Virtue ethics, eco-theology, and discipleship

Author: Neil Bergmann

Bergmann, Neil, 2021 Virtue ethics, eco-theology, and discipleship, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Christian discipleship is the practice of following the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, or perhaps more generally as modelling one’s life on the teachings of the Triune God. These teachings emerge from the primary sources of theological understanding – scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. For many faith traditions, including my own Lutheran tradition, scripture is the primary source of such wisdom.

Despite strident calls from faith leaders, care for creation in the context of the current ecological crisis is often a minor component of Christian discipleship programs. This is due to both the lack of interpretive techniques for recognizing ecological wisdom throughout scripture and a lack of ecological discipleship resources.

With a view to developing new insights into a Christian response to the current ecological crisis, this thesis presents and applies a new interpretive technique for scripture which allows a broad range of texts to be investigated for their ecological wisdom. Virtue Ethics is investigated as a new interpretive lens for finding ecological wisdom in scripture because it deals explicitly with the ethical actor (in this case, the disciple) and with desirable and undesirable actions (virtues and vices). The traditional cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice, and temperance together with the traditional Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love are used for scriptural interpretation. These imply a corresponding set of vices of deficiency and excess, such as the vices of cowardice and foolhardiness associated with the virtue of courage.

Following a conventional exegesis of a text to establish its primary meaning, this eco-virtues methodology first identifies virtues and vices in the text under examination. Then an application step reflects on how these same virtues and vices are exhibited in the current ecological crisis, and how such reflection can encourage care for creation by individuals and communities. Two texts have been chosen for investigation and analysis using this new technique – the NT parable of the Prodigal Son, and the OT prophetic book of Obadiah, and significant new scriptural insights are identified.

These insights are then incorporated into a set of Christian discipleship resources in the form of Bible studies suitable for use by discipleship small groups. To evaluate the potential effectiveness of the Bible studies, they are analysed in terms of their alignment with previously published characteristics of an effective ecological discipleship program known as the ‘watershed discipleship’ program. The Bible studies match these criteria well.

The proposed significant original contributions of the project are a new interpretive method for scripture based on virtues and vices, detailed analyses of two biblical texts using the new method, and an analysis of the potential usefulness of this technique for supporting ecological discipleship.

Keywords: Eco-theology, Virtue Ethics, Christian Discipleship, Parable of the Prodigal Son, Book of Obadiah

Subject: Theology thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2021
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Prof. Andrew Dutney