Since accepting a position at an evangelical institution two and a half years ago, I have been forced to think a great deal about evangelical ethics. I remain unconvinced that evangelical ethics needs doing, if not simply because I cannot see how Christian ethics in general can remain distinctly Christian without also being essentially evangelical. Two moral concepts in particular have occupied a great deal of my attention lately: (i) conscience and a semi-new rule in evangelical ethics, (ii) gospel-centeredness. I explored each of the concepts (far too) provisionally in a recent paper delivered at ETS in Baltimore. Here is a short excerpt:
Seeing as we are occupied with misshapen understandings of conscience within evangelical ethics, I wish to draw attention here to the pietistic hue idealism tends to take within the broader evangelical experience. Pietism, you will recall, disproportionately stresses the importance of God’s presence in the heart and the moral feelings resulting from that presence. Maintenance of severe moral purity for the purpose of giving God clean accommodations is itself the longstanding ethic of pietism. Proper self-inspection results in reliable self-projection. When members of our churches insist on the absolute relevance of personal “authenticity” they are not channeling Heidegger— if they read Heidegger they would know it is not possible to be unconsciously authentic—rather they are channeling this deep pietistic impulse to fuse individual moral feeling with action.
To illustrate, consider the following “evangelical” description of the church community: “the ‘true church’ is simply a ‘religious community of free agents, who ‘rejoice in their community, in their pure fellowship in which they would exhibit and communicate only their innermost existence….” True religion is to “have life and know life in immediate feeling.” Perhaps we could capture this with the popular cliché, “spiritual but not religious.” Now, I confess to misleading you with these quotations; the author is not “evangelical” in the sense expected but is none other than Frederick Schleiermacher, and in his typically romantic enthusiasm! Schleiermacher’s religion of the heart is in many respects the inevitable romantic synthesis of traditional pietism and Kantian idealism. The brand of pietism manifesting itself in contemporary evangelical ethics scarcely resembles the eighteenth century renewal movement but is rather Schleiermachian ethics reincarnated: “Religion is not knowledge of either the world or of God,” but a powerful “intuition” or “affection”; its foundation is isolated to the everyday experience of unique individuals.
Perhaps it is an accident of history that this powerful interior feeling became identified with conscience, perhaps not. Either way, evangelicalism’s fixation with inner feelings of devotion represents a startling assimilation of pietistic interiority. So pervasive is the assumption that evangelical ethics often finds it difficult to distinguish and prioritize the feelings it affirms, to the troubling end of believers identifying faithfulness with the “feeling” of divine presence, or of “rightness” with confidence. Pietism energized by a newfound idealism was almost bound to synthesize into theological romanticism. That inevitability is almost as sure as the new impulsiveness that would come to dominate late modern religious experience. For a reminder of desire’s notoriously unreliable service as a moral criterion one need look no further than the increasingly sensational doxological practices in contemporary evangelical churches.
Yet conscience is irreducible to affective impulse. Attention to the etymology of the term cautions against strict sentimentalization. Conscience means literally “with-knowing” and thus in the biblical sense, particularly that given by the Apostle Paul, signifies moral self-consciousness, or wakefulness, a definition that endures even in the early church fathers. John Chrysostom, for example, appeals always and everywhere to the judicial facility of conscience. Conscience enables one to see and judge oneself; it prompts affections but is not itself an affection, hence the experience of guilt when convicted of sin, say, or of being overcome by joy on reception of a providential gift.
Crucially, conscience is not eligible for possession. That some may conceive of it as a possession is evidence of just how thoroughly economized our understanding of personal agency has become. Thanks in large part to Locke and his commentators, modern man often presumes to own his conscience in some way, when, in fact, the scriptures and the theological tradition have no concept of self-possession, much less possession of conscience. In fact, this economized anthropology seems to have helped facilitate the rapid transition from a judicial conscience that looks internally to the conditions of justice within the subject to an executive conscience personified by the individual will. The notion of “liberty of conscience” in modern theology is perhaps the most glaring illustration of this transition.
Conscience cannot be controlled or otherwise usurped by another person. Only the Self can impair or estrange its own conscience. Among the more sinister temptations for any person, but especially the Christian, is to assert conscience as a sort of guarantor of right moral action. Take, for example, a small caucus of laypeople professing bitter disagreement with pastoral staff over some displeasing ministry practice. Their demands unmet and frustrations intensifying, they resort to civil courts for arbitration of this internal disagreement and do so on grounds of “free conscience”—they feel positively compelled to right this wrong by any means possible, even to the point of litigation. Nevermind the biblical prohibition of bringing brothers to court—this is a matter of conscience! And so the witness of the church is tarnished by appeal to “principle.” When, exactly, this changeover from conscience as judge to conscience as executor originated historically is difficult to tell, though it is undoubtedly Kant who formalized the theoretical terms of this transmutation. Perhaps blame lies at the feet of voluntarists, as has been suggested by many, but that is for another time.
Quite distinct from the tendency of feeling to commandeer actions, moral reasoning, on the other hand, is a “reflexive, not an absolute, intellectual operation.” Individual conscience cannot be separated from moral knowledge in Christ, which means knowledge must take the following shape: (i) it must be “knowledge of things in their relations to the totality of things,”; (ii) because knowledge of the whole, it “must be knowledge from within,” to participate in what is known; (iii) it must be “knowledge from man’s position in the universe”; and lastly (iv) “such knowledge must be ignorant of the end of history.” What we know, in other words, is the order of creation and “true knowledge of the moral order is knowledge ‘in Christ’.” The best way to avoid involvement in worldliness and to resist collusion with worldly powers is, paradoxically, remaining open to the world as it is given to us. We accommodate the world; the world does not accommodate us. Thus judging of our own worldliness requires understanding the shape of the world itself, its basic constellation of features here and now on our own moral horizon.
Especially prescient on this point is Karl Barth’s treatment of Conscience arriving towards the end of his Ethics:
God’s command strikes me as my own strictly moment-by-moment co-knowledge of the necessity of what I should do or not doing its relation to his coming kingdom. In this concrete fellowship of mine with God the Redeemer it claims me and I have to listen to it.
Conscience means knowing “what God alone can know as he who is good, as the giver of the command and the judge of its fulfillment…[and so]…of the goodness or badness of the act which I am about to commit or upon which I look back as already committed.” These points from Barth are pivotal because they demonstrate the falsity of possessing a conscience and therefore of claiming executive capacities. Being our own judge is doomed to presumptuous hypocrisy unless conscience participates in, and is authorized by, something outside itself, just as civil judges sit under the authority of the rule of law. Conscience is under authority and so must be obeyed and never asserted.
Since returning to the U.S. two and a half years ago I have noted with considerable interest some recurring appeals to a new rule for evangelical ethics: “Gospel-centeredness.” I have reasoned this abstraction inside-out and have come to the provisional conclusion that it must in part refer to Christian living that steers between the extreme poles of liberty and legalism. If you wish to imagine it similarly as striking a mean between excess and deficiency, then please feel free. One of the stranger developments emerging from observation of this new rule is implementation of new programs for social justice. Exactly why the love commandment is morally less suitable, at present, remains unclear. At any rate, the novelty of this rule confronts us with a central question: can the Gospel serve as a moral rule for action?
It would appear not, for rules tell us what is to be done by imposing specific limitations on general circumstances. The gospel motivates and orients moral action, and the biblical rule for defining the course gospel witness must follow is the love commandment. Love of God and neighbor is what makes the gospel an object of action. If we were to make the gospel into a rule we would lose sight of the Truth the good news announces. To illustrate this point, when mission agencies defend falsifying the backgrounds and platforms of their commissioned agents in order to gain entrance to restricted (“closed”) countries on the grounds that the gospel as an end justifies the policy, they have in doing so turned the gospel into a rule (i.e., rule-utlilitarianism): one may operate under false pretense if the gospel is their end.
Notice, “go therefore and make disciples of the nations” is a command Jesus gives to his followers and the effect of obeying that command is proclamation of good news. If, alternatively, Jesus would have told his followers to go and lead gospel-centered lives he would have been giving them no thinkable moral principle for deciding or acting, and he knew that acting according the rules already laid down could not fail to bear witness to the good news he himself realized. Our actions may or may not bear witness to the gospel—to the good news of redemption in Christ—and because of that contingency the gospel must never become a rule for action but serve only as an end which other rules direct us toward. As Paul Ramsey once suggested, “by being immoderate about this one thing, namely Christian care for the neighbor’s needs, Christian ethics is on principle alternatively more lenient (more free from regulation) and more severe with itself (more subject to command) than any other ethic.” The paradox of the love commandment is that it shouldn’t have to be a commandment!
In thinking specifically of how the adjective “evangelical” qualifies “ethic” you may recall the suggestive opening lines of Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order:
the foundations of Christian ethics must be evangelical foundations; or, to put it more simply, Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it could not be a Christian ethics.
Evangelical ethics is therefore nothing more than Christian ethics properly understood as testifying to the good news of Jesus Christ. Christian ethics displays its evangelical foundations to the extent that it acknowledges Christ’s commands as Euangelion, as good news, for it is apparent that Christian ethics not only arises from the gospel of Jesus Christ but also prescribes the intelligible form the Gospel takes in the world. Repent and believe in the gospel (Mk 1:14-15) confronts us as Christ’s command. The Gospel carries inescapable moral force; a message to believe and to obey. The news, after all, is good news, and thus a qualitative distinction is placed on receiving and proclaiming it. He who has eyes to see, let him see, and he who has ears to hear, let him hear. It is the task of conscience to see and hear God’s commands, and in doing so faithfully apply the message it has been seen and heard. Conscience constrains and never liberates, governing the soul so that every activity carries evangelical potency and thus can only be taken as declaration of good news. In saying as much we hope to echo the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 1: “For our proud confidence is this: the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you.”
 Terry Pinkard, German Philosophy, 1760-1860: The Legacy of Idealism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 149-50.
 Frederick Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultural Despisers. (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 134. See also Pinkard, p.153.
 John Chrysostom, Homily to Those Who had not Attended the Assembly.
 O’Donovan, RMO, p.76.
 Karl Barth, Ethics. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 475.
 Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980).
 Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1986), 11.