Trinitarian ethics: How then shall we live?

Our exploration of Trinitarian theology brings us to the important subject of Trinitarian ethics, asking, How then shall we live? In answering, we begin not by asking What? or Why? or How? but Who? Specifically, Who is Jesus?

What does this question have to do with ethics? The answer is, everything!

Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, is true humanity - the person who, alone, fully and perfectly expresses what it means to be human. And thus we look to him for our identity and for the definitive word concerning how we are to live (our ethics). As we do, we don't ask merely, What would Jesus do? but, What is Jesus now doing? - recognizing that Jesus, who is still human (now glorified), is alive and ministering actively through the Holy Spirit in our world.

So what is Jesus now doing? The answer is this: He does what he is, namely love. This is not just any kind of love, but Love of the God-kind as it is being expressed through the glorified humanity of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. This, and nothing else, is the true basis and goal of all Christian ethics which, fundamentally, is Trinitarian ethics.

And so the great ethical question for us is this: How is Jesus living and loving here and how may I participate? A related question is this: Will this particular behavior be a real sharing, through the Holy Spirit, in Jesus' life and love, or will it not?

This Trinitarian, incarnational approach takes ethics beyond a rigid, knee-jerk, rules-based approach to one that is fully relational, and thus expressive of the triune relationality of God. In that regard, Jesus was critical of how the Jewish religious teachers of his day approached the Law of Moses - stripping it of its essential relationality by focusing on prescribed (or prohibited) behaviors alone. But this approach overlooked the divine purpose of the Law as it was given to Israel through Moses, which was to lead Israel to her Savior. The Law was designed to do so by showing Israel (and all humanity through Israel) their need for the real life that comes only through union and communion with God by grace, apart from the Law.

As noted in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book Ethics, humankind, having fallen (become estranged from God) in the Garden of Eden, lost that life, and instead experienced shame, which is expressive of a living death. Adam and Eve (and all humanity after them) sought to cover this shame by hiding from God and thus forming their own basis for life (which is no life at all). However, God did not abandon Adam and Eve to the imprisonment of shame and the death it bespeaks. Instead, he provided temporary relief (a covering) as he went to work bringing about permanent, true deliverance from shame that comes through experiencing real life. That work of transformation came to its great climax in the union of our shame-filled (fallen) human nature with God in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, our shame (and the sin that causes it) was dealt with decisively, not merely covered temporarily.

Now, in Jesus, humanity has real life - and thus is able to look unashamedly into the face of God, and unashamedly into the face of other humans. Now humanity, in Jesus, is free to be loved and to love - to share in Jesus' perfect love for God and for all people, which is real life. Christian ethics is about living and loving with Jesus.

It is thus wrongheaded to look elsewhere to define Christian ethics. For example, we err in grounding ethics in what "feels right" to us as humans - for our feelings (which typically are grounded in shame) are not reliable as an ethical standard. We also err when we look to the law (any law, including the Law of Moses) as the ultimate arbiter of ethics, for law, by its nature, is static and cannot love with the flexibility with which Jesus loves God and humanity.

Bonhoeffer came to understand this as he wrestled with the many gut-wrenching ethical dilemmas presented by the rise of Nazism in Germany. His book Ethics is a compilation of various essays that he wrote as he wrestled.

Today, we face our own ethical challenges, many having to do with distortions of our God-given sexuality. As they wrestle with the subject Christian sexual ethics, many churches and whole denominations are asking: Should we bless same-sex unions? Should we ordain practicing homosexuals? Should we accept practicing homosexuals into Christian fellowship? Similar questions arise concerning transgendered people.

In seeking answers to such questions, we should start with our original question: Who is Jesus? We then build on that foundation to address topics concerning ethics, including sexual ethics. To read more about this approach toward ethics, click here for an index of Surprising God blog posts that address the topic of ethics.