The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian EthicsThe Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics
Stanley J. Grenz
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How do issues of right and wrong affect the believer's life? Beginning with this fundamental question, Grenz steers you through the basics of Christian ethics. His concise guide examines ethical approaches of the Bible, ethics of classical Christian theologians, and pertinent issues in today's church. A practical guide to the moral dilemmas we all face.

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From the preface
In him we were also chosen…in order that we…might be for the praise of his glory.
(EPHESIANS 1:11-12)
When I entered the fifth grade in the fall of 1960, I encountered a major ethical problem: gym class included a unit on square dancing. The dilemma was quickly resolved when my father (who was also my pastor) sent a note to my teacher requesting that I be exempted on the basis that such worldly practices were "against our religion." Being privileged to watch comfortably from the sidelines as the other children awkwardly learned how to "swing yer partner" made me the envy of all the boys in my class.

In high school, however, I was the one doing the envying. The religious ban meant that I couldn't accompany my friends to the school dances. And even if I had, I wouldn't have known what to do when I got there. Fortunately for my social life, the prohibitions did get lifted in another area. Unlike my older brother, who'd had to content himself with the television set, I could go to movies.

Maybe it was that early quandary over dancing that did it; in any case, from childhood on I have engaged in ethical reflection. Even before I knew what the word ethics meant, I was asking the central ethical questions: What does it mean to live as Jesus' disciple? Are Christians to be known by what we don't do? For as long as I can remember, I have always thought about, and talked about, the moral issues of the day. Yet it wasn't until I was in my twenties that a more conscious interest in the subject itself was sparked. My philosophy major included a course in the history of ethics. And the M.Div. program at Denver Seminary contained a similar requirement in Christian ethics.

Five years after graduating from seminary, I joined the faculty at the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (1981). Just before I arrived, the school voted a new requirement: all M.Div. students were to take an ethics course. But no one on the faculty was academically qualified to teach the subject. Because I had at least a limited background in the field--"and after all, your doctorate was in systematic theology," the dean added--the task fell to me. Now for the first time I began to take ethics seriously as a discipline within the theological curriculum. The Moral Quest is the result of the subsequent fifteen-plus years of teaching ethics.

So this book is an ethics text. More specifically, it is a statement of theological ethics. As such, it attempts to lay a foundation for Christian ethical living.
At first glance, exploring the realm of ethics may appear daunting. In a sense, however, the subject of the volume is as much of an "old friend" to you as it is to me. To live here below is to face questions of ethics continually. And to be human entails engaging in the moral quest. But more important, as those who participate in the Christian community, we are concerned to be a holy people, those whose lives are pleasing to our God and Savior. This concern lies behind the writing of The Moral Quest and, I hope, your interest in reading it as well.

The embeddedness of this book in the Christian community explains the unabashedly Christian focus found on its pages. My overarching goal is to develop a foundation for the specifically Christian view of the moral life, but to do so conscious of the traditional dialogue of Christian ethics with philosophy, as well as the contemporary context in which we seek to live as God's people. My basic conclusion is that the Christian ethic is the outworking in life of the theological vision disclosed in and through the narrative given to us in Scripture. This narrative speaks about the triune God of love who stands as the transcendent foundation for human living. The Bible calls us to imitate Christ, who is the revelation of the loving God, because in so doing we fulfill our purpose, which is to be the image of God. And the biblical narrative speaks about the Holy Spirit, who as the concretization of the divine love is poured out on the believing community to transform us into Christlikeness, and hence leads us to embody the comprehensive love that characterizes God's own life.

From the introduction, "Christian Ethics in a Transitional Age

(to view a footnote, click its number)
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy."
(1 PETER 1:4-16)
We are all ethicists. Each day of our lives we face decisions about how we should live. As we do so, we realize that many of the choices we make are not devoid of significance. Rather, we know that somehow and in some way what we do matters. In short, we are continually making decisions that are ethical in nature.
Not only do we sense that we are ethicists, we often feel as if we are being swamped with ethical questions coming at us from every direction. We can't look at the "news" without being bombarded with stories of situations that are ultimately ethical. A recent front page of the local newspaper in a large North American city featured stories about elected officials receiving two pensions, a former evangelical pastor who was dying of AIDS, a political party that had to decide whether to nominate a self-proclaimed with to run for public office and a scandal involving a well-known sports figure.

Often more excruciating that the "big" issues of the day, however, are the multitudes of ethical questions we must personally process. We are inundated with situations that raise questions about our own lives and our own selves. We continually ask, What should I do in this situation? How should I act? How will this affect who I am? Am I pleased with who I am becoming?

Indeed, to live is to face ethical challenges. So widespread today is the sense that ethical orientations matter that how we respond to moral questions has become the concern of the pollsters. For example, the November 994 Maclean's/CTV poll of Canadians, published in the January 2, 1995, issue of the magazine, included a section on ethics. Readers were quizzed about a gamut of issues, ranging from cheating on exams to cheating on taxes and cheating on one's spouse. The findings appeared to bring out the moralist sentiments of the reporter. In the overline to his article he cited one expert who bemoaned that "Canada…is becoming 'a nation of greedy, amoral self-promoters.'"1

The ethical questions we raise are not always easy to answer. Recently an Anglican priest quipped, "We are bombarded with a host of problems. Every problem that comes our way has an answer which is simple, easy to understand, and wrong."

Knowing this, we can sympathize with Charlie Brown. The baseball game was nearly over. The comic-strip character was getting ready to pitch the final "out." Then Lucy sauntered to the mound. "If you strike out this last guy, Charlie Brown," she said, "you're going to make him very, very unhappy."

By this time, Linus had joined the party. "That's right," he agreed. "Are you sure you want to bring unexpected grief into that poor kid's life?"

Faced with the burden posed by these questions, the hapless pitcher sighed, "Just what I need--ninth inning ethics."
So often we sense that it is the ninth inning. We find ourselves tossed to and fro, pulled here and there by the barrage of questions coming our way. We are burdened by the quandaries life poses. We grow weary from the situations we face. All we want to do is strike out the last player and go home. But once again we are confronted by "ninth inning ethics."

The Ethical Challenge and the Contemporary World

In some respects, the challenge we face is not new. Throughout history people have struggled with ethical questions. In fact, certain ethical issues are perennial. Some of these arise out of social life itself. Humans have always asked, How can we get along with each other? How should we conduct ourselves as we live together? What constitutes proper behavior in social groupings or societies? Other issues are connected with the purpose of life. Since ancient times humans have wondered, What is the "good life"? And how do we best pursue it?

In this sense, then, we are no different from people in other times and other places. To be human means to be confronted by the ethical challenge. Yet, in another sense, we do face a unique challenge. We live at a time in which the ethical life is especially difficult to determine, let alone follow. There is something urgent about our situation.

Our difficulty arises in part from the nature of our contemporary situation. Under the banner of the Enlightenment project, modern science has placed in our hands capabilities that have aggravated long-standing ethical problems as well as introduced new quandaries. Take abortion, for example. Rather than being invented in the late twentieth century, as some people assume, abortion was practiced in the ancient Roman Empire. But modern medical advances have added new moral spins to this practice. Our ability to alert a pregnant woman to the presence of certain fetal disorders prior to birth has augmented the contexts in which would-be parents might consider the "abortion option."

A few years ago, a friend of mind learned through amniocentesis that the child his wife was expecting would be born with spinal bifida. Several members of the medical team immediately advised them to abort the fetus. These people could not understand the couple's decision to give birth and then raise the child.
Euthanasia provides another example. The idea of "death with dignity" was not coined in our day. But this ancient discussion carries weighty implications when the majority of deaths occur in health-care institutions, when the population is aging rapidly and when politicians are confronted with the limits of funding for health care. We can only wonder if the day is quickly coming when the specter of scarce medical resources will preclude both the choice of giving birth to a child with major medical problems and the possibility of electing to say alive after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Genetic engineering, which forms a third example, was catapulted into the public limelight several years ago by the box-office hit "Jurassic Park." Of course, selective breeding is as old as Jacob's experimentation with Laban's flocks. Yet the mapping of the genetic structures of plants, animals and even humans places a new complexity on old ethical questions. Hailed as a solution for childless couples and promising to eradicate genetic diseases, mastery over the human genetic structure has also introduced new dilemmas--fetal experimentation, to name only one. And imminent discoveries in the field now raise the specter of a super race, for they offer the potential to accomplish what Hitler could only dream about.

The ethical challenge is acute today for a second reason. We are being confronted with a host of questions that our forebears simply did not face. The list is endless. The range from "Who legally owns genetic material once it has been donated for scientific research?"2 to "Should postmenopausal women be allowed to give birth?"

The nuclear age provides a perhaps even more obvious example. When it was developed in the 940s, nuclear weaponry was hailed as a way of cutting short a lengthy and costly war. But after the "war to make the world safe for democracy" was won, an entire generation endured the threat of nuclear Armageddon. In the postwar era, nuclear energy was marketed to a consumer-driven society as the answer to dwindling energy supplies. Since then, however, we have been alerted to the disconcerting truth that nuclear technology produces waste products which will pose health and environmental threats for generations to come.
These situations suggest that the uniqueness of our situation is largely linked to technology. We live in a technological world. Technology has been hailed as a new god, as the key that will unlock human happiness and usher in the utopian society. But while technological advances have given us an unparalleled standard of living, we are also discovering that technology also has a downside--to the extent that its misuse carries the potential of jeopardizing life itself on this planet.

One additional factor contributes to the uniqueness of our situation. We are living in the midst of a crisis in morality. These grave ethical questions challenge us at a time when our society seems to have lost its ethical moorings. Since the Enlightenment, Western society has never been able to boast ethical unanimity. Nevertheless, in the past--until a generation or so ago--some semblance of agreement over certain guiding principles reigned, at least within the wider population. And this "agreement" was based, however loosely, on the ethical traditions of the Bible. That moral consensus, however, has been thoroughly eroded.

The erosion of the older consensus roughly parallels another phenomenon that Christians must take seriously: the declining influence of the church in Western society. So widespread is this decline that many people speak of a "post-Christian" world, perhaps better called a "post-Christendom" world.3 No longer does Christianity--whether in its doctrinal content or its ethical principles--exercise an all-pervasive influence on society's self-understanding or sense of purpose.4

In addition, we appear to be in the throes of a broader cultural transition. We are forsaking the modern era, embedded as it was in the quest for the one, overarching, supracultural truth, including the search for the, one, universal ethic. We are embarking on the uncharted waters of postmodernism. In this changing sea, the modern goal no longer provides a fixed point of reference--even if only theoretically--from which to track our course.

Yet even when the sky is the darkest a ray of light emerges. Although clouds threaten the moral stability of our society, there are signs that people are beginning to yearn for an ethical foundation for life. For many the quest for an ethic amidst the moral morass has gained a new sense of urgency.
The Ethical Challenge and the Christian

We are all ethicists. We all face ethical questions, and these questions are of grave importance. As Christians, we know why this is so: We live out our days in the presence of God. And this God has preferences. God desires that we live a certain way, while disapproving of other ways in which we might choose to live.

Although everyone lives "before God," many people are either ignorant of or chose to ignore this situation. As Christians, in contrast, we readily acknowledge our standing before God. We know that we are responsible to a God who is holy. Not only can God have no part in sin, the God of the Bible must banish sinful creatures from his presence. Knowing this, we approach life as the serious matter that it is. How we live is important. Our choices and actions make a difference; they count for eternity! Therefore, we realize that seeking to live as ethical Christians is no small task.

Nor can we treat the ethical life merely as an individual project. As Christians, we know that we cannot live in isolation from each other. On the contrary, the New Testament clearly teaches that each of us is part of the other. We are a community. More specifically, we are a community under God. This means that together we are responsible to be "holy unto the Lord." We know that our life together ought to reflect the divine character. We are to show what it means to be a fellowship of people whose relationships have been transformed by God's own power. For this reason, not only the decisions we make but the very people we are becoming, and the way we live as Christ's disciples is crucial.

We are also a community in the world. Of course, we are responsible before God to be a distinctive community--the people of God. But in our quest to be "separate from the world" we dare not hid in a little Christian enclave. Instead, God calls us to live out our community life in the midst of the world around us. Our mission includes reaching out to and in the name of Christ ministering to people outside our fellowship.

This, then, is our ethical challenge: to be Christians individually and corporately in the specific context in which God has placed us. Our task is to declare the word of God by what we say and how we live. We are to announce and to embody God's will and purposes in the various situations that come our way. This means responding to the crucial issues we face by drawing upon the resources of the Christian faith, so that God might be glorified in our world.
To live as Christians in the contemporary situation requires that we engage with that situation. Such engagement involves a threefold activity that we might summarize with the words attuning, analyzing and applying.

Engagement with our contemporary situation begins with attuning. To speak and embody the word of God in our world, we must become aware of the ethical dimensions of the context in which we live. To this end, we must be a people who listen. We cannot stick our heads ostrich-style into some "holy sand," thinking the world will go away. Instead, we must put our ear to the ground. We must become aware of the depth of the ethical challenges we--and people in our world--face. This listening, however, must engage minds and hearts that are not merely attuned to the world. They must also be attuned to Christ. We must listen to our world through the ears of our Master.

Attuning naturally leads to analyzing. To analyze means to seek out the central issue. It involves burrowing beneath the periphery of each situation so as to pierce to its core. When we analyze, we raise the question, What moral principle is at stake here? This requires that we differentiate between the genuine ethical problem that demands our attention and what may merely be our own negative emotional reaction to certain aspects of the situation, a reaction that may be culturally determined.

I remember the day when our thirteen-year-old son declared, "I want to get my ear pierced." When I was a teenager, a pierced ear carried a certain message involving ethical overtones. But because this is not the case in my son's world, to respond to his request I needed to set aside my initial emotional reaction. The crucial question was: Is there an actual ethical issue at stake here?

To engage in genuine analysis, we need the wisdom and discernment that God provides in response to our prayers.

The process of attuning and analyzing ought to inaugurate the dynamic of applying. Our goal is to apply the resources of the faith to the situation at hand. To this end, we must constantly ask, How do the insights we glean from the heritage of our Christian community, as well as the various aspects of our commitment as Christians, assist us in living in this specific context? How do these resources provide direction to us today?
This focus on applying leads to a foundational thesis: Ethics is theology in action. Or to turn the statement around, theology is the foundational resource for ethics. Ultimately, ethical living means ordering our steps in every situation of live according to the fundamental faith commitments we share as Christians. It involves putting into practice--living out in the day-to-day realities of our lives--our foundational Christian commitments. And in the end, these commitments are theological.

Ethical living, therefore, entails being conscious of what we have come to believe about God, ourselves and our world, and then acting on the basis of those convictions. It means living conscious of who the triune God is, who I am, who we are as God's people, and what God's program for creation is. Therefore, as we are challenged by ethical questions--what should I (or we) be or do? how should I (or we) live?--we must return to the foundation question--what does it mean to live according to our Christian faith commitments in this situation? what response in this context would be most in keeping with who God is, who we are, and what God's purposes are? To show why this is the case and what this means is the goal of the following chapters.

The first chapter places our search for the Christian ethic in the context of the broader human ethical quest. Our goal here is to summarize the discussion of ethics found within the broader Western philosophical tradition and to show that inaugurating the human ethical quest with reason leads us inevitably back to our starting point. While foundation to all that follows, chapter one is perhaps the most difficult to comprehend. If you find this to be the case, take heart, knowing that many of the difficulties will be illuminated and clarified as you move through subsequent chapters. You may even want to breeze through chapter one quickly at first and then return to it after you have completed reading the book.

The second chapter outlines five major Greek ethical systems that have been influential not only on the Western philosophical tradition in general but also on Christian ethics. In chapter three we turn our attention to the central themes of the biblical vision of the ethical life before perusing three paradigmatic ethical proposals found within the Christian tradition (chapter four) and seven trajectories of contemporary Christian ethical thought (chapter five).
This historical groundwork provides the foundation for setting forth a proposal for a Christian theological ethic. Chapter six moves us more explicitly into the postmodern context, calling for an ethic of integrity while raising the question as to how the revealed ethic of the Christian faith intersects with the moral quest of people around us. With chapter seven we come, as it were, to the heart of the book. Here we lay out the theological foundations upon which the Christian vision of the moral quest is built. This leads us finally to chapter eight, which presents the actual content of the Christian vision--comprehensive love. In the end, therefore, the moral quest leads to the task of reflecting in our relationships the love that lies at the heart of the biblical God. To show why this is the case is the task of the following chapters.


  1. Scott Steele, "Truth or Consequences," Maclean's 108, no. (January 2, 1995): 14. (return to the text)

  2. Several years ago a team at the University of Alberta inaugurated a study of this question. See "Legal Ethics of Using DNS Samples Pondered," The Vancouver Sun, August 3, 1994, p. A10. (return to the text)

  3. For this phrase, see Vigen Guroian, Ethics After Christendom: Toward an Ecclesial Christian Ethic (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 12. (return to the text)

  4. T.S. Eliot noted the presence of this phenomenon in English society in lectures delivered at Cambridge in 1939. He declared, "A society has ceased to be Christian when religious practices have been abandoned, when behaviour ceases to be regulated by reference to Christian principle, and when in effect prosperity in this world for the individual or for the group has become the sole conscious aim." The Idea of a Christian Society and Other Writings (London: Faber and Faber, 1982). P. 47. (return to the text)