The Ethic of Promise,
Ethical Thinking in the Eschatological Mode
by Vernard Eller

This article was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on December 14, 1966. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

This work may be freely reproduced and distributed provided that that no changes are made, no revenues are collected beyond the nominal cost of media, and credit is given to the author, The Christian Century Foundation, and House Church Central. Any other use requires the written permission of the author. Citing this material on other Internet sites is encouraged, but is to be done only by providing a hypertext reference to this file on this server.

If the Theology of Promise (or what some people may still insist on calling "the Theology of Hope" is ever to make anything of itself, sooner or later will need to develop a department of ethics. What follows are some preliminary thoughts in that direction.

I. Contextualist

An ethic of promise will be contextualist--but it will be accompanied by a radically changed understanding of what constitutes a decision's context. In current ethical thought (whether or not this is the deepest intention of the theorists) contextualism has to do with discovering what action will be most beneficial for the persons directly involved in the immediate situation. Although not denying the validity of this consideration, advocates of the theology I promise would maintain that it is too narrow a perspective as to both temporal scope and breadth of application.

The controlling factor of any situation, they would say, is not simply what its here-and-now applications are but how it relates to the overarching purpose and goal of history, which is the coming kingdom of God. Therefore, not "What will be the effect of this action in the immediacy of the moment but upon the immediate future of the participants?" but "How will this action gear in with God's ultimate intention for mankind and the world?" Therefore, not "What will this action do for the personal development of you and me?" but "What does our action say about the growth of humanity toward the kingdom of God?" These are the proper formulations of the contextual question.

Obviously, the two sets of questions are not totally dissimilar; in many cases they undoubtedly would tend to the same choice. However, it is quite conceivable that situations would arise in which the participants might choose to sacrifice their own welfare for the sake of the larger, longer-range goal. In any case, those who hold to the theology of promise would insist that the "context" of present actions must be seen as including much more than simply the present. The truest thing that can said about the present is that it is God's future in process of becoming; therefore ethical decisions must be oriented toward that future.

II. Absolutist

An ethic of promise will be absolutist--but it will involve a radically changed understanding of what constitutes the absolute. Though the adjectives "contextualist" and "absolutist" are not usually applied to the same ethic, they can be. However, as regards the theology of promise, the absolute is not a code that has been decreed in the past but a promise of what shall be in the future. And that makes a whale of a lot of difference!

Yet "absolute" is the only term that properly describes the focus of eschatological theology, even if this is a reality which does not yet exist: The outcome of history is fixed absolutely--fixed by the promise and commitment, by the past and present actions of God. And God is lord in such sense that his promise of what "shall be" carries a stronger guarantee than does the scientist's description of what "is right now." This "kingdom that shall be" also is absolute, in the sense that nothing greater can be conceived beyond it, that it will be total and universal in its scope. And if we may say so, the absolute of the Kingdom of God is something much more real, existential, concrete and well defined than that so very elusive absolute: the abstract, make-of-it-what-you-will principle, LUV. It has come to pass in our day (that Scripture might be fulfilled): "love" covers a multitude of sins--though somehow I can't quite think that this is what Scripture had in mind.

Yet an absolutist ethic that centers on an absolute future will be in many respects the direct contrary of one that takes its absolute from the past. An absolutist past necessarily takes the form of a record, a prescription, and a decree. These items inevitably come within the control of man, because the past is precisely that area of his experience that man can control. And thus an absolutist decree is wide open for the misuses of legalism, moralism and authoritarianism--some men dictating to and pushing around other men.

When, on the other hand, the absolute lies in the future it is in a province of God that man cannot reach. The absolute no longer is a prescription that tells man what he has to be; it is a description of (and a challenge to) what he can be and shall be. Here then is an absolutism that preserves the stability and sense of direction that the New Morality has lost and yet divests itself of the inhumane legalism against which the New Morality rightfully revolted.

III. Perfectionist

An ethic of promise will be perfectionist--but it will be tempered by a radically changed understanding of what "perfectionism" means.

Because its norm is "the present situation" (which of course always falls far short of perfection), the New Morality shows up as anything but perfectionist. For that very reason it too often becomes for many an excuse to settle for actions that are much less than the best. But the Kingdom of God, which is the norm of the ethic of promise, can be called "perfection" in the fullest sense of that term.

However, the ethic of promise will differ from earlier forms of perfectionism in that its adherents will make no claim to having attained, or to being able immediately to attain, perfection. Whatever the ethical accomplishments achieved, it will be recognized that compared to the goal they are only feeble efforts, they represent but paltry progress--yet the efforts made are real, and real progress is made toward the perfect Not Yet which shall be.

This perfectionism of the Not Yet will, of course, cut the ground from under the usual sort of perfectionist pride and self-righteousness we encounter. Yet it will provide some incentive that the New Morality does not. Certainly God cannot help one achieve more than he is willing to attempt. And the new thrust of Jesus' promise, "You shall be [you actually shall be] perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect," opens the way for God to give true ethical greatness. For it tells man that he doesn't have to settle for anything less than perfection (which is to say that he had better not "settle" yet).

IV. Heroic

Whatever else may be said for the New Morality, it hardly can be described as an ethic that inspires heroism. Although again contrary to what its founders must have purposed, it tends to become quite self serving--almost a method for doing what you want without having to feel guilty about it afterwards. Very seldom does it speak in terms of self-denial and sacrifice.

The ethic of promise, on the other hand, is of a different stripe. It breaks through the narrow horizon of little old "me and thee (and sometimes I wonder about thee)" to focus upon God's grand design and destiny for the race. And within that setting men can be challenged to acts of ethical daring, can be made willing to expend themselves and their private interests for the sake of humanity's move toward the kingdom.

V. Tension-Producing

On first thought, this feature of the ethic of promise may seem to be a handicap; it is, however, a real strength.

Again, whether or not it was in the intention of its proponents, the New Morality has had the rather clear effect of accommodating Christian ethical teaching to the accepted level of society at large. This, of course, serves to relax the tension between the church and the world, to make them quite comfortable with each other.

Not so with the ethic of promise. That it operates out of a different context, that it marches to the beat of a different drummer (the future Kingdom of God rather than the present kingdom of this world), was bound to put it in rather severe tension with world. To have one segment of society, the Christian minority, pushing ahead toward its absolutist, perfectionist goal will not set too well with the majority whose only interest is to accommodate to the world as it is. Indeed, in some situations this "ethic that refuses to wait" could pose an actual threat to what society understands as its self-interest--if, for example, those who accept the promise of the peaceable kingdom were to decide that they no longer have to let themselves be sucked into the world’s violent ways.

This ethic would produce not simply tension but trauma. Yet bear in mind that it was the Lord of the Promise who said, "I have come not to bring peace but a sword." There is a trauma of birth as well as of death; the ethic of promise can be expected to bring on the birth pangs of the Kingdom. Its proponents will make no claim that its methods will "work in the present" or "succeed" in the sense that the world today understands success. It does claim to be the only way of getting the present translated into the glorious future that God has prepared for it.

VI. Arcane Discipline

The above suggests that Christian ethics will be forced into a somewhat different approach than is customary. Certainly in the case of the New Morality and in that of many earlier ethical systems as we Christian thinkers have attempted to provide a moral code and a rationale that would appeal to and apply to Christians and non-Christians equally. This option is not open to the ethic of promise.

Of course, Christian ethicists will still have an obligation to speak to the world that God loves to offer and teach the world as high an ethic as it can accept. But an ethical system based on a promise that the people have not heard, calling men to venture toward a reality they do not see, will need to make sense, and cannot be expected to make sense to a secular world. Evangelism (the speaking hearing of the Good News that is the promise of the Kingdom) is the prerequisite of the ethical promise.

This is to say that it is an ethic of the church (in the broadest sense of the term "church"), and that it will not fit into "arcane discipline" in the sense in which the early Christians used that term; it is a demand, but it is also a source of strength which is hidden from the eyes of the world precisely because it is a secret wrapped in the gospel not yet accepted by the world.

VII. Trial Run

The ethic of promise will have to be characterized a bit more specifically than I have thus far managed to do. As a starter, and for purposes of comparison, it might be instructive to use one of Joseph Fletcher’s illustrations clarifying the New Morality. However, before applying to the illustration the ethic of promise let us first write a few more chapters in the Fletcher mode. We may need to modify a few details for our purposes but will change nothing that effects his ethical delineation:

A woman imprisoned in a concentration camp is desperate to get out so she can care for her hungry, homeless children. A guard says he will help her escape if she will submit to his lecherous advances. In Fletcher's case, the motivation was realization that the camp would dismiss her as a liability if she were found to be pregnant, which the guard helped her to become). She does the right thing--in Fletcher's book, makes her escape--and has no regrets.

Let us write a second chapter. The woman is out of the camp but still 200 miles from her children; the time is winter and she, of course, is without resources. Unless she gets some food her earlier "sacrifice" (Fletcher calls her stratagem "sacrificial adultery") will have come to nothing. A farmer offers to give her food if she will (you guessed it!) submit to his lecherous proposition. If her previous action, motivated by a loving concern for her children, was right, so obviously is this. She submits and is fed. But she can’t walk all the way home; she would freeze to death. A trucker offers a ride if....

No guilt was involved earlier; why now?

When she finally arrives at the city near the orphanage where her children are, the woman suddenly realizes that a mother will not be of much use to them unless she can provide for them in some way; Clearly, it would be more loving to feed them than to starve with them. Enough lecherous propositioners are around for her to be able to raise a bankroll and so fulfill the goal she was pursuing when she sacrificed her way out of prison. She submits; no regrets. Finding the latest sacrifice not as onerous, she undergoes others, hoping to accumulate still greater funds so she can demonstrate ethical love ... only to discover that she has become such a person that the most loving thing she can do for her children is to stay away from them.

Of course, I have reduced Fletcher's example to absurdity--but at what point did it become so? As which proposition should she have started to feel guilty? My story is consistent with Fletcher’s rationale; it is no more rare or far out than many of the examples the New Moralists come up with.

Now let us run through the situation again, this time under the rubric of the thic of promise rather than that of the New Morality. The woman is given the opportunity to buy her freedom and be reunited with her children. How does the promise of the Kingdom relate? Obviously, in the Kingdom women will not have to submit to adultery, sacrificial or otherwise. And by God (read that literally), they don't have to now! God has promised, and his promise is not some dream for which one sits around and waits; it is a promise upon which one acts, acts as though it were coming true, acts so as to allow it to come true.

Certainly such heroic refusal could prove costly. It may be that the mother is called to sacrifice her own freedom and perhaps the very lives of her children. (Here, by the way, is the true meaning of "sacrifice," not Fletcher's bail that gets one out of the clink and home to the kids.) But some people are going to have to volunteer to pay the price--as God already has paid and is paying the price--if the Kingdom ever is to become reality. What would have happened to the promise in the early church if all the Christians who were needed at home had chosen to perform the sacrificial adultery of burning the incense?

What would be the positive consequences of the woman's refusing to compromise the promise? Who knows! Some lechers might get a new insight into what women can be. Upon hearing the story the woman's own children (and other women’s children) might catch something of the mother's faith and be inspired to some heroism of their own. The woman herself might find life's richest blessing in losing her life for the Kingdom. It has happened before! Above all, the God of promise (the God whom the New Morality largely ignores) dare not be overlooked when we calculate the consequences. No one can predict what he may choose to do--even in an earthly, physical sense--for and with those who dare to live according to the promise. But in any case the woman's act is predicated not on how it will pay off in the present but on whether it points toward God's future.

VIII. Nothing New

One disadvantage of the ethic of promise is that it can never be billed as something "new"; it is too close to the biblical.... I take that back; it could be called the New Testament Morality. Perhaps it nowhere is better summarized than in one little petition from the Lord's Prayer. A number of authorities now are convinced that more accurate than the translation, "Give us this day our daily bread," would be, "Our bread for tomorrow give us today." And, of course, if the Father who has promised this bread and to whom we address the petition proceeds to give such bread, he expects the recipients to eat it and live off it. And that, no matter how you slice it, is the ethic of promise.

Return to The Eller Collection

Copyright (c) 1968, The Christian Century