The means of confirming right behaviourIntroduction
It is no easy task determining the right behaviour for every particular situation. In our own age this problem had been greatly accentuated because of the increasing number of ethical problems brought about by advances in technology e.g. abortion, mutual assured destruction, in-vitro fertilization, genetic engineering, euthanasia, etc. As Christians, we are bound to aim at "the good", the problem is how do we know what is right?
Most Christians would simply say, "do what the Bible says". The trouble is that there are quite a number of serious problems facing the modern user of the Bible who wishes to know and implement the will of God in their own life and in the life of their society. Much of the Old Testament law is no longer applicable. Even moral law is normative i.e. it is primarily only a guide to right action. In each situation the particular circumstances have to be considered. The teachings of Jesus also cannot easily be used in a prescriptive way. In fact the Bible just does not supply an exhaustive code of conduct.
How then do we know that a certain action is a "good" one? We may answer, that for an action to be good:
i] It must be in accord with the will of God (the author and the determiner of the good);
ii] It must be undertaken in a spirit of love;
iii] It must also be undertaken in faith - a response characteristic of the true disciple, Rom.14:23.
Or course the problem lies with the first of these criteria. How do we determine the will of God for each life situation we face?
Deontological ethical theory
In this ethical theory there is no concern given to the consequences of an action. The status of the act itself determines whether it is a right act or a wrong act. Christians who follow this ethical theory (most without knowing it) fall into two groups:
On the understanding that the Holy Spirit teaches us all things, that He has indwelt us and created a new conscience within, we can hold the view that we now have the spiritual ability to perceive Gods' will in any given situation.
There is a sense where this of course is true, the only problem is that the old nature of sin still has sway in our lives and thus Christians usually find it difficult to agree on ethical issues. It is not a useful means of clearly determining God's will.
In fact most Christians are intuitive/emotive thinkers. We emote our way through a problem - " I feel this... I feel that". The miracle lies in the fact that we are so often right.
ii] Divine Command
This position is widely held by Bible believing Christians, especially Evangelicals. Starting with the primary commands, "love God and love neighbour", and expanding these with the Mosaic law and other New Testament ethical advice, it is possible to build up quite a comprehensive moral code.
When it comes to dealing with an ethical problem not directly referred to in the code, it is necessary to draw principles from existing Biblical propositions and apply then to the problem at hand. Of course, this is a notoriously difficult procedure, so much so that Christian moralists can end up arriving at completely opposite positions. eg. "the just war" versus "pacifism". 1Corinthians 8 is an excellent example of Paul using a Biblical principle in dealing with a local moral problem. This approach has therefore much to commend it.
Some Christians have limited the Divine moral commands to the simple law, "love God and love neighbour". The problem is these commandments cannot, of themselves, tell us how we are to know what God asks of us or what our responsibilities are toward our neighbour. Love is always dependent upon knowledge, and in the Bible the positive command or the prohibition provide the practical outworking of love.
Teleological ethical theory
An action is regarded as right or wrong on the basis of its non moral consequences.
The theory is that people are to do that which brings the greatest good to the greatest number. Naturally the issue is, what is good? Hedonists answer by saying, that which brings pleasure/happiness is that which is good.
People in the West generally hold a utilitarian ethic. For most the purpose of life is to be happy. Yet such an ethic can have horrendous ramifications. The greatest pleasure for the greatest number could be had by killing all millionaires and dividing their money between us, but is that "good"?
Many Christians have attempted to advocate Biblical morality on the grounds of its recognized utility, but such a justification has grave problems:
Our ultimate destiny (pleasure, happiness) lies beyond death.
God may bless good here and now, but then he may not.
None-the-less a good case can be made out for a utilitarian consequence in Biblical ethics. God's intention for us is our happiness and joy, and thus his laws are designed with that purpose in mind. So an ultimate teleological principle would be something like: Always do that which generates or maintains a joyous/happy life. It is fairly easy to show that Biblical laws are well able to promote contentment and thus happiness.
It is important to state at the outset that the right/good is determined by the very character of God himself. His own character establishes the standard for all that is right/good.
In the Bible He has revealed His mind on the issue of good and evil, right and wrong. Yet as we have already seen, there are limits to the determinative nature of the ethical teachings of scripture. The culture, limited understanding and sinfulness of the recipients of the revelation, the nature of the revelation itself and the present day circumstances involved in its application, end up making Biblical commands normative (a general guide) rather than prescriptive (a literal directive).
In applying Biblical morality in present day situations, we are going to need more than just the "Divine commands". At this point, the idea that the consequences of an act can determine whether it is right or wrong, becomes a valuable asset in Biblical ethics.
In assessing the morality of an act we need to apply Biblical theology. What ultimate consequence does God wish for mankind? What is it that God wants us all to have? In the simplest of terms, our creation, salvation, preservation etc. has been undertaken by God that we might become a people for Him, experiencing an intimate caring relationship with Him and each other.
Thus an ultimate teleological principle would be something like: Always do that which generates or maintains caring relationships.
This theological approach defines "caring relationships" within the theology of the Kingdom of God. The purpose of God's creation has been to gather to Himself a people, a community, to bless them with His presence and guide them in love. The subjects of His Kingdom receive the blessings of membership, namely life eternal- the experience of an eternal intimate relationship with God and each other. The responsibilities of membership centre on:
a) Perfecting His Kingdom - building up the Christian community in love, and
b) Extending His Kingdom - incorporating others in His new community (ie. maintaining and generating caring relationships with God and mankind).
Specific guidance is obviously needed to know how to develop and maintain caring relationships. Knowledge is an essential prerequisite to right action. It is here that the specific Biblical commands (as well as promises and principles), relevant to the ethical problem at hand, play their part. Yet they cannot just be taken at face value (prescriptive commands).
So to properly understand and apply the truth of a specific Biblical command it is necessary to consider the following:
a) It is essential to understand in what sense the command pushes toward the ultimate teleological principle of always doing that which generates or maintains caring relationships with either God or my neighbour. A Biblical command must always be interpreted within the context of its ultimate goal.
b) It is also essential to understand the place of the Biblical command within the theological structure of the Kingdom of God. Applying basic principles of Biblical interpretation (to whom was it addressed, when, in what context etc?) and tying it to its place within the structure of the Kingdom of God, is a time consuming, but essential process.
c) Finally, in applying the command to our present age, it is essential to understand the limitations and imperfection of the present moment. It is essential to clearly see our present place in the unfolding of God's Kingdom. The Kingdom is "now" and "not yet". We are in it, yet await its consummation. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world awaiting our perfection, although in God's sight we are even now perfect. At the same time we are surrounded by those who have no part in the Kingdom. A proper understanding of our place within an age fast fading away, is an essential prerequisite to a proper application of Biblical commands.
There are therefore, a number of different approaches to Biblical ethics. It is one thing trying to apply the "good", another trying to understand what is "good".
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