Christian ethics (part 2): our new life in Christ
This post continues a series exploring the book Fully Human in Christ: The Incarnation as the End of Christian Ethics by Todd Speidell. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 3, 4, 5.
Last time, as we began this series, we noted how the ethic set forth by Thomas F. Torrance (TFT) is fundamentally theological, but to say that is not to say that his ethic is "otherworldly"--disconnected from the world in which we live with its ethical challenges. TFT's theological ethic is not passive for it's about our active participation, through the Spirit, in what Jesus is now doing in our world. But note that this participation is in union with Jesus--he (and not someone or something else) is at the center and in the lead. At a time in our culture when there is renewed interest and emphasis on ethics (social ethics, in particular), it's important that we examine our approach to ethics and ask, is it truly Christian?
A filial ethic of reconciliation
As Speidell notes, TFT's ethic can be viewed (in TFT's words) as a "soteriological suspension of ethics" (p. 8). If that sounds like a denial of or diminishment of ethics, it is not. What it means is that TFT seeks to ground ethics where it belongs--on the foundation of Christ--the foundation of who Christ is and what Christ has done, is now doing and will yet do in our world to bring about real, life-transforming reconciliation between God and humans, between humans, and between humans and the cosmos--a reconciliation forged in the humanity of Christ, who as God and human, is the one Mediator between God and humanity.
As Speidell notes, this Christ-centered ethic is not about mere morality (i.e. improved moral behavior, though it includes that)--it's about the transformation of humanity at its core in and through the vicarious (substitutionary, representative) humanity of Jesus. As Speidell notes, TFT
favors an account of justification that places human morality under the cross of Christ in order to reestablish a Christian ethic of faithful obedience and joyous gratitude to our God of reconciling grace.... The vicarious humanity of Christ means that we may and must rely on his faithfulness to uphold and undergird our humanity.... [Christ] grounds and establishes our fallen and faltering humanity as we participate in his covenant-keeping in our place and on our behalf.... Christ's faithful and obedient humanity is precisely what makes room for our humanity and places a higher judgment on us when we neglect or refuse to be who we are and are becoming in him. The vicarious humanity of Christ does not "threaten" or "absorb' humanity... but in fact frees us to be human!...
Christ's vicarious humanity... sanctifies and informs and reorients our moral order, social reconciliation, and political responsibility, from moral conformity to a legal-religious code to a filial, trusting, loving obedience to God! One can read the entirety of Torrance's body of work as a theology of reconciliation on all levels of life: personal, social, historical, political, and cosmic. The vicarious humanity of Christ suggests... a filial ethic. (pp. 8-9)
Calls forth participation
Resolution to the ethical dilemmas we face in our world will come as we, by the Spirit and in union with Christ, freely participate in Christ's own vicarious, redemptive humanity. What does that look like? It looks like moving from conformity to a moral code to a trusting, active obedience to the living God--the God of grace. This participation is "a new moral life that flows from grace in which external legal relation is replaced by inner filial relation to God the Father" (p. 10).
This new life that is ours in Christ is ruled not by the external imperatives of law. A law code (no matter how well-intentioned) is not the answer to our pressing need for ethical reformation at many levels both personal and societal. Instead, the rule of the new ethical life in Christ involves "the indicatives and imperatives of God's grace" (p. 11). It is about ethical living that flows from participation in Christ's own loving and living. The indicatives of grace proclaim who Christ is and thus who we are; and the imperatives of grace involve us being and becoming, by the power of the Spirit, who we truly are in Christ--God's reconciled, dearly beloved children who live in a restored love relationship with our heavenly Father, and with one another (our brothers and sisters).
Note that this transformation is not merely moral, not merely about "cleaning up our act." Instead, it's fundamentally and necessarily ontological--it's about the re-creation of humanity in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus. As Speidell notes,
We are in fact new creatures in Christ, not merely conceptually but also ontologically; through the gift of the Spirit we may and must live and act, both graciously and dynamically, based on who we are and are becoming from now till the eschaton.... The incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ, who has assumed and healed our humanity, calls us to follow him by participation in what he has done and continues to do in the world; we act in union with Christ by the presence and power of the Spirit in service to God the Father on behalf of the world. Far from inaction, the Spirit calls us to take up our cross and follow Christ. (pp. 11-12)
The transformation of our being that is ours in Christ, including our participation in Christ' life in the world, is not merely a personal or private matter--it's fundamentally, and necessarily, social--"a social ethic that extends in and throughout all strata of human life, including and transforming historical and horizontal existence." Indeed, "God's reconciling work [in and through Christ, and in which, by the Spirit, we participate] penetrates and transforms the social spheres and horizontal domains of human life" (pp. 12-13).