Ethics as If God Mattered: Secularism and the Word of God
“What is the meaning of existence? . . . Man and woman persons, their existence means exactly and precisely, not more, not one tiny bit less, just what they think it means, and what I think doesn’t count at all.”
— “God” (George Burns), in Oh, God (1977)
We have argued that there are moral absolutes, and that it is on the basis of the transcendent authority of Jesus Christ over all cultures that we conclude that those moral absolutes are to be found in Scripture. But this conclusion is widely questioned today, even by Christians. In this chapter, we will consider two basic objections to treating biblical morality as absolute.
First, it is often alleged that biblical morality applied only to people in the past. The moral teachings of the Bible may have been fine and helpful for people thousands of years ago, it is often urged, but they can hardly be regarded as binding on us today.
Second, it is also often argued that biblical morality applies only to people in the church (and not necessarily even all of them). That is, when it is admitted that the moral teachings of the Bible might have some contemporary relevance today, it is commonly suggested that its moral relevance is limited to those who profess to be Christians and who accept the Bible as their moral guide. The general point here is that anyone who wants to follow the Bible as their moral standard is, of course, free to do so, but those who do not choose to view the Bible in that way are free to follow another path.
The effect of both of these ideas, especially the latter, has been that Western civilization has become secularized. That is, while most people in the Western world recognize a legitimate place for commitment to God, such religious expression has been systematically excluded from public life. Not only are distinctive religious beliefs peculiar to certain denominations or religions held to be irrelevant to the social and political issues of our cities, states, and nations, but even the affirmation of our status as creatures responsible to our Creator is widely thought to be irrelevant. We have become a civilization in which one’s belief or lack of belief in God is supposed to be irrelevant to the ethical questions facing us as a society. In short, we have come to the point of acting as a society as if it doesn’t matter whether there is a God or not, or whether he approves of what we do or not.
Is biblical morality a relic from the past? Is it a code of conduct for Christians only? We will discuss both of these objections to the universal relevance of biblical morality in turn.
Is Biblical Morality for Today?
The Bible is now about two thousand years old. Because of its antiquity, many people today question the applicability of the Bible’s moral teachings to contemporary life. Even many Christians today are less than fully confident in the relevance of the Bible to the problems and issues of modern society.
We need, then, to be very clear about why we regard the Bible as a reliable and authoritative standard for morality. It is not because it happens to be the source of moral values with which we were raised, or which has dominated Western civilization for so long. Such reasons would base our confidence in the Bible as a perfect and unchanging standard on our very imperfect and changing experiences and histories. To put it simply, we rely on the Bible as our standard for morality because we are convinced that its moral teachings come from God. While the point here may seem obvious, it is worth reflecting on its significance.
For Best Results, Follow the Directions
First of all, the God of the Bible is the God who made the world and humanity (Gen. 1-2; Ex. 20:8-11; Acts 17:24-28), and whose instructions to humanity must therefore be obeyed. If God made us, he has every right to tell us how to live. Indeed, by creating the world in which we live and designing us to live in this world in relationships with one another, he determined for us what is right and wrong. The Bible simply reminds us or explains to us how God made and designed us and what behaviors are consistent with God’s creation and what behaviors are not. In other words, in the Bible we find a perfectly reliable reminder in human words of the universal, natural moral law.
Second, the God who gave us the Bible proved himself to be the true God. The God of the Bible is not a symbol for the moral ideal, or a mythological figure, or the projection of an ideal father figure. This is a God who speaks and acts. This is the God who spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who spoke to Israel through Moses and the prophets, and who spoke to us definitively and personally in his Son, Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2). This is the God who proved himself to be the God of the whole earth by his miraculous deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex. 19:4-5; 20:2-3; Deut. 4:32-40; etc.). This is the God who proved himself to be the true God, the God of life, by raising Jesus from the dead (Acts 17:30-31). This is not a God who tells us what to do but does nothing himself, but a God who has done what no other religion has even dared to claim.
Third, the moral standards given to us in the Bible are the true standards of what is good because God is perfectly good and does only good. Everything God created was created perfectly good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Everything God says and does is right (Gen. 19:25; Deut. 32:4). This means that God never requires from us anything but good. Moreover, what God intends for our lives is good. Even things which happen to us that are bad can and will be used by God for our good if we trust in his goodness (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28).
Fourth, the Bible is accepted as the supreme written standard of morality because God determined that the moral teachings of the Bible would reflect his own holy character (Lev. 19:2; Rom. 7:12; 1 Pet. 1:14-16). The moral standards of the Bible are not arbitrary rules designed merely to test our fortitude, patience, or loyalty to God.1 They are expressions of God’s own perfectly good, perfectly holy moral character. What God tells us to do is a reflection of what God is like and what God does. This is what we would expect if we were made in God’s image, as the Bible tells us (Gen. 1:26-27). This brings us back to our first reason for trusting in the moral standards of the Bible — they come from our Creator.
Finally, the morality of the Bible is applicable to us today because the God of the Bible is unchangingly good and faithfully consistent (Deut. 7:9; Ps. 136; Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8). God’s purpose and standards do not vacillate or change. Because he is dependably, unchangeably good, we know that what he laid down for his people two and even three thousand years ago still applies today. Since God does not change at all, and since human nature has not changed (even if our circumstances have), what God reveals in Scripture as his standards for human life and relationships is as relevant to us today as it was to Abraham, Moses, Amos, and Paul.
Numerous objections to the Christian view of the Bible as revealing unchanging moral standards have, of course, been put forth. We will consider some of these objections. But it should be pointed out to those who would dispute it that simply citing supposed “difficulties” with this view of the Bible is not enough. Those who would deny the Bible’s moral truth — what it says about life and death, sex and money — must first explain why they reject its historical truth — what it says about Abraham and Moses, David and Christ. In other words, it makes no sense to deny the moral authority of the Bible while refusing to consider the evidence for the divine origin of the Bible.
It Was Good Enough for Moses, But . . .
Of the many objections to viewing biblical morality as an unchanging standard, the most common by far is that the morality of the New Testament is advanced compared to the Old Testament. It is easy to see the logic of this argument: if morality changed from the Old Testament to the New, perhaps morality has changed again in the past two thousand years. The argument carries weight even with many Christians today, who are under the impression that the morality of the Old Testament is somehow inferior to that of the New Testament. Thus, while a considerable ethic can be derived from the New Testament itself, to view the Old Testament as ethically outmoded poses a serious threat to the integrity of the biblical revelation and calls into question the belief in an unchanging moral will revealed by God.
There are a number of serious problems with the notion that the Old Testament is morally deficient compared to the New. It is, first of all, inconsistent with all that was said earlier about the Bible — and this applies to the Old Testament as well as the New — coming from a good, holy, unchanging God who created us and designed us and has always known what was best for us. Besides, the New Testament affirms the complete inspiration and divine authority of the Old Testament in no uncertain terms (e.g., John 10:35; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). If the New Testament writers thought Old Testament moral standards were outmoded, it is strange to say the least that they subscribed to an extremely conservative view of the Old Testament as divine revelation.
Although evangelical Christians generally agree that the Old Testament was inspired, many evangelicals nevertheless regard Old Testament morality as somehow superseded by the New Testament. It is commonly believed, for example, that Jesus fulfilled the Law so Christians are not obligated to keep it. Jesus is thought to have criticized the Pharisees for their overly scrupulous observance of the Law. Many liberal Christians also appeal to the transition from “law” to “grace” in order to dismiss the moral standards of the Old Testament.
These ideas have no basis in Scripture. Jesus upheld the moral teachings of the Law, criticizing the Pharisees not for adhering to the Law but for nullifying it by their interpretations (Matt. 5:17-48; 15:3-6). If one insists on attributing to Jesus a different morality from the Old Testament, one will have to conclude that Jesus held out a higher ideal than is reflected in certain Old Testament texts. Some support for this view might be found in Jesus’ instructions to his disciples not to exploit aspects of the Law that made concessions to human sinfulness, such as the Law’s allowance of divorce (Matt. 19:7-9). Even here, Jesus insists that his own view is grounded in what the Old Testament says about marriage (Matt. 19:3-6). Jesus certainly did not nullify or lower the Old Testament moral standards (cf. Matt. 5:48). Anyone hoping to find a more permissive sexual ethic or a more relaxed position on truth-telling in the teachings of Jesus than in the Old Testament, for example, is on a doomed expedition (cf. Matt. 5:27-37).
It is true that Jesus kept the Law perfectly to save us, so that we do not need to keep the Law in order to be saved. However, this does not mean that we have been given a license to sin. We are still expected to keep God’s law, even though our salvation does not depend on our doing so perfectly.
One of the New Testament texts most commonly misunderstood in this connection is Paul’s statement that we are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14). What Paul actually says here is that we should not let sin master us because we are not under law, but under grace. And how do we know what sin is? According to Paul we know what sin is from the Law (3:20; 7:7). The Law therefore continues to tell us as Christians who are “under grace” what we should not allow to master us — in short, it tells us what not to do.
Another reason commonly given for setting aside the moral commandments of the Old Testament Law is the idea that the Christian rule is the new commandment of love, not law. However, love as the guiding rule of life does not originate with the coming of Jesus or the New Testament. The Old Testament clearly taught love for God and neighbor (Deut. 6:4-5; Lev. 19:18), and according to both Jesus and Paul these love commandments are the essence of the whole Law (Matt. 7:12; 22:37-40; Rom. 13:8-10). That is, the Law was given to us to tell us in detail what love means.
Left to ourselves, we manage to come up with a lot of strange notions about the meaning of love. But God has not left us to our own devices to guess or feel our way along, even as Christians. Love does not mean “never having to say you’re sorry.” Love means never stealing from your neighbor, or lying about him, or betraying him by committing adultery with his wife (or with her husband), or murdering him, or even coveting what is his. True, we ought to know these things, even without the Ten Commandments; that is the point of the venerable natural law tradition in ethics. But the sad fact is that we often need reminding and a definite, unmistakable word from God so that we will not deceive ourselves into saying such nonsense as “It’s really okay as long as we love each other.”
Yet another reason often given for viewing biblical morality as changeable is that the New Testament sets aside various aspects of the Old Testament Law, such as circumcision, the sacrificial system (with its priests, altars, and so forth), and the dietary regulations. But these regulations were never presented as moral standards. Circumcision was a sign of the special covenant that Abraham and his descendants had with God (Gen. 17). The sacrificial system symbolized atonement for sin (see, e.g., Lev. 16-17). The dietary regulations are only a little more complicated. Many of them may have contributed to the Israelites’ health, but that does not seem to have been the main point. Rather, those who ate prohibited foods were declared “unclean” (Lev. 11) — a ritual term meaning that they were temporarily barred from participating in religious or communal activities. This is a very different sort of judgment from those attached to violations of God’s moral laws; such violations are typically described as injustices, sins, perversions, or abominations (e.g., many of the prohibitions in Lev. 18-20). Such descriptions, and the fact that the prohibitions have to do with human relationships in such universal matters as family ties, sexual acts, honest business practices, and civil justice, make it clear that these laws express God’s moral standards for all human beings, not merely for the Israelites under the Mosaic Law.
In maintaining that the moral teachings of the Old Testament Law have remained the unchanging standard for God’s people to this day, we are not suggesting that Old Testament statements apply in precisely the same way in modern society as they did during Old Testament times. Our point is that those unchanging moral standards can be upheld while making reasonable adaptations to changing cultures. This is especially true of the case laws, the regulations given in the Law of Moses as statutes for the nation of Israel. Clearly any application of the moral standards illustrated by these case laws will have to respect the cultural differences between ancient Israel and the modern world, but this does not make application impossible.
An excellent example is the command to build a railing around one’s roof (Deut. 22:8), a regulation that made perfect sense in a society where houses had flat roofs that were often used for entertaining and other purposes. The specific regulation itself need not be followed, but the principle (“that you may not bring bloodguilt on your house”) should be upheld by taking reasonable precautions to prevent accidental injury on one’s property. Greg Bahnsen, for example, suggested that a modern day application of this case law would be a city ordinance or state law requiring homeowners to put a fence around their swimming pools.2
Not all such cross-cultural applications of the Old Testament laws are so easy, of course, but in principle every rule that God laid down governing human relationships reflected an unchanging moral truth. Those truths are as relevant to Italians and Iranians in the twentieth century as they were to the Israelites in the tenth century BC. The same is true for the New Testament, which endorses the whole range of Old Testament ethical standards. Both Old and New Testaments have a lot to say about life and death, parents and children, sex and marriage, money and power, and truth and justice. Everything that Scripture says about these matters has been given to us so that we might know when we have strayed from God’s will, and so that we might know and do what God wants of us (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
It may take some work to gain a clear understanding of the moral standards set down in the Bible and to discern how they apply to us as we enter the third millennium since the coming of Christ. But nothing in the Bible suggests that ethics is always easy. There were complex ethical issues in the first century (see, for example, 1 Cor. 7-10), and there will be complex ethical issues in the twenty-first century. Absolute moral standards, contrary to a common criticism of biblical ethics, should not be confused with simplistic, easy, or pat answers. What the absolute moral truths of the Bible give us are fixed points of ethical reference from which to think about complex issues.
Is Biblical Morality for Everyone?
Many Christians, of course, do agree that those of us who believe in the Bible as the word of God should live by its moral teachings. But even when this fact is recognized, and the absolute character of biblical morality is appreciated, the relevance of the Bible to the moral issues facing our society today is often questioned. Even if we as Christians live by the precepts of the Bible, can we really expect non-Christians to do so? It is widely believed that we cannot and should not expect non-Christians to live by the moral standards of Scripture. As many see it, the Bible belongs in the church, but not in the Congress; its values should be promoted in our Sunday schools, but not in our public schools.
The implications of this view of Scripture for Christian involvement in the issues of the society in which they live are far-reaching. It implies that if Christians come to certain moral convictions about such matters as abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and homosexuality on the basis of their study of the Bible, they are free to hold those views — but they have no business trying to make those views normative for the whole of society. What shall we say to those who question the relevance of biblical morality to the issues of our day?
The Prophetic Stance: Our Heavenly Citizenship
First of all, we have already seen that the nature of the Bible as a revelation from the Creator of the entire human race militates against the idea that biblical morality does not apply to all people. The law which God gave to Israel was not a set of arbitrary rules, but an expression of the goodness, holiness, and justice of God.
Moreover, the ethical teaching of Jesus and his disciples was not merely for their hearers only, but for people of all nations. Jesus told his disciples to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe everything he had taught (Matt. 28:19-20). It is true that here Jesus implies that full and voluntary submission to his moral teaching will be expected only of disciples. But at the same time it is clear that Jesus authoritatively calls upon all people of all nations to submit to his teaching. That is why Jesus prefaced his command to make disciples with the observation that “all authority” had been given to him “in heaven and on earth” (v. 18). Thus, people who refuse to become disciples, who refuse to observe all that Christ commanded, are in rebellion against the sovereign King of the universe, the one who has authority over it all.
From one perspective, then, while it is quite true to say that non-Christians cannot be counted on to observe the moral standards of Scripture, that does not change the fact that all people ought to observe those standards. This is just another way of saying that all people ought to do God’s will. We are all accountable to God for how we live, and will have to answer to him for our lives, whether we called ourselves Christians or not.
The Christian task from this perspective is a prophetic one. Our responsibility is to do God’s will ourselves and to proclaim in word and action to the rest of the world what God expects of his creatures who bear his image. We do this, not merely as individuals, but as families and churches, modeling what institutions based on those moral principles should look like, and encouraging others to do likewise. We know that God’s will is ultimately about having a relationship with God based on love and trust, and so we not only model and proclaim God’s moral standards, but we also model and proclaim the gospel of reconciliation to the Father through faith in his Son Jesus Christ. This prophetic stance of proclamation is carried out in the awareness that we have a citizenship which is from heaven (Phil. 3:20-21) — membership in an eternal community of the redeemed who will enjoy life in the new heavens and new earth in which God’s moral standards are perfectly realized (2 Pet. 3:13).
The Public Stance: Our Earthly Citizenship
It is sometimes thought that the prophetic task of modeling and proclaiming the moral standards of God’s heavenly kingdom is inconsistent with involvement in social and political issues. But this is not so. Christians have a kind of “dual citizenship,” with a responsibility both to God’s eternal, heavenly kingdom and to the temporal, earthly governments of the nations of which they are a part (cf. Rom. 13:1-10; 1 Tim. 2:1-4; 1 Pet. 2:9-17). This is similar to our family situation: We are members of God’s heavenly, supernatural family (the church) while remaining members of our earthly, natural families. Just as we can advance the interests of our eternal family by participating faithfully in our temporal families, we can advance the interests of God’s heavenly kingdom by participating faithfully in the affairs of our earthly nations. In doing so, we will be able to show that God’s moral standards are relevant and applicable to all areas of life, including politics.
Thus, involvement in public life and public affairs is a natural extension of our prophetic stance. It is not an either/or proposition, but both/and: our effort to promote justice and righteousness in society goes hand in hand with our effort to proclaim God’s message of judgment and reconciliation. We cannot expect to show that God’s will is relevant to all people in all areas of their life if we do not show that God’s will is relevant to the most entrenched problems and controversial issues of our day.
In working for justice and moral standards in society, we will of course be approaching the issues from the perspective of our biblical, Christian moral convictions. But this does not mean that when we are engaged in controversy in public affairs with people who do not share our Christian commitment we will be able to appeal only to the Bible and its authoritative teaching. It is not necessary to quote Scripture or to assume its authority to promote biblical moral standards. To some extent this is obvious. All societies agree in general that it is immoral to commit murder, to steal private property, to commit perjury in a court of law, and so forth. We do not need to convince a whole nation to believe in the Bible before we can urge that nation to enact laws that protect citizens from murder, theft, and false accusations.
We may go further still. We said earlier that in principle every rule that God laid down in Scripture governing human relationships reflects an unchanging moral truth. The moral truths, or principles, which are embodied and illustrated in the Bible are absolutes that are true for all people because they are the truth of what it means to be human beings in relationship with one another. That is, the moral standards of the Bible are a reminder to us of what we already know, or at least should know, is right and wrong. And this means that in principle it should be possible to understand and articulate the rationale or reason for every moral teaching and rule found in the Bible. In other words, we ought to be able to explain to non-Christians why certain things are wrong, or why other behaviors are morally right, without our explanation amounting to nothing more than “because the Bible says so.” We ought to be able to show them that the moral standards we embrace are right for all people whether they are Christians or not.
In making a reasoned case for these moral standards, Christians will have to appeal implicitly to certain truths about God and human nature. The belief that all human beings at whatever stage of development are persons deserving of respect really assumes that human beings are not mere animals but are creatures endowed with a capacity or potential for relationship with God that distinguishes them among all living things. (Many atheists admit that all human beings should be given respect, but they have no rational basis for insisting on such a standard as a matter of public policy.) Traditional Christian beliefs about sexuality likewise assume that sexual intimacy is not merely a biological function (though it obviously includes such a function) but for human beings has a higher purpose ordained by the Creator. It will not be possible to make a complete case for Christian convictions about such moral issues without acknowledging that these convictions ultimately assume that we are created by a God who has in the act of creating us determined the purpose and design for our lives. Any moral system that is not based on that premise must ultimately allow human beings to determine their own purposes, if any, and to make whatever choices they wish.
Still, in developing their case for a public morality that agrees with the moral standards revealed in Scripture, Christians will not have to appeal to uniquely Christian beliefs. For example, most if not everything that has just been said about God and human nature in relation to ethics can be and is affirmed by many Jews and Muslims. The arguments Christians put forth in debates about culture and public life will be informed by Scripture; that is where we will go to check our values and to make sure that our moral judgments are in accord with what God has revealed to us. But then the arguments which we put forth will not be based on Scripture, but on truths about God and ourselves that are generally understood and acknowledged even outside of the Christian church.
In our religiously pluralistic society, then, the source of our moral convictions as Christians should be the word of God which has been uniquely revealed in Scripture. The way we express and defend those moral convictions in public life should be by appealing to the moral truths which are revealed to all human beings in their conscience and which have been admitted in most or all cultures.
1 Compare this to Islam and Mormonism, both of which have scriptures containing difficult or contradictory ethical instructions which their own theologians commonly explain were given to test people’s loyalty to the Prophet who founded their religion. For example, early Mormon scriptures instituted polygamy as an everlasting ordinance from God, whereas later Mormon scriptures ended the practice (so that Utah might be admitted to the Union).
2 Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), 138.
Related Topics: Apologetics