A theological ethic, part 5 (conclusion)

This is the fifth and concluding post in a series adapted from "What is a Theological Ethic?" a lecture by GCS professor Dr. Gary Deddo. For other posts in the series, click a number: 123, 4.

Last time we saw that our calling as followers of Jesus is first to worship God (and no other), then out of that relationship of worship (loving God), to love our neighbors (sharing in God's love for them). By worshiping only God, we avoid a form of idolatry that is common in our day -- the collapsing of the first Great Commandment (to love God) into the second (to love neighbor). Let's look further at how a theological ethic protects us from this idolatry. We begin with Jesus' example.

Jesus' example of sacrificial giving

Throughout his life on earth, Jesus showed perfect love by sacrificially giving of himself. He first gave himself in faithful, even joyful obedience to his Father. Then, as part of his worship of the Father, Jesus gave sacrificially of himself to us. It was out of total trust in and honor to his Father that Jesus loved and served us. Jesus serves us only in ways that take us to the Father.

Jesus Washing Peter's Feet by George Brown (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It was because Jesus knew he was in right relationship to his Father and the Spirit, and because he knew where he had come from and was returning, that he served us in the ways he did. This truth is explicitly illustrated in John’s presentation of Jesus’ washing of his disciple’s feet at the Last Supper -- an act by which he “loved them to the end [telos]" (John 13:1). In this act of love, Jesus was fulfilling both of the Great Commandments in the right order, priority and inter-relationship. Understanding sacrifice as an act of the worship due only to God, Jesus did not allow Peter to dictate how the foot washing should occur. Jesus veered neither to the right nor the left in fulfilling the Father's will. In doing so, Jesus resisted and offended Peter (and perhaps others).

Jesus' disciples had to receive what Jesus was actually giving them, not something else they might have preferred -- something that might not have offended their pride. Had Jesus yielded to their preferences, he would not have “loved them to the end” -- the telos -- to completion. Rather, he would have loved them less and perhaps not at all. It was only as an overflow of his sacrifice to God and to God’s good will and glory that Jesus “sacrificed” himself for us, not to us -- not bending his will to our will and ways and ideas of what we might consider to be loving. Self-sacrifice is due to God, our Creator and Redeemer, and to no one or nothing else. That is what Jesus' example makes clear.

Self-giving to others in Christ’s name, for God's glory

Jesus Christ, and no other, is our Creator and Redeemer. We were created to be and become images of him and of no one and nothing else. So, it is the same for us as it was for Jesus in his earthly ministry. Any self-giving for another human being must be motivated, guarded and controlled by our self-surrender to God first and alone, in worship. Love for neighbor certainly will involve self-giving and in that sense self-sacrifice. However, that sacrifice will never be to the neighbor, -- it will be for the neighbor as our worship of God, as his commands to us specify. Directed toward worship of God, our “sacrificial giving” will glorify God while also contributing to the true benefit of our neighbor. Any of our “sacrificing” must be done in the name of our Triune God, not in the name of our neighbor.

Sacrificial giving that does not come under the discerning and sanctifying light of the worship of God, following in his ways, results in faulty, even evil “sacrifice.” There is nothing Christian about the idea or ideal of sacrifice itself. Pagan religions are full of it -- with the ultimate (most grotesque) expression being the sacrifice of children to the god Molek (2 Kings 23:10).

As in religion, so it is in relationships -- sacrificial giving can become a means to manipulate, entrap, ensnare and place in endless obligation the one for whom the sacrifice is made. Conversely, the demand for sacrificial giving as an ideal held up for others to live by, can be tyrannical and even demonic. Jesus himself had to resist exactly this kind of sacrificial heroism as a way of obtaining the earthly goods offered him by the devil. Jesus said No! every time. He refused any self-sacrifice to the devil.

When Jesus is offered as a mere generic example for us to imitate, his sacrifice is torn apart from his exclusive worship of God, and redirected to establish an abstract and autonomous human “ethical” ideal -- one that inevitably enslaves and even destroys the one who sacrifices in the name of the ideal and also the one for whom such a humanistic ideal is rendered. Sacrificial giving can never be separated from a continuous worship relationship with God in which our first sacrifice is sharing in Christ’s self-giving to the Father. Then and only then, as an overflow of that self-giving, may we participate in Christ’s service of others done, in the name of the Father and the Son, for them, not to them. There is no ethic of autonomous self-sacrifice, no simple human ideal of self-giving to another to fulfill. No other human being nor their circumstances can set the terms of our self-giving. Our self-giving must be moved, conditioned and controlled by God. There is no human sacrifice for the sake of other humans or humanity itself, since no human is divine -- humanity is not God.

Perhaps it would be best if we removed the entire idea of sacrifice from Christian ethical thinking and restrict the notion of sacrifice to our exclusive relationship of worship with God. When speaking of our creaturely relations, it might be best to stick to the idea of self-giving for another. We would thus say that we sacrifice ourselves to God exclusively, but that sacrifice results in self-giving to others in Christ’s name, for the glory of God. Another way to say this is that all our relations with other human beings must be mediated by the lordship of Christ.

The point here is that all ethical activity must be done in and through Jesus Christ. Our Lord must stand between us and all others. He mediates not only our relationship to the Father and the Spirit, but also our relationships with other humans, and even with the natural environment. The New Testament way of indicating this, is to say that everything we do, we do “in the name of the Lord,” or "in the Lord,” or “as unto the Lord,” or “for the glory of God.” We can only truly love others with God’s kind of love when it is defined, determined, moved and lived out with Christ regulating what we give to others and also what we are to receive from others.

The only way to come close to others in a way that brings God’s kind of life, is to have Christ be a real, actual insulator between us and all others. That is why Jesus is and remains the Head of the Body of Christ, Lord over each and every member. No other member becomes that to us, even if others assist and help us remain in Christ, under his Lordship. All our relationships are to be mediated by Jesus Christ.

Beware a humanistic ideal of altruism

This critique of self-sacrifice (sacrificial giving) calls into question the ideal of altruism -- doing good for another simply for the sake of doing good, with no thought for the self. This is sometimes called a disinterested love. But this humanistic ideal is no substitute for God’s agape love and our sharing in it through Jesus. Unfortunately, the two are often equated, especially by ethicists. But doing so is an error. The two must be carefully distinguished, which is done by seeing Christian love, service and self-giving, only as it is judged (sorted out) and directed by Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ love was not simply “un-selfish” as altruists often claim. Such a claim is worldly. While Jesus' love was not self-centered, it was not disinterested, expecting no benefit from it at all. No, Jesus' love and self-giving was for the benefit of his Father, to point all to God and God’s glory and to bring about reconciliation to God so that his heavenly Father would be rightly worshiped by his creatures -- those created through him (Christ), for him, and to him. It was for “the joy set before him [that] Jesus endured the Cross” (Heb. 12:2).  Jesus' love was interested in the glory and worship of the Father -- it was not altruistic in that it intended a particular outcome, namely, the benefit of those for whom he died that they might join him in worship of the Father in spirit and truth! A love that seeks the right and appropriate benefit is not a lesser love contrary to what altruists assert.

As a human-centered (humanistic) ideal, self-sacrifice can become a horrific substitute for the kind of agape-sacrifice directed by God through Christ that leads to life now and forever. Promoted as the “highest” moral ideal, (e.g. the only way that true love for God can be shown) needed to achieve a humanistic end (a utilitarian human-centered end such as human survival, or the victory of a social/political ideology, a medical or technological advance, the advance of a religion, etc.) self-sacrifice can also be used to undermine a Christian theological ethic. It can be used to get us to depart from what the apostle Paul calls "the obedience of faith." It can be used to pry people loose from living out of a worship relationship with the Triune God who alone is worthy of our self-sacrifice, worthy of our complete surrender to him and his ways.

The way of a theological ethic is never self-centered. It is always theo-centric (Christo-centric). The obedience called for by this ethic results in sacrifice that is expressive of loyalty to the triune God, not loyalty (in the ultimate sense) to any created thing (including humans). Furthermore, a theological ethic always contributes to a theo-centric or Christo-centric witness that resists equating the two Great Commandments, then collapsing the first into the second, making the second, by default, the only commandment.

A truly Christian theological ethic both preserves and draws from the two Great Commands as taught and lived out by Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, Savior and Lord over all humanity.