Stephen S. Bilynskyj’s essay “Christian Ethics and the Ethics of Virtue” champions virtue ethics as a superior approach to moral decision-making. Working from the writings of Stanley Hauervas, Bilynskyj insists that, for a Christian, ethical questions must be addressed within the redemptive narrative and the Christian’s identity with Jesus Christ. He puts it this way: “For the Christian what will be distinctive about our ethics is not so much the acceptance of certain principles . . . but the fact that we are who we are, that is, the people of Jesus Christ. . . . It is our commitment to follow Jesus Christ which defines us both individually and as a community.”
There is much in Bilynskyj’s essay that Christians will find compelling. His articulation of a distinctly Christian ethic resonates with anyone who knows and loves the gospel well. Indeed, many of the moral dictates in the New Testament are rooted in the Jesus-story, such as when Paul exhorts children to husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church,” wives to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord,” and children to obey their parents “in the Lord.” Perhaps it can be said that there is no moral instruction given in the New Testament that cannot be traced to a believer’s relationship with Christ. Additionally this approach addresses the “fragmentation” of moral reasoning resulting from the debate between two rival approaches to ethics: deontology and consequentialism. Each approach has its own method of judging the morality or immorality of a particular action. Thus, for both approaches, morality is located in the action itself. For the virtue ethicist, the emphasis is rather upon the one doing the action. Both deontology and consequentialism are insufficient as an approach to ethics because (among other problems), they fail to adequately consider the moral agent. Virtue ethics, and particularly a Christian approach to virtue ethics, avoids these insufficiencies.
While Bilynskyj’s essay resonates with people who know and love the Bible and the gospel, there are some aspects of it that make it inadequate by itself as an approach to ethics. The biggest problem I see is that it essentially gives up on attempts to speak ethical norms to the world. According to Bilynskyj, the church, as a community of people who have embraced a particular narrative, cannot expect the world to understand, for example, the immorality of abortion. Instead, the church is a sort of conscience to the world, demonstrating that its solutions to problems are superior to the solutions of the world. As Bilynskyj puts it, “The Church has something to say to the world only insofar as it displays to the world the world’s own nature as sinful and adequate.”
I agree with Bilynskyj that the church should show that the world is sinful and inadequate in its grasping after ultimate significance. But I disagree that this is all the church can do to the world as it relates to ethical issues. It is certain that a person of the world will never understand a Christian’s true ethical motivation until he puts his faith in Christ. But Christians can at least hope, and act upon the hope, that the world will respond to some degree to moral reasoning, even if that reasoning is not linked to a distinctively Christian narrative. It seems that the universal image of God in man means that believers and unbelievers alike will possess a moral sense which the church can invoke in ethical discussion. John the Baptist’s condemnation of Herod for his taking of his brother’s wife may be offered as an example of a Christ-follower speaking a moral imperative into the life of an unbeliever.
Having pointed out that inadequacy, I do believe that Bilynskyj’s essay offers us much in terms of consideration and practice. We Christians should be sure to root our ethics in our relationship to Jesus Christ. We should not expect the world to understand all of what we do. We should not exchange our mission to proclaim the gospel for a mission of social transformation.