What about Ethics? – Stuart Johnson

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Most of what I hear about ethics has much to do with arbitrary decisions usually grounded on morality.  Though much of evangelicalism would accept that the Old Testament Law has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, ethical standards usually have some link with it.  It varies from denomination to denomination from extreme legalism to a complete overlooking of most so called moral issues.  Some are saying that Trinitarian Theology has virtually no ethics at all.  This could not be further from the truth.  As with all topics, our ethic begins with the Person of Jesus Christ as the Person for all persons.  You see, the ultimate human ethical act par excellence was first carried out by God towards us in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  Without Him, we would have nothing to talk about.  Unless it begins with Him, we would still have nothing to talk about.  It is here where we determine, firstly, who we are in Jesus Christ, what we call the indicative, and secondly, what it is we do, what we call the imperative.  When it becomes clear who we (ie human race) are in Jesus Christ, then it is much easier to know what it is we do without the arbitrary decisions based on moral rectitude made by a so called human mediator.

How many times have we heard some well-meaning Christian declare they must take a moral stand against an ethical issue?  It is another one of those pot calling the kettle black scenarios.  As soon as someone says such a thing, then we can be assured that a pagan mind has assessed a particular ethical issue and has judged according to their own perception of the law.  It is even worse when Christian groups run for the public office pushing their moral agenda onto the wider community.  The usual targets are abortion, contraception, sexual orientation and sexual behaviour.  The gospel turns into a moral battleground that does more harm than good.  In saying this, what then is the guiding rule for ethical behaviour in Trinitarian theology?  What we must seek on this issue is the voice of the Spirit of Christ within us.  In this way we can be guided by Truth and live as true human beings in the image of God in Jesus Christ.

The idea of what is meant to be a person started to take shape very early in the Christian community. Though it may have been implicitly understood in the light of Jesus Christ.  It was a clear understanding of who Jesus Christ actually is in His relationship with the Father as God who comes to us with not only a declaration of who He is but an articulation in our language of why it is He has become a human being. Not only do we actually hear God speaking but we actually see a backing up what He says with what He does in His redemption of the whole human race.  Jesus Christ brings us into the very heart of God’s being so that we actually see the enormously persuasive demonstration of His power and grace.  When the Spirit opens the eyes of our heart and we see the Truth of all truths for the very first time the product of this event is faith. Irenaeus says, “Faith is produced by the truth, for faith rests on things that truly are . . . ” The context for truth does not lie in a set or prepositions and dogmatic statements. The truth we engage with in the Christian community is a person, or more accurately, The Person of Jesus Christ. The Truth is ontologically grounded in Jesus Christ (ἀλήθεια τῶν ὄντων).

Here we are confronted by the Truth as a Person as it overflows out of Jesus Christ in His Person and work.  If we are to engage in a healthy discussion on ethics, we must first acknowledge that our faith as a community is the product of the Truth that flows out of the very being of God in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. We assent to Him because our faith is the product of the embodiment of truth in the very being of Jesus Christ.  The Spirit of Christ brings this to life within us the reality of our union in Christ in His self-witness, self proclamation, and self communication mediated through the Scriptures of the New Testament.  Thus, this truth is of a very personal nature. Our encounter with the living Word and continual engagement with Him in our day-to-day lives means this actuality of who He is in us will overflow out of us and to people around us.  Such is the True nature of who Jesus Christ is, we become aware of Christ in all around us.  As we see the very Being of God in Jesus Christ revealing in us the reality of who God actually is in Himself, at the same time, we actually see how God displays who He is by the very acts He undertakes in His Person and work in the New Testament Scriptures. Thus the nature of what we do is also ontologically grounded in Him.

The Truth of who Jesus Christ is in His Person is mediated through Himself to us ontologically.  That is, the very being of God is united with the very being of our humanity.  Jesus Christ is who He is and has united Himself to us as we are and we are ‘one’ as He and the Father are ‘one.’  When we begin to understand the implications of this then we realise the enormous value God has placed on us. As we tease this out, we begin to realise the enormous value God has placed on every human being. In this light, when we read the new command, love one another just as I have loved you, this is the ground for ethics.  The more we realise how much we are loved and we assent to His love, the more we find we have the ability to love one another.  The command is specifically this: Let me love you! His love undergirds everything in our lives.  When we know and are known only through the all-powerful love of God, then we listen to the Spirit as He guides us in all truth, especially when we are endeavouring to know what to do. As long as our ethics is grounded on the Love Personified in Jesus Christ then we move forward in His Spirit.

We can be guided by the love portrayed in the Person of Christ.

1Cor 13:4-8a

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

The whole life of Jesus Christ shows us the nature of His redemptive acts is grounded in the love of the Father towards us.  As we were hurtling towards oblivion, God in His freedom and overwhelming loving kindness intervened and brought us back to where we ought to be. In doing so we become awakened to the reality of God in the life of Jesus Christ where our union with Him gives us a taste of love based on the relationship between the Father and the Son.  The passage above encapsulates the very nature of God who is love and we see this in how He acts towards us. So when we look at the above passage, we are witnessing the reality of the relationship between the Father and the Son of which the Spirit brings this to life in us.  Here we discover God loves us even more than He loves Himself. His love is actualised in us and we embark with a little something of His nature in us into the world and love with hands of Jesus Christ. God is absolutely free to love us all. Likewise we are free to love all around us without any hidden moral agenda.

It is not just simply a matter of imitating Jesus Christ. Building a doctrine of ethics cannot begin with an anthropomorphic idea and then have it cast upon the Trinity.  It is knowing and being known at a depth that is far greater than anyone can fully understand and goes way beyond any theory.  It is a mystery that reveals enough so that we can comprehend but we are not able to fully apprehend the depths of His mysteries. Kallistos Ware says because we believe in the Trinity and likewise the Trinitarian theology that comes out of it, the whole structure of our understanding of society and community changes.  We begin to see all people in terms of the relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit. Therefore what God has done towards us is inter-relational, face-to-face at the deepest most intimate level. We become aware of our Son/daughter-ship with the realisation that we are our brother’s/sister’s keeper.  We can and do show an interest in the welfare of all humanity, one person at a time. We oppose all forms of injustice, discrimination and exploitation because all human rights has its heart in our understanding of the Trinity. If we allow ourselves to come under anyone other than the Spirit then we risk opening ourselves to all forms of manipulation and abuse. Understanding ethics begins with understanding the pattern for all human relationships, the Trinity.

If anyone says that Trinitarian theology has no ethics, then we can be sure that their understanding of the Trinity is extremely short sighted.  Ethics and the Trinity go hand in hand.  Such is the depth of our relationship with the Father, in and through the Son by the Spirit, that one cannot help but to have something of God impact us by our participating in their divine nature enabling us to share their divine nature with others around us.  We love because He first loved us and it is the Spirit of Christ who leads us to a clearer understanding of the Truth revealed in Person and work of Jesus Christ.  As we learn to listen to the Spirit He will open our eyes to endless possibilities.

Sometimes we have some people who are given a clear vision of the kind of ethical activity they are called to do. By all means they should be encouraged in their endeavour to do so.  For example, I am a foster carer.  We have been told many times it is a calling.  We receive children who have often suffered horrendous injustices and endeavour to bring them into a loving, safe and nurturing environment.  In fact, we could even call this our ministry.  We have been doing this for over 16 years.  There are many aspects of caring for foster children that cover a wide range of ethical issues.  However, I do not use this as the ground and the measure for all ethics.  I turn to the Trinity to help me to navigate through the complex issues in the whole scope of the Child Protection system. This is what the Spirit of Christ has shown us to do and we carry it out to the best of our ability in spite of the many shortcomings.

As there are many facets to a diamond, so there are as many activities that would fall under the heading of ethics.  The Trinity is as diverse as many facets of many diamonds where no one ministry that addresses an ethical issue can be pinned down that would fully express the very nature of the being of God disclosed in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  No one ministry that endeavours to address ethical issues in a pragmatic way can encapsulate all that God is as Triune.  No one ministry can claim a monopoly on what Trinitarian ethics should entail.  However, it is all ministries who function in such a way that is beneficial to the care and well-being of the people they minister to that may give us a glimpse into the nature of the being of God revealed in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  Trinitarian theology based on the love between the Father, Son and Spirit poured out into our hearts will always be the ground for ethics.