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Unformatted text preview: Introduction Biblical Ethics and Living Wisely Ethics (from the Greek word ethos) might be called a system of moral values, virtues and duties. It has to do with ideal human character, actions and ends. What ought a person do or refrain from doing? What attitudes, behavior and qualities should be viewed as good? And why should they be considered good? What is the highest good, “the chief end of man,” the purpose of human existence? These are the questions the study of ethics seeks to answer. Since the time of the Enlightenment (1650–1800), however, ethics has been separated from theology in an effort to separate the sacred and the secular, and now we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis about the foundation of ethics. We’ve all heard atheists claiming that “we can be good without God,” that “we don’t need the Bible to know right from wrong,” that we should be “good for goodness’ sake.” True, non-believers can both know and do good things, even though alienated from God. But this hardly begins to address the crisis, let alone show how goodness could emerge in a Godless world. The ultimate answer to this moral crisis is the existence of a good, personal God, in whose image humans have been made and who serves as the basis for objective ethics, duties, human rights and personal dignity; and this God has most clearly revealed his very character and will in the person and ministry as well as the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Attempting to remove God from the picture of reality in an effort to formulate “secular” ethical systems has helped create the crisis in the first place. We will return to this point. There are many approaches to discovering answers to these questions of ethics, but the approach of this book is turning to Scripture and, as best we can, examining biblical texts and contexts dealing with each ethical question discussed. We do this, first, because of the conviction that the Bible is a divine revelation and thus a source of genuine knowledge for human beings—not mere “preferences” or “personal values.” It gives us true guidance for living wise and faithful lives—guidance that includes moral facts. Let us not fall into the trap of compartmentalizing public facts from private values, as our society so often does. Second, while some differentiate between the more theoretical and philosophical term ethics and the more specific category of morality as referring to specific customs, habits and taboos, we will use these terms interchangeably. Third, we have confidence that the Bible is trustworthy in what it affirms. Though we may utilize other sources for assistance in understanding and applying biblical truth, we shall treat the Bible as our final authority. And we will seek to apply biblical principles as well as direct mandates, but we will attempt to go only as far as Scripture itself goes and maintain the emphases of the Bible itself. So we call our study biblical ethics. James asks, “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom” (Jas 3:13). Thus, this book is concerned with living wisdom—living wisely, or living out wisdom, which begins with the fear of the Lord (Ps 111:10). By submitting to God as our authority, we begin to walk in the way of wisdom. What’s more, the incarnate Christ is the very embodiment of God’s wisdom (1 Cor 1:30; Col 2:3). As the “second Adam” (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15), he comes to restore a fallen human race by creating a new, redeemed humanity—a community that is being shaped into his image as part of the new creation (2 Cor 3:18; 5:17; Gal 4:19). “An Introduction,” as part of the title, implies that the study of any given ethical issue will not be exhaustive. Nevertheless, we will attempt to be comprehensive in two ways. First, we will attempt to highlight the key elements involved so that students of biblical ethics may expand their understanding through additional study based on what is found herein. At the end of each chapter is recommended reading for further study. Second, we will attempt to survey, as best as we can, what we consider to be essential ethical issues, classical and contemporary, personal and social. Though some divide personal ethics from social ethics, we will seek to integrate them in the conviction that few issues are exclusively personal and that social problems will only be solved by individual people taking responsible action. Ethics Among the Disciplines Before noting our methodology, it might prove helpful to pause and observe how ethics relates to other disciplines—philosophy, psychology, sociology, political science and religion —and what the major approaches to ethics have been. Since philosophy—the “love of wisdom”—involves hard thinking about important issues, ethics has traditionally been considered a part of philosophy. Christian ethics, then, would be part of Christian philosophy, or what some include under systematic theology. When a new ethical problem arises in society, such as gay marriage or sex-change operations, newspaper reporters or TV anchors frequently consult a local professor of psychology. In many ways, it would make just as much sense—if not more—to consult the local bartender. Psychology is descriptive and can only tell us, with greater or lesser precision, what the average person does and what may result if averages hold. It lacks any authority to speak of what human behavior ought to be. Since it lacks this authority, and since it should hold tentatively any conclusions it reaches, it is properly non-normative in its approach. Many psychologists, however, jump outside their sphere of expertise and assume a non-normative relativism for all people, insisting that it is wrong to say anything is wrong! True enough, psychology may help us understand what produces conflict, but whether we use this information to produce conflict or to allay it will depend on our values embedded within our worldview or philosophy of life. As a matter of historic fact, psychological insights are used by some to create conflict. And this is an ethical problem, not a psychological one. Psychology helps people understand why they do what they do and how they may change; ethics tells them what they ought to do. Other behavioral sciences, such as sociology and cultural anthropology, are similar to psychology. If these disciplines would stick to descriptive science and tell us how societies and cultures function and what seems to result from particular behavior and social arrangements, they would be very useful to politicians and ordinary citizens in understanding themselves and how they might prove more successful in changing the way things are done. But these sciences have become increasingly prescriptive, imposing moral (cultural) relativity or, more recently, certain secular, “politically correct” values. Anthropologists holding such views tend to indiscriminately label Christian missionaries as “imperialistic” and “ethnocentric” (considering one’s culture to be superior over another’s); this assumes a universal moral prohibition—that ethnocentricity is morally wrong for all people at all times and that it is not simply the expression of the anthropologist’s particular culture! Of course, anthropologists or behavioral scientists have every right to sort out and advocate their own values. But they lack any authority deriving from their discipline to speak to ethical issues. Political science, on the other hand, brings together various disciplines, including the insights of the behavioral sciences and, above all, ethics. The world often suffers because so many politicians choose goals—and the pragmatics of how to accomplish those goals— without ethical controls. Above all, the leader of people should specialize in ethics. The first question should be, what is right? Not, what is in my best interest? Or, what is the current pressure in my constituency? Or, what is possible? The pragmatic is properly the sphere of the politician, and we recognize that negotiation and meeting halfway are often required to avoid gridlock. After all, half a loaf is better than none. For example, a pro-life lawmaker can be grateful for incremental victories to save human lives through legislation that curtails abortion-on-demand (e.g., late-term abortions), even though more work remains to be done. So the behavioral sciences will certainly help him answer questions about how a given goal may best be achieved. But the control in choosing which goal to pursue must be the ethical: we must move beyond the “is” to the “ought.” Finally, how does ethics relate to religion? This begs the question of how to define religion. Is religion that which deals with the supernatural—the belief in and service of a god? If so, classical Confucianism can hardly be called a religion as it was purely an ethical system. On the other hand, is ethics an essential part of religion? If so, Japan’s Shintoism would not qualify, since it is an amoral set of rituals. The definition of religion is elusive to both scholars and lawmakers, and the sacred-secular divide is a post-Enlightenment mistake since the “secularist” makes ample non-neutral assumptions about the nature of reality, the scope of ethics and the basis of knowledge and rationality. But perhaps traditional religion could be understood as a deeply embedded heart-commitment that is (a) comprehensive, (b) identity-shaping and (c) of central importance. Perhaps we could speak of a “worldview” or an all-encompassing philosophy of life that captures what is at the heart of religion. (This would be true whether one consciously reflects on those embedded convictions and values or not.) Humans are inescapably religious; they will place ultimate value on something and orient their lives around it, serving one master or another (Mt 6:24). In the words of singer Bob Dylan, “You gotta’ serve somebody.”[1] Naturally, one’s heart-commitment—one’s religion— will give shape to moral values, attitudes and conduct. Whether we speak of religion in traditional terms—such as Hinduism or Buddhism—or more broadly as a worldview such as naturalism or atheism, a person will inescapably take a moral point of view. Even the relativist will make an assessment about morality, however inconsistently he holds it. An ethical stance is fundamental to all worldviews, and in part five we will give an overview and assessment of leading ethical theories. God, Revelation and Ethics According to Jesus, the sum of our obligation is to love God and to love others (Mt 22:37-40). This is, as one author puts it, “the Jesus Creed.” [2]Wisdom is the skill for living rightly, which means that true wisdom is anchored in a correct view of reality. Skillful living begins with being properly aligned with the intrinsically relational, triune God. We start with fearing the Lord (Ps 111:10; Prov 1:7), by humbling ourselves before his authority and entering into covenant relation with him. This all-encompassing commitment enables us to view life with increasing clarity that we may live wisely. As C. S. Lewis expressed it: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[3] God’s self-revelation is both general (through reason, conscience, creation and human experience) and special (Jesus Christ and Scripture). Because humans are made in God’s image, they can recognize moral truths even if they do not believe in God. In his Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis took to cataloging moral codes across history and civilizations—Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Babylonian, Chinese, Norse. Remarkably, the same kinds of moral laws continue to surface: don’t steal; don’t bear false witness; don’t murder; honor your parents; keep your promises (general revelation). In the Old Testament, God is often judging pagan nations who had no Bible. On what basis does he judge them? Because they violated the moral law within and suppressed their own conscience. They should have known better than to break treaties, rip open pregnant women or deliver a vulnerable people into the hands of their enemies (Amos 1–2). So even though human sanctity or worth is rooted in God’s graciously creating us in his likeness, people who do not believe in God can still get much right morally by attending to their conscience and learning lessons by reflecting on their human experience: How would I like to be treated in that way? Or, what if I were born into a different race, born at a different time, born with a different skin color? So, yes, the atheist can in some measure “be good without God”—that is, he can know right from wrong without believing in God. But the more fundamental question is, how did he come to be this way? Where do human worth, moral responsibility and duties come from? The common problem in secular ethical systems is that they focus on knowing ethical truths, but they have no basis for explaining how intrinsic human worth or moral values and duties could emerge out of a materialistic, impersonal universe. Some ethical systems simply presume that we are moral beings who can act as morally responsible agents. But this stems from our being made in God’s image—with the capacity to relate to God, to think deeply, to make free choices, to relate intimately with others, to think about the meaning of life, to show creativity and to create culture. Alternate ethical systems typically borrow from the resources of a biblical worldview to sustain themselves. They will assume human dignity and worth, moral responsibility, the capacity to reason—assumptions that are right at home within a biblical outlook. The believer then has the double advantage of God’s general and special self-revelation. Regarding natural revelation, we often have an immediate moral connection with nonChristians (assuming they haven’t completely seared their conscience) because some things are morally obvious: it’s wrong to torture babies for fun, to rape, or to beat your wife. One doesn’t need the Bible to know this since the image of God in us enables us to think and act morally. Yet we have further clarity through special revelation. When we talk about “biblical ethics,” one might ask, Why not focus on “Christian ethics”? As it turns out, Jesus’ entrance into the world did not primarily add new content to what was revealed in the Old Testament. For example, the beatitudes in Matthew 5 reflect qualities listed in Isaiah 61: “poor,” “brokenhearted,” “to comfort all who mourn,” “righteousness,” “gladness,” “shout for joy,” “humiliation,” “possess . . . the land,” “blessed,” “rejoice greatly,” “righteousness and praise.” Or loving one’s enemy (Mt 5:44) was already commanded in the Hebrew Scriptures (Ex 23:4; Prov 25:21; cf. Lev 19:34). And Jesus highlighted the “Golden Rule”—treating others as we want to be treated, which is another way of saying “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18)—as the sum of the Law and the Prophets. In his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and the blessed hope of his return, Jesus gives a new meaning and motivation to the moral core of the Old Testament. The believer’s orientation is Christ, the new Adam (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15) and the image of God (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3); he has come to restore our fallen humanity and to gradually transform us into his image (2 Cor 3:18). This goal will be realized when he finally brings heaven and earth together (the new heavens and new earth). In his earthly ministry, Jesus announced that God’s kingdom or reign had broken into human history, and he sought to show what it means for his followers to live under that rule as God’s subjects and Jesus’ disciples. Living under the lordship of Christ will lead to an enriched and deepened moral life—indeed, a moral transformation—that is sustained by God’s grace as we trust and obey our heavenly Father. Again, Jesus’ coming imparts life before God with new meaning and motivation through his incarnation, life, death and resurrection. Being a new creation in Christ gives new shape to our ethical lives. So, for instance, in the Old Testament, God’s people were commanded to love God and others. Yet in the New Testament, the “old command” gives way to the “new command”: “Love one another, even as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34; cf. 1 Jn 2:7-8). The Christ event has the capacity to so reshape our identity that we will put off the things that pertain to our old life in Adam (“the old self”) and put on the virtues that find their orientation in Christ—love, kindness, compassion, humility, gentleness, mercy, patience, perseverance (Rom 13:12-14; Eph 4:17-24; Col 3:8-14). The “Jesus Creed” of loving God and others is the heart of our moral lives as they are transformed by God’s Spirit. The Direction of the Book The shape of this book will address the life of love and wisdom to be lived out as Christians—not only as virtuous persons, but as Christians in community and in society and in a world of God’s creation as his stewards. Book one of our volume lays out preliminary considerations to set the context of our discussion: Love—the heart of biblical ethics Law—God’s standards for human behavior Sin—the violation of those standards Virtues and vices—character qualities, positive or negative, developed over time through choices humans make Ethical alternatives—leading systems attempting to give a coherent account of ethical knowledge and human duties In book two, we organize the bulk of our work around the Ten Commandments and ethical themes springing from them—loving God (commandments 1-4) and loving others (commandments 6-10). The New Testament writers as well as Jesus himself assumed the ongoing relevance of these commands (Mt 19:17-19; 1 Tim 1:8-10; Jas 2:8-11). However, these commands are now given true shape by Jesus Christ, who is both the goal or fulfillment of the Mosaic law, as well as its completion or terminus (Rom 10:4). Believers in Christ now live according to the “law of the Spirit” (Rom 8:2) and “the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Why? Because Christ has taken Israel’s (and humanity’s) curse of the law on himself (Gal 3:13), bringing an end to exile with God. As a result, God’s people—no longer a national, ethnic entity—are not “under the law” of Moses (1 Cor 9:20), being subject to its curses and judgments. That said, certain moral features found within the Mosaic law are fundamental to our life as God’s people in Christ. The gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit—unlike earlier boundary markers such as circumcision and food laws—is what marks out the renewed humanity in Christ. Those who belong to Christ have the Spirit. They are not defined by a former this-worldly orientation (“in the flesh”), but they participate in a new sphere of life and are given a new identity by the Spirit (Rom 8:9). As they live out their lives in Christ, they bear the Spirit’s fruit, against which there can be no true law (Gal 5:2223). Beyond the framework of the Ten Commandments, we then discuss three matters that require more detailed attention: The Christian and society An approach to handling ethical issues on which Christians differ Discerning the will of God in nonethical matters Furthermore, our approach will assume the normativity of Scripture’s ethical teachings unless Scripture itself modifies the teaching. Primarily, we have in mind how the Old Testament comes to be fulfilled and reinterpreted through Jesus himself, who takes it up and incorporates certain aspects of it into his own teaching—as do the apostles in their writings (see part two on “Law”). At some points, our approach will suggest what may be less demanding in places than other contemporary evangelical views—at others, more demanding. Historical passages may be used to reinforce the teaching of Scripture, but the mere recording of an event without a biblical judgment as to its ethics will not be used to establish standards of behavior. And we take the historical actions ...
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