Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Problem of Teaching Ethics

Ryan Reeves offers a series on Lewis and Tolkien, taken from his classroom lectures at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.  In this video, entitled C.S. Lewis, Theology and the Space Trilogy, he raises an interesting discussion point. 

At a faculty retreat that was taken with a group of pastors, one of the professors from the seminary asked: what can we teach our theology students that we aren’t teaching?  In other words, when the students graduate and you get them, on what subjects are they falling short?

The answer: you could teach six courses on ethics, and it still wouldn’t be enough.  Not only would it not be enough, but the ethical issues we are facing are changing so fast that we can’t keep up.

Admittedly, ethical issues are changing very fast today.  But ethical issues have always been changing, and, at other times, quite fast.  We faced such issues in the 1960s regarding the sexual revolution and civil rights; in the 1920s regarding the family in post-war Europe especially; in the 1860s regarding slavery in the United States; in the 1790s regarding the use of the guillotine.  I could continue traveling through time in reverse.

In other words, we have faced such change before, both in speed and magnitude.  Unfortunately for us, each of those episodes preceded or followed a dramatic episode of violence.  My first point is that we have gone through many periods where we can’t keep up.  and this has come at a tremendous cost.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime

My main point: in teaching ethics, teaching the issues of the moment is insufficient – one is always teaching on how to deal with that which already happened.  Each new question in ethics requires a new course to deal with that which has already overtaken society. 

By the time a theological seminary or a university develops a new course, sends enough students through it, and those students then are in a position to make an impact in their community, the horse is out of the barn – followed by four additional horses for which new courses have yet to be developed or new students have yet to be taught.

Such a course of action – giving men fish – will never offer the possibility of keeping up with change.  To keep up with change, one must teach men to fish.

Which brings me to the concept of natural law.  My thought when I heard Reeves recite this interchange: teach six courses on natural law, and you will greatly reduce the angst about keeping up with the new ethical changes coming at us at lightning speed.

There is such pushback on this concept, coming at us – I believe – from two main sources: first, from those who want to control society, and second, from those who find some reason to “fault” the concept.

Murray Rothbard exposed the first, writing, “the natural law provides the only sure ground for a continuing critique of governmental laws and decrees.”  It is through these governmental laws and – ever-increasingly – decrees that society is controlled.  What of unpacking the second?

Those who fault the concept of natural law have many arrows in their quivers: Aristotle’s physics and science have proven faulty (as if this has to do with his thoughts on metaphysics); Aquinas was Catholic (as was the entirety of the West for 1500 years); disagreement is found with the theology of other of Thomas’s teachings (as if these have to do with natural law); it is not Scripturally based (to which I have demonstrated the opposite).

Finally, which natural law (which comes to the ever-changing ethical environment that is inherent in man’s existence)?  But this is the point: natural law provides a foundation, a philosophical and theological framework by which one can address ever-changing ethical issues.  It doesn’t give answers to ethical questions that have not yet been asked; it offers a foundation and method by which to answer those questions yet to be asked.

There is no such things as “which natural law?”  there is only natural law, from which answers to ever-changing ethic questions can be derived.

The following issues are all addressed via natural law ethics:

·         Man’s reason for being

·         A recognized hierarchy

·         A recognition of man’s reason

·         A proper respect for one’s fellow man

·         An expected code of behavior

·         Some basis from which to determine prohibited acts

·         A properly ordered time preference

Absent a natural law foundation, the answers to these issues can be as varied as one likes, and through this we see the fracturing of society.  We also see the futility of any conversation that attempts to deal with these issues absent an embrace of natural law.

The societal break-up we are living through – one that has its roots in the Enlightenment, even the Renaissance – can be described as a Christian civil war.  The reality is that all sides of this civil war can find Scriptural support for their positions.  Natural law provides arbitration regarding these disputes.

Is this a shortcoming of Scripture?  Hardly.  After 500 years, the Sola Scriptura clan has proven that Sola Scriptura isn’t as easy as it sounds.  What do we expect, when trying to comprehend God?  Of course, neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul commented directly on Aristotle or Natural Law (indirectly, they had much to say); then again, neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul gave us penicillin – albeit it was certainly in at least Jesus’s power to do so.

I have been watching this conversation that burst on the scene with Jordan Peterson several years ago.  It is a conversation struggling with all of the issues in the list above.  It is like watching blind men thrashing about in a room.  They are talking all around everything except that which must be talked about: finding a foundation in natural law.

Nothing in natural law violates Scripture or the message of salvation; nothing in natural law requires atheists to find Christian salvation.  This is why Christians such as Paul VanderKlay and Jonathan Pageau (one Reformed, the other Orthodox) can find common ground with atheists such as John Vervaeke and Jordan Peterson – albeit none of them have found reason to address the elephant in the room: natural law.

Six courses in natural law at every theological seminary and Christian university in the country would go a long way toward moving this conversation in a direction toward resolution.  Of course, it would help if ethics courses in all university were built on this foundation.  But I think I am already asking too much.


Another comment from Reeves, when recalling this exchange between the pastors and the faculty at the conference: we used to have to convince young people that there was evil in the world.  Today, the young people are so aware of the evil, we no longer have to convince them of this.  All that is left is to give them the answer.

This is incorrect.  We first have to agree on that which is evil.  Only at the extremes is there some agreement – and even this is diminishing, what with calls of exterminating those who support the other guy.

Natural law ethics provides a foundation for answering this question.  It is an answer not at all inconsistent with Christian teaching.  It is also an answer that can be found (for the most part) absent Christian teaching.

I say “for the most part” because, whether they like it or not, even those who claim an aversion or even repulsion to the idea of Christianity are arguing on the basis of Christianity.  In the West, we are all swimming in the same water.

We merely disagree on the proper filtration system.


  1. "Teach six courses on natural law, and you will greatly reduce the angst about keeping up with the new ethical changes coming at us at lightning speed."

    This was a very good little essay. But I dispute the idea that we are under some kind of obligation to accept anything at "lightning speed". Many centuries ago, Japan experienced a cultural crisis, so they closed the borders (as an island) for three thousand years, to get things sorted out.

    We don't have to close our borders for three thousand years, but if we wanted to close them for a hundred years, that would be fine. We could relax, review the situation, and make new plans without any time pressure. It might take twenty years just to get people settled down, after the foreign people have been sent home.

    1. A large portion of the ethical problems facing the US are driven by native born white people - in the universities, in the protests, in the riots, in the government.

      The problem is not simply deducible to location of birth.

    2. 3000 years ago, Japan could close its borders and concentrate on the problem. As an island with a closely related, homogenous people, it was possible to simply shut out the outside world and outside influence. This is not even remotely feasible today for any culture, anywhere in the world. No society can (or will) isolate themselves totally ever again and if any tried, it would be short-lived.

      I dispute the idea that Japan sorted anything out on its own. Living (as an island) simply brought about the bushido code, with a few very wealthy, very powerful people controlling everything and everyone else living as pawns at their pleasure. Anyone who opposed the status quo in any way was simply exterminated. In fact, rather than "sorting it out", they only froze the cultural crisis in time. It was not sorted out until they were dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern world by force. And then the whole culture changed, at lightning speed.

      To say that we can solve our own cultural crisis by sending the foreign people "home" is simplistic and seeks to blame someone else for our problems. This is like saying that we wouldn't have these issues if it weren't for others stirring things up. Sounds like Russian interference to me and just about as tenable.

      I am reminded of Bionic's post a few weeks ago in which he basically said that we need to quit blaming others and start resolving our issues by looking at ourselves first. We need to remove the beam from our own eye before we try to extract the splinter from another's.

  2. Very nicely written essay, and it makes an important point. One of the corollaries of natural law is the right to be left alone, and it is ONLY by being left alone that disagreements become tolerable. Supporters of natural law are universally willing to let others pursue their own happiness. Those who deny natural law seem just as willing to control every action of those around them.

  3. I think Sola Scriptura is useful in the teaching that it is the sole source of divine revelation and therefore authoritative in anything it says about the world.

    But then underneath Scripture and directed by it, men can observe human nature truthfully and through that deduce/induce natural law. It will have to be judged by Scripture but much of it will come from observing nature rightly.