Ethos is one of the three classical types of argumentative proofs or modes. The other two, logos and pathos, deal with logical and emotional reasoning, respectively.
Ethos isn’t primarily about whether a claim makes sense within its context or conforms to a community’s beliefs about the world, although someone who can’t be relied on to make what their community recognizes as sense or use that community’s symbolic language won’t be deemed credible.
Ethos is about a speaker’s character, reputation, and authority, so of course a community’s standards for what makes a reputation “meritorious” are relevant.
These factors apply to theology as much as they do to any other domain. For theologians, there’s also more to account for.
“Consensus among theologians,” a Catholic professor once told John J. McNeill, “is not a matter of counting heads. It is a question of those who have understood and made operative in their theology the developments in biblical studies and those who have not.”
The professor, William Thompson, was reviewing one of McNeill’s first book manuscripts, and affirmed him for integrating the latest biblical, sexuality, psychological, and pastoral research into his discussions of church teachings and their impact on church members.
In theology as in every other field, members of the discipline have the responsibility of staying current and helping to build new knowledge with the community so that their statements have a truly solid foundation.
Not all theology does that, but when it doesn’t, it shows.
Back in 1989, Mary Hunt looked closely at missives from the office of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), and challenged their studied distance from and trivializing ignorance of the lives of the people they discussed.
We usually begin with philosophical abstractions, then discern their theological ramifications. We conjecture about the ethics involved. If there is any time left over, we do something about it, calling it practical theology… Rewards go to those who stay at some remove from the problem in order to ‘think objectively’ about it. We quote each other profusely when we write about it, anxious to shore up our distant wisdom with someone else’s.” —Mary E. Hunt
Sociologists and anthropologists now take for granted that researchers have to talk to the people they’re studying to learn much about their lives. But in many faith communities, theologians can still operate for decades as if they don’t have to.
For those who study the ultimate and people expected to comply with their conclusions, it’s an unhelpful position to take.
If there’s a theologian in your life and you love them a lot, encourage them to break the pattern and wrestle with what they learn when they do.