A Brief Theology of Christian Ethics

Introduction

Discussions of ethics abound in modern American culture, and the Christian community has a unique opportunity to make its voice heard on this broad stage.  Everyone from the highest place to the lowest wants to know: “How am I supposed to behave?”  Sharp thinkers will add another, more fundamental question: “Who am I supposed to be?”    Christians add a third, ultimately foundational question: “Who does God say I am to be?”  The purpose of this paper is to argue that Christians should use a theory of ethics which combines narrative ethics, command ethics, and virtue ethics, all on the basis of the lordship of God.

Divine Lordship and Christian Ethics

Christian ethical theory must begin with the doctrine of divine lordship.[1]  John Frame notes, “As Lord, God is, first of all, personal, for Lord is a proper name.”[2]  The Lord is personal in that He is “one who thinks, speaks, feels, loves, and acts with purpose.”[3]  This is an important point for the Christian to make because ethics do not come from an impersonal force.  Rather, all value comes ultimately from the Lord, the supreme personal being.  Next, Frame notes that “the Lord is a supremely holy person” which means that “God is beyond us…as the supreme person, the universal King, the Lord of all, before whom we cannot help but bow in awe and wonder.”[4]  God’s holiness essentially points to his transcendence and moral purity.  Finally, Frame notes that “God as Lord is head of a covenant relationship.  In a covenant, God takes a people to be his, redeems them from death, demands certain behavior on their part, and declares his blessings and curses: blessings if they obey, but curses if they disobey.”[5]  What this means for Christian ethical theory is that the Lord is the one who decides how Christians are to behave (command ethics) and who they are to be (virtue ethics), all seen in light of his work of redeeming them from death (narrative ethics).[6]  The reason that Christians are to use this particular ethical theory is because God is Lord of all life; therefore, He is the source and authority for Christian ethics.

Narrative, Command, and Virtue Ethics

Biblically, there are three overarching emphases when it comes to ethical motivation: the history of redemption, the authority of God’s commands, and the presence of the Spirit.[7]  When God redeems his people, He requires from them certain responses, namely faith, obedience, and worship.[8]  According to Frame, “These responses are the foundation of [Christian] ethical life.”[9]  When seen in this light, it is clear that a Christian theory of ethics must be a combination of narrative, command, and virtue ethics.  Ethics must be placed inside the overall history of redemption which is revealed in Scripture.  Further, command ethics and virtue ethics emphasize the authority of God’s commands as well as the innate character of the Christian, respectively.  These three types of ethics must go together for the Christian ethical system.  Indeed, they cannot be separated from one another.  As Frame argues, “God’s commands…define the virtues and enable [Christians] to evaluate the behavior of characters in the narrative.  It is the narrative that shows…how God saves [Christians] from sin and enables [them] to keep his law from the heart.  And the virtues define what the redeemed person looks like when he obeys God from the heart.”[10]  Thus, a Christian ethical theory must begin with divine lordship and be comprised of a combination of narrative, command, and virtue ethics.

This articulation of a Christian ethical theory is not unique.  Scott B. Rae argues that “Christian ethics is a blend of both virtues and principles.  Morality is ultimately grounded in the character of God—that is, the ultimate source for morality is not God’s commands but God’s character.”[11]  For Rae, Christian ethics are not to be exclusively based on divine command theory; he points to the fact that God’s nature and character are the foundation of Christian ethics.  While Rae may not have as high a view of the commands of God as the view Frame articulates, the point remains the same: the commands of God flow from the character of God.  It may further be said that because the Lord is absolutely authoritative, so also his commands are absolutely authoritative for the Christian life.  Cornelius Van Til puts it this way: “We do not artificially separate the will of God from the nature of God.  It is the nature as well as the will of God that is ultimately good.”[12]  In some ways, Van Til argues that one cannot have a version of divine command theory apart from virtue theory.  That is, it is a false dichotomy to pit these different ethical theories at odds with one another; they are not mutually exclusive.[13]  Indeed, both are necessary for any genuinely Christian ethical theory.

The Ten Commandments

It has been shown that a theory of Christian ethics must include narrative, command, and virtue ethics, and that this theory has divine lordship as its foundation.  The ground of Christian ethics is that God is all-controlling, absolutely authoritative, and covenantally present to his people.  At this point, it is important to note that any alleged Christian theory of ethics must be derived directly from Scripture itself, not from an imposed philosophical system which seeks to proof-text the Bible in order to make the system fit.  This is true because the authority of God is communicated to his people by the Scriptures.  Since this is the case, the Ten Commandments given in Exodus 20 function as the primary text about Christian ethics.

There are a variety of points that should be made about the Ten Commandments.  First, notice how all the commandments are rooted in the authority of the Lord: “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God’” (20:1-2).  From this it should be deduced that the subsequent commands the Lord gives are utterly authoritative precisely because it is the Lord who gives them.  Furthermore, God invokes the title “LORD” six times in the first twelve verses of Exodus 20.  It is obvious that this is a theme of the chapter, and from this it should be clear that divine lordship is the foundation of Christian ethics.  For example, the LORD is a jealous God, which means that his people are not to make any carved image or likeness of him, nor are they to serve their created idols.  Here it is apparent that divine lordship is the ground of the ethical commands and that these commands stem from the very character of God.

Second, notice further that God appeals to narrative before He gives the commands: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:2).  Thus, the people of God are to obey God because God has redeemed them from slavery.  The narrative functions to show how God saves his people “from sin and enables [them] to keep his law from the heart.”[14]  Additionally, God appeals to the fact that the Sabbath is binding upon his people because “in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.  Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (20:11).  Again, this shows that the narrative functions in such a way as to prove both the lordship of God and the necessary response of his people based upon the commands of God.

Third, notice how the authoritative commands imply the virtuous life.  For example, making or serving an idol is called an iniquity (20:5); to take the LORD’s name in vain is to be guilty of sin (20:7).  The implication here is that obedience to God’s law is virtuous and disobedience is not.  That is to say, conformity to God’s law demonstrates that one is virtuous and that God’s law is virtuous in itself.  This does not mean that the law can make one virtuous.  As Greg L. Bahnsen argues: “The law cannot contribute anything toward the personal justification of one who stands under its curse for violating its precepts.  Before the standard of God’s law the sinner will always stand condemned rather than being judged righteous.”[15]  This establishes that Christians designate different uses of the law, one of which is to show what a virtuous, redeemed, regenerated Christian life should look like.  While it is impossible to keep the law absolutely or perfectly in one’s own power, thus necessitating the work of Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection, still the law is to be used as a guide for how the Christian is to direct all of life.  In this way, the law functions to show what it is to be virtuous.

Conclusion

To close, let it be said again that a Christian ethical theory must combine narrative, command, and virtue ethics, based upon the lordship of God.  Because God is the covenant Lord of his people, his commands, which stem from his character, are utterly authoritative and are to be obeyed absolutely.  For the Christian, this means that an ethical theory must come directly from the revealed will of God in the Scriptures.  It is here that the Christian finds how to behave (command ethics) and who to be (virtue ethics).  Again, these categories are not mutually exclusive because the commands define what it means to be virtuous, and the virtues show what it means to be obey the law from the heart.  The Ten Commandments function as the bedrock of Christian ethics because they incorporate each of these ethical categories underneath the absolute authority and presence of the covenant Lord.  Therefore, let the Christian, by the sovereign power of the Spirit, believe wholeheartedly, obey absolutely, and worship genuinely according to the law of God.


[1] The following draws heavily upon John Frame’s discussion of ethics and divine lordship in The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing 2008), 19-37.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 31.

[7] Ibid., 29-30.

[8] Ibid., 26.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 31.

[11] Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 24.

[12] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 75.

[13] This same point is made by Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 31.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2015), 184.


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