Christian ethics more than guidelines for making decisions, professor says

Jeph Holloway, a professor at East Texas Baptist University, spoke on the practice of Christian moral discernment at the Currie-Strickland Distinguished Lectures in Christian Ethics at Howard Payne University.

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BROWNWOOD—Christians err when they treat decision-making—rather than spiritual formation and character—as central to ethics, theologian and ethicist Jeph Holloway said.

Biblical spiritual formation and character development encompass much more than guidelines for making decisions—and render some decision-making unnecessary, Holloway insisted.

“The moral life cannot be reduced to the isolated moment of decision,” he explained.

Holloway, a professor at East Texas Baptist University, spoke on the practice of Christian moral discernment at the sixth annual Currie-Strickland Distinguished Lectures in Christian Ethics at Howard Payne University.

Break the habit

“That we habitually think about ethics as focused on making the right decision is itself a modern habit. When we recognize that such is the case, we can at least entertain the prospect that is a habit we might be able to break,” he said.

Ethical models that present a step-by-step procedure for decision-making lean on scientific rationalism and certain aspects of the Protestant Reformation theology that make a rigid distinction between justification and sanctification. Those factors—compounded by a cultural context many view as in serious moral decline—have contributed to evangelical Christians’ emphasis on ethical decision-making based on fixed moral codes, he asserted.

“To reduce moral life merely to matters of moral choice might seem to simplify things. Such a move, though, is more problem than solution,” he said.

Biblical commands pertain to God’s people—not the population at large, Holloway insisted.

Covenant demands

“The Ten Commandments do not offer moral absolutes. They are covenant demands for a people who know both grace and calling,” he said.

Of course, Holloway added, God does not intend only a small segment of humanity to enjoy the kind of life he intended for all people from the beginning.

“It is never God’s will that generations be divided by contempt, that human life become cheap, that families suffer breakdown, or that community be threatened by impoverishment and deception. The critical question is what God is doing about these evils that hover ominously over human well-being and infect even the most treasured relationships,” he said.

“The answer cannot be reduced to an appeal to law—even divine law—without regard to a broader inquiry into matters of human capacity for moral action. God is not simply the giver of divine law to satisfy our code-fixation. God is also the author of a gospel that provides for new possibilities of human moral agency.”

Who, not what or why

In contrast to an emphasis on the “what” and “why” of moral living, in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul gives attention to the “who,” Holloway said.

“The ‘who’ of Pauline moral discernment is not the disembodied, disinterested, unencumbered self of modernity that simply gathers the facts in some objective fashion, but is rather an agent qualified by commitments, dispositions, affections and desires pointed in one direction versus another,” he explained.

Paul emphasizes the individual’s capacity to discern God’s will in the context of concrete, practical daily life, not just an isolation moment of decision, he asserted.

“In particular, Paul routinely expresses his concern for the moral agent’s capacities for perception, capacities which must know the transformative work of renewal made possible by new life in Christ,” Holloway said.

Furthermore, Paul affirms the necessity of Christian community where moral vision is sharpened and the Holy Spirit is at work, bringing about reconciliation, he said.

A communal context

Paul’s call to discern God’s will is “thoroughly embedded in a communal context in which such discernment only takes place as believers of even different ethnic and cultural backgrounds find ways in which they can worship together,” he said.

“This offers a setting in which the pretentious assumption that discernment is an individualistic affair is checked by the necessary contributions of those variously gifted within the body of Christ.”

The distinctive Christian community offers a counter-cultural alternative to conventional wisdom of the world and gives Christians a new language to describe the moral life, he added.

“In the setting of communal worship and mutual service, believers learn a new way of saying that enables a new way of seeing. To live in the world faithfully, we must learn to see it truthfully,” he said.

“To see the world truthfully, however, requires a capacity for proper description. To describe properly requires the necessary linguistic skills—skills we only learn through participation in a community itself shaped by a truthful story. If we are going to understand what the will of the Lord is, we must learn to ‘speak to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.’”


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