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.
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    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.
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    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?
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    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 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."