Christian ethics (part 3): filial

This post continues a series exploring Fully Human in Christ: The Incarnation as the End of Christian Ethics by Todd Speidell. For other posts in the series, click a number: 12, 45.  

Last time, we noted how Thomas F. Torrance (TFT) grounds his ethics on the foundation of Christ--both who he is, and what he has done, is doing and will yet do to bring about the ultimate goal of ethics, which is to fully realize what already is accomplished in Christ--reconciliation between God and humans, between humans, and between humans and all of creation. A fully Christian ethic is thus not about doing what merely seems morally good, but to participate, by the Spirit, in what Jesus is doing to heal and so transform the world. 

The Way of Joy by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)

In order to live out TFT's Christ-centered, participatory ethic, the question we need to ask is not, "What would Jesus do?" but "What is Jesus now doing, and how may I participate"--or, more properly, "How may WE participate?" for TFT's ethic is fundamentally communal. Note that this approach to Christian ethics is a far cry from mere moralism (even when the standard of morality is drawn from the Bible), which often is quite legalistic. As Speidell notes, TFT's ethic, rather than being moralistic or legalistic, is fundamentally filial.

Because Christ is our brother, we are God's children. Christ's true humanity, God as one among us, is the basis of our human-ethical activity in and through the Church. Torrance does indeed have a "moral ontology," which is however is rooted in our filial relationship with Christ in, by, and through the Spirit in relationship to God.... Torrance upholds a clear and intrinsic connection between both Christ's person and work and human being and activity as service in Jesus Christ squarely situated in the world. The "intrinsic connection" between Christ and us is that Christ's obedience to the Father quickens our faith-wrought love, gratitude, and obedience. (p. 19) 

Note also Christ not only defines what is ethical (he is the standard in his own person and work), he also guides and empowers us in sharing his ethical living and loving in the world, which leads to realization of the reconciliation that he already has accomplished as the one Mediator between God and humanity, between all persons and humanity and all creation. 

As Speidell notes, TFT's ethic begins with a foundational axiom:

Jesus Christ alone frees us to love God and our neighbor by sharing in his life and our renewed and transformed humanity, not out of a center in ourselves.... It is only in and through Jesus Christ that man's eclipse of God can come to an end and he can emerge again out of darkness into light, which means to hear a Word coming to him from beyond which he could never tell to himself. (pp. 19-20, at times quoting TFT)

A key point here is that ethical thinking/living comes not from ourselves, but from Christ. If our ethics are centered in ourselves, it's all too easy to be self-justifying, and thus self-centered (no matter how moral and other-centered we might believe ourselves to be). In contrast, a fully Christian ethic has Christ as its center, and as Speidell notes, when we are centered on Christ alone, we receive from him healing of "our self-willed inner being, so that we may be truly and fully responsible for moral action." This means, according to TFT, that Jesus "has set us on the ground of his pure grace were we are really free for spontaneous ethical decisions toward God and toward men." Speidell concludes the thought noting that Christ himself is "the very ground and grammar of theology, salvation, and ethics" (p. 21). 

With this Christ-centered, participatory, communal approach to ethics, we are freed from being self-reliant; from having to determine for ourselves what is moral and what is not; what is ethical and what is not. Instead, we rely upon "the pure act of God in his unconditional love, so that the ethical and the religious life are lived exclusively from a center in Jesus Christ" (quoting Torrance, p. 22). This approach to ethics yields a holistic view that sees our Christian vocation (calling) as that of service in and through Christ on behalf of all humanity and creation. If this approach to ethics sounds so ethereal as to be disconnected from "real" life, it is not--in fact it addresses the ultimate reality of life, which is Christ, and who we are in him, and the meaning of that reality for all humanity, indeed for all creation. 

Participating, by the Spirit, in the loving and living of Jesus in our modern world will, necessarily, involve "applying scientific knowledge and method to such terrible problems as hunger, poverty, and want." Note, however, that if this work is to be fully centered in Christ, we will need to do these things 

without falling into the temptation to build up power-structures of our own, through ecclesiastical prestige, social success or political instrumentality, in order to make our ministry of compassion effective within the power structures of the world, for then we would contract out of Christian service as service and betray the weakness of Jesus. (p. 23, quoting TFT)

As Speidell notes, "service in Jesus Christ by his body the Church, exceeds, not displaces, government standards and programs. When the Church becomes merged with society and culture, its "mild form of Christianity leaves it with no message to the modern world. The Church should not identify herself with any social order or political regime, far less with the 'status quo'" (p. 24). What then is the Church to do? Speidell comments: 

The Church has a unique existence, message, and function, which excludes a merger or identification with society, or a confusion of Christianity as Christendom, or an equation of moral or civic life with the Christian life.... The church must recover her distinctiveness and believe again that the proclamation of the gospel is her primary task, refusing to identify with any social system or political program and especially taking offensive action against the status quo.... 
The church witnesses to the gospel as it advances the claims of the Christian gospel and ethic in all spheres of life: personal, social, industrial, economic, political, and international. For God is ushering in a new order of peace and brotherly relations on the basis of the Christian ethic--checking, for example, the basic human tendency toward a will to power or a focus upon ourselves, and instead presenting to society the Christ who came as a ransom for many to redeem the world. (p. 25)

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