Embracing Biblical Ethics, Pt. 2

The Babylonian stela featuring Hammurabi’s Code, one of the great legal/ethical documents of world history. From Wikimedia Commons.

In my last post, I described what biblical ethics is not. The purpose of today’s post is to suggest something of how we should positively think of biblical ethics. Ethics are of fundamental importance to our faith and to our society. Pragmatism and convenience have left a legacy of anemic moral reasoning throughout modern American life. One example will suffice. Most of us take it for granted that the cameras on our phones may be used freely to capture images of other people without considering if the person wants to be photographed. We don’t think of about the rightness or wrongness of the matter because the technology is readily available and there could be some use for the image or video. But is it really ethically correct to turn a person made in the image of God unto a meme for personal enjoyment? Does filming a person in distress prevent us from helping a person in distress? Such is the world in which we now live. But there must be a better way than pragmatism and convenience.

Biblical ethics are all about God. And the ethical training that must be part of our discipleship is God-centered training. Biblical ethics is composed of at least three key ideas – God’s character, God’s glory, and God’s wisdom. There is much more to be said on the subject, but this seems like a good starting point to me. Let us take these in turn.

Ethics in the character of God. Our ethical outlook must be shaped by the revelation of God’s character as found in Scripture. Our actual ethical choices must be applications of God’s character to the situations of life. In my last post, I mentioned the biblical law requiring a parapet be built around the roof of a house (Deuteronomy 22:8). Broadly speaking, this law teaches us that homeowners are responsible for the safety of their buildings. But we might also add the insight that people who are near the edge of a roof and behaving in ways that could lead to falling are people that are behaving foolishly (such as drunk persons).* Yet the Israelite homeowner was required to take action that actually mitigated the consequences of the foolish person’s behavior. Why go to all this trouble? Because the God of Israel cares about the well-being of his people and acts in ways that demonstrate his mercy. He is “the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6 NIV). He is the one who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). We should be like this God – “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).

Ethics for the glory of God. But not only are we to live our lives to reflect God’s character; we also live our lives to bring glory to God. In everything that we do, we must ask ourselves, “Am I glorifying the God who made all things and gave me new life through Jesus Christ?” As Paul writes, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). Our right ethical actions are intimately connected to the gratitude that we have to God for creating us and redeeming us. Bible teacher R. T. Kendall often refers to the doctrine of sanctification as “the doctrine of gratitude,” and I believe that there is much that is correct about this idea. The Heidelberg Catechism positions reflection on the Ten Commandments under the heading “Our Thankfulness” and Lord’s Day 32 informs us that one of the reasons that we must do good works is that “we may show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits, and he may be praised by us.” So, in any given situation, does our behavior give God glory and show him gratitude? What actions are less honoring to God and what actions are more honoring? How does what we do show how much we esteem God? If we commit small acts of theft, does it not say to God and to others that we are not satisfied with what God has provided for us?

Ethics according to the wisdom of God. Finally, biblical ethics are interested in living in ways consistent with God’s creation and the way God made human beings. If wisdom is defined as something like skillful living, then it is clear that ethics are closely related. We should not consider something ethically correct which is out of step with the way that God has made the world and other people. We do not murder because human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 9:6). To murder is to deface the image of God. It is true that the violation of this commandment is a violation of God’s character which fails to bring glory to God. It is also, however, a denial of the way that God has made people as image-bearers; therefore, it is a failure of wisdom, a refusal to function correctly within the parameters of God’s creation. Hence Christians should oppose abortion-on-demand because it seems that God has so created human reproduction that human life begins at conception and, therefore, the dignity due to the image-bearer belongs to the baby in the womb. This is wisdom, skillfully working within the parameters of God’s good creation. Just as we should not murder our neighbor, it is wise and ethically right to prohibit the murder of the vulnerable child in utero. We might conclude with the words of James, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13, emphasis added).

Of course, anyone familiar with biblical ethics is intensely interested in the actual imperatives of Scripture (openness to the Bible is a requirement for the use of the word biblical). In relation to my analysis, it might be said that any “ought” of Scripture is an application of God’s character, in which God shows us how to praise him in the daily choices of life, and in a manner consistent with the way he created the world. The Bible’s teachings on everything from marriage to business transactions can be understood in this light.

For more about biblical ethics, check out these resources.

Dan Doriani’s class on Christian Ethics, available through Covenant Seminary. *If my memory serves me correctly, the above mentioned insights on the parapet law came from this class. (Disclaimer – I took this class with Dr. Doriani, and none of my errors should be associated with his class!)

Evangelical Ethics by John Jefferson Davis (Takes a look at the perennial topics of ethical discussion such as euthanasia and sexual ethics)

Just Say Thanks! by R. T. Kendall (A very helpful book on gratitude)

Embracing Biblical Ethics, Pt. 1

How do we live as Christians? What does it mean to follow Jesus in the myriad situations of contemporary life? Think with me of all of the complex issues which face us on a daily basis – social media usage, persistent racism, abortion on demand, angry rhetoric, unrestrained consumerism, and so much more. In the youth group days of my early journey of faith, we would slap on bracelets bearing the letters WWJD (What would Jesus do?); but it seems that we now need more than shallow readings of the Gospels to chart a path through the predicaments. We need fully fleshed out biblical ethics.

In an earlier post, I made the suggestion that the adjective biblical implies four types of “openness” – to the Word, to the tradition, to the community, and to God’s creation. We rightly use this word when we have a posture of submission and attentiveness in these four areas of life. To be biblical is not to simply have the right set of beliefs about a given issue. Moreover, the description cannot be the sole possession of one group of Christians, as it is abundantly clear that many Christians of many denominations are trying to live in ways broadly consistent with this designation. It should not surprise us then that biblical ethics is not about simply knowing the rules or having a certain opinion about an important social issue. This needs to described in more detail.

Biblical ethics is not a list of rules. We live in one of the most legalistic cultures in the history of the world. When congressional bills are passed, they are often so complicated and so long as to be fundamentally inaccessible to the layperson. We have rules for every area of our lives. This is what we should and should not do at work. This is what we should or should not do when we are driving. These are the state laws that we must follow. Here are the local laws (seriously, the height of my grass?) that must be obeyed. On top of that, most of us are relentlessly interested in developing techniques and processes for how to accomplish our objectives. If you want to lose weight, you look for a diet-and-exercise system that works. If you want to manage your time better, you desire someone to give you a step-by-step plan to follow. We often add the final touch by telling people if they are violating our protocols, especially focusing on those people with whom we disagree online.

But the Bible does not give us a list of rules for Christian living. Though they can be printed in a similar format, the Ten Commandments can never be treated like the “pool rules” we find down at the community center. Take the first and last commandments for example. The first commandment tells God’s people: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 NIV). To not place others before God is not less than a rule, but it is certainly more. For the question of idolatry is not about external conformity alone. It invites us to ask serious questions about what we desire and what we love. Do we love anything else before we love God? And how about the last commandment – “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17)? Coveting is an inner condition. Coveting is something that we do in the heart. To not dive in the shallow section requires no character formation. Biblical commandments call on far more than external obedience.

Biblical ethics is not the “right” opinion on contemporary social issues. In this connection, it is important to emphasize that, though the Holy Spirit wields all parts of the Word to accomplish God’s purposes in our lives, the Scriptures were writen for cultures different than our own. This by no means suggests that the Bible has no relevance for our contemporary social issues. Such a suggestion is contrary to the Bible’s 0wn witness about itself (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It does, however, mean that the Bible does not address our social concerns in a direct manner, as if it was designed for that purpose. As God’s inspired Word, Holy Scripture speaks to people of all cultures without attaching itself permanently to any one culture and its concerns.

The Bible teaches us a range of things which have a bearing on much discussed social issues. We know that human beings are made in the image of God and should be treated accordingly (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9-10). We know that God wants his people to care for the vulnerable (Exodus 22:21-24; James 1:27). We know that the Israelites were to build safety measures into their houses to prevent needless death (Deuteronomy 22:8). In Paul’s epistles, we see that governing authorities have been given by God the authority to uphold justice (Romans 13:3-4) and that we are to pray for those in authority so that all people might live dignified lives (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Now what do all of these things (and more!) have to do with gun control policies? The Bible certainly speaks to the issue, but we can’t simply flip open our Bible and find the answer in Numbers. The alternative is to observe that biblical ethics is mostly about the way in which we go about our ethical decision making and the priorities that we have as we do so. Of course, some answers are more biblical and God-glorifying than others. Good and evil, right and wrong, are still helpful designations. But it does take some intellectual and spiritual work to get there.

If biblical ethics is neither a rules list nor positions on social issues, what is it? I will take this up next time.

Building a Biblical Worldview

Since I was in third grade, I have worn glasses in order to correct a pernicisous case of near-sightedness. Without my glasses, my world becomes meaningless scribbles and moving blobs. With my glasses, blurry edges become sharp and dark blots become words. My glasses are the means by which I make visual sense of the world.

I became a follower of Jesus in my teenage years. From the earliest days of my discipleship, I heard pastors and leaders speaking of the need to develop a biblical worldview. Everything from public scandal to weak theology to the rise of secularism was attributed to the failure of Christians to develop a biblical view of life and the world. After many years of listening to the call to biblical worldview, I find myself both more confused about and more committed to the concept.

There is much to be confused about in the concept. In its most basic articulation, we might say that a worldview is the pair of glasses through which we make sense of the world. Things can get a little bit more fuzzy after that, and many questions abound. Is worldview primarily a thought-oriented enterprise or does it involve our emotional and pyschological shaping? Can worldviews be categorized in large, generalized categories (i.e. Marxism, secular humanism, Christianity, and other -isms) or are worldviews as unique as individuals (i.e. my way of seeing the world vs. your way of seeing the world)? Is it a list of propositions about the world or a metanarrative (a grand story) that we use to describe our experience of reality? What comes first – thoughts about the world or behaviors in the world? Many more questions can be generated, and the potential answers abound.

Yet for all of the confusion, I intuitively know that worldviews matter. We all interpret the world based on some notion of how things work. That notion or set of notions about how things work comes from our culture and upbringing and is both taught and reinforced by ritual and habit. There are big, generalized elements and personalized elements. For example, almost all Americans take for granted that food can be purchased in a store, without need to personally grow or kill what we eat. Beyond that, any given American might have had unique experiences of food in their childhood. The big picture concept (we buy what we eat) works with the personalized element (my mom made me clean my plate) to produce a way of thinking about food. I no longer conceive of worldviews as lists of propositions that are clearly held. The apologetics books of my younger days cheapened the concept by turning people into brains on sticks. Worldviews involve what we regularly do and the kind of emotional responses that we have to the world around us.

The Bible lays the groundwork for how we should think about worldviews. A biblical worldview is not primarily a list of things we think about the world but a way of living in the world that represents biblical priorities and grows out of the biblical story. In that regard, worldview is vitally connected to wisdom. Wisdom has been called the art of skillful living. To live skillfully, you have to have a grasp (not just cognitively) of how creation works and how people work and how God wants people to live in the world. This worldview-wisdom does not begin with lists of propositions but with the fear of the Lord – “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7 NIV). A biblical worldview is also about walking in the light in fellowship with God and his people – “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). And walking in God’s light changes how we see the world. As the Psalmist says, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9).

The metaphor of glasses is helpful when thinking of worldviews, but I wonder if it misses something important. After all, glasses can be put on or taken off. They are always external to us. But a biblical worldview isn’t something simply believed or disbelieved, put on or off. Instead, a biblical worldview is the way I live in the world. Maybe it is more like the muscle memory that makes it possible for me to hop on my bike and ride down the street.

When my glasses are on, I can even see the trees and houses around me as I ride.

For a good overview of the biblical story, see Michael Williams’s Far as the Curse is Found.

For a dip into the idea that worldview is more than propositions but also ritual and affection, see James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love.