There was a time when a student of theology would wrestle with (or at least acknowledge) the moral implications of the Christian faith in one or more disciplines with such names as moral theology, moral philosophy, theological ethics, biblical ethics, casuistry. Although these names linger on in the curricula of some Roman Catholic and Anglican institutions, they, and the corresponding distinctions among the disciplines they name, have largely disappeared from the Protestant scene.

It is not my concern to argue that this disappearance is regrettable. Surely the dividing up of Christian moral concerns among moral philosophers, moral theologians, and casuists was often confused and arbitrary; and I, for one, have always had trouble keeping my biblical ethics from crowding in on my theological ethics, and vice versa.

However, anyone who wants the Church to take its moral task seriously will want to be certain that whatever scheme has replaced the older scheme(s) is one that, first of all, enables the Church to carry out that task more effectively, and, secondly, is not based on confusion over what that task involves. The newer schemes have opted for simplicity. Sometimes the questions that were previously divided among several disciplines are now considered as the domain of, simply, “Christian ethics,” a subject pursued in various ways and with differing emphases. Often one finds a further specification added, as in “Christian personal ethics” and “Christian social ethics.”

My present concern is to try to get clear about the nature of “Christian social ethics.” A reasonably intelligent person hearing for the first time that there is such a thing might have a hunch of what it is about. He might think that a discipline that has ...

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