terrible and uncertain choices.

[32] Bonhoeffer was particularly insightful in discussing Luther's famous statement, "Sin boldly, yet more boldly still believe." If we take the statement as a premise, he wrote, it becomes a license for "cheap grace." If, however, we see the statement as Luther did, as a sum, it looks very different. As a sum it indicates that, being sinners, even our best efforts in life's tangled circumstances will add up to sin, but at the same time God's gracious promise attends us and calls us to live boldly and with courage and trust in that assurance.[32]

[33] Paul Althaus's comment punctuates this line of thought:

Just as God-paradoxically-accepts me as righteous and looks upon me with favor even though I am and remain a sinner, so God also accepts and approves my works. Empirically, what the Christian does is never so good as to be right and acceptable in the sight of God, for man's sinful nature continues to contaminate everything he does. Nevertheless, the deeds are right in the sight of God because in his grace he approves them-even as he approves the man who in faith lays hold of his wondrous grace and favor.[33]

[34] The point is not that there are no reliable ethical standards. God's Word is a rich resource for that. Nor is it that Christians are inherently incapable of moral discernment. We are called and empowered to speak to the issues of our world, as I have already made clear. The point is rather that our confidence in the moral life is rooted not in the certainty of our judgments but in the assurance of God's promise. Authority is not established by certitude, especially in a world where our theological realism suggests that certitude is a scarce commodity.[34]

Authority and Authorization, and the Good

[35] By what authority do we speak, then? The authority by which we speak resides in the vocation we are graciously given as a people of God to witness to God's eschatological promise. This is our authorization to speak. The message with which we are entrusted gives foundation and substance to our ethical voice.

[36] The revelation of the reign of God, centered in the person and work of the Christ, is a word that confronts us and our world as both law and gospel. It evokes prophetic judgment and guides and inspires the positive efforts of love. It judges our present existence and conduct in its resistance to God's coming future, God's righteous rule in our world and lives. At the same time the revelation of God's dominion is the promise of its fulfillment. This promise is sealed in the blood of the cross and assured in the triumph of the resurrection. Our brokenness is disclosed both in the suffering of our Savior and in the contrast of our world to the wholeness of God's future dominion. At the same time, however, the assurance of the future in the victory of Easter is a promise generative of faith, hope, and love.

[37] Furthermore the promise and vision of God's future sets the course for faith active in love striving in hope and seeking justice. As the Bible develops its portrait of God's promised future, we discover a variety of values that are integral to that ultimate good. These values become the focus of Christian love as it battles all that negates these values and strives for those things that contribute to their realization. Any ethic must identify what is right, good, and virtuous. The good is that toward which we strive in our efforts to do the right. The virtues are those traits of character that incline us toward the right and the good. The Bible provides content and guidance in all three components of an ethic. I look first at how it speaks to the good.

[38] For the prophet Isaiah the reign of God will be one of unbroken peace (2:2-4) and justice (11:3-5). When Christians become active agents of reconciliation at every level of life, from the nuclear to the international family, they anticipate the promise of peace in the dominion of God. When in love they concern themselves with issues such as economic justice and equal treatment under the law, they anticipate the perfect justice of God's kingdom that will be beyond the need for coercive law. In Christ God has made peace with the world and promised a world of peace in which hostility and estrangement are supplanted by community and unity. God has called the eschatological community, the church, to work at this now (2 Cor. 5:19). We do so in the expectation of its coming, even as we eat the meal of the future in the Eucharist of the present.

[39] In the reign of God there is equality beyond any distinctions (Gal. 3:28). When Christians work to break down barriers of race, gender, and ethnicity, attacking all the "isms" that exclude and denigrate people because of who they are, they anticipate this promised equality in the hope of its final realization.

[40] At key points in his ministry, Jesus identified his person and work with prophetic expectations for the reign of God. These expectations include the triumph of life over death, healing of infirmities, good news for the poor, and the end of oppression (Matt. 11:4-5; Luke 4:17-21). When Christians stand for the value of life by opposing the wanton use of abortion or by supporting the acceptance, rights, and opportunities of the disabled, they anticipate the triumph of life in the reign of God. When Christians visit the sick, comfort the suffering, and actively pursue health care for all, they bear witness to the health and wholeness of the kingdom foreshadowed in Jesus' healing works. When in the face of exploitation and predation Christians promote a sexual ethic that celebrates the unity and integrity of our spiritual-physical creation in God's image, they anticipate in yet another way that wholeness that is the promise of our eschatological perfection in the imago Dei.[35] Finally when Christians, like their Lord, identify with the poor and their needs and oppose all forms of oppression, they anticipate the shalom of God's kingdom where our final freedom from sin dissolves all oppression in perfect freedom with God. These and other diverse activities are evidences of the Christian ethic of love reaching out for the values that express God's will and promise.

[41] Beyond the hope of life and wholeness in the human community is the promise that all creation will find healing and new life (Rom. 8:21), as the prophet Isaiah foresaw in his proleptic vision of the peaceable kingdom. The fulfillment of all creation as eschatologically promised is the final grounding for the intrinsic value of all historical, created reality. Thus when Christians speak out on behalf of the whole creation and extend Christian love to include love for nature, they anticipate the truth that God's future is the future of the whole world.[36]

[42] The values I discern then are life, the wholeness of all creation, peace, equality, community, unity in reconciliation, and freedom. The Bible itself and the issues of our day associated with these values give them concreteness.

[43] The promise of God for the future energizes our present ethical resolve even in the face of disappointment and adversity. The ELCA study on economic life picks this up nicely:

The purposes of God will not be thwarted. The disappointed promises of economic life can be faced and addressed. Hope emerges out of despair, life out of death. The coming of God's reign is not dependent on our achievements, but on the faithful promises of God. The heart of this vision provides substance and direction for actions and policies that can bear witness to God's righteousness and justice in economic life today.[37]

[44] The criteria by which the church must select those ethical issues that it will address are the values revealed for God's promised future in the person and work of Jesus Christ. From matters of personal conduct to those of public policy, the church is in constant dialogue with the world around it and within its own community, discerning prophetically where these values are being compromised and discerning constructively how they may be better anticipated. The ethical authority of the church is further consolidated when, faithful to its vocation, it is faithful to the values of God's reign.

[45] Discerning when these values are at stake and what responses are right and possible is not always easy for "not yet" people in a "not yet" world. The opening reflections of this chapter gave us a glimpse of this challenge. We have a vision, but in the midst of complexity and conflict how do we move from vision to decision?

Facing Our Conflicts: Courage and Confidence in Decision and Action

[46] Scripture, as it permeates the whole life of the Christian community in Word and Sacrament, is the generative ground and wellspring of our faith. This faith is the beginning of our ethical vocation. Scripture is the resource through which we experience God's self-disclosure and come to know Jesus. God's Word is alive among us in the community of faith; it nurtures us in this faith, and it shapes us in the love that Christ displays as the Son of God and the prototype of true humanity.[38] Joseph Sittler's words are fitting: "Love and Faith are not, in the New Testament, alternative or opposing terms. Faith is the name for the new God-relationship whereby the will of God, who himself establishes the relationship, is made actual. And that will is love. Faith active in love is alone faith; and love is the function of faith horizontally just as prayer is the function of faith vertically."[39]

[47] The faith-creating, faith-nurturing, love-shaping power of Scripture points us toward the vital role of the Bible in shaping Christian character individually and as a community. In many respects this is the Bible's most important contribution in shaping the Christian ethic. Since what we do is an expression of who we are, we must take note of character and the virtues that describe it before discussing ethical decisions.[40]

[48] The character in which we are shaped as individuals and as a Christian community is the character of neighbor love embodied in our Lord (for example, Phil.2: 5-7). Luther makes this point quite eloquently:

Behold, from faith thus flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one's neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, praise or blame, of gain or loss . . . hence as our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought to help freely our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become a Christ to the other that we may be Christ to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.[41]

[49] The Beatitudes help to spell out the sorts of virtues that describe the disposition of love. These blessings or endowments of grace point to virtues like openness to the neighbor's need and worth, mercy, peacemaking, solidarity with the suffering, and honesty. Consistent with the idea that Christian character is formation in the love of Christ, Gustavo Gutierrez has remarked that the Beatitudes display the attitude of Christ to whom they all fundamentally refer.[42] These beatitudinal virtues are corollaries of the values we have identified and the norms of love to which we now turn.

[50] The Bible not only provides us with the wellspring for our formation in faith and love and with a vision of the good as the goal of love in its portrayal of God's future; it also gives content to love and definition and direction to the way love behaves in response to the ethical issues of life.

[51] To be sure, the New Testament idea of Christian neighbor love has considerable content in itself. No one is excluded from our caring, not even our enemies ( Matt. 5:43-44). Having ourselves been affirmed by God, we are free to embrace the way of love as self-giving in the manner of the Christ (Phil. 2:4ff.). In Christ we have a self to give! We know that love drives toward unity and community through reconciliation even as we have been reconciled to God in Christ (2 Cor 5:19).[43] There is much here on which to build an ethic. We can extrapolate from this core disposition of the Christian moral life norms that speak to life choices. Yet the Bible gives even further guidance for love.

[52] For much of the life of the church this guidance has been defined by the Decalogue and the church's catechetical development of the Decalogue as it correlates with other Scriptural resources. The Decalogue speaks to love's concerns for the neighbor. I have attempted to translate the content of the commandments into five general rules that embody love's concern for the neighbor and the world: respect for autonomy, commitment to justice, respect for the sanctity of life, truth-telling, and promise-keeping (including fidelity in marriage). They require further clarification in the process of applying them to situations of moral choice. The church has been doing this for centuries in the development of its catechesis and in its response to new moral challenges.[44] For the Christian who lives the life of agape love in the freedom of the gospel, the commandments of God provide direction and possibility. They also continue to accuse us in the reality of our lingering sinfulness and serve as the foundation of law for a society that does not live by love.[45]

[53] The Word of God provides rich, clear indications of the will of God for the life of love. Moreover we have confidence in the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we reflect on that Word and seek its direction. In the assurance of the promises of God and the presence of the Spirit, the church struggles to understand and apply rightly the ethical mandates of its faith under the ambiguous conditions of historical existence. We take part in a continual process of dialogue between the commandments of love and the situations individuals engage as they face personal choices. Simultaneously we take part in a continual process of dialogue for the church as it seeks to refine its ethical understandings in the crucible of worldly engagement. Both processes require our reason along with our obedience. Indeed Luther saw reason as essential to the well-being of society and at its best discerning what is consistent with love and natural law.[46] In both processes we are aware of how culture and experience influence and can shed light on the obligations of Christian love, even when love runs counter to culture and experience. Both processes are in the service of our vocation individually and corporately, and both point to decision and action.

Dialogue and Decision in the Community of Promise

[54] The dialogical interchange between text and context takes on a variety of aspects as the church and the dictates of the Christian ethic face different challenges. Often the application of norms embodying love is clear and straightforward. The obligations to be honest, keep promises, or maintain marital fidelity, for example, are seldom difficult to discern. Any struggles we have with these obligations are more likely due to our own self-serving rationalizations than to any ambiguity about the normative requirements of our ethic.

[55] Yet sometimes the dialogue is one of resolving conflicting claims or obligations, resulting in painful and sometimes tragic choices. What do we do toward the end of life when relief of suffering and preservation of life seem incompatible? How do we balance the obligations of work and family life? Resolving some of these dilemmas does not occur without lingering doubt and anxiety. In the end we have only the assurance of God's love and presence to sustain us.

[56] The community of the church is a place where such dilemmas can be shared. Through this sharing, ministry to one another can occur and the ethical vocation and resolve of the people of God be strengthened. The section on the church as a community of moral deliberation in the social statement "The Church in Society" spells out the kind of dialogue to which I am pointing. It recognizes the diversity of gifts and experiences among believers that can lead to difference of opinion on moral matters. It points to the resources of Scripture and tradition, as I have. It lifts up the necessity of seeing the Word in the context of the world and vice versa. It stresses the need for full participation by those affected, those in positions of leadership, and those with expertise. From these ingredients come the kind of dialogue or deliberation the church requires for the guidance of its members and for its witness in the world. The statement sees clearly that the dialogue engaged in is not for the negotiation of opinions but for discerning the will of God (Rom. 12:2).[47] Ethical dialogue in the church serves as both a form of ministry among members and a resource for mission in the world.

[57] It is not uncommon that individuals face questions of public policy and professional practice, leading the church to develop a social statement. Such a statement relates text and context in critical interaction and usually produces a number of "middle axioms." These are somewhat more specific ethical directions than the most general principles of love on which they are based. Middle axioms develop those general principles to interpret concretely their meaning for the dilemmas and decisions at stake. Because social statements and middle axioms do not prescribe or anticipate all decisions that may be entailed by a given issue or set of issues, dialogue among the people of God and with the world will continue in an effort to clarify our prophetic and constructive witness.

[58] The problem of abortion illustrates these various forms of dialogue. Women and couples can face terrible conflictual choices when considering abortion. The dialogue about personal choice in these conflicts is likely to be an agonizing one. Christians in the health care professions must also search their hearts to find the parameters of their participation in this procedure. Reflecting the larger social debate, Christians within the church community differ over the meaning of the scientific data regarding the development of prenatal life and therefore the moral status of that life. Christians also remain divided over the clarity with which Scripture speaks to abortion with respect to the relative status of prenatal life in the biblical prohibition of killing. Out of this critical and multifaceted dialogue, the ELCA has produced a social statement on abortion asserting the strong Christian bias for life, setting some parameters for when abortion might be a morally defensible albeit sorrowful choice, and committing the church to seek legislation more reflective of these values than the current state of affairs under Roe v. Wade.

Dialogue and Witness in the World

[59] Through the dialogue that led to the social statement, we are better equipped ethically not only to continue that conversation within the church, in our individual struggles, and better equipped to engage the world with a prophetic critique of its wanton use of abortion and with a constructive effort to seek better laws.

[60] Christian advocacy for better laws and public policies-pursuing the values love seeks in its God-given vision of the good-has an ironic dimension. The laws we advocate are a testimony to the goodness and dignity of humankind and of the whole creation. Yet the necessity of the coercive use of civil law reminds us that humanity is also a fallen race that, if unrestrained, will rob creation and one another of their dignity. In its quest for more just public policy, the church lives with that irony and does not confuse any proximate gains with the full realization of divine will. Yet this realism, though sobering, does not dampen our resolve to do still better. Nor should it obscure the recognition that these efforts, however, proximate and fragmentary, are a genuine expression of love and the hope that is within us.

[61] Christians in dialogue with the world may also discover in new ways the proximate character of their own existence and insight as the world fills the forms of love with its demands for justice. New ethical insights regarding racism and sexism, stemming from the voices of those who suffer and further informed by the social and political sciences, have reversed the prejudicial attitudes and practices of the church's past and its less than benign neglect of urgent matters of injustice in our society.[48]

[62] Such occasions are times for repentance, but they are also times to appreciate once more that we live our ethic and embrace our vocation in the confidence of the assurance of God's promise and not in the certainty of our judgments. In the assurance of the promise, we are open to the Spirit and to the learnings of our various dialogical encounters. We are open because in the freedom of the gospel and in obedience to the law of love we can seek the good of our neighbor rather than feel compelled at every turn to show how right we are.

[63] This freedom and openness, simultaneously to God's call and the world's voice, are what equip us well for witness in a pluralistic world such as ours. In our global society the manifold diversity of religions and cultures, competing and intersecting, creates a situation that makes a greater moral consensus seem both necessary and unlikely. Increasingly theologians and ethicists are advocating the need for the church to bring its views into a process of public dialogue both as a witness to its faith and as a means of facilitating a public moral conversation.

[64] While Luther may not have expected much in the way of social and political transformation, he did see that the structures of governance and the economy by God's loving initiative have a vocation to serve the common good. As B.A. Gerrish pointed out in his landmark study on grace and reason in Luther, Luther had a positive evaluation of reason in public affairs and in moral deliberation, notwithstanding the corruption of sin and the limits of human finitude. Reason was primarily problematic when allowed to intrude into matters of salvation in theologically inappropriate ways.[49] From this vantage point, those who are involved in the institutions of society and culture are potentially good dialogue partners. It is well within our Lutheran tradition to engage in dialogue with them for the common good. We, of course, enter into this process always attempting to discern the will of God. We are open to our partners in dialogue while always cognizant that dialogue may need to be coupled with prophetic confrontation.[50]

[65] The pluralism of our world and the attendant threat of ethical relativism make the church's ethical witness an urgent requirement. The dialogue that pluralism generates provides the opportunity for that witness. Hans Kung has argued that the staggering pluralism of our global society requires a dialogue among the world's religions if there is to be peace and global moral responsibility. He counsels religious leaders to dialogue with "steadfastness," sticking to the integrity of their convictions. Dialogue is not compromise but a quest for mutually acceptable truths.[51] Ronald Thiemann has demonstrated that religious participation in public policy in America is desirable, can be done with integrity, and is consistent with the liberal tradition of our constitutional life.[52]

[66] An ethic of openness to new discovery in the assurance of God's promise and the Spirit's presence in the life of the church is good equipment for dialogue. Being a "community of moral deliberation" is good practice. If we are clear about our vocation and our existential situation in the church and the world, as this chapter has sought to help us be, then we should be ready to embrace the responsibility of public dialogue in a diverse world. We have peculiar theological gifts for this task.

[67] A final word on authority seems in order. While the authorization in our vocation as a church is the keystone of our authority, and the Word of God gives us guidance and voice, the final piece in the authority puzzle is the integrity of our witness. Integrity requires faithfulness to the truth of our faith, that is, an unremitting devotion to an ethic grounded in the promise and the love that follows. Integrity means that we eschew a false certitude that would belie the theological truth of our radical dependence on grace in a fallen world. At the same time it means refusing to yield to the world's comfort with relativism, moral drift, and systemic injustice, not to mention cruelty and perversity wherever they are found.

In Conclusion

[68] I have looked at the way in which the ambiguity of human existence, the complexities of moral choice in this ambiguous life, and the developments of our own ethical tradition create the demand for a renewed understanding of our ethical vocation and nurture our moral courage and authority. The vision and the promise of the reign of God revealed in the Christ is the focal point. Standing over against our historical existence, God's future gives birth to faith, hope, and love, the energy of the Christian ethic. The form and texture of this future vision portray an array of values that set the agenda for love. Our pursuit of these values as a community of faith is an integral part of our vocation to witness to the hope within us. In the contrast between that future and our present, we recognize that the dominion of God also stands in judgment on even our best efforts. The realism that follows from that realization delivers us from false assumptions about our own moral certainty and naive notions about making social progress. Yet in the encouragement and freedom of the gospel, we are open to the neighbor and the world for dialogue and discovery. It is an ethic whose courage and confidence reside in the assurance of divine promise and whose authority resides in the call to serve that promise and in the faithfulness of our response.

[1]  In an article by Brent Sockness entitled, "Luther's Two Kingdoms Revisited: A Response to Reinhold Niebuhr's Criticism of Luther," The Journal of Religious Ethics 20, 1(Spring 1992): 93-110, the author tracks the fluidity of Luther's thought from the first part of "Temporal Authority" to the later work on the Sermon on the Mount as a way of demonstrating how difficult it is to interpret Luther's doctrine. Although his concern is to engage Niebuhr's criticism, his discussion helps to explain the extensive debates about what Luther really thought.

[2]  Quoted in Two Kingdoms and One World, ed. Karl H. Hertz (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), 83-84.

[3]  Lutheran Churches-Salt or Mirror of Society?, ed. Ulrich Duchrow (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation,1977), 12.

[4]  Quoted in Hertz, ed., Two Kingdoms, 128.

[5]  James Kenneth Echols, "The Two Kingdoms: A Black American Perspective," in Theology and the Black Experience, ed. Albert Pero and Ambrose Moyo (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988): 110-132. See in Richard Perry's chapter his helpful and more extensive discussion of James Echols's work on the two realms doctrine and the African American tradition.

[6]  Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, I, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 364-373.

[7]  See Duchrow, ed., Lutheran Churches, 244. For Paul Tillich the two realms vision of orthodox Lutheranism represents an inadequate view of history in which history has become no more than the scene of the saving of God in Christ. That having been done, nothing new can be expected from it; individual salvation is all that is really significant in God's activity. Systematic Theology, 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 355.

[8]  Martin Luther, "Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed," in LW, 45, 102.

[9]  Martin Luther, "The Sermon on the Mount," in LW, 21, 113.

[10]  Martin Luther, "The Sermon on the Mount," in LW, 21, 113.

[11]  Karl Holl, The Reconstruction of Morality, eds. James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense, trans. Fred W. Meuser and Walter R. Wietzke (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1979), 133.

[12]  Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of His Faith, trans. Karl H.Hertz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 34.

[13]  Gustaf Wingren, Lutheran Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 46.

[14]  José Miguez Bonino, Toward a Christian Political Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 25.

[15]  David C, Steinmetz, Luther in Context (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986),124. Quoted in Sockness, "Luther's Two Kingdoms Revisited," 107.

[16]  Bonino, Toward a Christian, 23.

[17]  See the discussion of Bonhoeffer in Charles E. Ford, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Resistance, and the Two Kingdoms," Lutheran Forum 27,3 (August 1993), 28-34.

[18]  See James M. Childs, Jr., "The Confession's Impact on Recent Social Ethics," Lutheran Forum 14, 2 (Pentecost 1980),16-22. This article was a review of the social statements of American Lutheran churches in light of the two kingdoms dimensions of the Augsburg Confession.

[19]  William H. Lazareth, "Luther's 'Two Kingdoms' Ethic Reconsidered," in Christian Social Ethics in a Changing World, ed. John C. Bennett (New York: Association Press, 1966), 131.

[20]  Hertz, Two Kingdoms, 342-346; Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3, 354-361.

[21]  Wolfhart Pannenberg, Ethics, trans. Keith Crim (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), 129.

[22]  Ibid., 130.

[23]  Wolfhart Pannenberg, "The Kingdom of God and the Foundation of Ethics," in Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 110-112.

[24]  James M Childs, Jr., Faith, Formation, and Decision (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 22-23. This is a crucial point on which I have tried to be very clear in my own writing.

[25]  Carl E. Braaten, Eschatology and Ethics (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), 110.

[26]  Childs, Faith, Formation, especially chs. 2 and 3.

[27]  "The Church and Society: A Lutheran Perspective," A Social Statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, August 28- September 4, 1991, 2.

[28]  Braaten, Eschatology and Ethics, 117.

[29]  "Church and Society," 2.

[30]  Thielicke is a forerunner of this understanding in his description of our time as living between the ages or within the overlapping of the ages: the old age of our perduring fallen world and the new age of God's rule that Christ has brought into our history. Thielicke wants to recast Luther's two realms in terms of these two ages. Theological Ethics, 1, 379-382.

[31]  Martin Luther, A Treatise on Christian Liberty, trans. W. A. Lambert; Rev. Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 7. I find myself very much in accord with Reinhard Hütter's critique of much of modern, mainstream Protestant ethics and with his account of freedom and the law. I would simply add, as I have tried to do in this chapter, that the freedom of the Christian is a basis not for setting aside the law but for dealing with the terrors of interpreting and acting in love in accordance with the law in an ambiguous and conflicted world. Robert Benne's discussion of the "theological challenge" in his chapter corresponds to Hütter's critique of Protestantism and would also seem to lead us into affirming the law in the life of Christian freedom.

[32]  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed., trans. R.H. Fuller (New York: Macmillan Co., 1967), 55ff.

[33]  Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 5-6.

[34]  Benne, whose account of Lutheran ethics in the two kingdoms tradition in this book exemplifies the best of contemporary Lutheran faithfulness to that tradition, is certainly correct in emphasizing Luther's realism as well as the fact that Lutheran ethics does not lead to specific public policy resolution. These are correlated with his further observation that public policy pronouncements are on the outermost concentric circle of the church's purposes and have less authority, since they are further away from the religious and moral core. I do not contest this analysis; it is consistent with my own comments on decision in an ambiguous world. Nonetheless I have tried to suggest an alternative model of authority to that of certitude that I believe draws the church's moral struggles with ambiguous but important ethical issues more directly into its authoritative witness in the world. Indeed Benne himself suggests that there are Christian perspectives that bear upon public policy debates even if there are no Christian public policies per se. Presumably these perspectives are drawn from the "core" and are witnessed to as the church engages the issues.

[35]  For a discussion of our fulfillment in the image of God as a hope for the resurrection in the kingdom of God, see my book, Christian Anthropology and Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 98-100; 116-117.

[36]  In Ethics in Business: Faith at Work (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), ch. 8, I have a lengthier discussion of the theological foundations of environmental ethics in the context of the responsibilities of business. In this book the chapter by Larry Rasmussen and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda eloquently takes up the challenge of an earthly ethic, adding the critical dimension of the theology of the cross. In n. 51 of Hütter's chapter, in response to Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda, he expresses reluctance to entertain the notion of a "moral obligation" toward non-human creation, since morality "is an inherently interhuman reality." The analysis that follows upon that contention is certainly cogent. I would ask, however, whether my claim that the values of God's promised future are normative for our pursuit of the good in the present does not create a moral obligation to seek the good of the whole creation as an ecological unity, given the added point that God's future salvation is for the whole person and the whole world.

[37]  "Give Us his Day Our Daily Bread: Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All" (Division for Church in Society, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, October 1996), 19.

[38]  Childs, Christian Anthropology, 117-121.

[39]  Joseph A. Sittler, The Structure of Christian Ethics (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1958), 64.

[40]  Martha Stortz's chapter serves us well in this regard and helps us to see the resources within the Lutheran tradition for character formation.

[41]  Luther, A Treatise on Christian Liberty, 30-31.

[42]  Childs, Faith, Formation, chaps. 4-7 deal with character formation and the Beatitudes. Gutierrez is cited on 41.

[43]  I am much indebted in my understanding of the meaning of agape to Gene Outka, Agape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972) and to Victor Paul Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972). Outka provides a threefold analysis of love that involves equal regard, self-sacrifice, and mutuality.

[44]  Outka, Agape, Part III. David Fredrickson's chapter provides a vivid portrait of this sort of development and deliberation in the Pauline church. His account also dovetails nicely with the remarks I will presently share on the dialogical nature of the Christian ethic.

[45]  See Jan Milic Lochman, Signposts to Freedom, trans. David Lewis (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1982), passim; Paul Althaus, The Divine Command (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966); and Walter R. Bouman, "The Concept of the 'Law' in the Lutheran Tradition," Word and World, III, 4 (Fall 1983): 413-422 for helpful discussions of the role of law in the moral life of the redeemed.

[46]  Elizabeth Bettenhausen, "The Concept of Justice and a Feminist Lutheran Social Ethic," in The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, 1986, 173.

[47]  "Church and Society," 5-6. Fredrickson's chapter also makes the point that moral deliberation or dialogue in the Pauline congregations was for the purpose of discerning the will of God. Overall Fredrickson's research appears to provide New Testament underpinnings in the Pauline tradition for the kind of "dialogue in community" or "community of moral deliberation" that I have been trying to lay out. It seems also that the approach to ethics by Paul and his congregations reflects an understanding of authority commensurate with the idea of authority that I have been exploring in this chapter. Moreover it may not only be the Pauline tradition that displays this pattern. Research by my colleague Mark Allen Powell on the "binding and loosing" passages in Matthew also supports a program for community- based ethical discernment in the Matthean church (as yet unpublished).

[48]  In his chapter Perry has called our attention to the importance of social location. This and his discussion of the "elements of ethical action" serve to underscore the particularities in and through which ethical perspectives are shaped. The dialogue I am urging inside the community of faith and in public witness is needed both to appreciate the texture that such influences provide for the ethical fabric of the Christian community and to discern common and new directions that all can embrace.

[49]  B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Luther (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 25-26.

[50]  Childs, Ethics in Business, 143 discusses the limits of dialogue. Though this book develops the concept of dialogue in the pluralistic world of business as an avenue of Christian witness, I have tried throughout to maintain a sense of realism and the necessity of faithfulness to the integrity of the faith. I find the discussion in Hütter's chapter on recovering the natural law under the conditions of pluralism to be a helpful adjunct to my discussion of dialogue in public Christian witness in a world of diversity.

[51]  Hans Kung, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic (New York: Cross road, 1991).

[52]  Ronald F. Thiemann, Religion in Public Life (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996).


© January 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 3, Issue 1