A Brief Introduction to Ethics

By Gifford Grobien

Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed: “The knowledge of good and evil appears to be the goal of all ethics. Christian ethics has, as its first task, to overthrow this knowledge…. Mankind in his origin knows only one: God.” Without this last sentence, Bonhoeffer’s statement seems nonsensical, appalling, or brash. But it may be the way to revive ethical reflection among Lutherans.

To put it another way, the goal of ethics is not the knowledge of good and evil, but the knowledge of good. For the human person, to know good and evil is to want to determine good and evil. To know good and evil is to know something other than the good, and thereby to have the apparent choice to distinguish between them. Eve did not need to eat the fruit of the tree to know the good thing to do; she had the Word of God. To eat of the fruit, though, would mean to sit in judgment over good and evil, to weigh them in balance, to determine which action to make. In so doing, she would no longer be doing simply what was spoken and given to her by God, but she would be doing what she judged to be good and right. For her to presume the need for this judgment therefore implies the need to make a new, different judgment from the speaking of God. She would not know good as pronounced by God, but she would determine a new good and evil.

So all ethical reflection that has as its goal the knowledge of good and evil must be overthrown. James describes the faithless man and the sinner as double-minded (1:8, 4:8), in contrast to God, who is unable to be tempted, invariable, and without shadow of change (1:13, 17). God does not vacillate in deliberation, requiring reflection to determine what is good and what is evil. He cannot be tempted with evil, but thinks, speaks, and acts according to what is good. There is no question or hesitation. He acts according to the goodness of His nature.

Man never need seek the knowledge of good and evil, but only the good. The irony of this is lost on most ethicists. We should never seek the knowledge of good and evil because we already have it. We have eaten of the fruit. We sit in judgment of what is right and wrong. We deliberate, consider, exercise casuistry, and invent new conditions in order to question the validity of the law. We already determine. We do not need to develop our knowledge of good and evil; we need to be restored to the knowledge of the good.

To be restored to the knowledge of the good suggests also that our will is restored to act in accordance with the good. The bondage of the will in Lutheranism has become a slogan-an unchallenged aphorism that denies the legitimacy of the Christian trying to pursue the good and of the preacher exhorting the Christian to pursue the good. But to confuse the fallen will that is unable to seek, fear, or trust God with the will of a human person that is able outwardly to choose to do good things is to have departed from biblical and traditional Christian anthropology. Luther and the Confessions continued to insist that the Christian must try to do good works and overcome temptation.

Ethical reflection wants to know the right thing to think, to say, to do. Ethics is the realm of the law. We should not shrink from this, but make it clear. Nor should the reality of ethics as law disturb the Lutheran. Too many pages have been wasted arguing the particular functions of the law, particularly its use among Christians. That argument will not be resolved here. Nevertheless, we must recognize that ethics fundamentally has to do with the law. When we do this, we have preserved the gospel of Jesus Christ and kept pure the basis of our forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Yet in speaking of the law for the Christian we speak of more than the law, for the law is fulfilled. Christ is the end of the law resulting in righteousness for all who believe. He is our wisdom, righteousness, and sanctification. The same Christ who dwells in us is the Christ who performs good works for, in and through us. He is the one who makes our works good. Christ transforms the law from being merely a condemning tutor–hedging us in from this direction and that direction–into love. In Christ we owe nothing to anyone, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. By faith, then, we do not overthrow the law, but we uphold it.

We uphold the law because we are led by the Spirit and we walk by the Spirit. The Spirit teaches our hearts, but he works as he always does, through means. His inner teaching to our hearts comes through outer, preached words. Furthermore, he places me in relation to others so that my neighbor is not only the one whom I happen upon during my morning jog or in front of me in the checkout line (although he is these), but also the one to whom I am particularly bound by nature and station.

Man is placed in a family first by his mother and father, and later, typically, through marriage. He is given coworkers, bosses, and employees with whom to till and keep the land in an orderly fashion. Especially after the Fall, man is given governing authorities to restrain all of us who are subject to the Fall. These relations are the stations in which we not only work our tasks, but love others. Our tasks are themselves acts of love.

It is in these stations of love that we walk by the Spirit and the commandments he teaches in our hearts. Consider your place in life according to the commandments, says Luther’s Small Catechism. This is not theoretical reflection. It asks us to recognize our place and the people God has given us to love. Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? The answer is yes. You have parents; you probably have or will have a spouse, and you may have children. You have the civil authority, or if you serve in this office, you have citizens to defend and care for. You have a pastor to hear, or you have laity to whom you preach. Above all of these, you have the command to love, which calls you to act in love toward anyone whom God places before you.

These stations, Luther says, are sanctified by the word of God. Just as the water, wine, and bread of the Christian sacraments are included in God’s command, combined with His word and received in faith, so your earthly stations are commanded (and thereby sanctified) by God’s word as your place to act in love. The sacraments are the sign and visible presence of Christ and His Word received in faith; the stations are the incarnation of Christ presented in love to the neighbor, worked out in love by us.

Ethics is learning to love and doing it. Ethics does not forsake the gospel or overshadow it; ethics lives in the power of the gospel. There is only One who is good, and all good action comes out of this One who is good. So he works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.


4 thoughts on “A Brief Introduction to Ethics

  1. Piotr Malysz

    Hi Ben,

    If you’re interested, please send me an e-mail, and I’ll share with you an article which unpacks the Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper as precisely a way of life (and does so vis-a-vis some of the claims of Radical Orthodoxy).


  2. trinityhawaii

    We used Luther’s description of Confession as a part of our liturgy – it was thought provoking, and like a good application of the Law, no one could escape it’s declaration of guilt, making absolution a clear sharing of Gospel.

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