Toward an Approach to Christian Ethics


Dennis McCallum

The subject of Christian ethics is far too broad to cover in a single article. However, there is value in first outlining the best direction of approach to this question, and only then considering the particulars of the discussion. The following essay was written in response to the challenge by Dr. Douglas Chismar to set the author's approach to Christian ethics down in an essay of less than 20 pages.



I. Sources of Morality Knowledge

The source for Christian ethics is God. To the extent that we are able to understand Him and His nature, we will have a clear basis for all types of morality. However, before ending the paper, there are other considerations to cover.

The main sticking point here has to do with how we may know God. To this I answer that we may know God through two means-- natural or general revelation, and special revelation. Subsequently, we will have to ask also how that knowledge should be translated into moral understanding. This latter question becomes a discussion of hermeneutics.

A. Natural Revelation

According to Paul, there are things that can be known about God from, "that which has been made". Such insight includes knowledge of God's, "invisible attributes and divine nature." Furthermore, these things are "clearly seen". (Romans 1:20) This testimony is echoed elsewhere in the Bible as well.1

Finally, Paul says that God has made these same things "evident within" all men. Thus, even one who was physically blind would still have recognizable features of his own make up that would suggest not only the existence of God, but key aspects of His nature as well.2 Therefore, man is "without excuse", and will be judged according to that law which is "written on their hearts," (Romans 1:20;2:15).

These passages along with several parallels lay the basis for the idea of "natural law". Natural law is that portion of true morality that can be deduced from the basic features of the created order, and our own personalities.3

It is the position of most pre-millennial thinkers that natural law is an adequate basis for societal law making.4 I would agree. Limiting legislation to instituting laws that are in harmony with natural law has distinct advantages. It leaves the maximum amount of personal freedom, while safeguarding the basic rights of the weak and the minorities. It also permits the existence of a pluralistic society, unlike a society which attempts to pattern itself on the Old Testament civil law. Finally, it does not need to confuse the clear distinctions between the old and new covenants. As Kaye (who speaks from a reformed perspective) admits, is forced to say that the New Testament contains no consideration of the ordering of society as a question in its own right.

And in his conclusion says,

...the New Testament gives us no direct answer to the question of how society should be ordered.5

This being the case, those who would find a biblical basis for ordering society invariably end up in the Old Testament, adducing principles that are not applicable to the current situation.6 It is better to base societal laws on natural law, which in turn is based on general revelation.

B. Special Revelation

When turning to the Bible itself, we are able to go further in the area of ethics. Instead of only devising laws for society, we can begin to speak of a fuller morality that is suitable for the lives of those who admit that they follow Christ.

Within the Bible, this author is convinced that there are fundamental differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament which must be born carefully in mind. On the other hand, it is the nature of God Himself that ultimately forms the basis for all morality, and He has not changed at all. This means that it is necessary for the interpreter to determine whether a given passage embodying rules for behavior is reflecting the nature of God, or a special situation or covenant which may or may not directly apply today. This question will be examined further in the next section.

At this point it is necessary to respond to claims made by some that other sources can be avenues of knowing God and morality. Particularly, other religious authorities past and present, or perhaps, the flow of history.

It is the view of this author that there can only be one final source of special revelation. In the end, all other truth claims will be judged by that source, or, there will be an inability to judge at all, leading either to some form of relativism, or arbitrary moral authority. On this point, I would find that Longenecker's belief in the progressive understanding of truth in the theology of the church is very problematic.7 It is very difficult for me to see the progression in understanding during the course of church history that Longenecker refers to.

Of all areas of theology, ethics is the one area which seems to offer the most promise in finding a progression of some sort. The church was, after all, involved in the abolitionist movement, and more recently in agitating for the rights of the poor and women. However, on closer examination, we find that there are two counterbalancing facts that must be weighed before accepting this tempting conclusion.

First, in all of the areas mentioned above, only a small portion of the church was involved on the right side of the issues. In each area, there were (and are) many theologians who have argued the opposite side. Often the wrong ones were in the majority. If this is so, how can such a standard as the church be of any use in determining ethics? If we answer that the theologians must be measured by the Bible to see if they are right, then we have returned to the single source of moral authority. What then was gained by ever suggesting a second source in the first place?

Secondly, once a second source of knowledge is put forward, it will either tend to replace the Bible in the sense that the second authority becomes a grid through which we interpret Scripture, or it will dwindle in importance as we realize that every assertion of the second source must be measured by the Bible. We see examples of both of these possibilities in the history of the church as well as the modern scene.

From history, it is possible to argue that most of the great religious movements have stumbled when they began to view the findings of their founder(s) as a second source of spiritual knowledge. Thus, the Roman Catholics view canon law as a second authority, but in fact it has become the final authority, since the Bible must be interpreted by it. The reformed frequently refer to various catechisms and confessions, and tend to understand the Bible in light of those sources. Many Lutheran laymen study Luther and know his views better than they do the Bible.

Of course, no one can say they come to the Bible with no system of some sort already in mind. However, it is my view that this is an unfortunate element of subjectivity based on the fall of mankind which good hermeneutics are designed to minimize.

The best use of the discipline in history of interpretation should be strictly for comparison and stimulation of further thought. It would be hazardous in the extreme in my view, to suggest that the history of interpretation represents a progression analogous to the progressive revelation found in the Bible.8 Rather I think the history of interpretation represents a cycle, with periodic returns to a biblical position, followed by regression into confusion. The only way to tell which eras were more or less faithful to the truth is to compare their doctrine to the Bible. That being the case, there seems to be no point in viewing their teaching both as that which is measured, and that which it is measured by.9

In conclusion then, I find it impossible to admit that there is any source of special revelation other than the Bible itself. Other sources may help us check our reasoning to see if we have properly interpreted the Word.

II. Hermeneutics and Ethics

In the area of hermeneutics, it is necessary to decide whether the believer is obligated to apply the Old Testament Law to his/her life. It is also necessary to decide how to handle statements of moral principle, and specific case laws. Finally, it is necessary to decide how to prioritize ethics, which will be considered in its own section.

A. Relationship of Christians to Old Testament Law

According to Paul, a Christian should reject not only legalism, but also Old Testament nomism.10 Legalism, in this context, refers to the teaching that one can be justified by works of law. Nomism means that while a believer is justified by grace, it is necessary to be under law as a means of growth and as a rule of life.11

The Reformed tradition holds that the statements made by Paul to the effect that, "...we have been released from the law, having died to that by which we were bound..." (Romans 7:6), are to be understood in one of two ways.

1. No Law = No Law for Justification

First, it is argued, some of these statements are referring to the fact that we are not justified by law, but by grace (i.e. they argue against legalism). This is sometimes true. Unfortunately however, it is not possible to consistently argue this position in all cases. Many passages, including this one in Romans 7, clearly indicate that there was a time when we were under law.12 Yet the Old Testament never taught salvation by works of law, a fact admitted by all reformed theologians.13 In what sense then, it must be asked, has anything changed? Clearly Paul does refer to a difference between the present relation of the believer to the law, and that which was there before Christ.

2. No Law = No Ritual Law

It is at this point that reformed theologians argue that it is the ritual law that has been fulfilled and made obsolete by the work of Christ. This assertion is also correct.14 However, it is incomplete. Many passages make it clear that the idea of not being under the law means not being under the moral law of the Old Testament. For instance, the statement quoted earlier that we are "released from the law" is illustrated in the very next verse with the statement, "the Law...said, 'you shall not covet'," (Romans 7:7). This is no ritual law! In what sense then have we been "released" from it? Not, as we have already seen, in the sense that we are not justified by keeping it, since no one ever was justified that way. Instead, we are released from it as a rule of life-- the very sense that the nomist will not admit.15

This is even more clear in the passage in 2 Corinthians 3:6-11 where the "letter that kills" in vs. 6 which we do not serve is identical with, "the ministry of death in letters engraved on stones" in vs. 7. Clearly, the reference to letters engraved on stones can only refer to the Decalogue itself. It is impossible to argue then that such a passage refers to the ritual law. It also throws into question how a letter that kills could be considered a means of growth. Is this not rather negative language to apply to a law which we love and are able to obey?16

Thus we find that one's view of salvation history and pneumatology directly affects his view of hermeneutics. Unless a decisive change of direction in the ministry of the Holy Spirit at the time of Pentecost is admitted, there will be no clear basis for rejecting Old Testament style nomism.

This is true in part because Christ himself was nomistic in his teaching much, if not most of the time.17 Bahnsen and various theonomists constantly return to this fact in their discussions.18 Unfortunately, such an appeal to Christ is really beside the point, since He was, "born under the law..." unlike us who are no longer under a tutor.19

Are we arguing then that coveting is no longer wrong? Not at all. The point is that confronting the believer with this law is not helpful in enabling him/her to resist lust. In fact, it is inappropriate for a believer who serves according to the Spirit rather than the letter to relate to morality in terms of laws. Such a nomistic outlook actually has the effect of hindering real spiritual growth. This is because under nomism, a believer is constantly having his/her eyes drawn to a focus on sin and laws, rather than to Christ.

When, in Romans 8, Paul teaches that the key to compliance with the law (vs.4) and real growth is to have one's mind set on the things of the spirit. Yet in the context, one of the main ways to set one's mind on the things of the flesh is to focus on the law.20

Avoiding Nomism

But even spiritual Christians need ethics--we need to know the difference between right and wrong. For this need we find ourselves approaching the law, but not in a nomistic way. Instead of looking to the case law in the Bible for particular direction in the details of life, we will need to go beneath the case law to find the great ethical themes of the Bible. Then we will have to apply those principles to the current situation under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, in response to our relationship with Christ, and in harmony with what can be learned about applying principles from the case law of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible itself points to this kind of approach in several ways.

Gordon Wenham points out that the Old Testament collections of law are to be distinguished from other extra-biblical collections because the latter,

"consist almost entirely of case law...They deal only with ordinary matters of legal dispute. The Old Testament of course contains many examples of this type of law, but it includes as well straight prohibitions and numerous religious regulations."

He goes on to point out that,

"...the primary command of the covenant is to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart', or to put it negatively, to 'have no other gods before me'."21

"The Ten Commandments occupy a very special place, summarizing as they do the basic religious and moral principles that must control Israel's behavior."22

Thus even in the Old Testament, which was substantially nomistic in its approach to morality, there was the perceived need to define the underlying principles so that the case commands would not be arbitrary floating rules that must be rigidly observed in all ages.

In the New Testament, we see Paul applying ethical themes in a flexible and creative way that would be completely inconsistent with a nomistic approach. A good example of the flexibility of Paul when dealing with ethics can be seen in 1 Corinthians 7. It seems clear that he did not feel bound to the letter at all, but rather infused the principles given with love. Thus as Nixon correctly says,

The law is therefore not so significant as the fundamental principles which it embodies.

The way in which Paul summarizes the commandments into one injunction and the rational in terms of good and evil, shows that Paul did not have a legalistic approach to the law when used as a guide to moral conduct. He is more concerned with fundamental issues than with formal obedience.23

III. The Central Themes in Christian Ethics

When Christ was called on to identify the greatest laws in the Bible (Matthew 22:36-40), He did not refer to the Decalogue. Instead, He referred to the passages in Deuteronomy 6:5, and Leviticus 19:18 which included love of God and love of one's neighbor. The latter notion is also brought forward by Paul as the best way to understand the real intent of the Decalogue (Romans 13:8-10).

Therefore the Decalogue, which is itself a collection of ethical principles, can be further summarized under the heading of Christian love. This imperative to sacrifice self for the glory of God and the well-being of others is very contentful and all-embracing. It includes the possibility of discipline in love, so that it may confront one another in love for his or her own good.24

Further than this, if we feel that the love principle should be applied in a way that is different than that done in the Bible, then the burden of evidence lies with the one who would change. Why would Paul feel that lying was not as loving as truth-telling, but another feels lying is justified? Perhaps if that one was named Rahab, she might be able to make a case (James 2:25). On the other hand there would be few such cases.

There are also other ethical principles that may not be directly derived from the love principle. Holmes argues that justice is also a major ethic, although this is not as clear to me.25 Justice can indeed be inferred from natural law, but is less evident as an emphasis for Christian living than love. The doctrine of equality of all social classes, sexes, and races (Galatians 3:28) would imply justice in the sense of equity, but this would probably not include the retributive aspects of justice, which are left to the civil authorities, or to God.26 Therefore, it may only be the positive aspects of justice in the sense of fairness that the Christian should pursue, thus linking it again with love.

IV. Ethical Prioritization

The issue of prioritization in ethics is often just as important as arriving at the ethical principles in the first place. Examples abound of divergent groups whose practice and outlook are so different from each other that one could wonder if they are both referring to the same book when they cite the Bible.27 Yet, upon closer examination it is found that both groups hold essentially the same ethical views regarding the absolutes. The difference in these cases stem from the area of prioritization.

In some ways, prioritization is even more important than ethical methodology. This is because while methodology determines the correctness of what we say, prioritization determines what we actually do.

The same principlizing hermeneutic that leads away from particularistic nomism in the area of theory, should also lead to a strong position on prioritization in practice. Otherwise, no matter what our theory is, we will wind up with nomism again. The real loser in such a situation would again be the "weightier parts of the law" (Matthew 23:23).

Consider a teacher who forcefully argues that the heart of Christian integrity can be seen when a believer receives a letter with a stamp which is not canceled out. Will that believer re-use the stamp, or throw it away? Real Christian integrity, it is argued, will refuse to steal a value that was not paid for!

On close examination, no one can really refute this position with regard to whether it is morally right to steal. Unfortunately, both experience and the Bible show that this kind of fixation on the finer ethical details is usually indulged. Thus meaning, instead of a focus on the major issues, rather than in addition to it. Indeed, one must suppose that this is one of the underlying appeals of this school of thought. Christ certainly implied that it was in the case of the Pharisees. This is the practice He identified as "straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel" (Matthew 23:24).

This practice of majoring on the minors is one of the great themes in both the history of the church, and of the modern scene. Wesley, who said that he would not tell the smallest lie even in order to save the whole world from hell, was, in the view of most Christian analysts, guilty of gross misbehavior in his abortive marriage. The church has been infamous in most eras for insisting on painstaking compliance to unimportant details of personal "holiness" while saying nothing about cruel exploitation of other races and the poor.28

V. Negative vs. Positive Morality

H. Richard Niebuhr (not the well-known neo-orthodox theologian) contrasts what he calls "the positive and warm ethics of love which characterizes the First Letter of John," with the "largely negative morality: avoidance of sin and fearsome preparation for the coming day of judgment," taught by Tertullian.29

This seems to be a very important distinction. It is tragically possible to apply ethics that are directly and explicitly Biblical in a way that belies the very spirit in which those ethics were given. It is also possible to cloak one's fear of loss of control (either of one's self or of others) under the cover-all of biblical ethics. The result can be "fortress theology"; the view of the church that sees herself besieged and on the defense against the dangerous "gates of Hades". Interestingly though, it is very difficult to understand the metaphor given by Christ in Mt.16 this way, since city gates are not usually involved in offensive operations, and in fact should pose no threat to the church at all. Rather, it would appear to be the Church which poses a direct mortal threat to the gates of Hades-- a danger so real that those gates will not prevail against her.

This point is important because it will profoundly affect the posture taken with regard to the world-system and society by the church. The fortress outlook can be seen in action in the monastic ideal, particularly in the earlier days of its formulation.30 Monasticism represents a flight from secular culture that can not be justified in view of the central role that love of others is to play in the ethical life of the church.

Such a flight can only be explained as a statement of ethical prioritization. The dangers of sin contamination are seen to be greater on balance than any benefit that might result from admixture of the faithful with the world system.

Although the monastic movement is an extreme example, (and easy to understand for that reason) it is hardly unique. There are lesser forms of fortress theology applications evident in mainline fundamentalism today as well. The main point is that sins of omission tend to be viewed by this type of theology as less evil than sins of commission. Yet if the prioritizing of ethics taught by Christ is accepted, omitting to practice love would be a very serious sin, while an act of passion such as cursing would be comparatively unimportant.31

We conclude then by finding that a truly biblical ethic should issue in, "faith working through love," (Galatians 5:6). Any system which ostensibly follows the letter of the law in the Old or New Testaments, while making it possible to hide one's true failings behind a mask of perfunctory nomism is decidedly sub-biblical in tone. The failure of negative "sin avoidance" ethical systems is that the real issues in biblical ethics are lost amidst a forest of unintelligible detail, until it is possible for a camel to slide unnoticed down our throat.


1. Romans 2:14-16

2. Romans 1:20. This is also the probable thrust of the passage in John 16:8-11, which states that humankind will be "convicted" concerning their sin and concerning problems with their present and future relationship with God..

3. Justice and Equality are two key values associated with natural law..

4. Norman Geisler, "A premillennial View of Law and Government", Biblioteca Sacra, Vol. 142, No. 567 (July-Sep., 1986)..

5. Bruce Kaye, "The New Testament and Social Order", in Law Morality and the Bible, Bruce Kaye and Gordon Wenham Editors. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1978) p. 99,112..

6. This is because "The New Testament sees the Old Testament realities of the land, the nation, the kingdom, and the temple as fulfilled in Christ." Bruce Kaye, Using the Bible in Ethics, (Grove Books, 1976) p. 15..

7. Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics For Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), pp. 21-28..

8. So, Richard N. Longenecker, Social Ethics, see note # 7 above..

9. In 1973, author-teacher Jon Braun began to develop the argument that Christians should be unified with the whole Body of Christ, which, he pointed out, included all Christians from all ages. Therefore he and his colleagues began to combine study of church history with their study of the Bible. However, the history was not just studied for the sake of understanding historical development, but with the view that it would be arrogant to think that we knew better than the saints of former days.  
This proved to be a slippery slope for the group which continued to move toward the logical extreme of this view, eventually forming the Evangelical Orthodox Church. This group is a startling case of theological drift, because it is made up of former Baptist, Swedish Covenant, Lutheran, and other Protestant pastors and former staff from Campus Crusade for Christ, all of whom today wear the habit of priests, and view themselves as Eastern Orthodox bishops. They have taken freely from the storehouse of church history, and today practice the veneration of saints, Mary, and of icons as means of growth. Such a progression, erroneous in my view, seems to flow naturally from the logic of the position originally taken..

10. For the one of the best expositions of this point, see Richard N. Longenecker, "The Pedagogical Nature of the Law in Galatians 3:19-4:7," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 25, (1982) pp. 53-61..

11. "A Usus didacticus or normativus," the "tertius usus legis", or the third use of the law, as it is called by reformed theologians. This is the use whereby the Christian, having been regenerated and enabled by the Holy Spirit, is no longer aversive to the law, and in fact can and should follow it completely excepting only the ritual portions of the law which have been fulfilled by Christ. See Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology, 4th Edition, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Co., 1939,1941) pp. 614,615..

12. 2 Corinthians 3:6-11; Galatians 3:24,25; 5:1,3;.

13. Romans 4 and Galatians 3 contain extensive arguments to this effect. See also, Gordon Wenham, "Grace and Law in the Old Testament", in Law Morality and the Bible..

14. See Hebrews 8:13 in context. Even here though, the author of Hebrews realizes that, "when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also." (Hebrews 7:12). Thus it is both the ritual and moral law that is rendered "obsolete" by the work of Christ..

15. The argument is sometimes made here that the difference in view is that the Holy Spirit enables the believer to obey the law. However, this argument, admitted by all, is irrelevant. The question that must be answered is what the word "released" means. See wrongly, Ranald McCauley and Jerram Barrs, Being Human: The Nature of Spiritual Experience, (Downers Grove, ILL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978) pp. 91,92..

16. This statement comes from Martin Loyd-Jones, Studies in The Sermon on the Mount, Vol. 1.

17. Having cited evidence from the gospels, Wenham concludes,"It is therefore quite appropriate to describe the message of Jesus so far as the relationship of grace and law is concerned as a type of covenantal nomism rooted in the Old Testament." Gordon Wenham, "Grace and Law in the Old Testament", in Law Morality and the Bible, p. 20..

18. See Martin Loyd-Jones, Studies in The Sermon on the Mount, Vol. 1 Chapters 18,19. Compare Bahnsen, who admits that his entire thesis stands or falls on the meaning of Matthew 5:17-20. Theonomy and Christian Ethics Expanded Edition, (Philipsburg NJ: Presbyterian and Reformation Publishing Co., 1984) pp. 213, 215, 217, 218, 312, 314, 317, 318,.

19. Galatians 4:4. Nixon (speaking from the reformed tradition) attempts to interpret this verse as primarily teaching that Christ was born under ritual law. Neither could we agree with his definition of "fulfill" in Matthew 5:17 as meaning "give full meaning to." Yet Nixon's conclusions are quite useful. See Robin Nixon, "Fulfilling the Law: the Gospels and Acts", in Law Morality and the Bible, pp. 56-62..

20. Since the law is included with sin, self, and "the world" as something that we have died to, a nomistic outlook would be considered fleshly in the theology of Paul. Compare Galatians 2:20;6:14; Romans 6:11;7:6..

21. Gordon Wenham, "Grace and Law in the Old Testament", in Law Morality and the Bible, Bruce Kaye and Gordon Wenham Editors. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1978) p. 11..

22. Gordon Wenham, "Grace and Law in the Old Testament", in Law Morality and the Bible, p. 11..

23. Robin Nixon, "Fulfilling the Law: the Gospels and Acts", in Law Morality and the Bible, p. 79..

24. Interestingly, this sacrificing of self for others lies beyond what can be determined from natural law. It fits therefore, uniquely into the realm of Christian ethics. It cannot be expected from non-Christians, and therefore should not be demanded from them..

25. Arthur F. Holmes, Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions, (Downers Grove IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1984) pp. 79-98..

26. Romans 13:4; 12:19. It would be a serious mistake to confuse the biblical concept of discipline with the idea of justice. There is no element of justice in discipline, which looks entirely to the future well-being of the recipient. Justice calls for retribution for the past, regardless of the effect on the recipient (e.g. Hell).

27. For instance, compare "Sojourners" magazine with "The Moral Majority" newspaper..

28. A single example will suffice. Prohibition during the 20's is a benchmark example of religious misdirection. Gonzales says that during this period, "most protestants--liberal and fundamentalist--were united in one great cause; the prohibition of alcoholic beverages." Also, he points out that much of the evil influence of alcohol was attributed to the influx of Jews and Catholics. Thus at a time when little was being done about the real social ills of race and poverty, the church was busy battling something that is not even necessarily wrong according to the Bible. Justo L. Gonzales, The Story of Christianity Vol. 2, (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1984) p. 374..

29. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated, 1951) p. 52.

30. It would only be fair to point out that many monastic orders have eschewed this defensive posture in favor of an aggressive one which addressed perceived cultural need-- most notably the Jesuits and Fransciscans..

31. See the omission of the Levite and the priest in the parable of the good samaritan. Significantly, it is likely that they were unwilling to touch someone who might be dead, as doing so would interfere with their service at the temple. Luke 10:30-37; Leviticus 11:25,27.