Christian Ethics - Lesson 14

Biblical Ethics

In this lesson, Dr. Nash discusses the difference between the biblical ethic and other philosophical systems. The biblical ethic does not come wrapped up in a systematic philosophical package, and it may appear simple, disorganized, or unsystematic. However, reflective thinking reveals an underlying system that can lead to complex issues. The starting point for moral reflection for Christians is the divinely revealed scriptures, but this does not provide a ready-made answer to every moral problem. He then introduces the topic of principles and rules in Christian ethics and poses the question of what to make of the fact that some New Testament commandments seem ethically archaic or obsolete. Additionally, many of the moral problems that confront contemporary Christians are not even mentioned in the Bible.

Ronald Nash
Christian Ethics
Lesson 14
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Biblical Ethics

Biblical Ethics


I. Introduction

A. Revelation of God

B. No systematic, philosophical package

C. Scripture is the starting point.

D. No ready-made answers to every problem


II. Principles and Rules

A. Propositions

1. Specific situations in New Testament commandments

a. 1 Corinthians 8

b. 1 Corinthians 11

2. Contemporary moral problems are not mentioned

3. Contemporary moral problems would be unintelligible to first-century Christians

4. Complete ethical revelation would be impractical

5. What about moral dilemmas?

B. Distinction between principles and rules - Generality

1. Rules are specific.

2. Rules are easier to apply.

3. Rules suffer from relativism.

4. Principles are unchanging.

5. Principles suffer from ambiguity.

C. Application to the Bible

1. Principle or rule?

2. Find the principle behind the rule.

3. Examples

a. Romans 14

b. 1 Corinthians 11

D. Review of the propositions

1. The New Testament is not ethically obsolete.

2. The Bible is not irrelevant.

3. The Bible contains principles for today.


III. Hierarchy of Moral Instructions

A. The duty to love

B. Love God and man

C. The Ten Commandments

1. The first four commandments

2. The last six commandments

D. New Testament principles and rules

  • Gain insights into philosophical ethics and Christian responses, and the Christian role in society regarding the state, justice, economics, and education.
  • In this lesson, Dr. Nash introduces you to the concept of hedonism, which is an example of a consequentialist ethic. He reviews non-hedonistic consequentialist philosophies, psychological hedonism, and ethical hedonism.
  • This lesson introduces you to the theory of deontological ethics and Emmanuel Conte. You will learn that the deontological ethic judges morality by examining the nature of actions and the will of agents rather than goals achieved.
  • In this lesson you will learn about the system of ethics that focuses on virtue and introduces the Four Cardinal Virtues, which are temperance, wisdom, justice, and courage, and emphasizes the importance of being the right kind of person who possesses the traits of character, and C.S. Lewis's book "Christianity" provides an informative treatment of the Four Cardinal Virtues and the Three Theological Virtues.
  • You will gain insight into C.S. Lewis's views on Christian ethics and the morality analogy he presents, where morality is like a fleet of ships that must fulfill three conditions to succeed: every ship must run properly, the relations between ships must be proper and orderly, and the fleet must head to the right destination.
  • You will learn about the importance of distinguishing between society and the state. Society is a voluntary organization of people, while the state is the group of people who claim a monopoly on the use of coercive force within a geographic boundary. By understanding this difference, you can prevent the government from interfering with your voluntary associations.
  • You will gain an understanding of how the professor's theory of the state in Social Justice in the Christian Church aligns with the New Testament. He explains that the state is a God-ordained institution to check against sin, and he is a moderate anti-statist who recognizes the need for government but also the inherent evil in any concentration of human power. The New Testament recognizes constraints upon governmental power, and Revelation 13 is an example of how the state can symbolize anti-Christian government. The lesson also discusses the concept of justice and how it is often invoked without a clear understanding, suggesting that Christians should study ancient Greece for a better comprehension of the term.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the evangelical civil war that happened 20 years ago, learn about its early stages recorded by Clark Penick, understand the harmful effects of left-wing evangelicalism, and see how many evangelicals on the left became enamored with their own self-virtue in what they thought was a crusade to help the poor.
  • By studying this lesson, you will gain insight into the major differences between capitalism, socialism, and interventionism. You will learn that interventionism is often responsible for economic crises that are attributed to capitalism. You will also learn about the overlapping and continuum nature of economic systems and the gray area where an economic system may be viewed as socialism or interventionism.
  • This lesson discusses the decline of old liberation theology and how some of its proponents are now advocating for capitalism and democracy as being what the poor of the third world need, and presents shocking quotations from individuals characterized as evangelical, such as Jose Marquez Bonino, who promotes Marxism and praises tyrants like Castro and Mao Tse tung, as well as material about the three major kinds of Marxism that have existed in the world.
  • This lesson will provide you with a comprehensive understanding of interventionism and its role in the Great Depression, including the fact that blaming capitalism for the depression is based on four myths, and that interventionism actually deepens recessions by disguising the information produced by a market economy.
  • Through this lesson, you will gain an understanding of the crisis facing American education, as highlighted by Alan Blum's book The Closing of the American Heart and the author's complementary book. The focus is on the importance of values, standards, and morality in education, and the need to reopen the American heart to reopen the American mind. The lesson introduces the three kinds of illiteracy currently affecting Americans at every level of the educational process, with a particular emphasis on functional illiteracy, which refers to the inability to read, write, or use numbers well enough to get along in society.
  • In this lesson, you will learn about the incompetency of public school teachers in America, caused by academically weak students being attracted to the profession, lack of content courses in their college curriculum, unimpressive and radical left-winged professional educationists, and the National Education Association being an enemy of America's young people, with four essential steps to improve education, including getting a clear focus on the educational role of the family, increasing local control of education, changing the curriculum to prepare students for life after school, and changing teacher education programs.
  • Gain knowledge of the difference between the biblical ethic and other philosophical systems. Though it may seem simple, it is an underlying system that can lead to complex issues. The divinely revealed scriptures are the starting point for moral reflection, but not a ready-made answer. Some New Testament commandments are archaic or obsolete, and many modern moral problems are not discussed in the Bible.
  • You will gain insight into the pro-life stance and be equipped to inform others. Christians need not be timid about talking about these issues.
  • This lesson explores the arguments and counterarguments surrounding abortion, arguing for caution and conservatism in ending any life, emphasizing the need to balance the right of the mother with the rights of the infant, and briefly touching on the issue of rape and how it complicates the matter.
  • As you go through the lesson, you will learn about infanticide and euthanasia, and how the disrespect for unborn human life has led to an increase in cases of infanticide, along with some suggestions for what Christians should do in the case of children born with life-threatening handicaps.
  • In this lesson, you will explore the five major passages of Scripture related to homosexuality, including different interpretations of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and concludes that the Bible clearly condemns homosexual activity.
  • This lesson explores the topic of capital punishment in the context of Christian beliefs, arguing for consistency and emphasizing the need to view Old Testament laws in the context of specific situations that are no longer applicable.
  • This lesson discusses the three approaches to war and peace and distinguishes between principled pacifists and hypocritical, unprincipled pacifists, who are members of the political left and denounce American military actions but support violent revolutionary organizations.
  • You will gain an understanding of the growing issue of divorce and remarriage within the church, the responsibilities of Christian leaders in addressing it, and the need for Christians to think through what the Scripture teaches on these matters and formulate principles that will guide their thinking and conduct.
  • This lesson provides insight into how responsible Christians can make ethical decisions about birth control, considering the importance of intention, distinguishing between ethically acceptable and unacceptable forms of birth control, and emphasizing the importance of wise and careful means in achieving family planning goals.

Theoretical and theological basis for Christians  living an ethical life.

Dr. Ronald Nash

Christian Ethics


Biblical Ethics

Lesson Transcript


[00:00:01] Now we're going to start we're going to turn our attention to the biblical ethic. And I want to begin with this collection of thoughts. The revelation of God in Scripture does not appear in the same dress as any of the philosophical systems that you've been introduced to in other courses here. That's especially important to recognize when we contrast the ethical system of somebody like Plato and Aristotle with the foundation of the Christian ethical system that we find in Scripture. The biblical ethic does not come to us in any kind of systematic philosophical package. That's the point I want to make. The biblical ethic does not come wrapped up in a systematic philosophical package. You have to do some work in order to nail down the content of the biblical ethic. But the apparent simplicity of the biblical ethic is deceptive. What I'm saying is the biblical ethic sometimes looks very simple. It sometimes looks very disorganized, very unsystematic. But reflective thinking about the Christian ethic will soon bring you to realize that you're dealing with an underlying system. You're dealing with a package, a system that is there underneath the surface. And in fact, you can get involved in some very complex issues before you know it. The Christian has a necessary starting point for his moral reflection, and that necessary starting point are the divinely revealed scriptures. But this fact does not mean that the Christian has a sufficient starting point. The divinely revealed truth found in the propositions of Scripture does not give the Christian a ready made answer to every moral problem. Let me repeat that.


[00:02:35] The divinely revealed truth found in the propositions of Scripture does not give the Christian a ready made answer to every moral problem. Rather, these this revealed truth provides the Christian with a starting point that does not relieve him of the need to think seriously and reflectively about the meaning of the biblical maxims and their application to his situations. Now, the first thing I want to do in introducing you to the biblical ethic is to discuss a very important subject that I usually present under this heading Principles and Rules, Principles and Rules and Christian Ethics. I'm going to give you how many propositions here, six propositions that will serve to introduce us to this important topic. I have mentioned the apparent simplicity of the New Testament ethic. Now I want you to consider the complexity of the New Testament ethic. Number one, what do we make of the fact that a number of New Testament commandments seem tied to specific situations that seem totally inapplicable today? Let me repeat that. What do we make of the fact that a number of New Testament commandments seem tied to specific situations that affect none of us today? For example, First Corinthians Chapter 11, Paul talks about women praying with uncovered heads or with hair cut short. In most cases, these are not concerns of Christian communities to which most of us belong today. Well, and yet that is certainly those are certainly moral instructions that are found in the New Testament or in First Corinthians Chapter eight, Paul talks about eating meat offered to idols. When's the last time you asked your butcher, Has this meat been offered as a sacrifice to any pagan god? I don't know what your butcher where your butcher goes to church. Consequently, what possible help can Christians get from reading these outmoded moral instructions if that characterization of them happens to be correct? So much of the New Testament seems ethically.


[00:05:17] Archaic and obsolete, does it not? Or does it? Well, that's point number one. What do we make of the fact that a number of New Testament commandments seem ethically archaic, ethically obsolete? Point to a great many of the moral problems that do confront Christians today are not even mentioned in the Bible. A great many of the moral problems that confront contemporary Christians are now not even mentioned in the Bible. Now, notice the twist here. Many of the issues that are mentioned in the Bible are obsolete, archaic. Many that concern us today are not discussed in the Bible. Where in the Bible, for example, does it say anything about smoking marijuana or about birth control, perhaps, or about AIDS? So in the first point, some of the New Testament ethic appears to be out of date. And the second point, some of the New Testament ethic appears to be incomplete or irrelevant. All right. Number three, in fact, if the Bible did contain specific moral instruction about many of our contemporary problems, these passages in the Bible would have been unintelligible to Christians who lived in earlier centuries. If the Bible did contain specific moral instruction about many of our contemporary problems, these passages would have been unintelligible. Suppose you're reading in second, Peter. All right. And Peter says, Because the Bible wants to be complete, Peter says, Never drive your Mercedes faster than the speed limit of 55 miles an hour. Now, what would new what would first century Christians have made of that? Well, would any Christian prior to 1910 have made of that? So the first point is much of the New Testament ethic appears ethically archaic. Second point, much of the New Testament ethic appears to be irrelevant or incomplete. Point number three if these gaps in the New Testament ethic had been filled in, much of the New Testament ethic would have been unintelligible.


[00:07:43] How can a how can a timeless revelation deal with changing moral problems? That's what I want you to see. Point poor. In order for the Bible to contain a moral command to cover every possible situation, it would it would require an expansion of its size to interminable lengths. We we know the size of the present Bible. Now, just suppose God had decided to give us a book and suppose he had said this chapter won't be relevant until the middle of the 20th century. All right. But he wanted to give us a timeless, complete ethical revelation so that people living in the first century could skip over this. They'd say, Well, I don't know what marijuana is, and I don't know what X-rated movies are, and I don't know what a mercedes Benz is. So that God, God revealed all of that to take care of Christians in the future. But if we had a revelation that contained all of the moral instructions we needed, we'd need a we'd need a huge computer to carry it with us. It would be ethically impractical to have a divine revelation that covers every specific issue, moral issue that we might encounter. Finally, what do we do with the problem of moral dilemmas? Life is difficult. Many times it's hard to know what our responsibilities in life are. So how do we how do we avoid the problem of the ethically ambiguous? Now, whether you followed every single point that I've made here, all of this is designed to introduce you to the importance of the distinction between principles and rules. What I'm going to do in the next half hour is give you the equipment that you need to deal with all of these questions that I have just asked.


[00:09:45] Aren't you glad you came today? What you need to deal with these particular problems, these questions that I've asked is the distinction between a principle and a rule. I'm going to draw a distinction between a principle and a rule. And I'm going to set up a little chart here. And the chart will deal with the relative advantage and disadvantage of principles and rules. But before I do that, I have to give you a clearer idea of what this distinction is. The distinction between a principle and a rule is primarily a distinction of generality. If you have two moral prescriptions, the one that is more closely tied to a specific situation will be the rule and the one that is more general and covers a broader range of situations will be the principle rules are more specific than principles. In fact, let's put that down as the major advantage of any moral rule. It is very specific. It is specific. It is related to specific situations. Hence, it is much easier to understand how the rule applies to this particular situation. The disadvantage to rules, however, is that they tend they suffer from a kind of relativity, a kind of relativism, you see, because the rule is so closely tied to a specific situation. When that situation changes, the rule may no longer apply. So that what was your duty yesterday because you were this person in this situation, that may not be your duty tomorrow because the situation has changed now. Principals have the advantage of being much more unchanging. In other words, the advantage of a principle corresponds to the disadvantage. The weakness of a rule. Rules are tend to be relative because they're closely tied to situation. Principals cover a much broader range of possibilities, hence they are less subject to change.


[00:12:27] But now we come to the corresponding disadvantage of a principle. Principals cover so many options that they tend to suffer from a degree of vagueness, ambiguity. All right. Now, how does this apply to the Bible? In the Bible, we find a large number of rules that God gave to his people to give them guidance in the specific situations in which they found themselves. But they were in the case of the New Testament. Get this, they were first century rules given to first century believers. To the extent that those situations that have that confronted first century believers changed, the rules would have to change. So as we look at the moral instructions that are in the Bible, we need to ask ourselves, is this a rule or is this a principle? A principle will be more general than a rule. If what we're looking at is a first century rule, then what we will have to do is find its 20th century application. We will have to dig below the rule and find the more general principle behind it. All right. Now, let me give you an example. And Romans 14, Paul talks about people who eat meat that has been offered to idols. I want to suggest to you that all of this discussion concerns some rules that apply to particular situations. What was the situation? It was a first century situation in which Christians obtained their meat from pagan butchers who had gone through some kind of pagan religious ceremony over that meat. Now, there was a big to do over this in Paul's time. To do was so serious that some Christians broke fellowship over this matter. Some Christians, some Christians would say, I can't fellowship with a Christian who is eating meat that has been offered to a pagan god.


[00:15:10] Obviously, such a Christian is carnal. Obviously, I must separate myself from such a Christian. You know how the how the language goes. Now, what was Paul's position on this? Paul says it doesn't affect me at all. Paul says I can eat meat that has been offered to idols because I know that those pagan gods don't exist. If I'm hungry for a steak, Paul says, Do you think I'm going to throw that steak away because I find out my pig and butchered butcher has offered it to me as a sacrifice to ISIS or the great mother or to Caesar, and not at all. I'd say, oh, you know, turn on the barbecue and let's let's cook the juices. Let's cook this well-done. But Paul says even though eating meat under these conditions will not hurt me. What if there's a weaker brother out there who doesn't understand the situation as well as I do? And what if he is offended? What if he is led to stumble? What if he says, I saw Paul come out of that pagan butcher shop and I watched Paul eat that meat? I guess. I guess Paul's telling me that it doesn't hurt my Christian testimony at all if I mix up a little Christianity with that pagan religion. Or Paul says, Now, wait a minute. All of a sudden we're playing a new game here, Game number one. Is it all right for Paul to eat that meat? Yeah. Game number two. Does Paul want to do anything that is going to cause a weaker brother to stumble? No. So Paul says if eating meat maketh my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world stand it. I won't do anything, no matter how ethically neutral or harmless it is that will injure a weaker brother or sister.


[00:17:18] Now, here's my distinction. Eating meat offered to idols was a rule applied to a specific situation. Okay. That situation does not exist in our day. Hence that rule is archaic and obsolete. What we need to do in that situation is look for the more basic principle that lies behind the rule. And that more basic principle is this Christians should never do anything that would cause a weaker brother or sister to stumble. All right. Now, how does that apply to the 20th century? Well, I'll give you a couple of applications. All right. And there's probably some preaching material here. There probably is. I don't know of any place in the Bible, for example, that says it is a sin for Christians to drink alcoholic beverages. In fact, you know, Jesus turned water into wine and that wasn't grape juice. You Baptists are. There he. Jesus turned that water into wine. All right. Paul said to Timothy, Drink a little wine for your stomach sake. More lots of Christians who would like the rest of the world to think that they have some stomach ailment that requires them to do that. Now, the simple fact is, if you look at what the New Testament teaching about alcoholic beverages, there's not a thing in the Bible that would preclude any of us from drinking that stuff. But the other principle applies. There's nothing in the Bible that says you cannot drink. If there is plenty in the Bible, it says you must not drink to excess. You must not drink to the place where it controls you. But who's watching you? Who's observing you? Do you have children in your family? As innocent as your family practice might be. And I'm not you. You understand? I'm not preaching here.


[00:19:44] I'm not making that. I'm just using this as a contemporary example. I've got kids in the in our family. Is it possible that using my Christian liberty in this way might cause damage to some of them? My wife and I can hold our booze or whatever. Will my children be able to exercise the same control that my wife and I have? So the rule eating meat offered to idols doesn't apply. The principle does apply. Here's another example. Plural in Corinthians talks about women keeping their heads covered. Now, I will admit that I may be out of step with modern New Testament scholarship on this. I was taught I've been told that the reason Paul gave that rule and that's what it is. I insist a rule was because the prostitutes of Corinth enter identified themselves with their uncovered heads. All right. Now, whether that's right or not, we could. We could take up a different example. But the point is, there is no abiding, timeless law that says to Christian women, you must always keep your heads covered. I would suggest that that was a rule that applied to the Christian women in Corinth because of the moral conditions that existed in that society. The principle, the principle that we would relate that rule to is this that Christians are always to dress in a modest and unassuming and on provocative way. That would be the principle. Okay. So let me go back to these two, these questions I gave you. What do we make of the fact that a number of New Testament commandments seem tied to specific situations that seem and applicable today? Does this not make much of the New Testament ethically obsolete? And my answer now to that question is, no, it doesn't.


[00:22:03] What we need to realize in the presence of those passages is we must distinguish between the rule which is obsolete and the principle which is timeless. That requires hard thinking, that requires reflection about the moral instruction in the New Testament. It's not a simple matter of reading what the New Testament says and then applying it to our situation today. The second question I asked Is it not true that many of the moral problems that confront contemporary Christians are not even mentioned in the Bible? Doesn't that make the biblical ethic irrelevant or incomplete? Well, I say yes to the first question and no to the second. It is true that many of our contemporary moral problems are not specifically addressed in the rules of the New Testament, but they are addressed in they in the principles of the New Testament. So to the extent that you and I find ourselves in situations where we're wrestling with contemporary moral problems, we must look back to the principles of Scripture and see how they apply, how they relate to the specific situations of today. Then you see this distinction between rules and principles, then gets rid of the rest of the problems we looked at. If the Bible did contain specific moral instruction about many of our contemporary problems, these passages would have been unintelligible to Christians of earlier century. That's it. That's. Why the New Testament does not contain rules for 20th century men and women. It contains principles for 20th century men and women. Otherwise, the Bible would be so bulky, so unintelligible to earlier centuries. And so on. All right, Now, with that distinction in mind, watch what I'm going to do. I'm going to maintain that the biblical ethic gives us a hierarchy of ascending or descending moral instruction.


[00:24:17] The biblical ethic gives us a hierarchy of moral instructions which are more less general, more or less specific. And here's what we find. I would say that the most general of all moral instructions in the New Testament is the duty to love. And the word there, of course, is a copy, which is very instructive. It is not sexual love Eros, It is not friendship, philia. It is a gap. It is the kind of sacrificial self-giving love that we find in God's giving of his own son. Okay. That is the highest, the most general moral principle in Scripture. Then what we get is love to God and love to man. Read Matthew 22. Remember, Jesus is asked, What is the first and the great commandment? And Jesus says, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all my heart and soul and mind. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self. So starting with the most general of all moral prescriptions, the prescription to love. We then move to we then start down to tracts love to God and love to man and then things. So that's Matthew 22. Then it gets more specific because we then have the first table of the law and then we have the second table of the law. In other words, we can view the first four of the Ten Commandments as an additional specification of how love to God should be manifested. You see, we are not situational ethicists. We are not disciples of Joseph Fletcher. Joseph Fletcher would say. Love is all you need. And then there is no further guidance as to how love should be manifested. It's how love should be manifested. You can do anything so long as you think love requires it.


[00:26:30] So thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy vain. The name of the Lord by God. And we get these things straight yet. And the second table of the of the Decalogue illustrates that if you love your neighbor, you will not lie, You will not steal, you will not commit adultery. You will not covert. All right. Now it gets even more specific. What we find then is that the New Testament gives us New Testament principles and rules that act as a further specification of all of the laws that we have in the Decalogue. Because, look, thou shalt not kill. And the word there is murder. Thou shalt not. Murder is a rather vague moral prescription. What we need in the moral dilemmas of life is in information about whether this is an instance of murder. For example, is abortion murder. Does that fall under the constraints of that particular commandment? I think it does in most cases. That's what makes me a pro-life advocate. All right. Stealing. Now, watch this. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to the Decalogue as proscription of murder. And he says he who is angry with his brother, is guilty of violating that commandment. Now, what you get there is then a further New Testament. What Jesus is doing is saying, if you think that murder is restricted to putting a knife in somebody or cutting off their head or killing them, you're mistaken if you even intend. And that kind of harm, you're guilty of violating that law. Similarly, you've heard it said that thou shalt not commit adultery, but he who has lost in his heart is guilty of that sin. Okay. So the New Testament then gives us an additional hierarchy of principles and rules, which are a further elaboration of the Ten Commandments, which are a further elaboration of Jesus first and great commandments, which are a further elaboration of the duty to love.