A response to Ephraim Radner


I always enjoy reading Ephraim Radner’s thoughts, and always learn from him. He is a cherished mentor. That said, I do wish to voice an objection that pertains not just to his most recent volley against same-sex marriage, but to the whole project, shared by many, of keeping alive the sexuality debates and cultivating a self-identity as a defender of orthodoxy on that question.

My objection is that I think such a project does not serve the Church as well it may seem to conservative Christians because it causes Christians to focus on the wrong questions. The approach to doing ethics that Ephraim pursues is, in my opinion, not the most fruitful.

As Sam Wells said in his dissertation, commenting on this discovery by Stanley Hauerwas:

 When ethics is understood as the adjudication of tricky cases of conscience by balancing moral principles, the practice is implicitly socially conservative – since it assumes there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the status quo, only with its anomalies. In contrast, the Christian community lives within a tradition based on a story which in many respects contradicts the assumptions of the contemporary social status quo. How then does the community faithfully live out its story?

Ephraim implicitly wants Christians to engage on the level of acts consequentialism. That is precisely the ethical approach of his opponents, whom he characterizes as Christian leaders who have departed from the received wisdom. That is the ethical approach of such leaders because that is how Niebuhr taught the Church to defend the desiderata of its culture. Yet acts consequentialism is both strategic and theological error. The error implies confusion about the task of Christian ethics. Our task is not to defend tradition or a particular ethical conclusion with regard to a proposed act. Rather, our task  (channeling Wells again) is “to describe the world in which Christians perceive themselves to live and act, and to help the Christian community form practices consistent with life in such a world.”

The problem is NOT that folks are making wrong choices with respect to homosexuality. The problem is NOT that folks are irrationally preferring one set of facts over the ones Ephraim wants to defend as though both sets of facts occupy the same world. The problem for the Church is not one of choice but of vision: due to the astigmatism of sin, folks actually perceive entirely different worlds. Folks on the opposing side of Ephraim’s proposed acts consequentialism choose rationally, but choose on the basis of a differently perceived world. And so the problem in our ethics cannot be reduced simply to claims that people are disobedient or rebellious or irrationally want to conform to cultural waywardness. The problem is that too often we do not see the world as it really is. As Wells has shown, our task  as ecclesial ethicists is not to argue for different choices, but for different worlds.

Our strategy ought not be to engage in continuous battle over whether homoeroticism is rightly defended or condemned or in other questions about right acts, but rather to call the Church to the practices through which virtue is formed, wherein we learn to take the right things for granted. The material cause of right actions is a virtuous community, and so our most fruitful approach in ethics is to focus persistently on the formation of that virtuous community, resisting the temptation to respond at the level of acts consequentialism.

And therefore our energies ought to be devoted to the recovery of vision, not to debating on the level of acts consequentialism. We can trust folks to make right choices if they see the world rightly.

How do we collaborate with the Spirit’s sustenance of our ecclesial vision? By devoting ourselves to cultivation of the soil in which such vision is formed. And that soil just is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – a relationship in which we discover ourselves to be addressed and acted upon by Christ and justified in our belief that the only right response is to follow. A personal relationship means that Christ can be no longer our object of study from a safe distance; there is a personal knowing such that his history becomes our history, and our actions are seen as extensions of our relationship with him. Such personal relationships are forged only through repetitive contact with him. And so we most collaborate with the Spirit by fostering such repetitive contact: our energies are rightly devoted to soil cultivation techniques such as the recovery of our Scriptural literacy, the classical spiritual disciplines (updated for our times as need be), the three-fold rule, and sacramental practices such as holy matrimony and reconciliation. If we focus on fostering personal relationships with Christ, the virtue we seek will happen. The Spirit will make it so.

Arguing about the rightness of same-sex marriage distracts us from our theological task, and is the least fruitful way to cultivate the virtue of Christian community. If, in spite of this caution, we must engage the presenting question, the level of discourse ought not be on the level of acts consequentialism (which, in the current discourse presupposes a universality of ethics that is itself dubious), but on descriptions and celebrations of real marriages that are rational responses to the experience of grace. Rather than attacking same-sex unions, we ought to be describing and calling folks to a fidelity in their vows that signifies the covenant of grace, and showing how the Spirit uses such exemplars of fidelity to form the community of Christ such that we are sustained in our mission to the world. The important questions about marriage are not about procreation or questions of natural law but about how the Spirit uses faithful marriages sacramentally to unveil the New Jerusalem, correcting our vision so that we see the world the way it really is.

22 Responses to “A response to Ephraim Radner”

  1. Jeff Boldt says:

    Craig, If I read you correctly, you are arguing that consequentialism (i.e. utilitarianism?) is a wrong ethical approach, and that a virtue ethical theory is correct. I don’t think, however, that a virtue ethical theory is devoid of consideration of ends. In the Aristotelian/MacIntyrean world a social order is an organic whole towards which all of the parts are ordered. To use Aristotle’s biological example (which is consonant with St Paul’s doctrine of the Body), an organism is made up of heterogenous parts that, when working together, cause vegetative growth and locomotion. This is what the social organism is as well, and the narrative that MacIntyre is talking about outlines the proper functioning of the whole. Virtues are those proficiencies that each part must practice in order to benefit the whole. ‘Playing by the rules’ gives internal goods not available to those outside of the social order who don’t play the game. Articulating those rules, and asking that the players follow them, is to both appeal to the narrative playbook, but also to warn against the loss of the internal goods of the game if those rules aren’t followed (consequences). I didn’t see Ephraim making any pleasure-pain calculations here, but, yes, he did argue from consequences. And this, I argue, is entirely in line with a narratively driven virtue ethic.

  2. Craig has pointed I think to the main thing, that our way forward is by

    “devoting ourselves to cultivation of the soil in which such vision is formed. And that soil just is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – a relationship in which we discover ourselves to be addressed and acted upon by Christ and justified in our belief that the only right response is to follow.”

    Every act of obedience to follow Jesus because another means by which we are formed into the image of Jesus. This is where the bulk of our labor must go.

    This is a theological effort – how we are coming to know the one who desire to have relationship _with us_ is fundamental to following him. And indeed it is the practices of spiritual formation – prayer, Scripture study, worship, and the like – that are our bread and butter in learning to hear his voice and say “yes” to his call.

    But there comes times when the theological becomes linked with the foment of culture, and the church must speak into those moments. Moments like the Barmen Declaration in Germany or a March on Selma in this country – places where to follow Jesus means to intentionally confront the processes of culture.

    The question is whether the issue of human sexuality is one of these watershed moments. If it is, then for the sake of the theological task, we must engage in the struggle.

  3. Insofar as one’s goal is to argue for ‘different worlds’, then one’s task is utopian. The happy place is no place. There is only the here and now. An ecclesial ethics that will not start from this recognition is an ecclesial ethics that I do not want anything to do with. But if ecclesial ethicists are really content with such far out and dreamy arguments, I suppose that they will respond by telling me to ‘take a chill pill, man’.

  4. Jeff Boldt says:

    I agree, Ben. Without engaging the consequences of actions, our ethics become disengaged. Deuteronomy is a good example of clearly articulated consequences of good and evil action.

  5. Craig Uffman says:

    Ben, were you to immerse yourself in the field, you would quickly discover that your description is exactly the opposite of that which characterizes ecclesial ethicists. They are famously suspicious of universalist arguments, especially of the utopian kind. In context, Wells’ comment has in view Yoder’s ‘politics of Jesus’ which is construed as an alternative politics to that of the world. So the argument actually goes in the direction you seem to desire: against utopian fantasy and toward an insistence on an incarnated ethics of great particularity – namely, that of Jesus. So the task of theology is to point to that world and name it as the only real world. Wells’ point is that the location of the ethical problem is not at the point of action but at the point of vision. The starting point of our discourse is not, as you suggest, the obvious fact that we must live in the here and now, but with the less obvious fact that we inhabit different worlds in the sense of perceived reality. Another way to get at this – and underlying the whole thing – is Wittgenstein’s teaching about language games. The starting point of fruitful discourse is recognition that we who live in the here and now actually inhabit different language games, and so the task of the ecclesial ethicist is to argue for a choice of the particular language game inaugurated by Jesus. If none of this makes sense to you, then a chill pill is not needed, but I can suggest some readings that would be of benefit.

    • The great difference between ecclesial ethics and evangelical ethics is that the latter is easy to understand and thus easy to apply. This is not to say that it is always applied well! But in terms of daily life, a mode of thought which can be used to make sense of difficult issues is far preferable to a system that one must have a doctorate degree to understand. Yes, some issues are difficult and require specialist training and specialist vocabularies. I am hardly opposed to such training, but it must ultimately be grounded in a way of life that the common person can understand (and yes, I understand language games). There is therefore an irony here: ‘ecclesial’ ethics cannot be applied by those who sit in the pews – thus, ‘ecclesial’ ethics is hardly ecclesial. Universalist arguments are hardly utopian. They are, instead, precisely those arguments that can be applied by all people, in all times and in all places. Christianity is not itself a language game. It certainly has a language game (broadly speaking, at least), but the trendy textualist/linguistic reduction is unhelpful for making sense of life. Everything is not a text; thus, many things are indeed outside of the text.

      In the mean time, though, yes: please recommend your top three books. I’ll get to them when I can, and if I’ve read them, I’ll let you know (btw, I have read Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus).

      • Craig Uffman says:

        “Evangelical ethics” is not a category in any contemporary schema with which I am familiar. It sounds like you are referring to the Ramist approach advocated by the Cambridge Calvinists of the 1590s and enshrined in American evangelicalism by the Puritans: the practice of mining general principles from Scripture and applying them to particular situations, which is a deeply problematic approach that Hooker refuted so well I need not repeat the arguments here. My experience of you suggests that you have a much more nuanced view than this. But perhaps you mean something else.

        With regard to ecclesial ethics, it seems there remains a misunderstanding of what that is. Here’s a brief schema from a introductory Christian ethics textbook:

        “Univeralist ethics – whether grounded in right intentions, right actions, right outcomes, or right relationships – tends to focus on the moment of decision as the central question in ethics….Subversive ethics redescribes that moment and that decision by pointing out the power relationships and unspoken assumptions hidden within the decision and (in some cases) the whole construction of the need for and nature of the decision.” Ecclesial ethics share many of the criticisms of universalists made by subversive ethicists, especially in emphasizing that it is “the particular information, which universal ethics shuns, that makes ethics comprehensible.” Ecclesial ethicists focus not on decisions, but on people, based on a new Aristotelianism, insisting that good decisions are made by people of good character, and good character arises from particular practices, habits, and descriptions of reality that help disciples respond to God and one another.

        Wells, “Christian Ethics: An Introductory Reader”, pp. 154ff

        I will get you my top three readings as time permits in the coming weeks (heading on a mission trip this weekend). But Wells’ textbooks (a matching primary and reader, above) would be a good starting point.

  6. Craig Uffman says:

    Jeff: two points. First, I did not speak of ‘wrong’ but of ‘fruitfulness.’ Your argument about arguing about the rules makes sense within a language game, but the problem to which Hauerwas and Wells were responding (and which led Hauerwas to criticize MacIntyre’s eventually), is the fact of pluralism. Your argument presupposes a universalist ethics in which we can assume that we are all in the same language game, but ecclesial ethicists – drawing upon Lindbeck (who also influenced Ephraim btw) – reject that premise for a variety of reasons. So, of course, we have to discuss ends at time, but the method of doing so generally begins with the practices that constitute us as a community because that is the location of the things that the community can take for granted. Moreover, the key point is the phronetic point: that the emphasis most productive of virtue focuses on the practices that constitute the community rather than argument over ends. BTW, this is also Hooker’s argument against his some of his interlocutors, the reason he devotes a whole volume to practices: against the Ramist approach that argues deontologically, he defends ecclesial practices as the means by which the CoE is transformed into a virtuous community in Christ.

  7. Zack Guiliano says:


    I appreciate your post and you know that I resonate with your ‘cultivating the soil’ approach. But it does seem that, at the end of the day, we are still going to have to discuss such difficult moral situations, rather than only work towards cultivating proper theological vision. I’ll admit that the phrase I disagree with the most is: ‘We can trust folks to make right choices if they see the world rightly’. While I might wish to affirm a statement optimistically, I just don’t think it’s true. It takes a lot more to make the right choice than seeing the world rightly. And even those with a proper field of vision can make intellectual mistakes leading to serious sin, not to mention willful choices to sin which are not based on intellectual mistakes, but ‘negligence, weakness, and our own deliberate fault’.

    And I don’t believe we can avoid acts consequentialism, not least because it is used in the Bible itself, both to discuss short term consequences and long term ones.

    I also would hesitate to define Radner on the basis of his opposition to same-sex marriage, given his output in other areas, and I feel that you’re nibbling at a tiny part of his piece…but maybe that’s my own worry about how you’re framing your response to him.

    Just some thoughts.

    • Craig Uffman says:

      Can’t argue with you, Zach, only clarify. My comment about ‘trusting folks’ sounds to me now as overly optimistic, too. That said, I know that what I had in view was Calvin’s notion of sin as blindness, and so seeing rightly as the cure of the cause of sin. But you’re certainly right to correct me there. Thanks. With regard to your claim about acts consequentialism, there is a distinction between the question of whether we ever have to deal with consequences and duties and the most fruitful way of nurturing a community of virtue. My use of the term refers to a 20th c school in ethics that espoused the view that we do ethics best by considering their consequences, thus stripping acts of their particularity. My perspective is that of virtue ethics.

      With regard to Ephraim, I intended to narrowly name a project of his and raise an objection to that, not to identify him with that project exclusively, precisely for the reasons you suggest. If that was not clear, then thanks for the opportunity to clarify it.

  8. I appreciate the discussion here. I would like to stress, however, that it really isn’t possible to separate out the character- and vision-forming aspect of Christian life from particular acts of judgment, decision, and witness. The latter are part of the former and vice versa.

    In the present case of same-sex marriage, the larger civil culture has decided to embrace the concept and practice of same-sex “marriage”, and to affirm its presuppositions (whatever they are). Not only does this contradict the Christian “vision” of the world, in my view, it does so quite concretely by violating the rights and dignity of children and young people (among others, who have names and defined existences. In so doing, it does great harm to people and, in a real sense, curses the name of God, who has created us. That Christians and their churches should go along with this silently or openly contributes to the subversion of the very Christian “ecclesial vision” Craig rightly upholds.

    One is called to say “No” to this and to do so in a way that is consistent in attempting to undo the damage of its “Yes”.

    Obviously, if one doesn’t buy the perspective I have outlined (and, of course, not I, but the Christian Church’s universal tradition until the last decade and still shared by most the world’s Christians), then what I have to say doesn’t make sense. But not because of some confusion between “consequentialist ethics” and some deeper outlook. That distinction is a red herring, I believe.

    One need only take an analogy: slavery in the 18th, or of course the 19th centuries. Was abolitionism and the decision to argue against slavery, to free slaves, to seek to legislate for slavery’s elimination, the “wrong” ethical path to follow because it sought to engage the concrete actions and decisions of both civil and ecclesial communities? I think not. And other analogies are legion. Indeed, I would most vigorously resist Craig’s conclusion — that we should be engaging the categories of “fidelity” in general, rather than the particular kinds of decisions that inform such fidelity (e.g. who and how one orders one’s sexual partnerships and their familial consequences) precisely because it is unable to address the concrete demands of individual and social health and assaults upon it.

  9. Craig Uffman says:

    Thanks, Ephraim. To be clear, I’ve argued about method of ethical discourse and not argued that one should be silent, and I’ve argued about fruitfulness in so doing in our pluralistic era. You know the arguments against universalist ethics that the ecclesial ethicists have made, of course, so I won’t rehearse them here. But you know just as well that the ecclesial ethical method does not at all urge retreat from the political sphere. Hauerwas famously takes on violence and Wells takes on racism. And surely you’ve read their Christian Ethics, to which your colleague Joseph Mangina contributes, and so know that the argument in fact engages on every ethical question imaginable. The question is one of method. Avoiding argument on the basis of deontology or consequentialism is the issue I’ve raised here. And if one must engage as you feel you must, the suggestion is never that one avoids particularity. Quite the opposite. That’s the criticism of universalist ethics assumed. But a question on marriage would be argued from the sacrament of baptism or Eucharist or, as I suggested, from consideration of how the union is a sign of the eschatological reality. The arguments for this method as you know have to do with questions of how we find confidence that our arguments are particularly Christian, etc., a response to the issues raised by Lindbeck et al regarding the possibility of a foundation for such reasoning.

  10. Thanks for the clarification, Craig. But on that basis, I guess I still don’t understand your concerns. We are perhaps talking past each other here.

    We seem to be quite in agreement that the issue is how same-sex marriage does or does not express or fit into the way Christians view God and God’s world in Christ. Baptism, Eucharist, eschatology and the rest are all related to this and to the character of the Scriptural word’s enunciated revelation of God… within which marriage finds its meaning.

    Perhaps where we differ is that I do not think categories like “fidelity” and so on are sufficient to the task of articulating the concrete meanings of generative human coupling and child-rearing within our mortal constraints that are given within the Scriptural revelation, and to which and in which the Church orders her common life within the world. I think such categories too vague in themselves to makes sense of our bodies and their fate, as it were. It is one reason that Biblical theology that has been thus thematically worked out has been fuzzy and finally reductive: it cannot take into account the ways that what is called God’s “faithfulness” includes e.g. the destruction of Jerusalem.

    Marriage fidelity is not general; it is bound by the union of male and female in the specific framework of procreative love’s subjection to the promises and limitations of generation. There is nothing “foundationalist” about such a claim, or deontological or consequentialist. It is, I would argue, simply an exposition of the Scriptural world in all of its particulars, a world that we believe is in fact the world we live in, and is expressive of divine life itself.

    The question of how one persuades others of this reality is another matter, especially in a diverse and pluralistic civil society, and it certainly involves a range of witness and expression that goes way beyond intellectual argument. But given the life and death character of this particular matter — we are talking about the temporally limited span of human lives and their place within the generational shape of history — we have little luxury to be overly scrupulous in our discernment here and perhaps are more in the situation of simply speaking openly as the Spirit moves us before the tribunals of the world. IN such a setting — and I think we are virtually there — I am less confident than you that methodological issues ought to be paramount.

  11. Craig Uffman says:

    Ephraim, With regard to my concern that we focus on the things that most contribute to the production of a virtuous community rather than on the sexuality debates, it is clear that we disagree on what is at stake in that particular question.

    I wonder if we disagree on that because I think the question has to do with how we encounter the real presence of Christ in a sacramental practice such as that of holy matrimony, and you (may) see the question as one of obedience? In such a case, we might calculate the stakes differently.

    With that in mind, I ask a clarifying question that may draw attention to some unstated premises: do you think of our beatitude primarily in terms of knowledge of God or union with God?

    I have in mind the spectrum between Thomas’ virtuous disciple whose beatitude is knowledge of God, in contrast with the Scotist obedient disciple whose beatitude is not knowledge of but union with God.

    Jennifer Herdt notes that the Scotist moral psychology makes the human will primary and independent of the intellect, and substitutes a grace-moved will that conforms to the divine will. This means that “a person understandably aims to fulfill the terms of the [covenant of grace], rather than striving to develop in virtue and perfect his or her character.” [Herdt, Putting on Virtue, 91-3]

    In the Scotist case, habituation ought no longer be a primary focus of ethics because the will can overcome the power of good habits and ignore the counsel of the intellect. When a transformed character is the path to the beatitude of knowledge of God, habituation matters, but when an obedient will is the path to the beatitude of union with God, right actions matter. Scotist thinking shifts the emphasis of Christian ethics from virtue to deontology.

    By my reading, in the Thomist moral psychology, the ethical concern is about how to develop persons and communities capable of reliably making aesthetic judgments about the paths of participation in Christ. In the Scotist moral psychology, with its skepticism of reason, the question shifts to one about how the community reliably recognizes what God commands and how it develops individuals willfully submissive to those commands. Sanctification is not about new habits, but about an obedient will.

    For me, the same-sex blessing question begins with consideration of whether it is justifiable to believe that the Spirit could use the covenantal relationship of two persons of the same sex as a sign of Christ’s real presence such that when a faithful witness encounters that relationship, Christ is truly and efficaciously present in the heart and soul of the worthy witness. In other words, at stake is whether such a relationship might be a means by which God sustains the Church, not our covenantal relationship to Christ.

    While I certainly share a Scotist appreciation of the contingency of the means of grace, I see that contingency as qualifying our knowledge of those means, and not as qualifying the covenant itself. Therefore I don’t share the generational concern you express.

  12. Craig Uffman says:

    I wrote my reply late at night, and it occurs to me that more clarification of my line of questioning may be needed.

    The context is this:

    If one maintains a eudaimonistic view such as we find in Thomas, and also the view that our beatitude and telos is to participate in God’s rationality fully through scientia, then one’s focus in on virtue, and questions such as the presenting one are questions framed in terms of whether or not they constitute such participation in God’s rationality. Sin is spoken of in terms of blindness and salvation in terms of a restoration of sight or memory or in other cognitive terms. Sacramental participation in God is a knowing of God make possible through the real presence of Christ’s humanity: the sacraments are framed in terms of the possibility of the knowledge of God.

    But if one maintains, with Scotus, that it is not possible for humans to participate in God’s rationality because of our finitude (the noumenal/phenomenal gulf Kant describes) then our telos is often conceived in terms of union with God. Such union just is obedience (obedience is not the cause but the form or mark of such union). That union is highly contingent because of the human will, and, in the hyper-Augustinian form that Herdt describes, “human agency must be abandoned, and every form of eudaimonism amounts to selfishness.” Sin is a great threat to the community because our relation to God is described in voluntaristic terms. Participation in Christ tends to be described much more in language about suffering because the participation in God’s rationality is impossible for philosophical reasons. Rather than a participatory knowledge of God, the hope is for the union with God made possible through a suffering obedience.

    From an ethics perspective, there are potentially different consequences arising from these views. If I am optimistic about the means of participating in God’s rationality – particularly through the Eucharist – then the community’s relationship with God does not turn on questions of human action such as the presenting question. There are many ways for us to continue our growth toward scientia, and the Eucharist sustains us as we sort through whether or not innovations are forms of participation or habituation in darkness. It is not that the community is free from threat, but that the stakes are different than in the hyper-Augustinian view. It is not (necessarily) an identity crisis, because our identity (holiness) is determined by our participation in God’s rationality, which is sustained sacramentally.

    In the latter view, the holiness that makes the church a sacrament is not framed in terms of virtue (rationality) but in terms of obedience. So ethical questions such as the presenting question threaten the community’s very identity. If what makes us holy is that the world sees our obedience and thereby sees God’s presence, then any concern about obedience is an identity crisis of momentous proportions.

    So that’s the background of my clarifying question above.

  13. This is helpful, Craig. But I think you are putting me — and the topic at hand — in a box that doesn’t exist. There is no dualistic opposition between virtue and obedience (obedience is freuqnetly understood as a virtue itself!), participation and discipleship/following and so on. They are part of a single and coherent reality that the loving human creature embodies in her or his relationship to God. Splitting them apart is a mistake, and frankly, the Augustine/Scotus vs. Thomas argument is, I suspect, historically flawed. (That’s another argument I don’t want to get into — but most Scotus scholars are aghast at what has been done to their mentor by dilettante intellectual historians [like me! although not in this case. I simply know too little. Reading and understanding Scotus is a major commitment, that few of us have the capacity and time to do].) The whole point is that the life of sexual relationship is a practice (or concrete set of them) that both forms a person for and is part of a coherent Christian life with and for God. The same is true of all sacramental practices. You are rightly deeply concerned about sacramental engagement and witness. But marriage is a part of that, that can’t be siphoned off as a kind of residual effect that derives from Baptism and Eucharist, and so we concentrate on the latter and trust that the former will emerge. That is precisely one of the points Paul is making in 1 Cor. 10 and 11 more broadly in the context of his letter as a whole. You start deforming one and lots of things unravel. John Paul II, whatever one thinks of the details (and I don’t buy them all), understood this and argued it very, very well in his “theology of the body” homilies and talks.

    Forgive me if I can’t respond any further — I am travelling. Blessings!

  14. Craig Uffman says:

    To be clear, Ephraim, no box here: I asked you to locate yourself on a spectrum so that I can understand better why you are justified in your claims about the gravity of the threat to the church in the sexuality debates.

    Surely you are right that we must be careful in speaking of Scotus, and I’d add that the same is true of Thomas. So that we avoid offense to historians of both, surely we can speak of recognizable Thomas and Scotus moments where we refer not necessarily to their own claims but to shifts in habits of thought that we associate with the influence of their claims. By Thomas Moment I denote the recovery and reconstruction of Aristotle’s account of virtue and the account of being in which we participate in God’s rationality and the claim that it is our telos so to do, etc. The point is that our participation in God is rational and that our beatitude is knowledge of God. The Scotus Moment I denote as the refutation of said Thomist metaphysics by the Franciscans as I described above, and, particularly, the shift in emphasis from the eudamonistic pursuit of the knowledge of God to the priority of obedience (since such knowledge was declared unavailable on philosophical grounds.)

    With that amendment, let me agree that virtue and obedience are related, but surely the question I’ve raised is about how they are related, suggesting that there is a spectrum of view on this that I’ve named for our purposes as Thomist and Scotist moments.

    My suggestion is that where we are on that spectrum is decisive for our ethics generally, and particularly for how we will view what’s at stake in the sexuality debates, and also how our ecclesial priorities should be ordered. (I am not suggesting that this determines how we would adjudicate those debates).

    • I can’t speak on Scotus as I have not read him. However, I wonder if it might be helpful to slightly alter the terms of description from great men (Aquinas and Scotus) to broader theological traditions (intellectualism/rationalism and voluntarism)? From my own readings on point, it seems that the issue between voluntarism and rationalism is, broadly speaking, one of will vs. reason – or, better, love vs. knowledge. The emphasis upon obedience within voluntarism does not strike me as being devoid of a range of affective interests and concerns, including but not limited to the of love God and union with God. I do not think that it is fair to see voluntarism as yielding little more than a ‘divine-command’ theology of Christian life and witness.

      I accept the basic argument that one’s own inclinations – either voluntarist or rationalist – shapes how one approaches the issue of same-sex marriage in the Church. I am not entirely clear, however, that this would shape how one lives out ‘virtue and obedience’, although it might shape how one teaches about their relationship (which may have very big implications for a wide variety of matters; historically, theological rationalism undergirded constitutionalism while theological voluntarism undergirded revolution). Nonetheless, regardless of whether one comes to obedience through virtue or love, or through the sacraments or the Bible, one nonetheless comes to obedience. Is there a divine pattern revealed in Scripture which Christians are called and expected to imitate? This question is rather more important than how one explains the relationship between virtue and obedience.

      This relates, then, to my earlier statement about ‘evangelical ethics’. I did not use this term to describe a school of thought. I meant that, for the evangelical, there is a basic sense of right and wrong, and a basic sense that God expects certain things. Consequently, evangelicals have little difficult approaching most moral issues. I am not an evangelical and I do not wish to advocate evangelicalism. However, as an outsider, I see that there is, for many, an appeal to this way of living. Evangelicals’ ethics are Bible-based, even if idiosyncratically so. Consequently, evangelicals’ ethics are as black-and-white and easy to apply as the ethics of any activist movement (e.g., feminism, or any other post-1968 liberation movement). Most people live their lives simply, applying basic principles to their lives. This may leave much to be desired for those of us who study ethics and/or theology. But it is also the reality of the situation.

      Ours is a voluntaristic age. Insofar as a mode of ethical teaching cannot or does not take that into account, it will have far less influence. Perhaps it has always been this way; Thomism was not exactly the dominant theological framework of the late medieval era. Nor, for that matter, is it the dominant theological framework today.

  15. Craig Uffman says:

    Your suggestion works for us Ben, but we’d need to specify the Thomist form of rationalism in which there is an innate capacity for intellection of transcendentals, euadomonism, etc, rather the Kantian or other forms.

    Virtue is not obedience. In brief it is an affective and cognitive disposition. It assumes that ethical judgements are phronetic and so aesthetic. Character is the goal, but these dispositions generate a wide range of responses that constitute participation in God’s rationality and therefore constitute obedience.

    Not so with the other end of the spectrum, ethical question are not aesthetic, phronetic questions, but more like acknowledgement of episteme. There aren’t really ranges of right responses in the same way. Unison, not harmony is the norm in ethics.

    A communion ecclesiology requires an aesthetics, I think.

    As a result, obedience does not mean the same thing. In both cases there can be loving union but not diversity in responses.

    That diversity matters. Our diversity, our harmonious difference is central to our denotation of the “inner life of the triune God” as a smart man once observed.

    So this question really is decisive in the way we see the world, and therefore our ethics.

    • First, can you explain what you mean by ‘aesthetic’? It isn’t clear.

      Second, I am against ethics being a primarily academic discipline upon which action in the real world is predicated. In such a case, ethics – or, rather, the ethicist’s will (ironically, given the present discussion) – becomes a hindrance to right living. Piety does not need a PhD. Morality does not need a PhD. These may benefit from such training, but such training is not strictly necessary.

  16. Craig Uffman says:

    Aesthetics is the anglicization of a German word from the 18th c that is often associated with Kant. The word is retroactively projected onto both Plato and Aristotle in contemporary presentations of their thought, for both dealt with the subject matter. In particular, one see aesthetics in Aristotle’s Poetics. The key point is the distinction between things created for production and things created for themselves. The knowledge needed to create things for production (poïesis) is the knowledge of techne’, whereas the knowledge needed to create things that are themselves good involve phronesis (prudential judgment).

    This distinction is adopted by Aquinas as a description the kind of moral reasoning we indicate with the word ethics. In context, Aristotle distinguishes the knowledge that is its object from techne, from which we get technology. He gives the example of crafts. It takes time to learn a craft. It requires mastery of principles, apprenticeship, and immersion in the field to become an artisan or a plumber. One learns by steps and degrees. So it is with ethical reasoning. It is creative, and not like techne, which is the kind of knowledge in which such mastery is not needed because its object is produced and replicated by flowing instructions. as a description the kind of moral reasoning we indicate with the word ethics. In context, Aristotle distinguishes the knowledge that is its object from techne, from which we get technology. He gives the example of crafts. It takes time to learn a craft. It requires mastery of principles, apprenticeship, and immersion in the field to become an artisan or a plumber. One learns by steps and degrees. So it is with ethical reasoning. It is creative, and not like techne, which is the kind of knowledge in which such mastery is not needed because its object is produced and replicated by flowing instructions.

    Ethics don’t require a PhD but they do require a journey of knowledge.

    Hauerwas has four chapters in his Christian Ethics (Blackwell) in which he explains how ethics became a separate discipline and academic. He argues your point. I agree with you. He gives the history and charts a path for rescuing ethics from academia.

  17. Robb Beck says:


    Wonderful post. From the peanut gallery, I think you’re own to something. And though I appreciate Radner’s push back on your general point, I suspect you’re right to call attention to the spectrum of views happening between Thomist and Scotist moments. This spectrum needs to be brought to the surface.

    Many thanks!


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