The Logic of Paul’s Ethics (Eduard Lohse)

In 1988, German Lutheran Bishop and Biblical scholar Eduard Lohse set out to write a ‘theological ethics’ of the New Testament (Theologische Ethik des Neuen Testaements; Stuttgart : W. Kohlhammer) subsequently translated into English in 1991 by E. Boring (Fortress Press).  Though Lohse attempts a synthetic approach to the whole of the NT in terms of ethics, he has much to say about Paul.

The titular designation ‘Theologische Ethik’ is quite appropriate given Lohse’s simple but clear affirmation that the message of the gospel requires certain things from its adherents.  Thus, ‘The task of a theological ethic of the New Testament is to make clear the implications of confessing faith in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Christ for the life and actions of the community of faith’ (1991: 1).  Lohse offers a hint here of the notion that God’s gift comes with a demand.  In that sense, divine mercy issues a ‘challenge [for Christians] to lead their lives henceforth by harkening to this word of God’ (1991: 1).

In terms of foundations for ethics, Lohse confirms what other scholars already have observed, that the NT ethic stands on prior traditions, but also how the kerygma transforms how these traditions are expressed and understood (1991:4).  He offers a brief engagement with Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds for NT ethics, but ultimately it is the presence of God in Christ that determines the orientation and shape of one that is distinctively CHristian: ‘His lordship is determinative for every area of the life of the believer’ (1991: 25).  Less persuasive is Lohse’s appeal to Dominical logia as constructive for the whole of NT ethics (especially as this is controversial in modern Pauline studies) (see 1991:31).

The norms of theological ethics are expressed in a number of ways according to Lohse.  He draws attention to the norm of ‘freedom’ in Christ which is a liberation which should result in obedience to the Lord (1991:33).  How decisions should be made requires the Spirit who ‘provides the reality of his [Christ's] living presence in the proclaimed word and in the variety of “working” within the members of the community’ (1991: 34).  Discernment, though, is not an automatic operation of the Spirit, but is carried out in the principles of whether the action is in obedience to the Lord and whether it demonstrates love for one’s neighbor (1991: 35; here Lohse is a precursor to Sampley’s ‘two tests’ for ethical behavior).

As with Furnish, Lohse is drawn to the importance of eschatological for ethics.  The presence of the kingdom of God and his ‘sovereign rule’ necessitates obedience and submission on the part of his subjects (1991: 39).  In fact, Lohse has such a robust view of Christ’s kingship that he defines the ‘imitation’ passages in Paul in terms, not of literal mimicking, but as ‘a matter of living in a manner appropriate to the sovereignty of Christ’ (1991: 51).  Thus, being an ‘imitator’ is nearly equivalent to being a ‘disciple’ (1991: 51).

Lohse offers an insightful interaction with what we may call the context of theological ethics – the body.  In his description of soma, Lohse seems to be influenced by Kaesemann’s explanation that humanity has a body as a mark of being a creation of God and it is also one’s avenue for communication in the world.  Lohse also argues that the body is specifically what is under bondage to sin and death (1991:115), and this same body is redeemed by Christ for service to the Lord: ‘Christians are aware that their body belongs to the resurrected Lord, so that life is now lived by looking to him’ (1991: 116; see 116-118).

Perhaps a more unique contribution to theological ethics that Lohse adds is his discussion of ‘the worldliness of faith’ – how to live, not just in the world, but with the world.  Lohse argues that Paul inherited from the synagogue a tradition of respectful obedience to political authorities outside of the community.  Therefore, his discussions of attitudes towards outsiders is not as theologically driven as some think: ‘The apostle is not interested in presenting theoretical reflections about the structures of authority in the world and the places of various officials within it, but wants to set forth how Christians should conduct themselves in the particular setting in which they live’ (1991: 134).  Lohse does admit that this attitude towards public interaction is all oriented towards peace-making and order.

A Lutheran engagement in ethics must deal with the ‘law’ – especially in the Pauline corpus.  Unsurprisingly, Lohse portrays the purposes of the law in negative terms: ‘The law functions to charge every human being with sin and to lock them all in a prison from which there is no escape’ (1991: 158).  For the Jew, the law is demand, but for the believer it is ‘testimony’.  Against a law-centered approach to ethics, Lohse finds the NT as appealing to a Spirit-powered Christ-centered ethic: ‘Where the Spirit that creates life is at work, there GOd’s will and command are recognized and done’ (1991: 163).  Lohse finds this especially to be demonstrated in love (1991: 164).

Reflections

Lohse’s treatement of the logic of ethics in the NT is quite basic and adds little to what had been written before (especially by Furnish).  Lohse does delve more into the work of the mind and conscience (see 1991:90), but not in the kind of depth needed for offering a distinctive contribution.  More original elements of his analysis include the exploration of the role of the ‘body’ in ethics and also the church’s ethical attitude towards and relationship with the world.