The Divine Imperative (A Study in Christian Ethics)


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Emil Brunner's book is a fascinating read. Read it for a seminary class, Garrett Evangelical on the campus of Northwestern University campus. The class was Christian Ethics. This book is for the minister or scholar and still has good material in it even today. It would be too tough for the average layperson, but the layperson who reads a lot in Christian theology might be able to take it on and get a lot out of it.

As always Brunner is able to take his thought step-by-step in considering the vario Emil Brunner's book is a fascinating read.

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As always Brunner is able to take his thought step-by-step in considering the various topics needed to cover Christian Ethics. Old, but well worth the read, even today. Dec 15, Sarah rated it really liked it. Neo-orthodox read I used in a paper to compare to Rabbi Soloveitchik.

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Surprised by the common approach to the fall and rise of man. Aug 08, Luther Butler rated it it was amazing. This is a must read for mature Christians. The book is not an easy read, but take the time to understand what the author is saying. There are no discussion topics on this book yet. About Emil Brunner. Emil Brunner. The answer is Yes and No.

This question may be followed by another. Are Christian ethical principles to be derived from the whole Bible or only from selected parts of it? Once more it is necessary to say Yes and No. Reviewing what has been said about the relations of Christian ethics to moral philosophy, to Christendom, and to the Church, we see that "no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. But this gives the basis; it does not give the applications. We are still left with a multitude of concrete moral decisions to make.

For guidance in making them we must look — not to any ethical compendium above the Bible or beyond it in wisdom — but to other ranges of experience that may throw light on problems nonexistent in Bible times or not treated within its scope. What, for example, about slavery, birth control, juvenile delinquency, polio, speeding on highways, labor unions, stock-market manipulations, hydrogen bombs and war?

The first and last existed in full force within the period covered by the Bible, but the Bible does not tell us what to do about them; the others are for the most part modern problems. It is apparent, then, that the Bible alone does not give us all we need. The thinking and experience of the centuries, whether in philosophy or the Church, will help us at some points. But we cannot live by the past, and we must know our times and the causes and consequences of prevailing evils.

We must be continually on the alert to see what a sensitive Christian conscience, responsive to the call of Christ, will hold to be right and wrong courses of action in the circumstances where we are. Turning to the second question, we ask, "Shall we use the whole Bible, or only parts of it, as the basis of ethical decision? This question may mean either of two things. One angle it takes is the question as to whether we should use the Old Testament as well as the New.

And if the answer is Yes, shall we equate them in value? The other angle of the question goes to the heart of biblical interpretation and separates into two camps — at times one could almost say armed camps — the literalists and the liberals. This issue is, of course, the degree to which the historical method is to be used in discerning the ethical as well as the theological truth within the Bible.

Let us look at these questions separately, though they impinge upon each other.


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As to whether we should look to the Old Testament for our ethical foundations, the answer is "Yes, but with discernment. Yet the Old Testament contains also much that is revelatory in its own structure, as well as preparatory for the coming of Christ. We could not dispense with the Ten Commandments or the great moral insights of the prophets or the matchless devotional poetry of the psalms.

Even the ups and downs of Hebrew history, with their sordid spots as well as high moments, with moral weaklings as well as giants in the story, and much that reflects the lights and shadows of the times, teach us that. Are the polygamy, the trickery, the vindictiveness, found on many pages of the Old Testament Christian? Unquestionably not. Unquestionably yes. They are not the whole of Christianity, but they are fully consistent with what Jesus taught and did. So, too, are a wealth of other passages in the Old Testament.

He did not repudiate it; he loved it and learned from it and often quoted it. But he did not slavishly feel bound to it. In the Sermon on the Mount the six-times-repeated "You have heard that it was said to the men of old. But I say to you. He took it as a foundation, but put deeper meaning into the issues involved. This we must do, drawing from his insights. On the question of a historical versus a literalistic approach to the Bible I have stated my convictions elsewhere and need not here discuss the subject in detail.

What he attempts to do is to hear this Word more clearly as he discerns the Spirit of God moving in the midst of the human, historical situation, and thus aims to discover in the Bible the heavenly "treasure in earthen vessels. But that does not matter if his studies lead him to clearer vision and deeper faith. If we are to find in the Bible dependable guidance for our own time, such a historical approach is indispensable. No situation is an exact replica of the past, and words spoken in the past to other situations take on distorted meaning unless these situations are understood.

This is not to say that the literalist discerns no moral truth in the Bible. He does, and often lives by it in his personal relations an admirable Christian life. Yet in matters of complexity and doubt as to the right thing to do, he tends to follow his own course of action and find a proof text in the Bible to support it.

He usually defends a traditional point of view in which an attempt is made to preserve the status quo, not infrequently with harsh words and attitudes toward those who differ. For ethical sensitivity and responsiveness to the Christian thing to do in doubtful situations, one who sees the Bible in its total historical setting is on safer ground. The final question for this chapter is a closely related but still a somewhat different one. What about the authority of the New Testament, not only in relation to the Old, but within it in the relations of its parts?

The Divine Imperative

Most Christians, without rejecting the Old Testament or disparaging its many marvelous elements, find the New Testament more authoritative for their faith and living. This is as it should be, for while the Old Testament tells us much about God and foreshadows the coming of Christ, it is the New Testament that records for us the historical revelation of God in Christ. Their interrelatedness has thus been well expressed by a group of eminent scholars in the ecumenical movement:. It is agreed that in the case of an Old Testament passage, one must examine and expound it in relation to the revelation of God to Israel both before and after its own period.

Then the interpreter should turn to the New Testament in order to view the passage in that perspective. Returning again to the New Testament one is able to see and expound the passage in the light of the whole scope of Heilsgeschichte. Seeing the Bible as a whole, we make the revelation of God in Christ our norm for understanding and for judgment. But within the New Testament, is one part any more authoritative than another? In order to answer this question, we must avoid two common courses, both of which have been responsible for error.

One of these courses is to take the New Testament as if it were all on the same level of Christian insight. Passages attributed to Jesus which seem to predict a speedy Second Coming and a catastrophic end of the world by divine intervention are equated in importance with the Sermon on the Mount — and seemingly ranked superior to it — by eminent theologians whose conception of Christ as the hope of the world is primarily eschatological rather than ethical.

There is wide latitude among New Testament scholars as to the historicity of the Gospels; there is general agreement that none is completely historical, with John the latest and least so of the four. That Paul has much to teach us both about redemption through the grace of God in Christ and about the requirements of the Christian life need not be disputed. Yet it may be asked whether it is not Jesus of Nazareth, seen clearly even though not photographically through the records we have in the Synoptic Gospels, that is our surest foundation of the Christian life, Paul was a great Christian, a great theologian, a great missionary and administrator, a great teacher, but it was not he in whom "the Word became flesh" to dwell among us.

It will be a basic assumption of this book, as it is not of some contemporary treatments of Christian ethics, 13 that the picture we have of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels is in essential outlines correct and that what we see there of his life and death, his ministry and teaching, is the one adequate foundation for Christian ethics. Yet to take this as our base does not mean that we can indiscriminately take every word recorded as spoken by Jesus to be accurate or authoritative.

At the end of Mark, in a passage now generally regarded by scholars as a later addition to the original text, Jesus is reported as saying:. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick; and they will recover.

Regardless of what we may today believe about the exorcism of demons, speaking in tongues, or healing by the laying on of hands, can we really believe that the Christian ethic requires snake handling and the drinking of poison as a proof of faith? We should doubt that Jesus ever said it even if there were no textual evidence to the contrary.

To cite another example, there is a verse at the end of the parable of the pounds as it is given in Luke which is generally omitted when the story is read. In Luke appear the words: "But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me. Because it does not sound like Jesus! It simply does not seem like the words of one who could say on the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

These illustrations indicate what must be a basic procedure — a difficult but a very necessary procedure. This is to get to know Jesus from the total picture the New Testament gives of him — find our main point of reference in the first three Gospels, then interpret these Gospels and all the rest of the New Testament in the light of what we believe he was and said and did.


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  • This, of course, immediately opens the door to the charge that one is reading in what he wants to find there. But there is no other way. We cannot take the record as it stands, and we cannot discard it. Whatever interpretation we place upon it, we shall still be interpreting. And the best interpretation is that which is most faithful to the total picture of Jesus as our Lord, the Son of God, the supreme revelation of the Father and the supreme gift of God for our redemption. What, then, is Christian ethics? It is the systematic study of the way of life set forth by Jesus Christ, applied to the daily demands and decisions of our personal and social existence.

    Since Christian ethics centers in the ethical insights of Jesus, a logical "next step" might be to move directly into an examination of these as they are to be discerned from his recorded words and deeds — thence to an application to the problems of our time. The reader who wishes to follow this sequence is free to do so, and the table of contents will direct him in it.

    Yet if we are to understand Jesus, or if we are to discern the centrality of his message in reference to the entire Bible, we cannot proceed so simply. Jesus had a past, and from his life and influence came the Church of which the beginnings are recorded for us in the New Testament.

    It is essential, therefore, to look first at the Old Testament, then at Jesus, then forward from his earthly life to the birth of Christianity. From this wider biblical perspective we shall be the better equipped to judge what is truly Christian. The reader who desires a rapid survey of these types of ethical theory, but with more amplification than is possible here, will find it in my The Sources of Western Morality New York: Chas. American neo-orthodoxy, and to an increasing extent the European, has a place for Christian social action in the fashioning of "the responsible society," but this is seldom called the social gospel.

    Nearly everyone accepted as fundamental to ethics the idea that the earth and all within it was created by God, who still holds it in his control; that He made us to be like him and, to guide us, he revealed his Divine will; and that since this has been permanently recorded in Holy Writ, our duty is simply to obey. It is by this formula that traditional Christianity still struggles to decide such contemporary issues as birth control, homosexual behaviour, and the ordination of women.

    The new story of origins not only leaves us with an entirely different picture of the vast universe we live in, but escribes our relationship with the earth in strikingly different terms. This modern understanding of the source of our being indicates that while we rightly value what we may call the spiritual dimension of the human condition, there is no absolute gulf between us and the other living creatures. As Teilhard de Chardin so wonderfully put it, all physical matter has the potential for spirituality. Therefore, the spiritual dimension of human experience can never be divorced from the physical, and the supposed dichotomy between spiritual and material is spurious.

    We humans are psycho-physical organisms. We must abandon the widespread but false notion that we are spiritual beings only temporarily encased in physical bodies — a notion that derives, after all, not from the Bible but from the Greek philosopher Plato. Furthermore, the new story of origins returns us humans to our proper place among the many and diverse life forms on this planet.

    As the American Catholic priest Thomas Berry has said, everything on earth is cousin to everything else. This has now been scientifically demonstrated by the genetic code, the mechanism that determines the physiological structure of every creature and that shows how we are related to all other forms of planetary life. We humans have no special rights of ownership and dominion over the others.

    Our problem, says Berry, is that we are living between the two stories. While we are still trying to accept the implications of the new story, much that belonged to the old story still lingers on in our thinking — even though it has become not only obsolete but positively dysfunctional. In the old story we were subject to the dictates of the Heavenly Father, and believed ourselves to have been given dominion over the earth. In the new story we have lost our privileged place in the web of planetary life and we are subject to the same forces of nature as are all other living organisms.

    In the new story the forces of nature have no personal interest in us at all. Yet although totally amoral, they can determine whether we live or die, and we ignore them at our peril. These forces constitute the parameters within which all planetary life has evolved. Fascinating though it may be to imagine future space travel to distant stars, it will almost certainly be never more than a delightful fantasy.

    We are earth creatures, who can live only within the delicately balanced natural forces, geographical conditions, and interdependence of species that constitute the ecology of our planetary home. Because of our new understanding of our origins and of the nature of our ecological home, the ethic that concerns us today is no longer the divine imperative but what may be called the Ecological Imperative. But no one should conclude that the shift from the divine imperative to the ecological imperative represents an ominous new heresy, for it involves not rejection, but reorientation.

    In the last two hundred years our understanding of the human species and of its relationship to the natural world has changed so drastically that, as Feuerbach showed, theology has been turned upside down — or more appropriately, inside out. That being the case, one might expect to find little or nothing in common with the earlier Christian doctrine of humankind.

    Surprisingly, this is not so. The biblical myth of origins declared with striking boldness that we humans are formed of the dust of the ground, and when our lives come to an end we return to dust. And whereas the biblical myth pictured God forming us much as a child makes mudpies, we are now aware of the complex nature of human physiology. The lifeless atoms of which we are composed are united in the most intricate designs to form the myriads of living cells and the many internal organs that constitute the human organism.

    But common ground with the ancient myth does not stop there. We are becoming increasingly aware of how fundamentally our amazing internal systems depend upon an appropriate environment. And in its quaint but profound way, the biblical myth acknowledges this new ecological insight as well. After the fashioning of the human body from dust, says the Bible, God breathed his breath into it. Since Hebrew uses the same word to mean breath, spirit, wind, and air, we can translate the ancient myth into modern terminology by saying that though we humans are made of the same elements as are found in the ground beneath our feet, we come alive and stay alive only if we supported by the correct atmosphere.

    Indeed, we cannot live more than about two minutes without breathing it. What in ancient times was understood simply as our dependence on the breath of God has in modern times become expanded into the highly sophisticated study of ecology. She called this an incarnational theology, for it points out what our forbears understood and treated as the divine is to be found all around us and within us in the ecosphere. Even the doctrine of sin, so prominent in traditional Christianity, has its new counterpart.

    To discuss the ecological imperative further, let us start with the atmosphere, for it is the most critical parameter set by the ecosphere for planetary creatures. From time immemorial our ancestors simply took the atmosphere for granted. It is only in recent times that we have been forced to realise how dependent we are upon it and how we have evolved to fit its particular mixture of gases — one that consists chiefly of nitrogen and oxygen and has been stable for some millions of years.

    If we travel to the moon we must take our supply with us. Even climbing high mountains often requires extra supplies of oxygen.


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    • Every time we board a plane we are solemnly reminded by the cabin attendant how to use the oxygen supply in an emergency. Some gases, even in small quantities, are highly toxic to us. One of these is carbon monoxide; yet since the introduction of the internal combustion engine we have been releasing this substance into the atmosphere in ever-greater quantities. The air in some heavily populated cities is now so polluted as to be unhealthy, and in some cases positively dangerous. One of the most basic ecological imperatives, then, is to control every practice that pollutes our most basic requirement for life and thus to keep the composition of the atmosphere stable.

      We humans, along with all other breathing creatures on the planet, have for millions of years been unknowingly co-operating with the vegetation in keeping the right balance of the gases in the atmosphere. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. For this reason he referred to the earth as Gaia, reviving the name for Mother Earth found in ancient Greek mythology. Of course Lovelock did not mean that the earth is a thinking, planning being, but that it has many characteristics of a living system.

      But all of these have evolved in such a complex network of delicate balances with one another that the earth appears to have fashioned for itself an all encompassing and self-regulatory system.

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      Just as our own bodies have immune systems that protect us from disease and thermostats to keep us at a constant temperature, so the earth seems to regulate itself, keeping the climate constant and comfortable, and preserving just the right amount of oxygen in the air and the right amount of salt in the oceans.

      The Divine Imperative (A Study in Christian Ethics) The Divine Imperative (A Study in Christian Ethics)
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