Definitive Ethics

Looking back through the annals of ancient history, one of the first things that one would notice is the proliferation of legal and ethical discussions throughout various world cultures. From the Code of Hammurabi in the ancient Near East to Confucius in ancient China to the philosophical schools in ancient Greece, the obsession with determining (and adjudicating) right and wrong has been practically ubiquitous throughout human history. The whole field of study, even the concept, known as “ethics” could accurately and simply be defined in this way: the art of delineating right from wrong. Dennis Hollinger, in his book Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics in a Complex World, more or less defines ethics in this way; though he also includes the rule of applying the principles discovered via “the systematic study of standards of wright and wrong” (14). John and Paul Feinberg, in their book Ethics for a Brave New World, define ethics as “a set of beliefs about what is good and evil, commanded and forbidden” (21).

In a relativistic society and culture, people will speak of and differentiate between different systems of ethics, but few would likely defend theirs as the ultimate system by which all of society ought to operate. From a philosophical/metaphysical perspective, this should separate Christian ethics from the moral relativists. The Christian presumably adheres to a system of ethics because that system coheres with reality. After all, the created order is just that—an order. When the Solomon, David, and the other authors of the Psalms and wisdom literature reflected upon the Creator God (as they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” [2 Pt. 1:21]), they do not perceive the creation of the physical universe as immediately distinct from the moral landscape (Pr. 3:13-26 being a prime example). The whole universe operates by the same principle: the wisdom of God. To disobey God’s moral law equates to going against the way that His creation operates. So, in a sense, there should be “Christian ethics” any more than there is “Christian truth” or “Christian beauty.” All of these belong to the Sovereign, Wise God, and all of creation makes or breaks itself whenever its moral creatures obey or disobey their Creator (cf. Dt. 30:11-20).

Where any system of ethics might be rightly called “Christian,” however, rests in the fact that, left to our own devices, humanity (particularly fallen humanity) would neither discover nor fully adhere to God’s system of ethics. From a creaturely perspective, this truth holds because we could never see the full portrait of the created order in order that we may operate judiciously within it. Even without a “fallen nature” the creature would need the divine grace and assistance of the Creator. With the fallen nature, however, we creatures now have a propensity to deliberately disobey God’s moral rule. Humanity has, for millennia, sought to establish its own rule and ethics in pathetic attempt to usurp the reign of the Creator. So, the need to differentiate between a “Christian ethic” and all other forms of ethics becomes a necessity.

Presumably, then, being a Christian entails adhering to God’s moral law. In a way, ethics has everything to do with being a Christian. Even though the Christian faith teaches that one’s relationship with God is based on faith, not works (Eph. 2:8-9), that truth is an ethic in and of itself that fits within God’s system of ethics. The principle of “by grace through faith” does not eliminate the responsibility of obeying God’s ethic.