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Twentieth-century ethics was a time of reaping the whirlwind after the wind had been sown since the dawn of modernity. The modern era of Western thought began in the seventeenth century when some thinkers abandoned the Augustinian approach to theology as an exercise of faith seeking understanding, opting instead for a new approach that roughly amounted to reason, in a narrow sense, seeking reasons or justifications to believe. So began the quest of rational theology.

The Wind

Early in the modern era, some rational theologians seemed sure that they could justify belief in the main tenets of Christianity on narrow rationalist premises (e.g., William Chillingworth, John Tillotson). But by the end of the century, even John Locke, the would-be rational defender of the faith, could not see his way through to justify belief in doctrines as basic to orthodoxy as the Trinity and the incarnation. By the eighteenth century, some of rational theology’s unitarian (and Arian) buds had blossomed into varieties of deism across the Western world (e.g., John Toland, Anthony Collins, and Matthew Tindal in England; Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France; and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in America). Eventually, and perhaps mercifully, David Hume gave the whole rational theology project a final shove, and it collapsed.

Yet, as hope for a rational justification for Christianity as a divinely revealed religion crumbled, confidence in the existence and knowability of a rational moral order remained high. So high, in fact, that thinkers throughout the age of reason, including Baruch Spinoza, continued to look to ethics as the one aspect of biblical teaching that could command rational assent and universal consent. Some Enlightenment thinkers even thought that ethics might be able to justify theology on the basis of human reason alone.

In the broadly Augustinian structure of thought that prevailed through the medieval era, ethics followed and rested on theology. That is, our knowledge of the way humans ought to conduct themselves in the world was supposed to depend on and be determined by who God is and what He wills. Debates over many subpoints raged through the centuries, but few theologians had imagined any order other than this. Indeed, the relationship between theology and ethics was so tight that ethics was largely treated as a branch of theology by Roman Catholic and Protestant thinkers alike.

The fact that Christianity exists as a potent force in the world and has the structure and form that it does demands an explanation.

That order was challenged by the new, modernist varieties of rationalism. By the time Immanuel Kant wrote near the end of the eighteenth century, the content of rational theology was largely reduced to only what rational theologians imagined must be true of God in order to maintain the moral order (and thus civilization). Kant’s contribution on this front was to state the matter openly and honestly, and to provide a creative and formidable philosophical framework to give Enlightenment thinkers a place to stand.

In Kant’s proposal, theology is driven by the demands of practical reason, which governs the way we live in the world. The idea is rather simple: In order to live a moral life, one must believe certain things. One of those things is that doing what is right will lead to personal happiness. It is evident, however, that doing our moral duty does not always lead to personal happiness in this life; it often leads to suffering. Therefore, Kant argued that we must believe that there is some sort of afterlife in which the good is rewarded with happiness. Kant said that we cannot know that this state of affairs actually exists, but we find ourselves in the peculiar position of having to believe in such a state in order to do what reason demands is our duty. What is more, Kant concluded, we must also believe that what reason requires of us is backed by divine authority and thus what God commands, just as we must also believe that God will reward those who do their duty in this life with endless happiness in the next.

The Whirlwind

In some ways, Kant’s framework completed the restructuring of ethics from the previous view that prevailed in the West; in other ways, it accelerated the unraveling of the broad moral consensus that earlier view supported. Previously, ethics was often approached as a branch of theology; after Kant, ethics has been generally approached as an autonomous discipline, as it had once been conceived of in Athens. So long as Westerners continued to think more or less like Christians on moral matters and to endorse the main contours of Christian moral thought as revealed in Scripture and summarized in the Decalogue, this seemed reasonable. But the assumption that human notions of morality were stable proved naive. Once the theological guy-wires were cut, ethics was swept up in the whirlwind.

Subsequent thinkers would propose meta­ethical principles derived from anthropology, sociology, psychology, and eventually even biology. Meanwhile, suspicious critiques of the gospel voiced in the eighteenth century (e.g., by Hermann Reimarus) were further developed and extended to Christian moral teaching by nineteenth-century thinkers such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. The particulars of their critiques varied widely, but these “masters of suspicion,” as Paul Ricoeur calls them, each proposed counternarratives of Christian morality that cast it as a deviant or debilitating historical development and an impediment to personal and social progress.

As harsh and unhinged from historical reality as these counternarratives sometimes were, suspicion toward Christianity is all one has left when the possibility of revealed truth is rejected. The fact that Christianity exists as a potent force in the world and has the structure and form that it does demands an explanation. But if Christian theology is not true, the reasoning runs, then Christian teaching and practice must serve some other purpose than the purpose it appears or pretends to serve. Some suspect Christianity of being a coping mechanism for despair, fear, unfulfilled desires, or suffering; others suspect it of being an instrument of oppression that allows adherents to restrain and impose their collective will on others; yet others suspect moral discourse is meaningless or that morality itself is an evolutionary illusion.

Meanwhile, the suspicious critique of Christian ethics deepened and spread.

This whirlwind of suspicion cut a path through the twentieth century, one that is evident in the growing sense of crisis reflected in the literature as the increasingly desperate attempt to justify morality on nontheological grounds continued to falter and then failed. As the collapse approached, one metaethical proposal followed another in rapid succession: varieties of utilitarianism (e.g., Henry Sidgwick) gave way to a contest of sorts between realism (e.g., George Edward Moore) and emotivism (e.g., Alfred Jules Ayer), then prescriptivism (e.g., Richard Mervyn Hare), and so on. Though intriguing ideas and insights flowed from the century’s fertile philosophical minds, some theorists despaired of ever finding a nontheological justification for morality and called on their colleagues to abandon the project (e.g., Richard Rorty) while others pronounced human freedom and morality a mere mirage (e.g., Michael Ruse).

Meanwhile, the suspicious critique of Christian ethics deepened and spread. Twentieth-century disciples of the masters of suspicion—and others who came to share the mood—leveled accusations against this and that point of Christian teaching for generating or perpetuating social injustice. The supposed injustice was sometimes quite real but not traceable to biblical teaching—though in some cases (e.g., racism) the injustice could be traced to distortions and abuses of Scripture by some segments of the professing Christian community. In other cases (e.g., abortion), the supposed injustice (denying “reproductive rights,” in this case) was traceable to Christian teaching but was not an actual injustice (because Christian teaching on abortion forbids murder; it does not deny “reproductive rights”). In every case, however, the matter was complicated.

Lynn White Jr.’s mid-century thesis “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” is an illustrative example. White argues that the Christian doctrine of creation and view of human dominion over nature lies behind the global ecological crisis. So long as these beliefs continue to shape Western thought, it will be impossible to make significant progress on this issue. Either Christian teaching must be revised or Christianity itself must be rejected. For his part, as a Presbyterian churchman (and son of a Presbyterian minister), White called for revising Christian teaching along lines suggested by the life of Francis of Assisi.

Roughly the same critique is repeated throughout the century with each new cultural issue of moral significance. In addition to its doctrines of creation and human dominion, Christianity’s views on the exclusivity of salvation in Christ (Jesus alone is the way to God), gender (two and only two complementary sexes), marriage (restricted divorce, male headship, one-man/one-woman marriage alone), human life (forbidding abortion on demand, research that destroys human embryos, suicide, euthanasia, and reproductive technologies that destroy life), sex (forbidding sex outside of marriage and contraception that destroys life, and acknowledging the sinfulness of same-sex attraction, orientation, identity, and acts), among others, have all received sustained criticism, most often in the name of freedom and equality. The insinuation is that to correct these injustices and make meaningful social progress, these points of Christian doctrine must be either revised or rejected. Either way, the future will be post-Christian.

The Church in the Whirlwind

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the ambient culture in America generally endorsed Christian moral teaching, with many unbelieving parents wanting their children to learn how the Bible teaches us to live. By the end of the century, the ambient culture increasingly viewed traditional Christian morality as regressive, a hindrance to social progress, and a threat to human equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even the lofty ideal of Christian love was suspected of being a political device, which seemed plausible in the heat of the culture war raging on the postwar American scene. Our secular-minded neighbors had made their choice and rejected Christian morality.

Churches that refused to compromise their doctrinal standards often resisted moral compromise as well.

Meanwhile, Protestantism at the opening of the century was being sifted by fierce theological debates over the authority, trustworthiness, and interpretation of Scripture and numerous other points of doctrine. Yet people on both sides of these debates could generally count on their opponents’ sharing the same general moral outlook. By the end of the century, this was no longer the case. Churches that accommodated their doctrinal views to the sensibilities of the ambient culture generally followed the revisionist path into moral compromise as well; churches that refused to compromise their doctrinal standards often resisted moral compromise as well, though with varying degrees of thoughtfulness and cultural engagement.

A brief comparison of the two largest Presbyterian bodies in North America at the end of the century is illuminating. The mainline Northern Presbyterian church began commissioning women as church workers in about 1938, then began ordaining women as ministers in 1956. The Northern church made race relations a priority in 1963 by establishing the Council on Church and Race, which spurred many other racial justice programs going forward. In 1970, the Northern church called for the liberalization of abortion laws, and in 1992, the reunited Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted the pro-choice position that abortion is “morally acceptable” in many circumstances but ought to be a measure of “last resort.” It relaxed restrictions on divorce in 1952 and again in 1981. As early as 1978, the report of a Northern church study committee called for the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals, though the PC(USA) did not follow this advice officially until 2011. Nevertheless, by the end of the century, the PC(USA) had at least one openly transgender minister and has since removed the requirement of marital fidelity or chastity in singleness from its ordination standards and redefined marriage as between “two people” in order to accommodate same-sex marriage.

Confessional evangelicals are finding their moral feet in the storm and are better prepared now than they had been a century before.

Most of these same issues also drove the Presbyterian Church in America to deeper study and self-examination, but often with very different results than those observed in the PC(USA). The PCA, for example, continues to teach, practice, and defend complementarianism and male-only ordination (reaffirmed as recently as 2017). It holds the pro-life position that abortion on demand is morally impermissible (1978, reaffirmed in 1980, 1986, and 1987), acknowledges only adultery and desertion as grounds for divorce (1972, 1992), and maintains that homosexuality is sinful and that noncelibate homosexuals are disqualified from holding church office (1977/1980, reaffirmed in 1999 and 2019). The PCA does not recognize same-sex marriage and has taken recent steps to clarify this stance.

In general, mainline churches have continued to let out slack in their theological guy-lines in order to accommodate the strong cultural winds. Interestingly, while swaying with the culture, they have experienced steep declines in membership. Meanwhile, conservative evangelical churches have tightened their guy-lines to brace themselves against these same winds and have grown even as they have been marginalized within wider society for not compromising their moral teachings. In a curious twist of history, by the end of the twentieth century, many evangelical Protestants found that their moral views had more in common with their conservative Roman Catholic neighbors than with their mainline counterparts. They also found growing confidence and courage in their convictions as the issues flung at them out of the whirlwind forced them to study up, examine their hearts, and suffer for their beliefs.


The twentieth century, as I said previously, was a time of reaping the whirlwind after the wind was sown from the dawn of modernity. The whirlwind has come and has not yet abated. But after a century of struggling through one moral issue after the next, confessional evangelicals are finding their moral feet in the storm and are better prepared now than they had been a century before. That does not guarantee that there will be no more compromise, but the way of faithfulness is lighted by the unfailing Word of God, which is sufficient to lead us through what are very likely to be even darker and stormier days ahead.

The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy

Doctrinal Shifts

Keep Reading The Twentieth Century

From the May 2020 Issue
May 2020 Issue