Paul Lehmann’s Contextual Christian Ethic


By John L. Drury


May 5, 2006


In the modern period, the debate between Kantians and utilitarians has raged for two centuries. During the twentieth century, a number of ethical theorists have sought a third way out of this deadlocked debate. One such way out is contextual ethics: moral decision-making and formation must take into account the context of actions more than their laws or consequences. Christian ethicists have been particularly interested in exploring such a third way, as the usual debate seldom allows the particularities of Christian witness to the come to fore.

            Paul Lehmann is a preeminent exponent of Christian contextual ethics. However, the uniqueness of Lehmann’s ethical thought is not that he is a contextualist who happens to be Christian, but rather that he moves from his Christian commitments to a contextual ethic. As Lehmann puts it, “It cannot be too strongly stressed that the contextual character of Christian ethics … is derived from the ethical reality and significance of the Christian koinonia. The contextual character of Christian ethics is not derived from an application to the Christian koinonia of a general theory of contextualism.”[i] In this light, one can see that Lehmann is thoroughly contextual: he takes his own context as a member of the community of Christ as his starting point.

The question addressed by this paper is whether Lehmann succeeds in deriving his contextual ethic from a theological understanding rather than the other way around. The over-arching thesis of this paper is that Lehmann does succeed. In order to show that this is the case and how this is the case, I will first summarize the theological content found in the early chapters of Lehmann’s classic Ethics in a Christian Context (ECC). This summative study will be followed by an analysis of his contextual methodology, concluding with an illustrative discussion of Lehmann’s views on the moral issue of abortion. The ordering of this essay thus corresponds to the order of Lehmann’s thought.

I. The Theological Content of Lehmann’s Contextual Ethics

Lehmann does not begin his treatise on Christian contextual ethics with a prolegomena on method. Rather, he begins with a discussion of Scripture. He then turns to issues of ecclesiology, the doctrine of God, and Christology prior to a direct treatment of his contextual method. This structure alone indicates Lehmann’s pattern of thought: he moves from theological content to methodological reflection on ethics, not the other way around. His theological reflection does not merely serve his preconceived notion of ethics; rather, he sees the ethical reality through the lens of material theological claims.

Nevertheless, there is a distinct contextual shape to his theological argumentation. He does not proceed in a deductive manner from first principles, but develops his ideas in medias res. The major themes of ECC (maturity, indicative, and humanization) are embedded into the larger argument and so emerge slowly without direct treatment. Furthermore, the traditional doctrinal loci are not treated in a deductive ordering. In a sense, he moves backward, identifying in each loci a deeper basis that is then supplied by the following loci.[ii] To reorganize and systematize his thought would do violence to the contextual shape of his work. Therefore, the following summative analysis of the theological content of ECC walks alongside his argument as it unfolds.

Step One: Making Ethics Christian and the Question of Scripture

Lehmann begins his book with the problem of making ethics a Christian theological discipline. What is it that makes Christian ethics particularly Christian? The answer that most obviously presents itself is that Christian ethics is Biblical ethics. Lehmann, however, criticizes this answer for lacking a sufficient hermeneutical awareness (26). The space and time between the Bible and us is too great to immediately apply Biblical injunctions and paranesis to our world. The uniqueness of Christian ethics is not its particular behavioral commands but the larger story within which it executes its behavior. Therefore, Christian ethics must pick up the task carried out (with varied success) throughout the history of the church: to speak from the present reality of the church to the contemporary situation.

At first glance, it may appear that Lehmann is side-stepping the significance of the Bible, and especially the New Testament, in forming a contemporary Christian ethic. One could embrace the fact of a hermeneutical distance between the Bible and us without abandoning the Bible as the source and norm of Christian ethics.[iii] However, one must understand the place of this point within the larger argument. Lehmann’s purpose is certainly not to safely set the Bible aside to get on with contemporary reasoning. Even a quick read through Lehmann’s corpus reveals his constant wrestling with Scripture. His point here is to block certain ways of using the Bible in ethical reasoning. He wants to get past an ethic which tries to ascertain the “principles” of Scripture which are then “applied” to today. Such a pattern of thinking betrays an ignorance of the power of the church in forming the New Testament and in forming Christians. Of course any Christian ethic worthy of the name will use Scripture in its thinking. But a truly Christian ethic must take account of the ethical reality of the church presupposed by Scripture.

Lehmann’s shift of starting point from the New Testament to the church raises a deeper question: does he elevate the church into a normative position over the Bible? Once again, this would be a misleading interpretation. Lehmann affirms the Reformation maxims of perspicuity, sufficiency and the internal witness of the Spirit (30), and criticizes Christian ethicists who ignore the relation between Scripture and situation (43). If then he is not elevating the church above the Bible, what is he doing? Lehmann is making a much less controversial claim: that the church itself formed the canon and that this canon is then encountered by the community. He is interested in exploring this relationship between Scripture and community, rather than subordinating one to the other. As Lehmann explains, “an analysis of Christian ethics involves a kind of running conversation between the New Testament, on the one hand, and our situation, as heirs of the New Testament, on the other” (29). As members of the church we are “in a continuous conversation with the Scriptures” (31). In other words, Lehmann is operating within the hermeneutical circle of text and interpreter. That this circle is not vicious depends on the fact of revelation, which creates the reality of both.

Step Two: Church as the Context of God’s Revelatory Action

As the first step has shown, the church is needed as the locus of Christian ethical thinking. The Church is the “point of departure” for Christian ethical reflection (45). This relocation of ethics requires that one indicate what the church is. In the second chapter of ECC, Lehmann carefully describes the church as the locus of divine activity. The content of God’s action in the world is the restoration of human community (koinonia). “Church” names the place where such genuine community is found. As Lehmann puts it, “the church … is the fellowship-creating reality of Christ’s presence in the world” (49). Lehmann goes so far as to call the church an “instrument” of this divine activity (50). Such an understanding of the church clarifies what Lehmann means when he says that Christian ethics “is oriented toward revelation and not toward morality” (45). The Church describes the moral space where God’s activity is manifest. Thus Christian ethics is concerned less with morality and more with the maturity of this community (54).

Lehmann’s emphasis on maturity requires further exposition. In the preface to ECC, Lehmann defines maturity as “human wholeness” (16). He contrasts this with the modern psychological notion of self-realization through self-acceptance. Lehmann transforms this notion into his idea of maturity as “self-acceptance through self-giving.” (16). Thus, Lehmann’s term “maturity” is identical with “the new humanity” (17). Maturity is another way of saying humanization, which is the purpose of God’s action in the world and the heartbeat of Lehmann’s ethic. So when Lehmann points away from morality to maturity, he is bringing in the crucial contribution of a theological ethic: the action of God. Christian ethics begins with the community, not because some arbitrary contextual methodology drives us there, but because that is where God has acted. And for Christian ethics, human action must follow the lead of divine action.

            In the second half of this chapter, Lehmann develops his understanding of the church as an ethical reality. The first prong of his argument is to dispel individualist interpretations of Christianity by means of the communal imagery of the New Testament and the proper interpretation of the Reformation principle of the priesthood of all believers (56-67). The second aspect of his discussion is to interpret the visible/invisible dialectic of the church as an ethical conception (rather than a static soteriological construct). The invisible church is not some ghostly ideal but rather the mature telos toward which the visible church is always being called. The dialectic also keeps open the “marginal possibility that God himself is free to transcend … what he has done and continues to do in and through the church” (72).

This last phrase might occasion an objection levied against any ecclesially-oriented ethic: does an understanding of the church as the locus of divine action require one to treat God’s activity outside the visible church as a mere marginal possibility? A simple reply to this objection would be that Lehmann is using the phrase “marginal possibility” in an ironic manner. The freedom of God is not a caveat but an axiom. Of course God is free to act wherever God pleases.

A deeper and more satisfying reply to this objection would point to Lehmann’s revision of the visible/invisible dialectic. The concept of an invisible church was developed by Augustine during the Donatist controversy. Augustine argued that the visible church should not be rejected on the basis of its less than holy members, for a true invisible church subsists within the admittedly corrupt visible church. This concept was picked up by the Pietists as a means for renewal within the church. Lehmann affirms this conception of the invisible church, while also reversing it in a dialectal manner. Thus, the invisible church not only names where the maturing action of God takes place within the institutional church, but also names where God is acting to make and keep life human outside the walls of the institutional church (see diagram below). Thus Lehmann’s ecclesiocentrism is not a restriction on divine action but rather a widening of the meaning of “church.”

            In keeping with his overall pattern of thought, Lehmann’s argument once again moves backward from more immediate theological concepts to their deeper basis. Just as his discussion of Scripture drove us to the church, so his discussion of the church drives us to the matter of divine action. Since the basis of the ethical reality of the church lies in the ethical action of God, Lehmann next turns to the character of the Christian God.

Step Three: The Politics of God

In light of his understanding of the church as the locus of divine activity, Lehmann’s ecclesial turn is materially a turn to God. A Christian ethics that takes the church as its point of departure is thus working with a particular concept of God. In the third chapter of ECC, Lehmann explains this concept according to the notion of God as politician. By politics, Lehmann is referring to “the Aristotelian definition and the biblical description” (85). The definition indicates that politics means action and reflection upon action that is aimed toward humanizing humanity. The description fills out the content of what God does to humanize humanity.[iv] This humanizing activity of God is especially described by the prophets and in the New Testament.

Such an understanding of God as politician undergirds Lehmann’s aforementioned turn to community and emphasis on maturity. One might get the impression that the political character of God is some kind of first principle for Lehmann. Yet Lehmann does not operate in such a deductive manner. The contextual nature of his thinking leads him to move in a different direction. He begins with the reality of the church here and now and asks about its basis in divine action. Continuing along this road, Lehmann goes on to ask about the specific, concrete content of the politics of God. What is the basis of the claim that God is a politician? We must turn to Lehmann’s outline of a “messianic theology” to find the answer.

Step Four: Messianic Theology

In the fourth chapter of ECC, Lehmann develops the crucial contours of his theology with reference to three particular doctrines: the Trinity, the threefold office of Christ, and the Second Adam/Second Advent. Here one can see how Lehmann proceeds to make ethics a theological discipline in a material sense. He points out the intrinsic ethical implications of each doctrine properly understood. This chapter is both the completion of his theological argument and the transition to his methodological reflections.

Lehmann summarizes his treatment of all three doctrines as follows:

Indeed, just as the Trinitarian dogma states the political character of the divine activity in terms of the divine economy as the environment of Christian behavior, and just as the doctrine of the threefold office of Christ states the connection between the action of God and Christian behavior, so the doctrines of the Second Adam and the Second Advent express the actuality and prospect of Christian behavior (117, emphasis added).

After discussing the importance of the economic trinity, Lehmann makes the interesting claim that the purpose of the homoouisan doctrine is to show that God the Creator and God the Redeemer are one and the same God (108). The ethical significance of this claim is to locate salvation within the created order. The saving work of Christ concerns this world and human action is found within the embrace of this divine act. The trinity thus indicates the environment of Christian action.

Lehmann turns to the threefold office of Christ in order to bring out the connection between God’s activity and ours. What Christ does for us through his messianic offices has direct implications for how we respond to him through our actions. Here Lehmann lays heavy emphasis on the royal office, which establishes Christ as the present-tense Lord of both our lives and the life of the world. Although one might object that Lehmann neglects the ethical impact of the priestly and prophetic offices, this would merely indicate an undeveloped aspect and not a fatal flaw. In a more complete theological ethics, one could discuss the ethical implications of each office of Christ.[v]

Lastly, Lehmann discusses the twin doctrines of the Second Adam and Second Advent. The purpose of these doctrines is to give an eschatological orientation to Christian behavior. Christian ethics does not focus primarily on the restoration of original humanity but rather on the new humanity found in Jesus Christ.[vi] The fulfillment of this new humanity awaits its culmination at the Second Advent of Christ. Since the goal is ever before us, “the new order of humanity, in which and by which the Christian lives, has its own way of looking at things and its own way of living out what it sees” (123).

Lehmann’s shift away from the restoration of the created order toward an eschatological fulfillment is crucial to understanding the theme of humanization. For Lehmann, humanization is not some “return” to an original goodness but a teleological fulfillment initiated by the revelatory (apocalyptic) action of God in Christ. Humanization is inextricably linked to the incarnation. The “incarnate reality of God’s self-humanization” is “for the sake of the humanization of man [sic] which is coming to be.”[vii] Thus a Christian ethic grounded in the incarnation is messianic without being utopian.[viii] God in Christ is moving us into a new and greater realm of human being and living. Lehmann’s theological ethics is accordingly open-ended and generous, constantly on the look out for where God may be at work in the world – even in the most unlikely places.

            Lehmann’s theological argument comes to its zenith in his theology of messianism. He begins with the Bible, which turns out to presuppose the church. His discussion of the church as the context of divine action leads naturally into the doctrine of God as politician. The politics of God then unfolds into a multifaceted messianic theology. From this humanizing activity of the triune God revealed in Christ, Lehmann develops a distinctively Christian contextual ethic.

II. Lehmann’s Contextual Methodology

In the fifth chapter of ECC, Lehmann turns directly to his contextual methodology. Lehmann’s contextualism can be contrasted with two other types of ethics: absolutism on the one hand and utilitarianism on the other. Yet Lehmann’s contextual ethic is not merely an alternative general theory. It is grounded in the theological understanding summarized above. The result is a unique understanding of ethics as indicative ethics. In light of this indicative character of ethics, Lehmann’s analysis of the conscience will become clear.

Lehmann’s first step is to critique the notion of ethical absolutes. He defines an absolute as “a standard of conduct which can be and must be applied to all people in all situations in exactly the same way” (125). He criticizes this idea because of its inability to deal with the complexities of a particular situation. He deals illustratively with truth-telling in conversation with Kant and Bonhoeffer. The final plank in his criticism of ethical absolutism is that there is no such thing as an abstract moral space from which one might choose the good. Rather, ethics is an indicative enterprise executed from within a concrete moral location, which for Christians is the church (131).

Although Lehmann does not discuss it directly in ECC, a very similar critique of utilitarianism can be supplied at this point. Lehmann would appreciate the attention to the facts in utilitarian ethics. However, utilitarian reasoning falls prey to pragmatic thinking, where the good action is the most reasonable and most likely to produce good outcomes. It therefore blocks from the outset the foolishness of the gospel and the possibility for bearing faithful witness without results. So, just like ethical absolutism, utilitarianism makes Christian faith peripheral to moral decision making.[ix]

Lehmann’s contextual ethic is a third type of ethics beyond absolutism and utilitarianism. Yet, as the above arguments show, Lehmann’s critique of the other approaches is primarily theological. Comparing Kant and Mill with Lehmann is like comparing two apples with an orange. Despite the Christian heritage behind both traditions, Lehmann’s ethic is explicitly Christian at a methodological level. As we have seen, Lehmann’s pattern of thinking moves from the continuing concrete action of God in Christ to our action within this messianic sphere. Christian ethics is thus indicative ethics. The other two types of ethics ask a general imperative question: what should I do? A Christian contextual ethic asks a specific indicative question: what am I, as a believer in Jesus Christ and a member of his Church, to do (159)? The theological basis of this ethical question is evident: “The indicative character of Christian ethics is the consequence of the contextual character of the forgiveness and the freedom with which Christ has set men free to be and to what they are in the light of what God has done and is doing in him” (161, emphasis added). God performs the decisive ethical action; humans respond freely and congruently to this divine action.

            Lehmann concludes his discussion of contextual methodology by answering a critical objection for all explicitly Christian ethics: is he working with a double standard? Is there one set of ethical norms for Christians and another for the world? The typical response to this objection is an appeal to middle axioms: concepts that can be shared between Christians and non-Christians as they engage in moral action and discourse. Middle axioms allow Christians to retain their particular language while affirming the morality of non-Christian actions. Lehmann argues that such middle axioms suffer from over-generalizing to the detriment of both Christians and non-Christians. Lehmann offers the alternative proposal that non-Christian humanizing actions are signs of the work of God in Christ (152). By substituting parabolic action for middle axioms, the particularity of Christian ethics is retained while affirming the goodness of non-Christian action. So there is no double standard, because the world is overflowing with signs of God’s grace.

            Later in ECC, Lehmann raises the question of conscience as a critical testing ground for the viability of his contextual ethic. Can his approach to ethics provide a better account of the conscience than the alternatives? Lehmann relocates the conscience away from an individualistic moral judge to its proper context within the koinonia. Lehmann states that “for the Christian, the environment of decision, not the rules of decision, gives to behavior its ethical significance” (347). The conscience functions in Paul’s epistles to bind the community together by the respect of another’s conscience rather than one’s own. In Lehmann’s contextual ethic, the conscience finally finds a home within responsible relationships. The conscience does not bind an individual human to an impersonal law, but rather binds humans to God and one another. Thus the conscience provides for both the freedom and responsibility of the Christian action.

            Lehmann situates his account of the conscience within a larger construct of theonomy. In place of a tyrannical heteronomy of responsibility without freedom or an anarchic autonomy of freedom without responsibility, Lehmann affirms an incarnational theonomy of freedom and responsibility (349).

Once again, Lehmann’s ethical reflection rests on a theological understanding. Lehmann’s contextual methodology flows directly from his understanding of what God is doing in the world to make and keep life human. Thus he does not provide us with a “method” in the sense of a decision-making process which can be applied to specific situations. Rather, the Biblically-informed, koinonia-embedded human person looks into the complexities of each situation for the humanizing action of God, following that lead wherever it may take him or her. Thus, to fully understand Lehmann’s approach to ethics, we must observe how he thinks contextually about a particular problem.

III. Lehmann’s Christian Contextual Ethic Employed: Abortion

Of all the issues addressed by a Christian ethicist, the moral issue of abortion is particularly significant. Not only does it occupy the current headlines, but it also carries with it a host of religious and theological issues. More importantly for Lehmann, abortion is a humanization issue. What is God doing to make and keep life human in a culture where millions of nascent lives are aborted? Lehmann’s analysis of abortion is a fitting illustration of his contextual ethic at work.

Lehmann discusses the issue of abortion in his posthumous publication on the Ten Commandments, The Decalogue and a Human Future.[x] In order to understand his treatment of this particular issue, it is necessary to understand Lehmann’s approach to the commandments in general. In keeping with his notion of indicative ethics, Lehmann sees the commandments as descriptive rather than prescriptive.[xi] The commands do not tell us what to do in every situation. Rather, they describe the reality God is creating between God and humanity. In other words, the Decalogue does not tell us what to do, but what is happening. Therefore, the commandments aid us in our vision (apperception) to see what God is doing to make and keep life human, so that we may join the koinonia as it comes.

Lehmann focuses his treatment of the fifth commandment, “You shall not kill,” on the issue of abortion. He chooses to follow the Lutheran ordering of the commandments, most likely because Luther is his dominant conversation partner throughout the book. Taking his cue from Luther, Lehmann begins his discussion of the commandment asking to whom does the commandment apply (163). Luther’s insight is that the commandments relate to “the reciprocal responsibilities” between rulers and individuals. Thus the commandments are embedded within a relational context. They are not aimed at individuals trying to appease their consciences through righteous living. Rather, they describe the human community God is creating in our midst.

Lehmann turns next to the question of how the command should be applied. His point here is to move from the negative character of the law to its positive side. The positive thrust of the fifth commandment is not simply “avoid killing” or even “preserve life.” Rather, the point of the command is to make life human. The commandment does not grant some abstract right to life, but calls all human beings to be responsible for the lives of others. “The critical issue at the core of the fifth commandment is the issue of responsibility for life, as against the right to life” (165)! The positive side of the commandment against murder is described in the parable of the sheep and the goats, where we are held accountable for the needy in our midst (Matthew 25).

Lehmann begins his discussion of abortion with a concrete look at the facts. Such an “empirical” starting point is necessary for a contextual ethic. For a contextual ethicists, the initial response to the question “What would you do if …” is always “Tell me more.” Lehmann addresses the current situation in conversation with Paul Ramsey.[xii] Ramsey helps Lehmann to identify the particularly dehumanizing form that abortion practices have taken in the United States (167).

The key dilemma that emerges in a medical context is the right of medical workers to conscientiously refuse to participate in the abortion process (168-169). Here the insight of Lehmann’s koinonia ethic is clearly displayed: “Along that road lies the dehumanizing vulnerability to self-righteousness that is in every ethical view that insists that there is always only one right thing to do; or if not that, there is the only less dark counsel that there are degrees of approximation and faithfulness to the moral order” (169). Moral absolutism on this issue posits a context-free moral agent who must choose the good to appease her conscience. Lost is the positive affirmation of the fifth commandment to make life human. The individual’s right to say “Not on my watch!” is a dehumanizing option, for it only keeps his or her hands clean. It does not take responsibility for life. Thus one avoids a sin of commission only to be implicated in a much greater sin of omission.

On the larger political scale, the argument is caught in a conflict between rights. The standard spectrum of views runs from “no abortion” at one end, “abortion on demand” on the other, and “justifiable abortion” in between. The “no abortion” view focuses on the rights of the unborn. The “abortion on demand” position focuses on the rights of the woman. The “justifiable abortion” approach tries to adjudicate the rights of both (169). The common error of the whole spectrum of views is the unrelenting focus on rights. Flowing from its descriptive character, the fifth commandment is not concerned with the abstract right to life but with our concrete responsibility for life. The focus on conflicting rights is by definition dehumanizing, because in such a conversation principles take priority over people.

In a quintessential two-pronged argument, Lehmann undermines the rights thinking behind both sides of the abortion debate:

“The human fact is … that the unborn has no rights, but only a divine ordination to the responsibility for life on the part of the born. The human fact is that the woman has no rights on demand, but only a divine ordination to the responsibility for life under which she, together with all the born – male and female, man and woman and child – are called to be” (169).

Such an affirmation of responsibility is an apt illustration of Lehmann’s theologically-grounded indicative ethics. The commandment points to the human fact that is revealed in God’s action for us. In the incarnation, God has bound all humanity together in himself. Thus we have no rights to claim, but are responsible for each other before God.

            Lehmann goes on to criticize the dehumanizing element in both sides of the debate. “The Right to Life movement is, in my judgment, in thorough violation of the fifth commandment since it subsumes responsibility for life so tightly under the right to life as to foredoom the fetus brought to birth to a less than fully human life” (170). The same problem emerges for the other side: “The ‘abortion on demand’ position is more open to the dehumanizing reality of a pregnancy in which the woman is left to bear the major torment, pain, and bitterness in a society whose principles and pattern for living increasingly deprive the woman with child of a sustaining community of shared concern and drive her into isolation” (170). In both cases, the child and the mother are left alone without the koinonia necessary to make and keep life human.

            Such a dehumanizing isolation demonstrates the ethical significance of the conscience. The rights approach “presupposes and perpetuates a view of conscience according to which the conscience has been cut off from its covenantal context, and the individual is left to the devices and desire of his or her own heart” (171). A morality of rights necessarily cuts off the individual conscience from its proper communal context.

            So what is the alternative to a focus on rights? As alluded to before, Lehmann advocates responsibility for life, which “rescues the individual both from solitariness and from the tyranny of conscience by drawing him or her into the social as well as the private making of room for the freedom to be human” (171). He goes on to say that “in this context, nurture in the Commandments would lay bare that all are murderers in sheer dependence upon the gift of forgiveness and the grace of life, and that all are called to take responsibility for life in the power of the strength that is made perfect in weakness” (171). The Christian is not concerned with his own righteousness but rather with the humanity of the neighbor. As Lehmann declares, “I cannot pursue my own righteousness in disregard of my neighbor” (171).

            Lehmann concludes that “when I am asked directly whether I am for abortion or against it, my reply is that I am against it and for it – and in that order.” (171). He is against it in that abortion is often a dehumanizing denial of life. He is for it in that abortion must be left open as option of responsible action. Lehmann ultimately defends the legalization of abortion, but for a particular reason and purpose. “The proscription of abortion by law, constitutional amendment or other means exhibits a sterilization of faith. Such a legal proscription threatens an obedience of faith in which one moves in the direction of freedom and justice regardless of the incongruities between law and morality (making human life human) encountered on the way” (171). Lehmann sees any appeal to absolutes in this matter as a sign of dead faith – the inability or unwillingness to risk opening up our options so that the humanization of humanity may commence in as many different ways as God designs.


            Lehmann is a Christian contextual ethicist – in that order! Lehmann’s Christian theological commitments lead him to a contextual methodology that embraces the complexities of each ethical situation. Lehmann does not allow his contextual methodology to turn into a first principle or middle axiom that drives his theology. Rather, Lehmann keeps his eye on the activity of the incarnate God, always on the look out for signs of God’s humanizing koinonia. Lehmann thus provides a model of a thoroughgoing Christian ethic.




Duff, Nancy J. Humanization and the Politics of God: The Koinonia Ethics of Paul Lehmann. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

Lehmann, Paul. Ideology and Incarnation: A Contemporary Ecumenical Risk. Geneva: John Knox Association, 1962.

___________. Ethics in a Christian Context. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

___________. “Responsibility for Life: Bioethics in Theological Perspective,” in Theology and Bioethics: Exploring the Foundations and Frontiers, ed. Earl E. Shelp. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1985. pp. 283-302.

___________. The Decalogue and a Human Future: The Meaning of the Commandments for Making and Keeping Life Human. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Ramsey, Paul. Ethics at the Edges of Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.



[i] Paul Lehmann, Ethics in a Christian Context (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) 14-15. Hereafter cited in-text.

[ii] The structure of ECC raises the intriguing question of whether such a “backwards” approach would be a viable ordering for a full-scale Dogmatics.

[iii] For an example of a New Testament ethics that is both exegetically grounded and hermeneutically savvy, see Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross and New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics  (San Francisco: Harper, 1996). The similarities and differences between Hays and Lehmann are intriguing, for while both work closely with Biblical texts in their ethical reflection, they offer differing positions on a number of issues. The contrast between the two illustrates Lehmann’s distinction between “New Testament Ethics” and a “Christian Ethics” (ECC 28-29).

[iv] It is here that Lehmann’s sub-theme of narrative becomes particularly important for understanding his work. See Nancy J. Duff, Humanization and the Politics of God: The Koinonia Ethics of Paul Lehmann (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) pp. 75-116.

[v] In such a fully developed theological ethics, one would also need to incorporate the three stage narrative of Christ (incarnation, cross, resurrection). See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 6. (Clifford J. Green, ed.; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2005) pp. 76-102. Note that Lehmann’s Reformed heritage points him in the direction of the threefold office while Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran tradition leads him to a narrative rendition of the two states doctrine. Such genetic reasons are interesting but lack normative force, as evidenced by Karl Barth’s synthesis of states and offices in an architectonic narration of the reconciliation of God and humanity in Christ. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956, 1958, 1961). Unfortunately, Barth does not develop a special ethics out of each office, but instead writes a separate part-volume on the ethics of reconciliation. Such a move might be the structural starting point for a project that aims to synthesize the insights of Lehmann, Barth and Bonhoeffer.

[vi] It is crucial to note Lehmann’s reliance on New Testament apocalyptic elements. See Nancy J. Duff, Humanization and the Politics of God, pp. 117-152. 

[vii] Paul Lehmann, Ideology and Incarnation: A Contemporary Ecumenical Risk (Geneva: John Knox Association, 1962) 26.

[viii] This may be the crucial difference between Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism and Lehmann’s Christian messianism. Lehmann’s apocalyptic vision allows him to be open to radical actions that do not compromise with the “normal” and “real.”

[ix] This summary of Lehmann’s critique of utilitarianism is supplied by Nancy J. Duff, “Introduction” in Paul Lehmann, The Decalogue and a Human Future: The Meaning of the Commandments for Making and Keeping Life Human (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 4.

[x] Paul Lehmann, The Decalogue and a Human Future: The Meaning of the Commandments for Making and Keeping Life Human (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995). Hereafter cited in-text.

[xi] See Nancy J. Duff, “Introduction” in Decalogue, pp. 6-7.

[xii] Although its statistics are now dated, Paul Ramsey’s book Ethics at the Edges of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978) is a powerful combination of factual evidence and principled application of absolute standards. Although some absolutists turn a blind eye to the details, such a criticism could never be levied against Ramsey.