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Ethics and social change

26 February 2016

Scott Bader-Saye examines the relationship between doctrine and ethics


“Liberality”: from a French of 15th-century manuscript of Ethics, Politics and Economics by Aristotle (382-332 BC)

“Liberality”: from a French of 15th-century manuscript of Ethics, Politics and Economics by Aristotle (382-332 BC)

THE question of how doctrinal theology informs ethics is closely related to another one: “What makes Christian ethics Christian?” The past 50 years of Anglo-American ethics have brought this question to the fore, and have shown that to ask how ethics is related to doctrine is always also to ask how ethics is related to Church.

In the mid-20th century, the dominant model among Anglican and Protestant ethicists sought to distance ethics from doctrine. This move grew from two primary roots: (1) a constructive optimism about the emerging “secular city”, that believed the Church could be most relevant and effective in making social change by downplaying theology and highlighting our overlap with progressive secular ethics; and (2) a critical hunger for liberation that sought to channel the Church’s energies into social movements that freed the marginalised from an oppression that had, at times, been justified by appeal to theological warrants.

Each of these movements helped to shift the Church from its often presumed partnership with power into a posture that emphasised critique, hope, and social change. This was a vision of Church as social movement, and ethics as a response to the signs of the (secular) times.

By the 1970s and ’80s, however, a new generation of leaders in the Church and the academy recognised that the tendency to identify the Church’s moral vision with the most progressive elements of cultural change (or, conversely, with the most conserving elements) was making the Church’s own witness to Jesus Christ somewhat irrelevant. Theology served only to reinforce what was already being said on other fronts, and the Church seemed only to motivate people to engage in actions that were pre-determined by the left and right wings of the political spectrum.

Surely, if the Church were following Jesus, its members would be as distinctive and revolutionary in our time as he was in his. And if the Church were bearing witness to God’s coming reign, we would be able to add something distinctive to the public conversation. This was a vision of Church as a contrast to society, and ethics as rigorously theological.

Some of the most interesting conversations of the 21st century have sought to engage both of these trajectories — to co-operate with non-Christians in working for the common good, while also seeking to embody an alternative and distinctive Christian identity made possible by our participation in the life of God.

We might say that this is a vision of Church as a coalition-building people of God, and ethics as theological improvisation. This particular vision relies heavily on an understanding of how two particular doctrines bear on ethics: creation and incarnation.


FIRST, the doctrine of creation takes its bearings from the first few chapters of the Bible. In these chapters, God is depicted as creating a world that is “very good” (Genesis 1.31). The world does not come into being through violence, nor is the thriving of any one part of creation dependent on the destruction of another.

The rich symbolism of this narrative paints a compelling picture of how we might see the world, including: (1) that human beings are made with a capacity to participate in the goodness (that is, the activity of excellence and wholeness) that is God; and (2) that the world is not fundamentally grounded in competition, but in the possibility of shared flourishing.

Although some Protestant traditions read the story of sin in Genesis 3 as a fairly comprehensive undoing of this goodness, the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions have not tended to suppose that the goodness with which God has imbued the world can be so fully overcome by folly and rebellion. While sin does produce a tendency towards self-serving and self-destructive behaviour, it does not render ineffective our capacity for good.

All people remain capable of responding both to the invitation of graced reciprocity (love) and to the demand for shared responsibility (justice). Thus, our common life can take the form of positive progress towards good, and not just negative containment of evil.

This might make a difference, for instance, in a Christian approach to economics, since so much economic theory today assumes (and thus reproduces) a picture of the human person as nothing but an individual, self-interested, rational consumer.


SECOND, the doctrine of incarnation provides: (1) a justification for the primacy of the life and teaching of Jesus in our moral vision; and (2) a pattern for shaping the Church’s engagement with society and politics.

Incarnation is the belief that Jesus of Nazareth embodied both the human and the divine in a single life. The words and actions of Jesus, Christians believe, prove utterly transparent to the pattern and ways of God — a pattern that was the blueprint for creation itself (as we are told in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel).

If Jesus’s way in the world displays the deep ordering by which the creation can flourish, then any Christian approach to sexuality, race, politics, economy, environment, or technology that renders Jesus’s life and witness irrelevant has impoverished itself. The Christian life is not based first in abstract rules, laws, or principles, but in the story of this person, and so the form of Christian ethics will look something like an improvised continuation of his story.

In addition to positing Jesus’s life as a touchstone of moral discernment, the doctrine of incarnation has served as an analogy for thinking about the Church’s relation to civil and political society. Just as God’s reality became present in a human life, so the Church seeks to incarnate the presence of God in the social body within which it finds itself.

This strategy can become problematic if it assumes a kind of “division of labour”, in which the Church cares for the soul, and the State controls the body. In such a paradigm, the Church can falsely baptise the given social order without critique or challenge. But at its best — when the division is resisted — this incarnational social impulse presses the Church to be an agent of transformation for the common good, within whatever social order it finds itself.


DOCTRINE informs ethics by naming the ends toward which our moral lives move. When we articulate an ecclesiology, we are not just explaining an organisational structure, but tracing the outlines of the pilgrim city of God.

When we describe creation we are not just narrating some past event but describing what God has made possible. When we recount the life of Jesus we are not just looking back to a religious founder but illuminating the pattern of a holy and well-lived life.

Through the descriptive work of doctrine we come to know where we are going, and through the prescriptive work of ethics we come to know what attitudes, dispositions, and skills of living will be necessary to help us get there.

Dr Scott Bader-Saye is Academic Dean and Professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology at the Seminary of the Southwest, an Episcopal institution in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear(Brazos Press, 2007).

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