Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Number 14: Paul Ramsey

We resume our discussion of the twenty most important theologians in the Methodist tradition with a review of Paul Ramsey, who checks in at number 14. Paul Ramsey (1913-1988) was born in Mendenhall, MS to Mamey McCay Ramsey and Rev. John William Ramsey (who was an ordained Methodist minister). Ramsey spent almost all of his theological career at Princeton University.

Ramsey graduated from Millsaps College in 1935. While at Millsaps, Ramsey absorbed the typical Methodist Protestant liberalism of his day and became what John Howard Yoder would later call an LPP (liberal Protestant pacifist). However, when he went to seminary at Yale, he was quickly disabused of his LPPism, thanks largely to the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr. He graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1940. He received his PhD from Yale in 1943. While a student at Yale, he studied under Reinhold Niebuhr's brother, H. Richard Niebuhr. In Ramsey's unpublished papers stored in the archives of the Duke libraries, the only notes from any of his classes were those he took while listening to H. Richard Niebuhr lecture.

Perhaps Ramsey's most influential work has been his Basic Christian Ethics. I first read this book in the fall of 1987. It was my first semester of college at Emory, and I took Religion 354: Christian Ethics. That first semester of college was very formative for me, and this book was a large part of it. The book, which was published in 1950, was foundational for many colleges, universities, and seminaries in the subject of Christian Ethics. It remained the most widely used text book in these settings for decades.

The theme of Basic Christian Ethics was the disinterested love of neighbor. Ramsey sought to provide a Christological account of what disinterested love of neighbor might mean. He would disagree with what James Gustafson would later call a theocentric ethic. He begins his book by proclaiming boldly: "The first thing to be said concerning Christian ethics is that it cannot be separated from its religious foundations." (p. 1 ). Ramsey goes on to describe two sources for Christian love: the righteousness of God and the Kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus. The righteousness of God includes both human righteousness (mishpat) and God's tsedeq (God's unwavering covenant fidelity). He draws on Paul, Luther, and Wesley to display the love of God Christologically.

The second source of Christian love is the Kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus. Ramsey accepted the idea from Schweitzer that Jesus was wrong about his expectation for the Kingdom of God to come in the 1st century: "few contemporary Christians accept the kind of Kingdom-expectation Jesus considered of central importance, and rightly they do not." (p. 35). (It is regretable at this point that Ramsey did not live long enough to see these views corrected by the work of N. T. Wright, namely that the eschatological urgency in the three synoptic gospels was centered on the return from exile as enacted by Jesus in his arrival in Jerusalem and subsequent death and resurrection). Ramsey then goes on to explain that Christ teachings on the disinterested love of the neighbor can be disentangled from Jesus' eschatological expectations. In the course of his argument, Ramsey asserts, "Certainly Christian ethics is a deontological ethic, not an ethic of 'the good' " (p. 116).

Ramsey is perhaps best known for his defense of just war theory. He grounds just war theory not in terms of self-defense (which is actually excluded on the basis of disinterested love), but on love of neighbor. Unfortunately, he was not able to see the Vietnam War as something that grossly violated just war theory, nor was he able to use just war theory to mount a serioius critique of the US policy of nuclear deterrence. Many years later, he changed his mind on his statements on the moral acceptability of the "bluff" (Newsweek, July 5, 1982). Ramsey did acknowledge that the nuclear bombing of Japanese cities in World War II was grossly immoral.

Ramsey developed several other interests and projects in his theological career. He provided an account of medical ethics that was basically deontological in nature (The Patient as Person). He was (along with his friend and sometimes sparring partner James Gustafson) a strong critic of Joseph Fletcher's Situation Ethics. Near the end of his life, he dedicated himself to a careful study of Jonathan Edwards, whom he identified as the greatest of all American theologians.

In the last years of his life, Paul Ramsey and Stanley Hauerwas were consultants to the United Methodist bishops as they wrote, "In Defense of Creation: The Nuclear Crisis and a Just Peace." Hauerwas was a representative of the Christian pacifist position (which was unintelligble without christology and ecclesiology) and Ramsey represented just war theory. Hauerwas and Ramsey were good friends, although they disagreed on the ethics of war. They had worked together many years earlier at Georgetown as they studied with doctors in their attempt to forge an adequate medical ethic. Ramsey and Hauerwas had both warned the United Methodist bishops to stay away from survivalism as the motivation to address the nuclear crisis, but the bishops grounded their arguments in the very survivalism about which Hauerwas and Ramsey had warned them. Ramsey had always said, "God intends to kill us all in the end, and in the end he is going to succeed," but the bishops did not heed the warnings from their theologians. As a result, Ramsey wrote, Speak Up for Just War or Pacifism, with an epilogue by Stanley Hauerwas, in which the two authors critiqued the bishops for their survivalism.

In Speak Up for Just War or Pacifism, Ramsey widened his discussion to include more than just the morality of war. In calling for a more robust theological discourse among the people called Methodists, Ramsey called for a return to Wesley's General Rules. He found fault with Methodism's tolerance for abortion and called on Methodists to make the sacrifices necessary to offer women real alternatives to abortion. He called for the 1988 General Conference to return to traditional language and doctrine for Trinitarian and Christological confessions. He died before that 1988 General Conference was convened, but he likely would have been pleased with the outcome.

Near the end of Ramsey's life he had some sharp words for his friend James Gustafson, who had just completed his volume on Theocentric Ethics: "I feel lonely at the drawing of a theological enterprise that does not center upon the things that we had thought we had shared with you at the level of first order discourse, namely prayer, worship, liturgy, the confessions of the church, and going to the Lord's table." One could almost hear the disappointment and sadness in his voice.

Paul Ramsey's influence on the study of Christian ethics in the latter half of the 20th century was felt by all who desired to enter into serious discussion about the moral claims of the Christian life. There is still much to be learned from his work today. If modern Christian disciples are not going to be pacifist, then they ought at least to take the just war theory seriously. One of the best ways to do that is by engaging the work of Paul Ramsey. Perhaps Gustafson summarized his influence best when he wrote in Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective : "In North America Paul Ramsey has been a towering and forceful figure for almost four decades; his writing has forced persons with alternative views to come to grips with his thought, and had a deep impact on a younger generation of authors. He has been a persistent critic of moral fads, a steadfast proponent of the Christian ethic of love, and a vigorous participant in debates about public policy and medical ethics" (p. 84).


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I'm not a Ramsey fan, but my big disagreement here is that Ramsey was a theologian/ethicist who happened to be Methodist--and not in any real way a Wesleyan or Methodist thinker.

His big influences were Augustine and the Niebuhr brothers with even Aquinas having more influence than the Wesleys. His criticism of pacifism amounts to a criticism of "perfectionism."

Whereas with others I have criticized where in the list of top 20 you have placed them, with Ramsey I question his being in the list at all.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I do agree with Ramsey's critique of James Gustafson's Theocentric Ethics--which is kind of a Calvinism transformed into a Deism.
Gustafson's earlier works were so good and gave no hint that this is where he'd end up.

Jonathan said...

Michael, I never said that direct engagement with Wesley was a criterion on this list. It's a bonus, but it's not essential. Later there will be some Boston personalists on this list who are very far removed from Wesley, but who are ranked even higher than Ramsey. Why? Because they exercised great influence. And in the case the Boston Personalism (BP), it's not an influence I am happy about, but it's there.

I never said that this is a list of the BEST theologians in the Wesleyan tradition - that would be a different list and maybe I'll do a follow-up on that -- even though you-know-who says that best is not a theological category.

Ramsey has one long quote from Wesley in BCE (p. 21). Not too many bonus points for him on that. But I wouldn't be too quick to say that his criticism of pacifism really amounts to a criticism of "perfectionism," (which may be a misleading characterization of Wesley's doctrine of sanctification, depending on how you unpack that.) Ramsey did not argue for just war merely out of a Niebuhrian sense of lesser of two evils, but out of a duty to love neighbor. It was a positive good, not a lesser of two evils. He cited the story of the Good Samaritan and asked what would Jesus have the Samaritan do if the robbers were still in the act of attacking? I know that Ramsey worked within the world of Niebuhrian realism, but he also wrote about the importance of love, which Niebuhr seldom did. And Niebuhr never really wrote about the actual just war theory the way Ramsey did. There are some interesting differences as well as similarities between Niebuhr and Ramsey.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I think Ramsey was far more a product of being a white person from Miss. of his day than a Methodist for several reasons. 1)Although he criticized racism and segregation, he was far more horrified by MLK,Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. He saw this "disorder in the streets" as violent and argued full barrel against Christians ever committing civil disobedience. 2)The Vietnam War violated all 7 of Ramsey's criteria for JWT, but he backed it until after the Tet Offensive! 3)Ramsey argued until the day that he died that nuclear weapons could be incorporated in JWT, despite the fact that they clearly violate the criteria of both proportionality and discrimination.

Boston Personalism had more connections to the spirit of the Wesleys in my view. I think Ramsey weakened Methodist faithfulness in huge ways.

And your series is supposed to be the TOP 20 Methodist theologians, not the 20 Methodist theologians who were the most influential--whether or not there was anything distinctively Methodist about them!

"Best" may not be a theological category, but "faithful" is. Ramsey is no more distictively Methodist than Carl Henry is distinctively Baptist.

Jonathan said...

Michael, you may very well be right. However, I have said since the beginning of this series that it was about the most important Methodist theologians, with "important" being in the sense of "influential."

see the comments I made four months ago here

Jonathan said...

For Ramsey, being a white Methodist liberal from Mississippi meant that he came out of college VERY liberal, as a very liberal pacifist and anti-segregationalist. This is what white Methodist pk's from the South do when they attend Methodist colleges in the South -- I ought to know.

As the president of Millsaps' student body, Ramsey gave an
armistice day speech entitled "The Futility of War." It appeared in the "Christian Advocate" February 15, 1935, titled "Christianity and War." Dr. D. M. Key, president of the college, sent the address to the Christian Advocate as "an example of what present-day students are thinking about peace."

This is what Ramsey published in 1935 as a young white southern Methodist college student:

Any examination of the teachings of Jesus must reveal that he would not fight in a war today. The burden of his entire message to us was that the best way to better the status of human beings to reform society, to usher in the kingdom of God on earth, that the best way to accomplish good is by a policy of good will to all, love and kind treatment of enemies, non-resistance of evil, and active peace... To love peace enough to fight for it is useless; to love peace enough to be willing to die for its preservation against the forces which tend to create war is Jesus' method of projecting his ideal into reality. Have we the courage to follow Jesus completely? Upon the answer we give to this hangs the destiny of our civilization.

Jonathan said...

The following information about Ramsey is taken from D. Stephen Long's book on Ramsey: Tragedy, Tradition, and Transformation:

Upon completing his undergraduate degree in 1935, Ramsey went to Yale Divinity School to pursue his Bachelor of Divinity. This pursuit was interrupted in 1937 when he returned to Millsaps to be an instructor in History and Social Sciences. He spent two years teaching at Millsaps before returning to Yale to complete his B.D. in 1939.

Ramsey found himself in trouble the two years he was working as an
instructor at Millsaps. Many assumed he had developed "liberal" views while attending school "up north." These "liberal" views included his concern for African Americans and his attitude toward war. While working at the public library Ramsey found out that African Americans were not allowed to receive services. He fired off a letter of protest to the mayor who responded to Ramsey writing that he "would be more happy
in Moscow, Berlin, or Rome." The mayor wrote, ". . . don't express to me further your socialistic or social equality views."

Mayor Walter Scott assumed Ramsey developed these liberal ideas
while attending school "up north." But he was quite wrong. As the essay "The Futility of War" shows, they were very much with him throughout his undergraduate years at Millsaps, and a direct result of his theological commitments. While a student at Millsaps, Ramsey also gave a speech for the "peace movement." His notes from that speech say "No one has yet dressed Christ up in a uniform. [The] nation which has come closest
to it is the United States -- not neglecting to [the] turning of our church into arsenals and our preachers into propagandists as happened in [the] World War." He supports his point by speaking of the "insignia worn on all uniforms: crossed bayonets and underneath 'Follow Me.'" This
greatly alarmed him. He concluded that "not Christianity, but the government has declared Christianity and the U.S. Army incompatible."

Ramsey's views on social equality and his pacifism were not limited
to an undergraduate audience, or to his undergraduate days. On April 7,1939, Ramsey was asked to give the commencement speech at his high school alma mater, Harrisville High School. In his commencement address he spoke of the popular mood in the country to join in the war movement and "put Herr Hitler in his place." He said, "It is not the solution we need," and he called Roosevelt's leadership "dubious"

This is the Paul Ramsey who was the product of the Methodist South. He did not develop the other view you mention until he went to Yale and learned of the Niebuhrs.

In any event, you are right to take him to task on the Vietnam War and civil disobedience. However, unless you are saying that Ramsey did not have influence (and even Gustafson acknowledged his towering influence), then I still think he deserves a spot on my list.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

It sounds as if much of Ramsey's career was reactive: reacting to Southern racism and fundamentalism during college at Millsaps, he becomes a stereotypical liberal pacifist. Reacting to his shallow liberalism under the influence of the Niebuhrs, he adopts a more "law and order" attitude including disapproval of civil disobedience, defense of JWT (in a version that allows nuclear weapons' use and the Vietnam War).

I have discovered that reaction usually leads to overreaction (including in myself). I also suspect that both of our views are colored by the experiences of our teachers. Hauerwas was greatly influenced by Ramsey, especially on abortion and giving him credit for helping him first think about war and peace issues. However, my teachers Henlee H. Barnette and Glen H. Stassen had decidedly negative run-ins with Ramsey: When Barnette was president of the American Society for Christian Ethics (now just SCE), Ramsey denounced him in public for his peacemaking trip to the USSR as a "Communist dupe" who was "squishy on Vietnam." (Barnette was a stricter, though less influential, JWTer than Ramsey, who opposed both nukes and Vietnam on JWT grounds--and had written two books the evils of Communism. He had one son who'd become a pacifist and conscientious objector who, after being turned down as a CO because he was not from a peace church, had fled to Sweden with his fiancee and led the ex-patriate U.S. resistance to 'Nam in Europe. He had another son who had volunteered for military and was a captain and pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Barnette stayed faithful to both sons.)

Stassen was criticized by Ramsey for participating in civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement and for opposition to Vietnam. They publicly feuded over (ironically) interpreting the Niebuhrs and over the Sermon on the Mount--which Stassen accused Ramsey of watering down in BCE. Because Stassen had signed a statement defending the academic freedom and religious liberty of some prominent pro-choice Christian ethicists and because he preferred to work to eliminate the causes for most abortions rather than attempt punitive laws, Ramsey also called him "pro-abortion" and said he "treated life cheaply" (Ramsey even supplied information and cover for SBC fundamentalists against Stassen)--even though Stassen's youngest son was conceived while his wife, Dot, had Rubella (German measles) and they chose not to abort even though they knew the chances of birth defect were high. And David Stassen was born with major physical problems--needing repeated heart surgeries as an infant and having lung problems throughout childhood. He is legally blind and because he was misdiagnosed as "mentally retarded," he has never developed emotionally passed about age 12 (but is a brilliant linguist who works as a translator). Dot, quit her nursing job to provide fulltime care in David's early life and then became a nurse at an alternative school for unwed pregnant teen girls--working to reduce teen pregnancy and abortions, but Ramsey called her and her husband "pro-death."

Those different encounters were passed on in attitudes to students, I suspect.

But I meant my first entry into these comments: My main objection to his inclusion in this list is that I cannot see anything distinctively Wesleyan or Methodist in his theology or ethics.

pastormack said...

If ad hominem is grounds for being taken off the list, I don't think many of our most famous theologians will pass muster - including the beloved Yoder and Hauerwas. Barth had his issues, too. If the worst thing about Ramsey is that he said mean things occasionally, well, he's got nothin' on Stanley.

Which, by the way, I'm curious if you are going to include Stanley on this list, because he's a practicing Anglican now.

At any rate, one tidbit to add to your Ramsey bit. What he also added to the conversation about JW was that it is a practice of statecraft - a kind of virtue of the state, you might say - and not merely a checklist that one runs down to see if a war is just or not.

Among lovers of all things Hauerwas, it's no surprise to see such negative references to those nasty Niebuhrs. Normally, though, folks in this circle at least distinguish the Niebuhr they kind of like (H. Richard, sans Christ and Culture) from the one they hate (Reinhold). So that is interesting, even at Duke most folks spoke approvingly of H.R.; besides which, they were different enough that I'm not sure they can be spoken of as if they had one voice (a la "the influence of the Niebuhrs"). I don't know that Stanley was ever heavily influenced by Reinhold, who was down at Union. H.R. is another story, though.

One final, and personal note Jonathan. I don't think we've met - I'm brand new to the conference. But some of my family members are in your church - the McIntyres. Good folks. I hope you are enjoying your ministry in Gibsonville.

Jonathan said...

Pastor Mack, I certainly agree that there were differences between the brothers Niebuhr. I was simply taking a short-cut, and taking it for granted that readers knew the differences. My point was simply to say that the views Michael was criticizing were not the result of Ramsey being a white Southerner. Ramsey's views as a white Southerner were very liberal.

On a personal note: Reveal Yourself! Which conference are you in? NC or WNC? I am definitely enjoying ministry here in Gibsonville. Good folks, indeed, including your kin.

pastormack said...

You are fortunate to be able to assume such a well-read audience!

WNC - I was just commissioned at Annual Conference. I'm serving at West Bend UMC in Asheboro. The McIntyres are cousins of mine (I'm also a McIntyre, first name Drew).

Eric Tramel said...


Thanks for writing this piece on Paul Ramsay! I'm a little behind the times, though, since this entry is from earlier this year.

Paul was my great-great uncle. If it doesn't hurt his eminence as a theologian, we still have his letters from age 4 to my great grandmother after she had moved away :)

We also have his father's (Rev. John William Ramsay) library, which we enjoy going through often.

Thank again!

Rohitpal said...

The following information about Ramsey . His big influences were Augustine and the Niebuhr brothers with even Aquinas having more influence than the Wesleys. His criticism of pacifism amounts to a criticism of perfectionism.

Anonymous said...

And yet this chap could not even exercise the practical life level intelligence to overcome his drug (tobacco) addiction.

Sucking on a pipe is the 'adult" version of a child sucking on a dummy or its thumb.

Mark Carroll said...

Paul Ramsey was my great uncle and I'm trying to learn more about him. It is interesting to me how his views seem to have been influential on my grandmother Rosalie (his sister) and my dad. I thank you for all this information that I have read on him on this page. I have various photos of Paul Ramsey and notes from Methodist conferences of which I have recently come into possession after my father had passed.

LYehNJ said...

I realize that the iconic pictures of my grandfather (like the one above) include his pipe, however he did quit smoking more than a decade before his death in 1988.