In the previous essay I argued that it is a mistake to treat the Bible as if it were the only basis for belief in a divine reality or for the concept of God. The Bible itself presupposes that people outside its sphere of influence believe in a divine reality and share some beliefs about the nature of the divine with those of the Bible. The Christian doctrine of God is shaped by the history of Israel’s experience of God as documented in the Old Testament and even more by God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. If we do not acknowledge that belief in God’s existence and some beliefs about the divine nature can be properly founded on reason, nature, human experience, and other sources available apart from the revelation contained in the Bible, we deprive ourselves of the common ground on which we can share the distinctly Christian understanding of God with outsiders and we exclude the help that reason, nature, and human experience can give in forming our concept of God.
Universal Moral Law
The Universal Influence of Moral Law
In this essay I want to show why it is important for Christian ethics to acknowledge that the Bible is not the only basis for moral beliefs. Just as human beings have a tendency to believe in a divine reality and hold certain beliefs about the nature of the divine, human beings also have a tendency to believe that some acts are good and some are bad, some right and some wrong, and some just and some unjust. The people of Israel, Egypt, and all other ancient nations believed it was wrong to dishonor one’s parents, commit adultery, steal, covet, murder, and bear false witness long before God gave the Ten Commandments at Sinai. These laws and all the others given in Exodus and Leviticus have parallels in the nations and cultures of the ancient world. The covenant and the laws promulgated at Sinai were given to constitute Israel as a nation, not to reveal hither to unknown moral rules. All cultures have rules that govern marriage, proper sexual relationships, personal injury, property rights, family relationships, and myriads of other human interactions as well as penalties for infractions. The boundaries that define what is permitted and the nature of the penalties differ from culture to culture and age to age but the presence of moral rules and mechanisms for their enforcement remains constant.
Even without going into great detail about the history of moral codes and ethical and legal systems, two things are clear. First, human beings everywhere and always know that some acts are good and some bad and some are right and some are wrong.* Second, people do not live up to the moral ideals they acknowledge. The existence of laws proves the first point and the necessity of penalties demonstrates the second.
The Source of Moral Knowledge
What is the source of this universal moral knowledge? Clearly, it must be founded in something universal in human beings, given with human nature, derived from human experience, or some combination of the two. Some have argued that knowledge of the universal moral law has been implanted in human nature as conscience (the Stoics and Immanuel Kant). Others speak of human nature as possessing an inner urge that seeks what is truly good for its perfection, so that through individual and collective experience people discover what is good* (Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre). In my view both are important factors in moral experience. For what distinguishes moral action from other types of goal-seeking behavior is a sense of obligation. But it does not seem right that obligatory moral action should be completely disassociated from what is good for human beings.
What Does the Bible Add?
A Repository of Wisdom
What, then, does the Bible add to general moral knowledge acquired through conscience and experience to constitute a distinctly Christian way of life? First, for cultures influenced by Christianity, the Bible functions as the most significant repository of this general moral knowledge and wisdom. Every new generation must be taught the traditions, customs, morals, and wisdom received from the foregoing generations. No one is born wise or can gain sufficient knowledge of what is good, right, and wise from their untutored private experience. Irrational emotions must be disciplined and destructive desires need to be enlightened. Viewed in this light the moral laws of the Bible are not all that different from the proverbs and wise sayings found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs or the wisdom traditions of other nations. As a repository of moral wisdom, the Bible’s authority is no greater than the wisdom embedded in the laws and wise sayings themselves. It is important not to dismiss—as we modern people are inclined to do—this type of authority as of no significance, because it derives from the collective consciences and experiences of many generations and has been tested in the lives of millions of individuals.
The Laws of a Nation
Second, it is vital to understand that the Old Testament law also served as a moral, civil, criminal, and religious regime for the ancient nation of Israel. It would not be true to say that the Old Testament makes no distinctions among these four areas, but compared to modern secular societies the boundaries are a bit blurrier. The most obvious difference between the laws of ancient Israel and those of modern secular states is that religious infractions—worshiping idols, witchcraft, or working on the Sabbath, for examples—are punishable by the state. With regard to criminal law, every nation must decide and continually evaluate which actions are so detrimental to the peace, order, and general welfare of the nation that they must be criminalized. This judgment must take into account all known factors that can affect the welfare of the nation. Though there is some overlap, the factors considered by ancient peoples to be vital to the common good differ dramatically from those so considered by modern secular states. No state, however, attempted to criminalize every immoral and irreligious act. The Old Testament considers adultery and same-sex intercourse to be seriously detrimental to the general welfare and punished them with heavy penalties whereas modern secular societies have decriminalized these acts, albeit only recently. The measures by which the two societies measure the harmful effects of these and other immoral acts differ markedly.
Are the Laws of an Ancient Nation Still Relevant?
Of what relevance are the Old Testament civil, criminal, and religious laws for Christian ethics? Old Testament civil and criminal laws are of no direct relevance to Christianity because the church is not a nation, state, or empire. The Old Testament’s religious laws were given to the ancient Jewish people and cannot guide Christians in their religious practice. The New Testament makes clear that Christianity includes gentiles and Jews in a new covenant based on faith. The laws about sacrifice, ritual purity and separation from gentiles, circumcision, Sabbath, and other religious matters no longer apply.
But what about the Old Testament’s moral laws? Are they useful in constructing Christian ethics? In answering this question we need to remember first that many if not all the Old Testament’s moral laws merely republish moral laws universally found among human beings. Hence their authority derives not from their sheer presence in the Old Testament but from their universal acknowledgment as right and good. In so far as the Old Testament is authoritative in its own right—because it is included in the Christian canon—its affirmation of these universal moral laws may be viewed as a confirmation of their validity. But Christian ethics must not indiscriminately appeal to Old Testament moral law as authoritative. Christianity is based on the new covenant. The Laws of Moses—moral as well as civil, criminal, and religious—are the rules that define faithfulness to old covenant that God made with the people of Israel and them alone. Hence no law of any category in the Old Testament possesses universal and abiding force simply because it is commanded.
As we shall see in future essays, Christian ethics incorporates the universal moral law into its vision of the Christian life. And in a way similar to the Old Testament, the New Testament adds to these universal moral laws its unique rules and principles guided by the vision of human nature and destiny revealed in Jesus Christ.
*For a detailed treatment of the concepts of “the good” and “the right,” see my essays from July 9 & 12, 2021.
Thanks, Ron, for your posts!! They are just excellent!!
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