Faith and Ethics

This coming semester, I will be teaching the capstone class at Malone College (reserved for juniors and seniors, with prerequisites in Bible and Philosophy), THEO 410, Faith and Personal Ethics.

It’s been challenging and exciting as I develop the syllabus, select textbooks and extra readings, and do a lot of my own study from the vast array of viewpoints that are available as to how to tackle such an important topic.

The framework I’ve got for the course is this:
2 ½ weeks — study of the various theories of creating an ethic. The text for this section of the course will be Steve Wilkins, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right & Wrong. Wilkins uses the concept of “bumper stickers” as a way to help students understand differing philosophical approaches to ethics (like “Look out for number one” for Ethical Egoism and “It’s your duty” for Kantian ethics).

5 weeks — study of a Christian approach to creating an ethic. The main text for this section will be Paul Marshall’s Heaven is Not My Home: Living in the NOW of God’s Creation. In this part of the class, I will seek to try to help the students understand “Worldview.” Marshall clearly teaches the Christian narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption, and then shows how every aspect of what we do now in this life has great significance (as opposed to the current neo-gnoticism in evangelicalism that teaches that all that ultimately matters is getting into heaven and off this earth as opposed to the neo-gnoticism in much of today's evangelicalism that teaches that the ultimate matter of the gospel is getting people into heaven and off this earth). We will also study and analyze a Christian’s proper relationship with Culture. This will be particularly fun in that we will not only look at Niebuhr’s categories, but will also attempt to create a proper ethical approach for a postmodern world. Much of the Christian texts available for students are written from a modernist mindset, so this will be a fun challenge (though Hauerwas, MacIntyre, and Grenz approach an ethic appropriate for postmodern times).

6 weeks — discussions on particular contemporary ethical issues. For this part of the class, I’m using David Clark and Robert Rakestraw’s book, Readings in Christian Ethics, which covers just about every issue in our society. The book offers at least four differing viewpoints through essays and book excerpts from leading Christian thinkers. The students will be making group presentations as they grapple with how to apply their emerging ethical framework to these issues.

Along the way, I will have them read stuff from Walsh and Middleton's Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View, Mike Whitmer's Heaven is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God, Dennis Hollinger's Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World, Stan Grenz's The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics, Scot McKnight's Embracing Grace, Dallas Willard's Renovation of the Heart, as well as many other articles from the web and that I've put on reserve in the library.


Byron said...

Congrats on the teaching gig, but I have a comment on the following comment: "the current neo-gnoticism in evangelicalism that teaches that all that ultimately matters is getting into heaven and off this earth"

Just don't create a straw man for your students, because I'm not sure that there are many who actually espouse the above. I can't name ANY...

Bob Robinson said...

You really can't name ANY who espouse a neo-gnostic view of the material world?

We sing songs like "I'm just a passin' through," saying, basically, that this material world is not for us.

You can't name ANY preacher that has preached a sermon that proclaimed to Christians that they should not become too attached to this world "since it will all burn up," but that we should instead invest in the only thing that matters: the saving of souls?

You can't name ANY Christian that makes heaven our goal, and downplays the material world in doing so?

As you know, this kind of thinking goes all the way back to Plato, with his Soul/Body dualism. It was carried into Augustine with his Eternal/Temporal dualism. It is still strong in contemporary Christianity with our Sacred/Secular dualism.

So, today we have this tendency, in our evangelical piety, to think that this life on earth is too mundane and that we must aspire to more spiritual things.

So, many Christians get the impression that work is not meaningful unless it is used as an evangelistic opportunity. Others get the impression that "the Rapture" will be their way to escape this world and be in heaven with Jesus. Others get the impression that all things material--this world (the physical creation) and our physical existence (our flesh) are all just too evil, that God must destroy it all. What's really imprtant are our souls and God's heaven, not our bodies and this earth. This thinking is more neo-gnostic (with its emphasis on the the spiritual over the material) than Christian (with its emphasis on the resurrection and the redemption [re-creation] of the world).

You can't name ANY who espouse these views?

Rick Warren's best selling book The Purpose Driven Life has a lot of good things to teach Christians (about worship, ministry, evangelism, fellowship, and discipleship), but he still espouses a neo-gnostic view of the material world. On pages 47-52, he basically tells his readers that this world is temporary so they should not be overly concerned with it.

I'm afraid that our evangelical piety (that emphasizes the spiritual and the inner-life) has had the effect of making many of us neo-gnostics. We do not have a proper understanding of our relationship with the material world.

Byron said...

I'm not saying that you have no point to make, Bob; I'm saying that the way you PUT it involves the creation of a straw man. For instance...

When you say that some teach that "ALL that ultimately matters...is heaven", you are dismissing that majority of evangelicals who are fairly actively pro-life (which, you COULD make the case, is COUNTER-productive to the population of Heaven--admittedly, a skewed argument). Rick Warren is involving himself significantly in Third World wholistic missions enterprises. This world, frankly, is NOT my home, and I AM just "passin' through", although as you'd agree, that doesn't render my time here of little importance. I won't say I've never heard a sermon that attaches sole significance to the saving of souls; I'm sure I heard some in my old fundy days. But by the same token, isn't it a PROBLEM that we're "too attached to this world?"

No, "all that matters" clearly isn't getting into Heaven, and I certainly agree with and applaud you for proclaiming that clearly. I only suggest that you not create a straw man in the proclamation of your message, and your overspeaking (hey, Bob, my friend, it ain't the first time!) doesn't serve you well. Present the problem clearly and forcefully, but don't overspeak, because I really, truly, believe that there are VERY few who really believe/propagate what you suggest...

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks, Byron, for the advice.

I, too, get frustrated with people who overspeak, and then am unable to see it in myself. It is a function of rhetoric, the "via negativa" that makes stark contrasts to make a point (kind of like Jesus saying we should "hate" father and mother--that is "overspeak" in order to make a point). If the listener (or even the speaker) is not clued into this use of rhetoric, then the message gets muddled.

Rick Warren's recent discovery of the biblical command to care for the poor (by his own admission) does not negate my point about his theology in a published work from a few years ago. He was an example of what I am talking about. Another example is myself. If I were asked in an ordination exam 5 years ago what my understanding of our relationship with the material world is and about my conception of heaven, it would have been a very poor answer (and this after graduating with honors from Trinity and having ministered for 10 years!). It wasn't until I started really studying what the afterlife is and how God is redeeming the world in the here and now that I began to understand this important part of theology.

Now, to ask you a theological/philosophical question:
You said "This world, frankly, is NOT my home, and I AM just 'passin' through'." On what theological/biblical basis do you say this? Are your saying "this world" ontologically or morally? Is the PHYSICAL world (which God created and called "good") "not your home," or is it the evil/sinful system that is in the world that is "not your home"? Where will you go in eternity if not in a redeemed (or recreated) world?

Byron said...


My first salvo would be to refer to Hebrews 11, where some of God's giants of faith are spoken of as "desiring a better country", and are assured that God "has prepared a city for them", which points to the Rev. 21 promise of the new Jerusalem, a new heaven and a new earth. Regardless of how God pulls it off, my ultimate citizenship involves a place other than this present world in its present state.

Further, I think that we would agree that all that we do here on this earth we do with the "priorities of Heaven" in view. I can certainly agree that certain of Heaven's priorities involve the care and stewardship of the earth God has created, for instance; I believe that what we do here has significance, even if it is only tangentially related to "evangelism" or what have you.

At the same time, I think that the problem for most people, despite your protestations, is that they are too "earthly-minded to be much heavenly good", rather than the other way around (though that might be addressing a different issue; a good argument could be made that if folks were more heavenly-minded, they'd be more concerned with certain "earthly" things!).

Finally, and I'm sure that I could answer the question better if I gave it more time/thought, I like what I heard one person say awhile back: I'm not a human being having a spiritual experience; I'm a spiritual being having a human experience.

No, one more "finally": I guess that I (personal preference!) find myself much more persuaded by a presentation that ASKS "do you see evidences of neo-Gnosticism in evangelicalism today?", and then points those out, than I am by over-the-top statements that are heavy on the hyperbole. Honestly, I think that a speaker speaks with more credibility when he approaches it from the former position. Hey, even you admit that Rick Warren has changed his position some; just think, he AND you growing together in Christlikeness...it's a beautiful thing, man...

Bob Robinson said...


Good stuff there. We are ALL growing in Christ-likeness.

I'd say this, though: the statement you offer, "I'm not a human being having a spiritual experience; I'm a spiritual being having a human experience," is neo-gnostic. You have given me the very example that you asked for.

God created HUMAN BEINGS, not SPIRITUAL BEINGS in Genesis. And then he said it was "very good."

A couple of books I've read recently drive home this point, and the titles of the books reveal the biblical teaching on heaven and earth: Heaven is Not My Home: Living in the NOW of God’s Creation (by Paul Marshall) and Heaven is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God (by Mike Whitmer). They both make the biblical case that "heaven" is not where human beings are supposed to dwell. We are created for earth. This is where our "home" is. When God creates the "New Heavens and New Earth" he will not destroy this present earth but renew it and bring heaven and earth into unity. "Heaven," as it exists today, is not "Eternity." And it is not where we are supposed to live forever.

I'll defer to Mike Whitmer to explain:
"Humans weren't made for heaven. As wonderful as it will be to praise God in his celestial glory, there is still one thing better--to kneel in the presence of God with the bodies he created us to have in the place he created us to live...Our temporary stay in heaven--what theologians call the intermediate state--is not the primary focus of Scripture. The Christian hope is not merely that our departed souls will rejoice in heaven, but that, as 1 Corinthians 15 explains, they will reunite with our resurrected bodies. And where do bodies live? Not in heaven: That's more suitable for spiritual beings like angels and human souls. Bodies are meant to live on earth, on this planet. So the Christian hope...is that our departure from this world is just the first leg of a round-trip. We will not remain with God in heaven, for God will bring heaven down to us. As John explains his vision in Revelation 21:1-4."

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Byron said...

OK, that makes some sense, Bob; I think I can buy it. Perhaps the statement I used is neo-gnostic; perhaps I haven't thought deeply enough about its implications.

That said, react to the Hebrews 11 passage in a way that is compatible with the books you've read.

And do remember my basic reason for the first post---hopefully I've made my main point about not creating straw men sufficiently well?

Bob Robinson said...

On Hebrews 11, again I will quote from Whitmer (you really should get your hands on this book - it was the best book I read last year).

"John 14:1-3 reports that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us in heaven, a city that Hebrews 11:9-16 says Abraham continually longed to inhabit during his sojourn on earth. Don't these passages imply that we will eventually leave this planet forever? No. Fast forward to Revelation 21:1-4, where we learn that the New Jerusalem - the heaven where Jesus is preparing a place and the city for which Abraham yearned - ultimately descends to our planet, apparently becoming the capital of a newly restored earth."

Bob Robinson said...

On your point of not creating a "straw man," I was asked to defend a passing parenthetical statement. I admit that it was a case of “overspeak,” and I have now corrected that on the original post.

It now reads, “as opposed to the neo-gnoticism in much of today's evangelicalism that teaches that the ultimate matter of the gospel is getting people into heaven and off this earth.”

I think that this is more accurate. For years of ministry, this had been my understanding of the “ultimate matter of the gospel," that this is the way that God is glorified by the gospel.

Sometimes I think that you react to me as if I'm some liberal outsider who knows nothing about what I'm speaking. Some people are critical of us from the outside without really understanding us, which is usually not accurate or fair for they have not taken the time to get the "inside scoop." I think I am different from that. The things I talk about are from the vantage point of an insider. I am not one criticizing evangelicalism from the outside in, but one who has been immersed in it, who has been trained in it, who has graduated from one of its leading seminaries, and who has ministered in one of its finest denominations. My criticism is from the vantage point of one who once understood these things in a neo-gnostic manner, now recognizes that neo-gnosticism in myself, and am now trying to reform this in myself and in those I teach.

I do indeed see a neo-gnosticism in much of today’s evangelicalism. I think that this neo-gnosticim makes the ultimate matter of the gospel getting people into heaven and off this earth. But I now understand that the ultimate matter of the gospel is the glory of God displayed in the redemption of all his Creation, of which humanity is the pinnacle.

Byron said...

Nah, I don't think you're a "liberal outsider"; I think you're a solid evangelical guy, Bob, who is on a pendulum swing in some ways (like many in the emerging church, by the way), and my role in bringing up some of the things I do is to help swing you back toward center here and there. Least that's how I see it...your correction being a great case in point: much more accurately put!

Plus, I just react against straw men; I think people from across the spectrum tend to erect them, and to me, they really detract from the arguments being presented. Sometimes they're just laughable (much more so than your relatively minor infraction!) and cut the props out from under the credibility of the argument. Ever been, for instance, to faithless.org, a site run by atheists? By their definition of what it means to be "faithless", I easily qualify, and so do you! Why? Because they've built a huge straw man, and it's pretty easy to knock it down--more than happen to take my own shots at it!

I'll even (ready for this?) defend your bosom buddy John Kerry (chuckle chuckle). He took a lot of flack for being so "nuanced", and sure, he said something that came out pretty stupid ("I voted for it before I voted against it"), but the truth is that there is a place for nuance, and some folks on both edges want to act as though everything can be answered real neatly in black and white terms all the time. No, that's just not the case! Those are the kind of folks, though, who tend to erect those straw men in order to demonize and blast away. When, on the other hand, you use terms like "much of" evangelicalism, or, a la a post I wrote on my site today, "tend to", you're making the same point, but speaking in much more palatable terms, I think.

I just don't want to see you become a straw-man builder, and so I'm going to call you on it when I see it. And you can do the same with me, amigo! Fair 'nuf?

Oh, and by the way, without disputing the basic point you're making on neo-Gnosticism---you're certainly more well-read on it than I---is it possible that at least SOME of it is semantic?

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for the words on straw men.

Back to the subject of neo-gnosticism, I think it is definitely NOT just an issue of semantics. It is an issue of how we frame the gospel.

While most evangelicals are authentically interested in doing God's will during our present life here, it has been my experience (and it had been my own personal theological understanding for years) that the main reason we do is so God will say, "Well, done, good and faithful servant" as we enter into heaven, our ultimate reward. And the good deeds that we do here, as I understood it from my evangelical heritage, were hierarchical in how they glorify God...with evangelism being number one. The reason? Because what matters the most is getting people into heaven and off this earth. We have been trained to see this material life as sub-Christian, and the “spiritual life” as the higher, God-glorifying life. Again, this diminishes the value of life on earth. We have failed to see the difference between the ontological and the ethical dimensions of our life as human beings. We hear, “flesh is evil,” or “the world is evil,” or “don’t think of earthly things but of spiritual things,” or “the only two things on this earth that are eternal are the Word of God and the souls of people,” and we think “material things BAD, spiritual things GOOD”—which is neo-gnosticism. But when the Bible speaks of these things, it is talking about the ethical dimension of our lives.

"Flesh" in the Bible is often used in a moral or ethical sense - it is not our physical skin, it is our fallen nature. Jesus came "in the flesh" and proved that the flesh of humanity ontologically [i.e., in its being] is actually good [it’s what we do with it that can be bad]. The world, ontologically, as God had created it, was “very good” [God’s own assessment], it’s now in a fallen state that is redeemable. The “world” that John speaks of is the current ethically evil system which humanity has created--this is what Jesus came to save, but that is an ethical category for "world," not an ontological category. The "earthly things" and the "heavenly things" that Paul speaks of in Col 3 are identified for us, and it has nothing to do with the ontological nature of earth and heaven; again, it has to do with ethics. And the Bible is clear that Creation itself is eternal, not just God's Word and souls of people. "The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).

Here’s another way to look at it: In the recent battles over Intelligent Design and Darwinism, evangelicals point out that if we don’t get the story of Creation right, then we will get the rest of the story of redemption wrong. The way things began matters. A lot. But I believe that many of us evangelicals miss the most important meaning of the Creation story: that God created the world as the intended place for humans to live. We are not “spiritual beings having a human experience,” we are human beings, created to live bodily lives, on a material world.

If we don’t get this right, we get the rest of the story wrong. And it’s this:
God created us as human beings. As human beings, we decided to live in ways that are contrary to God’s intentions for human beings. Therefore, God became a human being to redeem human beings so that they can become fully human beings again. That’s the Gospel.

As Paul Marshall says, “Heaven is not my home.” And as Mike Whitmer says, Heaven is where I go when I die—and the reason I die and go to heaven is because of the fall—but that was not God’s intention for human beings. God intended humanity to live in his created cosmos. So, when redemption is consummated when Christ returns, all of Creation will be redeemed (see Romans 8:19-21)—and we will live once again as human beings in the Creation that God called “very good.”

This means, as I understand it, that everything I do in this life is part of the redemption of all Creation. As a redeemed human being, I cooperate with God in the redemption of all things. So, this life on earth has deeper significance than just getting people into heaven. It has the significance of bringing God’s redemption to all of Creation, of which humanity is the pinnacle.

Buy the book!! Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God

Byron said...

Great. ANOTHER book to add to my stack...

Bob Robinson said...

hee hee.

I know what you mean...

Call Me Ishmael said...

For some reason when people start relating gnosticism to contemporary debates I start having flashbacks to books I've read about the early medieval iconoclast/iconodule controversies.