The basis for Christian ethics

The basis for Christian ethics

My longtime email friend and fine Bayou pastor, Rev. Louis Bartet (The Grace Place), recently posed this thought-provoking question, which I have attempted to answer from my perspective.

« What in your opinion should be the primary basis of Christian ethics?»

Lou, doesn’t believe in simple questions with short answers!

Okay. I’ll give the short answer first—just to save you time: the character and nature of God should serve as the primary basis of Christian ethics. God created us, and formed us in his image, therefore our ethics should reflect his character and nature. Like Jesus, we should do what we see our Father doing (John 5:19-20).

Unfortunately, the Fall in the Garden marred and damaged God’s image within us. As a result, we can no longer consistently act within an ethical framework reflecting God’s character. All have acted unethically: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Therefore, any ethical system which does not ultimately move us closer to the Divine ideal reveals a fatal flaw. Indeed, even our attempts to interpret the revealed ethical framework of Scripture inherits this flaw because God did not give us a systematic ethical calculus to cover every circumstance. Our ability to “tease out” the ethical underpinnings of God’s character, nature, fall short. The flaw reveals itself in our tendency to legalize the framework and ignore the spirit of the laws he did provide.

Now, to unpack that a bit.

What is ethics?

We have two ethics to consider: the use of the term in the Bible, and our contemporary usage. First, the Bible. Or, at least, the New Testament.

Our word, “ethics” came from two Greek words that transliterate very similarly in English: Ethos (from ἦθος and ἔθος). You can look these up under the Strong’s numbers G2239 and G1485. In short, the word “ethos” in the NT referred to the “usual practice,” manner, custom (as established by law, tradition, or otherwise), morals, and character of a place. For example, see 1 Corinthians 15:33:

“Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals (ἤθη).’”

(Further NT references to this term: Luke 1:9; Luke 2:42; Luke 22:39; John 19:40; Acts 6:14; Acts 15:1; Acts 16:21; Acts 21:21; Acts 25:16; Acts 26:3; Acts 28:17; Hebrews 10:25.)

In modern usage, ethics belongs to a branch of philosophy which seeks to understand or identify the nature of morality: what is good and what is bad? Or what is virtuous, and what is evil? Or what is right, and what is wrong? Further, the study of ethics attempts to identify what things are good in themselves and whether actions can be identified as good or bad independent of the outcome, or in light of the outcome. (For example: Lying is bad. Failing to act to save a life is bad. But is lying in order to save a life acceptable? Or, to reference the culture wars: Abortion is bad. Failing to save a mother’s life is bad. is it ever acceptable to perform an abortion to save a mother’s life? Or is it ever acceptable to permit a pregnancy in order to save a child’s life regardless of the mother’s health?)

Thus, the study of ethics quickly spins off into a study of “values.” However, things can go far afield rather quickly when we start delineating values without identifying whether some things have an absolute value or not, and identifying the actual source of that value. (How can we identify what “good” and “evil” if we are merely evolved molecules in motion and absolute good outside of ourselves does not exist? How can meat and mineral act “good” or “bad” in any way?)

Even so, we may all agree on the value statement that “life is good.” Ethics then attempts to identify good or bad behaviors flowing from that value. Since “life is good” of itself, therefore ending a life is ethically bad and preserving life is ethically good. For example, is it good to kill an animal so that man might eat and therefore live? Vegans say no because the value of an animal life is equivalent to a human life. Carnivores say yes because the value of human life exceeds that of any animal. We might feel we can easily dismiss the vegan viewpoint, however what happens when global population every x number of years until *all* animals must be killed in order to feed even a percentage of humans? (Not an unlikely scenario.) The unchecked valuation of human life over animal life could lead to a dramatic system failure where the foundation for continued existence is destroyed. We can eat ourselves to death. So, we must apply ethics and values to a broader picture than just relationships, we must apply it to our work, our words, our plans, and even the very material world we live in.

Ethics then is concerned with not only how people relate to one another (ie, following the “Golden Rule” to treat others as we wish to be treated, and to obey the Great Commandment to love God and our neighbors), but ethics is also concerned about how power is allocated (political ethics), how resources are allocated (economical ethics), how the environment is husbanded (environmental ethics), how technology is put to use (bioethics), how medicine is practiced (medical ethics), how news is reported (journalistic ethics), and on and on.

Ethics (the rules underpinning our decisions and behaviors based on a value-system) comes to play in every endeavor of human life and is a major field of study in every social science. And the question of “What is the foundation of an ethical system?” is of supreme importance.

Unfortunately, most of the work done today in the field of ethical and moral philosophy is not being done by Christians or even religionists of any stripe. Instead, the field is dominated by people who attempt to articulate laws to live by who do not know the ultimate law-giver: God.

Unfortunately, even ethics based on religion, per se, can be dangerous. Because to simply chose a set of behaviors because a Deity said it without considering the rationale for the values reflected by the Deity leads to strict legalism and persecution. We saw this in the Crusades and the Inquisition. We saw it in the conquest of the New World. We saw it in Serbia and Croatia. And we see it in the Islamic world today, where religious ethics prevails everywhere–even in court law (the Sharia)–but none of us here would choose that value-system.

Isaac Asimov, the brilliant, atheistic science popularizer and sci-fi writer postulated a simple set of ethical guidelines in 1941 for his fictional artificially intelligent robots, called the Laws of Robotics. Some have pointed to these laws as an inspired (by whom?) and elegant set of rules equal to, say, the Code of Hammurabi or the Ten Commandments. The Laws state:

  1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

    From: Three Laws of Robotics — Wikipedia

Incidentally, three were not enough. Asimov added a higher law, called the Zeroth Law in 1985:

“A robot may not injure humanity, or through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

From: Roger Clarke’s Asimov’s Laws of Robotics

Note how this works out as a moral schema for Asimov:

In his short story “Evidence”, Asimov lets his recurring character Dr. Susan Calvin expound a moral basis behind the Laws. Dr. Calvin points out that human beings are typically expected to refrain from harming other human beings (except in times of extreme duress like war, or to save a greater number). This is equivalent to a robot’s First Law. Likewise, according to Dr. Calvin, society expects individuals to obey instructions from recognized authorities: doctors, teachers and so forth [the Second Law]. Finally, humans are typically expected to avoid self-harm, which is the Third Law for a robot. The plot of “Evidence” revolves around the question of telling a human being apart from a robot specially constructed to appear human; Dr. Calvin reasons that if such an individual obeys the Three Laws, he may be a robot or simply “a very good man”.

Another character then asks Susan Calvin if robots are then very different from human beings after all. She replies, “Worlds different. Robots are essentially decent.”

(From: Three Laws of Robotics — Wikipedia)

We might agree. A human with behavior reflecting these laws will be a very good man, but he will still be judged by his Creator, in the end, as having a deficient sense of ethics and flawed values because he failed to understand the one rule underpinning everything. And Asimov, in his brilliance, touched on this in the Second Law. To recast it in my terms:

That which is created must bend its will to the creator in all things.

And, in reality, that should be the First Law (Or Zeroth!), but Asimov has to make it subordinate to the Law to do no harm because he knew that men will sometimes command evil and harmful behavior.

From this principle—that the Creator must be our sovereign—flows the Great Command: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5, Deuteronomy 10:12, Deuteronomy 11:1, Deuteronomy 11:13, Deuteronomy 11:22, Deuteronomy 13:3; Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). From this principle flows the command to love others, because they are under the protection of the creator, and love is his nature, and to do otherwise violates the image of God within fellow man (Genesis 1:26,27; Genesis 9:6–-the real reason murder is evil) and ultimately violates the ethical standard he would have us live by. From this principle flows the Golden Rule, for it is hubris for one creature to arrogate itself over another (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31).

Unfortunately, the Bible does not give us a systematic calculus of ethics that can be applied in any and every situation. What we are given, instead, is a revelation of God’s character and nature, and the way he wants us to relate to him. There are 613 Old Testament rules, from the Ten Commandments to the Noahic Law to the Mosaic Law, but much of those rules are ceremonial, dietary, levitical, and case law—and indeed much of that is a bare-bones “do this” and “don’t do this.” The mistake the Jews made was to mistake those laws for the spirit of the law (something I touched on in a previous post) and when Jesus came, he changed the paradigm. The reason the Pharisees thought he was doing away with the Law was because he adhered to the spirit of the law, and that was the basis of his ethics.

Again, as Jesus said:

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these” (John 5:19-20).

If that were true for us, we would have all the ethics we need. Walking in the Spirit is the only way to get there. We can’t do it on our own steam or with any concocted system of ethics. The only way to be truly ethical as God would have us be is to walk in the light. To follow Christ, with the help of the Spirit, who works in us “to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13) and we must constantly die to our own selfish nature and immerse ourselves in the transformative bath of the Word so that we “will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2).



PS For further reading, you might enjoy the sites I consulted in reading up for this post:

[tags]BlogRodent, Pentecostal, Evangelical, theology, bible, ethics, value-systems, values, christian-ethics, morality, good-and-evil, isaac-asimov, robotics, laws-of-robotics, zeroth-law, religion, christianity, evangelical, doctrine[/tags]

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  1. Pingback: On Values, Part 1 » BlogRodent

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