Monday, April 26, 2004

Four forms of Christian ethics

One of the perennial issues in Christian ethics is the relation of OT ethics to NT ethics. And on this view there are four basic schools of thought. I briefly sift through the four options.

1. Decalogical Ethics

For many Christians, the Decalogue remains the core statement of morality. This viewpoint has been enshrined in the Westminster Longer & Shorter Catechisms, where the Decalogue is treated as a summary of the moral law. But this raises a number of questions:

i) Why begin and end with the OT? Does the NT make no distinctive contribution, either by way of addition, or subtraction, to the Decalogue? The WLC does, in fact, fill out the exposition with a lot of NT material, but this is not clearly grounded in the Decalogue itself. We pole-vault from one riverbank to the other to the other without a bridging device

ii) What about other sources of OT ethics, such as the Book of Proverbs?

iii) What about the relation of the Decalogue to the case law? Surely much of the case law represents a special, concrete application of the general norms enunciated in the Decalogue.

Decalogical ethics leaves the odd impression that the Ten Commandments are continuous with NT ethics, but discontinuous with OT case law. This is, to say the least, a rather awkward way of drawing the lines. Again, there's some case law in the WLC exposition, but what we need is both a selection criterion and a unifying principle. Otherwise, the annexation remains rather ad hoc.

Perhaps the catechisms limited their treatment to the Decalogue for pedagogical purposes, seeing as this was the most compact and convenient point of reference. But the other questions remain.

2. Anabaptist Ethics

For the classic Anabaptist, the Sermon on the Mount represents the point of reference for Christian ethics, whereas the Decalogue is relic of the old dispensation.

On the face of it, this is a more logical place a Christian to begin. Even if we don't set up such a radical disjunction between the OT and NT, it makes sense to view progressive revelation through the lens of fulfillment. But the Anabaptist position raises some questions of its own:

i) Its hermeneutics of radical discontinuity has difficulty with 5:17-19, which is programmatic for what follows.

ii) Strictly speaking, the Sermon on the Mount is not a Christian manifesto. It was delivered to Jews who were still living under the old covenant. The new covenant was only ratified at Calvary. To be sure, the Sermon on the Mount is not merely a repristination of OT ethics. But the point is that this sermon is backward looking as well as forward looking. It doesn't mark a retreat from OT ethics, but begins with that ethic, and advances the same trajectory to its natural denouement in the Kingdom of Christ.

iii) The benediction/malediction formula resembles Deut 28, and therefore suggests, not a new covenant, but a case of covenant renewal. Of course, one can have blessings and cursings under the new covenant as well. But that is an outgrowth of covenant continuity rather than a radical break with the past.

iv) Some of the stipulations (e.g., 5:41) are adapted to Roman occupation. So this broaches the question of how much is normative and how much occasional.

v) Some of the provisions of the Sermon on the Mount go back to OT ethics (cf. Deut 32:35; Prov 22:21-22). This is true of other NT books as well, such as the Letter of James. (Note the close correlation between Jacobean ethics and the Holiness Code [Jas 2:1,8-9; 4:11; 5:4,9,12,20; cf. Lev 19:11-18]).

3. Theonomic Ethics

Theonomy is a logical extension of decalogical ethics. Theonomy begins with the Decalogue, but sweeps in much of the case law as well, especially the civil legislation. But this raises some questions:

i) How much of the civil law pertains to the ceremonial law, and how much to the moral law? What is our criterion for distinguishing them?

ii) How much of the civil law is adapted to the historical particularities of an agrarian and tribal society? Again, what is our criterion? As with Anabaptist ethics, this broaches the question of how much is normative and how much occasional.

iii) Within the Mosaic code itself, some laws applied to all persons living in Israel, circumcised or not (e.g. Exod 12:19,48-49; Lev 16:29; 17:15; 18:26; 24:16, 22; Num 9:14; 15:16,30). But this implies that foreign national were not bound by all the laws binding on the covenant community.

Greg Bahnsen proposed a presumptive principle, viz., whatever is not repealed in the NT remains in force. But this is an ad hoc appeal. Although a NT repeal settles the case, one must also examine the purpose of OT laws in their original setting. The temporary character of some OT laws is already evident from their original setting, or from their general fulfillment in the NT, quite apart from any specific NT reference.

4. Ordinal Ethics.

John Murray founded Christian ethics on the creation mandates contained in Gen 1. This move illustrates the degree to which a Bible-based system of ethics comes down to a question of theological method. What is our starting point? Is it the new covenant? The Mosaic covenant? Or prelapsarian ethics?

Murray's position harmonizes natural law with revealed law. By being grounded in the divinely constituted nature of man, this is a form of natural law, but a natural law disclosed to us by special revelation. The ontology is natural, but the epistemology is supernatural. Murray's position raises some of its own questions:

1. Just how many of the creation mandates are there? As he tabulates them, they are procreation, filling the earth, subduing the earth, dominion, labor, the Sabbath, and marriage.

But this seems more like simple enumeration than analysis. Are procreation and marriage two distinct mandates, or one? Are filling and subduing the earth two distinct mandates, or one? And are they both subsumed under dominion, as means to ends? How is marriage related to dominion? Could that not also be subsumed under dominion as means to ends? Filling the earth goes with procreation, whereas subduing the earth goes with labor. At the same time, procreation supplies the labor force.

I'd suggest that the creation mandates can be consolidated in terms of labor, family, and Sabbath with a common view to dominion (cf. Ps 8:5-8).

2. Does the Fall have any impact on the creation mandates? Does redemption have any impact on the creation mandates?

3. What is the relation of the creation mandates to the Decalogue or case law or Proverbial ethics?

In my opinion, the best way forward would be take ordinal ethics as our foundation, but extend it to the remainder of Biblical ethics by using the creation mandates as a criterion for distinguishing the moral law from the ceremonial law or culture-bound adaptations.

The first step would be a classification system. As a test case, how much of the Mosaic law—both the Decalogue and case law—can be classified under the creation mandates? Some offenses are clearly crimes against the family, while other offenses are just as clearly crimes against the fruits of labor.

A. Ordinal offenses:
(i) Family (cf. Gen 1:27-28a; 2:24; Commandments 5,7):
(a) premarital sex
(b) extramarital sex
(c) divorce
(d) rape
(e) incest
(f) sodomy
(g) bisexuality
(h) bestiality
(i) prostitution
(j) transvestitism
(k) kidnapping
(l) juvenile delinquency
(ii) Labor (cf. Gen 1:28b; 2:15; Commandments 4,8,10):
(a) theft
(b) robbery
(c) extortion
(d) usury

This could be extended to analogous behavior that is not spelled out in Scripture, but is morally equivalent (e.g., pedophilia, pederasty, pornography).

What about religious offenses? Do these implicate the moral law or the ceremonial law? That depends on how you construe the Sabbath mandate. If this is only a negative corollary to the labor mandate, then Sabbath-breaking will fall under that category.

But in light of progressive revelation, the Sabbath is more than mere cessation from labor, having a positive religious direction and dimension, as a memorial of the old creation, the Exodus, and the Resurrection, as well as a foretaste of the new creation to come. On that understanding, most religious offenses were inclusive rather than exclusive of Sabbath-breaking proper, as a logical extension of Sabbatarian principle:

(iii) Sabbath (cf. Gen 2:3; Commandments 1-4):
(a) profanation
(b) idolatry
(c) apostasy
(d) blasphemy
(e) paganism
(f) witchcraft
(g) fortune-telling
(h) necromancy
(i) child sacrifice
(j) Sabbath-breaking

However, this analysis still leaves large swaths of the Mosaic law out of account, parts of which are clearly within the ambit of the moral law.

The reason, of course, is that the creation mandates reflect an antelapsarian code of conduct. As such, they do not directly addresses the consequences of sin. Nevertheless, certain sins are a direct attack on the creation mandates by removing their operative conditions. Without life and livelihood, or common honesty, man lacks the wherewithal to carry out his primary obligations.

B. Proto-ordinal offenses:
(i) Life (cf. Commandments 3-6):
(a) murder
(b) abortion
(c) infanticide
(ii) Health:
(a) crimes of violence
(b) endangerment
(iii) Honesty (cf. 9th commandment):
(a) deception
(b) perjury
(c) fraud
(d) bribery
(iv) Ecology (Gen 1:28; 2:15; cf. Lev 25:1-5)

As with the ordinal offenses, the proto-ordinal offenses could be extended to analogous behavior (e.g., suicide, euthanasia, unprovoked warfare, alcoholism, drug abuse, compulsive gambling).

Ordinal ethics to be extended to classify proverbial ethics (e.g., sloth, family, friends), as well as NT sin lists, role-relations, commands and prohibitions.

Ordinal ethics holds out the promise of both a selection criterion and a unifying principle for Biblical ethics. I offer this brief analysis, not a finished product, but a research program and work in progress.


I'd like to thank John Frame for commenting on a preliminary draft of this essay.


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