Peter Leithart’s ethics

Writing about Leithart’s ethics may seem a futile exercise given that he declares himself to be “Against Ethics.”[1]  He is against ethics for two reasons.  Firstly, because as a discipline it privatises virtues, leading to individuals choosing morals “without mentioning God.”[2] Secondly, because Ethics as a theological discipline treats moral transformation as secondary; an implication of the Gospel rather than integral to it. [3]

However, I believe that it is possible to define ethics in a way that would enable Leithart to be for them rather than against them and this is what I intend to do within this essay.

In order to do so we will need to engage with non-Christian approaches to show how Leithart’s ethics distinguish from them.  We will also engage with other Christian ethicists outlining areas of agreement and areas of distinction.

We will define Leithart’s ethics under the three headings:

  1. Framework
  2. Method
  3. Vision


In order to describe the framework for Leithart’s ethics, we need to understand the theological principles that underpin his work.  These principles may be identified under three headings:

  1. The Gospel is public, not private
  2. The Gospel is transformational
  3. The Gospel is eschatological

These headings are helpful because, as we will see, they align closely with John Frame’s suggested Ethical perspectives.  Frame, another reformed theologian, suggests that Christian ethics should reflect three perspectives: “Command, Narrative and Virtue.” [4]  These perspectives relate to God’s authority over us, his providential care and his transformational presence with us. [5] 

The Gospel is public not private

Leithart is against Christianity.[6]  Christianity offers a private religion that teaches ideas about God. [7]  These ideas are set out as timeless principles.[8]  The Bible does not deal in timeless principles, nor is it about privatised ideas.[9]  Instead, it tells a story in concrete language about real life. [10]   It is a story about a community called to follow King Jesus,[11] sharing “a ritual bath” and a common meal.[12]  This community is described as “the Ekklesia” in the New Testament, the same word that describes the governing assembly of a Greek or Roman town.[13]  So, according to Leithart, the church is to be “an alternative governing body for the city and the beginning of a new city.”[14]

This means that the Gospel is political because politics themselves are religious. Caesar as Emperor commanded absolute devotion and loyalty.  Christians declared that Jesus was the true King.  Caesar had to choose: would he submit to Jesus as Lord or compete with him as rival? [15]   When governments act today they demonstrate either that they regard Jesus as Lord or as rival.

This takes us to Frame’s first perspective.  Leithart’s ethics are normative.  God’s people must live under his rule acknowledging his right to exercise authority by his command.

The consequence of this is that the Church must learn to speak about things the way that God does.  The way to do this is through learning Biblical language[16] through liturgy and worship. [17]   We learn to name as wrong those things that God declares wrong.  That means that a Christian ethic will oppose things such as homosexuality and abortion because in God’s eyes they are barbarous. [18]

The Gospel is Transformational

Earlier we noted Leithart’s reasons for being against Ethics.  One reason he gives is that moral transformation is treated by Christian Ethics as an implication of the Gospel.  This means that I become a Christian and then I start to think about how my life might change as a result.  Transformed life can become incidental or optional. [19]

Leithart says that if the Gospel doesn’t transform lives then it is not gospel at all.[20]  If it is true that Jesus is King, this should be evidenced by how those who submit to his kingship live.  For example, when the apostle Paul wanted to demonstrate to the Corinthian church that the Gospel he proclaimed really was true, he proved it by demonstrating his own integrity with regards to his travel plans.  Because Paul could be trusted to keep his word about day to day things, he could be trusted when he announced that Jesus is King. [21]

Being a Christian means being a new creation which means that we must be a particular type of person, a person of integrity, someone who can be relied upon.[22]

It is helpful to think about Frame’s virtue perspective here.  An action is ethical because the person who does it is virtuous. Now for the non-Christian, this means attempting to categorise different people as virtuous.  For Aristotle, this was the magnanimous man.  For Leithart, it is the person who is enabled by the Holy Spirit.  The Gospel is transformational because we have a new identity in Christ.  We have the life of the Spirit.[23]

For Leithart, the work of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to the Christian understanding of identity.  In Solomon among the Post Moderns he traces the attempts of philosophers to discover the soul and answer the question “Who is the real me?”  The problem is that we are constantly changing.  The “I” now is not the same “I” of twenty years ago.  This is obvious in physical terms because our cells are constantly replaced but it is true with regards to personality too because we develop and change.[24]  Who, then, is “the real you?”[25]  Is there an “unchanging someone”[26] that gives you permanent identity?  Leithart argues that philosophy has failed to identify such an identity.  For example, Descartes looked for an identity “outside of history, unshaped by teaching or tradition”[27] and thought he found it when he declared “cogito ergo sum.”[28]  But, in fact, Descartes cogito achieves certainty by cutting itself off from his experience and learning.[29] In fact, it becomes “a different self entirely.”[30] There is an empty void or ghost at the centre.[31]

Leithart points to Augustine for a better answer.  To find our true self we look outward not inward.  The Christian is centred upon God. [32]  That is why the Gospel is transformational because “We are humans as creatures of the heavenly Father in whom we have our being; as those reconciled ‘in Christ’; and as those led towards perfection in the Spirit.”[33]

The Gospel is eschatological

In Deep Comedy, Leithart contrasts two outlooks on life.  The first he refers to as tragic, the other as comedy. [34]

A tragic outlook sees history as a story of decline.  So “Hesiod reviews history as a regression from the age of gold, through the age of silver, to an age of bronze.” [35]  Hesiod finds himself in the final fifth age, “the age of iron.” [36]  At best we might see the story as cyclical; from time to time there may be temporary restoration to the previous high point but soon things being to degenerate once more. [37]

This, then, is the outlook of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle. [38]  Change leads to decline, death and decay.  Perfection is seen in “being” but lost in “becoming” because that is a movement away from perfection.  This is the outlook that leads to God being described as “The unmoved mover.”[39]

From this perspective, the preservation of stability becomes of prime importance to ethics.  This was seen in the development of the city states based upon the rule of law (nomos). The good of the city must come first and laws and norms are there to preserve that stability, to protect against change.  Chaos is feared.[40]

And yet, as Jacques Derrida argued, such attempts to hold back change are futile because being only has meaning in relation to becoming.  We can only make sense of the origin by reference to its supplement. [41]  So, for example, a spring is there only because it is the source of a stream. [42] However, even as he critiques the tragic view, Derrida demonstrates his own narrative to be tragedy.  For him, change leads to distortion as seen in the movement from thought to speech and writing.[43]

The Gospel contrasts Tragedy with an alternative narrative.  This story is deep comedy.  This is because the Gospel has eschatology.  We are not on a downward spiral nor in a never ending cycle. [44] Hesiod’s “myth is radically subverted” by Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2.”[45]  Once again we have ages of gold, iron and bronze,[46] but, rather than a story of continuing decline, the dream ends with the coming kingdom of God. [47] 

This means that there will be an end of time resurrection of the dead made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus.[48]  The Gospel narrative promises not only a restored creation but a new creation meaning that “in every way, the last state is superior to the first, and infinitely superior to the first, and infinitely superior to the painful evils of the ages between first and last.”[49]

Here Leithart draws upon the wisdom of Solomon.  Like Derrida, Solomon recognises the struggle and the futility of fighting to prevent chaos.  It is, he says, like herding vapour.  However, unlike Derrida, Solomon has eschatology.  He recognises that this is the case “under the sun” or in time but looks forward to a day not under the sun when God will act to restore and renew.  Solomon’s outlook belongs with deep comedy. [50]

This then is a “narrative ethic.”  We act “ethically” because we have hope.  Not only are we transformed by what God has done but we will be transformed and glorified by what God will do. 


Having set out the framework for Leithart’s ethic we are now in a position to discuss method.  Here our focus will be on the question “Given the framework, how do we go about discovering how we shall live?”  In other words, we are interested in epistemology.[51]  Today’s big question is what is truth and how can you know it?  The assumed answer is usually “You cannot.”

Leithart argues that eschatology influences epistemology.  This is relevant to the influence of post-modernism on contemporary ethics.  We tend to associate post-modernism with relativism, the belief that all views are valid.[52]  Leithart prefers to talk about post-modern provisionalism.[53]  Post-modern provisionalists like Jacques Derrida recognise a frustration in handling texts, language and knowledge.[54]  No text is self contained; it is shaped by context, intertextuality and the interpretation of each reader.[55]  It is like the source and the supplement mentioned before.  Every interaction with the text must change it “until the last word is spoken, until context is closed off once and for all.”  

But for Derrida, the last word is never spoken.  “He rejects eschatology.”[56]  This means that “context will expand forever” so that “meaning will be deferred for ever.”[57]  We can only speak provisionally about things as we wait for further words, additional knowledge, new truth.  We can never be certain about anything.

We can see the consequences of an ethic without eschatology in Leo Hickman’s A Good Life. [58] Hickman seeks to answer the question “Why are we not happy when we are so prosperous?” [59]  He attempts to answer it by encouraging people to think “we” not “me”[60] – in other words to act in a way that is not selfish and encourages sustainable use of our planet’s resources. [61]  We may note first that he argues for narrative or situational ethics; if we act this way, we will be better in the long run.  Secondly, he assumes a certain degree of virtue ethics; that, with a little bit of education, we will be inclined to choose the “win-win” option because we are essentially good.

However, what if we are not essentially good?  Our history suggests a tendency to selfishness.  His readers may choose another way – the use of more technology and the option to cheat.  If happiness is the goal, then what makes such an approach less good?  Hickman cannot answer the objections because, following Derrida, he lacks the eschatology of the Christian God.  Therefore, there is no certainty.  A pillar is missing in his ethical framework; there is no place for command ethics.

This is why the eschatology of the Gospel is vital.  Leithart shows us that, for Solomon, there is a final word beyond the sun. God will act to judge the world, to show what is true and right.  Not only that, but the God who, in Christ Jesus, is the final word, is also the first word, the alpha and the omega.  God has already acted in history; he has now spoken through Jesus Christ whom he raised from the dead.  This means that we have an authoritative word, God’s word. [62]  For Leithart, this doesn’t take away from the many uncertainties that still exist under the sun but there are certainties.  So, even Solomon who described so much as “vapour” could say “I know.”[63] 

It is possible to know truth.  Therefore, it is possible to determine right from wrong, good from bad.  This is the departure point for Christians from much that is found in contemporary ethics.


We are now in position to describe what Leithart’s ethics should look like when put into practice.  We can know what his ethics look like because we have the final word of King Jesus.  We can say that they will be shaped by the public, transformational, eschatological nature of the Gospel.  This leads to two key propositions:

  1. Leithart’s Ethics are set in the context of a vision for Christian Government (the long term vision).
  2. Leithart expects the church, as the government in waiting, to portray what his ethical vision will look like (short to medium term).

The Context of Christian Government

After all the things he is against, Leithart declares himself “for Constantine.” [64] This is not an evaluation of whether Constantine’s conversion was genuine or whether the model of Christendom that developed under him throughout the Roman Empire remained true to the Gospel.[65] Rather, it is a statement that we should expect one day to see a government that looks to God as the highest authority and submits to King Jesus in all matters of life: public, family and individual.[66]

It is this aspect of the vision that makes this particular outlook distinctive over and against other prominent Christian ethicists who thus far would be in broad agreement with Leithart.

We may specifically identify Hauerwas,[67] Yoder[68] and Clapp.[69]  Like Leithart, they define Christian ethics within a framework that is both public and transformational. [70]  However, their telling of the story presents a faithful church as always in opposition to the state.[71]  In this narrative, the conversion of Constantine resulted in a tragic wrong turn.  The church chose the way of power.[72]  Recent history has seen liberal states attempt to neutralise religion by privatising it. [73]  The church has accepted a compromise retaining a form of advisory role, shaping private morals but losing its prophetic voice. [74] Their call is for the church to return to the right path which means following the way of Christ through suffering and death.[75]  The Church belongs outside the centres of power, with those on the margins offering an alternative way of life.[76]

Leithart’s response is to say “so far so good,” but the whole point of death is that it leads to resurrection.  Supposing that the Emperor listens to the prophet?  What then?  Whilst the church must be distinctive even if that means suffering, her expectation is that one day God will cause governments to bow the knee to Jesus Christ and install his government.  In Leithart’s thought, there is a post-millenialist dimension to this.  The church can expect these things to happen before the return of Christ. [77]

So Leithart’s vision is of a world that is ruled justly by godly men who submit to King Jesus.

What the Church should portray

We should be able to see Leithart’s vision at work in the church.  Of course, the reality is that we often don’t because, as Leithart would put it, we have chosen Christianity instead of Christendom.  However, Leithart’s reformed church submitting to King Jesus would portray the following marks.

It would be a place of discipline because it is ruled by God through leaders submitting to his word. [78]  This means that discipline must be recognised between churches and schism then is unethical. [79]  It means that those things named by God as abhorrent must be named as such by the church: abortion, homosexuality etc.[80]

It would be a community that cares because it is transformed by the Gospel. This means that the church will care for the vulnerable and oppose euthanasia and abortion. [81]  Not only that, but our ethics will work out in Baptism and communion.  We will not exclude the weak and the vulnerable from the table, namely children and the mentally ill. [82]   For Leithart, this means paedobaptism and paedo-communion. [83]

It will participate in joyful worship because we have a narrative that is deep comedy, not tragedy.  Christians stand out in contrast to a world of despair that attempts to fight the chaos.  We are called to eat and drink, to enjoy life.  This is worship.  Worship is ethical.[84]

We know that we cannot control everything, nor must we.[85]  This will affect our attitude to technological and medical developments, knowing that just because we can do something does not mean we must.  It means that whilst Christians should be wise stewards of God’s creation, they must not be frightened by environmental doomsday predictions.  Rather, Christians will constantly demonstrate hope in the fact that “He who is unchanging, with ‘no variation or shadow due to change’ (Jas. 1:17), is the author, not only of change itself, but of the order which makes that change good.”[86]


At the start we said that our aim was to define ethics in a way that would enable Leithart to be for them, not against them.  Our definition of Leithart’s ethics could be stated as how God’s people, indwelt and transformed by the Holy Spirit, are to live under God’s rule obeying him in the hope of the resurrection.  In this way, they call all creation to submit to Jesus the King and live under his rule looking forward to God’s new creation.

[1] See Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2003), 95-120.

[2] See Leithart, Against Christianity, 100.

[3] Leithart, Against Christianity, 97.

[4] Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey:  P&R Publishing, 2006), 319-320.

[5] See Frame, Salvation belongs to the Lord, 315.

[6] Leithart argues that what is presented as “Christianity” is in fact Gnosticism and runs contrary to the Bible’s teaching on what it means to be Church and to be a Christian.   See Leithart, Against Christianity, 13-14. 

[7] Leithart, Against Christianity, 14.

[8] Leithart, Against Christianity, 45.

[9] See Leithart, Against Christianity, 100.

[10] Leithart, Against Christianity, 44.

[11] Leithart, Against Christianity, 24.

[12] Leithart, Against Christianity, 18. 

[13] Leithart, Against Christianity, 30-31.

[14] Leithart, Against Christianity, 31.

[15] See Leithart, Against Christianity, 24 where in an amusing sketch, Leithart imagines the Apostles meeting with a religious consultant.  When Paul declares “We’ve been sent to proclaim that there’s another king, one Jesus,” the consultant responds “I’m very sorry I can’t help you…I am a religious consultant, not a political revolutionary.”  See also Leithart, Against Christianity, 29-30.

[16] Leithart, Against Christianity, 53-54.

[17] Leithart, Against Christianity, 66.

[18] Leithart, Against Christianity, 115-116.

[19] Leithart, Against Christianity, 97.

[20] Leithart, Against Christianity, 99.

[21] Leithart, Against Christianity, 98-99.

[22] Leithart, Against Christianity, 98.

[23] See also Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order.  An Outline of Evangelical Ethics (2d ed.  Leicester, Apollos, 1994), 12.

[24] See Peter J Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2008),103-104.

[25] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 104.

[26] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 104.

[27] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 109.

[28] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 110.

[29] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 111.

[30] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 110.

[31] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 111.

[32] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 131-132.

[33] John Webster, cited in Leithart, Solomon among the Post-moderns, 132.

[34] Peter J Leithart, Deep Comedy (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2006), 3.

[35] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 3.

[36] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 3.

[37] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 3.

[38] C.f. Leithart, Deep Comedy, 43.

[39] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 47.  See also, Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (Routledge Classics; Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2004), 494.

[40] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 49.

[41] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 76.

[42] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 76.

[43] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 86.

[44] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 15.

[45] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 15.

[46] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 15.

[47] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 16.

[48] See 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.

[49] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 15.

[50]This promise of transformation is not just for us (1 John 3:2) but for the whole of creation (Romans 8, 1 Cor 15).  Because resurrection means we are raised for creation, not rescued from it, our hope is not Gnostic hope. O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 14.

[51] Under the heading “Method” we could also have considered the question, “How does Leithart think we should make this happen? I have saved this for the section on “Vision” because, to some extent, there is a strong tie up with his eschatology in terms of future events.  Therefore, under Method, I have chosen to focus on Leithart’s method for discovering and understanding ethics.

[52] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 59-60.

[53] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 71.

[54] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 86.

[55] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 94.

[56] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 94.

[57] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 94.

[58] Leo Hickman, A Good Life, The Guide to Ethical living (London: Transworld Publishers, 2005).

[59] Hickman, A Good Life, 6.

[60] Hickman, A Good Life, 6.

[61] Hickman, A Good Life, 6.

[62] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 100.

[63] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 99.

[64] Leithart, Against Christianity, 124.

[65] Leithart, Against Christianity, 125.

[66] See e.g. Leithart, Against Christianity, 128-129.

[67] Stanley Hauerwas, After Christendom (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991).

[68] John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel, (Notra Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1984).

[69] Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People.  The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-varsity Press, 1996).

[70] Hauerwas, After Christendom, 18.

[71] Hauerwas, After Christendom, 43.

[72] See especially, Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 135-138.

[73] See Hauerwas, After Christendom, 30-31.

[74] Hauerwas, After Christendom, 31.

[75] Yoder defines this in terms of kenosis Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 145.

[76] See Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom, 158-9.

[77] Leithart, Against Christianity, 135.

[78] Leithart, Against Christianity, 119.

[79] Leithart, Against Christianity, 119-120.

[80] Leithart, Against Christianity, 115-116.

[81] Leithart, Against Christianity, 115-116.

[82] See Leithart, Against Christianity, 92.

[83] [83] I think it is possible to recognise the charge here without necessarily agreeing with all of Leithart’s conclusions about the sacraments as set out here.  Access to Christian Baptism and Communion should never be determined on the basis of age or intellectual ability.  Indeed my own personal experience and correspondence with other “Baptists” suggests that many do recognise the validity of baptism and communion both for children and those with severe learning disabilities (Reference e.g. private email Correspondence with Thomas Schreiner, 31/01/08 and 02/02/08 on the practise of child baptism amongst Southern Baptists).  It is either the case that Leithart fails to distinguish sufficiently between Adult baptism and Believers Baptism or that Leithart’s understanding of what baptism is, who it is for and the nature of church membership is substantially different to that assumed in much debate between paedo and credo-baptists.  A reading of Leithart’s other works suggests the latter. See generally, Leithart, Peter J, The Baptized Body.  Moscow, Idaho:  Canon Press, 2007.

[84] Leithart, Deep Comedy, 147.

[85] Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, 166.

[86] O’Donovan,

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