An Interview with Author Lewis Smedes

Part One of a Two-Part Series

By Major Deborah Flagg – 

Dr. Lewis Smedes enjoys getting to know students at the campus. Here he visits with seminarians from Soweto, Nigeria, and the U.S.


FULLER SEMINARY – Dr. Lewis B. Smedes, Professor Emeritus of Theology and Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, presents an engaging combination of academic integrity and homespun wisdom packed into a rather imposing 6’2″ frame. Looking a bit like a theological Jimmy Stewart, he has wrestled with the truths of God and the realities of a broken world to arrive at his ethical convictions. Whether or not you agree with all of his views, you will be impressed by his willingness to grapple with the hard questions and to do so with a bedrock faith and a disarming humility.

Shaped by the Dutch Reformed tradition, Dr. Smedes earned a Ph.D from the Free University of Amsterdam and served as the pastor of a Christian Reformed Church in Paterson, New Jersey. He was also a professor of Religion and Theology at Calvin College before coming to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena in 1968.

He only intended to stay one year at Fuller, filling in for a seriously ill colleague in the department of Philosophy and Religion. Through a series of circumstances, both personal and professional, Dr. Smedes’ “brief” stay at Fuller lasted for 26 years, during which he served as the Chair of Theology and Ethics from 1970-90, and the Chair of Integrative Studies from 1990-94. His official retirement in 1994 earned him the title of Professor Emeritus, and he is still teaching!

A noted Christian ethicist, Dr. Smedes is also an award-winning author. He has written 16 books and numerous articles for Christian publications. His books are a rare blend of logic and poetry, challenge and comfort-a joy to read, but never offering easy answers. His latest book, The Art of Forgiving, has just been published.

On a recent early Monday morning at a Coco’s restaurant near Fuller Seminary, Dr. Smedes shared some of his thoughts over oatmeal and coffee. He talked about his views on Christian ethics, responded to some difficult current issues, and shared his theology of grace and forgiveness, a theology that brings all of the difficult choices we make under the sheltering umbrella of God’s love.

DF: Dr. Smedes, you describe yourself as a “teleological deontologist.” As I understand this, you believe that the moral life is governed by rules insofar as those rules enrich human life. To go along with your position, you place a great deal of emphasis on the Ten Commandments. Could you talk about your view that the commandments are the foundation for Christian ethics.

LS: First, I need to correct one part of your question. I don’t believe that the moral life is governed by rules insofar as . . . I believe that the moral life is governed by rules because those rules enrich human life, and that is a very important distinction. My view is that if you believe in revelation and that God has revealed His will in commandments as well as other ways, His intention is to guide us to completion of what He wants us to be, both individually and socially. So they (the commandments) are like maps in a way. A person can take a great interest in maps for no reason except they’re aesthetically interesting. But, the real purpose of a map is to guide you to get somewhere. I think God has a goal for human life and the laws point the way. So, I don’t say I will endorse a rule if I can discern that it enriches human life. I begin with the assumption that it does.

So, I am a rule ethicist, but a rule ethicist in the teleological sense, by which I mean, rules are not there for their own sake. Rules are there to help us reach our telos, our end, our goal in life, and that’s why I call myself a teleological deontologist – those are fancy academic terms, but I believe God gives us rules because we need channels in which to go to keep us from frustrating God’s purposes for our life.

I need to correct the premise of the question in one other way. I don’t believe that the commandments are the foundation for Christian ethics. I believe that love is the foundation for Christian ethics, and the commandments, especially the latter five . . . in a human society, there are certain ways of behaving toward each other that violate love. Jesus said that the purpose and end, the rationale of the Ten Commandments, is that we might live a life of love. So, love is the foundation, and the commandments are guidelines.

DF: Obviously, the Bible is an important source book for our critical thinking on moral and ethical issues, yet the Bible does not deal specifically with many of the issues that we wrestle with toward the end of the 20th century. You have said that there are two biblical texts which “hover over” everything-2 Timothy 3:16 and Philippians 1:9. Why do we need to live in the tension between these two passages?

LS: I think your question points up a very important factor in the Bible as our guide for living. We need to remember that the purpose of the Bible is not primarily moral, it’s primarily redemptive. The Bible reports what God does to save his world, and then points the way to live as a person who follows God’s way. But, it would be a great mistake to think of the Bible as a rule book to cover every possible contingency in life. It isn’t that kind of a book. It’s perfectly adequate to point the way to God’s loving will for our redemption. But, it isn’t like the Koran-it isn’t like a book of laws and civil statutes, and we just must accept that. The flip side of that, I think, is that if a person had no other moral guidance than the Bible, she would have enough to live a good, moral life.

My mother . . . didn’t know there was such a thing as ethics, and she had to make some tough decisions, but it was very simple for her. She just prayed and did what she thought was right, and because her heart was right, and because she had the kind of character she had, she not only did the right thing, but often did the excellent thing.

So, when I say the Bible doesn’t cover all ethical problems, I’m not shortchanging the Bible, or saying it’s irrelevant. I think it’s the most important source for moral guidance there is, but it’s obviously an ancient book, and it wasn’t written with a view to cover every possible event. If you had a rule to cover everything, we would have 10,000 Bibles!

This is why I think it’s so important for people who want to be guided by the Bible to realize that in order to bring biblical principle, biblical morality into the marketplace and into all the complicated, ambiguous, and terribly upsetting new situations that we face, it is terribly important that we develop a discernment for reality, so that as Christians we can see what’s going on-and there are many different ways of seeing what’s going on. You know, you can sometimes just have a hunch, or you can sometimes see by love or by empathy. There’s nothing like being in someone else’s shoes for understanding what’s going on with that person. So, it isn’t just a matter of intellectual activity. It’s a matter of empathy, of intuition very often. If there’s any creative and fruitful way to bring the Bible into touch with modern reality, you’ve got to know what the reality is. And that’s very difficult, and it’s very tentative. Nobody has infallible discernment, so we have to listen to each other.

I think morally one of the challenges of the local church is to have the courage and the patience to be a community of discernment . . . and there are always people in a congregation with more discernment about specific things than the leader has. And, you might be enriched in your understanding of what’s going on by some simple, elderly person who says, “But, you’re forgetting something . . .” So, I just think there has to be a constant dialogue between reality and our discernment of reality and our reading of the Bible. I not only think that’s what ought to be done, that’s what we have always done. I’m not saying anything new. I’m only saying this is how people have always done it, but they haven’t always been aware of it.

DF: Although the Bible doesn’t always offer us specifics, it does offer us some overarching perspectives that can inform our ethical decision-making. One of these perspectives is that biblical morality always slants justice on the side of the weak, the poor and the marginalized. To quote you (if I may!), “It is morally dangerous to be rich.” How do you think the church in America is doing with this biblical perspective?

LS: I think if anything is clear from the Old Testament prophets, it is when they call for justice to roll down like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream . . . they looked around them and said, “the rich, the powerful-they can get justice on their own. They’ve got the clout!” So, God is concerned with those people who are weak and don’t have any power. In a sinful human society, the powerful are always tempted, as we all are, to see the situation from a self-interested point of view. We always worry about protecting our own interests. So, God says, “I’m gonna protect the interests of the poor and the weak, and one day when I come in judgment, finally, I am going to see to it that the poor and the weak get what is due them, and in the meantime, I call on the powerful in the Christian community to reflect my concern for the poor.” I think that’s as obvious as it could possibly be.

I don’t know where I said that, but I might well have said that it’s morally dangerous to be rich. I might qualify that by saying it’s morally dangerous to be anything! It’s morally dangerous to be poor, but I think it’s more dangerous to be rich. The reason I can say this is that I’m a very rich man. I’m not rich by Los Angeles standards, but I’m terribly rich by world standards. I’m among maybe . . . and you are too . . . the richest 5% in the world. And I know in my own life, that I am sorely tempted to read the issues of the day in terms of how it will protect what I’ve got. I don’t want to, but I want my pension to be protected and all that sort of worldly stuff.

We are sinners and we have a penchant toward self-interest. So, I think it’s morally dangerous to be rich. That doesn’t mean all rich people are bad people. I have some friends who are rich who are far more generous than I am. It’s not a sin to be rich, and it’s no great blessing to be poor either.

On the second part of your question. . . I can’t generalize. I think some churches do wonderfully well. I began my ministry by serving a little church in Paterson, New Jersey, and it was a little ghetto in a foreign world. There were Polish Jews, Blacks, Italian Catholics in the middle of an industrialized area, and right in the center was our little Dutch church. So, we tried to minister to that area. That was a long time ago. I went back there a couple of years ago and I preached there, and I said, “This church today is everything that I prayed for when I was here.” That church is responding, and many churches are.

I think in the mainline churches today there is a tendency to . . . let me backtrack, because I want to be empathetic . . . Life has become so raw in its competition for the good stuff and so uncertain that people are very anxious. And they’re lonely, and they come to church to have their anxieties soothed and their loneliness overcome. So, it’s a very self-centered brand of Christianity that we foster. And I can understand that. But, let’s face it-the mainline church today caters mostly to the well off. And I think this is why the charismatic churches are the growing churches. But, it will be just a matter of time before they become the well-off and they will face the same temptations.

The Methodist church was at one time the church of the poor people. The Episcopalians, I don’t think ever were. But, big downtown Methodist churches are the bourgeoisie. So, I think the church’s voice on concern for the poor has been muted. I really think we need a radical conversion. I think I need a radical conversion! I’m 75-years-old, and I must confess that I need a conversion. There was a time in my life when I was very directly active in the battle for justice for black people. I went to preach to the state legislature and I paraded in the streets and I was president of a civil rights organization, so I was much more involved when I was younger. I went into the academic life and that kind of preempted everything. There’s a limit to what any one person can do. But, I think we all need a conversion.

DF: Along these lines, Dr. Smedes, what do you think the church’s response should be to recent governmental trends which seem to place additional burdens on the poor?

LS: I think we need to view with alarm the present tendency in politics to close our ears to the needs of the poor, especially the poor children. And, we’re told, “Oh, but there are many people who receive help who are not worthy of the help” Well, so what? That may be true, but I’m not worthy of what I’ve got. I’ve gotten breaks in life that I never deserved. I didn’t earn my intelligence-I’m just gifted, it’s a gift-I don’t mean gifted in the sense of talented, but almost everything I have I sit back and wonder why God has been so gracious to me. So, when people tell me there are unwed mothers who don’t deserve welfare, I’m sure that they’re right about that, but I’m inclined to say, “So, what else is new?” Anyway, I’m concerned about what I hope will be a temporary political distancing from the needs of the poor.

DF: Your view on the issue of suicide is one of the most helpful that I’ve heard. Would you elaborate on your idea that the best Christian response to suicide is not to be concerned as much with the morality of the act, but with the depth of human despair that prompted it?

LS: I spoke with a woman last week who has a daughter who has undergone considerable mental disturbance. She attempted three times in recent years to commit suicide. It so happened a few years ago that I arrived at their home the morning after she took an overdose, so I got to know the young woman. I went to the hospital with her- and of course, in the abstract, it’s a moral issue. Committing suicide is something we’re not permitted ordinarily to do. But, I’m pragmatic. I don’t think many people have been prevented from suicide by being told that it was a wrong thing to do.

In their better minds, they would agree. But, they sink into the pit of despair and-there is nothing holding them up to make life worthwhile. So, just for pragmatics, I-think of how absurd it would have been while I’m standing over the bed of this young woman who had taken an overdose of some kind of pill and lectured her on the morality of suicide. That would be, I think, a terrible sin for me to do a thing like that. So, I just think that most of the time, almost all of the time, the thing to do is to help people gain hope. Because in the final analysis, people do it because they become hopeless.

DF: In looking at the laws of our land, we see that not everything that Christians regard as sin are crimes. You have said that Christians must consider very carefully when we say that we want sinful acts to be made crimes. In your view, which sinful acts should be considered crimes against society?

LS: There is no absolute answer to which sins might be crimes. There is only a kind of general warning that I learned from a Jesuit by the name of John Courtney Murray, who said, “We mustn’t be overzealous in wanting to criminalize everything.” See, crime is a secular notion, sin is a religious notion. And, we make things crimes in common agreement or by fiat from above, regarding things that will put the community at risk-put other people at risk. And we’re in a constant unsolved dilemma of what that we do to each other should be a crime. The seduction of a child-everyone would agree is a crime. But is the seduction by a man of a woman of 22 a crime? That becomes less clear, though there were times when it was against the law to be in a hotel room if you were unmarried and so on.

So, what should be crimes and what should not is an ongoing debate, which in a civilized society is necessary and good. There have always been in Christian history, attempts by Christian people to work for a kind of theocracy, in which all of God’s laws should be civil laws. My theological teacher, John Calvin, was one of those, as everybody knows. His argument was, “Look, God has his rights too.” So, all of the rules of the Bible, Calvin wanted to be rules of the state, but as a result, it became a very oppressive society in which, in modern terms, the police would poke their noses in everybody’s bedroom and everybody’s kitchen. And he assumed that we all had to be like-minded.

In a modern society, that is pluralistic, a pluralism that we all agree to live in. Compromises have to be made. This is partly because the government that intrudes into all personal life becomes a very oppressive government, and partly because Christians need to be aware of their own fallibility in knowing what sin is. We must recognize that other people’s points of view might be valid.

For instance, I might believe, as I do, that by and large the gambling industry hurts the human community. I’m against having the LOTTO. But, I’m not sure that I would in the name of God battle for a law to outlaw the racetrack, or bingo, or whatever. I think we just have to find a way to live with people with divergent points of view that respects them but respects them in such a way that we still believe they are wrong, and would, if we could, try to persuade them.

In my own background, I can still remember when, if you went to the movies, you couldn’t be a member of my church. If you hung your clothes up to dry on Sunday, you couldn’t be a member of my church. On the other hand, our church councils were smoke-filled rooms, and after the church meeting, you went and drank a pint of beer. So we confused our mores and our customs with God’s rules and God’s laws.

I love the theater. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good play or a good movie. But, if someone asked me if I thought the theater by and large has done more good than bad, I’d say on balance maybe more bad. But, I’d be the last one to want the theater outlawed.

So, I think for two reasons we need to be careful about making sins crimes. One is the intrusiveness – it’s a slippery slope to a very intrusive and oppressive police state, and the other reason is Christian humility. Now, some sins are crimes, but I think in a civil society, only those sins which are sins against other human beings should be crimes. Now, that leaves a very important thing unsolved. Namely, there are what we call “victimless crimes” in which people have to be protected against themselves. There are those who say that no victimless crime should be a crime. There are others who say that anything that harms – suicide, smoking, smoking marijuana – should be outlawed. I’m not inclined in that direction, although I think a good case could be made to outlaw the tobacco industry. I think that this is an issue in which Christians need to exercise a lot of patient discernment.

(Ed. note: Flagg’s interview with Dr. Lewis Smedes will conclude in the next issue of New Frontier.)


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