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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

On the Theological Study of Ethics

Published Friday, May 13, 2022 By Seung-Joo Lee

Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) 

In his Reformed Ethics, Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) raised the question: “Is a Christian and Reformed ethic possible?” The answer he confidently provided was “most definitely,” and in the book he argued not for the possibility of Reformed ethics but also for its necessity. “[T]he life of Christ is implanted in us in a moral way and is developed, and the life of Christ manifests itself outwardly “(1.19–29). Then he pressed further and concerned himself with this question: “Are ethics and this practical theology [produced by Reformed scholastics] two distinct disciplines, or can they be handled together?” (1.20). It was important to face this question because ethics often pertained to social norms,whereas theology pertained to religious norms; ethics was about human actions, but dogmatics was about divine actions. Hence the two, some argued, would not fit together harmoniously and require a separate treatment, for the blending of the two would result in humanizing the sacred or divinizing the human. But Bavinck saw that, while acknowledging the difference, the best way to study ethics was to tether it to the study of dogmatics. Doing so avoids (at least) two dangerous pitfalls: on the one hand, it would not make the mistake of studying human actions insufficiently, since the study of ethics only as a dogmatic locus may fail to penetrate into the concrete conditions of human life; on the other hand, it would not make the mistake of treating human morals with Pelagian assumptions (1.20). As he so wonderfully put it:  

In dogmatics we are concerned with what God does for us and in us. In dogmatics God is everything. Dogmatics is a word from God to us, coming from outside us and above us; we are passive, listening, and opening ourselves to being directed by God. In ethics, we are interested in the question of what it is that God now expects of us when he does his work in us. What do we do for him? Here we are active, precisely because of and on the grounds of God’s deeds in us; we sing psalms in thanks and praise to God. In dogmatics, God descends to us; in ethics, we ascend to God. In dogmatics, he is ours; in ethics, we are his…. Dogmatics proceeds from God; ethics returns to God (1.22).  

Pierre de la Place (ca. 1520–72) 

Now, this sort of conviction was not unique to Bavinck, of course. Pierre de la Place (ca. 1520–72), an influential Huguenot reformer who came to the Reformed faith through Calvin’s influence, also presented similar sentiments on the value of studying ethics from a theological standpoint. In his Right Use of Moral Philosophy La Place first of all regarded the study of ethics or human morals as “the most profitable and necessary of all human sciences” (11). The reason is because ethics “treats of human morals and the way to cultivate them well, and it makes the human mind ready and renders it better disposed and prepared to receive the seed of civil and political virtues, and to live in closer unity” (11). Thus ethics, according to La Place, not only analyzes the rationale of good and bad actions, but also cultivates intellectual and moral virtues that altogether enhance one’s communal life, and the communal aspect of ethics is never to be dismissed here; for ethics, ideally speaking, deals with the moral order in empires, nations, villages, towns, cities, and families, and in so doing it provides the moral basis of laws and customs that govern those communal institutions.  

Then he treated the differences between moral philosophy (i.e., ethics) and Christian doctrines. “Moral philosophy is,” La Place asserted, “nothing but an exposition of the law of nature by which everyone can see with considerable ease, pleasure, and contentment how the precepts and teachings of natural law are naturally imprinted on us, and by which everyone can tame and soften human morals and outward life, which had once been savage and fierce, finding the mean with reason as its compass and rejecting the extremes of excess and deficiency” (12). According to this definition moral philosophy is the study of natural law that is analyzed and appropriated by human beings in general, and it aims to unearth the rationale and motives of outward actions that impact the lives of other human beings. In short, moral philosophy, in this sense, is the study of human morals by using the means of natural reason, history, and science, and it was deemed as an excellent field of study for its ability to cultivate, again, one’s moral wisdom and virtues in the light of human communities, societies, and bodies.  

Yet he argued that it is no small error to view moral philosophy and Christian doctrine as one and the same thing” (13). The reason, La Place stated, is that “[m]oral philosophy is limited to certain precepts and teaching for outward action, and seeks to accustom and habituate people to them, so that it might lead them to a civil and political virtue, adorning and clothing them on the outside with a visible act, and looking for no more than an external and human righteousness” (13). “Christian doctrine,” on the other hand, “goes much further, unveils the will of God, and teaches us whatever belongs to a righteousness that is internal, spiritual, and divine, from which good works flow as from their proper source, even though God cannot receive them as pleasing to him in spite of the beauty with which they are adorned” (13). Thus according to La Place there is a notable difference between philosophy and theology, or ethics and dogmatics, and they cannot be confused haphazardly as they have different ends and emphases that aim at different goods of human lives.  

Here, then, is the issue: why should they be studied together, despite their difference? One important reason is because the theological study of ethics enables people to order the ends of their actions in consideration of God: “just as human acts are diverse, so too are the ends, with some ends being more excellent than others… From this it follows that the more distant and remote the end, the more worthy and excellent it is, until from one end to the other one gradually arrives at the last and final end of all, which alone is to be loved and taken hold of for its own regard and sake, rather than for the sake of others” (16). In this view, theology provides the true account of the final end of all human actions, which is God’s glory and pleasure in him, and against that ultimate end all other subordinate ends can find their proper places in the order of human actions. Furthermore, this “Christian” way of approaching ethics captures a distinct order of actions that natural sciences cannot capture, and that is the order of God’s will “as it is exhibited to us in Jesus Christ, who came in the flesh to fulfill our righteousness in it, and by his merit to present us as righteous, innocent, and cleansed of all filth” (25–26). Thus, the value of studying ethics from a theological standpoint is, first of all, to learn how to order the ends of human actions in relationship to God, both internal and external kinds, and secondly, to learn the ideal of righteous life in Christ Jesus, as in him is the provision of true righteousness, from him is the precept of righteousness, and to him is the pathway of righteousness. The grace of Jesus Christ, in other words, provides the necessary context in which human actions are to be formed, cultivated, and ordered, and hence ethics is best studied if it is studied in conjunction with Christian dogmatics.  


Of course, many other Reformed theologians of old also endeavoured to answer the question about the value of studying ethics theologically. We too face the question and ought to attempt to provide a satisfying answer on our own: Is a theological study of ethics important for Christians? If so, should it be a necessary component in theological learning? The ideal answer would no doubt be yes, but other questions still remain: what should we study, and how should we go about studying the order of human actions? One good answer in view of the insights above is that we Christians need to learn the theological account of the order of human actions in the light of the order of divine actions in Jesus Christ, so that true righteousness can be pursued by faith and obedience. In this way, ethics will depend on dogmatics, and dogmatics will enlighten ethics. And as Pierre de la Place and Herman Bavinck pointed out so well in their works, the life in Christ is a moral life that needs reflection, systematization, and cultivation, and a theological study of ethics is a very fitting discipline for such endeavour.  

Dr. Seung-Joo Lee (PhD, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is Academic Support Officer at Reformed Theological College in Melbourne and Pastoral Assistant at Knox Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia.  

  • Seung-Joo Lee

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