Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

An Anabaptist Theory of Moral Obligation

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

An Anabaptist Theory of Moral Obligation

Article excerpt

In this essay I shall articulate a theory of moral obligation that is inspired by the way obligation has been understood in the Anabaptist tradition. The key to that project, as I see it, is to understand the traditional Anabaptist claim that the ethic they espoused was, in important respects, appropriate only for Christians. This view is best known as "two-kingdom" ethics. Although the theory I shall defend will have nothing essential to do with either the number "two" or with kingdoms, I intend it to be consistent with and similar in spirit to the two-kingdom ethics of traditional Anabaptism. My discussion of moral obligation begins with a review of theological assumptions that reflect both my own views and those of the main strands of the faith tradition originating in sixteenth-century Anabaptism. I shall then defend a theory of obligation, which I shall somewhat presumptuously call "Anabaptist Ethics," (1) that I take to be both faithful to that understanding of theology and plausible--even when considered independent of Anabaptist assumptions. I shall then respond to some possible objections to my account. In the final section of the paper I shall indicate in very broad terms why the theory I defend is Anabaptist.

Theological Background

The Christian story has three major parts: creation, sin and redemption. This section is intended to be a selective Anabaptist account of those three elements of the Christian faith. The themes discussed are selected, not for their importance to Christian faith (2) but rather for their relevance to ethics. This sketchy survey is not intended to break any new ground.

God, according to Christian faith, created humanity. The primary purpose for which human beings were created is to love God. Part, but not all, of what it is for human beings to love God is for them to love each other. The whole of what God intended people to do by creation is to love God, either by loving other human beings or by responding in some other way not reducible to the love of human beings. That means that God intended all human relationships to be characterized by mutual love and all of human life to be characterized by the love of God. God intended human beings to live in a community of human beings who seek each other's welfare and who, together, relate to God in the way appropriate for them as his creatures.

However, human sin has seriously undermined the achievement of those purposes. It has done so directly, in that human sin consists of a refusal to cooperate with God's purposes for humanity, and indirectly, by so corrupting human nature that human beings have become incapable of achieving God's purposes for them.

Redemption is God's effort to save humanity from sin. For ethics, the principal expression of redemption is God's effort to help human beings become people who love God and love their fellow human beings. To this end, God entered into a covenant with ancient Israel, who were obligated under the covenant to do God's will for them. The doing of God's will took the primary form of following the Torah or the Law.

The Law and other expressions of God's will for Israel were something of a compromise between God's purpose for human community in creation and the limitations of Israel's character due to sin. For example, God, through the Law, commanded equal retribution for injury, which fell far short of the principle that all of our dealings with others should be expressions of love toward them. But from God's perspective it was an improvement over the unlimited retribution that characterized much of ancient Near Eastern practice. Similar points could be made about the regulation of marriage and divorce, the treatment of women, the conduct of war, the administration and swearing of oaths, etc.

Through Christ, God inaugurated a community of persons who live under the rule of God, or in the more familiar translations of the Gospels, "the Kingdom of God. …

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