Wednesday, July 29, 2015
What is "biblical ethics"
My coauthor and I use the specific term “biblical ethics” rather than “Christian ethics.” One key reason for this is that the New Testament itself routinely appeals to virtues, behaviors, and duties highlighted in the Old Testament. The moral heart of the New Testament—even the Sermon on the Mount—isn’t as “radically new” as many think. For example, the Beatitudes very clearly echo the language of Isaiah 61—righteousness, brokenness, mourning, being comforted, rejoicing, possessing the land. Jesus, who came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, was not coming up with a revolutionary moral ideal. And the apostle Paul is standardly referring back to the Old Testament, though shaped by the Christ-event; when Paul says that “all Scripture” is profitable for our conduct (2 Tim. 3:6-17), he is referring to the Old Testament.
Christ’s Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection notwithstanding, Christ does not give much new ethical content. True, food laws, circumcision, temple sacrifices, and special days don’t characterize the people of God any longer. However, the command to love one’s enemies is found in the Old Testament (Prov. 25:21-22), and loving God and loving others as the moral heart of the Old Testament is repeated throughout the New. Rather, our spiritual lives, social relationships, and moral/virtuous living are shaped by God’s stepping into history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. While the Old Testament people of God were called to love, Christ appeals to his own example in commanding love: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 13:34). Our giving is to be shaped by the self-sacrifice of Christ’s incarnation (2 Cor. 8-9); he gladly became poor for our sakes, and this self-emptying is to shape our own giving through sacrifice, generosity, and cheerfulness.
To more clearly understand our calling to live before God as restored priest-kings and thus living faithful lives before God (which includes living and doing “biblical ethics”), we must understand two New Testament motifs: First, as the second Adam (or “new man”), Christ is the truest or the archetypal human being who redeems and restores fallen humanity. Second, Jesus (with those who follow him) is the new Israel—the new people of God. As a faithful Israelite, Jesus comes out of Egypt, is tested in the wilderness, calls twelve new “tribes” (apostles) to be a new people, and experiences the exile of the cross. That is, Jesus lives out Israel’s story as the obedient Son that the ancient people of God failed to be, fulfilling Israel’s and also humanity’s vocation before God. In doing so, he creates a new covenant people united through his death and resurrection.
In these two motifs, we see a new creation (a restored humanity of priest-kings) and a new exodus (creating a new people freed from the enslaving powers of sin, death, Law, and the flesh); these new realities give new shape, identity, and inspiration to the new people of God. Biblical ethics centers on the restoration of our calling as the new Israel to be a “kingdom of priests” or a “royal priesthood” (priest-kings) through Christ (1 Pet. 2:9; cp. Ex. 19:6), through whom we will reign upon the earth at Christ’s return—thus fulfilling humanity’s original calling in Genesis 1.
My coauthor, Robertson McQuilkin, had been president of Columbia International University and my professor when I was a student there; he had been was the original author of the first two editions of the Introduction. The book in its pre-published form was a textbook for my biblical ethics class there, and it had an influence on my thinking about ethics and theology. I greatly appreciated McQuilkin’s nuanced and careful approach to biblical ethics. For example, he discussed ethical hierarchies as well as the permissibility of, say, deception in the face of criminal activity or warfare—exceptions not merely abstracted from philosophical principles but emphasized in Scripture itself.
Our friendship continued over the years, and McQuilkin contacted me about possible leads for coauthoring and revising the book for a third edition. I said that this was a project that interested me, and the significantly revised version brings together our strengths—biblical studies, theology, ethics, philosophy.
The book serves ethics readers by anchoring this discipline not in philosophical ethical theories, but in the biblical text, showing the remarkable ethical texture of the biblical narrative and teachings. This includes the foundational reality of the triune God and his making humans in his image as well as the narratival, salvation-historical context of biblical commands, and the moral significance of the Christ-event—his incarnation, teaching, ministry, atoning death, and bodily resurrection.
The book serves philosophy by showing how the gospel shapes our ethical thinking; it sets the Christian philosopher on a different cross-shaped pathway. True enough, the Christian philosopher can greatly profit from the study of various ethical systems—even affirming some of their features to varying degrees—without compromising his commitment to Christ. However, Christ-shaped philosophy will lead us to challenge various philosophical ideas. For example, Aristotle’s ethic points away from grace (according to Aristotle, one should never be in anyone else’s debt) and away from humility (we detect a certain pride and even pomposity in Aristotle’s “excellent” man); the gospel is all about receiving God’s grace in Christ and humbly submitting to God and to others. Furthermore, the Bible presents a rich tapestry of ethical thought in the context of narratives, parables, sermons, epistles, proverbs, and divine commands. Unlike ethical systems like utilitarianism, social contract theory, virtue theory, Kantianism, and the like, we see all of their emphases in the Bible; the Bible takes such perspectives into account to offer a broader, richer ethical outlook rather than reducing all ethical thinking to consequences, virtue, or the like.
Yes, the book serves theology by offering an ethic rooted in the biblical text, following a number of lines of biblical theology (e.g., Christ as the new Adam and true Israel), the theme of our kingly/priestly status and vocation redeemed and restored in Christ, who has made us a “kingdom of priests” who will “reign upon the earth.” It discusses themes important for theology, such as the implications of the Trinity for ethics and for community; it examines various attributes of God (e.g., God as humble) that have a bearing on how we are conduct our lives. And theologians, who typically appreciate systematization, can benefit from some of our discussion of common themes—law, love, sin, etc.—as well as from the philosophical engagement of themes in biblical ethics.
One chief distinctive is this—being anchored in the biblical text. The book offers numerous philosophical—though still accessible—reflections with ample practical applications on themes such as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality/gay marriage, bioethics, pornography, dating, marriage, parenting, economics, just war/pacifism, and the like. Yet we coauthors try to listen carefully to the biblical text and thoroughly engage it. We try to draw out just how rich a source of ethical reflection the biblical text is.
No, and a second distinctive is that the book includes an accessible discussion of prevalent ethical systems (relativism/situation ethics, social contract theory, utilitarianism, Kantianism). We note where they overlap with the biblical ethical picture—and where they depart from it.
Yes, the book—as thick as it is!—has an additional feature of being very practical. How do I take steps in becoming more virtuous? How do I deal with temptation? What are the pitfalls of dating, and how can I cultivate mental purity in sex-saturated society? It also offers a number of apologetical insights to help believers address moral challenges to their faith.
The book begins by discussing love, law, sin, virtue/vice, but then it moves to the broader themes of loving God and loving others. At its core, it is structured around the Ten Commandments (loving God—commandments 1-4; loving others—commandments 5-10). The book also covers material not often found in similar titles. It discusses the relationship of the church and state, the Christian in society, ethical issues on which Christians disagree, divine guidance on matters not revealed in Scripture.
Indeed, we coauthors disagree on various matters, and so each of gives his own vantage point. We address topics like the Sabbath (Sunday, or fulfilled in Christ?), alcohol consumption (discouraged, or biblically encouraged within limits?), the complementarian/egalitarian discussion, capitalism and socialism (a “plague on both houses,” or the free market appropriated with important ethical cautions—a system that has helped hundreds of millions create wealth and come out of poverty?), and so on. And we complement each other with the mutually-reinforcing strengths each of us brings to the book.
Yes, these come to mind: Robertson’s late wife, Muriel, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and so Robertson stepped down from his university presidency to care for her. Some of his reflections on his care for her are in this new edition. Also, I address in detail certain ethical issues found in Scripture—namely, “slavery” in the Bible (in the Old Testament, it is like indentured servitude or being a “worker” for someone) as well as the dominant question of God’s command to drive out the Canaanites. These topics and other Old Testament themes reflect work done in my other writings: Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker) and (with Matthew Flannagan), Did God ReallyCommand Genocide? (Baker).
There are certainly many Christian ethicists from various traditions and disciplines who have done fine, wide-ranging work for our generation—for example, Oliver O’Donovan, Nigel Biggar, Stanley Grenz, Gilbert Meilaender, Glen Stassen, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Robert George, Stanley Hauerwas, Francis Beckwith, Max Stackhouse. With new challenges emerging—from technology to terrorism to sexual ethics—we are seeing many thoughtful Christians rising to incisively and eloquently address them. What is sometimes lacking, though, is a distillation of the academic discussions in order to make them more accessible to a widely Christian audience—what McQuilkin’s and my book has attempted to do.
The gift of the Spirit is, of course, the mark of the new covenant people of God. The Spirit, who communicates the presence of Jesus to the believer, enables obedience from the heart (Jer. 31; Heb. 8). God’s people are no longer marked by circumcision, kosher laws, Sabbath-/holy day-keeping, and national identity. Indeed, one could have these markers, but they were inadequate without faith and the Spirit’s empowerment. So while some Israelites had the Spirit of God or were temporarily empowered by the Spirit, many Israelites died in unbelief (Heb. 3:16-18). Not so with the new people of God. Every member of the “new Israel”—Jew and Gentile in Christ—is marked by the Spirit of God, who transforms our thinking (Rom. 12:2). He also enables us to become more like the second Adam (the “new man”) in our character, both as individual believers and as the body of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).
Prayer and trust in God prepare the soil for the Spirit to work in our lives and to bear fruit through them. While there are “cardinal” or “pagan” virtues such as prudence and self-control, which can often be cultivated by unbelievers, for the believer these virtues are given fresh, powerful inspiration by the Spirit through Christ’s own example, character, and work. What’s more, the “theological virtues” of faith, hope, and love are distinctively Christian, as they are shaped by the Incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and promised second coming of Christ and carried forward by God’s Spirit.
This threefold description of “traditional religion” (taken from Paul Griffiths) actually accounts for more than just religion; it actually describes the idea of a “worldview” more generally. So this could include atheism or naturalism as well.
However, in speaking of “traditional religion” as “a moral-spiritual tradition of knowledge and wisdom,” we emphasize that all truth is God’s truth. While Christ is the embodiment of divine wisdom and knowledge, wisdom and moral knowledge in traditional non-Christian religions like Islam or Buddhism still reflect God’s common grace at work in the world. Such truths are not saving truths, however, but they do ultimately point to Christ, who is the truth and the fullness of God’s wisdom. As with Paul at Athens, we should not dismiss such insights, but we can affirm that these display God’s own self-revelation--particularly in Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3); thus, to see Christ is to see God the Father (John 14:9).
In our book, we note that any person’s view of the State and its role will not be neutral but will flow from a worldview with its assumptions about authority, citizenship, society, human nature, and the good. Moreover, the notion of a “secular State” is itself a myth; the State’s legislation and goals will also reflect a certain view of authority, citizenship, society, human nature, and the good. So we must, first, recognize and name this reality rather than falling into the sacred-secular dichotomy. We should also challenge the foundations of an arrogantly presumed State authority since authority is ultimately given by God (Jn. 19:11). Such authority is neither free-floating in metaphysical mid-air, and anyone in a position of authority must has a duty to humbly serve the common good. Finally, the church is to be the prophetic voice and the conscience in any nation. God’s primary agents in the world are his people who are called to be salt, light, and doers of good deeds—to be a faithful presence wherever they reside.
One maxim that applies both to Christian communities and also to Christians within a pluralistic society is this: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Wherever possible, Christians should work with one another to strengthen the church—in worship, the faithful proclamation of the word, in community, and evangelism—and they should be a faithful presence in the communities where God has placed them. Even if they disagree about the nature of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, Christians can band together, say, to help support and rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Katrina—or help women contemplating abortion, or resist society’s sexual slippage by promoting sexual purity and Christ-honoring patterns of relating to one another.
In a pluralistic society, we see plenty of disagreement about political and social policies, but also in the very worldviews we hold. Yet being honorable citizens of a nation is a biblical imperative for us. The book of Acts shows how Christians can be the best of earthly citizens. We should, insofar as it depends on us, live at peace with all people (Rom. 12:18) and pray for those in authority over us (1 Tim. 2:1-4). As citizens of heaven, we must speaking the truth in love, using our prophetic voice to challenges societal injustices and abuses. As citizens of earth, we should set the tone for good citizenship by taking three “Rs” seriously: (1) protecting and promoting the basic rights of all persons, who are divine image-bearers; (2) taking seriously our responsibility as citizens to promote the good; and (3) showing respect to all in conversation, relationships, and political discourse. Despite disagreements of all sorts, tolerance and civility in an age of angry, polarizing political discourse are incumbent upon all Christian citizens.