The End of Ethics

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False holiness is always a possession and achievement of the individual in isolation from the good of others. And so it isn’t holiness at all.

It is often noted that, after the doctrine of justification, the second key contribution of the Lutheran Reformation is the doctrine of vocation. Vocation – derived from the Latin terminology for “calling” – articulates the called life of the Christian. No distinction between sacred and profane separates holy work and common work, but God establishes all of the Christian’s various responsibilities in life for the good of the neighbor.

This is true of the pastor, whose calling is to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments so that we might obtain justifying faith (Augsburg Confession V 1). It’s also true of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker – even the call to family life, marriage, and parenthood. The same applies to civic duties, whether they’re in commerce or government. The great complex of human relationship is endowed by God with purpose and value, because human beings are the tools God uses to accomplish his purpose in the world.

In contrast to the monastic piety of medieval Roman Catholicism, the Lutheran Reformation upheld the equality of all Christians in a “priesthood of all believers” (see 1 Pet. 2:9) in which baptism – not ordination or the monastic vow – sets apart Christians as holy before God. The purpose of vocation is the service of neighbor, and so where Lutherans at times appear “weak on sanctification,” it’s because holiness in the abstract doesn’t count for much. Before God, Christ alone is our righteousness; before the world, it’s our subjection to the neighbor and the neighbor’s good that makes the difference.

When holiness or sanctification are abstracted from the midst of life – and hidden in the interior experience of renewal, the pursuit of heightened spiritual experience, or the renewed affections of the Christian – then the old Adam’s false religion reasserts itself. The Spirit’s true holiness is directed always toward the good of the neighbor (1 Cor. 10:24), but the religion of the flesh is fixated on making holiness a personal self-improvement project. Such false holiness is always a possession and achievement of the individual in isolation from the good of others. And so it isn’t holiness at all.

In this way, vocation brings to an end the whole human project of ethics itself. Ethics usually involves moral deliberation about the nature of human life and action. Some ethical systems are oriented to virtue, being less concerned about rules or consequences, but more so with character. Other ethical systems seek to balance duties and responsibilities according to a rational principle by which to shape human action. Others might suggest that the keystone of any proper ethical system is to weigh the consequences of moral action, and recommend orienting our deliberation toward the achievement of outcomes that are identifiably “good.”

The thing that unites various ethical strategies is that they involve deliberation. Ethics is something that happens in the human mind, then inscribed in books, taught in classrooms, and applied in human decision-making. But vocation brings an end to ethics because it brings an end to deliberation: vocation is something real in the world, located amidst the dynamics and discontinuities of human life, and cannot be distilled into a neat and tidy – and intellectual – account of how humans ought to behave.

In the driver’s seat here, of course, is God, his action in creation through providence and judgment, and human engagement with those other creatures God has placed in our lives. The risk here, of course, is that vocation itself could become yet another alternative ethical scheme: perhaps we might establish something like “situation ethics,” proposing that the key to human moral conduct is that we attend to the uniqueness of the various situations in which we find ourselves. To be moral, in this case, is to resist universalizing each situation. But here we are back at the problem of deliberation: to be ethical is first to think, then to act.

To avoid making vocation yet another alternative ethical scheme cooked up to get people to behave, God must subject our dreams of moral deliberation and transformation to his judgment. There are certainly better and worse outcomes in life. And life requires our consideration and our action. But vocation takes us out of the realm of the abstract and into an encounter with the people and things of this world. It’s these things that Luther called “masks of God.” They are the tools God uses to accomplish things in his creation. They are the instruments of his providential care for creation.

As with most things, the problem here is with the nature of the human will. As long as we reckon ourselves free to deliberate – and therefore to accomplish something better, rather than worse, if we just think it through in the right way – then we will always be trapped on the ethical treadmill of considering human action. But of course, we’re still just thinking – we’re not living yet.