On Hermeneutics and Ethics

I’m not an ethicist, more’s the pity. But as a missionary, I found it necessary to teach from ignorance, act from weakness, and generally be sent on the basis of inadequacy. “Who is sufficient for these things?” Paul asks. Fool that I am, I once thought the question was an invitation to reflect on whether or not I’m equal to the task. After a few years of mission work, I now read between the lines and hear Paul’s gentle interpretive guidance (or perhaps the Holy Spirit illuminating my heart): “It’s a rhetorical question, idiot.” Obvious, in retrospect. “Our competence is from God.” But there’s no accounting for idiocy. I digress. In Peru, I found it necessary to teach church leaders—and anyone else willing to invest the time—about ethics. So I’m a dabbler, an ethical dilettante. But in the course of my dabbling, I found that, for Christians, hermeneutics and ethics are tightly interwoven. The way I’ve been exploring that warp and woof is what this post is about.

Transformative Hermeneutics and Virtue Ethics

The structure of the curriculum I designed for theological education in Peru was a progression from two sections (OT and NT) designed to explore the biblical narrative of God’s mission, to a third section designed to explore how we make decisions from within that ongoing narrative, to a final section on the social embodiment of God’s mission as a community. The first two sections explicitly dealt with the role narrative plays in human worldviews and, therefore, the way the assimilation of the biblical story as story can transform our worldview. Each class of students struggled for six months to capture a vision of the whole narrative arc, with God’s mission as the plot. Then we began to ask, If we see the world in this way, what does X look like? This was the section devoted to ethics. We looked at a pretty typical array of issues, but always from our narrative biblical lens—meaning the fuzzy line between a narrative biblical hermeneutic and an approach to contemporary ethics was plainly in view at this point. Were we doing biblical interpretation that yielded “meaning” relevant for contemporary issues, or were we doing Christian ethics; or what is the difference?

I encouraged students to understand ethics as broader than hermeneutics. For Christians there is no ethics without biblical hermeneutics, because Scripture is our primary ethical norm. Ethics is a conversation (study) about how we decide what is good and bad. Hermeneutics is a conversation (study) about how texts function for readers. Obviously, a text can be relevant to how we decide what is good and bad, but the ways that people actually decide what is good and bad—even the most biblicist of people—are always more involved than mere textual interpretation. Therefore, hermeneutics informs a process of discernment that inevitably takes place, beyond the scope of what might fairly be considered textual interpretation (i.e., other norms also play a part in this process). This process of discernment is, I believe, the purview of ethics.

In my understanding, however, the relationship between biblical hermeneutics and ethics is not linear; ethics does not take place outside the effects of the text on the discerning community. This is especially the case for a narrative hermeneutic that functions to transform the reader’s worldview rather than provide normative grist for the ethical mill. The latter is indeed relatively linear and leads to an artificial separation between interpretive conclusions (“meaning”) and ethical determinations (“application”), which often undermines the best contributions of both hermeneutics and ethics. Worldview transformation, though, is akin to what is known as virtue ethics. The idea, simply stated, is that the formation of virtue or character in those who discern ethically is vital for the proper determination of good; a theory or process of reasoning alone is insufficient. A hermeneutic that functions informatively can only feed a theory or process of reasoning, but a hermeneutic that functions transformatively can be the essential ingredient in an ethic built upon the formation of a virtuous discerning community, and a hermeneutic that functions to transform worldviews may provide a more comprehensive—more effective—foundation than the virtue that some ethicists have in mind. For Christians, then, there may be very little difference between a hermeneutic of worldview transformation, which creates a people capable of contextually embodying an ongoing narrative trajectory, and an ethics of virtue formation, which relies upon (at the least) core dimensions of worldview to make practical moral decisions in particular contexts. There is certainly significant overlap between them, and it may be difficult to tell when one has stopped and the other begun.

Searching for conversation partners, I turned to Ismael Garcia, Introducción a la Etica Cristiana (Abingdon, 2003) and the Spanish translation of Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (IVP Academic, 2003), neither of which I had read. These are both excellent resources, and Stassen and Gushee are onto an agenda very similar to mine. Though they do not spell it out in terms of “worldview” per se, their biblically centered take on virtue ethics broadens to a concern with the transformation of “holistic character, which includes the virtues.”[1.Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003): 60.] This holistic character includes four dimensions that, together, could be mistaken for a model of worldview,[2. Ibid., 59.] and their approach is rooted in a narrative theology:

Human beings are not isolated individual decision-makers but instead members of groups, communities and societies in which they are embedded and to which they tend to be loyal. . . . Then, they respond to what they perceive to be happening from within the frame of reference [worldview!] provided by these contexts, not as isolated individuals weighing rules or principles, as if in a vacuum, moment by moment. . . . Christian ethics must and should be done in the context of our faith-communities, and our faith communities must do Christian ethics in the context of the theological narrative found in Scripture—in particular the reign of God inaugurated in Jesus Christ.[3. Ibid., 114.]

We’re basically on the same page; so far, so good. And they also develop a very helpful paradigm of the “levels of moral norms,” which is hermeneutically significant because “Christian ethicists frequently differ over what kind of moral norms are most frequently found in Scripture, were most significant for Jesus or are most significant for the Christian life.”[4. Ibid., 100.] For brevity, I combine their diagram with their sidebar summaries[5. Ibid.,101–7]:

Stassen and Gushee’s Levels of Moral Norms


When overlaid on evangelical hermeneutics, it’s interesting to see that the legalizing and principlizing options have their ethical counterparts. And when, as Stassen and Gushee advocate, we understand basic convictions narratively, a more fundamental level than principles comes into view, with which I am in significant agreement. I would add two points in regard to basic convictions, however.

First, just as principles can criticize rules, basic convictions can criticize principles. Stassen and Gushee exhibit the evangelical tendency to view principles as extraordinarily stable if they are biblically derived, in a way that biblically derived rules are not. They tend to overlook the fact that, just because principles are more general (less situationally specific), they are not therefore more universal. The principlizing hermeneutic is, however, usually meant to meet precisely the perceived need for universal interpretive conclusions. But, as the existence of principles beneath rules invites us to formulate and reformulate rules contextually, so the existence of basic convictions beneath principles invites us to formulate and reformulate principles contextually. In truth, we have no other choice.

Second, just as principles permit a kind of ethical reasoning that rules do not, basic convictions permit a kind of ethical reasoning that principles do not. As (a) and (b) in the diagram exemplify, Stassen and Gushee present basic convictions in such a way that they often seem like nothing more than the “theological narrative that gives such moral norms their meaning”[6. Ibid., 113.]—even though they ultimately want to make a more substantive argument.

We embrace the basic claim of contextualists/narrativists, that the theological basic-conviction level is the most important one for Christians ethics, and are most at home in this understanding of Christian ethics. We cannot be satisfied with situationism, legalism or principlism, for all demand deeper grounding, the kind of grounding that Jesus gives when he roots moral precepts in the character of the delivering God.

However, to say this is still to say too little. Many Christians recognize that ethics is grounded in theology yet still come out quite differently in the kind of ethics they propose. We must acknowledge that different ways of approaching theology, both in terms of methodology and substance, lead to radically different ethical outcomes.[7. Ibid., 115.]

While this is all true, it amounts to saying that, in order to get right principles, we need right theology (Jesus’s theology). I wouldn’t disagree with this, and gladly affirm it insofar as getting principles is a beneficial endeavor. But it fails to express how much more is at stake in coming to see God and God’s creation as Jesus does. Of course, since Stassen and Gushee advocate character ethics, they are interested in something more than deriving principles, but in their effort to hold space for rules and principles, they undersell what narrative can afford ethically in its own right.

A final problem I have to point out is their roughshod treatment of deontological and teleological ethics. There is a bit of a straw man situation in the few pages dedicated to explaining these standard ethical contenders.[8. Ibid., 119–22] I won’t belabor the point, though, because they do not misrepresent them in order to dismiss them easily; their interest is to assert quickly that neither deontology nor teleology cannot stand on its own and then absorb them into a comprehensive character ethics rather than pit virtue against them. This passage sums up their whole approach:

Christian ethics, then, must be sufficiently biblical to avoid reducing the moral life to a mere decisionism or legalism of abstract deontological absolutes. It must integrate those goals which the Scriptures urge the church to strive for as a part of kingdom seeking [teleology] as well as those virtues of character which we are to seek to embody to get us there. The best overall term for the substantive content of Christian ethics is the broadest available—Christian ethics is about the entire “way of life” of the people of faith (Eph 2:10; cf. Deut 30:19–20). No aspect of moral existence is left out—decisions, practices, convictions, principles, goals and virtues are all included in the effort to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel” (Phil 1:27; cf. Rom 16:2; Eph 4:1; Col 1:10) as we seek the kingdom of God.[9. Ibid., 111–12.]

Ultimately, the endeavor to hold all four levels of moral norms together with all three types of ethics is valuable and generative. In fact, it sparked a hermeneutical grid that I developed in the course of teaching this material.

An Ethical Grid for Biblical Hermeneutics

In the course of their brief explanation of deontological and teleological ethics, Stassen and Gushee claim that, contrary to popular understandings, both types still employ rules. To demonstrate this, they examine all four levels of moral norms at work in both kinds of ethics. The specific ethical issue they deal with is of no concern here. I’m interested in what their process incidentally implies: the possibility of applying the same four-level analysis across a variety of types of ethics. Because we began our study with Garcia’s text, my students came to this point in the discussion with an appreciation for deontological, teleological, and relational ethics, to which we had added Stassen and Gushee’s character ethics. All four of these, then, invite a four-level analysis.

In the course of study we undertook in Peru, we tried to develop an adequate, rather than a theoretically rigorous, understanding of these basic types of ethics. Our purpose was not to be prescriptive, which is where the battle between ethical theories plays out with nuance and stringency. Rather, our purpose was to be descriptive: to engage a conversation about how we actually go about making decisions about what is good—to realize that these processes are at work in the church, often unconsciously and sloppily. Thus, while Stassen and Gushee are comprehensive for prescriptive theoretical reasons, my inclusiveness toward these different types of ethics looks similar to theirs but proceeds with a different assumption. I take it that, whether or not any one of these ethics should be a part of our moral reasoning, all of them are, on an ad hoc and largely implicit basis. What we often need is a way to examine what is happening as we make decisions. Before demonstrating how an ethical grid for biblical hermeneutic might meet that need, I will briefly supply my working definition of each type of ethics:

Deontological Ethics

Good is defined by intrinsic obligation. Example: We should not kill because killing is wrong in itself; we have an obligation not to kill. The justifications for such an obligation may vary, but law is the essential metaphor. Killing is wrong because the law forbids it, God’s commandment prohibits it, or natural law makes the right to life a “self-evident truth.” Deontological ethics therefore tends toward universal truth: a decision is ultimately good because it is true that it is good. This is not circular but rather refers to the intrinsic nature of good. An action is good because it is good, and we have an obligation or duty to do it regardless of its consequences.

A house is on fire. Two people are inside. You only have time to save one. How do you decide who to save? Your obligation is to all life equally, so you save the first person you find.

Teleological Ethics

Good is defined by certain ends. Example: We should not kill because killing thwarts the goal of human flourishing. The justifications for such a goal may vary, but purpose is the primary notion. Killing is wrong because society’s purpose is to protect human wellbeing, or God’s intention is to create and sustain life. Teleological ethics therefore tends toward discretion: a decision is ultimately good because purposeful agents determine that it serves their ends. This does not mean the ends justify the means; teleological ethics may require the means to cohere with the ends. An action is good because its consequences are good, and we are not morally obligated to do anything whose consequence is bad.

A house is on fire. Two people are inside. One is an old woman and one is a child. You only have time to save one. You find the old woman first. How do you decide who to save? You will save more life in years yet to be lived if you save the child, so you leave the old woman.

Relational Ethics

Good is defined by real relationships. Example: We should not kill because the victim is our fellow human being. The specification of morally relevant relationships may vary, but solidarity is the controlling concern. Killing is wrong because we realize that our social relationships are mutual (shared or empathetic) or that God has placed us in relationship with our “neighbor.” Relational ethics therefore tends toward perception: a decision is ultimately good because it accounts for the moral implications of relevant relationships. An action is good because its relational circumstances validate it, and abstract obligations or calculated outcomes are of secondary importance.

A house is on fire. Two people are inside. One is a stranger and one is your mother. You only have time to save one. You find the stranger first. How do you decide who to save? Your relationship to your mother is morally imperative in a unique way, so you leave the stranger.

Virtue Ethics

Good is defined by virtuous persons. Example: We should not kill because truly virtuous people teach us it is wrong. The identification of truly virtuous people may vary, but the character of moral agents is the key concept. Killing is wrong because a model citizen or a godly person would not do it. Virtue ethics therefore tends toward formation: a decision is ultimately good because properly formed moral agents regard it as good. An action is good because concretely good people take it, and abstract theories cannot ensure the same outcome.

A house is on fire. Two people are inside. You only have time to save one. How do you decide who to save? You will have to make a hard decision in the heat of the moment, but you are running into a burning house in the first place because you are a brave, unselfish person, which is the foundation of your moral discernment. Whatever your decision, it will therefore be brave and unselfish.


Now we can explore how each of these plays out on the four levels of moral norms. My test case is the Christian practice of regularly giving money, because it is an interesting blend of ethical concerns. In particular, combining economics and religious ritual serves to scuttle the notion that “acts of worship” can be determined hermeneutically without reference to ethics (in case the prophets weren’t clear). In this example, I list some general rules that I take to be relatively standard in churches and show that the justifications for these rules vary depending on the ethical reasoning applied. I could just as easily show how different ethics generate diverse or contradictory rules, but my primary aim is to demonstrate how this grid can serve to analyze what is actually happening hermeneutically underneath the rules we live by, what motivates us and determines our actions, even when we agree.


Once we have clarity about how we are actually making such judgements, we can turn the model to thornier issues and, at the least, get a better view of where our conflicts truly lie. One of the most important implications of this grid is that, in order to deal with the complexity of ethical discernment, we need to live from within the whole story of God, which is multidimensional. We must consider how multiple narratives (sovereignty, purposes, relationships, character) form a single biblical plot, which as a whole provides guidance for dealing with differences between ethical judgements that are based upon valid but ultimately incomplete theological convictions.


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