Ethics and Doctrine

Matthew 22:34-46 suggestively combines ethics and doctrine. First the question is put to Jesus about the greatest commandment, which he answers with the “summary of the law,” the two commandments to love God and neighbor. This is clearly about “what we do” in the broadest sense (i.e., it includes prayer and action). We are to love God and our neighbor, and we are to see that the entirety of God’s desires for us can be arranged around those two primordial loves.
    Second is the question Jesus puts to his questioners: Whose son is the Christ to be? They must answer David, and that’s true, but then Jesus turns to Psalm 2, ascribed to David, where David refers to his son (his descendant) as his “Lord” to whom “the Lord,” that is to say, God, had instructed “sit at my right hand.” So Psalm 2, Jesus would teach us, points to the divine status of the Christ who is to be descended from David.
    Step back from these two question/answer encounters. First we had ethics. Then we had doctrine. First, how should we live? Second, who is Jesus?
    Matthew is showing us, in a dramatic form, how ethics and doctrine are tied together by Jesus. Jesus could have left it with his (final and decisive) interpretation of the law. But no: he saw the need to go on to ground his interpretation in his being. Jesus is able to tell us how to live precisely because he is the Son of God, the one who is to be invited to sit at the Father’s right hand.
    We can’t separate ethics and doctrine.
    The marriage of ethics and doctrine has been hard for Christian people to maintain. A century ago, at the first stirrings of the modern ecumenical movement, it was widely said that “doctrine divides, ethics unites.” Christians then felt their denominational differences keenly. Presbyterians (for instance) understood themselves to be different from Lutherans (and so forth). Doctrine divided the churches. But nonetheless, they felt, they could unite in upholding Christian morality in the face of new challenges.
    Today it’s almost the opposite. We find people saying that ethical issues are divisive. Various Christians feel their ethical differences from other Christians keenly. But nonetheless, it is said, we should be able to unite, since all of us Christians hold the same doctrine.
    Neither view is correct. Any attempt to bracket off ethics and doctrine from each other will ultimately obscure the truth of both.
    But how are ethics and doctrine connected? That’s the hard part indeed! A book which calls itself “Ethics As Theology” shows a promising direction, in terms of deep theological groundwork.
    On a more everyday level, we might try to sketch for ourselves the lines that run from fundamental doctrines to everyday morality—for instance, from the Incarnation, which gives us the full humanity of Jesus, to claims that every person should receive equal treatment under the law. How might we "connect the dots" between that doctrine and that ethics?
    Out & About. Sunday, November 12, I will be preaching and teaching at St. Peter’s Church, 400 N. College St., McKinney, Texas. The services are at 9 and 11 a.m., and the class at 10:10 a.m. will be on Losing Susan.

The Varmint

I had a routine check-up and I had my rollerboard with me. Afterwards I walked to the room where I was staying and then realized that my Garmin was not on my wrist. I had taken it off at the check-up, placed it on my suitcase, and then rolled the thing away. The receptionist, when I called, looked in the room and down the hallway—no Garmin.

My nickname for it was “my Varmint,” that little ring-animal wrapped around my wrist. Nothing had been on my wrist for years, not since I gave up my wristwatch in favor, first, of a pocket watch, and then later, a cellphone. But that little Varmint, which had the time, would buzz if I hadn’t moved lately, and it put a number on my heart rate and the flights of stairs I had walked and the miles I had (a) run, (b) walked, or (c) swum. I never knew how it might know I was swimming. Could it feel water?

It also wiggled when a text message or phone call came in.

Now the Varmint was gone. And I felt contradictory things. I missed it; like Professor Henry Higgins, I’d grown accustomed to its face. At the same time there was a real sense of liberation. Really did I need to know how many flights of stairs I had ascended? Maybe it was better to go for a walk just because I wanted to go for a walk, forget the numbers.

Inducements help us change behavior and develop good character. Putting numbers on things, counting, measuring, graphing, noting “progress” and getting encouragement—all these can help us do what we really want to do. But as our behavior changes for the better, that is to say as our character grows, then we need these things less and less. And finally, the goal is for us just to do what we want to do simply because it is good, for no other reason at all.

When a person is new to Christian faith, the encouragements are everywhere—as they should be, for a new Christian is peculiarly vulnerable, as C. S. Lewis so penetratingly shows in The Screwtape Letters. But as one grows in the faith, encouragements recede. The great saints write about “the dark night of the soul,” a period of time when the comforts of faith are taken away. It seems that Teresa of Calcutta, for decades a public figure of self-sacrificial Christian love, had very little encouragement in her private prayers.

Once again, it seems, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Nonetheless, blessed be the name of the Lord. God, it seems to me, is highly desirable, regardless of my feelings about how well things are going.

Perhaps someday there will be a spiritual Varmint that can give us read-outs on how we’re doing. Good job with those prayers, it might say. Ten percent more this week than last. And look at all the time you’re spending with the Bible. Also, fantastic work with that mentoring program! Keep it up!

But then one day, we’ll lose that spiritual Varmint, and we’ll be back where we are right now. Do I want to pray for the sake of spiritual improvement, or do I want to pray just because prayer is good?

Out & about. This weekend I will be visiting All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City. Besides preaching, Sat. at 5:30 p.m., Sun. at 8, 9:15, and 11 a.m., I will teach weekday classes on “Who Was David?” (M-W at 11 a.m.) and “The Political Theology of Oliver O’Donovan” (M-W at 6 p.m.).

My sermon on Acts 10—“The Education of Peter,” we might call it—is here.  

The lecture, “What Good Is Authority?” was recorded and can be listened to here.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."