James M. Gustafson

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James M. Gustafson 1925–

American theologian, educator, and author.

The following entry provides an overview of Gustafson's career through 1996.

A theologian and the author of several books about Christian life and ethics, Gustafson is best known for his landmark Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume I: Theology and Ethics (1981) and Volume II: Ethics and Theology (1984). Theocentrism, according to Gustafson, focuses on human experience, the proper ethical evaluation of which must be consistent with empirical scientific data and God's overall plan for the whole of creation—a plan that, he asserts, exceeds purely human interests. Such a perspective is at odds with the scripturally dogmatic Judeo-Christian anthropocentric approach, which views humankind as the focus of creation and God's activity. However, even though Gustafson requires religious piety as a foundation for construing right ethical-moral conclusions, traditionalist Christian ethicians still condemn theocentrism as naturalistic and non-Christian.

Biographical Information

Gustafson was born and raised in Norway, Michigan. He served in Burma and India during World War II, and after returning home he received his Bachelor of Science from Northwestern University in 1948. He went on to receive a Bachelor of Divinity from the University of Chicago in 1951 and a doctorate from Yale University in 1955. For a time Gustafson served as the pastor of a Congregational Church. He taught at Yale from 1955 to 1972 and during that time he published his first book, The Advancement of Theological Education (1957). In 1972 Gustafson joined the faculty at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he wrote his landmark work, the two-volume Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective. Since 1987 he has been the Henry R. Luce Professor of Humanities and Comparative Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Major Works

Gustafson's principal writings focus on the development of a new methodology for analyzing contemporary ethical issues. In his Treasure in Earthen Vessels: Church as a Human Community (1961), he emphasized the pivotal importance of history and culture in the development of the Christian life. With the publication of Christ and the Moral Life (1968) and On Being Responsible: Issues in Personal Ethics (1968), Gustafson began to examine various ethical approaches for moral-ethical decision-making. For example, On Being Responsible explores excerpts from the writings of Karl Barth, Martin Luther King Jr., Pope John XXIII, and Max Weber in order to clarify the role of personal responsibility in ethical decision-making. In The Church as Moral Decision Maker (1971), Gustafson calls for the Church to be a community that encourages moral discourse, while his essay in Moral Education: Five Lectures (1971) explores the notion of moral autonomy and accountability in contemporary ethics. Critically acclaimed for its careful scholarship, Theology and Christian Ethics (1974) examines moral education and discernment in moral decision-making, the role of the theologian and the scriptures in making moral decisions, the relationship between spiritual life and moral life, and the influence of history and science on moral decisions. The history of the development of various Christian ethical systems and their apparent convergence during the late twentieth century is the subject of Protestant and Roman Catholic Ethics: Prospects for Rapprochement (1978). Earlier in his writing he showed a preference for relativism as opposed to objectivism. According to relativism, moral good is relative to a particular group and time, while objectivism asserts that there is some unchanging moral good that anyone can attain. However, Gustafson did not like the tendency of relativism to yield to subjectivism, in which moral good becomes whatever particular people say it is. In ethical discussions subjectivism requires that the world exists only for the benefit of human-kind....

(This entire section contains 830 words.)

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In religious discussions subjectivism turns God into the instrument to fulfill human wants. These pitfalls of subjectivism are part of what Gustafson refers to as anthropocentrism, or the view that human beings are at the center of things. In an effort to overcome anthropocentrism, Gustafson developed a new approach to ethics in hisEthics from a Theocentric Perspective in which he related four points: an interpretation of God, of the world, of persons as moral agents, and of how such persons should make moral-choices. The theocentric perspective views human experiences as being part of God's grand design for the universe and promotes the consideration of empirical scientific and historical data in ethical-moral decision-making, while denying the dogmatic and doctrinal primacy accorded the scriptures, theology, and tradition in defining the morality of a situation.

Critical Reception

Gustafson's critics are varied in their reaction to his work, but they share a respect for the importance and erudition of his approach to ethics. Many critics question his explanations of faith, piety, and human suffering, while others wonder at his Christology and his notion of God. A common concern among traditionalist Christian ethicians is that Gustafson's work values empirical scientific data over and above traditionalist Christian anthropocentric theology, dogma, and doctrine. Most reviewers applaud the clarity of his scholarly style, and the thoroughness with which he covers the material. In addition, theologians and ethicians agree that Gustafson's work—especially his Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective—substantially contributes to the ongoing development of contemporary ethics.


Principal Works