Christian Ethics in the 20th Century

Posted by on July 11, 2011

Professor Mitchell states in his lecture that “Christian ethics cannot hang loosely to the Bible” because it is a religious ethics and therefore “it must always go back to the Bible.”  Thus, Christian ethics can only be different to the extent that the interpretations of the Bible and the centrality of the Bible change over time in response to the challenges of society.  Some of the challenges of the twentieth century cause a shift in Christian ethics focus from individualistic revivalism to a focus on the evils of society which keep man from salvation.  The twentieth century, in terms of Christian ethics, becomes “a time of discovery of the possibilities of ‘social Christianity’” which is especially evidenced through the influences of the social gospel, liberation theology, and the development of the ecumenical movement.  (Wogaman 193)

Through Walter Rauschenbusch a difference in interpretation of the Bible becomes evident as he “seeks to liberate the idea of salvation from the excessive individualism of much traditional piety.” (Wogaman 198)  Within Walter Rauschenbusch’s writing, many of the central themes of the social gospel can be understood.  There is a real connection between the Kingdom of God and the operations of the social order.    The social order determines what we can or cannot do; thus, Rauschenbusch realizes the necessity to Christianize the social order.   In an unchristian social order, “a good person is forced to do bad things by social constraints,” whereas in a Christian social order, “a bad person may be forced to do good things.” (Wogaman 200)  Rauschenbusch recognizes the ways in which the social order has been positively influenced by the power of the kingdom of God as much as the way the social order threatens the Christianized way of life.  In this way, in the twentieth century, the social gospel movement emphasizes the kingdom of God, while heavily criticizing certain economic theories and practices on the basis that an economic order should “serve man and not rule over him.” (Wogaman 207)

An interesting aspect of Christian ethics is that it never changes its focus from “love” and “justice” as they are fundamental to it, but that the various Christian thinkers through the centuries tend to redefine the level of importance of these terms and their application to the individual and society.  In this light, Reinhold Niebuhr claims that “love without justice is sentimental” and in reality is not love at all, “though it may have the appearance of love.” (Wogaman 218)  This attitude by the twentieth century Christian thinkers continues to show the importance laid by them on the need for social justice and a communal vs. individualistic interpretation of the faith.  Niebuhr also echoes a thought that can be heard through many denominations in the twentieth century when he states “’man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible…but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’” (Wogaman 219) Meanwhile, we continue to see Christian moral thinkers of the twentieth century develop ethical thoughts focused on love and justice.  Karl Barth believes that the covenant is possible in the internal sense through “the free love of God,” (Wogaman 221) while Tillich states that “love is the drive toward the reunion of separated beings, while justice is the form this takes.” (Wogaman 227)  On a last note on the twentieth century Christian moral thinkers, one of the significant ways we see Christian ethics differ from before is the sea of “change in Catholic moral teaching” brought on by thinkers like Haring and Murray. (Wogaman 237)  Haring contributed significantly to change from the “Thomistic natural law tradition to a scriptural and Christological orientation,” while Murray helped the church reach a more ecumenical stance.

Liberation theology, much like, social gospel in the early twentieth century continues in the latter part of the century to confront social evils such as racial and gender inequalities, as well as the rejection of individualistic interpretations of the faith.  Also, in liberation theology we find socialist tendencies from the leaders along with a criticism of power structures that become oppressive.  Liberation theology recognizes “the moral importance of social structures as embodying or obstructing social justice.”  (Wogaman 248) The development of such a “social Christianity” in the twentieth century and its confronting heavy moral and social issues, also immensely influences an ecumenical movement.  The ecumenical movement is possibly one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century Christian ethics for it brings together the various Christian bodies after many years of division on issues of moral and theological importance.    Through a series of conferences, the various Christian bodies gather to reflect on theological styles and moral issues such as economic injustice, racial injustice, gender inequality, etc., while the ideas that are discussed in developing a Christian ethic vary in influences such as a secular theology, the social gospel movement, liberalism, liberation theology, and some others.

Overall, twentieth century Christian ethics differ from earlier centuries by developing a societal rather than individualistic interpretation of the faith.  It is also moves toward a more scriptural and Christological orientation than before.  So, in some ways, Christian ethics in the twentieth century differ, but remain true to its core by retaining a focus on love and justice, with an understanding derived from the Bible.  While “the modern world calls for a rationally based ethics because of the triumph of enlightenment and the triumph of science,” Christian ethics continue to contribute with a Biblical center. (Mitchell)

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