Foundations: No.64 Spring 2013

Using the Bible Ethically: An Introduction to Contemporary Challenges

Stephen Clark 

This article reproduces the substance of a paper which was given at the Affinity Theological Study Conference which was held in January 2013. The title of the article is deliberately ambiguous; it is concerned both with certain aspects of biblical ethics and with how we read the Bible in an ethically appropriate way to formulate biblical norms. In addressing the question of how one evangelises people whose default position is that of ethical relativism, the article demonstrates that the biblical teaching on general revelation “fits” with the reality of human experience. This should be “exploited” when evangelising the many secularised people who have bought into ethical relativism. The article also touches on areas of Christian living, particularly where Christians may have differing understandings of the ethical requirements of God’s Word (e.g., divorce and remarriage and IVF treatment), as well as probing the concept of “structural sin” and the extent to which it is biblically requisite and practically possible for Christians to be expected to change the culture of industries such as City banking. Finally, the article considers, by way of a “case study” of a particular passage, the need to treat the biblical text seriously – that is, to read it “ethically” – when it sanctions behaviour which we may deem to be morally repugnant. Such “ethical reading” of the text (that is to say, a reading which treats it with integrity rather than which twists it to suit our predilections) is essential in properly formulating what are and what are not the ethical norms which Scripture requires. Furthermore, honest wrestling with such “problem texts” will yield a deeper understanding of the character of God and of the nature of Christian living.  

Introduction 

Over twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek historian Herodotus told the story of how Darius of Persia asked some Greeks how much money he would have to pay them to eat the corpses of their fathers. They were shocked, and said that they would not do so for any price. Then, in the presence of these Greeks, Darius asked some members of an Indian tribe who do [sic] eat their parents’ corpses how much they would take to cremate them. The Indians were horrified. Herodotus goes on to say that anyone who ridicules another’s culture is “completely mad”. [1] 

In his elegant volume entitled Descartes’ Baby, which seeks to demonstrate how child development explains what makes us human, Yale Professor of Psychology, Paul Bloom, employs this story and Herodotus’s conclusion from it to support the rightness of moral relativism. (The question may be asked, however, if morality is relative, by which morality does one decide that moral relativism is right? But that is a question which I shall not pursue.) Bloom suggests that morality or ethics is somewhat akin to language. We are all “hard-wired” to be able to learn to understand and speak language, but the specific languages which we grow up to learn depend upon culturally variable factors. Thus the Japanese child grows up to speak Japanese, whereas the French child develops with the ability to speak French. Bloom works this out in the following way with respect to morality:

There are universals – killing babies is wrong – and there are views particular to cultures. For many fundamentalist Christians, homosexuality is immoral and physical punishment of children is not; for many secular Americans and Europeans, it is the other way around. There is a certain period during which these culturally specific notions are best learned from parents and peers (late childhood and adolescence). And to say that one moral system is objectively superior to another is just as chauvinistic and silly as saying that one language (English? Latin? Hindi?) is superior to the rest. [2] 

Logicians will be quick to spot the fact that Bloom’s case depends upon reasoning by analogy.  While it is undoubtedly the case that an analogy can at times be a very useful tool, especially when one is dealing with something unfamiliar or esoteric, it is nevertheless true that analogies can sometimes mislead the unwitting and may also be employed as a kind of intellectual sleight of hand (albeit unintentionally) to establish a position for which there is insufficient evidence. Ancient historians, as well as students of the modern world, will raise their eyebrows at Bloom’s contention that killing babies is universally regarded as wrong. Has he forgotten the practice in parts of the ancient world of abandoning a baby girl to the elements? Is he really unaware of the fact that, just as Pharaoh ordered the killing of Hebrew baby boys in the second millennium BC, the high command of one of Europe’s most cultured and civilised nations ordered the extermination of somewhere in the region of six million Jewish men, women, and children in the death camps of the Nazi controlled parts of Europe. [3] 

And yet Bloom has identified something with which we shall be concerned in this paper, namely, the fact that while a sense of right and wrong, or good and evil, appears to be universal, people differ widely as to whether they regard certain actions as right or wrong, good or evil. Why should this be, and what does it indicate about “the human condition”? What light does the Bible shed upon this undoubted feature and fact of human life? And what challenges does it present for the church of Jesus Christ in fulfilling her mission in the world and for the individual Christian as he or she seeks to please God in what is, in the West, very much a morally pluralist society? These are some of the questions which this article will seek to address.

Using the Bible ethically is a wide-ranging activity, an activity which touches a diverse number of issues and which also presents a number of acute challenges to the church in the twenty first century. There is, of course, a certain ambiguity in the phrase “using the Bible ethically”, the phrase which provided the title for the conference at which this article was first presented as a paper, for the phrase is concerned both with the use of the Bible for obtaining ethical guidance or for formulating ethical norms and also with the way we read and use the Bible to obtain that guidance and to formulate those norms. I shall begin, therefore, by identifying some of the areas where we face specific challenges with respect to the ethical requirements which Scripture lays upon us, before clarifying the question as to how we are to read Scripture in an ethical way. I shall then explore each of these matters in turn.

I. Using the Bible ethically in a multicultural world: identifying the issues

Definitions

A word or two first about definitions. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy understands the term “ethics” to be “used in three different but related ways, signifying (1) a general pattern or ‘way of life’; (2) a set of rules of conduct or ‘moral code’; and (3) inquiry about ways of life and rules of conduct. In the first sense we speak of Buddhist or Christian ethics; in the second, we speak of professional ethics and of unethical behaviour. In the third sense, ethics is a branch of philosophy that is frequently given the special name of ‘metaethics’.” [4] I shall adopt this as a working definition. [5] While much of this article will, therefore, be concerned with how the ethics required by the Bible is to be related to people whose “way of life” (first use) and whose “moral code” (second use) is very different from that of the Bible, as well as with how they are to be lived out by those who profess faith in Christ and seek to live under the Bible’s authority, I shall necessarily and inevitably be engaged, at points, with inquiry about ways of life and rules of conduct (third use), and to what extent biblical ethics and the ethical norms by which others live converge or collide.

Multiculturalism may well mean different things to different people. I am employing the term in this article to deal specifically with different ethical norms and values. The ethical norms of those who look to the Qu’ran for their guidance differ significantly from those who espouse what is sometimes called secular, liberal humanism. Both of these differ from those who look to the Bible as their authority in ethical matters. But there are also differences within these groups. For example, to look no further than to those who regard the Bible as God’s Word to us to guide us in all matters of faith and conduct, some believe that Scripture requires us to espouse a pacifist position while others hold to the “just war” theory. There are many other areas where ethical differences exist amongst evangelicals.

Taking the above as working definitions, I wish now to identify some of the areas where we face specific challenges.

1. Evangelism

The good news of Jesus Christ is a wonderfully inclusivist message in that it is for all people; it is for people of all nations and for all kinds of people. It is also an exclusivist message; the blessings it offers and promises are enjoyed only by those who repent of their sin and who believe upon Jesus Christ. But if people are to repent, they need to know what sin is, and this inevitably touches upon the ethical realm. It is here that we face a very particular challenge. Let me give a practical, real-life example which illustrates the nature of the challenge before us. At a recent university Christian Union mission a “lunch bar” meeting was being held at which people could text their questions to the UCCF staff worker who was leading the meeting. A number of people asked why Christians were “against people being gay”. The point to grasp here is that the questioners believed that it was unethical or wrong to believe that there was anything bad about homosexual behaviour. Just as we might find the Jehovah’s Witness’ unwillingness to agree to a child having a blood transfusion to save its life as an ethically “wrong” decision, so the people who posed the question regarded it as wrong to categorise homosexuality as sin. In other words there is something of a collision with respect to ethical matters taking place in our society between large swathes of the population and those who bow to the authority of the Bible.

If we are to serve God in our generation and be faithful in proclaiming the gospel to our contemporaries, we need to understand that what is going on is not a rejection of morality per se – that is to say, a rejection of moral norms – but, on the contrary, the adoption by many of a different morality.

The idea that the Bible presents an ethically deficient message or, even worse, an ethically abhorrent message has been popularised by numerous writers. Richard Dawkins does this in The God Delusion. [6]  Many who have never read the Bible may well pick up from Dawkins’ book, and from books like it, the message that there is little to distinguish biblical ethics from the morality of the Taleban. Understandably this then leads many to a prejudiced view of the Christian message, even before they have heard it. How does one evangelise such people? This is a crucially important question, to which I shall return later.

Ethical relativism is also a phenomenon with which we have to deal. By this I mean the intellectual position which maintains that there are no moral absolutes.  Clearly, if someone maintains that all ethical matters are relative, then the biblical concept of sin is thereby dissolved, as is the biblical emphasis that all people are under obligation to God to repent. A moment’s reflection demonstrates that ethical relativism is inextricably linked with the further position that either there is no God or, if there is, he either has not made known the standards by which we are to live or that he himself approves of ethical relativism. Understanding the “worldview” of our contemporaries is as important for us in our evangelism as it is to those involved in cross-cultural mission.

2. Christian living in the world

John Stott has written that while holiness of life is inevitable for the Christian (because God has implanted the new life of his Spirit into the minds and hearts of all his people, in much the same way that the life of a plant is found, in embryonic form, in the seed), it is not automatic (just as a seed does not automatically grow into a plant, but needs the appropriate climate and nourishment: just so the Christian needs instruction and nurture). [7] If God’s Word is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17), and if one of the purposes for which Christ has given certain gifts of gospel ministry to his church is that his people might come to maturity in Christ (Eph 4:10-13; Col 1:28), it follows that one area where pastors must shepherd God’s people with skilful hands (Ps 78:72) is that of showing how ethical guidance may be drawn from God’s Word to help God’s people to live lives which honour him, faced, as we sometimes are, with a bewildering variety of ethical problems.                               

These problems may be faced by Christians in their personal lives and in wider spheres of service. For example, a Christian couple who have been unable to have children may be told that their only hope of having their own children is through IVF (in vitro fertilisation). [8] However, since it is standard practice for a number of the woman’s eggs or ova to be fertilised in this way, thereby creating “spare embryos”, the question arises as to whether this is ethically acceptable. Secular society sees little or no problem with this, provided that the practice is properly regulated and certain safeguards are put in place; but a significant number of evangelical Christians – especially in the USA – join with the Roman Catholic Church in regarding the practice as morally abhorrent and contrary to the will of God, if it involves the destruction of the “spare embryos”.

Let us imagine the following situation. A husband and wife who have been Christians for many years seek counsel from their pastor: is it morally permissible for them to “use” IVF? What does the Bible teach? Let us further imagine that in the same church there is a recently-converted couple who, because they have been unable to have children, decide to go down the IVF route. For them there is no issue at all and they see no need to seek advice from their pastor. Let us further suppose that the pastor of the church advises the couple who seek his counsel that the creation of “spare embryos” is contrary to God’s will, and if IVF will involve this it would be sin for them to undergo such a procedure. What if they decide, regardless of the pastor’s counsel, that they will have IVF? Is this then a disciplinary matter within the church? What if they accept the pastor’s advice? Should the newly-converted couple be disciplined? And how does all this play out if a couple in a nearby church, which is equally committed to letting the Word of God rule in all areas of life, are advised by their pastor that there really is no moral issue involved at all? If we change the issue from that of IVF to remarriage after divorce, it will become immediately apparent that we are not dealing with abstract issues but with matters upon which evangelical people understand the Scriptures differently and that these differences can sometimes lead to problems between churches or within the same church.

Ethical dilemmas may arise in a Christian’s work life. The issue of torture in a military context is one which is of perennial concern and which raises a whole cluster of questions for consideration. One question of contemporary interest concerns the issue as to when a soldier is taking justifiable and legitimate defensive action in shooting a civilian and when such an action would be tantamount to murder in God’s eyes? [9] The problems are no less complex, though perhaps not nearly as traumatic to deal with, if one moves from the dilemmas faced by those in the armed forces to those which one may meet in civilian life.

The CEO of a company has a duty to the board and, through them, to its shareholders – many of whom will be institutional investors, the profitability of whose investments will have consequences for the insurance premia payable by “ordinary people” and for the pensions paid to the same “ordinary people” – to maximise profits, but this may be best achieved by “outsourcing” work to countries where wages are substantially lower than in this country. This may lead to mass redundancies and the lives of many “ordinary people” will thereby be adversely affected, although, of course, the economic chances of many in the country to which the jobs are outsourced may be correspondingly enhanced. Is it simply down to “market forces” or, as some would argue, is it immoral just to let market forces decide? And if the CEO is a Christian but the board is not; and, assuming that it is a multinational company and that it will be reasonable to assume that many of the shareholders will not be Christians, what is the CEO to do? Is he to seek to run the company as he would a business of which he is the sole owner? But even if this were possible (which it almost certainly would not be), does he not thereby create something of a false situation precisely because he is not the sole owner? But is the alternative simply to succumb to “the system”, and see himself as nothing more than a cog, albeit a larger and rather more significant cog than most but still a cog no less, of a gigantic and impersonal financial or commercial machine?

To put these same questions somewhat more prosaically, is the CEO to seek to bring Christian ethical standards to bear, particularly as they relate to issues of greed, with respect to profit margins, share yields, and executive pay (what, in fact, do the Scriptures say about these issues?), or is he to concentrate his energies on personal holiness and godliness and, as far as these other issues are concerned, simply seek to make the company as profitable as he can? Do the Scriptures give any guidance on such issues?

The last question raises the interesting possibility that on some issues Scripture might have nothing at all to say. I do not mean by “some issues” things like nuclear warfare, which Scripture does not directly address for the very simple reason that nuclear weapons were not around when the Bible was written; for it is surely possible to say that while Scripture does not directly address such an issue, it may nevertheless lay out the principles by which decisions with respect to such matters are to be decided. It does not require a great leap of imagination to realise that the tenth commandment, while expressed in terms which were singularly appropriate in an agricultural community, has as much to say about the wrong of coveting my neighbour’s Porsche as it did to the wrong of the Israelite coveting his neighbour’s ox or donkey. My point, rather, is that there may well be issues upon which Christians might feel very strongly but where Scripture is, in principle, silent. In other words, for a variety of reasons Christian people may sometimes regard certain behaviour as belonging in a moral category, as belonging in a realm where there are ethical norms, when God has not laid down such norms. I shall take up this point in a later section of this article.

3. Matters of public and/or government policy

Christians are in the world though not of the world (Jn 17:15-16). Since we are to serve the Lord in every sphere of life, conflicts can sometimes arise when employers, professional bodies or other types of body associated with the work place, public bodies or institutions require behaviour which the Christian believes to be not in accord with the will of God. It may be thought that the issue is simply solved by recourse to the principle enunciated by the apostle Peter: “We must obey God rather than men!”(Acts 5:29). While this is a vital principle of godly living, I shall submit in a later section of this article that there are sometimes situations where recourse to this principle may well betray an overly simplistic analysis which fails to take account of all the data, and which can sometimes lead to Christians suffering unnecessarily. 

4. The ethical use of the Bible

The Bible may still be the world’s best-selling book but this does not mean, of course, that it is the most read book and it certainly does not mean that it is the best understood book. One of the identifying marks of an evangelical is a belief in the Bible as God’s inspired, infallible and inerrant Word, which is sufficient for life and practice and which is, therefore, of supreme authority. This commitment to biblical authority requires that we use the Bible in an ethical way. The entailments of an ethical use of the Bible are numerous but, at root, they all flow from a responsible reading of the biblical text, and this involves a number of things. I shall explore what these entailments are in a later section of this paper; at this stage I simply wish to point out that an unethical reading of the sacred text will inevitably distort the ethical principles which one purports to find there and will lead to pastors giving ethical counsel or guidance which will seriously mislead God’s people.

II. General principles

1. The importance of general revelation

(i) Theological realities which undergird general revelation

Fundamental to the biblical teaching concerning God and humanity are the twin truths that God is a God who reveals himself and that men and women are God’s image bearers. The biblical teaching that God is love and that he is light conveys something about his essential being, namely that he is a God who communicates and relates. While God is one, he is not a monad, but is in eternal fellowship within himself in the relations of the persons of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit with each other. The omniscience of God means not simply that he knows everything that there is to know about the universe (since that would be finite knowledge) but that he knows all that there is to know about himself. But since he exists as Trinity, this means that his knowledge of himself is relational and personal. Although each person of the Godhead is possessed equally of the divine being or nature, the distinctions between the persons means that there is a personal property specific to each which is not shared by the others. But while this is true, it is nevertheless the case that the exhaustive knowledge which each has of the others is a knowledge of each of the persons in their capacity as distinct persons. This means that the knowledge is infinite (since each person, being God, is an infinite person) and involves a giving of each to the other, a communicating of each to the other. Were this not so it would mean that one person would be gaining “privileged” or “private” knowledge of the others which they did not wish to disclose or reveal.

While the creation is a “contingent” act of God, a work of God ad extra, it nevertheless expresses something of his being and character and, in Calvin’s memorable phrase, it is “the theatre of his glory”. It is the God who is light and who expresses himself within the Godhead who is thereby giving expression of himself. Since men and women are made in God’s image, this expression of himself constitutes revelation of God to us. Furthermore, we are part of the creation; therefore, we do not simply observe revelation outside of ourselves (what one might call the footprints of God which we observe in the cosmos), but we also experience something of that revelation within ourselves (what we might term the fingerprints of God within our consciousness). Since it is the same God who has created humanity and the rest of the universe, one sees, as Burnside argues, continuity both between the divine and the creation, and continuity between the created world and human behaviour. “As a result”, Burnside says, “biblical law reflects nature in that it is ‘the most perfect expression of law that is in accordance with creation rightly understood’. There is a correspondence between law and nature because both proceed from the same God, and both demand loyalty. As the psalms attest, ‘nature is by no means inanimate or dumb… it speaks with a voice which makes powerful claims of allegiance.’… The juxtaposition of nature and Torah – the glory of God in the heavens and the glory of God in Torah – ‘emphasises the universality of both.’” [10] 

Burnside understands these continuities between the divine and the creation, between the created world and human behaviour, and between different forms of revelation and the universal knowledge of certain norms as being part of “natural law”. However, because of the different ways in which this phrase has sometimes been understood (ways which Burnside himself acknowledges), I prefer to identify them as aspects of general revelation. One of Burnside’s great contributions in this whole area is his concern to formulate his understanding by an inductive study of Scripture. I shall seek to do the same, though most of the passages to which reference will be made will be different from those which Burnside discusses. I shall then seek to demonstrate, in a later section, the relevance of these passages and of the teaching which is based upon them to the issue of evangelism in a multicultural context, and to living out the Christian life in the world and in society.

(ii) Biblical material germane to the reality of general revelation

There is, of course, a plethora of passages which deal with general revelation and so I shall have to be severely selective. I shall begin by looking at a passage which shows general revelation of “moral norms in operation”, then consider two passages which deal with the implications of that general revelation, before looking at the significance of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and, finally, the classic teaching found in Romans, where there is a theological analysis of the reality of general revelation.

Genesis 20 is a very instructive passage. Although the Lord appears to Abimelech in a dream (special revelation), it is clear that Abimelech regarded the taking of another man’s wife as sin. Hence his protestation to the Lord in v. 5 that he had genuinely believed Sarah to be Abraham’s sister and, therefore, “I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands”, and the Lord’s reply in v. 6, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience and clean hands”. Abraham had resorted to the subterfuge of passing off his wife as his sister because he had thought that there was no fear of God in the place and that they would kill him because of his wife; therefore, when he started his life as a pilgrim he had arranged for Sarah to claim that she was his sister (vv. 11-13; cf. 12:11-16). Evidently Abraham believed that the king would not take his wife as long as Sarah was married to him but would have no compunction about killing him in order to take Sarah as a wife. Whether Abraham was right or not in this belief, what is unmistakeable from the account in chapter 20 is that Abimelech believed that the taking of another man’s wife was wrong. He is able to distinguish between something done innocently, with clean hands and a clear conscience, and something which would have been done with a guilty mind. Thus, to adopt legal terminology, although he was perilously close to having the actus reus of adultery (close, because it was only God who restrained him from the act itself), he did not have the mens rea or mental element. Evidently Abimelech believed that adultery was wrong and was wrong before God.

Another deeply instructive passage concerning sexual ethics is to be found in Leviticus 18.  A range of prohibitions of sexual behaviour are laid down. Then in vv. 24-25 the Lord warns the Israelites not to defile themselves in any of these ways “because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants”. Clearly what the Lord is setting before his people by way of special revelation had also been made known to the nations before them as general revelation. The punishment is so certain that it is expressed to have taken place; it is the Lord who will drive out the nations, though Israel will be involved in this judicial process. At the same time this expulsion from the land is expressed to be the result of the land vomiting out the people because they had defiled it. The chapter is a good illustration of the nature and effects of general revelation. Thus, to adopt Burnside’s analysis and language, it shows continuity between the created world and human behaviour, it demonstrates universal knowledge of certain norms, and it also shows continuity between different forms of revelation, namely, between general and special revelation.

In dealing with universal knowledge of certain norms, as a category within natural law, Burnside considers the significance and importance of the judgments pronounced by Amos upon the nations and upon Judah and Israel in the opening two chapters of his prophecy. Quoting the Old Testament scholar John Barton, he writes: “Amos ‘simply assumes that other nations have a moral conscience, and that atrocities are wrong and are known to be wrong, by whomever and against whomever they are committed…’ The Bible asserts that human beings, universally, have knowledge of certain norms which are the basis of divine judgement”. [11] Burnside goes on to consider the source of this knowledge and, again drawing on the work of Barton, makes the following interesting observation:

Barton suggests that the nations are condemned on the basis of “international customary law”. Yet the fact that Amos’s hearers expect God to avenge breaches in international conduct suggests that the source is not simply a matter of human moral consensus. Behind Amos’s oracles stands the belief that God is a certain sort of God who judges on the basis of knowledge of universal norms. The surprising thing about Amos’s oracles is that universal norms have been made concrete in international consensus. This means that there are different modes of expression through which normative judgements come to be made, including, in this case, international consensus. [12] 

The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament is also instructive for what it has to tell us about general revelation. With his customary clarity Derek Kidner makes the following penetrating observation:

…we shall come across sayings and concerns that were common property of Israelite and foreign sages; and we may notice that in 1 Kings 4:30-31 Solomon’s wisdom is compared with that of the East and of Egypt, as well as that of his fellow Israelites. True, he outshone them all; but there was a basis of comparison between them. It was because his wisdom surpassed rather than by-passed theirs, that they flocked to hear him (emphasis mine). [13]  

What is implicit in Genesis 20, Leviticus 18 and the Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, and which becomes slightly more visible in Amos 1-2 is spelled out explicitly by Paul in his letter to the Romans. The gospel is presented as the remedy and answer to the problem of God’s wrath upon human ungodliness and unrighteousness. God’s wrath upon this aspect of humanity is because – dioti – what may be known about God is plain to them and this because – dioti again – certain things about God have been clearly seen by men and women. This renders us “without excuse” (1:20). The nature of God’s wrath upon this ungodliness and unrighteousness is such that he gives people over (vv. 24, 26, 28) “in the sinful desires of their hearts” (v. 24),  “to shameful lusts” (v. 26) and to a “depraved mind” (v. 28). At the end of this devastating indictment of human depravity and discourse concerning divine wrath, Paul states: “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death…” (v. 32). Paul’s point is that humanity, even in sin, knows certain truth about God and also knows that certain attitudes and behaviour are such that it is righteous of God to impose the sentence of death for them and that humanity knows that such a sentence is deserved. However, because of the rebellion of the human heart which seeks to suppress the truth about God (vv. 18, 21), people still practise the things which they know deserve God’s righteous decree and “approve of those that practise them”. There is therefore a fearful dichotomy in the human heart: certain things are known to be right and other things are known to be evil but there is approval of those who practise evil. This is the very nadir of human depravity.

And yet it may be argued that the phenomenon we meet in the opening verses of the next chapter reveals human depravity at its basest, as clearly as do the closing verses of chapter 1. If chapter 1 closes with a woeful lack of moral discrimination being evidenced by those who not only do evil but who also approve of others who do the same, chapter 2 opens with the depravity of those who condemn in others the very things which they do themselves. Paul’s point in introducing this idea at this stage of his massive “case against humanity” is to demonstrate that, in judging others to be worthy of condemnation for doing those very things which those who are judging them are themselves guilty of, people are really condemning themselves out of their own mouths. By regarding people as morally blameworthy (that is to say, blameworthy for behaving in a way contrary to what they regard as moral norms), they are demonstrating that they have moral norms, even though they do not keep them themselves. Thus, Paul is establishing just how serious is the plight of humanity in sin, just how terrible is what he will later call “the reign of sin” (5:21) over humanity: some know that certain behaviour deserves God’s righteous decree of death, but they not only do those things themselves but also approve of those who do them; there are others who do not approve of behaviour which some display but judge them as morally blameworthy for that behaviour, but they then do exactly the same things themselves. While this establishes the depth and extent of human depravity, it also establishes something else: that the whole world has a moral sense.

This point is developed further by Paul in 2:12-16. I understand Paul to be making the observation that those who do not have the law have a certain knowledge of its requirements written on their hearts (v. 15), and when they “do by nature things required by the law” (v. 14) – that is, things which the written law given to Israel requires, even though the Gentiles do not have that written law – they are demonstrating that the requirements of that law are written on their hearts. This is all that Paul is saying, and nothing more; he is not teaching a justification by works nor is he referring to the righteous life which those who have faith in Christ live. I believe this to be the correct understanding of these verses, though constraints of time and space will not allow me to argue this out at length. Going back to passages such as Genesis 20:4-5, 9-10, Leviticus 18:24-25, 27, and Amos 1-2, and reading them in the light of Romans 1 and 2, we see the theological explanation for what we find in these Old Testament passages: the general revelation of God’s moral requirements was made known, at least to some degree, to Abimelech and to the nations whom the Lord would drive out before the Israelites and to the nations around Israel who committed terrible atrocities. This revelation is rooted in creation and in men and women as God’s image-bearers, and goes back to certain creational realities. 

While general revelation is insufficient to bring sinners to a knowledge of salvation and while many passages teach this (Psalm 19 being a classic text which deals with God’s general and his special revelation), special revelation “assumes” general revelation and, at points, sharpens it and brings it into clearer focus. Thus Burnside writes as follows: “…the Bible asserts a continuity between an innate knowledge and particular revelation such that the latter tends to be confirmatory of universal norms, even as that body of revelation becomes more detailed, and the people of God find fresh motivation to live obedient lives”. [14] 

(iii) Response to three criticisms concerning the nature and importance of general revelation

It will be convenient at this point to pause in order to consider three objections to, or criticisms of, the position for which I have argued. The first objection is based on a misunderstanding of Psalm 147:19-20, especially v. 20b: “He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws.” Burnside’s comments on these verses are helpful and illuminating: “What the other nations do not know is the particularity of the revelation at Mount Sinai and their reception as part of a specific experience of deliverance in the form of the Exodus. Indeed, Israel’s experience of the Exodus gives her some new motivations for keeping the law… indeed empowers Israel to that end”. [15] These observations lie behind the following comments which Burnside makes: “…the Decalogue is uniquely addressed to a particular people in a particular time and place who have experienced a particular event… The specificity of her calling means that the Sinaitic laws cannot be carried over automatically to a relational context other than that between God and Israel because outsiders are not part of the story”. [16] 

The second objection is that since sin has entered the human race and creation is now under a consequent curse, one cannot link the wisdom found in God’s Word (a wisdom, in any event, which finds its perfect embodiment in Jesus Christ and, in particular, in his cross, which is a scandal to those who consider themselves wise) with the wisdom displayed in God’s world. The idea that objective moral norms and values are not only to be found in the commands which God has given us in his Word but also correspond to “the way the world is” is, according to the objection we are now considering, a deeply flawed idea. Just as it can be dangerous to try to read lessons from God’s providence without the light of his Word upon providential events, so, it may be argued, it can be equally dangerous to try to derive ethical norms from “the way the world is” and from an inner sense of right and wrong, or from what “the majority”, whoever they may be, believe to be right and wrong.

It will be useful, before responding to this objection, to consider the third criticism of the position which I have advanced, since it is related to the second objection. Given the range and differences of views and beliefs concerning specific moral issues, the question may be asked as to whether it makes sense to speak of human beings having a moral sense. The fact, as we have already noted, that in certain ancient societies it was regarded as perfectly acceptable to abandon a baby daughter to the elements; that in Nazi Germany there were those who really could see nothing wrong with exterminating Jews and treating them, together with others, as sub-human; the fact that some regard homosexuality as wrong whereas others view those who hold such a moral stance as being profoundly evil; the fact that some regard abortion as murder whereas others regard it as nothing more than a woman exercising her personal freedom; the fact that some believe that to blow men, women, and children to smithereens on the London Underground is a virtuous act, whereas others view this with utter abhorrence: given these differences of belief, does it make sense, ask some, to say that we all share a basic moral sense? In secular form, does this not lead us to some kind of moral relativism and to a denial that objective moral norms and values exist? Might there not be something to be said, after all, for Bloom’s argument that morality is like language: evolution has hard-wired us to have a moral sense, in the same way that every normal human being is hard-wired with the ability to understand language, but the specific content which is poured into that moral sense varies as much as the different languages which are spoken upon the earth. In a Christian form, might it not lead to the position of men like Barth: “Karl Barth writes against the background assumption that the Bible cannot have a natural law theory”. [17] 

In response to these two objections the following points should be noted. First, the Scriptures themselves take seriously the noetic effects of the Fall and their consequences for our moral sense. One has only to read the first half of the book of Genesis to discover that polygamy, violence, and homosexual gang rape are lauded: see 4:23; 6:1-6, 11; and 19:1-9 respectively. Isaiah pronounces a woe against those who call evil good and good evil (Is 5:20), while Paul refers to those whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron (1 Tim 4:2). Furthermore, in the letter to the Ephesians Paul speaks of Gentiles who had “lost all sensitivity so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (4:19). He goes on to refer to the Christians to whom he is writing as having “not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires…” (4:20-22). This certainly indicates that there were certain behavioural norms which they were taught and which they learned, and they learned these, therefore, as a result of special revelation having come to them. To this extent there is force in the second and third criticisms which we are considering: just as it is impossible to gain a clear view of all of God’s character from observing a world under curse [18] , so we certainly cannot formulate ethical norms on the basis of what one internally feels oneself or on the basis of what others feel, no matter how many they are.

The second thing to say is that Scripture does not teach that general revelation gives to all people in a state of sin and living on a cursed earth a full knowledge of every requirement which God has made of us. Paul’s treatment of “issues of conscience” in Romans 14 makes it quite clear that, even amongst those who have experienced salvation in Christ, conscience might be “weak” and some might feel it would be wrong for them to enjoy something which it would be perfectly acceptable for them to enjoy were it not for the fact that their consciences were weak. [19] A careful reading of that chapter indicates that, as a kind of overrun, those who feel that it would be wrong for them to do something which is otherwise perfectly legitimate might think it wrong for anyone to do or to enjoy those things which the weak feel to be wrong for themselves. At this point, of course, their consciences need to be enlightened and they must not judge their stronger brothers and sisters (v. 3). Even if after having been thus enlightened they still feel psychologically unable to do or enjoy certain legitimate things, spiritual maturity requires that they no longer regard such matters as evil per se. If, therefore, those who have experienced God’s grace and who are the recipients of special revelation need to be instructed by that revelation as to what is right and wrong and what is good and evil, then a fortiori it inevitably follows that those who possess only general revelation will need their knowledge of good and evil to be corrected and significantly supplemented by special revelation. In a society where many of those who come to faith in Christ do so from a background of significant biblical illiteracy, it is imperative that those charged with pastoral responsibility ensure that folk converted from such backgrounds are carefully and thoroughly instructed in the standards which God requires of his people. What this means, of course, is that a person’s moral sense does need to be instructed and trained. The corollary to this, surely, is that a person’s moral sense may be wrongly instructed and, as a consequence, a person’s “moral compass” may indeed start to point west or east when it should be pointing due north. When a society becomes like this, then a massive reinforcement of wrong moral values and standards takes place. This surely is part of what the Bible means when it refers to “the world”, in a negative sense, and to the dangers which “the world” poses for the Christian. 

Thirdly, and finally, in arguing for the fact that all people have a sense of right and wrong, nothing more is being claimed than the fact that people have a sense of moral obligation and of right and wrong, without specifying what is right and wrong. To this extent Romans 1 needs to be read in conjunction with those passages which speak of the deceiving and hardening properties of sin, and with those which warn us that people’s consciences can become seared (e.g., Heb 3:13 and 1 Tim 4:2 respectively). Of course the fact that conscience has been seared and that someone has been hardened by the deceitfulness of sin indicates that there was a time when they were morally more sensitive. This last point notwithstanding, experience confirms that people who initially felt guilty about doing something evil may, after repeating such behaviour, feel less guilty until they reach a point where they have “normalised” such behaviour in their thinking and may no longer regard it as wrong. When this kind of thing takes place across society, a future generation grows up where “the background moral noise” is such that good may indeed be regarded as evil and vice versa. One has only to think of the changed attitudes to homosexuality over the last fifty to a hundred years to see how this kind of thing can happen. On a more positive note changed attitudes to the wrong of racism demonstrates that there may be a change in the “moral consensus” which is indeed a change for the better. In other words Romans 2:14-16 is not teaching that all the requirements of God’s moral law have been written on the hearts of all people; rather, when people approve of what is good or disapprove of what is evil, then at that point and to that extent they demonstrate that they are possessed of a moral sense, of a faculty which acknowledges moral categories and, at the point where they approve what is objectively good or disapprove what is objectively evil, they show that on that specific, the requirements of God’s law have been written on their hearts. [20] I shall work out the practical relevance and importance of all this in the realm of evangelism towards the end of this paper.

2. The purposes and ends of government or “the powers that be”

The purposes and ends for which government exists is a subject on which there has been a wide range of views not only amongst political philosophers and writers but also amongst Christian writers and within the Christian Church. For example, amongst political philosophers there has been a broad distinction between those, on the one hand, whose emphasis is mostly upon “the state” and the preservation of order, and those, on the other hand, who would put greater emphasis upon the liberty of the individual. Thus, Hobbes (influenced, as he was, by the upheavals attendant upon the English Civil Wars), accorded a lesser place to the rights of the individual (the right to life was the great right which he emphasised and which, he believed, it was the role of the sovereign to protect) and to toleration than did Locke. [21] In the twentieth century Sir Patrick Devlin believed that the state had the right to enforce, through the criminal law, the shared morality of a society which, Devlin believed, acted as a kind of moral and social cement, whereas Herbert Hart, following John Stuart Mill, believed that the criminal law should not invade areas of “private morality”. [22] At another level, John Rawls’s view of what a just society should be like and how government should seek to achieve it differed significantly from that of Rawls’s fellow American and distinguished political philosopher, Robert Nozick. [23] Although Christians have a shared authority in the Bible, there has also been a range of views within the Christian Church on the purpose of government, ranging from the “two kingdoms” view held by Luther, with roots in Augustine’s “two cities”, and held today by men such as Christian philosopher Paul Helm, [24] through various “transformationist” views [25] and “establishment principle” [26] views of the relationship of the church to the state, and on into views which marry a “reconstructionist” view of the relationship of the Christian to society with theonomist views of the relationship of the Mosaic Law to the New Testament. [27] 

The position which I take and which informs the current article is one which is broadly sympathetic to a two kingdoms approach (but with certain refinements and nuances) and which is accepting of political pluralism. [28] It would, of course, require at least a full-length article to argue this case out fully and this would take us well beyond the scope and purpose of the present study. The practical outworking of this approach will be developed later in this article.

3. On “reading the Bible ethically”

There are undoubtedly some “hard sayings” and some “hard incidents” in the Bible. In a day when militant atheists trawl through the Bible and can post these passages on websites and blogs which are read by millions, who may then refer to such passages in conversation with Christians as reasons why they cannot accept the Christian message, it is essential that those with pastoral responsibility have the courage to preach or give teaching upon such passages and to do so with integrity. Of course, since these passages are part of the canon of Scripture, it has always been important for them to have been preached and taught but one fears that this is a responsibility which has sometimes been honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

Passages which appear to encourage what would today be called “ethnic cleansing”, not to mention verses such as Psalm 137:8-9, which, on a superficial reading, might appear to gloat in the wholesale butchery of little children, need to be expounded in their total biblical context, else God’s people may steer clear of significant portions of God’s Word. It was, of course, a characteristic of a certain type of theological liberalism to dismiss the importance or significance of certain parts of the Old Testament because, it was claimed, these passages reflected a somewhat primitive stage in the evolution of the religious consciousness of the children of Israel. It was this kind of approach which left many congregations unprepared for the horrors of the First World War and the appalling display of human depravity witnessed in that conflict. This accounts, in part, for the disillusionment with “Christianity” which many experienced at the end of that war and also accounts for the saying that Barth’s Commentary on Romans – which, whatever deficiencies there may have been in Barth’s theology, did not endorse this “bottom up” approach to God’s Word – “fell like a bombshell on the theologian’s playground”. Exposure to the whole range of the teaching of God’s Word enables people to realise that, while it is true that, as a result of God’s common grace, people may be capable of extraordinary acts of kindness, generosity and humanity, it is no less the case that when God takes the brakes off societies which are going downhill, life can indeed be “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

An ethical reading of the Bible will not scour the sacred text simply for “good” verses upon which to “hang a sermon” but will, rather, seek faithfully to expound what a passage says. It will also, to adopt the title of a fine book by Greg Beale, avoid establishing “the right doctrine from the wrong texts”. As one who lectures systematic theology I am wholeheartedly committed to the importance of logically organising the biblical teaching on a particular matter so as to present that teaching in a coherent and systematic way. But while this is a crucially important discipline in its own right and important for the help it provides in preventing one from misreading certain passages of Scripture, it is not the same as expounding a specific passage upon which one is to preach; furthermore, systematic theology can be abused to the point where, in the hands of some, it can effectively muzzle what Scripture says because, it is believed – on the basis of a systematic theology which has failed to consider all the biblical data on a given matter – “the Bible does not teach that”!

If an ethical reading of the Bible requires that we do not ignore passages which we may not find to be congenial and, further, requires that we do not distort Scripture’s meaning in order to make it fit into our theological grid, it is equally the case that an ethical use of the Bible means that we may have to accept that it does not speak on some issues and, therefore, that we must avoid “adding” to it by making it say things which it does not say or make it address issues which, even in principle, it does not address. The doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency can be abused by failing to recognise these points. An unethical reading of Scripture is one which says that because we face a pressing issue which we regard to be of considerable moral importance, the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency must mean that somewhere the sacred volume will address the issue. An ethical reading of the Bible approaches the matter in an entirely different way: if, after patient and prolonged study, we discover that Scripture does not even address, in principle, a matter which we regard to be of pressing moral or ethical importance, the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency must mean that the matter does not have that significance or importance in God’s eyes, and we must learn to accept this and to live with it.

III. Application of general principles

1. Evangelism

Christian history is full of examples of pioneer missionaries who went to people groups who approved of practices which, from a Christian standpoint, were nothing other than abominable but who were won for Christ and who went on to live consistently Christian lives. One thinks of John G. Paton, who saw a spiritual and moral transformation amongst the people of the New Hebrides. Paton spoke of how spiritually and emotionally moved he was at the first communion of those who had once eaten human flesh and drunk human blood. [29] David Brainerd witnessed similarly great spiritual awakening amongst American Indians who, though having not been cannibals, had, nevertheless, been morally decadent. And, of course, this is but what we find in the New Testament itself. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 are a wonderful reminder of the power of the gospel and of how people who are “far gone” in the ways of evil may be spiritually and morally transformed. We are not the first generation of Christians upon the earth to face the problem of a majority culture whose moral views and standards may well differ significantly from those which God requires. Without state endorsement, the apostle Paul saw massively significant spiritual advance; we need to have confidence in the gospel and in the power of God to save.

Gospel confidence, however, while necessary to the work of evangelism, is not sufficient; wisdom is also requisite. This is always the case but it is especially so in a situation like ours where, unlike that of Paul, Paton, or Brainerd, our evangelism takes place not in a “pre-Christian” context but, rather, in a “post-Christian” society. Of course many of those to whom we bring the gospel are largely ignorant of it and, to that extent, are no different from those evangelised by pioneer missionaries in history; since, however, our society has moved from one which was influenced by the Christian message to one which has been heavily secularised, the entire context in which we evangelise is one where there are certain false assumptions about the Christian message and the moral entailments of that message, assum-ptions which are frequently articulated with great sophistication. In this kind of situation we really do need to be wise; we need, in fact, to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.

A simple and very good example of such wisdom is provided by Tim Keller. Keller has seen significant spiritual blessing and growth amongst heavily secularised and liberal young adults in Manhattan. I accept that God is sovereign in the granting of repentance and faith but he is, nevertheless, not an arbitrary sovereign, and he uses means. This being so, the example from Keller’s ministry is, I believe, very instructive. He tells the story of a young couple who came to see him and who told him that they simply did not believe in moral absolutes. This was a kind of opening gambit to explain why the gospel could not make universal claims on people’s lives and why, therefore, they could not accept it. The wife had “feminist” leanings and so Keller responded by saying that presumably the woman thought it was all right for those societies who believed that women did not have the same rights as men to go on in that way and that, therefore, there could be nothing wrong with that. The woman strongly disagreed, maintaining that such rights of women were inalienable and that they should, therefore, be recognised and protected in such societies. It was an easy and short step for Keller to point out that the woman did believe in some absolutes and for her to have to accept that this was the case. [30] The important point to note in this account is that although the woman was a sophisticated, secularised, liberal, modern American woman, she believed in a moral requirement which should apply regardless of the cultures or societies in which people find themselves. To that extent the requirement was independent of any culture and therefore transcended the boundaries between different cultures. Getting someone to accept that there are such absolutes can be an essential aspect of a kind of evangelistic apologetic or “pre-evangelism”.

The example from Keller might of course be criticised along the lines of the argument which Bloom presented: although people may have strong moral convictions on some issues – as the young woman to whom Keller refers had strong convictions with respect to women’s rights – this is just the result of her cultural context, where one would expect such things of a young, secular, liberal woman in Manhattan. It is simply the moral language which she speaks, which is quite different from that of the societies which she criticises. But the criticisms which I have earlier made of Bloom’s position apply to this analogical argument. Indeed, there is a deeper criticism of Bloom’s position which needs to be made. Bloom argues that our general moral sense – that is to say, not the specific “moral languages” which we acquire through life but the possession of “moral language” per se – is something which we acquired through our evolutionary development. Certain matters are universal, whereas others will differ according to our cultural context. But all Bloom has done here is to present an argument as to how, he believes,we acquired a sense of right and wrong; he has, in effect, provided an epistemology of morality, an account of how we have come to acquire a faculty for regarding some things as good and others as evil. According to Bloom our evolutionary past has put a certain deep moral sense in place, and our own personal cultural context has then filled that sense with different moral content. What Bloom has not done is to provide an account of the ontology of morality – of what morality is – or of why some things are good or evil. He has not given any reason why anyone who enjoys gunning children down in a school, as happens from time to time, should be morally criticised. Yet Bloom would, by his own admission, regard such conduct as being wrong, utterly wrong.

Keller’s approach might also be criticised from the standpoint of cultural anthropology. A cultural anthropologist might regard the young woman’s position as a form of moral or cultural imperialism, and might go on to say that, at this point, the young woman is behaving as one would expect a young, liberal, American citizen to behave. The anthropologist might strongly disagree with the woman and say that societies should be allowed to follow their own moral standards. But this simply invites the response that the anthropologist is behaving as one would expect a fairly typical cultural anthropologist to behave, and raises the question as to why such societies should be allowed to follow their own moral standards. Is this “should” to be placed within a moral category? If so, it simply pushes the question further on as to the basis on which this is being said.

The position which I am commending is that men and women are essentially moral beings and that no amount of relativising morality can deliver people from the dilemma that they will regard some behaviour as good and other behaviour as evil. Thinking that one can account for this sense in no way deals with the issue of that to which the sense refers. [31] 

Once people realise that they do have moral absolutes, it is surely our task to bring home to them where they have failed to live even by the standards which they themselves accept.A good example of how this might be done is provided by Dick Dowsett. He had been working as a missionary in the Philippines. One day he was speaking with a Communist propagandist who came from a well-off home.

She was lambasting the President’s wife at great length for the way that she exploited people. After this had gone on for some time I… asked the girl if she had a servant in her home – I knew she would have, because almost every home had some poorer person working for them in those days. “Which is her day off?” I asked. She blushed, embarrassed. She had criticized others so fiercely for exploiting people, but my simple question revealed that she was also exploiting someone else. She stood condemned by her own criticism. And she knew it. [32] 

This is surely the sort of thing that Paul is saying in Romans 2:1.

2. Christian living in the world

This is a huge field and it has, of course, generated a significant body of literature. [33] I shall concentrate attention on a number of areas.

(i) Freedom of moral choice

Whether I cover the floors of my house with carpets or laminated wood flooring is hardly an ethical issue: it is simply a matter of taste. It could become an ethical issue if the only carpets which were available were extremely expensive Persian ones. I would then be faced with the question as to whether I would be morally justified in spending so much money on the decor of my house, when the same money might be put to other use, such as the translation and distribution of the Bible, the alleviating of hunger and poverty, and so on. Yet even then it would not be the same kind of moral question as to whether it would be morally right or wrong for me to go into a school and shoot all the children there. In the latter case I would be flagrantly violating a clear and specific command of God and doing something which would be utterly repugnant. In the former case the Bible does not specify how much I am permitted to spend on covering the floors of my house, and so I must seek to apply general biblical principles and seek wisdom from God. This having been said, it may be the case that the amount of money which would have to be spent on buying the Persian carpets would save the lives of many children in the developing world from starvation. So, it might be argued, by buying the carpets, rather than the wood flooring, I have failed to do good and my expensive purchase has meant that lives which might have been saved are lost.

But how far do we pursue this line of reasoning? Food is certainly more essential than having laminated flooring in my house. So should I keep the floors bare in order to feed as many as I can? Is it right for me to enjoy relative luxuries when others in the world lack necessities? Before we dismiss these questions as so much armchair theorising, it may be worth pondering the fact that one of the sins of the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 was that he lived in luxury while his neighbour lived in utter penury (vv. 19-21). If the second greatest commandment is that we love our neighbour as we love ourselves, it hardly needs much thought to realise that the rich man was signally failing to obey that commandment. We may not have a beggar sitting at our gate; but in this age of instant communication beggars are brought into our homes via the television and the internet every day. So is it right for us to have full wardrobes, to go on holidays, to buy technological gadgets when many in the world have never heard of Jesus or the Bible and when many do not know where the next meal will come from?

My concern at this stage is simply to consider the kinds of questions which these are. For while it is true that there is much biblical teaching, by way of principle, command, example and warning concerning the right and the wrong use of wealth, the fact remains that there is a certain amount of freedom in this area, in the way that we are not, for example, free to commit adultery. [34] One wealthy Christian might liquidate all his assets and give everything away; another wealthy Christian might be generous and rich in good deeds but not divest himself of all his property. In the former type of case there may well be further distinctions to draw: one wealthy Christian who gives away everything might feel under a divine compulsion to do so, whereas for another it may be something that he felt free not to do but believed that it was the wisest way to use his wealth. Jesus told only one wealthy person to sell all and to give it away.

The idea of “moral freedom” lies behind the teaching found in 1 Corinthians 7:25-28. The passage is a difficult one to exegete and it is beyond my purpose to attempt to do so here. [35] The important points to observe are the following. First, Paul is not giving a command but expressing his judgment (v.25). The judgment is that of an apostle of Jesus Christ and the judgment is divinely inspired; it is, nevertheless, judgment not command that is being given. Secondly, the judgment is in the context of “the present crisis”. [36] There is, therefore, a clear “situational” element to what he will say. From this one may deduce that were the situational element different, he would not have given the same judgment. While it is the case that biblical ethics are not situation ethics, we must not fail to recognise that situational factors may well condition ethical judgments and ethical counsel. In the third place, much in this passage is concerned not with good and evil, with right and wrong, but with what is good and what is better (vv. 28, 35-38).

It has frequently been observed that “guidance” was not a problem for the Puritans in the way in which it is for many Christians of the present day, and that the reason for this was that the Puritans were masters in setting forth the ethical requirements of God’s Word and in the emphasis which they gave to God’s providence. This is as it should be. With respect to questions such as whether one should marry or remain single and, if one marries, how one goes about knowing who one’s spouse should be, the Scriptures do not teach that there is a divine blueprint for every Christian, kept alongside the book of life in heaven, and that in some way we must access its content in order to make the right decision and be “in the centre of God’s will”, and that failure to do so will mean that we will inevitably not enjoy “God’s best for our lives”. This kind of teaching has sometimes done untold harm to Christians and may well induce a kind of spiritual neurosis. The biblical emphasis is that we seek to live our lives to God’s glory, keep his commands, seek wisdom from him, and in that context and the context of prayerful dependence upon him, we are free to make certain decisions and choices one way or another (Prov 3:5-6).

(ii) Work and issues of conscience

I referred in the first part of this paper to the dilemma which might be faced by a Christian who is the CEO of a multinational company. Should he just concentrate on personal godliness and “go with the system” or should he seek to change the company’s approach to the way it makes its money? I shall seek to set out certain guidelines which might help to identify the issues which have to be considered.

First, there are clearly certain areas of work in which a Christian cannot be involved. He could hardly be the CEO of a casino or betting office chain, or of a company which publishes pornographic magazines. But what of being the CEO of the part of a high street bank which engages in what is known as “casino banking”? What of being the CEO of an advertising company whose promotion of certain perfumes involves video clips of scantily-dressed women in seductive poses? Is “shorting” a form of gambling? When does something become pornographic? Is it different being the CEO of the “casino banking” arm of a high street bank from being a secretary in it? These questions inevitably raise another question, which touches the very heart of these issues: is there a difference between a body or organisation which is engaged in something which is inherently sinful and a body or organisation which pursues legitimate aims and ends which might become sinful or which may pursue legitimate aims in a sinful way. Let me give a fairly straightforward example. A hotel is providing a perfectly good and necessary service to the public. But it is possible for it to be used for all kinds of evil purposes. A receptionist may book two people into a room who are obviously not married. It may be clear to her that adultery will be committed. This no more involves her in the sin which is committed than a taxi driver who drives someone to a strip club is involved in sin. Associating and conducting business with people who commit sin is part of what living in this world entails (1 Cor 5:9-10).

Now let us see how the principles which have just been articulated might work out in a very different type of situation. Someone works in the civil service or is a government minister. Government is something which God has ordained, and it performs, therefore, a socially necessary and useful task (Rom 13:1-7). One surely has to assume that not everybody in the government will be a Christian, just as those who occupied positions of government were not all Christians in Paul’s day. This being so, it will inevitably be the case that there may well be practices which the government sanctions of which the Christian may not personally approve and, further, of which he believes that God does not approve, but this does not necessarily mean that he must leave the government or, if he is a civil servant, give up his employment. Daniel became part of Nebuchadnezzar’s education programme to become a top official in his “government” or court while Nebuchadnezzar was still pursuing practices and policies which were quite alien to God’s will. Indeed, it is clear that Daniel held an important post in Nebuchadnezzar’s government when the king erected the huge image to be worshipped. Evidently there was oppression in the king’s realm which had not been dealt with, yet Daniel continued to function in the king’s court (Dan 4:27). It is clear that Daniel sought to use what influence he had on the king but he did not resolve that he could no longer serve him. (To say that Daniel had no choice in the matter is to fail to take account of the fact that he made an issue of not eating the king’s food and drinking the king’s wine; that he was prepared to be thrown to the lions rather than obey Darius; and that his three friends were willing to be thrown to the fire rather than bow down to the image.)

The tax collectors of John the Baptist’s day raised money for a “system” which, while it provided roads and law and government, also contained manifest injustice. (Was not Jesus’ trial before Pilate a travesty of justice, and Paul’s being kept a prisoner by Felix an example of injustice?). Yet John did not tell them that repentance would require them no more to be part of that system, despised though it was by their fellow countrymen, but only that they should operate honestly within it (Luke 3:12-13). Jesus’ commendation of the centurion (Matt 8:10-13) and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius (Acts 10:1, 44) and his household are surely instructive at this point. In an era when much has been made of “structural sin”, we need to ponder carefully the implications of these passages. Zacchaeus did not seek to reform the tax farming system of the day but one may surmise that his radical repentance became something of a talking point. 

The same kinds of considerations which apply to government “systems” may apply to working in certain commercial organisations. Indeed, it would not be stretching a point to suggest that City bankers are viewed today as the tax collectors were in Jesus’ day: to many they are parasites upon the working population and have become social pariahs in some circles. Yet if Zacchaeus could become an honest tax collector, then the same may be true for City bankers. Banking, like government, provides a useful service to the public and to business; like government, corruption and evil may enter it. This does not mean that Christians have to contract out of working in such an environment, nor does it follow that if they do not root out all the corruption and greed then one must regard their Christian witness as having failed.

But might more be said? Might not Christians work to promote “Christian values” in the work place and in government? On the other hand, might not a point be reached where the only honest thing for a Christian to do is to leave his post? I shall take these questions in reverse order, since the answer to the first question will lead on to the next main heading in this section.

A point may indeed be reached where an individual believes that he can no longer function, in all good conscience, in his position. This can be as true for a non-Christian as for a believer. The late Robin Cook resigned from Tony Blair’s government because he could not support the invasion of Iraq. This was such a major issue that he felt, in all conscience, that he could no longer accept the collective responsibility which being a member of the British Cabinet entails. In the same way a Christian might well feel that a point has been reached where he would be compromising his principles to continue in a particular position. This, however, must always be up to the individual’s conscience, and we cannot legislate for others with respect to these things. Elijah confronted Ahab and was then sent by the Lord to a foreign land (1 Kings 17:1-6). Obadiah, by contrast, continued to function in Ahab’s “court” and Elijah can refer to Ahab as Obadiah’s master (1 Kings 18:2-8). Yet the divinely-inspired narrator can say that Obadiah was “a devout believer in the Lord, and he served the Lord faithfully and served his people” (1 Kings 18:2-8).Different servants of God have different callings; furthermore, one believer may function in a context with a good conscience where another believer could not do so. Each will stand to his own Master, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Rom 14:4).

With respect to the first question, as to whether a Christian may promote “Christian values”, the following may be said by way of reply. First, the phrase “Christian values”surely needs to be defined. If one thinks of the Beatitudes, of the virtues which are commended throughout the New Testament, of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, these can only be brought about as a result of regeneration. A better approach than seeking to promote Christian values is to consider whether standards may be improved. If the doctrine of human depravitymilitates against the promotion of Christian values in the lives of those who have not experienced the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, then the doctrines of common grace and of man as God’s image-bearer undergird the rightness of seeking to improve standards. Apart from legislation this can only be brought about from within the system. And, of course, Christians may make common cause with non-Christians to bring about change. The importance of passages such as Romans 2:1, 14-15 can be seen at this point. Unbelievers may well have high moral standards and we need to make common cause with them where this is possible. Although within the worldview which he holds an atheist may have no proper basis for believing in good and evil, being made in God’s image and because of common grace and general revelation he may well believe in good and evil and have very high moral standards. One may make common cause with such and reason, in the way that I have indicated earlier in this paper, to persuade him of the wrong of some behaviour of which he approves. This leads on to the final area to be considered in this part of the paper.

(iii) Law and public policy

I have argued elsewhere that politics is the art of the possible and that it is not the task of Christian politicians or of those engaged in public policy making necessarily to be seeking to implement “Christian” legislation or legislation which accords with the law of God. [37] As with the world of work, however, the Christian may make common cause with others who either agree with his moral position or who can be persuaded of it. As was argued in the previous section, the doctrines of humanity as God’s image-bearer and of God’s common grace are essential at this point.

But care is needed. There was a time when it was common to hear Christians speak of redeeming politics, redeeming art and culture, and so on. But this is a fundamental theological category error: as Paul says so eloquently in Romans 8:18-25, the creation will only be redeemed from corruption when the new age comes fully in its climactic glory. Politics, as something which belongs to this present age, cannot be redeemed by us. As I have argued elsewhere, [38] the Christian farmer does his work to the glory of God and seeks to make the best use of the land, to cultivate it well and to remove all that is harmful in the ground. He may enthuse others with some of the “techniques” which he employs and get them to follow him. All this is good and excellent, but the farmer is not redeeming his land. In the same way the Christian politician may seek to improve ethical standards in society and he may seek to influence his colleagues so that legislation is introduced which will have wholesome or positive outcomes for society. But he is not thereby redeeming politics or society.

3. The ethical use of the Bible

I wish, in this final section, to consider how an “ethical reading” of the Bible – that is, a reading which treats the text with integrity and which does not avoid but engages with difficult questions which the text presents – is essential in the task of formulating the ethical norms which derive from Scripture. To seek to formulate biblical ethical norms but to do so in an unethical way is to engage in a dishonest and somewhat self-defeating exercise. Therefore, the ethical use of the Bible is integrally tied to the whole question of formulating biblical ethics, and is a matter which needs to be addressed. I propose to do so by considering an ethical problem which is presented in a well known incident in the Old Testament. It is, however, a problem which is rarely, if ever, commented upon.

The incident is recorded in Genesis 22: the testing of Abraham in being called to sacrifice Isaac. The ethical problem is that Abraham is being called upon to do something which is morally repugnant. An ethical reading of this text must surely address this ethical problem. Given the significance of Isaac in the unfolding narrative, as the one through whom God’s promises to Abraham will be fulfilled, it is understandable that attention falls upon the test which God’s command posed to Abraham’s faith: how could the promises be fulfilled if Isaac were to die without offspring? Much that is of great value has been written on this incident and on this aspect of the incident. [39] Perhaps it is because the New Testament uses this incident to magnify the greatness of God’s love and gift in not sparing his Son from the death of the cross, in the way that he told Abraham to spare his son; perhaps because it refers to the greatness of Abraham’s faith in going through with the matter until the Lord intervened; and perhaps because it cites the incident as proof of the genuineness of Abraham’s faith: perhaps it is for these reasons that the ethical dilemma faced by Abraham is passed over. But an ethical reading of Scripture requires us to face up to this aspect of the problem with which Abraham was faced.

Plato formulated what is known as the Euthyphro dilemma: [40] is something good because God commands it (in which case everything God commands is, by definition, good, and “the goodness of God” is something of a tautology: God is God and is, therefore, by definition good)? Or does God command something because it is good (in which case there is a standard outside of God to which he must conform, and God and his will are utterly irrelevant to the ethical realm, for things are good or evil independently of God)? The former view can lead to an arbitrary God, even a whimsical God; the latter appears to “de-God” God by saying that he must conform to a standard independent of him.

Part of Job’s agony is surely that he feels that he is being dealt with by a God who, while almighty, is no longer good as Job understands goodness; there is something of a hiatus between what Job regards as good and just and the way that he believes he is being treated by God. If one accepts the views of some of the Jewish rabbis and, indeed, of Burnside, that much of the Mosaic law was “reminding” the people of what they already knew, then the dilemma faced by Abraham was even greater than if this were not the case. The Mosaic law categorically forbade the offering of human sacrifice. Although God never intended that Abraham sacrifice his son, Abraham did not know this at the time and so, existentially, he is faced with a command to do something which is morally repugnant. We should not gloss over this. How is it to be accounted for?

It is interesting to observe that Abraham had earlier been concerned at the thought that God might act “immorally”. This is surely what lies behind his prayer in Genesis 18:23-32. His concern was that God would punish the righteous with the guilty. In v. 25 he says that it is surely far from God to do this and poses the (rhetorical?) question: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” By “do right” Abraham means that which Abraham himself considers to be right. Underlying his question is the conviction that what he believes to be right and what God deems to be right will be the same: there is a congruence between Abraham’s view of right and wrong and the Lord’s view. If this were not so, Abraham’s question would be pointless. For if one effectively says that whatever God does must, by definition, be right, then to sweep away the righteous with the wicked would have been right. But this is what Abraham cannot accept. He is not, therefore, holding a voluntarist view of God’s goodness, the sort of view which William of Ockham and Kirkegaard held. The Lord’s reply to his requests re-assures him that all was well.

Interestingly Abimelech has the same concern as Abraham. When confronted by the Lord in a dream and told that he is as good as dead because he had taken a married woman to himself, Abimelech says that he had done this with a clear conscience and clean hands, and asks, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation?”(Gen 20:4-5).

These two passages surely provide important background to the incident recorded in Genesis 22. They inform us that the Lord is not like the gods of some nations, possessed of great power but devoid of true justice and moral principle. Thus, when the test comes to Abraham, he is prepared to go through with it because he knows that the Lord is good, even when his ways may appear to us to suggest otherwise. By this I mean not only that he is good because he is God, but that his goodness is congruent with the idea of goodness which he has implanted within us. This is part of the triumph of Abraham’s faith, just as it was of Job’s faith: when Job exclaims, “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him”, he is, in effect, saying that, however perverse he may feel the Lord’s dealings with him to be, because of what he has known of the Lord he will continue to trust him. It is not that he is saying that he will trust a God who, he believes, is immoral but will trust him because he is God; rather, it is that, however things may appear to be, he knows that the Lord is not as appearances may suggest but because of the totality of who he is – that is to say, possessed of goodness as well as power – Job will continue to trust him. In the words of Isaac Watts, “Where reason fails / With all her powers / There faith prevails / And love adores”. Where God appears to contradict himself, we rest on the fact that we do not know all of the facts, all of the data, all of the truth about him. This is what the Lord’s speech at the end of the book underlines and of what the beginning of the book informs us.

This is important for ethics and for an ethical reading of Scripture. The resolution of the Euthyphro dilemmais surely as follows. There is no standard outside of God, for he is the ultimate. But he is love and that love is expressed in the self-givingwithin the Trinity. That same love overflows to those whom he has created and he implants within man a sensus divinitas such that, in a state of perfection, we perceive as good that which is truly good, that which God calls good. Sin, of course, has damaged this moral faculty within us, but has not eradicated it. The restoring of that sense and the bringing of it to an indefectible state, an indefectibility which our first parents did not possess, could only be accomplished by the Father doing what he prevented Abraham from doing, in delivering up to the death of the cross his own beloved Son. There the eternal Son faced the ultimate horror and cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” But the triumph of his trust was expressed by calling out to “My God, my God”. That trust was publicly vindicated three days later in the resurrection and, as Oliver O’Donovan has masterly expressed it in his magisterial work, God’s moral order was thereby affirmed and the new creation guaranteed. [41] 

Conclusion

Ultimately we dare not and cannot divorce biblical ethics from the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. The goal to which God is moving in the transformation of his people is that we be conformed to the likeness of his Son (Rom 8:29; 1 Jn 3:2). When that process is finally completed for all the people of God, then the sons of God will be revealed (Rom 8:19; 1 Jn 3:2) and the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay. There will be no ethical dilemmas or ethical disagreements in the new heavens and the new earth. “Come, Lord Jesus.”