Introduction to Ethics
One may summarize the basic teaching of scripture as what God says about belief and duty. One would be hard pressed to think of something which this summary does not include. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, a protestant educational document from the 17th century puts it this way in its answer to the question: What do the scriptures principally teach? It answers: the scriptures principally teach what man is to believe about God, and what duty God requires of man. Notice the couple here walk together, belief and duty. The terms used in the technical study of these couple words are dogmatics and ethics. Dogmatics refers to teachings which come from the scripture. Ethics refers to the duty God requires of man, which also comes from the scriptures.
These terms are somewhat unfavorable in the current theological and cultural climate where everyone’s personal take on every subject matter is just as valid and authoritative as another. Technical study of a subject is suspect. Social media is an able artifact to prove this point. Our culture values the individual rational mind above all as the authoritative standard of truth. Dogmatics and ethics however are drawn from scripture, and they are simply the teaching of scripture on the subjects to which they speak.
This is the pattern set down in scripture itself for the division of technical study. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reads, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Notice the source of the ethical and dogmatic teaching is “all scripture.” Also notice that the scriptures are “profitable” for the man of God. Finally, notice that there are some word groupings that flesh out the division between dogmatics and ethics. First, the terms teaching and correction belong to the realm of doctrinal correction of one’s mind, the man of God’s beliefs. Second, the words reproof, training in righteousness, and good works tally up into the line item of ethics. This is the pattern set by the apostle for Timothy’s profit, and our profit today as well.
With enough shopping one may be able to find one or two books on the study of systematic theology on the shelves of the local Christian gift store. It is unlikely to be taught systematic dogmatics in a church setting, however. For the most part the study of dogmatics has been relegated to those vocational students of the word called seminarians, or to the odd duck who hungers for more depth to his or her knowledge of God, and must therefore do so in the quiet of personal study. It is less likely still that one may be able to find a book at the same Christian gift store which even has the word ethics in the title, let alone the subject matter treated in a book with a different title. I was singularly blessed to find on the shelves of the now extinct Borders Bookstore a copy of Bonheoffer’s Ethics, but that was a small miracle in God’s providence for my good as a young Christian, and probably it was on the shelf due to the fact that Bonheoffer is more interesting to people as a spy and rebel against the Nazis than for his actual ethics themselves. He is treated like Indiana Jones by the world, with movies and lore and all. Though the study of ethics may be rare in our world today, even in the Christian subculture, and though many remain unaware that it is even a technical study subject, it is truly necessary, profitable, and one of the two major divisions God gives us from his word for the living of our Christian lives. Paul said it is profitable. For that reason, we must engage the disciplined study of ethics in order to be trained for every good work.
Introduction to the Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments are the standard pattern set down by Moses for the study of ethics. In ages past it was rare to have a book on doctrine which was not structured around the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Decalogue (a Greek term transliterated into English for the “Ten Words” – as Moses called them in Deuteronomy 5). This threefold pattern of Creed, Prayer, and Decalogue sets forth for us the beliefs, religious practice, and ethical life God intends for mankind. This is the natural place to start. Even though there are other summaries of the Law, such as the two laws of love for God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40), and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love; the Decalogue remains the gold standard of the study of ethics because it encapsulates all of those themes into them and engages the world of man in his current life situation, namely as sinner. Man is sinner. This is important to realize. Love, truth, peace, patience, kindness, all may be important in life, but they may be taken out of the context in which man currently lives. Man lives in the world God created, which is very good and ethically patterned to reflect and reveal his glorious nature, but man also lives in a world where the sin nature of man is bent irresistibly toward evil, and the curse is upon the world. These ten words are the place to begin because they are the organizing principle which takes into account this crucial factor.
The Ten Commandments may be found in two places, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Here they are in their entirety.
Then God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before Me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. 7 “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain. 8 “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. 11 “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. 12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you. 13 “You shall not murder. 14 “You shall not commit adultery. 15 “You shall not steal. 16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exo 20:1-17 NAU)
I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 7 ‘You shall have no other gods 1before Me. 8 ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above 2or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 9 ‘You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 10 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. 11 ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not 1leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain. 12 ‘Observe the sabbath day to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13 ‘Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day. 16 ‘Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, that your days may be prolonged and that it may go well with you on the land which the LORD your God gives you. 17 ‘You shall not murder. 18 ‘You shall not commit adultery. 19 ‘You shall not steal. 20 ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 21 ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field or his male servant or his female servant, his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.’ (Deut. 5:6-21 NAU)
The ten commandments are summary statements. These two passages differ in a few ways, but only in the rationale of the commandments, not in the substance of the commandments. For example, note the fourth commandment has the reason of slavery in Deuteronomy yet in Exodus God gave the reason of days of creation. One can see here then that the Sabbath has both the meaning of God’s lordship over creation and redemption. Man is both created being, but is not sinless, but needs redemption. We will bring out the subtleties of the meaning here, but one can see already that the application of the law is wider than the summary statement itself. The main commandment if to honor the sabbath day and keep it holy, to refrain from one’s secular vocation and perform the duties of the sacred vocation. There may be many overlapping reasons which color each commandment, but the main commandment as a summary of an ethical subject remains exactly intact in both of passages.
Picking up on that theme of redemption from Egypt, the theological theme of redemption is important for understanding the context and use of the Decalogue in the Christian life. God redeemed his people out of Egypt. Another term is liberation. This physical liberation’s spiritual meaning is that God delivers his people out of their slavery to sin and into the freedom of his service as God. The exodus from Egypt was not about liberation from all norms (as it is often so treated today in political liberation process theology), but how God is renewing and restoring the nature of man in an ethical way by his covenant of saving grace. Grace and salvation with an eye to God’s service is the ground of all ethical duty. Without the grace of God, ethics are merely another example of man trying to merit salvation before God. The Apostle Paul said this was a stumbling over the Old Testament stumbling stone (Romans 9:30f). That is, they who work for salvation never arrive at salvation because they miss that the Old Testament never taught salvation by works of the law. Rather, the OT taught that salvation into the covenant and service of God preceded obedience and duty. Duty to be equipped for righteous works is not a second thought, but is the very substance of salvation. Salvation means God forgives and then he restores the sinner into the life of dutiful righteous ethical living for which man was originally created.
It also stands to be noted that this renewal of nature is not strictly to go back to the garden of Eden into the estate prior to the fall; rather Christ is the new image and head of the new race of humanity and brings us into union with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The renewal is actually greater than the original creation pattern of life.
The preamble to the Decalogue confirms this when it says, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deu 5:6). There are two ingredients to grace here. First, the LORD is their God. God is in covenant union with them, of course by the predestined blood of Jesus. Second, God liberated them from Egypt with the purpose of pointing to the spiritual reality of his work of salvation from slavery to their old master, sin. The purpose of this liberation was freedom. The Apostle Paul comments, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1) He was calling them from bondage to the law as a means of salvation, which really left them in their sins, and thus the men and women of Galatia who drank from the well of this human-earned-legal salvation would never arrive at true freedom; which is namely, freedom from sin to God.
The Possibility of the Bible as our Source to Ethical Truth
Someone once told me that it is legal somewhere to hunt whales with a rifle only as long as the hunter is on shore in a moving vehicle. Though the thought of this may be horrifying for some, it is an interesting challenge. Shooting a large slow moving target from a great distance would be difficult. What would make it more difficult is that part of the time the whale would be under water. The hardest part by far would be the fact that the hunter would take aim from a bumpy moving vehicle. Even at the slowest driving speed it would be nearly impossible to hit the moving target. Whether this was a true legality or not, it illustrates the difficulty we have of hitting our target of accurately and biblically speaking of ethical norms to our world.
The evil in the world is a large lumbering and slow moving target. It is obvious that we live in a world of sin. All people can see that evil is all around us. The same may not be for ethical good. Evil is obvious to all, but there is great division over what is ethically good. The evils of the world do tend to change in the particulars from one culture to the next and from one age to the next. The challenge to those who think about hitting this moving target with accuracy is to bring to bear what the Bible says to our current life situation. The main problem exists that for many even of those who would call themselves Bible believing Christians today are taking aim from a moving target. There is no longer the certainty that the Bible is truth, and that the scriptures are our source of ethical truth. We sit in the driver’s seat of a vehicle and take aim, but the frame of reference is liquid.
The main question then is this: can the Bible really be our guide to ethics since there are so many interpretations of it? For many the Bible is not the authority, or not the only authority, or not the highest authoritative source for ethics. The evidence that many point to is that the Bible has so many different interpretations. If there are different interpretations, how can it be that the Bible has the stability to be a solid shooting station at the evils and good of the world? One quick answer is that the problem is not so much with the Bible, but with the interpreter. There are many interpreters, but one textual meaning.
This however on its own does not answer all of the issues that rise. There are difficult passages. There are historically well trod paths of debate over various texts. There are clear texts and there are muddy texts. There is black and white, and there is grey. A deeper explanation of this same premise is not only is the problem with the interpreter, but also with the standard of authority. For Biblical ethics, the highest standard of authority is the sacred text of Scripture. God has made the world with natural law, and man still is in the image of God, but the interpreter-man has lost clarity in the fall of Adam. Adam chose sin, and in that mental bending of his will to desire sin entered into an estate of sin where his mind rebels against God’s truth. Even if the natural sinful mind sees the truth of God it rebels, not only suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, but in exchanging the truth for the lie and worshiping the creature rather than the creator. God gave the verbal written word in order to interpret authoritatively the ethical dimension of human experience, and renew our sight to the truth.
There is much confusion about authority today. For the most part modern western man has divested the authority for ethical truth from scripture and invested it into the rational mind of man. This principle of human intellectual authority has many particular examples. The dominant view for many is democratic individualism. This kind of rationalism looks at every person as the authority of ethical truth. Certainly there is some level of truth here. God gave man a mind, and calls him to use it. Another view is elitist academic rationalism. This is better known to us by the television commercials hosted by an individual wearing a white lab coat. If one is wearing a white lab coat, whatever he or she says must be true. Another example is cultural conservative rationalism. The way culture is and has been traditionally, along with its many benefits and stability, is the standard for what is true. Whatever does not comport with this authority is seen as liberal and suspect. This leads to another example, liberal rationalism. Liberalism in its basic terms means freedom from the conservative ways of having done things in the past and seeking to innovate new ways of life and commerce. These all may be combined into hybrid forms of rationalism. There may be elitist liberalism, elitist conservatism, individualistic elitism (which is the case for most commentators on social media), and individualistic conservatism.
There are more mature ways to explain the authority standard of the western world, but this is the basic outline for the problem we have here. They all share in common the basis and standard that man is the highest authority, not God in his word. We want a word from another realm, and one that is not constantly shifting. The problem with all of these forms of rationalism is that they all must acknowledge at some level that truth changes. It is a moving vehicle. Even for the conservative rationalist, truth is different from one conservative culture to the next. Truth is always in flux, and since it does not stay the same, it will only be true for a short while, and then it will be untrue. This is called the problem of truth in flux. Truth is always fluctuating form true to untrue in a constant progress for modern man. Conservatives who have left modernism for post-modernism try to compare various cultural contexts (they call metanarratives) with one another in order to find what is true. The problem is that this simply runs into the same problem as before, truth is not above us, it is within us. That same truth within us is always changing, and therefore, being self-contradicting, is at least unlikely to be truly true.
Does modern man have any hope for finding ethical truth? They do not unless they find a standard that does not change, and which takes into account the sinfulness of the mind and intellect of man. Let us return to the issue of the interpreter. Each interpreter, coming from one type of rationalism or another, imposes upon the scripture a view which all too conveniently affirms their own worldview. These all impose their preconceived notions on scripture because for them the rational mind of man is the authority over scripture. The answer to this is that the scripture is its own authoritative interpreter. We get our ethics from reading the scripture in context, not by reading our preconceived views of ethics back into it. We can hit the moving target of our current life situation only because we have two feet steady on the ground of God’s very word.