Aspects of Christian Social Ethics

It cannot be said of North American evangelical Christians that they have exerted themselves very actively in the public areas of national life. Christians of whom this cannot be said so bluntly are mainly Roman Catholics or “liberals” who are still defending the left-overs of the Social Gospel. Evangelicals spend much time defending an infallible Bible and “winning” souls for Christ, but they have often taken a negative view of the world. Quite often the Christian religion for them is “other-worldly,” preparing man for heaven since this world is still in Satan’s hands. In this view, missions are the main concern for the Church and its individual members.

A New Emphasis

One can detect a change here. There is a revival of evangelical, so-called conservative religious thought. This movement was described by TIME magazine in the following words: The “evangelical undertow” is a “hard-to-map third stream in American Protestantism, running midway between the simplistic fundamentalism of small Christian sects, and the sophisticated faith espoused by a majority of the nation’s best-known theologians and denominational leaders. It is best known as evangelical conservatism, and it stands for a strictly orthodox Protestant faith that summons scholarship to the defense of traditional Reformation doctrine” (TIME. Dec. 20. 1963).

Significant for our purposes here is a new measure of social awareness on the part of evangelicalism. The most mature expression of this can perhaps be found in a book which we would like to discuss: Aspects of Christian Social Ethics by Dr. Carl F. H. Henry (Eerdmans Publ. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1964, 190 pp.). Dr. Henry’s position in this new development, as the story, in TIME indicated, is central. In 1947 he called attention to the weaknesses of American evangelicalism in his book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, and since 1956 he has edited Christianity Today, the most impressive journal of evangelical thought. All of this, it seems to me, warrants careful attention to this book.


Starting Point

In the first place I would like to present some of the highlights in this book, which is divided somewhat as follows: 1) Christianity and Social Transformation, 2) Christian View of Work, 3) Christian Stake in Legislation, 4) The Nature of God and Social Ideals. An Appendix on Christianity and Revolution completes the work. It is not Dr. Henry’s intent to present a fundamental analysis of politics from a Christian point of view nor to provide a comprehensive exposition of Christian social theory but to “discuss some of the contemporary issues in social ethics, and provide certain evangelical guidelines in strategic areas of Christian concern.”

Christianity, for the author, is basically a “religion of supernatural redemption for sinners,’ and this view he posits as the…theological basis for social action.” The Church, whose primary mission is “to win individuals to Jesus Christ,” also has a “standing responsibility to the province of social justice.” Social theory is not a matter of neutral concern; for “its validity and vitality (it) requires both scriptural standards and moral power.” In the final analysis, Christian social theory and practice must be founded on a proper understanding of the nature of God, in whom justice and love are “equally ultimate.”

On the basis of this Dr. Henry arrives at a number of fundamental principles relevant for the contemporary political crisis: “the divine source and sanction of human rights; the accountability of men and nations to objective justice and transcendent moral law, and the servant-role of the State as a minister of justice and order in a fallen society; the permanent significance of the social commandments of the Decalogue; the inclusion of property rights as a human right.”

These and other principles require a particular strategy for their application. Humanists, “liberal” Christians and communists employ the strategies of reform, revaluation and revolution. These must be rejected and replaced by the “strategy of regeneration” which, through spiritual renewal, “seeks to secure man’s respect for, and return to, the divine intention in society.” “Regeneration rests upon spiritual power. The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar dynamis for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord is an optional consideration. Personal regeneration and redemption arc inherent in its hope for the social order.” And: “Supernatural regeneration therefore is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian movement. Man’s spiritual renewal vitalizes his awareness of God and neighbor, vivifies his senses of morality and duty, fuses the law of love to sanctified compassion, and so registers the ethical impact of biblical religion upon society.”


The heart of the book concerns “the Christian stake in legislation,” viewed both from the point of view of theory (I think the author means “principle”) and practice. Here again I will point to the positive contributions.

One of these is the author’s view that the church must not become a political or economic force in society. “The Church as Church is not to seek its own favored prestige and power in the political realm.” “To achieve a Christian society by political action is, therefore, not the Church’s objective.” Pulpit and Church councils are not political platforms.

But this does not mean that there is a complete severance between church and state, or between religion and state. We must strive to “preserve a significant role for religion in politics.” “The Church must expound the revealed will of God for the political order.” Dr. Henry stresses the role of the pulpit and the avenue of individual action as the primary means whereby Christian principles must reach political life. The Christian citizen must observe the civic laws and must pray for his rulers. Every believer must devote some time to execute his political responsibility. “The Christian is called to active citizenship; he is called out of detachment and into involvement.”

Further, in its proclamation, the church must “lead men to understand government as a guardian of justice, must condemn legal interactions as crimes against the State, and must emphasize the culpability of offenders and their need to repent.” Moreover, the church “has the right and duty to call upon rulers, even pagan rulers, to maintain order and justice. It must stress the divine responsibility of government, condemn every repudiation of divine answerability, and challenge the State’s neglect of its duty.” As Karl Barth put it, the church is to call the State “into co-responsibility before God.”

The church is the “moral sentry” within the state; when it shows totalitarian tendencies it must be warned, It must alert men “against State regimentation of personal affairs” and guard “against government displacement of individual responsibility.” The church must advance the “transcendent criteria” and a “fixed and objective morality” for the order of the state. It must stress “man’s possession of inalienable rights as a creature of God” and uphold the “supernatural ground of justice.” Dr. Henry states it clearly: “The Church’s most important concern in regard to law and order is that government should recognize its ultimate answerability to the supernatural source, sanction, and specification of human rights and duties, and hence of government’s limited nature and role as a ‘minister’ of justice.” The church must defend property rights, the right to work, and a harmonious solution to the race problem, especially by shaping a healthy climate of public opinion.

There is much more that I might mention. It is clear that there are many inSights and suggestions which must be accepted. Dr. Henry battles against the moralizing of justice, against the welfare state, against easy pragmatic solutions, against political involvement of the church in specific programs. I will not mention details, but use the rest of my space to point out some of the matters which, in my view, should have received greater emphasis and also indicate where the book as a whole is unsatisfactory,

Dr. Henry is a theologian. That is his strength, but also his weakness. The question must be asked whether a theologian is best suited to deal with the fundamental problem of the place of the Christian witness in economic and political life. By itself this is a purely formal criticism, for no one should deny the right to a theologian to deal with these problems also. What struck me, however, was the great frequency of quotations from other theologians who had also dealt with some of the problems involved, and the great absence of thinkers, right in the area of politics and economics, whose views have influenced so many in our day. Dr. Henry maintains a constant debate with Marx, although there is not a clear exposition of Marxist thought. But it seems to me that one might well expect a more thorough treatment of those thinkers who have conditioned the over~ all pattern of public life in America today. I am thinking of John Dewey and education, of Lippmann’s Public Philosophy, of Commanger’s The American Mind, of Edmund Calm’s The Moral Decision, of Coldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. These are just some names that come to my mind. What I mean is: why did not Dr. Henry place his social and political views in the perspective of the present-day problems and tendencies in America itself? If a theologian deals with social ethics and spends most of his time on the relation between church and legislation, a more direct confrontation with contemporary political thought and action can be expected.


But there is a more serious difficulty which I have encountered. Dr. Henry’s book is an expression of the fact that Christianity has a message for social life. For he has clearly seen that Christian commitment must “integrate and govern the totality of life.” In spite of this I believe that there is a certain duality in starting-point, in strategy and in application of principle which runs through the entire book That duality, I feel, will dangerously affect an integral, all-encompassing Christian approach.

The fundamental error in this respect is made in the final chapter, “The Nature of God and Social Ideals.” Here Dr. Henry asserts that “a correct understanding of the whole range of Christian faith and duty turns on a proper comprehension of divine attributes.” The author’s main concern here is to arrive at a balanced view of God’s love and righteousness. If these are not seen in balance, as “equally ultimate,” then a similar error will be made in one’s view of society, since here love and justice must be balanced as well. Moreover, in human life, the “two realms” of church and state must both be expressions of these two divine attributes. The one operates in the order of redemption, the other in the order of creation.

My question here would be: must a Christian social and political theory be based on a proper view of the relations between attributes in “the nature of God”? Should this not be founded in the Lord’s revelation in His Word and Creation? Further, can we indeed develop a Christian social and ethical theory by balancing the “two realms” of church and state and the “two orders” of creation and redemption? Does one then not lose sight of the one Kingdom of God as the all-embracing environment of human life? Are there not many more realms than these two? Is there not a realm of family, of school, of industry, and must not aU of these be expressions of that one Kingdom, each in its own way?

Do we not break reality into dual parts when we speak of the two orders, of creation and redemption? Is there, rather, not one order, viz. the one of creation, which Christ in principle has redeemed, and which man must unfold in history guided by the one Word of our Lord? Does not this incipient duality in Dr. Henry’s starting paint bring us dangerously close to that duality, or dualism, in much of Christian thought (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) which largely accounts for the very inability of the Christian community to come to grips, in an intrinsic manner, with the secularization of life? Has he not lost sight of the radical nature of the redeeming Word of God as the Reformation rediscovered it? (Cf. here Dr. H. E. Runner’s discussions in Christian Perspectives 1960 and 1962, and also Dr. Seerveld’s speech cited above).

The Social Order

Is it, again, not a requisite that we deal with the relation between justice and love in human life on the basis of the creation-order, rather than on the basis of the order of the divine attributes? Can we even deal with these attributes in theology? Is this not perhaps a remnant of rationalism there? Indeed, justice may not be reduced to love and morality. But is not our understanding of the order of creation—an understanding given to us in principle on the basis of the redeeming Word of God—the proper basis to avoid such reductions?

Would my tentative suggestions then not put the whole problem involved here in a much different perspective? I am thinking here of the very first paragraph of Chapter I, where Dr. Henry states it as follows: “In seeking a better social order, to what extent shall we rely on law and to what extent on grace? How much shall we trust legislation and how much shall we trust regeneration to change the social setting? What should we expect the State to contribute, what should we expect the Church to contribute, If we are seeking a society ruled by justice and love?”

Are these “dualities” not misleading because they present, in a way, incomparables? For “law” is an aspect of the creation-order, as well as “love,” as this order structures human institutions and experience. “Grace” is not such an aspect; it is God’s avenue of restoring men to His kingdom. And “legislation” is the human application of principles of law (given in the order of creation) for the community of the state in the dynamics of human history, while “regeneration” is the Spirit’s work, radically changing the heart and therefore the direction of men’s lives so that they become the new race, citizens of the Kingdom. The word “church” has a twofold meaning: a) it may refer to that new race, the “body of Christ,” the community of all those touched by grace and regeneration; and b ) it may refer to the institution, locally and world~wide, ordained by Christ to proclaim the gospel on earth. But the first meaning is much broader than the second. TIle body of Christ is also the channel for the gospel in “non-ecclesiastical” endeavors. The body of Christ must also be found in the home and school and state. And the “state” itself is the social community of justice, empowered with the sword over a territorially limited group of citizens. The church as institution on earth, but also the state and family, and even the voluntary associations in education, business, etc. are based in the creation-order, realized in the process of history, and are all—each in its own specific way—subject to the rules of the Kingdom of Christ.

The duality in Dr. Henry’s approach makes him view the state as “external” and “preserving” and the church as “internal” and “transforming.” Are these perhaps Kantian distinctions? At any rate, it seems to me that both church and state have an internal as well as an external side. Both have an internal structure and existence and both are externally related to all of the other social bonds. Further, both church and state preserve what has been concretized of the created order in the past and both should transform in the measure that they have not fully realized the intents of the created order. For every social bond must be dynamically taken up in the process of the Kingdom. Justice is not external then; nor does it merely preserve the past. Justice must not be reduced to morality, but it must indeed deepen and broaden itself in a moral way. Justice does not live in isolation from morality and love: its very history indicates that early formalisms have been rejected to take account of the internal motives, e.g. in criminal law. And even the judge may take “good morals” into account in his verdicts, e.g. in libel and nuisance suits. Law in the state then still remains law, but it is opened up and directed by faith, so that our earthly life can be directed to heaven. For what is not of faith is sin.

The Body of Christ

If we have once seen that the Kingdom must embrace all of human life, that the body of Christ exists also outside of the institutionalized church. then we will not tend to reduce religion and faith to the church, as Dr. Henry tends to do—although he does lay special emphasis on home and vocation.

Then we will also go beyond his dilemma about the way Christian social involvement is properly carried out: “whether by the institutional Church acting in a political way, or by individual Christians conscientiously fulfilling their civic duties.” Dr. Henry properly rejects the first alternative, and limits himself to the second. I believe that we must go beyond that. As a citizen in the Kingdom I am a child in the home, a worker in the factory, a member of a union, a director of a business, a citizen in the state. And I act in each of these relations as a Christian in accordance with the nature of the specific relation. At times this may mean that I am merely acting as an individual. At other times I may do this in consort with fellow believers. The thing we have to learn from Paul’s view of the body of Christ is that believers do not merely act together in the church as institute. Dr. Henry tends in that direction. If history has given us the unified state as the possibility for organizing free associations to accomplish certain ends, in the world of labor, politics, education, press, leisure, then we may well ask ourselves as evangelical Christians whether we should also not take the benefits of this freedom more fully to act unitedly—as body of Christ—in these central areas of human culture. At least, we should not in an a  priori manner exclude the possibility of united Christian political action (not necessarily immediately as a party, a Christian press, a Christian union, etc. For the priesthood of all believers might well be better expressed in this way. At any rate, a more thorough-going critique of present strategies will be required, for as an evangelical community our impact in the world is very small.

One could say much more of this book. But I must stop. As an expression of a new awareness of social responsibility in a largely “un-emancipated” body of citizens I sincerely recommend this publication. My criticism must be taken as an expression of concern for a mutual problem. Among Christians criticism must be possible for we all subject ourselves to the one Word which is our first and final guide in charting our path through the jungle of problems we face.

Mr. Bernard Zylstra, B.D., LLM, presently engaged in post-graduate study and research in economics and political science in the Netherlands and well-known for several of his articles on these subjects, here discusses the position taken by Dr. Carl F.H. Henry on Christian responsibility in today’s society.