This is the twenty-fourth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.
We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
1. Christian ethics are grounded on two key moral principles--the love of God and the love of others. These two principles are grounded in God's fundamental disposition toward his creation--God is love. We are therefore to follow his example and love both our neighbors and our enemies. We are to have a healthy sense of ourselves, since we are a reflection of God, created in the image of God.
The Ten Commandments arguably expand these two fundamental principles into other areas of life. If we love our neighbor, we will not steal her stuff, cheat with his spouse, or murder her. We will not falsely accuse him or lie in court so that she suffers consequences for something she did not do.
If we love God as God, we will recognize that we can allow nothing in our lives to conflict with his authority. We will honor him in everything we do. We will respect other authorities too as a reflection of his authority.
2. But these are very general principles. They do not cover all the specific situations in which you might find yourself. The best way to understand the oral traditions of the Pharisees is to see them as trying to specify how the Law might play itself out in almost every conceivable situation.
But it is impossible to anticipate every possible situation. Wisdom is being able to discern what to do in specific situations given the heart of God. But to try to anticipate and spell out everything beforehand is bound to lead to misfires and even actions that ultimately contradict the heart of God.
In the modern age, the rapid invention of new technologies and new situations that the world has never seen before has made the necessity for wisdom even more urgent. There was no such thing as cloning in biblical times. A person's life could not be preserved on a life support system. There was no weapon that could destroy the earth, nor were there inventions that could generate enough carbon dioxide to increase the temperature of the whole planet.
In short, the Bible does not answer all our specific ethical questions. Indeed, it is impossible that it or any "tradition of the elders" would. When the Pharisees pretended to determine how far you could walk on the Sabbath before you had worked, they were going beyond the Sabbath command. Scripture simply does not address this question.
Some Christians develop similar traditions and pretend that they are just listening to Scripture. A person once told me that, as a child, playing on a playground was my work on the Sabbath and that therefore the playground was closed for the Sabbath. Interesting application of Scripture. But Scripture itself says nothing about whether a child should play on the Sabbath. Nor does the Bible directly address the majority of specific ethical situations we will face in our lives.
3. Another factor is that the books of the Bible were first written to people who have been dead for two to three thousand years. The books say so themselves. 1 Corinthians says it was written to a group of people who lived at Corinth. Deuteronomy 6:4 says, "Hear, O Israel." Revelation was written to the churches of Asia Minor at the end of the first century.
To be sure, Scripture is for us even though it was not written to us. What we have done in this series on Christian ethics is to try to discern what the big principles of Scripture are and to re-present them in a way that helps us address the issues of our day. We are always on safest ground when we discern the big principles and the overall kingdom trajectory. Where is God taking history? Otherwise we run the risk of hearing the letter rather than the Spirit of Scripture.
Paul wrestled with this tendency toward the letter over the Spirit. "The letter kills," he said (2 Cor. 3:6). In ethics, "doing what they did" isn't always doing what they did. Why? Because the meaning of actions is a function of what those actions signify at a particular time and place. For a wife to cover her head today in the manner of 1 Corinthians 11 then is for her to do something that is meaningless in most twenty-first century contexts. A hair veil had a meaning in Paul's Corinth. But veiling one's head today would more suggest that you are a Muslim--not the same meaning!
It is when we focus on individual verses over the big principles that we are most likely to end up "killing" with the letter of Scripture or perhaps just being bizarre. On the level of individual verses, we are most likely to hit context-specific teaching in the Bible. It is on the level of individual verses that we often hit unclear instruction, because we lack sufficient information to fully determine what the verse was saying.
Opposition to women in ministry largely centers on the interpretation of a single verse, 1 Timothy 2:12. Yet this is a single verse surrounded with ambiguous teaching (2:15) in a book whose precise context is unclear. This is exactly the sort of situation where the letter kills. Rather than go with the kingdom principle of "in Christ there is not male and female" (Gal. 3:28) and rather than use wisdom in relation to our current context (where full equality of status between the sexes is important for mission), some groups think to follow the letter of a single verse and in the end both hinder the gospel and put obstacles in the way of the Holy Spirit.
4. Paul did give the Philippians a general principle for our situation that reaches across time to us today. He told the Philippians, "In my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (2:12). Paul could not be in Philippi to spell out every detail of their Christian life. And even Paul did not have all the answers, even if God inspired him to write a good portion of the New Testament. The Philippians would have to work out the rest together "with fear and trembling."
And the word "you" here is plural. We have to work out the details of our Christian journey as individuals as well, seeking God's guidance in prayer and reflection on the Scriptures. But we are on much safer ground when we work out the details of our pilgrimage together, in communities of faith.
True, communities of faith have believed and taught some bizarre things over the years. The "Pharisee principle," which wants to spell out for everyone in all situations exactly what they must do, is an ever present danger. Churches do best to stick to the big principles and leave the rest to individual conscience.
Nevertheless, there is wisdom in numbers. There is wisdom to be found in groups of Christians working through issues together. The Holy Spirit is in each one of us, but we are even more likely to hear the Holy Spirit in communities. We will get it wrong, which is why we should never mistake the decisions of denominations and local churches for the Church universal. Even more shocking is the fact that we will get it wrong sometimes when we are most ardently convinced that we are right. Grace must therefore permeate our ethical considerations.
5. It has often been suggested that John Wesley's method for working out a sense of God's will for his day involved a "quadrilateral" of sorts: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Scripture was clearly first for Wesley, as it must be for us. I hope our journey through Christian ethics has demonstrated "Scripture first" or prima scriptura. We have derived the big principles from Scripture.
What is tradition but the Church universal reflecting on Scripture through the eyes of the Holy Spirit? We do not have to reinvent the doctrinal and ethical wheels in each generation. The Spirit has already helped unpack the significance of Scripture among the "communion of saints." Jesus is the final Word. The New Testament gives authoritative witness to that final Word, unpacking his significance for the last days. Then God has used the Church, especially in its first centuries, to clarify some of the important details as well.
Experience and reason are simply the tools that re-contextualize the gospel for new contexts and situations. Experience reflects a knowledge of our own cultures and subcultures. Experience tells us how the principles play out at our moment of history. Experience might also include the wisdom of local bodies of Christ. My denomination, the elders of my local church, reflect a body of wisdom in relation to our time and place. They have a spiritual common sense that reflects Scripture in dialog with contemporary experience.
Reason is an aspect of the world God has created. We are forced to use it with every interpretation we make of the Bible. We are forced to use it in any decision we make. God is not irrational, although we might say he is supra-rational. Sometimes his understanding goes well beyond any reason we can make. But his reasonings make sense in the vast scheme of things.
6. So after we have studied Scripture and we understand the big principles, we must wrestle together to make it to the Day of Salvation, "working out our salvation with fear and trembling." We will often disagree, which is why we must show each other grace. But God will receive us if we are truly doing all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), doing everything we do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Col. 3:17).
Praise be to God, who walks with us and talks with us along life's narrow way!
ET25: Many issues are a matter of individual or corporate conscience.