Thursday, November 08, 2007

Christian ethical valuation

(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays.)

In debating what we should do in the face of Islamic terrorism, it's become quite apparent to me that a lot of Christians don't have a big enough metaethical toolkit to properly evaluate ethical issues. I don't say that as a personal criticism.

Although we enjoy certain innate moral intuitions, these are very roughhewn, and easily distorted by sin or cultural conditioning. To some extent, too, ethical valuation is a learned behavior. We are not equipped with ready-made principles, much less ready-made answers, to every ethical question and challenges we face.

Many Christians seem to default to a very wooden version of deontologism in which every action is either right or wrong, period—irrespective of motives, circumstances, objectives, or consequences. But one of the problems, when you don't study philosophy, is that you still have an operating philosophy, but it's an unexamined philosophy—often piecemeal and contradictory.

I suspect many Christians assume this outlook in part because Christians believe in moral absolutes, so any consideration of motives, circumstances, objectives, or consequences smacks of moral relativism—or so it seems to them. It's also appealing because it's so formulaic.

Unfortunately, this outlook is simplistic, unscriptural, and ultimately unethical. I've taken the liberty of gleaning some basic principles and distinctions in ethical valuation from John Frame. I'd recommend that Christians read the entire series. [See here for all of Prof. Frame's articles which are hosted on Reformed Perspectives. -- Ed.]

Three Ethical Principles

In this section I will discuss another aspect of the ethical debate between Christians and non-Christians. This debate also concerns the lordship attributes.

Most people who think about ethics, Christian and non-Christian alike, are impressed by three principles:

1. The Teleological Principle: A good act maximizes the happiness of living creatures.

That is to say, a good act does good. Christians emphasize that it is good for God, bringing him glory. But Scripture tells us that what brings glory to God brings good to his people: "And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day" (Deut. 6:24; cf. 10:13). Non-Christian ethical writers like Aristotle have also emphasized that doing good brings happiness, however that may be defined. The ethical life is the good life, the blessed life (Ps. 1; Matt. 5:1-11). And of course to live ethically is also to bring blessing to others.

In Christian ethics, this insight is based on God's lordship attribute of control. For it is God who arranges nature and history so that good acts have beneficial consequences to himself, to the ethical agent, and to other persons.

I call this principle the principle of teleology, for it declares that all our behavior should be goal-oriented, that it should seek the glory of God and the happiness of people.

2. The Deontological Principle: A good act is a response to duty, even at the price of self-sacrifice.

We admire people who follow their ethical principles even at great cost to themselves. In the Bible, Abraham obeyed God's word, even though it meant leaving his home country and moving to a place where he was a complete stranger to everybody, and even though it meant taking his son Isaac up to a mountain to serve as a human sacrifice (Gen. 22:1-19). To do his Father's will, the Lord Jesus gave his very life.

So, God defines duties for us, absolute norms that take precedence over any other consideration. Our duty is what we must do, what we ought to do. So they are necessary. And they are universal, for they apply to everyone. If it is wrong for me to steal, then it is wrong for you to steal in the same situation. Ethics is no respecter of persons.

This insight is based on God's lordship attribute of authority. For the ultimate source of human duties is God's authoritative word. Some secular thinkers, such as Plato and Kant, also acknowledged the important of duty. But as we shall see, they had a difficult time determining where our duties are to be found, and what our duties actually are.

I call this principle the principle of deontology, from the Greek verb translated "owe, ought, or must." It states that ethics is a matter of duty, of obligation.

3. The Existential Principle: A good act comes from a good inner character.

A good person is not a hypocrite. He does good works because he loves to do them, because his heart is good. Scripture emphasizes that the only righteousness that is worth anything is a righteousness of the heart. The Pharisees cleansed the outside of their cup, their outward acts, but not the inside, their heart-motives (Matt. 23:25). Non-Christian writers, such as Aristotle, have also frequently emphasized the importance of character, of virtue, of inner righteousness. But as we shall see they have not succeeded in showing what constitutes virtue or how such virtue may be attained.

This insight is based on God's lordship attribute of presence, for it is God "who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12). Without inward regeneration and sanctification, our best works are hypocritical.

I call this the existential principle, for it says that morality is personal, inward, a matter of the heart.

Are the Three Principles Consistent?

Christians can gladly accept all three of the principles, insights or intuitions listed above. The God of Scripture is the author of the situation, the Word, and the moral self, so that the three are fully consistent with one another. He ordains history so that people will find their ultimate blessing in doing their duty. He has made us in his image, so that our greatest personal fulfillment occurs in seeking his glory in history, as his word declares.

Now, many writers appreciate the three principles, or some of them, although they reject the God of the Bible. But in the absence of the biblical God, these principles are in tension with one another.

The teleological principle says that ethical action leads to happiness. Yet the deontological principle says that in order to do our duty, we must sometimes sacrifice our happiness.

The teleological and deontological principles say that our ethical responsibility is objective, grounded outside ourselves. But the existential suggests that our goodness is inward, and therefore subjective.

The deontological principle says that we are subject to a moral law that declares our duty, apart from inclination or the consequences of our acts. But the teleological and existential principles measure our goodness by the consequences of our actions and our inner life, respectively.

The existential principle says that it's wrong to measure a person's goodness by anything external to himself. But the teleological and deontological principles say that one may measure goodness by the consequences and norms of actions, respectively.

Non-Christian thinkers who appreciate the teleological principle tend to be empiricists in their epistemology (as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill), basing human knowledge on sense-experience. But philosophers have generally recognized that sense-experience does not reveal to us universal or necessary principles. It cannot reveal universal principles, because we cannot have sense-experience of the whole universe. And it cannot reveal necessary principles, because necessity is not something available to the senses. At most, the senses tell us what happens, not what must happen, and certainly not what ought to happen. But the deontological principle says that ethics is based on principles that are universal, necessary, and obligatory.

So if one tries to hold these principles without God, they inevitably appear to be in tension with one another. With God, they cohere, for the same God who controls the consequences of our acts also declares our duties and also gives us a new inner life. But without God it seems likely that in some ethical situations one principle will contradict another. We may, then, have to abandon our duty in order to maximize happiness in a situation, or to be as loving as possible (Joseph Fletcher). Of course, we must then decide what principle will prevail. Non-Christian ethicists differ among themselves on that question, so among them there are three schools of thought.

Types of Christian Ethics

These three motivations have led Christian thinkers to develop three main types of Christian ethics: command ethics, narrative ethics, and virtue ethics. Command ethics emphasizes the authority of God's moral law. Narrative ethics emphasizes the history of redemption. It teaches ethics by telling the story of salvation. Virtue ethics discusses the inner character of the regenerate person, focusing on virtues listed in passages like Romans 5:1-5; Galatians 5:22-23 and Colossians 3:12-17.

What Really Matters

We can see the same triadic structure in the actual content of biblical ethics. I shall expound this structure at length later in the book. For now, let us note sayings of the Apostle Paul that intend to show the highest priorities of the Christian life. In these passages he is opposing Judaizers, who think that one must be circumcised to enter the kingdom of God. He replies that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is important, but rather the following:

1 Corinthians 7:19
For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.

Galatians 5:6
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Galatians 6:15
For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

As in our previous discussion, there is a reference in 1 Corinthians 7:19 to keeping the commandments of God. It corresponds to God's lordship attribute of authority. "Faith working through love" in Galatians 5:6 is the work of the Spirit within us, and refers to God's covenant presence. "New creation" in Galatians 6:15 is the great redemptive-historical change brought about by Jesus' death and resurrection, the powerful work of God's sovereign control over history.[15]

Factors in Ethical Judgment

Now imagine that you are a pastor or counselor, and someone comes to your office with an ethical problem. Basically, there are three things you will need to discuss: the situation, the word of God, and the inquirer himself.

Normally, we ask first about the situation: "What's your problem? What brings you to see me?" This question is ultimately about God's lordship attribute of control, for God is the one who brings situations about.

Then we ask, "What does God's word say about the problem?" This discussion invokes God's lordship attribute of authority.

Thirdly, we focus on the inquirer, asking how he or she needs to change in order to apply God's solution to the problem. At this point, we are thinking especially about God's presence within the individual. If the person is a non-Christian, then he needs to be born again by God's Spirit before he can apply the word of God to his life. If the person is a believer, he may need to grow in certain ways before he will be able to deal with the issue before him.

We note in such conversations that each of these subjects influences the other two. We may start with a "presentation problem:" "My wife is angry all the time." But as we move to a focus on God's word, gaining a better understanding of Scripture, we may gain a better understanding of the problem as well. For example, Scripture tells us to remove the log from our own eye before trying to get the speck out of another's eye (Matt. 7:3). So the inquirer may come to see that his wife is angry because he has provoked her. So the problem now is not only in her, but in him as well. Reflection on God's word has changed our understanding of the problem.

But this new understanding of the problem pushes us to look at more and different Scripture texts than we considered in the beginning. As we understand the problem better, we understand better how Scripture relates to it. Scripture and the situation illumine one another.

Then when we move to the third question and ask the inquirer to look within, he may see even more things in himself that have provoked his wife's anger. So the problem, the word, and the inquirer have all illumined one another. Evidently you cannot understand your problem, or yourself, adequately until you have seen it through what Calvin called the "spectacles of Scripture." And you can't understand the problem until you see yourself as a part of it.

And you can't understand God's word rightly until you can use it, until you see how it applies to this situation and that. This is a more difficult point, but I think it is important. If someone says he understands "you shall not steal" but has no idea to what situations that commandment applies (such as embezzling, cheating on taxes, shoplifting), then he hasn't really understood the biblical command. Understanding Scripture, understanding its meaning, is applying it to situations. A person who understands the Bible is a person who is able to use the Bible to answer his questions, to guide his life. As I argued in Chapter 2, theology is application.

Perspectives on the Discipline of Ethics

In general, then, ethical judgment always involves the application of a norm to a situation by a person. These three factors can also be seen as overall perspectives on the study of ethics:

1. The Situational Perspective

In this perspective, we examine situations, problems. This study focuses on God's actions in creation and providence that have made the situations what they are, hence God's lordship attribute of control. The situational perspective asks, "What are the best means of accomplishing God's purposes?" That is, how can we take the present situation and change it so that more of God's purposes are achieved?

God's ultimate purpose is his own glory (1 Cor. 10:31). But God has more specific goals as well: the filling and subduing of the earth (Gen. 1:28); the evangelization and nurture of people of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20); the success of his Kingdom (Matt. 6:33).

The situational perspective explores the consequences of our actions. Under the situational perspective, we ask, "If we do X, will that enhance the glory of God and his blessing on his people?" We seek the best means to the ends that please God. So, we might describe ethics from this perspective as a Christian teleological, or consequential ethic.

2. The Normative Perspective

Under the normative perspective, we focus on Scripture more directly. Our purpose is to determine our duty, our ethical norm, our obligation. So we bring our problem to the Bible and ask, "What does Scripture say about this situation?" At this point we invoke God's lordship attribute of authority. Since we are focusing on duties and obligations, we might call this perspective a Christian deontological ethic.

3. The Existential Perspective

The existential perspective focuses on the ethical agent, the person (or persons) who are trying to find out what to do. Under this perspective, the ethical question becomes "How must I change if I am to do God's will?" Here the focus is inward, examining our heart-relation to God. It deals with our regeneration, our sanctification, our inner character. These are all the product of God's lordship-presence within us.

Necessary and Sufficient Criteria of Good Works

What is a good work? Reformed theologians have addressed this question in response to the "problem of the virtuous pagan." Reformed theology teaches that human beings by nature are "totally depraved." This does not mean that they are as bad as they can be, but that it is impossible for them to please God in any of their thoughts, words, or deeds (Rom. 8:8). So, apart from grace none of us can do anything good in the sight of God. Yet, all around us we see non-Christians who at least seem to be doing good works: they love their families, work hard at their jobs, contribute to the needs of the poor, show kindness to their neighbors. It seems that these pagans are virtuous by normal measures.

Reformed theology, however, questions these normal measures. It acknowledges that unbelievers often contribute to the betterment of society. These contributions are called "civic righteousness." Their civic righteousness does not please God, however, because it is altogether devoid of three characteristics:
Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God. (WCF 16.7)
Note the three necessary ingredients: (1) a heart purified by faith, (2) obedience to God's word, and (3) the right end, the glory of God.

The first is a plainly biblical emphasis. The Confession cites Hebrews 11:4 and some other texts. Romans 14:23 also comes to mind, which says, "For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." In Jesus' arguments with the Pharisees, too, it is evident that our righteousness must not be merely external (see especially Matt. 23:25-26). In describing the necessity of an internal motive of good works, Scripture refers not only to faith, but especially to love, as in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 and many other passages. We learn from these passages that love is not only necessary for good works, but also sufficient: that is, if our act is motivated by a true love of God and neighbor, we have fulfilled the law (Matt. 22:40, Rom. 13:8, Gal. 5:14).

The second element of good works, according to the Confession, is obedience to God's word, to his law. Note the references in the previous section to the importance of obeying God's word. Certainly obedience to God's word is a necessary condition of good works, for disobedience to God's law is the very definition of sin (1 John 3:4). It is also a sufficient condition: for if we have obeyed God perfectly, we have done everything necessary to be good in his sight. Of course, among God's commands are his commands to love (see above paragraph) and to seek his glory (see the next paragraph).

The third element is the right end, the glory of God. Ethical literature has often discussed the summum bonum or highest good for human beings. What is it that we are trying to achieve in our ethical actions? Many secular writers have said this goal is pleasure or human happiness. But Scripture says that in everything we do we should be seeking the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Certainly, any act must glorify God if it is to be good, so seeking God's glory is a necessary condition of good works. And if the act does glorify God, then it is good; so it is a sufficient condition.[11]

So, there are three necessary and sufficient conditions of good works: right motive, right standard, and right goal.[12] Right motive corresponds to the lordship attribute of covenant presence: for it is God's Spirit dwelling in us who places faith and love in our hearts. Right standard corresponds, obviously, to God's lordship attribute of authority. And right goal corresponds to the lordship attribute of control, for it is God's creation and providence that determines what acts will and will not lead to God's glory. God determines the consequences of our actions, and he determines which actions lead to our summum bonum.


  1. Good Post overall. I disagree with very little. However I do not seee how this engages what we discussed in another post. But maybe it was not meant to do so.

  2. Blackhaw said:

    "Good Post overall. I disagree with very little. However I do not seee how this engages what we discussed in another post. But maybe it was not meant to do so."

    This is a general framework for ethical analysis. It doesn't self-apply to any ethical or exegetical dispute. It's a way of asking the right quedstions, but it doesn't give the answers.

  3. Welcome to our wow Gold and store. We are specilized, professional and reliable website for selling and service. By the wow power leveling same token,we offer the best WoW service for our long-term and loyal customers You will find the benefits and powerleveling value we created different from other sites. As to most people, they are unwilling to spend most of the time grinding money for mounts or repair when they can purchase what they are badly need. The only way is to look for the best place to wow powerleveling buy cheap WOW gold. Yes! You find it here! Our WoW Gold supplying service has already accumulated a high reputation and credibility. We have plenty of Gold suppliers, which will guarantee our wow gold delivery instant. Actually, we have been getting tons of postive feedbacks from our loyal customers who really appreciate our service.