Theological Ethics and the "End of Doctrine"

[1] Featuring the discussion of a theological treatise, Christine Helmer’s Theology and the End of Doctrine, in a journal devoted to Christian ethics serves as a reminder of how deeply embedded Christian ethics is in the theology and doctrine of the faith. In addressing the ethical crises of our day, Wolfhart Pannenberg states that,

If theology has a contribution to make, it will not be in the form of an ethical foundation for Christian truth, but, on the contrary in a new theological basis for ethics….If theology once again succeeds in permeating and understanding the whole of our reality from the point of view of the Christian tradition, and in coming to terms with it while maintaining the power of the reality of the God of whom it speaks, then out of such an understanding  of our reality will grow the power of love which is able to solve the moral dilemmas of the present day.[1] 

[2] While ethical norms may not qualify in themselves as doctrine they are projections of doctrinal traditions and, as such, participate in the authority of those doctrinal traditions. The truth of this is perhaps illustrated by the way in which challenge to strongly-held ethical positions can prove as divisive of a faith community as a challenge to fundamental doctrine itself because they are understood to impinge upon the integrity of key doctrines.  However, unless rigidity in ethical positions prevails as a reflection of rigidity in doctrine, the new situations of human experience and culture will demand revised or even new responses to past positions, which will, in turn, require new interpretations of theological foundations. The relation between Christian ethics and its theological foundations is a dialectical one. Certainly recent discussions of sexual ethics are a prominent case in point. In this regard Margaret Farley has observed,

That there is room for development of Christian beliefs and moral codes regarding sexuality is generally acknowledged by theologians and ethicists today. That some doctrines and some moral convictions, perhaps those that are considered most central, can be understood from diverse perspectives, admit of new insights, are subject to more than one formulation, is what provides a task for theology and ethics.[2]

The “End of Doctrine” and the Vocation of Christian Ethics

[3] I want now to pick up on Professor Helmer’s use of “end” in the end of doctrine as referring to its purpose. My task in this brief piece is to explore points of contact with her vision of the proper purpose of theology in the ongoing development of doctrine and the ongoing task of Christian ethics.

[4] Since readers have the benefit of two fine reviews that trace the argument of her book plus her own responses, I will refrain from repeating that exercise with its interesting appropriation of Barth and Schleiermacher and its important concern for reconnecting theology and religious studies in the academy. Perhaps what follows may have some implications in that latter case and perhaps suggest another conversation. From the vantage point of my somewhat limited endeavor, however, it will be most helpful to focus on several statements which seem to express her vision of theology’s vocation for the purpose of doctrine.  

[5] In contrast to doctrine as a fixed language of heteronomous authority, Dr. Helmer wants us to consider the purpose of doctrine as the foundation of a living theological enterprise at the intersection of God’s creative presence and the realities of human experience. “What about doctrine reconceived as an invitation to consider and engage the living God, doctrine as a guide to discerning God’s action in individual lives, within communities, and in history?” (19) She affirms the early Barth’s understanding that God’s word comes into the world unpredictable, open to novelty, but faithful and recognizable. She wants to pursue a “language-reality” approach in which the language of doctrine is shaped by the pressure of experience. She offers a theological epistemology “…intended to help explain how faithfulness and novelty can be joined without fear.” (132) It is an epistemology of language-reality encounter exemplified by the biblical predications and acclamations concerning Christ’s person and work, the foundations of Christology, grounded in the experience of his presence. So Helmer asks concerning the ongoing development of doctrine, especially considering it in global perspective, “How is doctrine open to novel predications in light of new encounters with the Christus praesens  while continuing to be oriented by the parameters of the original predication?” (134) It can and should be open to such novelty. “…Lived experience is integral to theological formation and the production of doctrine, imbuing it with the experiences and understandings of Christians in relation to each other, in a shared conversation about religious ideas and practices.” (161-162) This final word on the communal conversation essential to the development of doctrine provides a point of transition to the communal dimensions of the vocation of Christian ethics.

[6] In a recent article that is a good companion to Theology and the End of Doctrine, Helmer wonders why there is little said about doctrine on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) website and much about social statements whereas the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) website has much to say about doctrine. Why then this difference? Why are social statements more prevalent than doctrinal statements in the one and precise doctrinal positions more evident in the other? [3] As a veteran of the doctrinal conflicts of the early 70’s in the LCMS, I am tempted to pursue that question. [4] However, I am also a veteran of two social statement task forces and it is that communal dynamic of moral deliberation that I want to pursue.

[7] The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective, the social statement adopted by the ELCA in 1991 is intended to provide guidance for the church’s participation in society. Under the subheading, “A Community of Moral Deliberation,” we read the following:

Deliberation in this church gives attention both to God’s Word and God’s world, as well as to the relationship between them. This church sees the world in light of God’s Word, and it grasps God’s Word from its context in the world. This church must rely upon God’s revelation, God’s gift of reason, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture is the normative source for this deliberation but it must be interpreted in context and guided by creed, confession and tradition BUT,

Transformed by faith, this church in its deliberation draws upon the God-given abilities of human beings to will, to reason, and to feel. This church is open to learn from the experience, knowledge, and imagination of all people, in order to have the best possible information and understanding of today’s world. To act justly and effectively, this church needs to analyze social and environmental issues critically and to probe reason why the situation is as it is….In dealing openly and creatively with disagreement and controversy, this church hopes to contribute to the search for the individual as well as the common good in public life.

[8] I believe this description of the church’s process of moral deliberation is a good description of the task of Christian ethics in general. It also seems to me that moral deliberation, as set forth in this social statement, and ethical deliberation in general[5] show some genuine resonance with Helmer’s concerns for a theological development of doctrine that takes God’s work and human experience seriously in openness to novelty that is at the same time faithful. It may be then that the church’s baptismal vocation for moral deliberation can provide a paradigm or at least a prompt for the end/purpose of doctrine. Indeed, Helmer herself may well be opening the door to this possibility when she highlights liberation theology as it has spread from its origins in Latin America to other expressions.  These theologians work at the intersections of religion, theology, and anthropology to do “theology on the ground.” This ethnographically oriented work, together with those working in practical theology (some would place ethics in that category) have lessons to offer systematic theology.  “While systematic theology ordinarily concerns itself with doctrine, practical theology is allocated the task of engaging the content of the Christian as it is expressed and lived by ordinary practitioners rather than religious elite.” (161) Though engaging lived experience does not in itself ground normativity in doctrine, she observes, it is integral to the formation of theological reflection.

[9] Ethics and systematic theology are inextricably interwoven. Liberation theologies, which in their manifold expressions have reframed the theology of mission, are inseparable from the experience --historical, communal and individual -- of injustice.  Feminist ethics reflecting on women’s experience of suppression has led to a significant revision of the traditional undifferentiated identification of sin with pride or will-to-power. So Lisa Sowle Cahill states it this way, “Ideally all Christians should experience a sacrificial and self-transcending love. At the same time, the cult of maternal and wifely sacrifice encourages in women the sin of self-negation rather than the will-to-power.”[6] Fueled by the history and experience of slavery and racism in America, James Cone has complained justifiably that theologians have failed to take this terrible reality as a point of departure for their theology. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “not only white seminary professors but some blacks as well have convinced themselves that only the white experience provides the appropriate context for questions and answers concerning things divine. They do not recognize the narrowness of their experience and the particularity of their theological expressions.”[7] Now, years later, no one can think about cross and atonement in quite the same ways after reading James Cone’s, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In parallel with Professor Helmer’s assertion of doctrine as socially constructed “all the way down,” Christian sexual ethics has come to terms with the reality of gender and sexual orientation as socially constructed. While love, justice, and fidelity remain norms for committed relationships in Christian perspective how those norms gain concretion as they are lived out in a world of socially constructed views of sexuality has become seriously challenging to traditional views that have enjoyed the virtual status of doctrine.

Trinitarian Theology, Ethics and the End of Doctrine

[10] To this point I have simply tried to indicate two things, 1) the integrally intertwined and dialectical relationship theology, doctrine, and Christian ethics; 2) that the task and method of Christian ethics may well be a useful corollary to Helmer’s concern for a theology and doctrine born of lived experience and open to novelty while yet faithful. Now I want to provide an example of how the opening up of contemporary trinitarian theology to the world of our experience has had immediate ethical implications. I think that what follows is well-known but illustrative of the connections I want to make and of the doctrinal development I think fits Helmer’s vision…I hope so!

[11] Stanley Grenz begins his book, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology by citing the comments made in 1972 by Jaroslav Pelikan and John P. Whelan bemoaning the sad state of theology with particular reference to the theology of the Trinity. They saw the dogma of the Trinity as having become something of a museum piece with little or no relevance to the issues of contemporary life. This state of affairs they contrasted to the Trinitarian Debates of the first five centuries that were urgent and vital struggles for the very core of the faith. However, Grenz goes on to point us toward a renaissance of trinitarian theology that has been developing in recent times and to the theologians who have carried it forward and who are the subject of his book.[8]  First among those to be credited with this renaissance is Karl Barth.[9]

[12] Professor Helmer has made deft use of Barth’s trinitarian theology in support of her epistemological argument. For my more limited purposes I want to follow a trail that leads from Karl Rahner to Jürgen Moltmann. Rahner’s concern was the way in which the doctrine of the Trinity has become isolated from the theology of salvation. “It speaks of the necessary metaphysical properties of God, and not very explicitly of God as experienced in salvation history in his free relations to his creatures.”[10] For Rahner the Augustinian-Western tradition in Thomistic and Neo-Scholastic literature presents a “Trinity which is absolutely locked within itself…”[11]

[13] The effect of this trinitarian isolation is to ontologically separate the immanent Trinity, transcendent and eternal in divine aseity, from the economic Trinity, God as revealed in history.  Catherine Mowry LaCugna observed in her “Introduction” to Rahner’s The Trinity, “Many theologians who insist on an ontological difference between ‘economic’ and ‘immanent’ Trinity do so because they see no other way to preserve God’s freedom ‘not to create.’” [12] The concern here is to safeguard divine independence from any notion that God has such an intimate relation to the creation that creating is a necessary expression of God’s being. This not the issue Rahner was dealing with, LaCugna points out. However, it is a theological issue which Rahner’s work addresses nonetheless. The ontological distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity poses the danger of a dualism that sets eternity over against history. This dualism is a sibling to the spirit/flesh dualism of the Greek tradition from which both ideas can be traced. Even though the Incarnation overcomes the spirit/flesh dualism, the eternity/history variety carries forward the danger of relativizing the earthly and historical in favor of the eternal and otherworldly. This sort of dualistic appraisal of reality has, in matters of social ethics, fostered a long tradition of otherworldly quietism.

[14] Even though Rahner’s primary concern was the connecting of trinitarian theology with soteriology, his famous “Rahner’s Rule” speaks to the problem of dualism as well.  The “rule,” which Rahner states under the heading of the ‘Axiomatic Unity of the ‘Economic” and ‘Immanent’ Trinity” is: “The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.” [13] For Rahner this means “that no adequate distinction can be made between the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the economy of salvation.”[14] The dualism I just spoke of is mitigated by Rahner’s rule because the identity of the economic and immanent Trinity means that God’s relationship to the world is intimate and internal to the divine life as implied by the Incarnation. As Ted Peters has pointed out, in light of Rahner’s dictum, “the identity of God is shaped by the economy of the divine-human relationship taking place within time and history.”[15]

[15] Among those who have embraced Rahner’s move and taken its implications even farther is Jürgen Moltmann. He observes that, given the nature of the heresies that concerned the Council of Nicea and beyond, the dogma of the Trinity clearly evolved out of Christology. These creedal statements were designed to preserve faith in Christ, the Son of God, and to direct the Christian hope towards full salvation in the divine fellowship. The doctrine of the Trinity cannot therefore be termed ‘a speculation.’[16] On the contrary, it is the theological premise for Christology and soteriology.” Thus, in what could be an echo of Rahner, gospel and Trinity are inextricably interwoven.

[15] For Moltmann perichoresis is key to his theology of the Trinity so he offers this appreciative account:

John Damascene’s profound doctrine of the eternal perichoresis or circumincessio of the Trinitarian persons…grasps the circulatory character of the eternal divine life. An eternal life process takes place in the triune God through an exchange of energies. The Father exists in the Son, the Son in the Father, and both of them in the Spirit, just as the Spirit exists in both the Father and the Son. By virtue of their eternal love they live in one another to such an extent, and dwell in one another to such an extent that they are one. It is a process of most perfect and intense empathy. Precisely through the personal characteristics that distinguish them from one another, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit dwell in one another and communicate eternal life to one another. In the perichoresis the very thing which divides them becomes that which binds them together. The ‘circulation’ of the eternal divine life becomes perfect through the fellowship and unity of the three different persons in eternal love. In their perichoresis and because of it, the Trinitarian persons are not to be understood as three different individuals, who subsequently enter into relationship with one another (which is the customary reproach, under the name of ‘tritheism’). But they are not, either, three modes of being or three repetitions of the One God, as the modalistic interpretation suggests. The doctrine of the perichoresis links together in a brilliant way the threeness and the unity, without reducing the threeness to the unity, or dissolving the unity in the threeness. The unity of the triunity lies in the eternal perichoresis of the Trinitarian persons. Interpreted perichoretically, the Trinitarian persons form their own unity by themselves in the circulation of the divine life.[17]

[16] The emphasis on the three persons in perichoretic unity as the key to trinitarian unity places Moltmann in the tradition of the Cappadocian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil the Great. Their stress was more on the relationality of the persons while the West, since Augustine, has for the most part favored the stress on the unity of the “one substance.” The idea that the works of each person of the Trinity are the works of all goes back to Augustine’s formula, opus trintatis indivisum ad extra. Moltmann wants to dig a bit deeper. For him it isn’t simply that the creation is ascribed to the Father even though it is the work of the whole Trinity. Rather the creation of the world is a product of the Father’s eternal love for the Son and is ascribed to the whole Trinity.[18] Opus trinitatis indivisum intra also. When the Trinity is looked at in terms of the perichoretic relationality of the three persons in the bonds of love, God’s love for the creation emanates from the very center of the divine life as an expression of the God who, in God’s very being, is love. The perichoretic relationship of the persons of the Trinity in the divine life is echoed in a perichoretic relationship to the world. As God is love in the unity of divine relationality, so also in the relation to the creation, born of God’s love and sustained by it.

[17] This understanding of God’s intimate relationship with the world, analogous to the perichoretic unity of the human and the divine in the Christ is foundational to Moltmann’s concern to propose a doctrine of theopathy, the suffering of God.[19] As Luther once declared, “…since the divinity and humanity are one person in Christ, the Scriptures ascribe to the deity, because of this personal union, all that happens to the humanity and vice versa… [Therefore] it is correct to talk about God’s death… If it is not true that God died for us, but only a man died, we are lost.”[20] So, Moltmann: “If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of love.”[21] The dramatic change from the ancient rejection of patripassionism to the affirmation of theopassionism adds new depth to incarnation and atonement even as it speaks to the struggles of human suffering and injustice as the ongoing experience of the divine life, truly God with us.

[18] For Moltmann the fullness of God’s revelation as Trinity in unity with the creation is in the arrival of the eschatological event of the kingdom of God when God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). This will mean the transformation of all things, the realization of a new creation (Rev. 21:5).[22] The implications of this vision for grounding ecological ethics are evident; the world has a future in God’s coming future. Caring for creation now is not only for the present good but a witness to that future hope.[23]

[19] In the doctrine of the Trinity we understand the unity of the three persons in the one divine life to be a dynamic relational unity in which the Father, Son, and Spirit remain distinct – a unity in diversity – while yet participating in the very life of each other in the most intimate way imaginable: the mutual indwelling of perichoresis. It is not difficult to see the implication for the church, which confesses the Trinity in its corporate worship.  In the divine life is a pattern of unity and inclusivity that is its true catholicity. The Trinity in its relational unity is love and the church by Jesus’ command is called to love one another to be in its existence and self-understanding an embodiment of the ethics of love.  In his deeply spiritual manner Moltmann puts it this way:

The perichoretic at-oneness of the triune God corresponds to the experience of the community of Christ, the community which the Spirit unites through respect, affection and love. The more open-mindedly people live with one another, for one another, and in one another in the fellowship of the Spirit, the more they will become one with the Son and the Father, and one in the Son and the Father (John 17: 21)[24]

[20] The self-giving love of God that excludes no one or anything in all creation and desires communion and union with God and harmony among all in creation is the revelation of the economic Trinity that shows us the immanent Trinity. Regarding the further implications of this, I have written the following:

Jesus, the crucified Christ is the one image of the invisible God, and, as such, Jürgen Moltmann maintains, reveals the glory of the Trinity in the community of his body and the fellowship with poor to whom he reached out. He goes on, then, to maintain that we need to think of our destiny for fulfillment in the image of God not simply in individual terms but also in social terms that reflect the divine life. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity enables us to harmonize the personal and the social realities of our existence without sacrificing the one to the other. This is an important theological insight for the church’s witness to a society where the rights of the individual have often trumped the common good.[25] 

So we may say that the church’s witness in action and advocacy for a justice that includes all in freedom, peace, and abundant life – faith active in love seeking justice – is a witness to its Trinitarian faith, which is to say, to the gospel.

Concluding Thoughts

[21] As I suggested at the beginning, my effort has been a limited one of attempting to bring some of Professor Helmer’s key concerns into dialogue with the concerns of Christian ethics. In so doing I have not presented Christian ethics in terms of the discourse of ethical methodology as that pertains to models of decision-making, which in their various expressions bear some resemblance to philosophical models of teleology and deontology. Rather, I have focused on the interface of theological foundations and the moral deliberations of the Christian community as it faces the realities of worldly experience. I have found this to be a very engaging enterprise because I resonate with Dr. Helmer’s argument and sense some substantive kinship from within the vantage point of Christian ethics, a thought that bears further discussion. As she sees fruitfulness in renewed interaction of theology and religious studies, I sense similar gains in deeper attention to the relation of theology to ethics and the relation of ethics to theology. Moreover, I should not fail to note that there are other versions of the Christian ethic not represented in my remarks that deserve to be part of the discussion, notably the natural law tradition.

[22] When one does ethics from within a Lutheran perspective, one operates with a keen sense of Christian realism coupled with deep sense of God’s abiding grace for Christian vocation in a world that, though redeemed, is still broken. This is the interplay of Law and Gospel that is the pulse beat of the Christian life. The spirituality of Luther’s theology of the cross is a blend of humility and trusting faith. Therefore, I tell my ethics students that, after we have done the important work of discernment and rigorous analysis, we live much of the moral life by assurance, the assurance of God with us, not the certitude of our own judgments.  It seems to me that Professor Helmer’s proposal shares some of this same dynamic. To enter into the theological reflection on doctrine as faithful openness to novelty in the face of human experience requires a similar spirituality and assurance.

James Childs is Senior Research Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics and Former Dean at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio and Book Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.


© July/August 2015

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 15, Issue 7

[1]Wolfhart Pannenberg, Ethics, trans. Keith Crim (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), 69-70. 

[2] Margaret A. Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Social Ethics (New York and London: Continuum, 2006), 187. I offer my own article as an example of how a theological reframing of the orders of creation tradition from and eschatological perspective can change the ethical conversation regarding sexual orientation. James M. Childs, Jr. “Eschatology, Anthropology, and Sexuality: Helmut Thielicke and the Orders of Creation Revisited,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics , 30,1 (Spring/Summer 2010), 3-20.

[3] Christine Helmer, “Lutherans, Ecumenical Reflections, and Doctrine,Seminary Ridge Review , 17,2 (Spring 2015), 50-51.

[4] I was appointed by president Jacob Preus to the Advisory Committee on Doctrine and Conciliation as one of seven on the liberal side. The Committee was charged with the task of delineating the doctrinal matters dividing the church. At the theological forum concluding our work I gave the paper for our side on “Inspiration and Inerrancy” opposite Robert Preus who spoke for the conservative position. Short of recanting those views there was no longer a place for me as a teacher of the church in the LC-MS.

[5] One thinks  of Paul Lehman’s Ethics in a Christian Context (New York: Harper & Row, 1963)in which he argues for a koinonia ethic in which the church as a community of ethical reflection seeks not morality, i.e. set of principles,  but the will of God in discerning “ what God is doing in the world” (Chapter III) and acting accordingly. In my own book, Ethics in the Community of Promise: Faith, Formation and Decision , 2nd edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 206) I argue for a dialogical ethic in which the values and virtues of love grounded in God’s self-revelation in Christ must find their realization in the dialectical encounter with the presenting issues of human experience in a pluralistic world. 

[6] Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Feminism and Christian Ethics,” Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective, ed. Catherine Mawry LaCogna (New York: Harper San Francisco: 1993), 217. Cahill is reflecting on Valerie Saiving’s essay, “The Human Situation: A Feminist View,” Journal of Religion, 40 (1966), 71-83.

[7] James Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury, 1975), 15.

[8] Stanley J. Grenz, Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004),6

[9] Ibid., 5. Grenz observes that, “Barth saw in God’s triunity the structure present within the revelatory act of God in Christ.”  Chapter Three, “Faith as Knowledge,” in Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline, trans. G.T. Thompson (New York: Harper& Row, 1959) provides a helpful brief expression of the point Grenz is making in this quote. 

[10] Karl Rahner, The Trinity. Trans. Joseph Donceel, intro. Catherine Mowry LaCugna (New York: Crossroad, 2005), 18.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., xv.

[13] Ibid., 21-22.

[14] Ibid., 24.

[15] Ted Peters, God-The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Era, second edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 200), 113e. 

[16] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, trans. Margaret Kohl (San Fransisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 129. 

[17] Ibid., 174-175.

[18] Ibid., 112.

[19] Ibid., 25ff.

[20] Quoted in Peters, op.cit., 207

[21] Moltmann, 23

[22] Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, trans. Margaret Kohl ( Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 270-79.

[23] See also , Matthew Fox, “Creation Mysticism and the Return of Trinitarian Christianity,” A Ecology of the Spirit: Religious Reflection and Environmental Consciousness, ed. Michael Barnes (New York and London: University Press of America, 1994), 62-73.

[24] Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 158

[25] Childs, Ethics in the Community of Promise, 51.