Before we can make further progress in our series on “The Bible and Christian Ethics,” we need to distinguish among three concepts: the universal moral law, ethics, and a way of life.
Universal Moral Law
In the previous essays I spoke of a universal moral law as the set of the basic moral rules known everywhere, at all times, and by all people through reason and conscience. The Bible demands that we live according to these rules, but it does not claim that they are grounded or known exclusively through its commands.
Ethics is a rational discipline of reflection on morality—on the grounds, justification, ways of knowing, extent, and application of morality. Every society articulates moral rules, but not every society produces a rational account of those rules. Christian ethics is a theological discipline that reflects rationally on the Christian way of life for the Christian community. This series is an exercise in Christian ethics.
A Way of Life
A way of life is a comprehensive set of rules, often unarticulated, for living in a particular community. It incorporates the universal moral law but includes much more. It embraces also the traditional wisdom and customs learned by communal experience and a vision of human living inspired by its views on human nature and destiny—all of which are set within its understanding of the divine. A community may be called to a way of life more demanding—but usually not less—than the universal moral law instructs. Christianity is a way of life that incorporates everything right and good taught by reason, conscience, and experience into the vision of God and humanity revealed in Jesus Christ.
The Christian Way of Life
Each traditional community embodies the basic universal moral rules in its own distinct way, given its unique history and identity and beliefs. The ancient Israelites, as I said in previous essays, incorporated the universal moral law into their laws but embodied it in distinct ways and augmented it in view of their beliefs about God and their unique calling to be the holy people of a holy God.
Christianity incorporates within its way of life the universal moral law as mediated by the Old Testament law along with the wisdom embodied therein. In continuity with ancient Israel the church understands itself to be God’s special people, called to live in a way consistent with the character, identity, and expectations of Israel’s God. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And referring to Leviticus, Peter urges believers living among pagans, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16).
But Christianity does not merely continue the Old Testament way of life unchanged. It reorients everything with a view to Jesus Christ—his teaching about his Father, the kingdom of God, the life of peace, love of enemies, purity of heart, and suffering for righteousness sake. The apostolic teaching points to Jesus’s humility, obedience, and self-giving, especially as exemplified in the cross, as the model for all Christians to follow (Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Peter 2:21). This new Christ-centered way of life places the universal moral law and traditional wisdom about what is good for human beings within a new order, but it does not delegitimize them.
Christians are expected to be good people by universal moral standards. Christianity calls on all members of the Christian community not only to avoid criminality and behavior reprehensible to everyone but also to the highest ideals of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and all the other pagan moralists as a minimum standard. Christians must not lie, steal, murder, commit adultery, or dishonor their parents. They must also rise above the common vices tolerated by the world. They do not curse, use profanity, gossip, or slander. They are not greedy but content, not arrogant but humble, not selfish but generous. They do not envy, get angry easily, act rudely, or boast (1 Cor 13:4). They are just, honest, kind, and faithful in all their human relationships. They control their passions: they are not gluttons, drunks, quarrelers, pornographers, fornicators, adulterers, or greedy. They love their wives and husbands, and they take care of their children. They exemplify the full spectrum of inner virtues: courage, prudence, humility, patience, faith, joy, peace, and love. Above all, they love God with their whole being and seek him in everything they do.
The Way Forward
I have argued that the Christian way of life set out in the New Testament is a combination of the universal moral law known by conscience and reason, traditional knowledge of a good and wise life learned though communal experience, and the Old Testament’s vision of a holy people in service to a holy God—all placed in relation to the definitive revelation of God and human destiny in Jesus Christ. Everything in the Christian way serves the end of transforming us into the image of Christ and achieving for us the destiny he pioneered, eternal life in likeness and union with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The New Testament’s inclusion of the universal moral law, traditional wisdom, and the Old Testament’s vision of the holy people as a part of the Christian way of life validates their force for the Christian life. Each component of the package is important and possesses its own weight. Many mistakes made in current debates among Christian ethicists result from neglecting this fact. In the next essays I will address the proper role of the Bible in discussions of moral issues where reason, conscience, and traditional wisdom have something to say. Specifically, I want to return to the issues of same-sex relationships and transgender issues and apply to those disputes the view of the Christian way of life I have developed in the previous two essays.