Theology & Ethics

Creaturely life within the church

According to the understanding of the Reformation, theology and ethics are part of church praxis. Or, in Karl Barth’s words, they are a ‘function of the church’. Although they are taught and studied as academic disciplines at universities and colleges, theology and ethics have a specific character in the church context. Their tasks, topics and objectives are directly linked to the Church of Jesus Christ. Theology and ethics deal with the Bible and the various forms and traditions of its interpretation.

From the Reformed perspective, church, state, society and the private sphere do not exist independently of one another. Thus, there is no difference between church, state or social ethics and private morals. Divine commands and human orders (Emil Brunner) are two sides of the same coin. Christians are both members of the Christian and civil communities (Karl Barth). Christian life is without exception under ‘Christ’s kingly rule’, which is why there are no ‘areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him’ (Theological Declaration of Barmen, second thesis).

Only from the 18th and 19th centuries did the modern sciences differentiate themselves. This laid the foundation for the subsequent distinction between dogmatic theology and theological ethics. During the course of the enormous scientific and technological developments since the second half of the 20th century, ethical reflection became increasingly important – also in the churches. With the catchwords ‘autonomy’ and ‘self-determination’, the ethical focus shifted from action in or of the community to the judgment and action of the individual. In the recent past, new questions have arisen, particularly on how to deal with non-human nature. Responsibility for fellow human beings in the family, community, society and the global context, for born and unborn human life in the present and the future, for nature in all its forms, for the survival of the human race, and for the preservation of creation that encompasses all life, also became the focus of theological ethics.

As part of the world, the church bears responsibility for the world. It proclaims Christ as the Redeemer of creation and the divine promise of a life in abundance. It takes God’s word seriously by promoting peace, justice and the integrity of creation. According to John Calvin, theological ethics is based on two fundamental insights: firstly, God did not renounce his rights when he gave people responsibility for creation. And secondly, all human orders and norms must foster the preservation of humanity in people. Within the church, the task of ethics is to orient speech and action toward God’s word, without reducing the Bible to a primer on morals, a code of laws or simple instructions for action.


Stephan Jütte, Personal assistant to the President PCS