Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part One

Mitchell_review_20190919Ben Mitchell.[1] 2013. Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide. Wheaton: Crossway.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My interest in ethics dates back to when as a young man I faced the Vietnam war and the draft without a clear understanding of what I was dealing with. What does God require of us here and now, in this situation, and why? Questions of life and death tend to grab you by the throat and refuse to let you go.

Introduction

In the preface to his book, Ethics and Moral Reasoning, Ben Mitchell writes:  

“Few people need to be convinced of the importance of ethics. We live in a tragically flawed world where we are confronted daily with moral failures…This book is a guide to thinking about the good.” (15-17)

He goes on to write:

“Jesus described a trinity of moral relationships—to God, to others, and to self. These three relationships were to be ordered by the virtue of love. Importantly, when one of these relationships becomes disordered, the others are affected.” (19)

Nouwen (1975, 20) refers to these three relationships as movements of the spirit, suggesting that what we believe and what we do are closely related. Much of what we do arises, especially in a professional sense, arises out of our identities.

As Christians, our identity naturally flows from our understanding of who Jesus is. Mitchell’s commitment to a Christian ethical understanding is summarized as:

“Although every person may pursue the human telos, Christians enjoy the aid of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who motivates them both to will and to do God’s God pleasure as they follow the path of the Lord Jesus.” (97)

In his final paragraph he asks: “What does it mean to be truly human?” (98) The answer to this question often given by Christians is that we more closely reflect the image in which we were created (Gen 1:27).

Background and Organization

Ben Mitchell has a doctorate from University of Tennessee, a masters of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is a grade of Mississippi State University. He is currently on the faculty at Union University in Tennessee. His focus is bioethics and he is widely published.

Mitchell writes in six chapters:

  1. “The Challenges of a Relativist World
  2. The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 1
  3. The History of Moral Reasoning, Part 2
  4. Enlightenment Ethics
  5. Evangelical Ethics
  6. Using the Bible in Moral Decision Making” (9)

These chapters are preceded by two prefaces and acknowledgments and followed by conclusions, an appendix, questions for reflection, a timeline, glossary, resources for further study, and two indices. In his scriptural index, the vast majority of citations are from Genesis (creation), Exodus (Ten Commandments), and Matthew (Sermon on the Mount).

Confronting Relativism

Concerning the pervasive influence of relativism, Mitchell observes:

“relativism is morally crippling because relegates ethical discussions to the personal, private, and subjective, and to the realm of mere preference.” (34)

He terms this view normative ethical relativism because it suggests not only what is, but what should be. Citing Louis Pojman, it stands on two premises: the diversity thesis, that “right and wrong differ from person to person and from culture to culture”. And the dependency thesis, that “morality depends on human nature, the human condition, or specific sociocultural circumstances, or a combination of all three.” (24-25) The diversity thesis is not normative, but simply observes that ethical practices differ between cultures. Mitchell devotes more attention to the dependency thesis.

Mitchell outlines five weaknesses of the dependency thesis that we care about:

  1. Majority opinion can be wrong. For most of human history, the majority of people supported the institution of slavery.
  2. Moral error is not possible, if the dependency thesis is true. Child sexual abuses is always wrong, irrespective of cultural context.
  3. Moral reform makes no sense if relativism is true. Abraham Lincoln had no basis for criticizing slavery or Nelson Mandela for criticizing racial segregation, if relativism is true.
  4. What is does not imply that it should be. Just because some Islamic and African nations practice female genital mutilation does not imply that is should be.
  5. Relativism confuses moral practices and their underlying values. Signs of disrespect differ by culture, yet every culture honors respect. (27-29)

Citing James Q. Wilson, Mitchell observes that “every culture shares the values of sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty” (30) suggesting that we share common moral values even if they are expressed differently among cultures.

Assessment

In part one of this review, I give a general outline of Mitchell’s work. In part two, I will summarize his views on biblical, enlightenment, and Evangelical ethical thinking.

Ben Mitchell’s Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide is a gem. It provides a short, concise statement of a Christian ethical perspective.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.uu.edu/programs/stm/faculty/ben-mitchell.html.

References

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Mitchell Simplifies Christian Ethics, Part On

Also See:

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1 

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Church and State

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Today when we talk about our freedom in Christ, we normally refer to our freedom to live within the will of God through Christ’s forgiveness and the work of the Holy Spirit. In the early church, freedom in Christ also meant freedom from the micro-management of daily life proscribed by Mosaic Law, which encompassed much more than the Ten Commandments and served as the foundation for the theocratic state of Israel.

The earliest mention of relationship between church and state is the reference to Jesus’ suffering under Pontius Pilate in both the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds (PCUSA 1999, 1.2 and 2.2), an explicit statement of religious persecution—a measure of the level of this intrusiveness.

Church and State in the Bible

Two traditions of church and state relations appear in scripture: the theocratic state of Israel and the magisterium of Rome. Tensions between the two conceptions of state authority arise not only in the view of legitimate use of power, but also in influence of law as it effects the distinction between private and public space.

The theocratic state of Israel is most obvious in the Old Testament where we observe tension between king and prophet, but this is also the world into which Jesus was born. When Jesus taught about taxation with a denarius coin—render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Matt 22:21)—his concern was that the religious state—even as a client state of Rome—dominated public life to the exclusion of God.

We are reminded that John the Baptist was executed by King Herod because of his indiscrete comments about Herod’s adulterous marriage (Matt 14:3-11). Jesus’ own teaching on marriage put him at similar risk (Matt 19:9). Although Jesus is formally sent to the cross by Pontius Pilate, it is the Jewish authorities who hand him over to Pilate (Matt 27:1-2). In a theocratic state, the lines between public and private space are blurred and do not always enhance personal faith.

The early persecution of the church, like that of Jesus himself, had a Jewish origin. Before he became Paul the Apostle, Saul was a zealous Jew and persecutor of the church (Acts 8:1-3). Rome allowed Israel autonomy in religious affairs and focused on other matters.

The Apostle Paul, whose ministry was outside the nation of Israel, viewed the state as having more limited influence—that of a civil magistrate —which relieved much of the tension found in Jesus’ ministry. Paul exhorts us: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God (Rom 13:1).

Paul could travel the Roman Empire establishing churches—frequently over the objection of his Jewish colleagues—because civil authorities showed interest in matters of faith only to the extent that public order was disturbed. Even in Jerusalem, Paul is able to use his Roman citizenship to garner protection from the magistrates who by arresting him also saved his life from an angry Jewish mob (Acts 21-22). For the most part, religion fell in private space in polytheistic Rome even though Rome occasionally persecuted the church after it became more influential. 

The pertinent question today is this: does the secular state more closely resemble secular Rome or the theocratic state of Israel?

Augustine, Luther, and Calvin

This dichotomy between the theocratic state of Israel (still subject to Mosaic law) and the magisterial state of Rome (subject mostly to civil law) found in the New Testament is lost in the writing of Augustine’s book, De Civitate Dei (The City of God). Augustine pictured two eschatological cities, the city of God, and, the earthly city, in opposition. The city of God consists of those who love God rightly and the earthy city consists of those contemptuous of God (Weitman 2009, 236-237).

Building on Augustine’s two cities and Paul’s magisterial state, Luther divided the world between the Kingdom of Christ (church) and the Kingdom of the World (secular state) which defined the concept of church and state in reformation thinking (Bainton 1995, 186-187). Because the reformation divided the Protestant Churches from the Catholic Church, this division between church and state was pragmatic giving legitimacy to German princes that aided Luther in his break from Rome.

Unlike Luther who was almost exclusively a theologian and pastor, Calvin was both a lawyer and civil magistrate. Calvin’s writing on church and state accordingly lent further credibility to Luther’s teaching on separation of church and state (Calvin 1939, 202-214). We think of Calvin primarily as a theologian, but he is best known in Europe for having been the first to introduce public education and public water works.

Why Do We Care?

One observation that we can draw from Old Testament law is that it tends to pervade all aspects of daily life. This is the nature of using rules verses principles. Principles can be outlined and apply in an infinite number of contexts; rules always to be updated constantly to deal with new circumstances. Secular law is no different.

Ethical behavior defined in secular law binds every Christian and yet the law need not comport with Christian ethical principles. Christians find themselves in an ethical bind with secular laws that legalize immoral behavior. The problem can be overwhelming in trying to explain to your children that the things that their friends are allowed to do, they cannot do because they are Christians. As teenagers, the temptation just to walk away from the faith can be real and immediate. 

The breakdown of the separation of church and state means that churches must lobby government to fashion laws that govern their own members and it makes it harder for them to do so. It also makes it harder for churches to discipline their members when they are unfaithful to biblical teaching and their church’s own confessions.

References

Bainton, Roland H. 1995. Here I Stand:  The Life of Martin Luther.  New York:  Meridan.

BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.

Calvin, John. 1939. A Compend of the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Edited by Hugh Thomson Kerr, Jr.  Philadelphia:  Presbyterian Board of Christian Education.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confessions. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Weithman, Paul. 2009. “Augustine’s Political Philosophy” pages 234-252 of The Cambridge Companion to Augustine.  Edited by Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.

Church and State

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Value Of Life

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Ethical Perspective. Monday Monologues, June 3, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will pray and reflect on Ethical Perspective.

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Ethical Perspective. Monday Monologues, June 3, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Ethical Perspective

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Earlier I wrote that if ethics is the study of moral action, then Christian ethics is the study of moral action starting from faith in God. I then proceed to outline a number of philosophical explanations of ethical behavior and decision-making. Yet, what makes Christian ethics unique and simply not a branch of philosophy is the relationship to God.

Vines and Branches

Jesus gives an analogy:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:1-5)

Today this analogy evokes the picture of an electric appliance that is perfectly useless until it is plugged in—the power is in the cord, not the appliance. As Christians, we rely not on a philosophical approach to determine our actions, we rely on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, especially as revealed in scripture.

This reliance on the Holy Spirit solves an important ethical problem for the Christian because ethical actions are contextual and, in the absence of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is extremely hard to sort out which philosophical precedents to follow.

Ethical Perspective

Suppose a man gets shot dead. From an ethical perspective, we must immediately ask: what is the relationship between the shooter and the dead man? Was the shooting intentional or accidental, and how do we know? What led up to the shooting? What was the shooter’s emotional state of mind? Where the dead man and the shooter from the same ethnic group? What were their roles in this shooting? From a legal perspective, an public inquiry may be required to sort all these questions out before a court decides what to do about the shooting.

Notice that at least three people are involved in this example: the dead man, the shooter, and a judge. Each will have a perspective on this shooting and the community may be divided on how to interpret this shooting. Ethics always involves interpretation. This implies that the philosophical precedents guiding the shooter could be different from the perspectives of every other participant in this event. The emotional mindset of each participant has a bearing on the interpretation rendered.

In the midst of potentially raging emotions, the Christian guided by the Holy Spirit has a unique advantage in dealing ethically with a situation because God alone knows all the relevant factors to consider and the eventual outcome. Mere ethical knowledge pales in comparison as a guide to behavior because we never control all the factors influencing the ethical interpretation of an event by all the participants. 

It is as if we walk through life as in a room with four different landscapes painted on the walls. One landscape may be a beach; other a bedroom; another an office, and still another a battlefield. Each person we meet may see us against an entirely different landscape, even at a point in time. And we cannot choose which landscape they see or the emotional baggage that they carry with them. We are at the mercy of their projection of these things on us, but the good news is that God is great and his Holy Spirit is our guide.

Ethical Perspective

Also See:

Value Of Life

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Presuppositional Ethics. Monday Monologues, March 25, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I will offer a Confession of Hidden Sin and talk about the Presuppositional Ethics.

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Presuppositional Ethics. Monday Monologues, March 25, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Presuppositional Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Much of our ethical training is unconsciously absorbed from our surroundings at home, in church, and in society. Even when we are given formal ethics training in our offices, it typically focuses on the minimum legal requirement for the office to escape legal liability under specific rules, regulations, or laws. The real business of ethical behavior is seldom discussed, taught, or even codified. Even the Christian faith itself is more caught than taught, as an old saw goes. In philosophy, this implicit knowledge is referred to as a presupposition.

Most of the time in philosophy and theology, we assume a cognitive approach to learning. The presumption is that human being are essentially rational and that faith itself is a rational undertaking. The Bible suggests, however, that this cognitive approach has two important limitations when we discuss ethics and faith.

Creation Influences Thought

The first limitation arises because we are created, male and female, in the image of a triune God. Being created to live and reproduce in families implies that we experience the world in community. Much as we want our independence, our thoughts, feelings, and language are not entirely our own.

Being created in the image of a triune God reinforces a focus on community. The Bible portrays God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a complete community in the godhead, as Jesus references after the Last Super: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26) In imaging a triune God, we image a community, something we can neither fully embody nor understand. By contrast, a unitary god is fixed, stable, and offers mostly an opportunity for self-projection, where a triune God is dynamic, engaging, and alive.

In particular, the language we speak shapes our perceptions of reality in fundamental ways, not the least of which is that it reflects the culture we live and worship in. Our attitudes about gender, work, faith, and many other things are embedded in the words that we use and do not use. We are not alone in this world even in our own thoughts and feelings—we carry our community with us wherever we go.

The Hebrew Heart

The second limitation of the cognitive approach arises out of who we are. The Hebrew mindset assumed in the New Testament saw mind and body as different parts of a unified whole, whose center is the heart (cardia) while the Greeks distinguished mind and body as separate. Confusion arises when we assume incorrectly that the New Testament sees the heart as a body part and we treat heart and mind as separated, like the Greeks and most secular people.

This confusion implies that the cognitive approach cannot fully inform our faith because it is based on faulty Greek anthropology. As theologian James K.A. Smith (2016, 2) writes:

Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t inform our intellect but forms our very loves…His teaching doesn’t just touch the calm, cool, collected space of reflection and contemplation, he is a teacher who invades the heated, passionate regions of the heart. He is the Word who penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit; he judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12)

Inherent in this statement is the Hebrew view of anthropology cited above—note the two references to heart. What Greek would talk about “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”? Drawing attention to this anthropology, Smith (2016, 5) asks: “Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do?” If he had the rational mind in view, no such gap would exist but, of course, we all experience this gap.

This line of thought leads Smith (2016, 7) to observe: “what if you are defined not by what you know [the mind] but by what you desire? [the heart]” If our desires are reflected more in our actions than in our words, then this Hebrew anthropology leads us immediately into an inconvenient, but vital, discussion of ethics because our hearts are not lily-white clean as our words. It also forces us to discuss how we know what we know (the epistemology question) because our hearts are not so easily persuaded to follow even our own thoughts. Suddenly, much of the New Testament language sounds less churchy and more informed by an alternative world view, one decidedly not Greek.

Clearly, we cannot talk about thinking independent of feelings and we cannot think entirely independent of the communities that we reside and worship in. We need to proceed to treat them as interdependent, complicated as that might be. Still, as best we can, we need to understand better how we know what we know before we can even talk about our faith.

Ethical Teaching in the Psalms

An important example of ethics being taught through osmosis is found in the liturgical use of the psalms. Wenham (2012, 1-2) writes:

“It is the ethic taught by the liturgy of the Old Testament, the Psalter, that is the focus of this book. The psalms were sung in the first and second temples, and in the subsequent two millennia they have been reused in the prayers of the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church. As we will see, the psalms have much to say about behavior, about what actions please God and what he hates, so that anyone praying them is simultaneously being taught an ethic.”

Wenham (2012, 7) goes on to explain:

“This book, then, is an attempt to begin to deal with a blind spot in current biblical and theological thinking. I have called it Psalms as Torah out of my conviction that the psalms were and are vehicles not only of worship but also of instruction, which is the fundamental meaning of Torah, otherwise rendered ‘law’. From the very first psalm, the Psalter presents itself as a second Torah, divided into five books like the Pentateuch, and it invited its readers to meditate on them day and night, just as Joshua was told to meditate on the law of Moses (Ps 1.2; Josh 1:8).”

A key insight that Wenham offers is the effect of memorization and putting the Psalms to music on ethical teaching. In my own case, I can remember memorizing Psalm 23 and Psalm 100 many times through the years, even in different languages, and I prayed Psalm 8 daily as a centering prayer for about 10 years. I used to joke, be careful what songs you sing because once you get Alzheimer’s, they are the last thing that you forget—you don’t want to leave this world singing the Oscar Mayer Wiener jiggle!

Wenham notes that many Psalms are written in the first person. Repeating such psalms in prayer or song accordingly is like repeating a vow before God, yourself, and others. He writes:

“If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action.” (Wenham 2012, 57)

Because many of us grew up singing hymns and liturgy inspired by Psalms, this tradition helped insulate us from less reflective and negative influences that seem so pervasive today—it’s not just the Oscar Mayer Wiener commercials.

References

Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.

Wenham, Gordon J. 2012. Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Presuppositional Ethics

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Ministerial Ethics. Monday Monologues, March 18, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I will offer a Prayer for Pastors and talk about the Ministerial Ethics.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Ministerial Ethics. Monday Monologues, March 18, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Ministerial Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Pastors point people to God. Everything else they do is a means to that end.

Because God is ever-present in our lives, it takes special insight to become aware of God’s Shekinah cloud in everyday life:

“Shekinah is Hebrew word that refers to a collective vision that brings together dispersed fragments of divinity. It is usually understood as a light-disseminating presence bringing an awareness of God to a time and place where God is not expected to be—a place…God’s personal presence—and filled that humble, modest, makeshift, sorry excuse for a temple with glory.” (Peterson 2011, 100-101)

Without assistance, people are more likely to see Harvey, the six foot invisible rabbit,⁠1 which makes the pastor’s role unique. 

The insight required of pastors is ironically not unique to pastors is a Christian mindset where everything is evaluated relative to Christ. While the world around us thinks of this attitude as obsession, it is a Christian distinctive seldom tolerated even among pastors. Blamires (2005, 148) writes:

“For if the Christian faith is true, and the Christian church the authoritative vehicle of salvation in time, then it is the most urgent, inescapable need of the modern [and postmodern] world to adapt itself to the church [not the other way around].”

Elsewhere I have described this mindset this way: Jesus is my denominator—the measure of all things. Without this mindset, the Shekinah cloud becomes invisible like Harvey and salvation disappears and becomes illusive, out of reach. Pastors unable to bring it back to view morph into beggars, social workers, and purveyors of religious entertainment, depending on your default prejudices.

Pastoring by the Numbers

The bane of pastors is the paying of bills.

If you take the Jewish concept of a minion and combine it will the tithe, you get an interesting transition into the Old Testament answer to financing a Rabbi. In order to hold a worship service in the Jewish tradition, a Rabbi needed ten adult men—a minion. If each of these men paid the tithe (which was an obligatory ten percent of income), then the Rabbi would enjoy the same living standard as the average person in his minion.

In a typical American church, people given an average of about one person of their income. This implies that a pastor’s minion is about a hundred families, which is coincidently the size of a typical church. This source of mathematics then suggests why we have seen the growth of mega churches who host a large pastoral staff and can offer numerous programs and quality music in worship.

The problem with this arrangement is that pointing someone to God requires intimate knowledge of the person in question, acquired only through spend time with them. This was entirely likely for a Rabbi with this minion, but seems far fetched for a pastor with his minions. Intimate communication cannot be one-way communication.

Other Duties as Assigned

The Book of Order 2007/2009 of the Presbyterian Church (USA) describes the duties of a pastor in these terms:

“The permanent pastoral officers of ministers of the Word and Sacrament are pastors and associate pastors. When a minister of the Word and Sacrament is called as a pastor or associate pastor of a particular church or churches, she or he is to be responsible for a quality of life and relationships that commend the Gospel to all persons and that communicate its joy and its justice. The pastor is responsible for studying, teaching, and preaching the Word, for administrating Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for praying with and for the congregation. With the elders, the pastor is to encourage the people in the worship and service of God, to equip and enable them for their tasks within the church and their mission in the world; to exercise pastoral care, devoting special attention to the poor, the sick, the troubled, and the dying; to participate in governing responsibilities, including leadership of the congregation in implementing the principles of participation and inclusiveness in the decision making of the church, and its task of reaching out in concern and service to the life of the human community as a whole. With the deacons the pastor is to share in the ministries of sympathy, witness, and service. In addition to these pastoral duties, he or she is responsible for sharing in the ministry of the church in the governing bodies above the session and in ecumenical relationships.” (PCUSA 2007, G-6.0202b)

The responsibilities unique to pastors are in practice the administration of the sacraments. Other responsibilities, including preaching, teaching, leadership, and pastoral care, are shared with others in the church.⁠2 

Note the bureaucratic nature of the above pastoral definition. First, terms are defined. The office of pastor (and associate pastor) is defined as permanent. Assistant pastors are neither called nor permanent. Second, the call is focused on modeling a quality of life and relationships of the Gospel (not God). Third, responsibility include studying, teaching, and preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and praying for the congregation. God himself is not mentioned until the fourth sentence where God appears in the phrase: “the worship and service of God.”

The point of discussing other duties as assigned is that the ethics of pastoring requires a clear focus on God in all that we do that can sometimes be hard to maintain within the institution of the church.

Case Studies in Ministry

While ministry is often treated as something of a mystery, it is a skill that can be learned and improved upon with practice. One way to improve on ministry practice is to work as team and to encourage the team to reflect on and discuss events that do not go as planned using a case study approach. 

In their book, Shared Wisdom, A Guide to Case Study Reflection, authors Jeffrey Mahan, Barbara Troxell, and Carol Allen (MTA; 1993, 12-19) see the goal of case studies is to equip a presenter of the case study to return to ministry with greater insight and confidence in themselves and in God’s provision and protection.

Case studies are most helpful when they assist participants in learning from their mistakes, but, of course, focusing on mistakes requires that one first admit to them. In a world in which politicians and celebrities daily lose their jobs over a single mistake, even in the church it is totally counter-cultural to admit to and talk about mistakes. The need for confidentially is accordingly multifaceted—both those studied and those bringing forth the study need to have the process treated confidentially.

MTA (1993, 116-117) recommend a case composed of five parts:

1. Background. Usually a case study focuses on a specific event that requires some context be provided.

2. Description. In describing the event, usual dialogue is given to illustrate what happened and how the presenter responded.

3. Analysis. “Identify issues and relationships, with special attention to changes and resistance to change.”

4. Evaluation. The presenter assesses their performance–what worked, what did not work, and why.

5. Theological Reflection. How does our faith inform this event?

A case is about two pages single-spaced and the presentation should run about an hour.

While the ideal setting for discussion of case studies is with a ministry team, a modified case study can also be useful in writing about ministry. Clearly, the choice of events to study is critical in revealing strengths and weaknesses in ministry. In writing about actual people, however, the case study may need to be recast as a study of a biblical or fictional character in such a way that identity of the persons involved is maintained. In preaching, this often ends up being an “I know a person who” story that frequently is a circumlocution for the pastor giving the talk (Savage 1996, 89-92).

1 This is an allusion to a movie called Harvey about a man who sees a six-foot, invisible rabbit and is committed to an insane asylum until others start seeing the rabbit for themselves. Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s play of the same name, directed by Henry Koster, and starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_(film)).

2 Note that because the Book of Order is frequently amended, the title includes a date and the terminology often changes, even for the title of pastor. I cite this polity document as an example primarily because I am familiar with it and not because it is a model for other denominations.

References

Blamires, Harry. 2005. The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Orig Pub 1963) Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Mahan, Jeffrey H., Barbara B. Troxell, and Carol J. Allen (MTA). 1993. Shared Wisdom: A Guide to Case Study Reflection in Ministry. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Peterson, Eugene H.  2011. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 2007. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part II: Book of Order, 2007/2009. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening & Caring Skills: A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville:  Abingdon Press.

Ministerial Ethics

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MacIntyre Chronicles Ethics Story

Alasdair MacIntyre. 2002. A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century (Orig Pub 1966). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

I used to joke that any mathematics text with the words, like simple or elementary in the title, was neither simple or elementary—at least on first reading. The truth of such titles can only be known to those who persist with multiple readings. Ethics is similarly a field much like mathematics that gets easier with repetition.

Introduction

In his historical narrative, A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century, Alasdair MacIntyre repeats the premise: “Moral concepts change as social life changes.” (1) After writing about a third of his book on ancient Greek philosophical and moral thought, MacIntyre observes:

“The Division of labor and the differentiation of function in early societies produces a vocabulary in which men are described in terms of the roles they fulfill.”(84)

History of Good

An example that he works out in great detail is the notion of the word, good, writing:

“The word αγαθός, ancestor of our good, is originally a predicate specifically attached to the role of a Homeric nobleman. ‘To be αγαθός,’ says W. H. Adkins, ‘one must be brave, skillful and successful in war and in peace; and one must possess the wealth and (in peace) the leisure which are at once the necessary conditions for the development of these skills and the natural reward of their successful enjoyment.” (5-6)

Not just everyone could be good and we would immediate judge a “good” Greek tribal warlord harshly for behaviors not commensurate with our own standards of goodness. In fact, MacIntyre argues that even later Greek literature after the development of city-states would find such behavior reprehensible. In this new Greek social context, αγαθός loses its original meaning predicated on the role of a Greek tribal warlord (a presupposition) and takes on a new meaning—a general sense of approbation not tied to any particular role.

Moral Context Matters

 More is at stake here than a lesson in ethnolinguistics. Fast forwarding past a long narrative history of philosophical ethics MacIntyre opines:

“In discussing Greek society, I suggested what might happen when such a well-integrated form of moral life broke down. In our society, the acids of individualism have for four centuries eaten into our moral structures for both good and ill. But not only this: we live with the inheritance of not only one, but a number of well-integrated moralities. Aristotelianism, primitive Christianity simplicity, the puritan ethic, the aristocratic ethic of consumption, and the traditions of democracy and socialism have all left their mark upon our moral vocabulary. Within each of these moralities there is a proposed end or ends, a set of rules, a list of virtues. But the ends, the rules, the virtues differ… It follows that we are liable to find two kinds of people in our society: those who speak within one of these surviving moralities, and those who stand outside all of them”(266)

Given this moral dilemma, Kierkegard’s admonition that we must chose to adhere to a particular morality speaks directly to our moral circumstance (215).

Background and Organization

Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre (1929- ) is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame educated at Queen Mary, University of London, University of Manchester, and University of Oxford. He is the author of numerous publications, including: Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-22(2006), Dependent Rational Animals(1999), Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry(1990), Whose Justice? Which Rationality?(1988), and After Virtue(1981)[1]

MacIntyre writes in 18 chapters preceded by two prefaces, corresponding to the two editions of the book, and followed by notes and an index.

Observations of a Keen Mind

While the narrative flow of an historical treatise is central to its development and reading, such books are often remembered more for particular insights shared along the way. MacIntyre’s insights go beyond a brilliant statement of the obvious.

MacIntyre writes: “The Bible is a story about God in which human beings appear as incidental characters”(110) The divine theme may seem obvious but today many authors offer lengthy critiques of the cultural context of the Bible seldom posing to note that God appears at all. Surprisingly, he goes on to write: “the whole problem of Christian morality is to discover just what it is.” (111) In developing this theme, he is not disrespectful at all, but notes how Christian morality has evolved to speak to the particular contexts in which it is found. He contextualizes Christian ethics without suggesting that it is arbitrary or relativistic. How else could the Holy Spirit serve to guide us in our daily walk?

Assessment

Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century provides aperceptive and assessible overview of the history of philosophical ethics. Seminary students and pastors will benefit from taking the time to absorb this work.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alasdair_MacIntyre. https://philosophy.nd.edu/people/emeritus/alasdair-macintyre.

MacIntyre Chronicles Ethics Story

Also see:

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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Kreeft Outlines Jesus’ Philosophy

Peter Kreeft. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend: Saint Augustine’s Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Every kid in Sunday school knows that if the pastor asks you a question, the answer is always Jesus. And so it is with philosophy (9).

Introduction

In The Philosophy of JesusPeter Kreeft (3-5) observes that we are all philosophers—even Homer Simpson, even Jesus. If we are all philosophers and espouse a philosophy, then what philosophy do we embrace?Philosophy (philo-sophy) is taken from the Greek expression for love (philo) of wisdom (sophy). Kreeft (6) divides philosophy into four primary questions:

  1. What is? (metaphysic)
  2. How do we know what is real? (epistemology)
  3. Who are we? (philosophical anthropology)
  4. How should we be? (ethics)

Why is it that we use intimate words like espouse (to marry), embrace (to kiss), and love to describe our relationship with wisdom?

Background and Organization

Peter Kreeft[1]is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Catholic school. He structures his book in four chapters, one for each of the questions cited. These chapters are proceeded by an introduction in three parts and followed by a summary and indices. 

Four Philosophical Questions

Let me say a few words about these four questions. Note that Kreeft considers the ordering of these questions as important:

“The logical order of questions is this: we must first know something is real before we can know how we know it; and we must first know who we are before we can know what is good for us.”(8)

In my own writing, I found it helpful to reverse anthropology and epistemology in this ordering. Our relationship with God comes first as person to person before we begin to intellectualize it or wonder how to respond to it. Our anthropology also seriously affects how we deal with knowledge and wisdom, which tends to give anthropology higher priority. In this sense, I agree that ordering does matter.

Metaphysics

Kreeft (10) starts his metaphysics of Jesus with the observation that he is a Jew. This is an interesting observation because throughout history Jesus’ ethnicity has been deliberately blurred to make him more acceptable to gentiles. More to the point, however, is that God chose to reveal specifically to the Israelite people (11), who later in the Bible became Judeans and known to the world as Jews. 

The distinctiveness of the Jews comes, in part, because no other ancient language other than Hebrew has the word, create. Only God can create out of nothing (13). Kreeft boldly proclaims that God can only be referred to as He because he impregnated non-being with being. The earth is Mother Earth, which is part of the created order that God stands apart from (14). The Hebrew God is transcendent, standing apart from time and space that are bound up in the created order.

If you think creation is a word game; you would be wrong. There are no paths up the mountain to God because he stands outside of the time and space in which we are bound. We cannot approach God metaphysically; he must approach us (51), which as Christians we believe he did in sending Jesus Christ. Creation is the reason that Jesus is the exclusive path to God. Obviously, lots more could be said about metaphysics here.

Epistemology

Kreeft focuses his discussion of epistemology on truth about being (47). He writes:

“What must we know? Only two things: who we are and who God is.”(50)

This is the person-to-person dialogue that I referred to earlier.

Kreeft (51) makes my earlier point about the importance of creation with these words:

“We can’t know God, ultimate Truth, by climbing any human tower, whether it is built of the babble of words or of bricks [Gen 11:1-11]. We can only know God if God comes down.”

God always must take the initiative in our dialogue with him (54). This is why Kreeft observes that no convincing fiction about Jesus has ever been written that credibly extends his wisdom (58). We can quote him; we cannot one up him.

Anthropology

Kreeft (69) observes:

“Know thyself, said Socrates, at the dawn of philosophy. But know thyself seems to be an unsolvable puzzle.”

Pope John Paul II observed: “Jesus alone shows man to himself.”(69) Kreeft writes:

“Christ is the answer to the question [puzzle]: What is the meaning of human life? Who are we meant to be? The answer is that we are destined to be little Christs.”(74)

The Bible says that we were created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) so Kreeft’s observation should come as no surprise to Christians.

Ethics

What are we to do? Kreeft writes:

“There are really three moral questions, three basic parts to morality: how should we relate to each other, to ourselves, and to God?”(95)

The basic answer to every question in Kreeft’s philosophy is Jesus, not a perfect answer, but a perfect person (119).

Assessment

Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Jesusis short, readable book that changed my life. I have spent the last six years since graduating from seminary writing about these four questions from philosophy as they pertain to Christian spirituality. I commend this book to you.

[1]http://www.peterkreeft.com/home.htm.https://www.bc.edu/bc-web/schools/mcas/departments/philosophy/people/faculty-directory/peter-kreeft.html.

Kreeft Outlines Jesus’ Philosophy

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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