From the New Bible Dictionary, 21st Century Edition
on Ethics, Biblical .
I. The distinctive principle
The distinctiveness of the Bible’s ethical teaching is well illustrated by the derivation of the words ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ themselves. Both come from roots (Greek and Latin) which mean ‘custom’. The implication is that we behave in an ethically correct manner when we do what custom dictates. We discover the things that are usually done, and conclude that these are the things we ought to do.
In sharp contrast to this approach, biblical ethics are Godcentred. Instead of following majority opinion or conforming to customary behaviour, the Scriptures encourage us to start with God and his requirements—not with man and his habits—when we look for moral guidelines. This central, unifying principle is expressed in many ways in the Bible: (a) The standard of goodness is personal. If we want to discover the nature of goodness, the Bible directs us to the person of God himself. He alone is good (Mk. 10:18), and it is his will that expresses ‘what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom. 12:2). Out in the Sinai desert, Yahweh promised Moses ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you’ (Ex. 33:19), and the promise was honoured with a special revelation of the Lord’s character (Ex. 34:6f.). Unlike any other moral teacher, God is utterly consistent. What he wills, he is.
(b) The source of moral knowledge is revelation. According to the Bible, knowledge of right and wrong is not so much an object of philosophical enquiry as an acceptance of divine revelation. As Paul puts it, knowing God’s will (which is equivalent to discovering what is right) comes through instruction in his law (Rom. 2:18). So while the moral philosopher investigates his data in order to draw judicious conclusions, the biblical writers are content to declare God’s revealed will without feeling the need to justify their judgments.
(c). Outwardly, the most striking difference between the Bible and a secular textbook on ethics is the way its moral teaching is communicated. To find reasoned-out arguments for ethical demands in the Bible, one has to look almost exclusively in the OT Wisdom literature (cf. Pr. 5:1ff.). Elsewhere, moral judgments are laid down flatly, not argued out reasonably. A philosopher who does not back his opinions with a well-argued case cannot expect people to take him seriously. But the biblical writers, inasmuch as they believed themselves to be conveying God’s will, felt no need for logical argument to support their moral commands.
(d)The basic ethical demand is to imitate God. As God sums up goodness in his own person, man’s supreme ideal, according to the Bible, is to imitate him. This is reflected in the OT refrain ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ (Lv. 11:44f., etc.); and in the way great old covenant words like ḥeseḏ (‘steadfast love’) ʾᵉmûnâh (‘faithfulness’) are used to describe both God’s character and his moral requirements of man. In the NT, too, the same note is struck. Christians must display their heavenly Father’s mercy, said Jesus, and even his moral perfection (Lk. 6:36; Mt. 5:48). And because Jesus ‘bears the Very stamp of his nature’ (Heb. 1:3), the call to imitate him comes with equal force (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1). We become imitators of the Father as we live out the Son’s love (Eph. 5:1f.).
(e) Religion and ethics are inseparable. All attempts to drive a wedge between the Bible’s moral precepts and its religious teaching fail. Because the biblical ethic is theocentric, the moral teaching of Scripture loses its credibility once the religious undergirding is removed (cf., e.g., the Beatitudes, Mt. 5:3ff.). Religion and ethics are related as foundation to building. The moral demands of the Decalogue, for example, are founded on the fact of God’s redemptive activity (Ex. 20:2); and much of Jesus’ moral teaching is presented as deduction from religious premises (cf. Mt. 5:43ff.). The same principle is well illustrated by the literary structure of Paul’s Epistles. As well as providing specific examples of moral teaching built on religious foundations (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:18ff. 2 Cor. 8:7ff.; Phil. 2:4ff.), Paul shapes his letters to follow the same pattern. A carefully presented theological main section is made the springboard for a clear-cut ethical tail-piece (cf., especially, Rom., Eph., Phil.). Christian ethics spring from Christian doctrine, and the two are inseparable.
II. The Old Testament
(a) The covenant. The covenant God made with Israel through Moses (Ex. 24) had direct and far-reaching ethical significance. In particular, the keynote of grace, first struck in the Lord’s choice of covenant partner (Dt. 7:7f.; 9:4), sets the theme for the whole of the OT‘s moral teaching.
God’s grace supplies the chief motive for obedience to his commandments. Appeals to godly fear are by no means absent from the OT (cf. Ex. 22:22ff.), but far more often grace provides the main stimulus to good behaviour. Men, as God’s covenant partners, are invited to respond gratefully to his prior acts of undeserved love; they are summoned to do his will in gratitude for his grace, rather than submit in terror to threats of punishment. So slaves must be treated generously because God treated Hebrew slaves with generosity in Egypt (Dt. 15:12ff.). Businessmen are not to weight their scales unfairly, remembering that it was the God of justice who redeemed their ancestors (Lv. 19:36). Strangers are to be treated with the same kindness that the Lord of grace showed to his people— ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Lv. 19:33f.). In a word, God’s covenant demand is ‘you shall keep my commandments and do them’, because ‘I am the Lord … who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God’ (Lv. 22:31ff.).
The covenant also encouraged an intense awareness of corporate solidarity in Israel. Its effect was not only to unite the individual to God, but also to bind all covenant members into a single community (cf. the language Paul uses to describe the effect of the new covenant in Eph. 2:11ff.). The recurrence of ‘flesh and bone’ language in the Bible illustrates this principle vividly; first used of a one-to-one relationship in Gn. 2:23, it could be applied by an individual to his extended family (Jdg. 9:1f.), by the nation declaring its loyalty to its leader (2 Sa. 5:1), and even—in later days—by one Jew describing his relationship to his race (Rom. 11:14, AV). So it was that when a man transgressed one of God’s commandments, the whole community was implicated in his sin (Jos. 7:1ff.); and when an [p. 344] individual fell on hard times, everyone felt the obligation to go to his aid.
Hence the very strong emphasis the OT lays on social ethics. Corporate solidarity led straight to neighbour-concern. In the one close community unit, every individual was important. The poor had the same rights as the rich because they both came under the one covenant umbrella. Weaker members of society were specially protected (cf. the specific regulations of Ex. 22 and 23, with their safeguards for the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor).
(b) The law. The covenant provided the context for God’s law-giving. Consequently, a distinctive feature of OT law was its stress on the maintenance of right relationships. Its main concern was not to set a fence round abstract ethical ideals, but to cement good relationships between people, and between people and God. So the majority of its specific precepts are couched in the second person rather than the third. Hence, too, the strongly positive and warm attitude adopted by those under the law towards law-keeping (cf. Pss. 19:7ff.; 119:33ff., 72); and the recognition that the most serious consequence of law-breaking was not any material punishment but the resulting breakdown in relationships (cf. Ho. 1:2).
At the heart of the law lie the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:3ff.; Dt. 5:7ff.), concerned as they are with the most fundamental of relationships. No summary could be more inclusive. They set out the basic sanctities governing belief, worship and life—the sanctity of God’s being, his worship, his name and his day; and the sanctity of marriage and family, life, property and truth. The context in which they are given is one of redemption (Ex. 20:2), and their relevance is not exhausted with the coming of Christ (Mt. 5:17ff.; Rom. 13:9; Jas. 2:10f.).
As well as being the fruit of God’s redemptive work, the Decalogue has deep roots in the creation ordinances of Gn. 1 and 2. These are the ordinances of procreation and managerial responsibility for the rest of creation (Gn. 1:28); of the sabbath (Gn. 2:2f.); of work (Gn. 2:15) and of marriage (Gn. 2:24). Together (like the Decalogue), they touch upon all the main areas of human life and behaviour, and provide basic guidelines for those seeking a life-style that is in line with the Creator’s ideal.
Man’s fall into sin did nothing to abrogate these ordinances. Their lasting relevance is upheld in the rest of Scripture (cf. Gn. 3:16, 19; 4:1–2, 17, 25; 5:1ff.; 9:7). But the Fall did materially affect the specific content of the OT law. As well as penal sanctions, new provisions were necessary to deal with the radically different situation sin had created. Moses’ permission of divorce (Dt. 24:1ff.) is a good case in point. This provision was God’s concession to severely sin-trnm marriage relationships, not an annulment of his creation marriage ordinance (Gn. 2:24; cf. Mt. 19:3ff.). Here, as elsewhere, we must be careful not to confuse God’s tolerance with his approval; just as we must always clearly distinguish between the biblical ethic and some of the equivocal behaviour of God’s people recorded in the Bible.
(c). The prophets. The 8th–century prophets have been aptly called ‘the politicians of the covenant’. Social conditions had changed dramatically since Moses’ times. Amos’ contemporaries had summer-houses as well as winter-houses. Big business flourished. There was financial speculation and money-lending on a large scale. Alliances and cultural exchanges were arranged with foreign powers. On the face of it, the covenant law had little help to offer to those struggling with the moral dilemmas of so vastly different an environment. But the prophets made it their business to interpret the law by digging down to its basic principles and applying these to the concrete moral problems of their day.
In particular, they echoed the law’s deep concern for social justice. Accurately reflecting the spirit of the covenant’s concern for the weak, Amos and Hosea flay those who sell the needy for a pair of shoes, accept bribes, use false weights and measures, or generally oppress the poor (Am. 2:6; 5:12; Mi. 6:11). With Isaiah and Hosea, they are particularly savage on those who try to hide their moral failures behind a façade of religious observance (Is. 1:10ff.; Ho. 6:6). God finds feast-day and hymn-singing nauseating, they thundered, while injustice and unrighteousness flourish (Am. 5:21ff.). A humble walk with him involves doing justice and loving kindness (Mi. 6:8).
The prophets also connected any imbalance that may have resulted from observance of the covenant law. The covenant’s stress on corporate solidarity, for example, may have blurred, in some minds, the concept of personal responsibility. So Ezekiel, especially, is at pains to point out that in God’s sight every individual is morally responsible for what he does; no-one can simply shelve the blame for wrong-doing on his heredity and environment (Ezk. 18:20ff.). Again, God’s special covenant concern for Israel had fostered in some people an unhealthy, narrow brand of nationalism which led them to despise foreigners. The prophets administered the necessary corrective by insisting that God’s moral standards are applied evenly. His love embraces Ethiopians as well as Israelites (Am. 9:7). And Israel will not escape his judgment for sin by pleading her special position as the Lord’s chosen people; in fact, says Amos, a privileged knowledge of God brings with it extra responsibilities and greater risk (Am. 1:1–3:2).
The enormity of sin, and the vastness of the gulf between the holy God and sinful men, impressed the prophets deeply (cf. Hab. 1:13; Is. 6:3ff.). Without a special act of divine grace, they knew no bridge could be built across this gap (cf. Je. 13:23). Man’s renewal depended on the activity of God’s Spirit (Ezk. 37:1ff.) and on a new kind of covenant law which God himself would write on his people’s hearts (Je. 31:31ff.).
III. The New Testament
(a) The Gospels. Jesus showed great respect for the OT moral law; he came not to abolish but to fulfil it (Mt. 5:17ff.). But he did not teach as a legislator himself. Though he phrased much of his moral teaching in imperatives (e.g. Mt. 5:39ff.; Mk. 10:9), and taught with a law-giver’s authority (cf. Mt. 7:24ff.; Mk. 1:22), it was not his purpose to lay down a comprehensive code of rules for moral living. Law prescribes or forbids specific things; Jesus was more concerned to set out and illustrate the general character of God’s will. Law deals in actions; Jesus dealt far more in character and in the motives that inspire action.
Jesus’ internalizing of the law’s demands is well illustrated in the Sermon on the Mount. The law forbade murder and adultery. Jesus (while not, of course, condoning either) put his finger on the [p. 345] thoughts and attitudes behind the actions. The man who nursed a private hatred towards his neighbour, or mentally undressed the latter’s wife in lust, could not (he taught) evade moral blame by pleading that he had not broken the letter of the law (Mt. 5:21f., 27f.). The Beatitudes, with which the Sermon begins (vv. 3ff.), underline the same point. They comprise not a list of rules, but a set of congratulations directed at those whose lives exemplify godly attitudes. Conversely, the sins Jesus condemns are mainly those of the spirit, not those of the flesh. He has surprisingly little to say (e.g.) about sexual misconduct. On two occasions when sexual sin was brought to his notice (Lk. 7:37ff.; Jn. 8:3ff.), he deliberately turned the spotlight on to the bad motives of the critics. He reserved his most stinging rebukes for wrong attitudes of mind and heart-like moral blindness, callousness and pride (Mt. 7:3ff.; Mk. 3:5; Lk. 18:9ff.).
Jesus’ approach to love provides a further illustration of the way he reinforced and developed OT moral teaching. Both parts of his well-known love-summary of the law (Mk. 12:28ff.) are taken straight from the pages of the OT (Dt. 6:4; Lv. 19:18). But he cut across the racial convictions of many of his contemporaries in his radical interpretation of the second of these commandments. Too often ‘love your neighbour’ was taken to mean ‘love your covenant-neighbour—and him only’. Through (especially) the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:29ff.), Jesus taught that neighbour-love must extend to anyone in need, irrespective of race, creed or culture. He universalized love’s demands.
In expounding neighbour-love, Jesus identified grace as its distinctive feature. Other kinds of loving—all of them treated positively in the NT—are either a response to something attractive in the one loved (as with physical desire and friendship), or the kind of love that is limited to the members of a group (like family devotion). True neighbour-love, Jesus taught, operates quite independently of any lovableness. It is evoked by need, not merit, and does not look for returns (Lk. 6:32ff.; 14:12ff.). It has no group limits either. And in all these ways it mirrors the love of God (Jn. 3:16; 13:34; Lk. 15:11ff.; cf. Gal. 2:20; 1 Jn. 4:7ff.).
When the rich young ruler responded enthusiastically to Jesus’ summary of the law, the Lord’s rejoinder was ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mk. 12:34). So as well as being the kingpin of God’s law, love is the gateway to his kingdom, and Jesus’ kingdom teaching is packed with ethical significance. Those who enter the kingdom are those who submit themselves to God’s rule; when his kingdom comes, his will is done. And God provides those in his kingdom with royal guidance and power to carry right ethical decisions into practice.
It is this availability of supernatural moral power that makes sense of some of Jesus’ otherwise impossible demands (cf. Mt. 5:48). He was no triumphalist (repentance is associated with the kingdom too—Mk. 1:15), but most of his moral imperatives were addressed to those already in the kingdom, with the implied assurance that all who submit to God’s rule can share his strength to convert their ethical convictions into action.
Because the kingdom is a present reality in Christ, the King’s guidance and power are available here and now. But because there is also a sense in which the fullness of the kingdom’s coming is still imminent, there is a consistent note of urgency in Jesus’ moral teaching too. When God’s rule over men is fully revealed there will be a judgment, and only a fool would ignore the warning note the kingdom sounds (cf. Lk. 12:20). Hence the gospel-call to repentance (Mt. 4:17).
(b) The rest of the New Testament. As is to be expected, the Epistles provide clear parallels with the moral teaching of the Gospels, even though they quote Jesus’ words surprisingly rarely (cf. 1 Cor. 7:10; 9:14). But because they were written as practical answers to urgent questions from living churches, the tone of their moral teaching is slightly different. From the Gospels it would seem that Jesus taught mainly in broad general principles, leaving his hearers to make their own applications. In the Epistles, on the other hand, the applications are often spelt out in very specific terms. Sexual sin, for example, is analysed in considerable detail (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9; 2 Cor. 12:21), and sins of speech come in for similarly detailed treatment (cf. Rom. 1:29f.; Eph. 4:29; 5:4; Col. 3:8; Jas. 3:5ff.).
Another distinctive feature of the Epistles’ ethical teaching is the recurrence of the so-called household codes (Eph. 5:22ff.; Col. 3:18f.; 1 Tim. 2:8ff.; Tit. 2:2ff.; 1 Pet. 2:18ff.). These are small sections of teaching on right relationships, especially in marriage, in the home and at work. They are notably conservative in tone, as are parallel sections on the relationship between believers and the secular authorities (cf. Rom. 13:1ff.; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13f.). However eagerly the early Christian community looked forward to the consummation of God’s kingdom, their keenness clearly did not lead them to reject the basic authority structures on which the life of society was founded. Even in the book of Revelation, where the veil of apocalyptic language covering John’s condemnation of the secular government at Rome is transparently thin, the saints are called to martyrdom, not revolution. Nevertheless, seeds of social change are to be found in the NT, notably in the relationships Christians are encouraged to foster with one another in the church (cf. Gal. 3:28).
The theme of the kingdom is not nearly so prominent in the Epistles as in the Gospels, but there is the same emphasis on man’s need for God’s guidance and power in moral living. In Paul’s language, union with Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) and the indwelling Spirit (Phil. 2:13) raise the Christian’s moral life to a new plane. Fed by God’s Word (Heb. 5:14), the redeemed believer is given sharper insight into distinctions between good and bad (cf. Rom. 12:2); and indwelt by the Spirit, he has new power to do what he knows to be right.
It is sometimes said that in his revolt against Jewish legalism, and boosted by his confidence in the Spirit’s power to inform and transform the Christian believer, Paul (especially) held that the OT moral law had become obsolete in Christ. There are certainly passages in the Epistles which, taken alone, might suggest such a view (e.g. Gal. 3:23ff.; Rom. 7:6; 10:4; 2 Cor. 3:6), but it is important to recognize that Paul uses the word ‘law’ in different ways. Where he uses it as shorthand for ‘justification by law’ (e.g. Rom. 10:4), he clearly regards living by law as both obsolete and dangerous for Christians. But where he uses the word simply to mean the expression of God’s will (e.g. Rom. 7:12), he is far more positive. He quotes the Decalogue without embarrassment (e.g. Eph. 6:2f.), and writes freely about a law principle which is [p. 346] operative in the Christian life (Rom. 8:2; 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2; cf. Jas. 1:25; 2:12). Here, as elsewhere, the teaching of the NT dovetails into that of the OT. So far as it contains God’s basic moral demands the law retains its validity, because he alone expresses in his person and will all that is good and right.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. A. B. Bruce, The Ethics of the Old Testament, 1909; C. H. Dodd, Gospel and Law, 1951; W. Eichrodt, The Theology of the Old Testament, 2, 1967; D. H. Field, Free To Do Right, 1973; N. L. Geisler, Ethics, 1971; C. F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics, 1957; W. Lillie, Studies in New Testament Ethics, 1961; T. W. Manson, Ethics and the Gospel, 1960; L. H. Marshall, The Challenge of New Testament Ethics, 1966; J. Murray, Principles of Conduct, 1957; A. Nygren, Agape and Eros, 1953; R. Schnackenburg, The Moral Teaching of the New Testament, 1965; G. F. Thomas, Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy, 1955; A. R. Vidler, Christ’s Strange Work, 1963; J. W. Wenham, The Goodness of God, 1974; J. H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 1972.