How do we discern ethics in the writings of Paul?

Tim Murray offers this review of Ruben Zimmermann’s The Logic of Love: Discovering Paul’s ‘implicit ethics’ through 1 Corinthians (Lexington/Fortress, 2018).

Why care about this book?

It seems to me that any of us who care for the state of the church and academic theology (including biblical studies) are likely regularly to find ourselves confronting important questions about ethics and the Bible. Postmodern relativism has been undermining our ethical confidence for a long time, but culture has shifted to the extent that orthodox Christianity is now considered immoral by many. Most of us seem to have lost the stomach for ethical argument of any substance; all we have is ethical assertion by the aggressive gatekeepers of our ‘liberal’ pop culture.

One benefit of the postmodern move, though, has been the questions forced on biblical theologians as to how to responsibly interpret texts that have been taken as relevant to ‘ethics’; we have been forced not only to face how much our own presuppositions influence our interpretation, but how the presuppositions of the authors and their cultures (or the implied authors and implied audiences, if you’re really into postmodern theory…) should affect our use of the Bible for Christian ethics.

I expect those who read this blog, with its special interest in issues of gender and sexuality, will be familiar with the key questions:

  • When are biblical authors prescriptive and when are they descriptive?
  • When are they addressing specific, local problems with a unique solution and when are they offering ‘ethics’ that have a broader applicability?
  • When are they making concessions that do not represent an ideal?
  • Is there a ‘hermeneutical trajectory’ that allows us to extend their ethics beyond their own horizons?

This list could go on…

The questions are self-evidently important as even a cursory look at the key issues facing the church today shows: how we read biblical ethics and, to make the distinction clear, how we then use the Bible in forming Christian ethics, are hermeneutical questions we cannot avoid.

It is this context in which I wish to review Ruben Zimmermann’s work on New Testament ethics. His formulation of “implicit ethics” first appeared in a German journal article in 2007 (Jenseits von Indikativ und Imperativ: Entwurf einer ‘Impliziten Ethik’ des Paulus am Beispiel des 1. Korintherbriefes,” TLZ 132), but was more substantially outlined in 2009 in his article “The ‘Implicit Ethics’ of New Testament Writings: A Draft on a New Methodology for Analysing New Testament Ethics,” (Neotestamentica 43) which is now available for free access online at JSTOR. He has continued to refine his thinking over the last decade and his 2018 monograph, reviewed here, is the culmination of that process.

Zimmermann describes ethics as “the reflective consideration of a way of living with a view toward its guiding norms and having as its goal an evaluation” (4); “ethics aims at values and the task of an ethical analysis is to bring the evaluation of a particular behaviour to light” (5). One of the burdens of his book is to point out that if this is what ethics is all about, then it is not just statements that explicitly command or prohibit a behaviour that are ‘ethical’; rather, we need to be attentive to the many different ways in which ‘ethics’ appear in the texts – many of which are not explicit but implicit.

The main way Zimmermann does this is by a presenting eight perspectives through which we might ‘get at’ the ethical content of a text. They are not meant to be a series of steps, but rather “different aspects through which “implicit ethics” can be made visible” (31).

The Eight Perspectives of Zimmermann’s Implicit Ethics

The entire first half of his book is devoted to describing how each of these perspectives works and giving examples from the NT of where they may apply. A painfully short summary of each perspective would be:

1. The Medium of Ethics: Moral Language

As NT ethics is contained in texts, we must pay attention to the linguistic aspects of ethical communication – indeed, Zimmermann explores the idea both that ethics requires language and that language is always, in fact, ethical. For the exegete, the thrust is that we should not think that only a few forms of communication (such as imperatives) are ‘ethical’; rather, language is the medium of ethics in numerous ways, encompassing “narratival, metaphorical, or lyrical texts” (41) as well as directive forms of speech.

2. Norms as Indicators of Ethical Significance

If ethics is fundamentally norm-orientated then this perspective asks us to pay particular attention to which norms are being appealed to, assumed or critiqued. For Zimmermann, a norm is anything that justifies the claim to an “ought” (43). We should be aware, then, that norms are not just explicitly stated, but often implicit in a text. Brief investigation reveals the huge variety of norms that are appealed to in the New Testament.

3. Tradition-History of Individual Norms

“Norms are shaped within a linguistic and cultural community” (48). A norm functions as a norm because it is socially embedded – but this means that if we want to understand the ethics of a text, we not only need to identify the norms it engages, but understand them in their right context – work most exegetes are familiar with.

4. Ethics as a System of Values

Once we have appropriately understood the norms in play, we can then analyse the way the norms are engaged. Some are classed as good or bad, but often more complex interactions occur – some norms are relatively good, but not absolutely so. Sometimes norms are balanced against one another or trumped by a greater value. Different actions can be justified by the same norm and different norms can justify the same action. It is sometimes possible to reconstruct a ‘map’ and system of values that a particular author assumes. Picking through these complexities is often where the rich fruit of ‘implicit ethics’ begin to be found.

5. Forms of Ethical Reflection

This perspective invites us to come to terms with the form and process of reflection through which ethics is pursued. It is, in some ways, a deeper exploration of one aspect of the first perspective. As well as covering the well-known ‘teleologicaldeontological’ distinction, Zimmermann encourages us to pay attention to how goods are weighed, and ethico-poetical forms of ethics. One important emphasis is on ‘mimetic ethics’, whereby right conduct depends on role-models, an often-overlooked NT emphasis.

6. The Ethical Subject

Ethics intend to apply to people! How such people are conceived helps us understand the ethics. Thus, by attending to aspects of reason, will, conscience and emotion, as well as the inter-relationship between individual and community, we can further flesh out the ethical vision of a text.

7. Ethical and Social Reality: Lived Ethos

To put is simply, ethics is reflection on and evaluation of behaviour; ethos is what’s actually happening! We must always be careful that we don’t read the ethics of a text and assume that correlates with the ethos of the community to which it is addressed or from which it arose. Often, we better understand either by attention to the other. In this case, our grasp of the text’s ethics can be aided if we can get a handle on the conventions of the culture, community or individuals involved.

8. The Purview of Ethics

The final perspective calls to view the scope and validity of the text. How particular or universal does the author of a given text intend the ethical material to be? For whom do they consider their content to be valid?

The real value of Zimmermann’s work is that his methodology forces you to think clearly and comprehensively about the ethics of a text. Although, as I read him, there is not much truly novel in each perspective, the benefit is heuristic – it is as you study with each of the different perspectives in mind that you are better able to appreciate the complexity and nuance of the ‘implicit ethics’. To me it seems the primary beneficiaries are those who seek to expound the New Testament, whether scholars or pastors – it provides a fertile framework for engaging with the text.

Implicit Ethics in 1 and 2 Thessalonians

Perhaps a brief discussion of just two aspects of the Thessalonian letters is of value. Both letters address a problem within the community regarding the distribution of food to some who are not working. These ‘disorderly’ are addressed most obviously in 2 Thess 3—but if we are attuned to the implicit ethics of the texts, we can see how Paul, Silvanus and Timothy are actually addressing the issue throughout both letters.

First, we can observe the strong mimetic ethics of the first letter. The Thessalonian church are presented with a detailed description of Paul and his co-workers conduct whilst among them. This is not just to ‘defend’ his conduct (as per many commentators) but is also to remind them of the ethical example he set which he assumes to be normative for the community. They did not come to the Thessalonians for greedy purposes (2.5), were not demanding (2.6), but worked hard to support themselves (2.9) so as not to burden others (2.9). This is not nostalgic description, but functions as ethical argument. In 1 Thessalonians this is implicit, but it becomes explicit in the second letter: “you know how you ought to imitate us” (3.7).

Second, Zimmermann’s encouragement to evaluate how norms and values are related ensures a more responsible understanding of norms like ‘being dependent upon no-one’ (1 Thess 4.12). This has at times been taken as an independent value such that self-sufficiency is seen as ideal (with further implications, e.g., that debt must always be avoided at all costs and charity accepted only as a last resort). Under analysis though, we see that this norm, together with the others expressed in 1 Thess. 4.10-12 are dominated by the overarching value of philadelphia – brotherly love. This is the telos to which the other norms are recruited; the point is that their concrete love-in-action for one another continues to deepen, and it is this goal that rules out both the ‘taking without giving’ of the disorderly and requires attention to independence, work, honourable conduct and self-attention. To detach these norms and elevate them beyond this context misunderstands the way the authors see these norms as inter-related. The real goal is not independence, but the inter-dependence of reciprocal love.

In terms of provocative application, we may wonder how many Christian leaders are personally present and available enough to their congregations to be able to appeal to a mimetic ethics. As a pastor, is my life visible and available enough to serve as a meaningful example to which I can appeal as I shepherd my church? Am I prepared for the vulnerability that demands? Or, on the second point, to what extent have we bought into the liberal-capitalist view of self-sufficiency – that my own work should secure my own goods and render me a useful citizen, rather than a truly Christian view of inter-dependence, where it is important to pursue my own work for the benefit of reciprocal love rather than detached self-reliance?

The clearest benefit and the biggest frustration

To inform responsible exegesis is clearly one of Zimmermann’s aims and it is in this that he is most successful; the methodology he presents is well worth reading through and working with. The only warning on this point would be that his book is hard going – it truly is the work of a German academic theologian (if one can risk a stereotype!). If you can get hold of his 2009 article, that does a much quicker job of explaining the eight perspective in a way sufficient for most; it is probably only fellow academics and ethicists who would enjoy the monograph version.

In many ways the review could end there, but I can’t resist addressing one frustration. In his introductory chapter, Zimmerman surveys moral philosophy, noting that some recent approaches have “embraced at least the possibility of a partial and context-specific pragmatic ethical rationale. An ethical judgement is limited to a relative validity and is thus freed from the burden of objectivity and universal applicability” (12). Reading between the lines, Zimmermann highlights this not because he is keen on these systems of moral philosophy per se, but rather because this carves out space for ‘New Testament ethics’ to have some relevance beyond the church: “ethical judgements, as they are found in early Christian texts, can have validity and be found convincing despite their limited reach within a particular context” (13).

I think we see here the desperate appeal that our work as theologians should somehow be valued as important by the universities and wider academic discourse. I understand the pressure theology departments face to justify their existence in a competitive environment, but I’ve never found these kind of moves convincing. At the end of the day, we can study New Testament ethics for purely historical reasons, or to understand Christian behaviour, past or present, but if we want to assert that New Testament ethics are important as ethics today, this must surely be on the basis that the texts themselves are not just texts, but have some authority that renders them worthy of attention.

I’m not convinced we will justify our theological studies by an appeal to relative moral philosophy; much better to admit that their relevance depends on our stance towards the texts and the claims that they make. Do we think this text makes any actual claims upon us, and do we believe that their ethical position should shape our lives?


Dr Tim Murray completed his PhD in New Testament at the University of Nottingham supervised by Professor Roland Deines. He is now a staff elder at Amblecote Christian Centre near Stourbridge in the West Midlands.


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