Chapter 6: The Divine Call and Man’s Response

God’s Grace and Man’s Hope
by Daniel Day Williams

Chapter 6: The Divine Call and Man’s Response

In the conception of the meaning of history at which we have arrived we interpret our present life as having its course within and under the reign of Christ. God has revealed His love in Christ with decisive power and clarity. He has made it possible for us to believe in the victory of His love, and to see its beginnings. Yet the victory is not consummated.

It is necessary to consider the implications of this standpoint for Christian ethics. Our problem is to interpret the moral responsibility of the Christian in relation to the faith that God’s grace is operative creatively and redemptively in life. If this can be done we shall have passed beyond the crisis of liberal Christianity; for the liberal view of the relation of Christian love to moral problems is in difficulty today precisely because the philosophy of history on which it is based does not sufficiently recognize the tragic obstacles which are set in the way of the life of love. Neo-orthodox theology is unable to give adequate ethical guidance, for, as we have seen. its philosophy of history commits an opposite error and puts the love of God outside of history. It is judgment upon us; but it does not transform the world.


Christian ethics must be practical as well as theoretical. The test of theory is its capacity to illuminate the concrete demands which God makes upon the use of our freedom in all the variety of human situations. But is not that problem solved for the Christian? The living God has spoken in the Ten Commandments, in His word given through the prophets, in the teaching and example of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, in the two great commandments of love to God and to our neighbor. For Christian faith these are the disclosures of God’s will. Yet to say this is really to state the problem rather than to solve it for three reasons.

The first is the obvious one that moral principles have to be interpreted. "Thou shalt not steal," can serve as an example. An advertiser slightly exaggerates the merits of a product in order to induce people to buy. Is that stealing? "Thou shalt not bear false witness." We withhold facts from someone for his own good. Is that lying? And what things are Caesar’s?

The second difficulty is that the spirit of love is something more than principles and rules. This is the assertion of the freedom of the Gospel over against the bondage of the law. We serve a living God and we cannot believe that He has bound Himself to static requirements embedded in the past and its traditions. The spirit of love must work amidst the infinite variety of occasions and duties. Yet we know we cannot live without principles and rules.

Finally, there is the scandal of our moral situation. All of us, at all times, live in ways which serve evil as well as good, and which contradict the spirit of love. In proving this sweeping statement we need not single out some one example of our moral plight, such as our perplexity of conscience in the killing and destruction of war, and treat it as an isolated problem. It is not. It is an example, of especial difficulty to be sure, of the universal moral problem of man. How can we say we love and serve our neighbor when in many of our individual and social relations we exploit one another? Fritz Kreisler remarked not long ago that he never drinks a bottle of milk without realizing that he is taking it away from some child who needs it more than he does. As Lincoln Steffens wrote, "We are in on the evils we abhor" in modern society.1 When we try to do our moral duty by working against these evils, we discover that we rarely have a choice which does not involve compromise. Every conscientious politician discovers what T. V. Smith has called the deepest theoretical discrepancy in life, that between private conscience and public convenience.2 We must support injustice and profit from special privilege in order to possess power which may make it possible for us to do some relative good. The Gospel injunction, "Be ye perfect." leaves us bewildered before what Wood-bridge has called "earth’s inappropriateness to perfection."3

In dwelling thus upon our ethical perplexities we must not obscure the fact that our deepest problem is to find the strength to do the right as we see it. The doing may help the seeing. If our hearts were more nearly what they should be our minds would be less confused. But there are real moral dilemmas. Growth in ethical sensitivity often increases perplexity in the tragic choices of life. Few of us today can read with anything but unbelieving astonishment a statement by Phillips Brooks which breathes the spirit of more serene days:

The wonder of the life of Jesus is this . . . that there is not a single action that you are called upon to do of which you need be, of which you will be, in any serious doubt for ten minutes as to what Jesus Christ . . . would have you do under those circumstances and with the material upon which you are called to act.4

Dean Willard Sperry, whose theological orientation is perhaps not very far removed from that of Phillips Brooks, speaks for us when he says:

All of us -- manufacturers, industrialists, bankers, brokers, hand workers, professors, doctors, ministers -- are involved together in the moral muddle and the moral tragedy of our time.5

It does not serve clarity on this point to indulge in the melancholy of moral despair. The very persistence of private conscience in the face of public convenience supports the faith that moral values are not irrelevant. If we put to ourselves in honest self-examination this question, "When we try to think through to the end our actual moral responsibility before God, what do we see in our moral situation?" very likely the answer has a curious double aspect. On the one hand the difference between right and wrong stands out quite clearly. The distinction between an honest effort to secure justice and base connivance in injustice, the difference between loyalty and disloyalty to those we love, the difference between a decent and a vicious life -- all of this becomes sharply outlined when we are honest. At the same time the absolute demands of the Gospel loom up more and more dearly as judgment upon us. The security and comfort which we enjoy are purchased at someone else’s expense. The modern city, where more and more of us want to live, enjoys its munificence at the expense of the rural areas as Arthur E. Holt has forcibly brought home in This Nation Under God.6 Those fortunate enough to live in suburbs or other desirable residential districts enjoy their space and light partly through the exploitation of the crowded and blighted areas. As a nation we waste enough food each day to keep thousands from starvation. But the waste goes on. The scramble for the more desirable niche in a crowded world continues, and we are in it.

Such is the scandal of our moral situation. We must find something deeper than a simple moralism in our approach to the moral problem itself. We must find how it is possible to hold to some ultimate integrity even when that integrity involves a radical humility about our own moral attainment. The religious life is always something more and deeper than "the good life."

What is demanded of Christian ethics in our time is to show how we can hold together the absolute claim of the God of love upon every life amidst the ambiguities of our moral situation. We must try again, as Christians have always tried, to find our way through the paradox of losing one’s life to find it which appears finally in every ethical decision. We must put the answer not merely in generalities, but so as to guide the Christian service of God in the actual roles and decisions which are open to us. We must have an ethic for the president of General Corporation and the representatives of Local 42 as they face one another in a dispute over the closed shop. The policeman, the public executioner, the machine politician, the manufacturer of atomic bombs are not queer individuals with unique ethical problems. They are Every-man. Our debates over pacifism often obscure the fact that both the supporter of war who kills and the conscientious objector who risks allowing defenseless people to be killed both share the same fundamental moral dilemma in spite of their different ways of solving it. Christian ethics must make it clear how Christians who differ radically on specific ethical issues may yet find reconciliation and mutual support within the body of Christ.

There is, I suggest, a Christian answer to the moral problem, not in the form of a solution to every particular moral choice, but in the form of a deeper understanding of the moral life itself. This answer depends upon the theological insight that the God we serve is both Creator and Redeemer. The Christian answer lies in a conception which emerged in the Protestant Reformation, but which has yet to be appreciated in its full meaning: the conception of life as vocation.


We can throw the Protestant answer to the moral problem into dearer relief if we contrast it with the Roman Catholic solution.

For Roman Catholicism the final court of appeal in all moral questions is the Church, which interprets the revealed will of God. For Protestantism the final court of appeal is the conscience of the individual as he responds to the Word of God. There appears here clearly a certain initial advantage to the Catholic, for when he asks,

"How shall I know in a given case what I ought to do," he can always turn to the Church which claims to possess the infallible truth of God and which therefore claims to speak with final authority on every moral situation. The genius of Catholicism has been displayed in its achievement of uniting the moral teaching of the Bible with the rationalistic tradition of Aristotelian ethics, Stoicism, and the tradition of natural law, and in its continuing capacity to adjust and refine its moral tradition in the light of new situations. Elements of democratic ethics, such as doctrines of human rights and religious freedom, are gradually finding their way into Catholic thought.7 Since the Church is a living organism it can respond to every new cultural situation while maintaining steadfastly its own absolute authority. The problem of the compromise of the Christian with the necessities of secular life is solved in Catholicism by the establishment within the Church of religious orders in which, through renunciation of "the world," the life of love can be realized and the moral merit thus achieved, shared with all the believers in the Church. Finally, the need for forgiveness of the Christian, whether he be a worldly sinner or a saint, is always met. The sacrifice of the mass makes it possible for the Christian to appropriate the supreme merit of Christ without whose atonement for our sin none of us could deserve anything but condemnation before the judgment of God.

Protestantism ought always to be conscious of the depth and scope of this Catholic solution of the problem of the Christian life. We may be alternately amused and amazed at a judgment like the following contained in a standard Catholic work on moral theology: "Catholic moral theology is based on the dogmatic teaching of the one true Church. Protestant ethics rests on arbitrary doctrinal assumptions. . . . Catholics acknowledge an infallible authority in questions of both dogma and morals, whereas Protestants possess no objective rule for either but are buffeted to and fro by the winds of subjectivism and error."8 But we can admit that it is not easy to state a convincing alternative to the dogmatic Catholic claim. And we can further recognize that there is in Catholicism an understanding of the Christian community as a source of moral insight which our modern individualistic Protestantism needs to recognize more fully, though it can find a corrective in its own heritage.9

Protestants hold the Roman Catholic answer will not do; and for two reasons. The first is that a human institution subject to all the sins and errors of mortality is here absolutized as the infallible spokesman for God. This means that the freedom of God to speak a new word through the prophet, a word against the Church is denied. Thus Catholicism rejects one of the cardinal truths which is given in the revelation of God out of which the Bible came. God in His freedom raises up men who speak His word of judgment against all "holy" orders and institutions. When this ultimate religious reservation which prevents our identifying any human ethic with the absolute will of God is not made, the evil of absolutizing some relative tradition or standpoint begins to manifest itself. It is clear in the history of Catholicism that its moral teaching embodies and sanctifies the relative social and cultural values of those civilizations in which the Church was formed and in which it has lived. We read in a Catholic book of moral theology the following:

Holy Scripture teaches that while men and women are united by God in a most intimate union, woman is not man’s equal, but his helpmate and companion. It follows that woman in public and social life may legitimately aspire to no other role than that of a true helpmate to man.

We know quite well that we are not listening here to the voice of God.10 We are listening to the voice of the dominant class in a feudal Society.11 The Catholic ethic is a frozen ethic. It moves glacierlike through human history, carrying with it the debris of outworn values and stubbornly trying to break through everything in its path by the sheer weight of its dogmatic claim. The absurd position of the Roman Church on birth control is a striking and pitiful example.12

The other failure of the Catholic solution is that the basic moral dilemma remains unsolved. Neither the individual Catholic, whether lay or religious, nor the Church itself, escapes the ambiguities of the moral situation. The Church does evil as well as good. In spite of the heroic renunciation of the religious orders they live in the world, depend upon it, and become entangled with its economic and political injustices.13 What actually takes place in the Catholic attempt to meet the relativities of moral choices is a continuous compromise with principles to fit situations. An example is afforded by the attempt to say what is fair and unfair in war. Says the teaching of the Church:

Absolutely damnable and illicit means of warfare are: lying, perjury, the intentional dissemination of false reports, e.g. of faked victories. Among the licit means are: espionage, stratagems, ambuscades, etc.; these are allowed because they are not based on lies pure and simple, but merely furnish the enemy an occasion for drawing false conclusions 14

Certainly we must recognize the importance of the attempt to keep the moral sense alive even in war, but this method which seeks to distinguish always between a "right" and a "wrong" tends toward the subtle hypocrisy of self-justification. Some reason must always be found why our act is right and another’s wrong. The depth of the moral problem which was confessed in the Christian News Letter during the last war is not recognized: "As the war takes its course the contradictions between its necessities and the Christian purpose deepens."15


Protestantism came into being through a new understanding of what it means to live as a Christian in the world. The Reformers saw that the basis of moral responsibility and decision of the Christian does not lie in the elaboration of principles but in the concrete response of free men to the call of God, which is a call to action and service. That is our vocation. It was this doctrine with which the Reformers pried Christian ethics loose from the dominion of the Church. It was this by which they broke the distinction between the religious and the secular orders. It was here they discovered a foundation for ethics which transcends all legalistic systems. And it was this doctrine, in turn based on the doctrine of justification by faith, which made it possible for Luther and Calvin to say what it means to live the Christian life of service to the God of love in the midst of the tragic necessities of this world.16

Though the Reformers laid the basis for the life of moral responsibility, they did not carry through the full implications of the new conception of vocation. How and why this failure came about is the familiar story, told most fully in the studies of Weber and Tawney.17 The doctrine of vocation became the means of sanctifying the emerging values of capitalist society. Success in business was taken as a mark of divine election. Lutheran ethics, following certain tendencies in Luther’s own thought but neglecting his main intention, conceived the social orders outside the Church as necessary bulwarks against sin, but obeying principles of a different order from the demands of the Gospel of love. Today with the increasing secularization of our society, the word "vocation" has almost lost any religious connotation. It simply means to most people the way in which anyone earns his living.

It may be the word "vocation" is beyond recovery, though its roots are in the New Testament. But the meaning of the word which the Reformers saved for Christianity must be recovered. It is the key to the ethical profundity and power of the Gospel. Its essence is that what we have to do as moral agents is determined by the fact that we serve in this world the living God who is our Creator and Redeemer. With that insight we must reconceive the Christian understanding of the moral demand in every social relationship from the family to the world community. It is a tremendous task; but there has already been a substantial beginning upon it.

Two Protestant theologians have recently given us major discussions of the doctrine of vocation in relation to Protestant ethics. One is Dr. Robert L. Calhoun in God and the Common Life, and the other is Dr. Emil Brunner in The Divine Imperative.18 It is instructive to examine these side by side, not only because both contain such great merits, but because taken together they strongly suggest that neither Calhoun’s liberalism nor Brunner’s neo-orthodoxy gives a wholly satisfactory foundation to the doctrine of vocation. We may be encouraged to try again.

In Calhoun’s work, God is interpreted as the world-maker who intelligently and persuasively works to bring man toward fulfillment. Man’s call from God is to see what God is doing and to share in the labor. "To do needful work, then, to lose oneself and find oneself therein, to participate thus in a common task and a shared life: this and the summons to it, we shall mean by vocation."19 Here the focus of attention is upon vocation as work, rather than upon the total ethical obligation. Yet even with this legitimate narrowing of the emphasis Calhoun does not bring sharply into view the problem of moral action in a sinful world. He rightly argues that we do not need to surrender belief in the possibility of progress while we discard the notion of its inevitability. He makes necessary reservations about the eternal tension between perfection and the limitations of human achievement.20 But the problem of choice between evils is somewhat by-passed. For example, writing as he did in the midst of the depression (1935), Calhoun discusses the problem of revolutionary violence as a means to correction of economic injustices. He does not reject the possible necessity of violence, but he says: "One must weigh coldly the chances that the proper group will get into power."21 That is a sensible statement; but it does not help us to interpret these situations into which we are "hurled" by the irrational circumstances of life. There are eruptions of violence in which we either participate or renounce responsibility. These difficulties have been stressed by Professor Calhoun in his later writing; and one can believe that were he to restate the doctrine of vocation today it would be put in the context of a sterner view of the historical realities.22

In contrast to the liberal view the doctrine of the universal fact of sin as the context of moral decision forms the substance of Brunner’s doctrine of vocation. For him the notion of the calling is the solution of the problem of the Christian service of God in a sinful world. The calling, Brunner makes clear, is not only that situation in which we work; but it is that divine summons which comes to us where we are and in obedience to which we find the meaning of life. Brunner says:

This idea of Calling is full of eschatological tension and a daring which conquers the world; indeed we might almost call it a ‘divine audacity’ and the reason is this: God takes over all responsibility for our action in the world which in itself is sinful, if we, on our part, will only do here and now that which the present situation demands from one who loves God and his neighbor.23

I have already stated one qualification which I believe needs to be made of Brunner’s doctrine.24 The statement that the world "in itself is sinful" leaves inadequate place for the continuing bond between creation and the love of God. Some of the circumstances which Brunner regards as the consequence of sin are simply natural and necessary conditions for the growth of life in love. A further problem in Brunner’s thought is that his doctrine is bound up with a conception of Providence in which the irrational circumstances of life, that is, our finding ourselves in this time and place and situation, are too simply identified with the inscrutable purposes of God.25 He makes too little room for the notion which is so well stated by Calhoun and which surely belongs in the Christian view of life, that the world is an unfinished world. Its structures and processes are pliable in the hands of the creative God, and in some measure, in the hands of His creatures. When the doctrine of Providence is given a deterministic interpretation the notion of "calling" can too easily be used to justify the particular class structure in which we find ourselves.26


These two contributions have opened the way for a rediscovery of the meaning of the Christian life as a life of moral integrity in devotion to the will of God. The Christian ethic can cope with the realistic situation of life in a history riddled with evil. It will be an ethic which interprets the moral life as the whole response of man to the demand of God, not merely a legalistic obedience to abstract principles. Yet it will be an ethic which holds in creative balance the authority of enduring moral principles with the freedom of the Christian spirit.

The clue to ethical reconstruction is this: The living God whose nature and purpose is love calls us to respond in our freedom to the tasks which are set for us by the fact that He is at work in our human history both as Creator and as Redeemer,

It is perhaps futile to speculate upon what might have happened if the doctrine of vocation had been thus understood from the beginning. The text which has been made the basis of traditional formulations is, of course, Paul’s statement: "Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called."27 We may note the problem of Paul’s exact meaning here has never been solved. It would be going too far to say that clarification of the wording of a text could alone have altered Christian history; but we may be allowed to speculate upon what might have been made of the doctrine of calling if Paul’s statement had been interpreted in the light of his full teaching. Suppose, for example, the definition of the call had been always understood in relation to Romans 12. "I beseech you therefore brethren that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God which is your reasonable service." Here the call of God is a summons to the new life of service. We escape the pernicious notion that we must regard as divinely given and unalterable the social status into which men happen to be born.

The true New Testament sense of the calling does not put the emphasis on the social status or rank of the Christian. It means that the Christian wherever he is has been called out by God to become a member of the new community, the Body of Christ in the world. To put this interpretation of the meaning of vocation into a formal statement:

The divine call to us men, and our response to it, means that we are responsible for doing here and now in the situation in which we stand whatever will serve the work of God who is seeking to bring all life to fulfillment in that universal community of love which is the real good of every creature.

To do here and now what needs to be done for the sake of the real good, is the substance of the Christian acknowledgment of our moral obligation. The freedom of the Christian man which Luther rewon for the Christian is that which comes from seeing that no arbitrary rule, ecclesiastical law, or abstract principle takes precedence over this concrete necessity and our conscientious response to it. "What needs to be done" is to serve the good which God is bringing about. What God is doing must be seen partly under the aspect of creation and partly under that of redemption. That is why love has its tragic work as well as its joyous work. Every ethical decision must be made not only in the light of the high possibilities for good which we envision, but also in the light of what is possible in the actual situation. One of the burdens which love assumes Is that of reckoning with the grim necessities. Once this truth is understood a new light is thrown on the moral problem.

Christian love is not primarily a matter of kindly personal affections. It is a matter of responsible action to serve the good of life. The degree to which the Christian teaching of love has been shoved aside as irrelevant because this has not been understood is well illustrated by the remark of a student of American relations with Central America in a recent volume on American foreign policy. Mr. Allen Haden says:

In this wonderland of rhetoric the Good Neighbor Policy has unfortunately become confused with the Christian principle of loving one’s neighbor. But the question is not whether we love the Cubans or the Cubans love us, The question is whether the United States will consume so much Cuban sugar, alcohol, and bagass that Cuban canefield peons will have work and Cuban politics, in consequence, will stay attuned to Washington and not feel forced to find political friends elsewhere in order to sell sugar.

The question is not whether we love Costa Riquenos, Guatemaltecos, or Nicaraguenses. The question is whether United States government policy reinforces or mitigates absentee banana land-lordism, whose agents manipulate Central American politics, banking, and general income.28

It may well be that the forces which will actually decide this question will operate in terms of interests and attitudes which have nothing to do with Christian love. But to any Christian who has responsibility in such a situation, what he is to do about it has everything to do with whether or not he loves his neighbor. Love is nothing if it is not the will to justice, and, beyond justice, the will to the opening of the way for a new community of mind and spirit. Whatever can be done about absentee-landlordism to serve those ends can be done as an expression of Christian love.

There are compromises involved in every political decision. But if a choice between evils is to have any moral meaning at all, one evil will be judged less than another because it involves less destruction of some real good. Archbishop Temple clearly recognizes the moral problem of Christian politics: "The art of government is not to devise what would be the best system for saints to work, but to secure that the lower motives actually found among men prompt that conduct which the higher motives demand. The law which associates imprisonment with theft leads a dishonest or defectively honest man to act honestly."29 But the Archbishop never allows us to forget that the Christian’s motivation involves more than a calculated prudence. It involves the obligation to find ways in which through political action the higher motives may be released and the higher community may be given opportunity to grow.

If there be a place for the assumption of the moral risks of compromise in the way of love, there is also place for renunciation which involves radical attack on everything which stands in the way of the new order which God wills. The spirit of love emerges in every Christian generation as a demand that men defy the claims of some particular state or church, and refuse to participate in some evil order. It sometimes leads Christians to the sacrifice of all privilege in order to share life with the lowliest and neediest of mankind. It sometimes involves the giving of life itself that God’s work may be done. There are the lives of Schweitzer and Damien and Kagawa in which the purity and heroism of renunciation of comfort and privilege forever humble us and reveal our shallowness. Yet I do not believe the conclusion is justified that the only Christian life is that in which family, privileged profession, and public responsibility are renounced, The work of God depends in part upon men of loyalty and devotion in the places of public power. The test is whether that power is used in responsible service to the God who is moving against the injustices in the present structures of power. In such a world each one of us has to make his Christian way.

We see, then, why Protestant ethics does not attempt to say legalistically what is right and wrong for every man. It is in the responsible spirit of love to God and our neighbor that we must decide concretely what is right or wrong. This is how we understand that moral radicalism which begins in the greatest of the Hebrew prophets and which has run through Christian ethics from the beginning. The prophets asserted the demand of the clean heart against all the specific requirements of the law.30 Jesus summed up all the law in the two commandments to love God and our neighbor.31 Paul puts it radically when he says, "All things are lawful for me; but all things edify not"32 It is in the actual service of my neighbor’s need and my own that the ultimate permission or prohibition of any action lies. St. Augustine put the Christian position most strikingly, "Love, and then do as you will"33


It might appear that the problems of Christian ethics can be solved at one stroke. The Gospel supersedes all law. The one thing needful is our response to the call of God. But the experience of Christianity proves we cannot stop at this point. We cannot dispense with the moral law, either in its basic formal principles or the multitude of rules and precepts which follow from them. But in Protestant ethics we understand these in a new way. They are no longer injunctions which have to be applied legalistically to every situation; they are guides to the meaning of responsibility, that is, to our vocation. What this means we must analyze in relation to "the law of love" which is the fundamental moral principle, and then in relation to those other principles and precepts which are endlessly multiplied and elaborated in human living.

The "law of love" has a peculiar character as law. Its peculiarity consists in the fact that as a law it commands the spirit of love which must be something more than obedience to law. The relevance of this to our analysis of community as the principle of the real good can be made clear. For "community" as that order which is sought by love can be stated as a formal principle. It is the order in which the members of a society are so related that the freedom, uniqueness, and power of each serves the freedom, uniqueness, and growth of all the other members. But growth of community is not merely a formal principle, it is an actual process in the world. To use an analogy, the mathematical statement of the position in the spectrum of the color blue is the abstract definition of the color; but to know the color blue as it is in nature one must see it with his eyes. So the law of love which is the requirement of community is a law which can be formally stated as a principle of action; but community must be experienced in life before we can really say we know what it is. Moral action in response to the divine call is not simply a matter of applying the law of love to a situation. It means sharing in the creation of a community of good in existence. That is a living process. The law of love or community, then, is not bondage for the spirit, but the dynamic rational principle which can guide the spirit in its service of the real good.

The law of love, however, must be supplemented. We might imagine a person so attuned to the needs of his neighbor, and so lacking in sinful self-will that he would spontaneously see what needed to be done and do it. But so long as we are not in this state of perfection we have to live by the rational elaboration of moral principles, and by specific moral and legal rules: "Thou shalt not kill." "Thou shalt not commit adultery." "No man shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." When we set the freedom of the Christian above all law, we do not discard such injunctions.

We regard moral principles in a new light. They are more or less adequate guides to responsible action. The one absolute demand is that we serve the growth of community. But we have to seek community through an endless variety of circumstances and in a world which often does not permit us to seek it directly. Take an example of the specific command, "Thou shalt not kill." If we make that an absolute rule we can make no sense of it. It cannot mean to kill no living thing; for all life must kill. We kill bacteria which attack us. We kill plants and animals for food. There are circumstances in which nearly every one of us would admit the necessity of killing another human being. Your failure to kill a madman running amok may permit him to kill a dozen innocent people. Consider the suicides of Jews and others in Germany who either had to take their own lives and those of their families or have them taken in far more horrible fashion. Try to solve the moral problem by absolutizing a command like this and you make it hopeless. But take "thou shalt not kill" as a statement of the obligation of all life to serve the good of all, and you understand it in a new way. Every life is sacred. It has its place in the economy of God. We take it justifiably only for the sake of the whole community of life.

We may use another illustration from philosophical ethics. Consider Kant’s principle: "Act as if the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature."34 The attempt to make this the basis of all moral judgments lands in endless difficulties. It is purely formal. It takes no account of the differences of individual circumstances. But consider the maxim an expression of the meaning of responsibility and it comes suddenly to life. It means you are only one among many, you cannot act without reference to the whole. You cannot claim superior status or special exemptions from the universal moral obligation. The moral obligation upon you is the same for each one. This is, I believe, the actual movement of Kant’s thought, though it is obscured by his formalism, The real content of his principle is dependent upon the Christian apprehension of the mutual obligation of all rational beings to the real good of one universal society.

In addition to moral principles we have to look at human experience for moral guidance. This raises the complex problems of the "orders" -- family, state, economic -- and their relations to natural law theories of ethics. It is not to our purpose here to invade this complex field. What we are suggesting is that the ethical problem must be viewed from the standpoint of the dynamic relationship between man’s experience and God’s working. It is the static character of the doctrines of the orders and of natural law theories which is their limitation. Emil Brunner is entirely right in his criticism of contemporary theologies which have tried "to deduce the order of law and the state from the historical event Christ, the cross of Christ. How fantastic the deduction is must be plain to any unprejudiced mind,"35 There is no substitute in Christian ethics for a continual attempt to relate the good which we know in Christ to the full circumstances of life as these are disclosed in our experience with the best scientific, historical, and other data we can get. The family, for example, belongs to the order of creation. Mutual responsibilities are created for each member by the biological and psychological facts of our nature as sexual beings dependent upon one another. But the question of what form of the family will most fully release the freedom and capabilities of its members and sustain the growth of the most intimate and full community of persons cannot be answered dogmatically out of the religious tradition. All the orders of creation are in process. They are all subject to indeterminate modification. The service of God involves both the profoundest respect for the way in which the orders serve justice and mutuality in any given situation, and a continual attempt to find where they block the fuller community of life with life. The call to adjust our human ways to the demands of new good is as truly a part of the Christian vocation as is the call to maintain the abiding values in the orders which sustain and guide us. The doctrine of vocation thus transcends both the conservative and progressive attitudes. It requires both. A Church in which this approach to ethics is understood will be more fully able to reconcile within its own body those who emphasize one or the other principle, and those who disagree profoundly in their judgment on particular moral issues.

The two intolerable positions are: first, one which deals irresponsibly with the given structures of society, as if some ultimate perfection could be secured by human effort; and, second, one which merely says the world is full of evils. "you can’t change human nature," and hence accepts the status quo.

How shall the Christian find his concrete duty and service where he is? Every statement of ethical theory is incomplete until that question has been faced. Since as Protestants we hold that the call of God has to be understood and appropriated by the individual in his own conscience, we cannot prescribe some legalistic method by which moral decisions can be made. Conscience stands above church and above advice and counsel. This is a real loneliness and "forsakenness" in the experience of moral decisions in which we literally take our lives into our own hands. Nothing less than this is the meaning of Protestant freedom.

Once we are clear that nothing can destroy this freedom, we can say where our resources are. In the first place, we have something to learn from the Catholic emphasis in ethics. We are not just individuals. We are members of a community, the Church. There is a pinnacle of freedom in the individual conscience, but in large measure our conscience itself is a social product. We have the best chance of hearing the Word of God to us as individuals when our lives are deeply rooted in the religious community through which the sensitizing of conscience takes place. This community is not only the particular church group to which we belong, but the whole living body of those who in all times have sought God and been found by Him. The fact that we do not finally submit our consciences to the dictates of any tradition or institution is the best possible reason for using our freedom to appropriate the moral wisdom of all traditions and institutions. The fact of freedom makes the more necessary the sharing of life with that company of people whose faith and moral conviction are necessary to each individual’s moral sanity.

Our second resource in making moral decisions is prayer. There is no way to the deeper levels of moral insight more important than the lifting of the mind and conscience to the spirit of God. The humble act of self-examination; the opening of the closed self to the cleansing and healing work of God; the sealing of moral resolve in dependence upon the power of God; all this is what real prayer can mean in the moral life. Divine guidance does not mean the insertion by supernatural means of ideas in our minds. It is dangerous to take any particular notion which we derive in the moment of prayer and identify it with the will of God. We know too much about the ways of self-deception and wish-fulfillment to be satisfied with that. Dr. Buttrick in a classic phrase has said that the greatest service of prayer is "the courageous and creative acceptance of the terms of mortal life."36 One of those terms is the fallibility of human decisions. Prayer is the sword of the spirit even against its own evil. It is most effective when we approach it in the humility of confession that God’s mercy is our first and last need. Then guidance does come in illumination and the power of resolve.

There is one further resource for the Christian life. God is at work in history. He calls us to respond in action. It is true, therefore, that we discover our moral responsibility as we begin to act responsibly. The truth, "He that doeth the will shall know of the doctrine," can be distorted into a false pragmatism.37 Action alone does not reveal truth. But there is wisdom here. The way we come to know our calling is to begin to respond to God’s demand, where we are, however feebly and uncertainly. The final word which the Protestant sermon must ever address to him who would discover God is: begin to live where you are as if you knew what responsibility meant. Take your neighbor seriously. See him in Christ. Move out toward him in love, and the miracle will happen. You will begin to learn how God can use your life. To him who does what he can will be given light.

The Christian conception of the moral life as service in the world of the order of good which is never wholly realized in the world opens the way to moral integrity. Belief in integrity is possible if we can be freed of two illusions. One is that the world order is fixed and there is nothing original ever to be done within its broken state. The other is that we can find some way of life which involves no moral perplexities, and in which we can regard ourselves as free from sin. To identify what we are doing with what God is doing is the open sesame to fanaticism. The true spirituality of John Wesley is revealed not by his teaching that perfection is possible in the Christian life but in the fact that he never claimed perfection for himself. Integrity is possible not because we can be altogether what we ought to be, but because we can participate in the working of God whose grace includes forgiveness for what we are. Justification by faith in God’s grace is the ultimate relationship within which such moral achievement as is possible for us will always have its rightful place.

What kind of human society then can we legitimately work for and hope for?


1) Lincoln Steffens, Autobiography (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1931), p. 611.

2) T. V. Smith, op. cit., p. 87.

3) F. J. E. Woodbridge, The Son of Apollo (Boston: Houghton Muffin Company, 1929), p. 82.

4) Phillips Brooks, "The Christ," Addresses (Boston: Chas. E. Brown, 1893), p. 135.

5) Willard L. Sperry, "Our Moral Chaos," Fortune, Vol. XXV, No. 5, May, 1942, p. 108.

6) Arthur E. Holt, This Nation Under God (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1939), pp. 46-54, 109.

7) The official position of the Roman Church on political orders is that the Church can adapt itself to various types of government, whether monarchic or republican, aristocratic or democratic. See the encyclical Dilectissima Nobis, June 3, 1933, paragraph 6. For the struggle for democratic ideas in the Church see Don Luigi Sturzo, "The Catholic Church and Christian Democracy," Social Action, May 15, 1944. Cf. Jacques Maritain, Christianisme et Democratie (New York: La Maison Francaise, 1943).

8) Anton Koch, A Handbook of Moral Theology, ed. Arthur Preuss (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1925), Vol. 1, p. 7.

9) Cf. J. S. Whale, Christian Doctrine (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941), pp. 144-49.

10) Anton Koch, op. cit., Vol. V, p. 500.

11) Cf. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, p. 221. "The whole imposing structure of Thomist ethics is in one of its aspects, no more than a religious sanctification of the relativities of the feudal social system as it flowered in the thirteenth century."

12) For the Catholic teaching see the encyclical of Pius XI, Casti Connubi, December, 1930. Analysis and commentary by the Rev. Edgar Schmiedeler, Christian Marriage (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 5938). Cf. Edward R. Moore, The Case against Birth Control (New York: Appleton. Century-Crofts, 1931). For a Protestant statement in nontheological terms see Katherine Salter, "Answer to a Catholic Mother," Protestant, Vol. 5, No. 6, March, 1944, pp. 41 ff.

13) Cf. G. G. Coulton, Five Centuries of Religion, 3 vols. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1923-36).

14) Anton Koch, op. cit., Vol. V. p. 136.

15) The Christian News Letter, No. 75, April 2, 1941.

16) Karl Holl, "Die Geschichte des Wortes Beruf," Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kirchengeschichte (1928). Vol. III, and his study of Luther’s views of the calling in Vol. I, esp. pp. 239-87.

17) Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930). R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1926).

18) Robert L. Calhoun, God and the Common Life; Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, have already been noted.

19) Robert L. Calhoun, God and the Common Life, p 71.

20) Ibid., p. 71.

21) Ibid., p. 225.

22) Cf. Robert L. Calhoun, "The Dilemma of Humanitarian Modernism," in the Oxford Conference volume, The Christian Understanding of Man, esp. pp. 75 ff.

23) Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, p. 206.

24) Chap. IV, supra.

25) Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, p. 203.

26) I am indebted to Dr. James Luther Adams for pointing this out. There are emphases in Brunner’s book which go in a different direction from this on the rigidity of the orders; but the view of the world as process is never adequately realized.

27) I Corinthians 7:20; Ephesians 1:18.

28) Allen Haden, "Latin America," in Quincy Wright, A Foreign Policy for the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), p. 227.

29) William Temple, Christianity and Social Order (New York: Penguin Books, 1942), p. 78.

30) Micah 6:8; Jeremiah 31:33.

31) Luke 10:27.

32) I Corinthians 6:12. Cf. Paul Ramsey, "A Theology of Social Action," Social Action, October 15, 1946, p. 29.

33) St. Augustine, In Epist. Joannis ad Parthos, Tr. vii, 8.

34) I. Kant, The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Ethics, trans. Otto Manthey-Zorn (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1938), p. 38.

35) Cf. Emil Brunner, Justice and the Social Order (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945), pp. 271-72.

36) George A. Buttrick, op. cit., p. 118.

37) John 7:17.