The Goal of Ethics – Part 2 (Jan-Feb 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

The Telos of the Kingdom of God: An Interpretation of the Task of Christian Ethics

by Lee Camp
January – February, 2005

Part I of This Article

PART 2
The Significance of a Telos, or, What’s the Difference between a Soldier and a Basketball Player?

I do delight in forcing the Enlightenment sorts of questions and dilemmas upon my students in the first week or two of our ethics classes. I force them to grapple with these questions and delight in watching them argue with one another. It seems to me pedagogically necessary to introduce them to the exasperating state of “ethics” in our day, to get them immensely frustrated, thus realizing that there appears no way to simply and “rationally” answer these questions. Then they are more open to try a different route.

In trying to get at that different route, we try on for size a very old idea, going back at least to Aristotle, and in a way, to Moses. In Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, he presents what is often dubbed a “virtue theory.” The label is not so important as the basic understanding he affords us—namely, that virtues and vices, and the notion of “good,” are dependent upon some end, or to use the Greek word, some telos.

This might sound complicated, but it’s really quite simple. Instead of starting with the abstract question, “How do you know what is right?” he starts with the notion of “good.” And “good” he relates to telos or end. “End” or telos does not mean “end” in the sense of time, but “end” in the sense of function or goal. The telos of an acorn, for example, is to be an oak tree. The telos of an electrical plug is to be plugged into an electrical outlet. Or for a third example, the telos of a chair is to serve as an apparatus for sitting, with varying degrees of comfort or ease. All of us can understand quite well the telos of a chair. With that knowledge, we have no difficulty in answering the question, “Is this particular chair, right here in front of us, a good chair?” To answer this, we compare the chair in question with our inherited understanding of a chair’s telos, and simply answer the question, “yes,” “no,” or “yes, but … ”

Then enters the notion of “virtues” and “vices.” A “virtue,” simply stated, is a habit or learned skill that allows a human or human community to reach or achieve its telos. A “vice,” on the other hand, is a habit or learned skill that inhibits (or even prohibits) a human or human community from reaching its telos. In this scheme, a moral rule furthers us toward our telos; “immorality” leads us away from our telos.

Consider this example: what does it take to be a good basketball player? We might make a list as follows:

Skills or Habits for Good Basketball Players Team Player

  • Obedient to Authority (of coaches, officials, rule-book)
  • Good Shooter (jump shot, free throw, layup, etc.)
  • Desire for Victory: Competitiveness
  • Perseverance/Constancy
  • Mental Stamina or Concentration
  • Variety of Self-disciplines:
  • Practices regularly
  • Exercises regularly
  • Good eating habits
  • Good sleeping habits

Undoubtedly, a basketball coach or basketball player could enumerate still others; these suffice for our purposes. But what if we make a list for a different telos? Will it be the same, or different? Consider a list for a “good soldier,” or more precisely, “ground infantry,” placed alongside the previous list for sake of comparison:
Telos Comparison
Some observations about the above list describing good habits or skills of basketball players and GIs: first, and perhaps most obvious, the list of “virtues” depends upon the telos. There is obviously a great deal of overlap between the two lists, but the differences are very important. In fact, what is for one a virtue would be considered a vice for the other. A basketball player should not—in any circumstances as a basketball player—develop the skill of willingness to kill. When competitiveness crosses the boundary into the willingness to kill, it has not brought the advancement of sport, but quite the opposite. (In fact, consider the recent NBA debacle in which Indiana Pacers player, Ron Artest, crossed the line from competitiveness to temper to willingess to punch and fight the fans of the Detroit Pistons; or consider the Tonya Harding episode, in which Harding was indicted for involvement in her ex-husband’s hiring of a hit-man to attack Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan, at the 1994 national figure skating championships.) By contrast, a soldier exhibiting the willingness to kill the opponent is assumed to be noble and heroic.

Furthermore, the telos literally makes all the difference. Note also how “good” is attached to “eating habits” and “sleeping habits.” This is not so much a circular use of “good” as it points us back to a telos-oriented use of “good”—good athletes and good soldiers will know, learn, and develop the eating and sleeping habits appropriate to their discipline. The good basketball player will learn to eat like a good basketball player does; a good Sumo wrestler will learn to eat like good Sumo wrestlers do. And there is a great chasm between what is “good” for one and “good” for the other.

Second is an observation about “rules.” In our rightful reaction to “legalism” and “works-righteousness,” “rules” sometimes do not get a fair shake. “Rules” are not bad as such. (Remember that the Apostle Paul, who on the one hand describes the Law as a power that enslaves and alienates us from God’s good purposes, also calls the Law “holy and good.”) In fact, rules are often constitutive of a particular practice.

Consider, for example, the basketball player who goes to her coach, and objects, “coach, I’ve been thinking. I’m tired of our legalistic approach to basketball. I’m fed up with the nit-picky way you coaches and officials require us to dribble when we’re moving down the court with the ball. I’m not some old conservative stick-in-the-mud, caught in the throes of legalism. I am a progressive thinker—I am not going to dribble any more!”

What implications do these observations—about telos and virtues and vices and rules—have for Christian ethics?

The Kingdom of God as Creation’s Telos

The starting task for a Christian ethic is not to determine a list of do’s and don’ts, a list of timeless, unchanging rules. We will—we should, and must—get to the task of setting down some rules. But this is not the place to start.

The place to start is to ask “who are we?” That is, what is our identity? What is our telos? What is our end, our purpose? If we do not know the answer to this question, there can be little profitable discussion. Without embracing a particular telos, we will be caught in a discussion as unprofitable as two people who do not know if they are soldiers or basketball players. Imagine two such individuals arguing whether the desire for victory over their opponent should ever extend to the willingness to kill the opponent. They cannot answer that question until they know who they are, and for whom they are doing ethical reasoning. It is precisely this unprofitable discussion that the Enlightenment has foisted upon us: it wants us to determine the rightness or wrongness of certain acts for everyone, at all times and places, without consideration of history, context, or tradition. But as I’ve already noted, this is an endlessly unprofitable discussion.

Instead, let us acknowledge that we must first determine who we are. And it is the canon of scripture that gives us some basic sense of our identity. First, God created a good creation, in which there was originally shalom, a wholeness and completeness in which justice and righteousness dwelt. Instead of accepting communion with God, the original sin entailed a refusal to accept the basic truth that we are created beings, not the Creator, and as such, there are certain limits we must accept, and we refuse to accept them at our own peril.

This peril exists not because God stands by ready to “beat the hell out of us” with his big stick if we wander outside those boundaries. Instead, perils simply exist outside those boundaries beyond which our loving God warns us not to transgress. In other words, God does not condemn us to death when we break God’s rules. Rather, sin and death always go together. Sin is simply being outside God’s good will. And because God is life, and God’s will is life, choosing to be outside God’s will is choosing death.

Second, we humans have and continue to rebel against our good God. Whether one is a moderate Calvinist or moderate Arminian on this point matters little—the facts are, we’ve gotten ourselves in a nasty mess, and we can’t get ourselves out. The creation is itself fouled by principalities and powers that enslave and dominate and oppress, and it’s too much to get ourselves out. We simply cannot.

Third, then comes the Good News of God’s Kingdom. The redemptive work of God to free, liberate, enliven, heal, and deliver has broken into human history in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. The Kingdom of God has broken in—we still await its final consummation, but we proclaim that it has begun, has been inaugurated, and it is to this sole telos that the lives and hearts of believers are given over. Moreover, and this is a crucial point for Christian ethics, the person of Jesus incarnates for us the good will of God. We have been called to follow his Kingdom Way.

So, a few concrete suggestions and practices for Christian ethics seem to follow:

One, our immediate task is not to discern what is true “for all rational people.” Our task is to determine what is most faithful to the call of God revealed in Messiah Jesus. (There is, nonetheless, a universality about our Way and Ethic. We believe it to be Good News for all humankind, for the entire creation. But the route to this universality is not through unaided “rationality,” but through repentance, confession, baptism, and the reception of the gift of God’s Spirit.)

Two, and related to the first point above, content and method cannot be separated. That is, Jesus’ Way was one of Suffering Servanthood. This being the case, our calling is not to impose our ethic. Our calling is to offer what we believe to be Good News. By definition then, we have forsaken the story of God’s Kingdom once we appropriate a Crusade model for Christian ethics. That is, once we believe our task to make the world safe for Christianity (through whatever means), we have nothing substantive of Christianity left to offer.

Three, we must not limit “Christian ethics” to the sphere of “personal morality.” Jesus did not come announcing a “new personal ethic,” but the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. A “Kingdom” bears down on, and carries implications, for every aspect of life: personal and social, private and public. As the Hebrew prophets and Jesus (and Paul, too, in his own way) make abundantly clear, social systems and structures are just as important in the economy of redemption as are personal practices and commitments. For example, we too often limit our teachings with regard to morality to areas of personal chastity or relations: sex, drugs, and alcohol are pre-eminent examples. While there is much that should be said about such issues, limiting the bulk of our discourse about morality to such a short list fails to take seriously the good news about a new Kingdom. In that Kingdom, the sharing of wealth, non-violence, peacemaking, and reconciliation are certainly as important as sexual ethics. In the Kingdom, systemic questions about race, money, debt, and oppression carry just as much—if not more—significance than the morality offered our adolescents in Sunday School classes.

Four, we must practice the hard work of moral discernment. If scripture teaches us anything, it constantly reminds us that the people of God are often deluded, and most deluded precisely at the point that they believe themselves to be most “right.” We must continue to submit ourselves to the will and word of God, and the direction of God’s Spirit, who works in continuity with both scripture and the ultimate revelation of God’s Word in Jesus. Matthew 18 enjoins upon us the practice of “binding and loosing,” a Jewish expression meaning moral discernment. Similarly, the model of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 suggests that we must continue to listen, learn, and grow, and trust God will be at work in our midst. Each generation will face new issues and new questions; simply because the Bible does not speak explicitly to these questions does not mean that they are therefore insignificant from the perspective of the Gospel. How shall the church respond to issues pertaining to race? How shall the church respond to nuclear weapons? How shall the church respond to inner city deprivation, or the failure of social systems to provide medical services? Finding faithful and creative responses to such difficult questions requires patient, communal discernment, trusting that God’s Spirit will work in our midst.

Five, there is a place for us to establish rules and practices as a result of the work of moral discernment. Apart from them, we cannot have any kind of cohesive community. Some of these rules we can hold very lightly, and be ready to break or revise as need demands. On the other hand, there may be certain rules or “morals” for which we cannot envision a situation that would require us to violate these norms. That is, there are certain practices or norms the violation of which seems to deny the “narrative logic” of God’s Kingdom. To question some of these makes as much sense as the basketball player refusing to dribble. The point, however, at which the rules take on a life of their own, we must begin to judge ourselves, and perhaps the rules, too. That is, if a rule becomes the ground for bondage, alienation, and estrangement, it must be judged in light of the gracious, reconciling, merciful work of God’s Kingdom. The Gospel accounts clearly exhibit this point by recounting Jesus’ controversial teachings regarding the Sabbath and other ritual practices.

To “do Christian ethics” is no less than the joyous calling of practicing the Way of God’s Kingdom, pursuing creative and faithful ways to bear witness to God’s Rule and the Lordship of Messiah Jesus. It is a journey that begins not with the Enlightenment philosophers’ questions, but with our baptism into the Way of Jesus, and as has always been the case for disciples, it promises unexpected twists, turns, and delights.New Wineskins


Mere Discipleship by Lee CampResources

Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2003).

Get information about this book from Brazos Press, a division of Baker Books.

Purchase at this site

Lee CampLee C. Camp is associate professor of Theology and Christian Ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is author of Mere Discipleship (Brazos, 2003).

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1581 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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