The Ethicist as Theologian

by Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is professor of theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School.

This article is the Fourth in a Series on "New Turns in Religious Thought, and appeared in The Christian Century, April 23, 1975, pp. 408-412. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Ethics is at the heart of theology because the grammar of Christian discourse is fundamentally practical. The most appropriate means to arrive at a practical ethical theology is to articulate how Christians have understood, and do and should understand, the relationship between Christ and the moral life.


Stanley M. Hauerwas

Ethicist Scholarly

Ph.D. Yale,

Spent his life outlining

Ethical disciplines -- Inconsequentially

Ended in Hell.

Anne Harley Hauerwas

My wife composed this double dactyl at about the time I finished my doctorate and became a "certified" theological ethicist. A framed copy of the verse hangs on my office wall as a reminder that theological ethics is a rather ambiguous and humble enterprise. The study of theological ethics does not make us good people. It certainly does not save us. We do not even know clearly what theological ethics is. To be an ethicist seems to make one the eternal dabbler -- one dabbles a little in theology (of various kinds), in philosophy (of various kinds), in political science (of various kinds), in practical problems (of various kinds), and so on. Not only will ethics not keep one out of hell; there is no assurance even that the discipline has sufficient integrity to save one from being an intellectual whoremonger.

The current chaos in theological reflection has exacerbated this state of affairs, making the "theological" in theological ethics even more problematic. Some would reduce theological ethics to good feelings coupled with strategies for social change. As such, ethics often masks a kind of reductionism; "morality" is assumed to be the remaining substance of theology.

I did not become an ethicist because my primary interest was social change or particular moral "issues." Rather, I became an ethicist because I was (and am) interested in the intellectual issues associated with the truthfulness of Christian discourse. Ethics provides a fruitful territory in which to explore these issues because the sense in which the language of Christians is true is similar to the sense in which lives are true. It has not been my interest as an ethicist to ferret out the "ethical core" of theological affirmations, but rather to show how the grammar of certain theological affirmations (stories) involves some extremely interesting claims and notions about how our practical life should be formed under the conditions of finitude.


It is, therefore, misleading to say that theological ethics is concerned with the relation of theology and ethics. So stated, theology appears to be a set datum that the ethicist may assess to find implications for the practical life. I am making the stronger claim, for which I am indebted to Julian Hartt, that ethics is at the heart of theology because the grammar of Christian discourse is fundamentally practical. I understand theology to be a practical discipline -- not in the sense that theology is concerned to provide solutions to particular problems, but in the sense that the grammar of Christian discourse takes its cue from the ways in which lives are formed.

This manner of conceiving theological ethics may provide a means of breaking through some of the impasses of recent theology. Many contemporary theologians have felt compelled to provide a theory sufficient to supply an adequate foundation for the truth or meaningfulness of religious discourse. Proponents of diverse theological positions have shared the assumption that religious convictions are in some decisive manner deficient, lacking proper roots in human experience or needing new metaphysical backing. Something seems to have gone wrong with the explanatory power of religion, and so theologians have gone rummaging through available world views in the hope of finding one that will reconstitute the meaningfulness of Christian discourse. Thus modern theology tends to be a prolegomena to theology, rather than theology itself -- i.e., the concern with the proper ordering of the primary symbols of religious language.

Theology understood as a practical discipline should not’ be confused with those theologies that make the question of "faith" the starting point of theological reflection. "Faith" is not a special epistemological category for knowing religious truth, but rather a correlative of what is to be known. When "faith" becomes the starting point of theology, the theologian is tempted to take seriously his own problems with belief, or those of others. Theology becomes literally autobiography as the theologian assumes that theology is simply the recounting of how he is "making up his mind." But the proper starting point for theology is God and how our language about God works. Theology as a practical discipline does not invite fascination with the subjectivity of the believer, for its primary concern is how the self should be shaped to correspond to the object of religious language.

Theology conceived in this manner is but a reminder that religious convictions are not explanations at all and that therefore no theory is needed to account for their meaningfulness. The story contained in the Gospels, for example, is not meant to provide a world view, but rather to position the self appropriately in relation to God. Theology is best thought of not as a theory, but, as David Burrell suggests, a therapy whose primary purpose is to help us keep our grammar pure. In this sense, theology does not create the meaningfulness of religious discourse but provides reminders of how that discourse is rightly used. Such reminders are the skills, both linguistic and moral, that help us live our lives free from self-deception. Such skills are not dependent on a "system" but are systematically displayed through the dominant images that our lives require in order to be true.


My work as an ethicist has been concerned primarily with developing this understanding of theology. I have taken as my primary task to locate the "specificity" of the Christian life -- that is, the peculiar images that should form and shape the character of Christians. When this is done, we have the means to indicate in what sense Christian discourse might be true. If the Christian life simply involves what any "person of goodwill" embodies, plus some religious beliefs, then there is little reason to think that the claims of Christians are either interesting or true. Following James Gustafson, I have taken as a central concern the task of finding the most appropriate means to articulate how Christians have understood, and do and should understand, the relationship between Christ and the moral life.

The issues and controversies that have dominated recent ethical reflection, however, provide poor fare for pursuing this kind of interest. It is natural to assume that the central question of morality is "What should I do?" -- that is, if "do" refers to a rather specific choice. Many of the participants in the situation-ethics debate assumed the centrality of this question as the methodological starting point of ethics (as has also much of contemporary philosophical ethics). Yet to begin ethical reflection at this point invariably seems to result in arbitrarily separating the moral judgment of an action from the kind of person who performs it. This separation proves disastrous for theological ethics because it obscures the self-involving nature of Christian convictions.

I have tried to reclaim and to develop the significance of character and virtue for the moral life. Character is the category that marks the fact that our lives are not constituted by decisions, but rather the moral quality of our lives is shaped by the ongoing orientation formed in and through our beliefs, stories and intentions. Interestingly, this emphasis on character denotes a reassertion of a motif latent in some rationalist views of the self, in that a focus on moral character locates our ability to give reasons for what we do. (By rationality I do not mean the technical ability to judge the best means to an end, or the ability to judge whether a certain act is in accordance with a universalizable principle, but rather the constituting form that lends coherence to a performance or way of life.) To study moral character is to discover, furthermore, that those reasons actually shape the formation of the self. Much of my work in Character and the Christian Life (Trinity University Press, 1975) is an attempt to articulate a philosophical psychology (the self as agent) sufficient to support these claims for the importance of character in theological ethics.

The endeavor to recover the significance of character owes much to H. Richard Niebuhr’s emphasis on the "self" as the phenomenological center of theological ethics. I have, however, tried to provide an analysis more detailed than Niebuhr’s of the relations between thought and behavior, in order to spell out more accurately the self-involving character of religious discourse. I have been influenced by those philosophical theologians (Donald Evans and James William McClendon, Jr.) who have used the work of John Austin to remind us that religious discourse has the characteristics of performative rather than constantive utterance. My own work in analytical philosophy and philosophy of language has increasingly led me to conclude that the Christian moral life is determined more by the language we have learned to speak than by the decisions we make.

Character is normatively displayed in the language Christians use and the ways it teaches us to see the world. Thus the title of my book Vision and Virtue (Fides, 1974) denotes the interdependent prerequisites for the moral life. I am not suggesting, however, that the Christian moral life involves nothing more than learning a language. The point is rather to suggest how difficult it is to "know how" to use such a language. Just as we do not see simply by looking, we cannot be said to know a language simply because we speak it. (It is because of specific difficulty attached to learning how to use the moral expressions of a language that we find novels more helpful than explicit ethical reflection in teaching us how to live morally.) We have to learn that if we are to see honestly, the self must be disciplined by suffering and pain (Iris Murdoch). Such discipline is dependent on the process whereby the language we speak as Christians becomes the language that forms the soul.

At least part of what it means for Christian discourse to be true is that it helps us avoid our inveterate tendency toward self-deception. Contrary to our assumption that we wish to know the truth, we fear it as we would the plague. (For a more developed account of self-deception see "Self-Deception and Autobiography: Theological and Ethical Reflections on Speer’s Inside the Third Reich," by David Burrell and myself; Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1974, pp. 99-117.) Crucial to our ability to deal with life truthfully is having the skills to face moral tragedies without developing justifications that become policies of self-deception. The moral life is lived within limits that often severely restrict the ongoing assumption that we wish to do good. I suspect that one of the main ingredients of a morally true life is the discovery that we cannot avoid moral tragedy, nor can we indulge ourselves in stories that absolve or excuse us of responsibility.

I have come to find the category of "story" useful to bring together these various emphases. The notion of "story" involves some useful systematic ambiguities that allow one to explore the interrelatedness of character, vision and Christian discourse. Character can be construed as a reminder that the moral self is perduring in the way that a story is a narrative. Moreover, as Hans W. Frei has shown in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, story provides an important clue to the grammar of basic Christian affirmations. Thus "story" becomes a useful analytic and interpretive category to explore the interdependence of what Calvin called the two parts of wisdom -- "the knowledge of God and of ourselves."

My problem with the category of "story" is that it invites uncritical acceptance from many who see it as a new way of doing theology. Indeed, I have that fear about much of my work, as some seem to think that "an ethics of character" may be a new alternative to an ethics of principle or a situation ethics. Yet when theology is rightly done, there are no new alternatives" that solve anything. Theologians should not be engaged in the business of propounding "new positions," but rather should be training our minds to think better in order to clarify the kind of claims made by religious folk. In this regard, I find it healthy that today’s theological scene is not dominated by a few "great theologians." Theology proper is not "Barthian" or "process" or any other single position to which we can adhere. Perhaps the absence of "great theologians" will help us learn that theology is not a discipline that puts the mind to rest, for the subject of theology defies capture by "positions."


Generally the more "practical" side of my work has been concerned with biomedical ethics and democratic theory. I have been somewhat hesitant to be drawn too deeply into biomedical ethics. Though I think the issues raised by biology and medicine are important; I fear that this area may receive more than its share of attention because of the resources it can command. Questions of distributive justice,’ its relation to charity, and the ethics of violence must remain primary. Moreover, medical ethics tempts the ethicist to think of the discipline primarily as dealing with particular quandaries. Doctors raise fascinating problems for which the ethicist is tempted to try to provide answers. Ethics thus becomes an attempt to work out the most appropriate decision procedure for hard cases.

Yet this kind of temptation has to be resisted. For to engage in this kind of moral engineering only reinforces the assumptions behind modern medicine (and the medical profession’s presumed status in the arena of human care) -- assumptions that in themselves need examining. We need a fundamental analysis of the background beliefs about care, life, health and suffering that inform modern medical practices. Medicine is an important area for Christian ethical reflection because it is one of the areas of our lives that dramatically display how we allocate human values under the conditions of finitude. I suspect, however, that Christians may find on analysis that they are in greater tension than they think with many of the assumptions about care and the Value of survival embodied in modern medicine.

My interest in democratic theory has been an attempt to find some way of getting a handle on the nature of Christian social ethics. The various strategies of Christian social ethics, from the social-gospel era to our own day, have seemed to assume that Christians have some stake in a democratic social order and state. Both those who have identified with Niebuhrian realism and those who have criticized it have continued to share a commitment to extending in some manner the "benefits" of liberal society.

But I have become increasingly disenchanted with this commitment, both from the point of view of political theory and from the nature of Christian social commitment. I have found the antipluralist arguments developed by Robert Paul Wolff, Theodore Lowi. Sheldon Wolin and Robert Nisbit to be extremely persuasive. Yet I think it is equally true, as David Little has argued, that their critiques of liberalism (with the possible exceptions of Wolin’s and Nisbit’s) presuppose a continuing commitment to some form of liberal pluralism. Our politics continues to suffer because of the thinness and poverty of the images that inform our political imagination.

Until we find strong images and their institutional correlatives, the various amelioristic strategies developed to solve specific problems will not address the fundamental problem of the basic order of our political society. For such strategies are but glosses on the liberal society and do not begin to suggest the virtues we should ask of ourselves and others as citizens of a polis. As C. B. Macpherson has argued in his Democratic Theory, democratic society in the name of freedom and the rights of the individual embodies a view of the human person as a bundle of appetites demanding satisfaction. The good society thus becomes the one that maximizes satisfactions in the name of distributive justice regardless of the material content of the citizens’ interests.

The problem, as such perceptive social commentators as Gary Wills have indicated, is that such a society does not have the means to fashion a distinctive ethos for the public sector. We are taught as citizens to view our self-interests and our own survival as civic duties; thus we exist in no polis at all but rather as individuals who look to the state to act as an arbiter between private interests. In this respect I remain unconvinced that the kind of revisionist liberalism represented by John Rawls is capable of providing us with a public discourse sufficient to the task of shaping a morally decent society. As Richard Titmuss indicated in his extraordinary book The Gift Relationship, we have created a society that does not encourage charity as a public virtue, and thus there seems no way even to articulate, much less enact, a moral social policy. Moreover, in a society in which tolerance has been regarded as an adequate substitute for truth, we have no idea what it would mean to have an honest politics.


This kind of argument has given me a renewed appreciation for the "sectarian" alternative in Christian social ethics. For the "sectarian’s" contention that he is not withdrawing from political responsibility, but that his whole concern is to make Jesus’ embodiment and preaching of a nonresistant kingdom a reality, must be taken seriously. Far from dismissing as politically irresponsible John Howard Yoder’s argument that the first task of the church is to be itself, I see that statement as a call to redefine the political from the perspective of Christ’s kingdom. Then the social-ethical task of the church would not be simply to develop strategies within the current political options -- though it may certainly include that -- but rather to stand as an alternative society that manifests in its own social and political life the way in which a people form themselves when truth and charity rather than survival are their first order of business.

I have been convinced by Yoder that violence is not an option for Christians. The disavowal of violence is not and cannot be based on consequential grounds, for it is clear that violence is effective. But the use of violence, even by "legitimate" authority, cannot be a Christian choice if we are to be obedient to the way Christ chooses to have us deal with the powers -- i.e., by nonresistant love.

This conception of Christian social ethics has not only forced a rethinking of the limits of my participation in the social order, but has also underscored the kind of intellectual concerns I am interested in developing. I am no longer interested in writing ethics from the perspective of those who are or who desire to be in power. The time in which the church could serve as an adviser to Caesar is over. Moreover, such a perspective is too intellectually constraining as the imagination too quickly surrenders to the current alternatives. Rather I am interested to know how to begin thinking about what a morally substantive society might look like.

For example, I have a hunch that such a society would provide the context for the development of morally healthy families. I therefore intend to devote much of my time in the next few years to the theology and ethics of the family. What interests me about the family is not the obvious social problems associated with it in contemporary life; nor am I particularly interested in the ethics of sexuality. I am rather taken by the moral presuppositions that may, do or should shape the nature of families. More concretely, I am simply interested in why we should have children and how we should rear them. I suspect that if we can get a grasp on these kinds of questions we might have some skills to know better what it means morally to be social beings.

Because of these methodological considerations I find I have little sympathy with the various "cause theologies" of recent years, though I almost always agree with the cause itself. What I find tragic is that we do not have adequate social or theological options (visions, in my language) to provide a more viable articulation of these concerns. In particular I think the theological style associated with the various "liberation theologies" tends to continue the assumption that Christians have a stake in using violence to make history "come out right" -- except that now power will be used to aid the oppressed. I fear that theologians (like Paul Lehmann) who use the language of "God acting in history" to justify this task may serve the poor badly. They face the danger of turning the poor into a political abstraction necessary to provide moral warrants for the new claimants to the power of the state.

The rhetoric of "‘liberation theology" often makes it appear that the goal of the Christian life is to free us of all limits. That theology’s proponents fail to discern that the gospel does not free us of all limits but rather provides us with the skills to embody our limits in nondestructive ways. "Liberation theology" tends to become a theology without the cross. This kind of point is hard to make, of course, without appearing to be in bad faith, since the church has become the church of the strong.

My "sectarian" drift prepared me in an interesting way to teach at Notre Dame. For Catholics, despite their past attempts to be good Americans, have never lost the feeling that they are strangers in this land. I therefore was not hired at Notre Dame to be a "Protestant theologian" (which is a good thing, since I would not have known how to play that role), but rather I was invited to participate in the continuing post-Vatican II struggle to determine the proper stance of the Christian in this strange society. In such a context the past cliques of the ecumenical movement are simply irrelevant. The issues we confront are too interesting and important to play at being Catholic or Protestant as if either of those were worth being ends in themselves. Notre Dame has asked me and my colleagues to do nothing but pursue the theological task in the most serious and academically rigorous manner possible.

Finally, the most important lesson I have learned is how important a sense of humor is for theological reflection. I like and enjoy the kind of work I have been doing, but I am sure that there is much I have got wrong or overlooked completely. I am not bothered by this, however, because I know that people ‘will continue to know how to proceed without reading my theology. As for me, however, I am a Christian ‘because I find that the gospel provides skills necessary for me to deal honestly with the powers that grip my life. And I am a theologian because I enjoy the life of the mind; thus I find my work to be fun. I think I am being honest in saying this, but finally only God knows the extent of our dishonesty, for God alone has paid the price for such knowledge.