Recently I’ve been developing a new series of Bible studies on Basic Christian Ethics for use with our Steppe-by-Steppe project and Ministry Production department. The studies I’m developing now will be used as the framework to create a 10-episode TV series that will begin airing in the fall season.
As I’ve been studying through a list of ten ethics, I’ve approached the series from what some might consider a rather unusual point of view (my usually unusual points of view notwithstanding). I have a number of titles in my library on ethical studies at various levels: Do the Right Thing, Francis J. Beckwith, Moral Choices, Scott B. Rae, How Now Shall We Live, Charles Colson, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There are others sitting on my shelves that touch on the subject on ethics, but for most there is a problem.
Most books and articles that touch on ethics as a subject for study deal with the theory of ethics, dividing ethics into various disciplines: Normative, Metaethics, Relativism, Objectivism, Minimalism, and the list goes on. There is actually a lot of good material written about ethics (to which I’m about to add, though not as eloquently as others). Though I confess to not seeing a lot of ethical behavior, even from my own countrymen. Such is the problem of human evil. “Be not hearers of the word only, but be doers of the word” (James 1:22).
The problem with most books on ethics is that they either don’t explore the source of ethics, or they assume ethics is something created by man for the purpose of managing his character or community. Here’s a good example:
- “The concept of the normal is properly a variant of the concept of the good. It is that which society has approved. A normal action is one which falls well within the limits of expected behavior for a particular society. Its variability among different peoples is essentially a function of the variability of the behavior patterns that different societies have created for themselves, and can never be wholly divorced from a consideration of culturally institutionalized types of behavior.” – Journal of General Psychology 10, Ruth Beedict, “A Defense of Moral Relativism,” 1934).
That’s a whole lot of psychobabble that means nothing more than, “Societies create ethics through consensus.” Duh. Nothing really profound there, though I’m sure a lot of people pay thousands in tuition to have someone of educational authority lecture them on the obvious. It’s easy to say that ethical systems are formed by societal consensus. It’s also easy to say that the Bible teaches us about right and wrong. But what none of that does is inform us about the first source of ethics.
When I began working on the study guides for the ethics series I didn’t want to produce the usual diatribe about right and wrong, following a set of rules, or even the Mosaic Law – important though that is (and as much as I love diatribe). I wanted to go to the source of all ethics, and that meant going directly to God.
One of the greatest statements I’ve ever read about ethics was in the book, Answering Islam. Granted, the book is not about ethics, but it was what the authors said about the character of God that first got my attention about the source of ethics. In the book the authors discuss the Islamic concept of God’s will and that because God is “supreme will” he can will himself to do anything he wants. They note that in Islam…
- “[Allah] does not do things because they are right; rather, they are right because he does them. In short, [Allah] is arbitrary about what is right and wrong. He does not have to do good. For example, God does not have to be merciful; he could be mean if he wanted to be. He does not have to be loving at all; he could be hate, if he chose to do so” (Emphasis mine. Answering Islam: The Crescent in the Light of the Cross, Normal L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Chapter 7: “An Evaluation of Islamic Monotheism,” pages 136-137).
Maybe you don’t think that’s particularly insightful, but I think it’s brilliant. What these men have essentially said is that the Bible reveals that God is good because he can’t be anything else but good. God can’t be bad because he is unable to be bad. God can’t sin because he doesn’t have the capacity to sin; God is limited by his own character. While Islamic theology is actually correct in saying that what is right is right because God does it, that same theology misses the mark by insisting that because God can do anything he wants he could make right wrong and wrong right. In the words of that esteemed theologian, Sherman T. Potter: “Horse hockey!” Or to twist the words of J.B. Phillips, “Your god is too big!”
The Bible’s idea is that God cannot change right and wrong because he cannot change himself – he is eternal. Therefore, the right that God does is always right and he cannot will wrong to be right, and he cannot will himself to do wrong.
This truth really transformed my thinking many years ago about my relationship with God. Like many Christians I used to wonder what might happen if I “sinned too much.” Though like many Christians I didn’t have a measurement for it until I came to God’s definition of too much sin: 1. It then occurred to me that God’s thoughts, feelings, and actions toward me would never change; his character won’t allow it. “God is not a man that he should lie, not a son of man that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19). “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
It may seem like I’ve rabbit-trailed, but follow me up from the hole for a minute into the garden. In the words of Professor Wayne Grudem, “God is the final standard of good, and that all that God is and does is worthy of approval…if God himself is good and therefore the ultimate standard of good, then we have a definition of the meaning of ‘good,’ that will greatly help us in the study of ethics and aesthetics” (Systematic Theology, Chapter 12: “The Communicable Attributes of God,” page 197).
The source of ethics, that is, the standard of ethical behavior is God himself. We can talk about concepts of right and wrong and conscience, but every system amounts to nothing more than a consensus of men. When it comes to the consensus of men two things are always unreliable and changing: consensus and men. God is unchanging. By looking to God and his character-driven acts as the standard for all that is ethical we are released from the bondage of systems and philosophies into the wonderful freedom that comes with a relation-driven ethic founded upon the character of the good, eternal, and unchangeable God. So it’s not about the Ten Commandments, it’s about the God out of whom the Ten Commandments came. Dietrich Bonhoeffer hits the point:
- “To be simple is to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted and turned upside-down. It is to be single-hearted, and not a man of two souls (James 1:8). Because the simple man knows God, because God is his, he clings to the commandments, the judgments and the mercies which come from God’s mouth every day afresh. Not fettered by principles, but bound by love for God, he has been set free from the problems and conflicts of ethical decision. They no longer oppress him. He belongs simply and solely to God and to the will of God. It is precisely because he looks only to God, without any sidelong glance at the world, that he is able to look at the reality of the world freely and without prejudice” (Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1949).
I’m looking forward to completing my new series on ethics because my greatest joy is not in studying the laws, rules, or principles of right and wrong (as much as I love them), but because I’m being lead into an even deeper understanding of the character of Christ himself. “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), “the exact representation of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3), and “There is none good but God alone” (Luke 18:19).