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Stephen H. Webb

Danger! Christian Ethics

Religious ethics is one of the last strongholds of liberal Protestantism in the academy.

Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics
by William C. Spohn
Continuum, 1999
240 pp.; $19.95

Christian ethics probably sounds like a good idea to most people. You take Christianity, and then you find out what kind of ethics it promotes. Nonetheless, it is an empty phrase. If we mean by ethics a set of abstract principles or a theory about what makes certain acts obligatory, then Christianity has no such thing. Christian ethics is nothing more than simply being a good Christian. Christian ethics becomes just another name for Christian theology. What Christianity teaches about ethics is nothing different from or more than what Christianity teaches about Jesus Christ.

While Christian ethics is not only an empty idea, it is also a dangerous one. Trying to find something called "Christian ethics" risks separating the moral life from its religious foundation. If you start with the doctrines of Christian faith, and think them through in a consistent and full manner, then you will get Christian ethics. If you start with some general notion of ethical standards, however, then it is unlikely you will be able to find your way back to the specifics of Christian faith.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of professors in the universities who teach what is called "Christian ethics," or sometimes, more inclusively, "religious ethics." The study of religious ethics is one of the last strongholds of liberal Protestantism in the academy, a way of reflecting on Christianity while also speaking to a broad audience on the basis of universal principles and premises. Ethicists raise questions of ultimacy and urge students to change and grow as they take positions on issues of both personal and public significance. It is a hybrid discipline that teaches religion indirectly by focusing on common ethical problems.

I have a friend who teaches Christian ethics, and he has told me, a Christian theologian with ethical interests, that I could not teach at his state university because what I do is too narrow, too ...

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