Context Versus Principles: Still A Misplaced Debate

[1] “What benefits and drawbacks do you see to the theological moves made in the draft?” I was asked to respond to this question in this brief article, and I do so with enthusiasm for the powerful-if still imperfect-theological framing found in the recent ELCA draft social statement on human sexuality.

Some Methodological Reflections: Four Bases for Christian Theological Ethics
[2] In his classic article, “Context versus Principles: A Misplaced Debate in Christian Ethics,” James M. Gustafson carefully argues three related points in a masterful survey of (then) current work in theology.[1] First, Gustafson points out, the debate between those who begin from principles and those who begin with context is no longer fruitful. This is true, secondly, not only because of significant differences across the divide between the two sides, but also internal diversity on each side. What each means by principles or context, and how they go about making their cases, are different enough to beg the question of how the two sides hold together. Third, according to Gustafson, any complete Christian ethics regardless of its starting point will have to cover (or at least imply a position on) each of the four bases for Christian moral argument. The four are (1) contextual or situational analysis, (2) theological affirmations, (3) moral principles and (4) the nature of the self in Christian life.

[3] On the side of principles, take for example Paul Ramsey’s work on just war.[2] Paul Ramsey begins with the principle (3) of noncombatant immunity. But in thinking through the contemporary usefulness of this principle (3), he necessarily has to engage the particular context of contemporary warfare (1). He also moves towards theological justification (2) for the principle, including natural law and reason (proportionality) and Scripture (love’s defense of the neighbor in need). He also uses an understanding of love in Christian life (4) to keep open one’s allegiance to principle (3) since God’s love in Christ is a living reality for Christians. So while Ramsey makes clear that traditional Christian moral principles ought to guide right conduct of Christians, he moves through all four bases, explicitly or implicitly, in making his case.[3]

[4] On the side of context, Joseph Sittler, in a contemporary restatement of Martin Luther’s ethics, begins with the theological affirmation (2) that the Christian life actualizes our justification in Christ.[4] We are, in a sense, shaped by the shape of God’s action in the world in Christ. Sittler then moves to describe the nature of the Christian life (4) lived out in the concrete circumstances (1) of the neighbor’s everyday life. Sittler indeed argues for something like principles or commands (3) but claims that because of the relational connection to Christ and to neighbor, the divine commands do not generally take propositional form.[5]

[5] By engaging in this methodological exercise, Gustafson intends to invite those making Christian ethical arguments, and especially those critical of other sorts of arguments, to leave their polemics aside.[6] If one wishes to argue against those who lead with a contextual approach, one also must take up a critique of their theological and ethical reasons for the stress on context. Sittler, for instance, tends to the context of the neighbor exactly for theological, or one could even say Christological, reasons. If one wishes to argue against those who lead with a principle-based approach, one again must ask from what source(s) are these principles derived, how are they used, and how the moral agent moves from principle to action. Ramsey, for instance, begins with principles because of a theological interpretation of the relation between love and law, and behind these, how God works in the world.

Considering Early Critiques of the DSSHS
[6] Such careful reflection helps me to set up some initial comments regarding the theological moves evident in the ELCA “Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality” (DSSHS).[7] One of the first major critiques of the draft claims that the “fatal flaw” of the statement is its reluctance to “affirm definite forms,” and its posture towards “commandments and law, guiding principles, and especially towards rules.”[8] Lutheran theologian Robert Benne, author of the critique, suggests that while the statement’s theological and ethical foundations (section two of DSSHS) affirm the law, “no commandments are mentioned. No covenantal structures-such as God’s gift of marriage to Adam and Eve-are affirmed.”[9] This, in Gustafson’s parlance, would be an attempt to argue from a “principled approach” against a “contextual” approach.

[7] Another critique of the DSSHS, admittedly of a different genre than Benne’s, comes in the form of a press release from Lutherans Concerned/North America (LCNA). While not using Benne’s terms regarding a “fatal flaw,” the statement from LCNA claims “considerable agreement and substantial disagreement” with DSSHS noting it “continues to discriminate against same-gender couples.” LCNA states that if the church wishes to hold same-gender relationships to the “same ethical standards as heterosexual married couples” it ought also to “offer the same standards of support and benefit.” While the LCNA argument is the same kind of critique as Benne offers, that is, an argument from a “principled approach” against a “contextual approach”, LCNA and Benne seem to have strong differences on the sort of principle most relevant to the case. LCNA clearly makes an appeal to equality and justice for all, a principle embedded in American jurisprudence, whereas Benne appeals to principles-“such as commandments and covenantal structures”-derived from Scripture.

[8] In order to follow Gustafson’s admonition against polemic, we ought to do more than simply say that DSSHS not starting with a certain sort of “principled” base is a “fatal flaw” or worthy of “substantial disagreement.” Both Benne and LCNA do say more. Yet in order to get a bit closer to the inner logic of this document, rather than complain about its failure to properly lead with a particular sort of “principle,” we ought to ask, says Gustafson, about how principles are used, and about the theological and ethical reasons that DSSHS deals with context and principles as it does, along with the other bases for a sound theological ethics. Were we to look at the four bases Gustafson outlines as they are dealt with in DSSHS, we could then see the full richness of its theological portrayal of a particular approach to principles, theological affirmations, and the nature of the self in Christian life. I can now turn briefly to such a four-fold analysis.

Comments on Theological Moves in the ELCA Draft Social Statement
[9] Benne worries that DSSHS offers a vacuous notion of law and discounts commandments. LCNA worries that it deals in doublespeak, discounting claims for just and equitable treatment. Yet the document opens with a first sentence dealing with both: “Invited to answer the question, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).[10] Here we have a very central scripturally derived principle that gives profound content to the notion of law in Christian life as well as offering a conception of care for others that runs deeper than legal conceptions of justice as fairness. There are more than fifty references to law and an additional 10 to commandment in DSSHS, much more than I can take account of here. However, it is striking to see that the drive here is not to the sorts of natural law principles Benne would like to see nor to the liberal political principles LCNA would like to see, but to Jesus Christ and the command of love we only hope to fulfill by God’s grace.[11]

[10] Theological affirmations, then, are what help us make sense of DSSHS’ use of the category “law” and of the category of ‘principle’ within Christian ethics generally. That the document begins with Jesus’ double command to love God and love the neighbor signals the larger theological intention of DSSHS to unfold a Lutheran theological ethic from an understanding of what God has done in Christ for the sake of the world. In short, it is an ethic that proposes beginning with God’s incarnation in Christ, who justifies the sinner by grace through faith, calling us to a life in service to the neighbor in need. Here we have the sort of theological ethic Gustafson explicates in the work of Joseph Sittler (and behind him, Martin Luther).[12] From this theological beginning place, the document unfolds through the expected loci of sin, grace, the two uses of the law, as well as justification and vocation as ways of speaking of the bound and free life of the Christian.[13] Such theological grounding allows both an affirmation of the body (contradicting the ‘excarnating’ tendency in Western Christianity[14]) and the contextual freedom to respond to the neighbor in the complexity of circumstances faced by Christians today (countering a perception that settled principles will be sufficient in changing times[15]).

[11] It ought to be clear from how DSSHS deals with principles and theological affirmations that it would place a very high value on being contextually sensitive to the current societal upheaval generally, and with changes with regard to sexuality in particular. Indeed, the statement notes on page one a core question the study seeks to answer is how to be faithful ‘in this time and society” and points out that the “past six or seven decades have seen immense changes in every aspect of human life, including human sexuality.” Reflecting this, the document offers a helpful phenomenological portrayal of the complexity and social character of sexuality, and the multitude of ways-on account of the pervasive impact of sin, individual and social-sexuality goes wrong. With so much possible harm and danger at stake, one might wonder, where might one turn for help and hope for living well?

[12] In answer to the question of how to live well in the midst of a changing and complex society, DSSHS offers perhaps its most helpful contribution to our Church’s conversation, and to broader conversations as well. In addressing the last base of a sound Christian ethic, that is, the nature of the self in the Christian life, the document portrays us homo fiducia, or trusting humans.[16] Martin Luther describes this as fundamental in his explication of the first commandment: “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.”[17] And “to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart.”[18] Right trust is trust in God’s promises made in Christ, and such trust not only marks right relationship with God but also is a fundamental marker of right relationship between people. Such an understanding of humans leads to an articulation of the things that make for-and break-trusting relationships of various sorts, including the extension (for the first time) to consideration of trust in ‘same-gender relationships’, something we need to think about much more openly as now a second state in the USA has made gay marriage legal (Massachusetts in 2004 and California in 2008).

[13] We are selves who trust in God and seek to trust and be trustworthy towards one another. This key view of the self in Christian life helps us face a dramatically challenging and complex age, especially when we consider that the trust we seek to offer to others is the same trust we place in God who in Christ is reconciling all things. While any number of particular implications of this theological framing could be argued differently, and in some cases I would argue differently, I think this robust and vibrant theological framing of a Lutheran theological ethic offers the church grounding for engaging in thoughtful and important deliberation regarding human sexuality today. I, for one, am grateful for their diligence and wisdom. May we have the wisdom to think in fresh and faithful ways about the contemporary challenges before us as the Church of Jesus Christ.


[1]James M. Gustafson, ” Context Versus Principles: A Misplaced Debate in Christian Ethics,” Harvard Theological Review 58:2 (April 1965): 171-202.

[2]Paul Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience. Durham: Duke University Press, 1961.

[3]Gustafson, “Context Versus Principles,” 194-195.

[4]Joseph Sittler, The Structure of Christian Ethics. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana University Press, 1958.

[5]Gustafson, “Context Versus Principles,” 179-180, cf. also 199-201 discussing Martin Luther’s “The Freedom of the Christian.”

[6]Ibid, 201.

[7]One of my irritations with social statements is the way they mask authorship. Given that we don’t know who wrote the statement, or how committee wrote it, if it was co-authored, I will cite as author the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality, Church in Society. Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality. Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2008.

[8]Robert Benne, “A Sexual Ethic for Teletubbies, or Lutherans Embrace a Formless World.” First Things: On The Square Blog (Monday, April 14, 2008, 6:20 AM). See on May 8, 2008).


[10]Task Force, Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality, 2.

[11]On the one hand, to follow Benne’s lead would be to give in to a temptation Lutherans have by and large resisted since the 1960s when, in the preparation for the LCA statement Sex, Marriage and Family, the task force rejected Carl Braaten’s essentialist theological treatment and turned to Martin Heinecken for a more relationally and contextually grounded ethic quite amenable to this new draft statement. For more on this history, see Christian Scharen, Married in the Sight of God (Lantham, MD: University Press of America), pp. 68-70. However, on the other hand, the church may not simply draw on liberal political virtues such as “rights” and “social contract” since in Christ we are beggars, wholly dependant on God’s mercy, and not in a position to “demand” anything. Our place in the church flows from claims that, following Sittler’s arguments in the 1950s, this draft statement frames in fundamentally theological terms. If our lives in Christ take on the shape of what God in Christ is doing in and for us, we have a very different starting place from which to make positive arguments regarding, for instance, the full welcome of queer men and women in the life of the church. For more on this worry about progressive arguments grounded in rights talk (which, by the way, is totally appropriate in so far as love is active for justice in the civil realm seeking to assure protection under the law in society) see Christian Scharen, “Experiencing the Body: Sexuality and Conflict in American Denominations,” The Union Seminary Quarterly Review 57(Spring-Summer 2003): 47-65. Those who hold a traditionalist position, therefore, are not in my view fostering ‘oppression’ or trafficking in ‘injustice’ but rather with faith and hope seeking to commend what they understand to be the call of faithful life in Christ. While I disagree with them, it is very important to disagree on those terms and not falsely confuse issues and attack where agreement is already in place (say on churchly welcome of, or civil protection for, our queer brothers and sisters. While it may be hard to read for some progressives, a careful reading of Paul Hinlicky’s brief “Recognition, Not Blessing,” (Journal of Lutheran Ethics 5: August 2005) shows remarkable common ground albeit without agreement on the core issue (and I think it isthe core issue) of queer orientation as 1) variation in or 2) disordering of God’s creative work.

[12]Gustafson, “Context Versus Principles,” 179-180.

[13]See endnote 6 that gives a defense of this starting point drawing on Luther’s discussion of the creed in the Large Catechism. Against the possible (and in the past, common) starting point with a doctrine of creation and the categories of law and order (orders of creation, etc.), Luther suggests that sin blinds us to God’s ways, making us see only “an angry judge” and our only means to understand God’s intention in creation “through the lens of what God has done for us in becoming flesh.” DSSHS 47.

[14]Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, (Cambridge: Harvard, 2007), pp. 613-615 describes the de facto ‘excarnating’ effect of the trajectory of what he calls “Western Reform” and calls for its undoing.

[15]DSSHS, 11. Given the fact that Lutherans have been struggling over these issues for 50 years, it seems literally incredible to see a document like the Lutheran CORE in its “Some Questions and Answers about the ELCA Sexuality Discussions” document assert over and over the view that we must “remain faithful to the Scriptures and to the settled Christian consensus” on sexual ethics. People on various sides of the tough questions before us as a church seek to be faithful to the Scriptures, but recognize that our conflicts are exactly the result of living in unsettled times in which long-held views have come into question. Their arguments would be more honest and more helpful to the church were they not to simply assert that holding to the settled positions of another time can settle our complex contemporary circumstance. See (accessed May 26, 2008).

[16]This way of putting it recalls Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, original edition 1938).

[17]Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” in Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, The Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000), p. 351.

[18]Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in Kolb and Wengert, p. 386.