16 February 2010


As much as I say I don't like (long, drawn out discussions on) ethics, let me make another post on ethics (silent blogs worry me).

Consider this. That a right and proper approach to Lutheran ethics could flow very well and easily from the 10th Article of the Formula of Concord. What do I mean? Well, let us examine what the Formula teaches (feel free to contend with any of my summary points below).

1. There is a difference between what God has commanded and what is done for good order.
2. What God commands must always be followed - what God forbids must never be allowed.
3. For the sake of good order, we may go beyond Scripture, but when we do this we must never expect this to be binding like Scripture -- our actions and decisions are fundamentally temporary as opposed to the Word which endures forever.
4. So long as we do not contradict the Word, we are free.
5. This freedom includes setting additional standards which we will hold to for good order.
6. Our free actions are not to be frivolous or scandalous to the neighbor.
7. We do not yield to those who demand what God does not demand.

Is this not an ethical roadmap which could be applied to virtually any situation? First, consider what the Word says. Then consider good order and the benefit of the neighbor. Then consider whether or not false doctrine is encouraged. If all these ducks are in a row, then you have ethical behavior.

Thoughts, questions, comments?


Chad Myers said...

What then if two seemingly ethical individuals interpret the Word in two contradictory ways such that each considers the other person "unethical"?

Who is to say what "the Word says" and what "false doctrine" is?

Susan said...

How do #5 and #7 go together? When we set standards for good order, some say that we are demanding them and therefore will not yield. In other words, it is common today to hear that we are "free" to disregard the standards we have set.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Chad - then you have a conflict and one must follow ones own conscience. Do so humbly, check to see if you are in error and the like.

Susan - There is a difference between saying, "Let us do this for good order" and then one saying, "You must do this if you are to be a Christian." The difference is between freely agreeing to act together (and agreeing to abide by the rules governing that body) and by one being tyrannical.

And should some place you had joined freely becomes tyrannical or moves into false doctrine, you yourself probably need to go. . . or at least speak out about how they are violating and ignoring Scripture until they issue a bull against you and kick you out.

One thing we do forget is that we as individuals do not set the code of conduct for a group. . . if I belong to a group (say a group of bloggers), there will be standards. I need to follow those standards. If they are unacceptable to me, I must go. I shouldn't try to demand accommodations.

Carl Vehse said...

So, in Lutheran ethics, how do 3, 5, 6, and 7 fit around controversial adiaphora and pious opinions that have been discussed in threads on this blog site and elsewhere over the past few months, such as:

1. Perpetual virginity
2. Clauso utero
3. Immaculate Conception of Mary
4. Assumption of Mary
5. Praying to the saints (including Mary)
5. Individual communion cups
6. Congregational church polity
7. Christian cremation
8. Vicarages
9. Infant communion
10. Ordination before a Call
11. Reservation of the Sacrament
12. Pre-confirmation communion
13. Infant communion
14. The position of the pulpit relative to the altar

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

Rev. Brown,

A couple thoughts:

1) Why don't you like ethics?

2) I may be missing the thrust of your post, but I am having trouble integrating the notion of ethics, which, theologically speaking, typically refers to what is good or evil, with the setting of standards for good order, which is not concerned with good and evil, but with order, expediency, and the like.

If you are referring to ethics more broadly, say, in the sense of ethos, then I understand what you are suggesting, but I would be wary of it because of the potential for this confusion.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


Well, I'm not sure what you mean precisely with your question. Am I to try to apply the "ethical" solution to all the issues and points of debate listed? That's wouldn't be the point. Ethical schemes aren't designed to solve debated questions but rather to serve as a guide to behavior. I do think one could use the ideas from FC X to guide how one approaches a issue upon which there is some discussion.

For example, number 1 on your list - Perpetual Virginity.

One might easily form a free organization where part of membership is the profession of believe in the perpetual virginity -- this is a statement which goes beyond Scripture (just as one might argue saying definitively the other way would as well), but if for common concord in a group you want to have this something that we agree to - fine.

However, such a group would not be able to ethically demand all others hold to this position. More over, such decision to have this position be part of the group's identity shouldn't be taken up simply to rile folks up. Also, one who had joined said group but then changes his mind on the issue would either need to convince the group to remove this as a part of their position or leave the group.

Also, when discussing perpetual virginity, one ought keep in mind the positions of others. Personally, I don't hold to this position. It would be quite unethical for me to say that one who does hold to this position is not a Christian, or should suffer some consequence. They ought to be free in holding that position (and I ought to allow them to believe that freely -- and vice versa). And even if there were to be a group that were to say on this issue "We believe X, and that's how we will do things" I don't think it would be ethical to condemn the otherside.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Rev. Grobien,

When I think of ethics - I think not primarily towards the distinction between good and evil (that's more morality) but rather behavior - how one ought to behave in a specific situation. Is it ethical to do X in situation Y.

I find a lot of discussions on ethics to be. . . too precise and micromanaging. I feel also many discussions on ethics try to put forth an artificial "This and this alone is the proper way" and as such tend to undercut the idea of freedom. I've seen too many "ethics" discussions that get way too specific.

It maybe that "ethos" is closer to what I tend to think of as ethics (maybe ethic as specifically applied ethos?). I just tend to be more interested in a pattern that might be applied to any specific situation rather than any attempt which tries to answer every specific situation. (Those discussions end up boring me and striking me as. . . often lacking humility - and most ethics discussions seem to tend that way).

Be well my friend - hope this clarifies.

Rev Rydecki said...

Herr Vehse,

I can't answer for Eric, but I thought you might appreciate how a great Lutheran ethicist name Chemnitz addressed some of the items on your list as he Examined the doctrines of Trent and tried to guide the Lutheran behavior accordingly:

"We have shown above how Augustine proves from Scripture...that in matters of faith, after the establishment of the canon of Scripture, neither through revelations nor through miracles is anything to be believed outside of or contrary to the Scripture; that many such things are invented by men; and that, if they are not invented, the Scripture nevertheless forewarns that we should not believe them contrary to the Word."

And he closes out the section with this pious opinion:

"I think that the Virgin Mary is rightly proclaimed blest if those things are attributed to her which are both in agreement with the Scripture and can be proved from there, so that the name of the Lord may be holy. No other celebration can be pleasing to her." (Examination, Part 1, Fifth Topic)

Chad Myers said...

@Rev. Brown: For the record, that was "Carl Vehse" that posted that list, not me :)

But in your reply to Carl, I think you're make some mistakes.

Why don't Lutherans require converts to be circumcised? Why do you believe in the Trinity? Try to prove to a Jehovah's Witness believer that the Trinity can be proven beyond doubt from the Scripture.

Lutherans and presumably yourself, hold to many doctrines which are tenuously Scriptural at best (e.g. must be inferred by looking at several passages, and even after that is still not entirely clear). One example of this is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Another is the all-Humanity, all-Divinity of Christ. Both of these doctrines were in doubt in the early Church and were resolved dogmatically via the Pope after ecumenical councils delivered a finding.

Even today, non-Trinitarian heresies exist (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc) as do those who deny the divinity of Christ (Mormons, JH, 7th Day Adventists, Islam, etc), or deny the humanity of Christ (Gnostics, etc).

So Scripture, it seems, is not itself sufficient to justify every doctrine that has been revealed to us by God. Indeed men of good will and faith differ on great matters (is there a Trinity? is Christ both God and man?) and Scripture itself is not entirely sufficient to resolve these matters (there is ambiguity and not enough clarity in these matters).

And what of the First Council of Jerusalem where Christian men of the highest possible faith (the first Apostles) disagreed on whether new Christians must be circumcised. The Apostles had to agree and Peter confirmed this as one of the first declared, infallible dogmas of the Church.

In the end, it is simply not enough to say that each individual conscience is supreme pope. The Christian faith we have today, the faith that Lutherans have inherited from Catholics, was delivered in-tact due to the infallible decrees and the close protection of doctrine and revealed truth through the teaching of the Magisterium -- including and especially what "Scripture" is in the first place. Lutherans have a Bible from which to assert Sola Scriptura for the sole reason that the Catholic Church's Apostolic Tradition delivered it to them in-tact and without stain by the direct guidance and intervention of the Holy Spirit.

Saying each man's conscience is pope and infallible is extremely dangerous as we have seen these last 500+ years.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Chad and Carl.

Sorry - fighting off some food poisoning. . . 4 letter C names are too confusing for me at the moment.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Chad (I think, it sounds roman, yes, must be Chad),

You write: Saying each man's conscience is pope and infallible is extremely dangerous as we have seen these last 500+ years.

Again, that is never, never a Lutheran approach to Sola Scriptura. Luther's famous statement at Worms talks precisely about how people can and often do err. But rather this - when we say "thou shalt believe" those things must flow from Scripture.

Do you think the Church just developed or articulated the doctrine of the Trinity out of think air? Anthanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers built argument after argument upon the Scriptures.

I'm in Oklahoma. You might have something with your arguments if you were posting on the blog of a bunch of Church History hating floppy-bible wavers - but not with historical, Confessional Lutherans.

Also, as a note - the 500 years before the Reformation were rife with heresy as well -- and much of it even at the time sanctioned by the Church and later repudiated. The Reformation just means Rome doesn't get to burn the heretics - not that suddenly heresy reappears.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Thinking more about this. . .

Lutherans and presumably yourself, hold to many doctrines which are tenuously Scriptural at best (e.g. must be inferred by looking at several passages, and even after that is still not entirely clear). One example of this is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Another is the all-Humanity, all-Divinity of Christ.

Really? "tenuously Scriptural?" That isn't how the Popes themselves protrayed it. Consider the Tome of Leo against Eutyches:

"Eutyches had no idea how he ought to think about the incarnation of the Word of God; and he had no desire to acquire the light of understanding by working through the length and breadth of the holy scriptures. So at least he should have listened carefully and accepted the common and undivided creed by which the whole body of the faithful confess that they believe in God the Father almighty and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the holy Spirit and the virgin Mary."

The understanding is from the Scriptures - it is summarized in the Creed that is confessed by the the whole body.

This approach, I would contend, it wonderful and like unto what I espouse above. Place yourself under the Scriptures and the common consent of the whole body (not the particular opinions of one who assumes authority).

I was going to say that it is "astonishing" how much Scripture Leo uses. . . but it really isn't. I highly commend the Tome of Leo to you of an example of the importance of the Word to the Popes in their days of faithfulness.

Chad Myers said...

@Rev Brown: I think you misunderstood my argument.

I'm certainly not saying that scripture isn't important. I'm certainly not saying that I deny the doctrine of Trinity.

But it is complicated to prove the doctrine of the Trinity from Scripture as is evidenced by Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses today (both forks from the host of errors brought on by the protestant protests).

The point is, when these matters arise (and they arise often, especially in the early church), you cannot simply say that "one must follow ones own conscience" as this would've lead to all sorts of chaos and mayhem.

No, indeed, Christ was very explicit and gave us a visible, Earthly head of the Church because he knew that even people of good will and Faith would misunderstand or misinterpret his teachings.

And how did Christianity survive before the Scriptures were determined?

All because there was a visible teaching authority to which the various synods could turn for official teaching.

It's interesting you cite the Tome of Leo as it is a good example to use for explaining the gift of Papal infallibility.

Christ never gave teaching authority to "ones own conscience", he gave it to the Rock upon which he build his Church (not churches).

Christ knew people would have genuine misunderstandings and need correct teaching and correct interpretation in a single, visible, authoritative teacher who could teach ex cathedra when necessary to prevent major schism.

Chad Myers said...

@Rev Brown:

"Do you think the Church just developed or articulated the doctrine of the Trinity out of think air?"

No, I never said that. But there were many ideas at the time. Why was Anthanasius' position any more valid than Arius'? Simply because it was more well argued? More consistent?

No, it was PRONOUNCED so, declared definitively in Niceae and confirmed by Pope Sylvester I. Arianism was officially declared anathema and anyone holding to it excommunicated in no uncertain terms.

Why was Arius wrong? Why do we (Catholics and Lutherans) follow the Anthanasian position?

Why did Luther later decide that he would be a better pope to change doctrine decided by ecumenical councils? Is not Luther any different than Arius?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


The council of Nicea did not decide things of their own position or dignity, but what was in accord with the Apostolic Faith as put forth in the Scriptures. Or even before Arius, when Ireneaus contends against the heretics, it is on the basis of what the Scriptures actually say.

So to answer your question, we claim the Trinity because that is what is faithful to the Scriptures -- and the church at large recognized this.

And at what point did Luther claim to be a pope? Luther was a doctor of the Church - his duty was to tend to doctrine and point out error, especially places where the Church had abandoned Scripture. This he did faithfully (and without being a tyrant over anyone).

And actually - Athanasius' position was better and is valid precisely because it is consistent with the Scriptures and Arius is rejected because his was not.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Rev. Grobien,

I thought perhaps of another point of clarification, or a way of explaining my thoughts. I am not interested in "what" one does nearly as much as I am "why" someone does it. I've seen too many "ethics" discussions become simply "you need to do this and this" rather than giving focus to why. In a situation, a Christian may not be bound to just one specific course of action - it is not always just a black and white I must do this because this is the situation found on page 183. We have freedom - and we need to be trained in using that freedom - we need to learn "why" we act, and what are the proper reasons for action.

Consider last nights readings. The man who fasts (a good thing) - but why? Is it so that he might be seen and praised for his holiness? Then, in fact, it isn't a good thing. The why is important -- I want to focus on the why more than the what. The what - well, whether you eat and drink or don't eat or drink, let it be done to the Lord.

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

Rev. Brown,

I suppose your understanding of the term "ethics" is one definition, but I would suggest that we should not assume this as the primary definition. (I am not trying to nitpick; as I mentioned in my first comment, your proposal depends on a certain understanding of ethics.) Ethics, primarily understood, is closely related to morality. In fact, ethics is the study of morality--investigation into and reflection upon what makes someone or something good or evil.

This is not just the philosophical understanding, but the popular one, too. When we speak of "medical ethics" or "ethics rules," we are speaking of conduct that is good or bad, not just right or orderly for a person or institution.

I'm sorry to hear of your previous experiences with ethics. Most serious ethicists would resonate in some way with your criticism. I can't think of many ethical theories that try to determine the particular, appropriate behavior for every circumstance. Even norm-oriented systems recognize that determining the applicable norm can really only be done in the circumstance, by those intimately engaged in it.

You perspective, I expect, has benefited the discussions you have experienced.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Basically in college a distinction was made between morality (absolute right and wrong) and what was considered acceptable behavior in a given field. Hence, one could argue that for the defense lawyer it was ethical to not bring certain information to light in court, even if one might contend that morally it was wrong (or vice versa, that it would be unethical for a lawyer to torpedo his own client's case). And often ethics discussions (in the circles of the world) will make a disconnect between morality and instead drive right towards practicality.

That's probably why the first points I try to make are always along the lines of "what has God commanded" and "show love" -- things that automatically try to clearly introduce a moral compass.

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

But even if ethics is only "accepted behavior in a given field," on what basis is something acceptable for practical ethics? Under your example of legal ethics, you suggest that it could, in some circumstance, be ethical not to reveal certain information, even if could be considered morally wrong to do so. But this is not a conflict between ethics and morality, this is a moral question made difficult to answer because of circumstances. There are multiple moral goods at issue, so ethics rules are in place to assist in dealing with these kinds of situations. It may seem, especially to outsiders, that some legal ethics rules are immoral, but are they not actually put in place to defend a moral good: e.g., the greater right to protect the accused from abuse by law enforcement, or the notion that the lawyer is truly an agent for the accused, not another legally recognized person?

I'm not saying that all ethics rules are right, but I'm saying that ethics, no matter how practically oriented they may seem, no matter how field-specific they may be, are rules for a field in order to deal with moral questions in the field.

Ethics are not just policies and procedures.

And I guess this is why I'm having difficulty with your proposal. I can't understand if you're suggesting a method for actually dealing with moral decisions, or if you're talking about policies and procedures.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Ah. . .

I suppose I would say that I am proposing a simple rule of thumb (a policy of approach and attitudes) to which one could apply to any situation and find the good and salutary options that are available while eliminating options that would be immoral. This could then be the basis for establishing specific codes of "ethics" in fields, the ground rules of acceptable behavior.

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

OK. I guess I would just urge you not to use the word ethics, because your definition of the word really is not a primary definition. Both general and philosophical dictionaries will confirm this.