Chapter 1: What is Christian Ethics?
This is a book on Christian ethics. Its main focus will be on Christian action and on the principles, derived from the Christian faith, by which to act. It is at the point of a multitude of decisions about what to do or what not to do — how to do right and how to avoid doing what a Christian ought not to do — that the daily strains of living are most acute. Though there can be no exact blueprint by which to settle all these dilemmas, there is light to be had from our gospel.
The foregoing reference to action assumes the importance of Christian experience and personality. It was said of old of an evil man, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (K.J.V.), and this may be said of the good man as well. The indispensable connection between Christian character and conduct will, I trust, soon become evident.
Can a book on Christian ethics, however firmly rooted in the gospel, do more than to elaborate some great, but completely familiar, generalities such as that we ought to love God and our neighbor and try always to do the will of God? The answer is both Yes and No. No book, unless it is a manual put out by an authoritarian church or a dictatorial political power, can attempt to give specific rules for the manifold decisions of life — and even there the complexities of living are such that “circumstances alter cases.” Jesus did not undertake to provide his followers with any such manual of rules, and it would be presumptuous for a modern Christian to attempt what our Lord apparently was too wise to do.
Yet, on the other hand, some things can be said with a fair degree of certainty and assurance. Is adultery right or wrong? Are double-dealing and dishonesty to be condoned in business and politics? Ought children to be starved in body, mind, or soul? Christians have no doubt as to the answer, though how to carry out the implications of the answer may not be simple. Even on such moot matters as race relations and war, the Christian conscience has spoken in our time with an amazing degree of unanimity as to principle. And if principles can be agreed upon, the groundwork is laid for action.
This book will attempt to fulfill two functions: to present this groundwork of Christian ethical principles and to discuss their application to the major issues of Christian ethical decision in today’s society. It is hoped that the reader whose primary interest is in the one or the other of these two approaches will agree to the necessity of the other. Said the philosopher Immanuel Kant, “Form without content is empty; content without form is blind.” This is equally true in Christian ethics. Principles can never be rightly declared in a vacuum, and to try to say what is right in concrete issues without grounding decision in principle is to exalt personal preference — if not whim — into the status of universal truth.
1. Frames of reference
But what is Christian ethics? Before any attempt is made to define its principles, an important prior question must be settled. What are we talking about?
There are at least six frames of reference within which the term has been used. These overlap and meet at the edges, but much confusion has come about from failure to see clearly that they are different frames of reference. Christian ethics may mean (1) the best in the moral philosophy of all ages and places, (2) the moral standards of Christendom, (3) the ethics of the Christian Church and its many churches, (4) the ethics of the Bible, (5) the ethics of the New Testament, and (6) the ethical insights of Jesus.
These are in a sense concentric circles, for nothing is apt to be called Christian unless it is in some way — whether tightly or loosely — linked with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Yet in another sense, depending much on the tightness or looseness of this connection, they may more accurately be regarded as intersecting circles. Both in current Western society and in the churches much is advocated that bears some relation to what the Bible records of the life and teachings of Jesus, yet does not center focally at this point. The focus may be in Greek philosophy, or traditional Christian thought or the Old Testament prophets, or the writings of Paul, or simply the demands of foreign policy and democratic action in the twentieth century, and still it goes by the name of Christian ethics. One has only to look at a cross section of the moral injunctions in the sermons, the popular religious writing, and the church pronouncements of the present to see this illustrated, and even the writers of important books on Christian ethical theory do not always define their standing ground.
The term “Christian ethics,” as I shall use it, means a systematic study of the way of life exemplified and taught by Jesus, applied to the manifold problems and decisions of human existence. It therefore finds its base in the last of these frames of reference, and in the other five only as they are consistent with the sixth and exist as applications or implications of the moral insights of Jesus. This is not to claim that we have a perfect record of the life and teachings of Jesus, for historical scholarship has made it clear that the records we have in the Gospels reflect not only what Jesus was and did and said, but also what the early Church believed about him. Still less is it to claim that any fallible human mind can enter so fully into the divine-human consciousness of Jesus as to say without error what his judgment would be in every concrete case of contemporary decision, It is only to affirm that we have an adequate, a dependable, and an indispensable guide to Christian action in what we know of Jesus and in what through him we know of God. No other guide, however important and useful, is either adequate, or so dependable, or so indispensable.
To define more explicitly what is involved in the moral perspective of Jesus will require presently more extended treatment. But it will be a step toward it, and a step away from confusing it with something else, if we now briefly compare and contrast it with each of the other five frames of reference.
2. Christian ethics and moral philosophy
The keynote in the life and teaching of Jesus with regard to man’s moral duty is found in “obedient love.”1 This means that with faith in God as the energizing center of one’s being, one is required to seek to do the will of God by loving God supremely and one’s neighbor as one’s self. However, as the total impact of Jesus’ teaching makes evident, to love one’s neighbor as one’s self is not to be understood as any precise balancing and equating of love for others with self-love. Still less does it mean loving others for the sake of receiving love or other benefits in return. Agape love means, rather, an uncalculating, outgoing spirit of loving concern which finds expression in deeds of service without limit.
Such “obedient love” is defined for us in the Gospels less by specific statements than by the whole tenor of Jesus’ ministry, culminating in his own death upon the cross in fidelity to it. Yet it is implied throughout his recorded words from the Sermon on the Mount to the Last Supper discourse. It is basic to his central teaching, the obligation to “seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness.” Its supremacy over any ordinary love comes to clear expression in the words:
For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:46-48.)
How does this differ from the focus of reference in the various systems of classical moral philosophy? Though this is not the place for an extended exposition of them, even a casual glance may suggest that there are both affinities and differences. Platonic thought makes much of eros, and eros means love. Yet agape love, and Bishop Nygren has shown this at length in his now classic Agape and Eros, is not the same thing as eros. Eros (which must not be confused with its modern derivative, “the erotic’) means a quest for the highest values, the harmonious adjustment of personality in a well-rounded life, self-fulfillment through seeking the good. This is achieved in the individual only through promoting the well-being of others. It therefore involves mutuality in love. Its modern correlate is the quest for “the good life” through self-realization.
But is not this what a Christian ought to desire? It has much to commend it, and no Christian ought to disparage it. But to the Christian is eros enough? That is our problem.
Aristotle’s eudaemonism, with its emphasis on a life of moderation with every man fulfilling the function for which he is fitted by nature, and thereby ensuring happiness, is a practical and down-to-earth system which still has much modern relevance. The hedonistic, or pleasure-seeking, ethics of Epicurus was by no means the crass sensualism suggested by the oft-quoted ‘Eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die”; it centered in a refined enjoyment of congenial friends, simplicity of living, and freedom from tension in a cultured and unstrenuous life. Stoicism, on the other hand, with its appeal to courage in the face of life’s vicissitudes and the pursuit of virtue solely for virtue’s sake, was both a more serious and a more religiously grounded ethic. Its doctrine of an all-pervasive World-Reason, or Logos, and of a natural law of morality fundamental to all existence and embracing in its scope all men, had a note of universalism which made Stoicism particularly open to amalgamation with Christian thought.2
These, of course, are not the only classical systems of moral philosophy. There is the formal, duty ethics of Kant with its categorical imperative, or unconditional demand, to treat all persons as ends, never as means, and to act only in such a way that one’s conduct could be universalized. There is the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, centered in the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” and the measurement of all courses of action by their usefulness toward this end. And there is the modern, but in its elements very old, “social adjustment” philosophy of John Dewey which measures right conduct by the ability to take one’s place as a good citizen in an ordered, democratic society.
It is apparent that there are good elements in all of these systems. But are they Christian?
From the early days of Christianity to the present, various courses have been followed with regard to the relations of Christian ethics to moral philosophies stemming from other sources. One has been the process of incorporation and amalgamation. In practice, this has often meant the accommodation of Christian principles to what was incorporated. Starting from a laudable desire to propagate Christianity by finding points of contact with the non-Christian world, it has tended to de-emphasize what is distinctive in Christianity in order to stress common ground. At its worst, this has meant the complete subsuming of Christian ethics within philosophical ethics even to the point of disclaiming that anything to be called Christian ethics exists. At its best, it has bred a form of “coalition ethics”3 in which natural law and the insights of Plato, Aristotle, and other great philosophers are drawn upon to supplement Christian ethics in areas where the gospel gives no specific directives. Examples of such incorporation and amalgamation, with varying levels of success, are seen in the incorporation by Clement of Alexandria of the best in Greek philosophy, the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle, and the present-day tendency to adjust Christianity to a workable synthesis with the rationalistic, scientific, and humanitarian ideals of modern culture.
A second course follows as a reaction from the first. In alarm at the tendency to accommodate Christianity to the accepted standards of the secular world, there is a repudiation by Christian leaders of all sources of moral decision not specifically grounded in the Bible. This is seen in the familiar Barthian mood of the present. In general this movement in ethics has gone along with the rejection of philosophical theology in the attempt to base Christian theology solely on the Bible. It was illustrated in the early Church by Tertullian, who refused to give any credence to Greek philosophy, asking scornfully, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It is illustrated today by the neo-orthodox school in its suspicion of not only liberal theology but the liberal social gospel,4 though the tendency is not uniform throughout neo-orthodoxy. Some of its exponents, notably Emil Brunner, have a large place for “middle axioms,” or practical social directives, derived in part from the Christian ethic but less than a full expression of Christian agape.5
Christian ethics is on unsafe ground if it either sells its birthright by accommodation to secular standards or refuses to respect and learn from the moral wisdom of the ages. The third possible approach is less easy to define, for its center lies more in attitudes than in specific procedures. These attitudes may be characterized as those of mutual understanding and critical appropriation.
What is involved is that Christian moralists must familiarize themselves as thoroughly as possible with the history of philosophy, seek to understand other world views in their best forms as well as their worst, give them sympathetic but critical evaluation — then appropriate what is worth appropriating if it is not at variance with Christian faith. But in this process, there must be no amalgamating of what is different, no surrender of what is distinctive in Christianity. If this process is followed faithfully, there can be some hope of mutuality, with some appropriation
of Christian insights into secular philosophy, as there is not apt to be on any other basis.
To state in barest outline what can result if this procedure is followed, there can be a partial acceptance by Christians of the insights of Plato and the Stoics, but no identification of eros with agape, no substituting of stoic fortitude for devoted submission to the will of God. From Aristotle’s ethics not a few elements of practical wisdom can be taken, but not their humanistic foundations. The self-centered hedonism of Epicurus must be rejected because it is squarely opposed to Christian agape, while the duty ethics of Kant the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, and the contemporary emphasis on social adjustment may well be used as instruments for carrying out some aspects of the Christian moral imperative but ought never to be confused with its goals.
If this third position is accepted, we shall neither scorn moral philosophy nor identify Christian ethics with it. We shall rejoice that God has found many channels for the disclosure of truth to men and that these channels include the best rational thought of the ages on the nature and aims of the good life. Yet while we thus rejoice, we shall not substitute them for what God has disclosed to us in Jesus Christ or admit any to be true which stands clearly at variance with his gospel.
This third position, which I believe to be the only valid one, is what we shall attempt to maintain in this study. For its wider philosophical basis, the reader is referred to my earlier book in this series, Foundations of Christian Knowledge,6 and for its historical backgrounds insofar as they relate to Greek and Roman thought to The Sources of Western Morality.
3. Christian ethics and the ethics of Christendom
By Christendom we mean those geographical areas and those types of culture which have been largely influenced by Christian ideals. It is nearly, though not fully, synonymous with “the West.” Two important elements prevent it from being synonymous. The first is the expansion of Christianity into the Orient, so that there is now a world Church and a large penetration of Christian influence into areas predominantly non-Christian. The second is the ambiguous situation in those areas under Communist domination, wherein a political regime officially atheistic includes within its scope millions of persons who are still Christians. Should Communism succeed in stamping out Christianity, these areas would no longer be a part of Christendom; fortunately, this appears not likely to occur.
The identification of Christian ethics with the ethics of Christendom is more subtle, and hence more dangerous, than its identification with the various schools of moral philosophy. As one element it includes the latter, as is illustrated by the wide permeation of the social and educational philosophy of John Dewey within current American culture. Yet it is something more diffuse and usually more binding than the thought of any single philosopher or school. It involves the whole “climate of opinion” within which one is reared, lives, and does his work. And because there is so much that is good about this climate of opinion and environing structure, it is easy to identify it with the best and hallow it with the name of Christian.
There is not space here to canvass in any detail the ways in which Christian ethics gets mixed up with the ethics of Christendom. This I have tried to do in The Modern Rival of Christian Faith,7 particularly in Part 2, where under the general caption of “Rival Secular Faiths” I have indicated elements of agreement and difference between Christianity and scientism, humanism, democracy, nationalism, racism, fascism, capitalism, and Communism. Further observations will be made on specific questions as we come to them later in this book. It may be noted in passing, however, that there is little danger of an identification of Christian ethics with humanism, racism, fascism, or Communism when these are recognized for what they are, since their foundations are so clearly opposed to those of the Christian faith. Even racism, widely practiced by Christians, is repudiated in principle.
It is at the point of the other four — scientism, democracy, nationalism, and capitalism — and their diffusion into an exaltation of scientific and technological achievement, the American way of life, patriotism, and free enterprise, that the identification becomes most common. Add to these a sense of the dignity of man, humanitarian concern for the weak, the helpless, and the suffering, a wholesome respect for law, and in general, attitudes of kindness, generosity, and responsible citizenship — and one comes out with what most Americans regard as “acting like a Christian.”
Is this judgment mistaken? It is, and it is not. All the achievements and virtues above mentioned have in them large elements of goodness. Some of them — particularly humanitarian concern for others and a sense of the worth of every person — can be traced directly to Christian roots. Yet taken as a whole, they do not add up to Christian agape. One can believe in every one of them and be a decent, respectable, even admirable citizen, and still not be a Christian. A major, and perhaps the most difficult, task of Christian leaders is to induce people who are virtuous in all these respects to see that such goodness is not good enough. As long as one identifies Christian ethics with the ethics of Christendom, one does not cry out, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” or lay hold in humility upon divine grace, or seek in costly self-surrender to follow the path of obedient love.
4. Christian ethics and the churches
The ethics of the Church, and individually of the churches, stands midway between the ethics of Christendom and the ethics of the gospel as it comes to us in Jesus Christ. The Church, insofar as it is faithful to its mission as the carrier of the gospel and is a fellowship of persons sincerely trying to follow Jesus, sees more clearly what is right than does the surrounding society. It is for this reason that it is called to be the “conscience of the State” and is obligated without falling into a trite and secularistic moralism to proclaim and practice the principles of Christian morality. Its official pronouncements, whether in a papal encyclical or a statement of the World Council or National Council of Churches, or an action of a General Conference, are likely to be on a plane above that of current practice. This is not to say that any human document is flawless, but when the Church through its leaders tries to speak from a Christian frame of reference, it both indicts current practices and sets higher goals. This is as it should be if the Church is to be effective in applying the principles of its eternal gospel to the changing temporal scene.
Nevertheless, except in such authoritarian churches as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, it is seldom contended that the voice of the Church is to be equated with the voice of God in Christ. Even In Roman Catholicism this claim is not made except when the Pope speaks ex cathedra. It is the genius of Protestantism to recognize that any Christian may grasp something of Christian moral truth, and comparably, that no Christian, or group of Christians, has a monopoly upon the gospel and its ethical demands.
The Church exists to be the carrier of the gospel in a fellowship of Christians. But the Church exists also as a human institution, a social group with a common center of professed loyalty to Christ, yet a social group made up of fallible human beings. These fallible human persons “who profess and call themselves Christians,” who are of varying degrees of ethical insight and fidelity to Christ, are also enmeshed in a network of other human institutions, political, economic, domestic, recreational, cultural. It is only natural, therefore, that the standards current in these other social institutions should impinge upon their life as Christians and so find access into the structure of the churches. Hence, the churches are always in danger of themselves becoming secularized and conforming to the standards of the world instead of being agencies of Christian transformation.
A statement on Christian Principles and Assumptions for Economic Life adopted by the General Board of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. puts this pointedly:
The churches themselves own property, invest funds, and employ labor. Often their policies have been no better than those which the Church condemns in the secular world. Its divisions often reflect and seem to give a religious sanction to the social divisions that are characteristic of society at large. In all these matters judgment should begin at the house of God.”8
This statement, unfortunately too true to give comfort to any discerning Christian, describes a state of affairs which can be countered only by a combination of clear Christian insight and courageous, patient Christian action. Both the individual Christian and those corporate groups that make up the churches need always to keep in mind the piercing injunction: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
It is apparent, therefore, that while churches are the natural media for Christian enlightenment, Christian ethics cannot be identified with the ethics of any of the existing churches.
But what of the past? Was not the Church once pure? And if we look to the early days of Christianity, or to the Reformation, or to the beginnings of our denomination, do we not find there norms for action?
There is always a tendency, when we do not find things as they ought to be around us, to take this backward look. The tendency is in part wholesome, but in other respects it is bound to cause distortion. It is true that there have been at intervals great creative outpourings of the Spirit of God, which have always had ethical accompaniments, and sometimes very significant ones. Among these, in addition to the supreme event of the life and death of our Lord, may be mentioned the era of the eighth-century prophets, the voices of Jeremiah and the Second Isaiah, the birth of the Church and the beginnings of missionary witness, the implanting of the gospel in Western Europe, the work and ministry of Francis of Assisi, the Protestant Reformation, the struggle for religious freedom, the Wesleyan revival, the emergence of the modern missionary and ecumenical movements. We do well to learn whatever lessons they have to teach us. Yet one of these lessons is that there has never been a forward movement without some mixture of human error and sin. The Church of today is further along the road toward a true Christian ethics than was Paul in his attitudes toward women, or Francis of Assisi in regard to the care of the body, or Luther in regard to the economic status of peasants, or Calvin in regard to infant damnation, or Wesley in regard to the requirements of world order and peace.9
The Church through the centuries has been the carrier of the Christian evangel and of a basic stricture of Christian faith. Out of this evangel and this faith the principles of Christian ethics are fashioned.
We owe, then, to the Church of the past and to our fathers in the faith an incalculable debt. The past merits to be known and understood, to be viewed critically where necessary, but never to be treated lightly. We need to know what Augustine and Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley believed about the Christian life, both to learn from them and to avoid their errors. Yet while we acknowledge our debt to the “faith of our fathers, living still,” and to those fathers who valiantly proclaimed it, let us not suppose that the Church of the past can be our norm for the ethical decisions of today.
5. Christian ethics and the Bible
We come now to a frame of reference on which we are on firmer ground. The Bible is certainly indispensable to our knowledge of Christian truth and moral obligation. Without it, it is very possible that there would be today no churches, no Christendom, no knowledge of Christ. It is, of course, conceivable that God would have found a way to propagate the faith by word of mouth without a Book through all the centuries, and the fact that Roman Catholicism could exist so long without access to the Bible by the laity makes it impossible to say categorically that the Bible is the sine qua non of Christianity. Yet few would dispute the fact that without the Bible we should be infinitely poorer in our Christian experience and moral insight.
Furthermore, in today’s world the Bible is the common possession of all Christians, and hence serves to unite Christians across deep divisions. This is not to say that all Christians agree on what the Bible says. There are differences in translation, and far more radical differences in interpretation. Acute controversies and sometimes schisms arise from this fact. Yet the Bible is still our common possession, and it is no accident that its sales continue year after year to exceed that of any other book, that it has been and continues to be translated into many hundreds of languages and dialects, that it has become so deeply embedded in our literature and culture that even those who have no personal familiarity with it daily use its phrases in ordinary speech.
The Bible is the fountainhead of Christian theology. It is not the sole source, for there is a natural theology, also called philosophical theology, which finds evidences of God throughout his total creation and in the moral and religious aspirations and experience of all peoples. There is a place for such natural theology and at points where both biblical and philosophical theology are true, they cannot contradict each other. Nevertheless, the Bible is our firmer base for what is distinctively Christian, and the movement away from the more generalized conclusions of philosophical thought about God and his world to a more Christ-centered, biblically based structure of theology is in the right direction.
If this is the case, is not the Bible all we need as the foundation of Christian ethics? The answer is Yes and No.
This question may be followed by another. Are Christian ethical principles to be derived from the whole Bible or only from selected parts of it? Once more it is necessary to say Yes and No.
Reviewing what has been said about the relations of Christian ethics to moral philosophy, to Christendom, and to the Church, we see that “no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” In the supreme duty of love to God and neighbor, rooted in faith, obedience, and humble acceptance of divine grace, we find “all the law and the prophets” — and enough to give a basis for centuries of ethical application. But this gives the basis; it does not give the applications. We are still left with a multitude of concrete moral decisions to make. For guidance in making them we must look — not to any ethical compendium above the Bible or beyond it in wisdom — but to other ranges of experience that may throw light on problems nonexistent in Bible times or not treated within its scope. What, for example, about slavery, birth control, juvenile delinquency, polio, speeding on highways, labor unions, stock-market manipulations, hydrogen bombs and war? The first and last existed in full force within the period covered by the Bible, but the Bible does not tell us what to do about them; the others are for the most part modern problems.
It is apparent, then, that the Bible alone does not give us all we need. The thinking and experience of the centuries, whether in philosophy or the Church, will help us at some points. But we cannot live by the past, and we must know our times and the causes and consequences of prevailing evils. We must be continually on the alert to see what a sensitive Christian conscience, responsive to the call of Christ, will hold to be right and wrong courses of action in the circumstances where we are.
Turning to the second question, we ask, “Shall we use the whole Bible, or only parts of it, as the basis of ethical decision?”
This question may mean either of two things. One angle it takes is the question as to whether we should use the Old Testament as well as the New. And if the answer is Yes, shall we equate them in value? The other angle of the question goes to the heart of biblical interpretation and separates into two camps — at times one could almost say armed camps — the literalists and the liberals. This issue is, of course, the degree to which the historical method is to be used in discerning the ethical as well as the theological truth within the Bible. Let us look at these questions separately, though they impinge upon each other.
As to whether we should look to the Old Testament for our ethical foundations, the answer is “Yes, but with discernment.” I have said, and shall repeatedly insist, that the basic foundation of Christian ethics is in the ministry and teachings of Jesus Christ, as these bring to us the supreme revelation of God’s nature and will. Yet the Old Testament contains also much that is revelatory in its own structure, as well as preparatory for the coming of Christ. We could not dispense with the Ten Commandments or the great moral insights of the prophets or the matchless devotional poetry of the psalms. Even the ups and downs of Hebrew history, with their sordid spots as well as high moments, with moral weaklings as well as giants in the story, and much that reflects the lights and shadows of the times, teach us that
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
The discernment we need, if we are to see God’s light in the midst of earthly shadows, is found in the measuring rod of Jesus Christ. Are the polygamy, the trickery, the vindictiveness, found on many pages of the Old Testament Christian? Unquestionably not. Are the twenty-third psalm, or Isaiah’s vision in the Temple, or Micah’s definition of true religion Christian? Unquestionably yes. They are not the whole of Christianity, but they are fully consistent with what Jesus taught and did. So, too, are a wealth of other passages in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament, we must remember, was Jesus’ Bible. He did not repudiate it; he loved it and learned from it and often quoted it. But he did not slavishly feel bound to it. In the Sermon on the Mount the six-times-repeated “You have heard that it was said to the men of old. . . . But I say to you . . .” indicates how he used it. He took it as a foundation, but put deeper meaning into the issues involved. This we must do, drawing from his insights.
On the question of a historical versus a literalistic approach to the Bible I have stated my convictions elsewhere and need not here discuss the subject in detail.10 It is not a question of inspiration, for one who sees in the Bible a progressive revelation of the living God as he moves in the events of Hebrew history, the coming of Christ and the birth of the Church, accepts the Bible as the Word of God as truly as does any literalist. What he attempts to do is to hear this Word more clearly as he discerns the Spirit of God moving in the midst of the human, historical situation, and thus aims to discover in the Bible the heavenly “treasure in earthen vessels.” He is likely to be called an infidel by one who believes that the Bible must be taken “letter for letter” or not at all. But that does not matter if his studies lead him to clearer vision and deeper faith.
If we are to find in the Bible dependable guidance for our own time, such a historical approach is indispensable. No situation is an exact replica of the past, and words spoken in the past to other situations take on distorted meaning unless these situations are understood. This is not to say that the literalist discerns no moral truth in the Bible. He does, and often lives by it in his personal relations an admirable Christian life. Yet in matters of complexity and doubt as to the right thing to do, he tends to follow his own course of action and find a proof text in the Bible to support it. He usually defends a traditional point of view in which an attempt is made to preserve the status quo, not infrequently with harsh words and attitudes toward those who differ. For ethical sensitivity and responsiveness to the Christian thing to do in doubtful situations, one who sees the Bible in its total historical setting is on safer ground.
6. Christian ethics and the New Testament
The final question for this chapter is a closely related but still a somewhat different one. What about the authority of the New Testament, not only in relation to the Old, but within it in the relations of its parts?
Most Christians, without rejecting the Old Testament or disparaging its many marvelous elements, find the New Testament more authoritative for their faith and living. This is as it should be, for while the Old Testament tells us much about God and foreshadows the coming of Christ, it is the New Testament that records for us the historical revelation of God in Christ. Their interrelatedness has thus been well expressed by a group of eminent scholars in the ecumenical movement:
It is agreed that in the case of an Old Testament passage, one must examine and expound it in relation to the revelation of God to Israel both before and after its own period. Then the interpreter should turn to the New Testament in order to view the passage in that perspective.
It is agreed that in the case of a New Testament passage one should examine it in the light of its setting and context; then turn to the Old Testament to discover its background in God’s former revelation. Returning again to the New Testament one is able to see and expound the passage in the light of the whole scope of Heilsgeschichte.11
Seeing the Bible as a whole, we make the revelation of God in Christ our norm for understanding and for judgment.
But within the New Testament, is one part any more authoritative than another? In order to answer this question, we must avoid two common courses, both of which have been responsible for error.
One of these courses is to take the New Testament as if it were all on the same level of Christian insight. Because the words are there, Paul’s words enjoining women to keep silent in the churches and Jude’s words contending “for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” have again and again been used as a bulwark against change. That these injunctions reflect particular situations in the early Church instead of being universal principles, and stand squarely in opposition to Paul’s other word, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” is too frequently overlooked. Passages attributed to Jesus which seem to predict a speedy Second Coming and a catastrophic end of the world by divine intervention are equated in importance with the Sermon on the Mount — and seemingly ranked superior to it — by eminent theologians whose conception of Christ as the hope of the world is primarily eschatological rather than ethical.12
On the other hand, the recognition that the Gospels are the product of the experience of the Church in the first century, not firsthand accounts, and that Paul’s early letters antedate by nearly a quarter-century even Mark, which is the earliest of the Gospels, has led some scholars to shift the focus of attention away from Jesus to Paul. There is wide latitude among New Testament scholars as to the historicity of the Gospels; there is general agreement that none is completely historical, with John the latest and least so of the four. That Paul has much to teach us both about redemption through the grace of God in Christ and about the requirements of the Christian life need not be disputed. Yet it may be asked whether it is not Jesus of Nazareth, seen clearly even though not photographically through the records we have in the Synoptic Gospels, that is our surest foundation of the Christian life, Paul was a great Christian, a great theologian, a great missionary and administrator, a great teacher, but it was not he in whom “the Word became flesh” to dwell among us. It will be a basic assumption of this book, as it is not of some contemporary treatments of Christian ethics,13 that the picture we have of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels is in essential outlines correct and that what we see there of his life and death, his ministry and teaching, is the one adequate foundation for Christian ethics.
Yet to take this as our base does not mean that we can indiscriminately take every word recorded as spoken by Jesus to be accurate or authoritative. At the end of Mark, in a passage now generally regarded by scholars as a later addition to the original text, Jesus is reported as saying:
And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick; and they will recover. (16:17-18.)
Regardless of what we may today believe about the exorcism of demons, speaking in tongues, or healing by the laying on of hands, can we really believe that the Christian ethic requires snake handling and the drinking of poison as a proof of faith? Some of Jesus’ more naive followers have tried it in our own time, and they died. We should doubt that Jesus ever said it even if there were no textual evidence to the contrary.
To cite another example, there is a verse at the end of the parable of the pounds as it is given in Luke which is generally omitted when the story is read. In Luke 19:27 appear the words: “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.” Why do we omit it? Because it does not sound like Jesus! It simply does not seem like the words of one who could say on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And even though the textual accuracy of Luke 19:27 is less disputed than of Luke 23:34, we stilI believe it is the latter in which the real Jesus speaks.
These illustrations indicate what must be a basic procedure — a difficult but a very necessary procedure. This is to get to know Jesus from the total picture the New Testament gives of him — find our main point of reference in the first three Gospels, then interpret these Gospels and all the rest of the New Testament in the light of what we believe he was and said and did. This, of course, immediately opens the door to the charge that one is reading in what he wants to find there. But there is no other way. We cannot take the record as it stands, and we cannot discard it. Whatever interpretation we place upon it, we shall still be interpreting. And the best interpretation is that which is most faithful to the total picture of Jesus as our Lord, the Son of God, the supreme revelation of the Father and the supreme gift of God for our redemption.
What, then, is Christian ethics? It is the systematic study of the way of life set forth by Jesus Christ, applied to the daily demands and decisions of our personal and social existence.
Since Christian ethics centers in the ethical insights of Jesus, a logical “next step” might be to move directly into an examination of these as they are to be discerned from his recorded words and deeds — thence to an application to the problems of our time. The reader who wishes to follow this sequence is free to do so, and the table of contents will direct him in it. Yet if we are to understand Jesus, or if we are to discern the centrality of his message in reference to the entire Bible, we cannot proceed so simply. Jesus had a past, and from his life and influence came the Church of which the beginnings are recorded for us in the New Testament. It is essential, therefore, to look first at the Old Testament, then at Jesus, then forward from his earthly life to the birth of Christianity. From this wider biblical perspective we shall be the better equipped to judge what is truly Christian.
1. This phrase is taken from Paul Ramsey’s Basic Christian Ethics (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1950), where the term is used repeatedly to indicate the central note in Christian ethics.
2. The reader who desires a rapid survey of these types of ethical theory, but with more amplification than is possible here, will find it in my The Sources of Western Morality (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1954), chs. vii and viii.
3. The phrase again is Ramsey’s, op. cit., p. 344.
4. American neo-orthodoxy, and to an increasing extent the European, has a place for Christian social action in the fashioning of “the responsible society,” but this is seldom called the social gospel. In many minds the latter term is too closely associated with the liberal emphasis on “building the Kingdom” which is thought to savor too much of human presumption.
5. For example, the use of coercion and physical force for the maintenance of justice in the social order.
6. New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1955.
7. New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1952.
8. Adopted September 15, 1954.
9. Wesley, of course, preferred peace to war, but he seems to have given no major concern to the issues involved. It will be recalled that he sided with the British in the Revolutionary War and protested the rebellious spirit of the colonies.
10. “In Understanding the Christian Faith (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1947), ch. ii; Foundations of Christian Knowledge, ch. v; and throughout my Toward Understanding the Bible (New York: Chas, Scribner’s Sons, 1954).
11. From Biblical Authority for Today by Richardson and Schweitzer, 1952. The Westminster Press. Used by permission. Heilsgeschichte (the history of salvation) refers to the dominant theme of the Bible as giving us knowledge of God’s redemptive activity within human events.
12. Note, for example, the First and Second Reports of the Advisory Commission on the Main Theme for the Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches and the address by Professor Edmund Schlink at the opening session of this assembly.
13. Note, for example, Emil Brunner’s classic The Divine Imperative (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1947). The index lists forty-six references to Luther, thirty-five to Calvin, twenty to Paul, and none to Jesus. By diligent search one finds an occasional mention, but they are few.