“Protestants Have No Moral Theology”

“Protestants have no moral theology,” claims Robert Moon at ReligiousLiberty.TV; “ethics would be the closest consideration.” It’s a strange statement. If Protestants think theologically about moral issues, then is not such thinking “moral theology”?

He defines “moral theology” thus:

Moral Theology is the Catholic teaching about how man must live to obtain favor with God. Social policy is the body of social principles and moral teachings written in papal, conciliar, and other official documents.

I think it better to say that social policies are formulated guided by the principles of Catholic social teaching, which is a branch of moral theology.

Where does he get that definition of moral theology? He doesn’t say. It is similar to the definition in the old Catholic Encyclopedia (s.v., “Moral Theology“):

…moral theology includes everything relating to man’s free actions and the last, or supreme, end to be attained through them, as far as we know the same by Divine Revelation; in other words, it includes the supernatural end, the rule, or norm, of the moral order, human actions as such, their harmony or disharmony with the laws of the moral order, their consequences, the Divine aids for their right performance.

Now, logically, if we define  “the last, or supreme, end” as salvation, then Protestants do not believe “man’s free actions” attain it, and thus, by this definition, he might be right.

But Protestants do believe there is divine law; there is a moral order to the universe. There is right and there is wrong. The Ten Commandments remain a norm for Christian life, as does the call to love God and our neighbor. Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul, in the various parenetic sections of his epistles, discuss how Christians are to live, and all Christians, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, etc., have reflected on these teachings, which they believe to be given through divine revelation. How can Protestants not, therefore, have a “moral theology”?

And how can he distinguish between “moral theology” and “ethics”? The two terms are interwoven in the dictionary definition.

Certainly Protestants do not share the full Catholic moral tradition, much of which developed after the break at the time of the Reformation. We do not use a language drawn from Aristotle and other Greek thinkers; we do not have the practice of confession, or the understanding of priests as judges, that undergirds much Catholic moral theology. But is that the same thing as saying “Protestants have no moral theology”?

Why the double-talk? It seems this would be a good place for him to discuss, instead, how the consciences of Catholics are impinged by efforts to deny protection of conscience to health care workers.

He says,

One question the reader should consider is this: Is conscience more likely to be respected in a Nation where there is “separation of Church and State” or in a nation where the state adopts the “moral and social policy” of the church?

That’s certainly a good question to ask of Stafford. But I think we also have to look at the problems he addresses, of Catholics whose consciences are impinged today in the areas of healthcare, adoption, abortion, etc., and demonstrate how religious liberty is the best response.

In the end, I think Moon’s article does not help in understanding either Catholic thinking or the very real contemporary threats to religious liberty in American society.

6 thoughts on ““Protestants Have No Moral Theology”

  1. Not to mention that we do not feel we must do anything to “obtain favor with God.” God moved unilaterally to give us His Son precisely because He already favored us. What we do is but a response.

  2. Those are his words, of course. Catholics also believe in grace, and believe that God takes the first step towards us (though the nominalists believed otherwise). The differences come after that, when we talk about cooperation with grace.

  3. Perhaps it would be better to have stated that “Protestants have no single moral theology” rather than “Protestants have no moral theology.”

    Collectively who speaks for Protestants? Where can one find a statement of the moral theology for Protestants? It seems impossible to say that Protestants collectively have a (single) moral theology.

    About.com indicates there are approximately 38,000 Christian denominations in the world. Many if not most of these denominations originated as an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation. The number of denominations expanded because what once was a single denomination divided into many sub denominations over issues a theological belief including issues which many would call “moral theology.” Bill is correct that “ethics would be the closest consideration” and I would add if one seeks to view Protestants collectively/holistically.

    One can have a a statement of “moral theology” for a community of believers if there is an agreed-upon spokesman or Council to express the “moral theology” for the denomination or community of believers.

    Protestant denominations have much in common but also have considerable diversity. There is no agreed-upon spokesperson or Council who/which could set forth a “moral theology” for the collection of Protestant denominations. Consequently Protestants as a group do not have an agreed-upon “moral theology” even though individual Protestants or a single Protestant denomination might have their unique “moral theology.”

  4. Hi Robert,

    I think that makes a world of difference.

    I think that then magnifies the church state problem–if the state is to legislate morality, whose morality will it be legislating?



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