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Steve Wilkens’ Christian Ethics: Four Views, “Introduction”


Summary by Jeff Dickson


Though most Christians concede that moral goodness is rooted in and revealed by God, these are also divided on moral theory, particularly as it pertains to how God communicates moral knowledge, anthropological conclusions, and how the body of Christ fits in the moral landscape. As a result, relatively clear distinctions can be drawn between moral theories depending on how they explain these considerations. These distinctions have established named ethical systems that Steve Wilkens believes deserve a properly nuanced introduction. Such introductions must be made before a compelling juxtaposition/debate between these general ethical systems can be entertained. This is the expressed purpose of the first chapter of this collaborative volume.

Virtue Ethics

Wilkens begins his introductions with virtue ethics and distills its essence down to that moral theory which is more concerned about achieving good character than good actions. According to Plato and Aristotle, virtue ethics is teleologically focused on reaching a moral and transcendent “Form” that is consistent with specific impeccable ideals (like moderation, courage, prudence, justice, etc.) in the context of the polis. The context of this enterprise shifted in the medieval period to the church and more divinely-rooted virtues (especially love) were introduced. However, in reaction to corruption within the church, many during the Renaissance wanted to return ethics to the secular and political world. These became more concerned about what was pragmatic for society building. In the 20th century, Anscombe and MacIntyre returned the moral enterprise to its transcendent and teleological foundations. Such foundations, according to Hauerwas and other more current Christian ethicists, are understood in the context of the church and, according to Zagzebski, appropriately rooted in divine virtue.

Natural Law

Like virtue ethics, natural law theory is teleologically focused. However, unlike virtue ethics, natural law theories are more concerned about adhering to an external and preexisting code than they are about developing personal character. Inasmuch as humans possess a nature, natural law is the guide leading to the highest good and subsequent flourishing. Though reason is championed as the way in which natural law is discovered and followed in the secular world, Wilkens acknowledges that natural law is arbitrary unless it is governed by an appropriate authority and people can be helped to it. Enter Aquinas and Suarez who argue (respectively) that God draws the human person to goodness via the laws that govern human life and serves as the originator of the natural law via his perfect will.

Divine Command Theory

Quite unlike virtue ethics and natural law, divine command theory, in one way or another, delimits morality to what is determined by the commands and prohibitions of God. What is moral depends on God’s sovereign will and this, according to Wilkens, is “opaque to reason and ,…most clearly known by revelation.” However, divine command theory must provide a cogent answer to the age-old euthyphro dilemma which tries to render the supposed commander either subservient to a higher moral code or capable of determining otherwise abhorrent acts moral by divine fiat. Thankfully, Wilkens highlights the work of Robert Adams which satisfies the charge of euthyphro in a way that preserves God’s sovereignty and staves off the criticism that his commands are arbitrary. Adams’ iteration of divine command theory argues that ethics is not grounded in God’s commands, but in his character. He and other more recent modified divine command theorists believe that moral law is a natural implication of God’s nature and, as a result, such a God would only command certain things.

Prophetic Ethics

The final introduction Wilkens makes involves what he calls prophetic ethics. The author concedes that while this particular ethical theory endorses the broadest range of expression, prophetic ethics does share several distinct characteristics. First, its foundation is built on ecclesiology and mission rather than divine commands (see divine command theory) or human flourishing (see virtue ethics and natural law ethics). Second, it pays closer attention to the problem of corporate sin than do the other theories represented in this work. Third, prophetic ethics is more interested in engaging the world, especially the world in need, than it is in theory and doctrine. The Anabaptist movement, the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, and liberation theology are mentioned as rough expressions of this ethical formula as each of these movements endorse these and other corresponding characteristics.51oNubO+DcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Inasmuch as this work is most interested in Christian ethics and the various theories appertaining thereunto, Wilkens is right to demonstrate how each of these systems finds support in the Scriptures. For instance, virtue ethics is consistent with Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 4:8 to dwell on that which is moral and the apostle’s call to mimic the character of Christ (see Phil. 2:5-11). That all possess at least some awareness of a natural law seems to comply with what Paul observes in Romans 2:14-15—“…They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their conscience also bears witness,…”. Divine command theory appears to enjoy the broadest scriptural support given the copious commands and ordinances that proliferate both testaments of the canon. Even prophetic ethics enjoys support in passages where the needy and “least of these” are being cared for (Lev.19:9-10; 25:10) and where the standard of judgment is connected to one’s response to those less fortunate (Matt. 25:31-46).

The short introductions provided in this first chapter not only give the reader a brief understanding of the salient features of each position, they provide a brief history of the evolution each theory has endured, elucidate a current expression of these systems, and demonstrate how every one of them enjoys Scriptural support. In so doing, Wilkens is successful at setting a sophisticated table for four in which a robust debate can be had between representatives for each of these theories.



Image: By Ib Rasmussen – Own work, Public Domain,

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