Frederick Simmons: from love to justice, from ecclesiology to ethics

By Ray Waddle
Editor, Reflections magazine

Love and justice... Do they conflict? Must they conflict?  Much is at stake in the answer—the prospects of political reform, the power of the Christian witness, even the future relevance of mainline churches.

To Christian ethicist Frederick Simmons of Yale Divinity School, the culture shaped by western magisterial Protestantism has undergone a century-long turn from love to justice as a central focus of social reform and ethical argument. One effect: the heritage of Christian love gets overshadowed or obscured, even for Christians.

"The decline of mainline churches has taken place in an era that has seen a shift from concern with sin to a concern for suffering—a shift from love to justice, from ecclesiology to ethics," says Simmons, assistant professor of ethics.

"The distinctiveness of Christian identity has become one of the primary questions.  As an ethical category, conceptions of love are often explicitly tied to particular interpretive traditions while conceptions of justice can seem more generic, so some worry that Christians’ concentration on justice has inadvertently made their faith incidental to their social ethics."  


Mainline denominations, for example, are today criticized for embracing a commitment to justice movements at the neglect of their own doctrinal identity or heritage.

Simmons takes up some of these questions—and hopes to stir renewed attention to the category of love in Christian ethics—in a new book project he is co-editing called Love and Christian Ethics: Tradition, Theory, and Society.

From one point of view, the shift to justice was inevitable, he suggests. In a pluralistic culture, the work of justice is politically more effective when doctrinal differences are set aside. The 19th century saw a surge in optimism about the possibility of remaking the social order. The secular social sciences and political philosophy became new engines of justice. And many Christians took it as a Christian mandate to engage these emerging tools of reform.

But in many instances the tendency has been to lose sight of traditional Christian ideas of love and their value in public debate and religious identity.

The ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr arguably hastened the shift, Simmons points out. Niebuhr the "Christian realist" saw love as the "impossible possibility," an ideal that in history can only be realized in interpersonal relations. He was skeptical that love could overcome the forces of self-interest at work in the public sphere and be applicable there. Only justice has pragmatic value in politics, he argued.

This asymmetrical view of love and justice can be corrected, Simmons says—by re-examining the works of Martin Luther King Jr.

"King talks a lot about justice but also love," he says. "He thought that if you get love right, you get justice right. He had great confidence in the intelligibility of Christian faith and its application to social analysis. That’s a legacy of King’s that’s sometimes been neglected."

King’s hope was grounded in part by reading Augustine.

"Augustine didn’t think sanctification was limited to the private sphere," Simmons says. "Although he was acutely critical of social self-righteousness, he also believed societies could do more than simply restrain sin. I think King saw that. He saw love’s possibilities for social sanctification. He wanted love and justice to work in tandem in society, drawing on Augustine in ways that Niebuhr and Martin Luther overlooked.

"King had greater hope for the public realm. Yes, justice is reflected in law; as he said, ‘such laws do stop lynchings.’ But King also insisted that laws alone cannot achieve integration.  According to King we need love and justice together—love is an indispensable aspect of the common good that God calls and empowers us to advance."

Simmons, a United Methodist, came to the discipline of Christian ethics out of a twin passion for philosophical rigor and for pragmatic Christian practice.

From his father, a natural scientist, he learned the value of methodological thoroughness. As an undergraduate at Carleton College in Minnesota, he studied philosophy. But he also sought a broader experience of the world. He was drawn to Latin America, eventually working in Ecuador as a teacher, first at a Franciscan secondary school, then at the Salesian Polytechnic and the Pontifical Catholic universities in Quito. There he was asked to teach theological ethics, and he found a vocation.

"The subject was vibrant, concrete, significant," he recalls. "It combined philosophical precision with the theological substance of Christian doctrine."

His academic interests brought him to Yale, where he received an M.Div. at YDS, and an M.A. and Ph.D.

Teaching the two-semester Introduction to Christian Ethics at YDS, Simmons stresses the "polyphony of Christian positions" that a student should examine across the turbulent spectrum of medical ethics, environmental ethics, sexual ethics and other themes.

"There’s no one position but a lot of enduring options," he says. "As an individual Christian, a student may ultimately decide to align with one position, but part of a divinity education is to get a sense of the ineluctable diversity of the tradition. We shouldn’t be complacent."

That fluidity of tradition and argument plays out in current debates about the health of mainline churches. Simmons suggests that the spirit of social gospel thinker Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) hovers over contemporary mainline Protestant identity.

"Rauschenbusch talked of a ‘Christianization of the social order.’ He envisioned a nation of moral disciples – not all Christians by creed necessarily but a society where ‘bad people do good things’ instead of one where ‘good people do bad things.’

"Similarly, mainline members are more likely to see continuity between the church and the world, not a separation from the world."

If evangelicals are more likely to say, "It’s important that my children grow up to be Christian," mainliners are more likely to say, "It’s important that my children grow up to be good people, strengthening civil society, taking care of the least of these, and engaging pluralism," he says.

Argument will continue about the nature and destiny of mainline denominations, but their ethical impulses, Simmons suggests, are based on an honored, still-vivid theological perspective: "God is working in history in progressive ways. God is God of the whole world, moving us in fits and starts to bring about democratic possibilities. Globally, those possibilities are increasingly being achieved politically, and Rauschenbusch believed the next step was to extend them economically."

Date Posted: Friday, August 31, 2012 - 1:33pm