Tag Archives: history

Are Christian Ethics Conservative or Progressive?

Coming to Terms:

First, I better clarify what I mean by “conservative” and “progressive.” I’m not referring to any specific set of policies as held by Republicans or Democrats, or even to politics in general. Instead, I’m referring to a view of ethics as it relates to history. When I ask if Christian ethics is “conservative” I’m asking if it primarily looks to the past, looking either to maintain or go back to an earlier ethic? When I ask if it is “progressive” I am asking whether it looks to the future, looking for a progression in ethics to some ideal state.

The Case for Conservatism

Most people tend to associate Christian ethics with conservatism, and there’s good reason why. The first leg of a conservative ethics is the doctrine of Creation. When God made the world, he made it in an ideal state. There was no human sin or suffering. We lived in a perfect relationship with one another and with God. A conservative ethic aims to help us understand what life was like before sin entered the world and then act accordingly.

The second leg of conservatism is revealed law. God has clearly revealed aspects of his moral will and he cannot lie. Therefore, we are not permitted to add novelty to these commands. We cannot “progress” pass prohibitions against murder or adultery or lying or theft. The laws were there from the beginning and they are bound up in the unchanging character of God. These immutable moral laws are thus worth “conserving.”

A conservative ethic is based on Creation, and assumes that God’s moral law helps us live rightly within that created order, or restrain sin so that less damage is done to it.

The Case for Progressivism

Whereas a conservative ethic is based on Creation, you might say that a Christian progressive ethic is based on the future Kingdom of God. Yes, God created the world, but we’re not going to get back to Eden. Instead, we’re asking God to bring the Kingdom of God – some future reality – into the here and now. The aim of the Christian progressive ethic, then, is to imagine what this future reality will be, and then act accordingly.

In terms of moral law, a person more bent towards the progressive view of history would notice that there are shifts within the law given throughout Scripture. Much of the Old Testament law was not so immutable after all. The sacrificial system found fulfillment in Christ (and being obsolete was done away with). Circumcision was replaced (either by baptism or faith, depending on your theological leanings). Dietary laws were likewise made null. Some laws seem to be given for a specific time and place, bound up either in the cultural context of the day, or in the theocratic nature of Israel. The question, then, is whether those progressions continue in light of the present and the future, and how much?

Some problems for both conservatives and progressives

Both strict conservatives and progressives as described here face some major challenges. Conservatives look back to creation, but outside of a few chapters in Genesis, that idyllic state is lost to us. The fact is that we live in a world sin, and even our own moral perceptions are marred by sin. Often conservatives choose some later development – perhaps ancient Israel, perhaps the early church, perhaps an earlier time in American history – as the point to which we should return. But the problem with this is obvious. Sin has been a constant force throughout history. There is no “ideal time” to which we could return. The only real historical developments are the way in which sin changes form. In terms of the written code, strict conservatives face two challenges: First, it is not exhaustive, so we must always attempt to correctly apply broader principles to current events. Second, what should we do with the “progressions” we see throughout Scriptures listed above?

But strict progressives face a similar problem. Less is known about the future than the past. Ideals of the Kingdom of God can only be perceived in its relation to Creation and the sin that has marred it. Furthermore, once allowing for a progression within the moral law (or within the written code), are we then left with moral chaos? If the past systems can always be overthrown, who is to say whether overthrowing it is a good or a bad idea? If you think a certain moral revolution is in order, on what basis is it good? If it’s based on some prior principle, haven’t you reverted to a conservative mindset after all?

Resurrection and Moral Order

resurrection and moral orderOliver O’Donovan’s thesis in Resurrection and Moral Order is that Christian ethics depends on the resurrection as the event which brings these two trains of thought together:

“In the resurrection of Christ creation is restored and the kingdom of God dawns. Ethics which starts from this point may sometimes emphasize the newness, sometimes the primitiveness of the order that is here affirmed. But it will not be tempted to overthrow or deny either in the name of the other.”


“From the resurrection, we look not only back to the created order which is vindicated, but forwards to out eschatological participation in that order.”

As O’Donovan sees it, the resurrection is God’s affirmation, or vindication of the created order. The created order is the reality with which all people need to reckon. In the resurrection God makes it clear that he is not abolishing this created order, but is affirming it. But in the resurrection God is nevertheless doing a radically “new” thing, a true novelty. Furthermore, in Christ’s resurrection we, through the Spirit, can look forward to our resurrection. Indeed, we participate in that resurrection now through faith, having been raised with Christ in a spiritual sense. The resurrection, therefore, allows us to look backwards to creation, and forwards to new creation.

But the forward-looking aspect is not an overthrow of the past. The created order is not abolished, not are the laws of Israel or anything within the written code, but is fulfilled. They are not contradicted, but set within their proper context – both historical and theological. God does not “go back” on his previous word, but his word is clarified in light of the present and anticipated fulfillment in the future.

Because there is an unbroken relationship between creation and the kingdom of God, we see each other more clearly. We can understand creation more clearly because we see in Jesus the first fruits of the new creation. And we can see the future kingdom of God more clearly because we understand that what we are looking for is not demolition, but a redemption.

The test case of marriage

Helpfully, O’Donovan applies this concept to the concrete topic of marriage. A conservative ethic looks back towards Adam and Even in the garden as its template for marriage. But a progressive might point to Jesus’s statement in Matthew 22:30 “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” Does this mean that marriage can be radically altered beyond the creation mandate? Can we progress “beyond” marriage as understood in the first chapters of Genesis? O’Donovan understood it in this way:

“Humanity in the presence of God will know community in which the fidelity of love which marriage makes possible will be extended beyond the limits of marriage. To this eschatological hope the New Testament church bore witness by fostering the social conditions which could support a vocation to single life. It conceived of marriage and singleness as alternative vocations, each a worthy form of life, the two together comprising the whole Christian witness to the nature of affectionate community. The one declared that God had vindicated the order of creation, the other pointed beyond it to its eschatological transformation. But the coexistence of the two within the Christian church did not mean the loss of integrity of either. Each had to function as what it was, according to its own proper structure. The married must live as married, the single as single. Neither would accommodate itself or evoke in the other an evolutionary mutation. Marriage that was not marriage could not witness to the goodness of the created order, singleness that was not singleness could tell us nothing of the fulfillment for which it was destined.”

In other words, in a Christian ethic based on the resurrection, marriage is affirmed as marriage, affirming the created order, and singleness is affirmed as singleness, pointing to a future transformation in the kingdom of God.

Issues of religious liberty aren’t anything new

I’m as concerned as any about what appears to be eroding religious liberty/freedom of conscience in this great country. I believe strongly that an individual should not be forced by the government to act in a way that violates his or her conscience. Recent issues involving freedom of conscience have, on occasion, blown up my Facebook timeline. These are important topics and Christian should be aware of new legal developments. However, while some of the particulars are new, the tension between the interests of the (secular) government and the (religious) individual have been around sine the birth of the nation. “There is nothing new under the sun.”

I just finished reading Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas. George Washington was, by everyone’s account, a great man. However,  he had a checkered-at-best position on slavery and, worse, signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act. This Act allowed slave owners to hunt down slaves in any state and forced objectors in the North to return slaves to their owners (or bounty hunters) who came to hunt them down. For those who opposed slavery on religious grounds or for the sake of conscience they would have to violate the law in order to act in a way consistent with their faith. This is, in fact, what many Quakers did in response to this unjust law.

This little fact gives me strange comfort. We’re tempted to think that the struggles of Christians today is somehow new, or we romanticize the past. We wish for a time when we lived in a “Christian” nation. I’m pretty sure such a nation never really existed, and this story illustrates that fact. We obviously desire that laws which force individuals to violate their conscience or restrict religious freedom  be struck down, just as the Fugitive Slave Act was, but in the meantime, our response needs to be like that of the Quakers – trust and obey. Fear God and not man.

The Problem of Reductionist Ethics

I recently re-read Maslow’s so-called “hierarchy of needs.” The primary purpose of this paper is to describe a “theory of human motivation.” It does, however, include one moral imperative, the imperative of self-actualization: “What a man can be, he must be.” This, according to Maslow, is the only way to be ultimately happy. There is also a concession that this imperative is bounded. People are not free to do anything in the name of self-actualization. Instead, they must have “freedom to do what one wishes as long as no harm is done to others.” (italics mine) Maslow’s theory is not a theory of ethics, however, as I, in my very unscientific way, have observed the shift of cultural ethics, these two moral axioms do seem to dominate popular conceptions of morality.

Axiom #1, the self-actualization imperative: What you can be, you must be.

Axiom #2, the no-harm imperative: You are free to act toward needs-gratification and self-actualization so long as this action does not harm others.

It’s my contention that there are significant problems with this system of ethics. This is not to say these two proposals are necessarily bad, but they are incomplete. Here are a few of the limitations of such an ethic.

There is inherent conflict between the two axioms: I could point to several extreme examples (what if one man’s idea of self-actualization includes murder?) but you don’t need to look far for a plethora of examples of conflict. Consider, for example, the case of divorce. Divorce, in the vast majority of cases, causes harm – even if only emotional. For Maslow, emotional well-being is one of the pre-requisites for self-actualization. So (at least using Maslow’s understanding of wellness) divorce causes harm, and would therefore not be permitted under the “no-harm” axiom. Yet, many people would claim that their marriage is, in fact, an impediment to personal happiness, to love, and to self-actualization. So, if this is the case, for the person to fulfill the imperative to be happy through self-actualization, they must divorce their spouse. Here a conflict arises. On a human level, this is most certainly a difficult decision as the individual weighs their personal happiness verses the relative harm that will be caused to their spouse, children, etc. It doesn’t take too much analysis to see that personal happiness usually wins out. This reductionist ethic provides to way of mitigating between the two competing moral imperatives.

Several moral categories disappear or lose their meaning: It is no wonder to me that the moral category of “duty” (with the exception of military) is rapidly disappearing. There is simply no room for duty as an ethic in this system. The conception of duty is markedly anti-self interest (breaking axiom #1) and shirking ones duty, except in a minority of cases, does not obviously cause harm. To speak of the “duty” of a mother or the “duty” of a husband or the “duty” of an employee strikes many as old-fashioned. It is an impediment to self-actualization. Duty can only exist when understood in relation to the other axioms. So, duty is OK, if it means the duty to provide for someone’s basic needs (because neglect would be a form of causing harm). Or, duty is OK if, because of some cultural mindset, fulfilling your duty becomes a part of self-actualization. Similar arguments could be made for the moral categories of integrity (what goes on when no one is watching) and hard work. Again, these concepts may still come into play, but only in relation to the above two, and can therefore be discarded if they do not serve the greater good, namely, personal happiness and fulfillment.

This moral framework is built upon an overly optimistic view of human nature. It assumes that there will be few conflicts because people will basically seek after noble and good things. It’s built on humanism which holds that people are basically good. If people are basically good, they will, by their very nature, seek good things which will benefit not only themselves but others. It also assumes, incorrectly I believe, that people will seek the good of others. History, unfortunately, does not show this to be true. Even humanists can see this, but they also have…

…an overly optimistic view of history. The human race is ever progressing and ever moving forward. Yes, we were bad in the past, but those faults are slowly being worked out as history progresses. We are not just getting “smarter” or more technological, we are also becoming more moral and more in tune with the needs of others. This is the progressive/humanist viewpoint. This means that all new conceptions of morality are necessarily better than older forms. Being morally progressive is categorically better than being morally conservative. This strikes me as colossally arrogant! People complain (often rightly) about being ethno-centric. But, this modern viewpoint seems incredibly histro-centric. It supposes somehow that our modern conceptions of ethics are approaching the pinnacle of moral reasoning. Certainly, we have progressed in many areas. Freedom is better than slavery. Democracy is better than authoritarianism. But, to say that everything new is categorically better than everything old is arrogant.

Ultimately, holding these two axioms alone as a moral framework provides an incomplete view of what makes something right or wrong. What do you think? Am I missing something?