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Ethics and the SBC (Part 1)

Amidst all the controversy swirling around the SBC and the Christian world in general, I thought it might be interesting to explore the role of ethics in the life of the believer, and specifically within the SBC since that is our context. Certainly, there are many approaches to this subject, and not even Baptist, much less evangelicals, agree on the best approach to ethics. Since this is my field of study, however, I will throw my hat into the ring.

To provide a little historical perspective, there are three major systems of ethics that pre-date the birth of Christ. These are virtue ethics (roughly 4th century B.C. with Plato), natural law ethics (roughly 5th century B.C. with Sophocles, but made famous by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century A.D.), and deontological ethics (dating back to the Exodus, but made famous by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century). Of course, there are other systems that play a role in the development of ethics, but it is my opinion that most other systems can be seen as an offshoot of one of these (if not just virtue and deontological).

Virtue ethics focuses on the character of the person rather than the act. It emphasizes a life of excellence in light of the character of the person. Aristotle famously set forth the four cardinal virtues of temperance (self-control/moderation), justice, prudence (wisdom), and fortitude (courage). Aristotle considered the virtues to be the "golden mean" (though he never used that terminology) between two vices. Hence, fortitude is the virtuous mean between the vices of cowardice and rashness. Augustine came along and subsumed the cardinal virtues under Christian love. Then Thomas Aquinas developed the concept of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas discusses more than 60 virtues, but all of them fall under the categories of the cardinal or theological virtues. Virtue ethics seemed to fall off the face of the map for a few centuries but has seen a revival in the last 50 years or so, especially from the pens of Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and Stanley Grenz.

Natural law theory saw its beginning with Sophocles and Cicero, but it was made famous by Aquinas (in combination with his virtue ethics). At the heart of natural law ethics are the following principles: natural law is given by God in laws of nature together with human reason; natural law is naturally authoritative over all human beings—necessarily binding on everyone, not subject to individual choice; natural law is naturally knowable by all human beings—those with defective reasoning must defer to those with better reasoning; good is prior to the right; and when there is more than one way to reach our common ends, human law is introduced to supplement natural law. Natural law has typically been the approach to ethics for the Roman Catholic Church since the days of Aquinas. Current natural law scholars include Robert George, John Finnis, and J. Budziszewski.

Deontological ethics is a duty-based, or obligation-based, system of ethics. It generally dates back to the days of Moses in the exodus, but did not become influential until Immanuel Kant developed his categorical imperative. Kant’s imperative includes a universalization principle and a means-end principle. The universalization principle states: "Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." The means-end principle states: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end." This system of ethics focuses on the act and the duty, or obligation, fulfilled by performing (or not performing) that act. Deontological ethics still holds some influence among academic circles due to the vast influence of Kant. However, the greatest concentration of deontology, I would argue, can be found in the typical conservative, evangelical church.

So how does this relate to the SBC? Stay tuned for part 2.

Rice and Patterson

Bart Barber over at Praisegod Barebones has written an excellent post comparing Luther Rice and Paige Patterson. It's well worth the read.