Transethics of Jesus and Christian morals

Transethics of Jesus and Christian morals: Is Christian ethics an oxymoron?

The answers offered in this article may enable our spiritual growth, shape our pastoral ministry, and transform church communities

Aleksandar S. Santrac, DPhil, PhD, serves as professor of ethics and religion and chair of the Religion Department, Washington Adventist University, Takoma Park, Maryland, United States.

Is Christian morality (ethics) an oxymoron? Does Christian religion reflect and endorse a certain type of morality? Or are Christian beliefs and practices so fundamen­tally different from any category of moral thinking and praxis that they transcend any notion of ethics? How should Christian conviction and praxis surpass the notion of natural morality and philosophical ethics? Finally, what does this have to do with pastoral work?

These questions are not just irenics for me. I will never forget the 1991–1992 dramatic experience in one of the Balkans wars. In combat, I could have used the opportunity to harm the so-called enemy. Nevertheless, even though I desperately wished for revenge, I realized I would not be able to retaliate because I was constantly “praying” to the unknown God (for the first time in my life) that I would not have to murder another human being. This prayer had become a desperate attempt to connect myself with some type of metaphysical or transcendent reality in the midst of this ethical dilemma. I needed something beyond my own sense of morality, and through the grace of God, it came.

This religious experience was transformed into a sacred, mystical encounter with the Unknown Other, which pressed my sensus moralis to do the right thing. My decision to become a pacifist was not based on my natural sense of morality but on the unexpected revelation of the righteousness of God. I felt the wonder and astonishment of the unexpected. It would be very difficult to identify, analyze, describe, or explain either the cause or the result of this phenomenon. Nonetheless, it certainly happened as a result of my striving for freedom from the unbear­able tension within my natural sense of morality. I know, firsthand, the reality of Christ’s promise “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).1

Years later, as a Yale Divinity School Visiting Fellow, I was fortunate enough to participate in some of the most contemporary discussions in the field of ethics.2 I believe that some of the answers prompted by these discus­sions and offered in this article may enable our spiritual growth, shape our pastoral ministry, and transform church communities.

Background of the problem

Ethics gives a special appeal to religion because it demonstrates a distinctive power to capture the attention of a believer who wishes to pursue moral perfection. Without an emphasis on morality or a system of ethics, believers can lose their grip on mundane reality and concern for neighbors, and become pursuers of the transcended domain of religion only.3 Monotheistic world religions have ethical components in their vast array of beliefs and guiding principles coming from divine revelation. Ethical norms often represent codes of conduct that drive certain religious practices.

For example, one form of Christian ethics regarding war is pacifism, hermeneutically derived from New Testament texts, but especially from Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.4 It is a well-known religious stance, though it is not prevalent.5 On the other hand, the common mainstream Christian ethics of realism is fueled by the idea that every Christian must be socially engaged even if it means defending his or her own country at any cost.6Patriotism, as a moral obligation, is, therefore, understood in two different ethical systems in completely different ways.

For a believer who honestly wants to remain faithful to the Word of God, there are two opposite ethical interpretations of the same divine revelation in Scripture. Each of these ethical positions is based on rational argumentation and invokes God as an active agent, source, and supporter of certain moral positions. We could give many additional historical or modern examples of ethical debates, such as slavery, abortion, women’s rights, women’s ordination, and gay rights. Philosophical ethics or Christian ethics that follow philosophical methodology in particular and subordinate theol­ogy to ethics as a philosophical and hermeneutical extrapolation of biblical teaching may indeed create confusion and ultimately show itself unreliable and implausible.

Theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas claims that Christianity is such a unique religion that speaking about Christian ethics is not a worth­while idea.7 He criticizes Christian realism as an ethical system based on rationality and Enlightenment senti-ment8 that has nothing to do with the original apostolic Christian theory or practice.9 For that reason Hauerwas supports pacifism.

Taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously is an imperative for every genuine follower of Christ. According to Hauerwas, the purpose of the church is not to Christianize the society by certain types of ethical theory or practice but just to be the church, witnessing to the human community about the mystery of the gospel.10 Hauerwas fears the possibility that “Christian ethics” may bring Christianity down to the level of ethical dialogue with secular ethics. If this happens, never-ending debates about the nature of the social good or evil will become the sole endeavor of a Christian believer.

Morality and/or faith within Scripture and Christian history

The radical “morality” of Jesus sur­passes any moral categories of ethical systems with which we are familiar. It challenges all traditional and custom­ary ways of expressing moral behavior for the benefit of self or others. Christ’s “ethics” belongs to a different realm, namely, the realm of faith, not morality.

Here are some biblical examples: “Turn the other cheek”11 and “love your enemy”12 are examples of trans-ethical commandments based solely on Jesus’ call to discipleship and not on ethical thinking or practice. No ethical systems, religious or otherwise, will find these rules of life viable and desirable. In fact, they might even threaten the good life and the life worth living. They urge a self-sacrificial approach to life to such an extent that they may negate the goodness of prosperity and the enjoyment of a flourishing existence.13 The call to discipleship is inevitably the call to self-denial and suffering. Moreover, Jesus’ transethics always goes beyond justice as a normative standard for ethics. Loving the enemy and grant­ing forgiveness, though assuming the standard of justice,14 also go beyond the traditional ethical expressions of a just action.

The rich young ruler, for example,15when confronted by Jesus’ radical demand, confirmed his moral “perfection” (keeping the commandments) but failed to grasp Jesus’ offer of a new type of perfection that goes beyond any sense or nature of traditional religious morality. It seems that a Christian call comes as a call to discipleship that transcends a notion of morality as such. Christianity is not a religion of morality, but a religion of sacrifice. The Christian faith is more than a worldview—it is an adventure.16

Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by deeply “moral” people. They had a sense of morality by which they strove to please God, but they were not led by the Spirit of God and thus were unable to discover the true nature of the One who had been sent. Their efforts to be moral paradoxically ended up in immorality and a desire to assassinate the only One who was able to cleanse them from their guilty conscience and save them. Generally speaking, the Cross demonstrates our inability to lean on our inborn sense of morality. This is the ultimate revelation of the supernatural love of God that can be recognized and lived only by faith and radical transformation.

Paul’s theology was also based on this principle of faith beyond the tradi­tional sense of Jewish or Greco-Roman morality. The theology of salvation offered in Paul’s writings is primarily based on the fundamental principle of faith and righteousness by faith without the contribution of good works or efforts resulting from any inborn moral-ity.17 Morality is not bad in itself—it can produce some good results—but it is insufficient to produce faith and maintain a faithful and fruitful life in Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

Martin Luther, for example, in spite of being misunderstood as antinomian, clearly demonstrated the power of faith that leads to good works. He boldly asserted, “Faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. . . . Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing.”18

Life based on faith, thus, will not minimize the requirements of God but, filled with love, will excel in maximizing God’s grace. The discipleship and moral transformation of Christians cannot be grounded in the natural kind of moral­ity that belongs to the “old Adam.” Only faith can produce love and good works (or the new form of “morality”) worthy of a Christian believer. Christian ethics, therefore, in the philosophical sense, cannot express the nature of the Christian reality of faith.

Søren Kierkegaard, one of the most prominent Christian philosophers, affirmed three levels of human exis­tence: aesthetic, moral, and religious (the faith level). He argued that there was a “teleological suspension of the ethical” in the story of sacrificing Isaac.19 Universal ethics is an expression of moral purpose; faith, however, transcends the moral meaning and purpose of an action. The faith of Abraham, as a paradox,20 goes beyond the moral distinction between expression of good or evil. Otherwise, Kierkegaard argues, Abraham would not have obeyed God because he could have argued that the voice he had heard was the voice of the devil. The moral distinction of good and evil based on the cultural norms of Abraham’s time was temporarily suspended in his case. He has become the “knight of faith,” absolutely and unreservedly obedient only to God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran minister and twentieth-century martyr, in his work Ethics, spoke about Christian ethics as an oxymoron. His illuminating argument says, “Those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand—from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: ‘How can I be good?’ and ‘How can I do something good?’ Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: ‘What is the will of God?’ ” 21

Bonhoeffer recognized the unique nature of the Christian call—obedience and discipleship: it was irreconcilable with the traditional and natural under­standing of morality. Jesus’ demands are so radical that they go beyond natu­ral understanding and the ability of the human being to do good. Bonhoeffer clearly distinguished Christian faith and commitment from the common human sense of morality. On the basis of religious morality, asking the ques­tions “What is good?” and “How can I be good?” may be quite legitimate, but within the context of Christian experience, faith and obedience to God transcend the understanding and the experience of the ethical. Faith is not concerned with the Law or with morality, though it perfectly fulfills it in a new shape and form.

Drawing upon the wisdom of God gained through Holy Scripture and the history of the church, this article tries to make plain the complex relationship between Christian faith and religious morality and/or ethics. The Christian church of today again has to recognize that only the principle of living faith in the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus is able to transform, sanctify, and prepare the individual and the community for eternity. Righteousness by faith is a final defeat of our natural ability to distinguish between good and evil and our capacity for doing good. The greatest enemy of Christian faith is not a new wave of atheism or postmodernism but a “Trojan horse” of self-made and self-focused natural ability for morality that claims to be Christian.

Christian morality, therefore, might be an oxymoron. Christianity is not a religion of morality, but a religion of sacrifice. Christian faith belongs to a completely different realm; it produces good works and holy life leading to eter­nity that is qualitatively different from the life of the “good” works that result from our inborn sense of morality. “ ‘Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it,’ ” said the Master (Matt. 7:14, NIV).

Transethics of Jesus and the pastoral ministry

What, then, should this mean for us, as Christians?

First, every believer should be taught to develop a deep relationship with Christ based on the knowledge of grace, faith, and submission, not on the slippery slope of only formally keeping the commandments. In the carnal heart, the temptation to please God by our own ability to act morally is always present. We have to be exposed to the Word and willingly open our­selves to transformation through faith and obedience. The most remarkable “achievement” in Christian life is not a moral action but genuine faith that leads to submission to the Lordship of Christ.22

Second, the community of faith should be led towards the “adventure” of faith, not only following the pre­scribed principles and guidelines as any other worldly community does. Let us challenge the church to be willing to go beyond the ordinary as a response to Jesus’ specific calls to self-denial. Christianity is a religion of sacrifice. Circumstances in which we live will always challenge us to be proactive in this regard. Miraculous activities of God, however, are possible only by faith in the extraordinary Christ.

Lastly, engaging the world or “Christianizing” the social order is best done by witnessing to a radically different “morality.” Being simply moral is not enough. I do not undermine the role of good works and service to humankind. On the contrary, faith will produce genuine forms of good­ness that will last and make a greater impact. This world knows much about philosophical or natural morality but almost nothing about the living faith and transethical demands of love of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ leading to eternal life.


1 All scriptural references are from the New International Version of the Bible.

2 Courses included Introduction to Ethics I and II, Natural Law, Cosmology and Ethics, and others.

3 The transcended, “mystical,” or contemplative aspect of Christian faith is not much concerned with “prophetic” engagement with the world or the social gospel.

4 Matthew 5–7 (see especially 5:38–42).

5 Most of the theologians who endorse pacifism are labeled by Christian realists as sectarians who “withdraw” from the world. See Stanley Hauerwas,After Christendom?(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991), preface. Mennonites and Anabaptists, though largely pacifist, do not generally “withdraw from the world.”

6 Reinhold Neibuhr is one of the examples. He was a supporter of almost all wars of the United States of America and, thus, was labeled as a “Christian realist.” Donald Meyer,The Protestant Search for Political Realism, 1919–1941(Wesleyan Publishers, 1988), ch. 13.

7 Stanley Hauerwas,After Christendom? How the Church Is to Behave If Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991), 27.

8 Ibid., 27, 28.

9 Frederick Simmons, Yale Divinity School Class Lectures, Introduction to Ethics II, Spring 2015.

10 Ibid.

11 Matthew 5:38–42.

12 Matthew 5:43–48.

13 A new project of the Yale Center of Faith and Culture is called Life Worth Living; one of its main challenges is to interpret the Cross of Christ, the ultimate suffering of the innocent, and the Christian imitation of this type of suffering. “Bearing the Cross should bring about the state of affairs which corresponds to movement towards flourishing.” Miroslav Volf, interview with Aleksandar S. Santrac, Yale Divinity School, Summer 2014; see also my project Witness to Life Worth Living: Miroslav Volf’s Ethics of Embrace, unpublished manuscript, 68. 

14 Forgiveness always assumes that there was a hurt that has to be healed. The hurt or the harm is the lack of justice, of course. Miroslav Volf, Yale Divinity School professor of theology, explains: “Forgiveness is not simply an act that negates justice; rather, it affirms justice in the very act of transcending justice. If I said to you right now, ‘I forgive you, ’you would be upset with me and tell me, ‘There’s nothing to forgive, because I’ve never seen you in my life, and therefore could not have done you any wrong.’ Clearly I would have blamed you by forgiving you, and it is this sense of blame made against the backdrop of affirmed justice which forgiveness needs in order to be forgiveness. By transcending justice, forgiveness affirms it, rather than leaving it behind.” Miroslav Volf, “Conversations with Miroslav Volf,” part 2,Conrad Grebel Review18, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 84.

15 Mark 10:17–23.

16 Discipleship resembles more a dynamic life adventure of faith than a static rational belief in a given worldview.

17 Romans 3:21, 22; Galatians 3:23–25. In these and similar texts the apostle Paul clearly teaches the inability of religious morality to fulfil the standards of God. Only Christ’s external righteousness imputed and implanted suffices.

18 Luther adds, “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace. Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!” Martin Luther, “Definition of Faith,” an excerpt from An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Luther’s German Bible of 1522, trans. by Rev. Robert E. Smith from Dr. Martin Luther’s Vermischte Deutsche Schriften, ed. Johann K. Irmischer, vol. 63 (Erlangen: Heyder and Zimmer, 1854), 124, 125.

19 Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 1843, tr. Walter Lowrie, 1941,http://www.whitenationalism .com/etext/fear.htm.

20 Ibid.

21 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, ed. Clifford J. Green, vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 47.

22 John 6:28, 29.

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Aleksandar S. Santrac, DPhil, PhD, serves as professor of ethics and religion and chair of the Religion Department, Washington Adventist University, Takoma Park, Maryland, United States.

March 2016

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