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 to do with “ethics” would involve the formulation, and clarification, of normative principles and claims, that “social” would restrict the problem-area to “interpersonal” or “community” relations, and that the “justification” of the principles and claims would involve an appeal, somewhere along the way, to biblical or theological data.

He might conclude, then, that Christian social ethics is a discipline that deals with these sorts of problems: (1) moral issues within the Christian community, such as what the Apostle Paul was worried about when he condemned the “vain babblings and disputings” in the Church, and matters of church discipline; (2) moral aspects of the relation of the Church and its members to the larger human community, as in the questions of whether the Christian ought to pay taxes and serve in the military, and of how the Church should aid the poor and the oppressed; and (3) the Church’s moral deliberations, and mission, in regard to problems of the larger human community as such, as in Billy Sunday’s denunciation of “gin mill” operators and Pope John’s straggles with nuclear proliferation.

Article continues below

But when one reads descriptions of Christian social ethics by many who claim to be practitioners of it, one finds that his hunch seems wrong. Consider this account given by Professor Walter G. Muelder in Moral Law in Christian Social Ethics (John Knox Press, 1966):

Christian social ethics is an interdisciplinary field and therefore is difficult to define precisely. Its component disciplines are all in the process of active development and reinterpretation. Negatively speaking, Christian social ethics is not theological ethics with applications to current social questions made apart from philosophical and scientific analysis. It is not—even when the problems discussed are social—a presentation of general theoretical ethics with biblical sanctions. It is not sociology of religion or any other behavioral science. It is, positively stated, interdisciplinary, which commits its practitioners to undertake joint, supplementary, or complementary theoretical and empirical studies in theology, philosophical ethics, behavioral and historical sciences. Christian social ethics seeks emergent coherence [p. 20].

He continues:

Most works in Christian ethics belong either in biblical theology or systematic theology. Such books are often perceptive in regard to social questions, but this alone does not qualify them in the field of social ethics, for to so qualify they must also exhibit a knowledge of the sciences specifically relevant to empirical and situational mastery of a problem.

Of course, in theological matters as in others, it is often hard to evaluate a claim as to what a particular activity is or is not. As an example: When a well-known (and controversial) bishop tells us that to recite the Apostles’ Creed is not to make a series of claims about what is the case (i.e., claims that are in principle verifiable or falsifiable) but rather to do something more akin to singing a battle-song, it is difficult to know just how to respond.

If he is telling us what he is doing when he utters the words of the creed, then there is no way to disagree with him short of questioning his honesty (and also the honesty of anyone who happens to agree with him). In one sense at least, a person can do anything he wants to do and mean anything he wants to mean. But if his claim is that everyone, no matter what he thinks he is doing when he recites the creed, is merely cheering the team (be it the Church or the world) on to victory, then this is open to dispute. And if he is saying, not that this is what everyone is doing, but rather that it is what everyone ought to be doing, or ought to think of himself as doing, there is occasion for considerable debate.

Article continues below

Now Professor Muelder, in the passage cited, doesn’t seem to be telling us merely how he prefers to do Christian social ethics; nor does he seem to be giving us an account of what really goes on when someone claims to be engaged in that discipline, despite what that person himself may say. Rather, he appears to be telling us how that discipline is properly pursued, how it ought to be understood.

If we were to accept his account as a description of the activities of any one person who is properly engaged in Christian social ethics, certain practical problems would arise. Anyone who even purported to enter this “interdisciplinary” endeavor Muelder describes would have to be considered the advance-guard of a new kind of intellectual. The prerequisites rival those necessary for entrance into the sparsely populated ranks of both the class of Platonic philosopher-kings and the ancient order of Melchizedek. And the fact that one so often finds theologians doing bad theology, philosophers doing bad philosophy, behavioral scientists doing bad behavioral science, and historians doing bad history, evokes gloomy images of the possible combinations that might result should a group of pretenders to this new rank ever descend upon us.

Of course, the fact that a discipline is extremely difficult is not enough to rule it out as an interesting and desirable possibility. The philosopher G. E. Moore once made this criticism of casuistry: “The defects of Casuistry are not defects of principle; no objection can be taken to its aim and object. It has failed only because it is far too difficult a subject to be treated adequately in our present state of knowledge.” I am inclined to think that this criticism applies to the conception of Christian social ethics Muelder describes. It would be ironic if, while other academic disciplines become increasingly more specialized, theologians should attempt to become more cosmopolitan in their skills. Since the clinical psychologist, for instance, finds it more and more difficult to keep abreast of all the developments in clinical psychology, to say nothing of experimental psychology, the goal of “interdisciplinary” competence appears elusive.

Article continues below

However, this is a somewhat unfair interpretation of the passage cited. For Professor Muelder is not saying that each person who does Christian social ethics must be competent in theology, philosophy, history, and the bahavioral sciences. Rather, he speaks of “joint, supplementary, or complementary” projects. It is improbable that any one person would be involved in the full range of the discipline. More likely, a given problem would be dealt with by a team consisting of, say, a theologian, a philosopher, a sociologist, and a historian, and each would contribute to a program that could be considered appropriate to Christian social ethics.

What, if anything, is wrong with this scheme? Suppose that a Christian were to attempt to decide whether the production and maintenance of nuclear-type weapons of mass destruction is right or wrong (or perhaps neutral). And imagine further that he arrives at an answer in this way: According to scriptural teaching, God’s physical creation is “good,” and man was created, in the image of God, with the capacity, and for the purpose, of being a “faithful steward” over God’s good creation. From this it follows that man’s large-scale production of weapons that could virtually destroy a significant part of the creation which it is his God—given task to replenish and maintain is a willful and irresponsible act of rebellion against the Creator. Hence, the production of weapons of mass destruction is morally wrong. (Someone might want to reply to this simplistic argument by citing additional biblical data to support the claim that it is often morally permissible, justifiable, or even necessary to use force in the service of a righteous cause. To this the proponent of the original argument might respond with questions as to the kind or limits of force consistent with Christian principles, and the debate could proceed. At any rate, it is not unthinkable that such a debate could be carried on by two persons equally committed to Christian principles who disagree over the implications of the data they both accept.)

Article continues below

Note that this example is in accord with our earlier “hunch” about Christian social ethics—it offers biblical data in support of a moral claim about a social matter. It also seems to fit one description of what Muelder says Christian social ethics “is not,” that is, “theological ethics with applications to current social questions made apart from philosophical and scientific analysis.” Now, once again, it would not be so bad if the writer were merely opposing his preferences to someone else’s. But by all indications he feels that what he has in mind is a more adequate way for a Christian to come to grips with a social issue. What our method lacks, on his account, is “a knowledge of the sciences specifically relevant to empirical and situational mastery of a problem.”

In what way would the “knowledge” he speaks of improve upon the simple piece of moral deliberation described above? Surely the “theoretical and empirical” studies would not alter the theological claims (“God’s creation is a good creation,” “Man’s task is to be a faithful steward,” and so on). Nor does one have to do very extensive research to know of the capacities of our present store of nuclear weaponry. It must be that what the writer has in mind is this: The argument as far as it goes is not necessarily ill-conceived, but there is much more that Christian social ethics must do.

Someone who feels that our hunch about the nature of Christian social ethics is correct might also agree that coming to a moral conclusion in the manner described above does not exhaust the Christian’s moral task. As Kierkegaard rightly observed in the preface to The Sickness Unto Death:

This relation of the Christian teaching to life (in contrast with a scientific aloofness from life), or this ethical side of Christianity, is essentially the edifying, and the form in which it is presented, however strict it may be, is altogether different, qualitatively different, from that sort of learning which is “indifferent,” the lofty heroism of which is from a Christian point of view so far from being heroism that from a Christian point of view it is an inhuman sort of curiosity.

The Christian’s moral reasoning will often be a concerned endeavor, one that will inevitably lead to witness and action.

However, more than this is suggested in Professor Muelder’s account. It seems that what he is saying is that Christian social ethics not only applies biblical and/or theological norms to current social problems but also formulates specific socio-economic, psychological, perhaps even political, schemes for solving these problems. But it is hard to see how this suggestion differs from the simple assertion that in addition to doing Christian social ethics Christians must also do philosophy, sociology, psychology, and the like. And this latter way of putting it has some advantages. Keeping Christian social ethics distinct from other disciplines that Christians should, and do, also engage in, enables the Church to take unequivocal stands without having to confuse its moral witness with specific social programs. This is not to say that the Church should remain aloof from specific programs, but only that these endeavors should be distinguished from each other. There are theological reasons for keeping them distinct. The Christian diagnosis of social ills must be spelled out with reference to concepts—such as man’s fallen condition and redemption through Christ’s atoning work—that are not reducible to the language of the sciences.

Article continues below

However, it should not be thought that the Church can make its diagnosis and offer its cure while Christians ignore the social, psychological, and economic conditions of men. This point is often missed in discussions of Christian duty with respect to the civil rights of human beings. We cannot preach to the slum-dweller that he has an obligation to rightly use, replenish, and enjoy God’s good creation, and to exercise his duties as a responsible citizen, and at the same time ignore the fact that very often certain practices and laws make it impossible for him to do so.

Finally, it is often necessary for the Church to take an unequivocal stand against prevailing economic, social, and political conditions, even where it is practically impossible to offer any solution rooted in sound “theoretical and empirical” analysis. If the Church commits itself to always offering the latter, it will of necessity remain silent at times when it has a prophetic obligation to speak. This is so because the Church’s “solutions” are such that they will often appear, from certain perspectives, “impossible.” And I suspect that the reason for this is that when the Church starts talking about what is “possible,” it inevitably gets around to speaking of a Resurrection.

Article continues below



Nor quinquireme nor caravel

Troubles these waters

With sail flap

And beat of many oars.

Only the small coracle

Rocks on the tide’s edge.

And I must put to sea.

The wind riffles the water

And the waves splat

Against the harbour granite.

I do not know where—

By what cliffs, what landfalls,

What unimagined shores—

I shall find the ultimate harbour,

But there is a wind that will take me,

And I shall go swift and far

At that wind’s urging.

There is no ship

That I may embark upon.

Between port and port

They ply a different journey.

But for this voyaging

Only the sea is wide enough

And the sky deep enough,

And enough, too, the small coracle

In the hollow of the wind’s hand.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.