318 Christian Ethics

As is evident in the New Testament, from the beginning Christians have been concerned with both theology and morality—what we believe and how we behave.  Commending Wayne Grudem’s just-published Christian Ethics:  An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway, c. 2018, Kindle edition), Al Mohler Jr., President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says:  “Insightful, encyclopedic, biblical, and distinctively evangelical, this new book from Wayne Grudem is a massive contribution to Christian ethics. It will stand as one of the most important and definitive works of this generation.  Readers should engage it chapter by chapter, and then keep it close at hand for continuing consultation.”  High praise from an esteemed evangelical scholar!  As the book’s title indicates, Grudem endeavors to set forth a biblical ethic, saying:  “I have written this book for Christians who want to understand what the Bible teaches about how to obey God faithfully in their daily lives.  I hope the book will be useful not only for college and seminary students who take classes in Christian ethics, but also for all other Christians who seek, before God, to be ‘filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,’ with the result that they will live ‘in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God’ (Col. 1: 9– 10)” (#334).

Grudem follows the pattern he established 25 years ago in another valuable work, Systematic Theology, “asking what the whole Bible says about various topics” (#560).  Thus every chapter ends with questions to consider, books to consult, a verse to memorize, and a hymn to sing.  He’s little interested in historical or philosophical or theological or natural law ethics inasmuch as he’s persuaded that “only Scripture has the final authority to define which actions, attitudes, and personal character traits receive God’s approval and which ones do not, and therefore it is appropriate to spend significant time analyzing the teaching of Scripture itself” (#573).  Thus he sets forth what ethicists label a “divine command” ethical system.  As embedded in the Bible, God’s moral standards illuminate His moral character, and He “could not have made other moral standards for us than the ones that he made” (#1425).  

God’s moral standards are clear, for Grudem believes one of Scripture’s hallmarks is clarity.  Though recorded only in the Bible, they are applicable to all men at all times.  They are absolutes—and they never conflict.  Though they may demand careful thought to implement we never need to choose the “lesser of two evils” as some Christians, such as Norman Geisler (who thinks there are times when we must choose, for example, to save a life while destroying property) have averred.  Gruden champions what he calls “the nonconflicting biblical commands view” and insists “that God requires us to obey every moral command in the entire Bible that rightly applies to us in our situations” (#4715). 

He believes that problematic passages—such as Rahab helping the Hebrew spies in Jerico—can be fully explained without justifying sinful behavior (such as lying in Rahab’s case).  So if a Christian were asked by Nazi soldiers if he was hiding some Jews he must always tell the truth—for in such situations “there are always other options besides lying or divulging where the Jews are hidden.  Silence is one option.  Inviting the soldiers to come in and look around for themselves is another option.  In a comparable situation, several other possible responses might present themselves, including offering hospitality and refreshments to the soldiers” (#4508).  Here Grudem joins the Kantians who insist one must always both intend to do what’s right and then do it, regardless of the consequences, since you cannot control them.  In a frequently cited and debated passage Immanuel Kant declared that if your friend takes refuge in your home, fleeing from a man intent on murdering him, you cannot lie to save your friend’s life.   

Some apparent dilemmas find resolution in Grudem’s Old Testament hermeneutic.  The material included in Genesis 1 to Exodus 19, he says, is relevant to all people at all times.  Thus the “Noahide Covenant” with its seven “laws” is ever and everywhere valid.  Obeying these laws, as prescribed by the Jewish tradition, all of us must (1) refrain from denying God’s Oneness or (2) cursing Him.  We are not to (3) murder, (4) eat the flesh of a living animal, or (5) steal.  We must (6) rightly channel our sexual drive and thereby maintain the family.  And we are to (7) establish civil laws and authorities to maintain justice.  These OT moral imperatives, Grudem says, are for all mankind.  But, he contends:  “The Mosaic covenant, which began when God gave the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20), was terminated when Christ died, and Christians now live instead under the provisions of the new covenant.  Nevertheless, the Old Testament is still a valuable source of ethical wisdom when it is understood in accordance with the ways in which the New Testament authors continue to use the Old Testament for ethical teaching and in light of the changes brought about by the new covenant” (#5034).  Thus the sacrificial, ceremonial, dietary, and civil laws of the Hebrew scriptures carry no mandate for Christians.  Nor do the historical, wisdom, and prophetic books, as part of the Mosaic Covenant, provide normative laws for Christians.  So too for the Decalogue:  “Although the Mosaic covenant was terminated at the death of Christ, the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20: 1– 17; Deut. 5: 6– 21) still provide a useful summary of ethical topics.  However, all of these commandments (except the Sabbath commandment) are reaffirmed in the New Testament and should be thought of as part of the ‘law of Christ,’ which should guide the lives of Christian believers in the new covenant” (#6068).

Consequently, Grudem structures his Christian Ethics in accord with “protecting” (1) God’s honor, (2) human authority, (3) marriage, (4) property, and (5) purity of heart, seeking guidance from the Ten Commandments, which provide “a useful framework for studying all ethical topics” (#6113).  Thus, for example, the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” can be followed by urging moments of prayer in public schools, and the second commandment, prohibiting “graven images” can be applied to deviant notions of God.  “Taking the Lord’s name in vain” should prompt us to treasure “purity of speech” and avoid cursing and obscenity as well as specifically misusing the God-word.  Bearing false witness includes lying, so one should ever speak truly.  Even a lack of punctuality, Grudem thinks, constitutes a kind of lying and merits censure.  Thus one can find hundreds of ethical questions answered by bringing to bear appropriate biblical texts. 

Few folks—other than ethics teachers such as myself—would read right through Grudem’s Christian Ethics, but it has real value as a reference work.  Should one want to deal with any number of issues—ranging from parental authority, capital punishment, war, self-defense, abortion, suicide, birth control, divorce, vacations, to borrowing and lending—he will likely find them helpfully addressed in this book.   

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Whereas Wayne Grudem espouses a divine command version of Christian ethics, David Haines and Andrew Fulford take a different approach in Natural Law:  A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (The Davenant Press, Kindle Ediction, c. 2017).  The Davenant Institute, which published this guide, “supports the renewal of Christian wisdom for the contemporary church.  It seeks to sponsor historical scholarship at the intersection of the church and academy, build networks of friendship and collaboration within the Reformed and evangelical world, and equip the saints with time-tested resources for faithful public witness” (p. 126).  Clearly written, brief without being superficial, the book accomplishes its purpose and could easily be used in either college or Sunday school classes. 

The authors begin by listening carefully to the great declaration found in both Bible and Creeds, where we read that “God is the source of all creation, and that all created things were, in their divinely instituted natural states, good.  As we will see, the very fact of divine creation seems to point towards what has been traditionally called natural law:  the notion that there is, because of the divine intellect, a natural order within the created world by which each and every created being’s goodness can be objectively judged, both on the level of being (ontological goodness), and, for human-beings specifically, on the level of human action (moral goodness).  Ontological goodness is the foundation of moral goodness” (Introduction).  The best biblical passage clarifying this is Romans 2:14-15, and to great theologians, including John Calvin (whom the authors generally follow), this passage says all persons have “engraved on their hearts, a warning and judgment by which they discern between right and wrong, between honesty and villainy.”  Still more, Calvin continues:  “Men, therefore, have a certain natural knowledge of the law, which teaches them and tells them, in themselves, that one thing is good, and the other detestable.”

In accord with Calvin and other Christians, Haines and Fulford say:  “By natural law, then, we mean that order or rule of human conduct which is (1) based upon human nature as created by God, (2) knowable by all men, through human intuition and reasoning alone (beginning from his observations of creation, in general, and human nature, in particular), independent of any particular divine revelation provided through a divine spokesperson; and, thus (3) normative for all human beings” (p. 5).  It is not human (or positive) law but God’s law revealed in His handiwork—and primarily in us.  He designed us in His own image, giving us an ability to think and understand our own essence, and “if there is a natural law, then there is a Being which is superior to Human-beings, which is rational, and which is powerful enough to enforce the standard He has imposed upon the beings He governs” (p. 13).  Divinely-ordered, the natural law combines a “combination of metaphysical and epistemological Realism which we will call Moderate Realism” (p. 23). 

Most fully developed in the “common sense” or philosophia perennis tradition shaped by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, Moderate Realism holds that all things are what they are because they were designed to be so—and their designs can be rationally known by us.  As Étienne Gilson, said, when we know a thing we simply grasp its “nature,” a reality “‘situated in an existence which is not that of the knower, the ens of a material nature’” (p. 41).  As human beings (i.e. rational animals) we are able  “to love sacrificially, communicate through language, laugh,” and choose to sacrifice our own “good” in order to help another person.  “These distinguishing features of Human nature are what we should call essential attributes, that is, attributes which result from human nature. The word rational refers to, among other things, the capacity to reason, to consider abstract concepts for the sake of knowing, to deliberate about means to ends, etc. We propose, therefore, that humans are rational animals” (pp. 32-33).  Thus we have developed the natural sciences, such as astronomy, physics, and chemistry, wherein we seek to rigorously describe and fully understand the essence (or nature) of such things as gravity or water or osmosis.  There are real things that have their own essence, quite apart from our observations, that can be truly known when we study them, enabling us to their material, efficient, formal, and final causes.

The natural law tradition easily synthesizes with a biblically-based ethic, for the Bible “everywhere assumes, and in some places explicitly appeals to, natural law. The written book of God constantly bears witness to God’s other book, the book of nature” (p. 50).   Consequently, Haines and Fulford take us on a tour of the Hebrew, extra-canonical Jewish literature, and the Christian scriptures, showing how frequently they rely on natural law thinking.  For Christians, of course, the locus classicus for such is Romans 1 and 2.   Thus “Christians who believe in Scripture ought to be defending the existence and visibility of natural law, both to other Christians and to the world at large” (p. 107).

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To the great Roman philosopher and orator Cicero:  “The absolute good is not a matter of opinion, but of nature.”  A good knife has a sharp blade and cuts effectively—it’s good because it attains its end, not because we like the way it looks.  A good surgeon removes a diseased kidney—he’s good because he does what he’s equipped to do, not because he’s a congenial guy.  Cicero’s words mark him as an advocate of the “natural law,” which is not a “law of nature” such as gravity but the right reading of human nature, both in its essence and end.  Embracing this approach in An Introduction to Ethics A Natural Law Approach (Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, Kindle Edition, c. 2018), a young philosophy professor now teaching at Ohio Dominican College, Brian Besong, endeavors “to explain clearly and briefly to a non-philosophical audience the principles of ethics that dominated moral thinking in the West at least until the so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment’ that began in late seventeenth-century Europe” (#53).  For all to many intellectuals, little value can be found in the ancient and medieval eras, so most modern ethicists embrace systems such as existentialism, utilitarianism, pragmatism, etc.  However, as Besong insists, the “natural law approach” was for many centuries simply called ethics since “most of the major philosophers in the West [Plato; Aristotle; Cicero; Augustine; Aquinas] endorsed views that fell within this tradition” (#106). 

He begins by looking at “foundational” issues, showing why he finds many positions (such as rational egoism, moral relativism, and logical positivism) inadequate.  Then he begins building his own case by citing Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy:  “Nature has implanted in the minds of men a genuine desire for the good and the true, but misled by various delusions they often reach the wrong goal.”  Most deeply and by design we all desire happiness—to flourish in a fully human way—and the only way to do so is to live rightly, to be morally good.  Natural law philosophers, following Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, identify “happiness” as our final end, the ultimate goal of the good life.  But such “happiness” cannot be confused with pleasures, all of which “are cheap thrills, which Aristotle suggests are mainly pursued by the ‘most vulgar type’ of people, who prefer a life ‘suitable to beasts’” (#1160).  So too neither prosperity nor fame provide lasting happiness, for it is, rightly defined, a state of completeness and contentment, a spiritual reality attained through right reasoning, a contemplative activity transcending worldly endeavors.  Though Aquinas will largely embrace Aristotle’s position, he insists the true happiness for which we hunger cannot be attained on earth, where we are limited and mortal.  Real happiness can come only in Heaven, where we may enjoy the beatific vision.  Though agreeing with Aristotle that contemplative thought makes one happy, Aquinas, insisted God Himself is Truth and Goodness, so rightly understanding God most fully makes one happy.

Joining Cicero as an advocate of the natural law, another Roman philosopher, Seneca, said:  “True wisdom consists in not departing from nature and in molding our conduct according to her laws and model.”  There are rights and wrongs.  Good and evil truly exist and can be known.  Moral goodness resides in acts that contribute to our flourishing, making us happy as we realize our true end.  Rightly understanding our nature as human beings gives us objective guidelines, enabling us to live well.  It is thus demonstrably true that we need to drink water, not gasoline, and doing so satisfies our thirst; we need love, not neglect, so children thrive in loving families; and we need to see how things really are rather than believe illusions or “social constructions,” so students must learn to think realistically.  Analyzing moral action, C.S. Lewis, a 20th century natural law proponent, suggested, in Mere Christianity, that we understand it in nautical terms, thinking how a naval fleet needs to function.  First, you need sea-worthy ships, capable of sailing across the waters; then you need to adjust your trajectory in light of other vessels, seeking to sail with rather than bump into them; and finally you need to know where you’re going, using maps and instruments to guide your journey.  Morality is thus personal (a solid ship), social (cooperating with other vessels), and teleological (knowing where to go). 

Natural Law ethicists hold people responsible for their behavior, though they always realize, with Velleius Paterculus, a Roman historian, that:  “It is customary for people to excuse all their own faults but never the faults of others, and to blame the affairs of others always on the person’s will rather than attendant circumstances.”  We don’t hold accountable tornadoes or three year old children or passengers in an out-of-control car.  We understand that one must be in full possession of his faculties (being mature and rational).  Thus neither instinctive acts, be it breathing or screaming or having “spontaneous thoughts, being characteristically both unfree and unintentional, are not something we are morally responsible for.  We need not feel guilty if we randomly and uncontrollably find ourselves feeling jealous of another person, for instance, or feeling an inappropriate attraction for someone, among many others.  To the degree that these were unintentional and unavoidable, they are not our fault, and we are not to blame for them” (#2642).  Good actions are fully rational, intentional, and volitional. 

Indeed:  “Intentionality, freedom, and knowledge are the three requirements for having an act that is morally evaluable, at least in the normal way” (#2331).  Professor Besong carefully explains these criteria, making helpful distinctions and developing a meaningful position capable of dealing with many of the true complexities of moral reasoning.  There is, for example, the “principle of double effect.”  One may primarily want to act rightly, but in fact there may be (honestly understood) bad as well as (equally well understood) good consequences.  You might, for example, decide to rescue a child from a burning house while leaving his pet dog (or even an elderly, obese quadriplegic) to die.  That would be a difficult but good act.  And unlike the disciples of Immanuel Kant (or Christians such as Wayne Grudem), there are important ethical distinctions we need to make.  “Consequently,” when wondering if it was right for Christians to mislead Nazis hunting Jews, “it is not always wrong to intend to deceive. It is always wrong to intend to lie, but lying and deception are not the same thing” (#2966). 

“To be mindful of his duty is true honor to an upright man,” said the Roman playwright Plautus (in Trinummus).  Thus “we must act (or avoid acting) in a certain way to be good and achieve happiness” (#3143).  By nature we are duty-bound to live rightly, that is righteously.  Doing one’s duty requires revering the rights of others.  This begins by defending everyone’s right to life, the most basic of all rights.  Murder—the deliberate taking of an innocent person’s life—is always wrong.  It logically follows that we also “have a right to health and bodily integrity” #3380), so to poison, or punch, a person harms him and should not be done.  Not all killing, however, is murder.  At times we may need to kill an aggressor—in self-defense of just war—because it is right to stop an aggressor intent on harming innocent persons.  Other nature-based rights include such things as a right to education (since we are rational beings who need to develop our minds) and private property (since we are material beings needing material goods to live well).  Such basic rights “do not depend upon an individual’s degree of maturity or physical growth, least of all upon an individual’s ability to physically defend himself. Instead, rights depend upon an individual’s potential to pursue happiness” (#3586).

To properly pursue happiness, the natural law tradition almost always emphasizes the importance of the classical virtues.  So Besong devotes an illuminating chapter to analyzing the four “cardinal” virtues—prudence (practical wisdom, knowing how to act); temperance (finding balance in all we do, avoiding extremes); fortitude (patiently enduring, courageously holding course); and justice (giving everyone what is due him).   Living virtuously makes us happy, so rather than deliberately trying to find what makes us happy we need to discover it comes as a side effect to living righteously.