The Superiority of the Christian Ethical System
The superiority of the Christian ethical system is best recognized in the exemplary life of Jesus of Nazareth. Properly described and explicated, this system includes duties and goals set in an absolutist context sensitive to individual cases and personal choice with a foundation in human nature created in the image of God and in a reasoned account of general and special revelation. I will introduce some of the biblical Christian concepts that are important constituent elements of such an ethical system and argue that these demonstrate its superiority per se, not requiring comparison to other systems as a part of the superiority claim.
Here I am only offering an introduction to the superiority of the Christian ethical system. Even this claim is limited in at least two ways. First and most important, speaking of the superiority of the Christian ethical system is not intended as an arrogant assertion that “Christians are right, and all others are wrong!” It would be a significant mistake to let ourselves sound like the haughty Pharisee whom Jesus described as praying: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are” (Luke 18:11, KJV; Scripture references from the King James Version unless otherwise noted). Nevertheless, biblical Christianity does entail truth claims, and such truth claims do entail exclusivist implications. There is ample precedent for such a superiority assertion in Hebrews with the use of “better” (from the Greek kreitton) having 13 of its 19 New Testament occurrences in this letter alone. These uses include reference to a better hope in a better covenant with better promises because of the comparative superiority of the message God finished in Jesus His Son (Hebrews 1:4; 7:19, 22; 8:6; 11:40; 12:24). While the claims in Hebrews are not specifically about the superiority of the Christian ethical system, there seems little reason to doubt that superior moral standing is part of the benefit of guidance and forgiveness provided in that unshakeable kingdom by the words of His Son (Hebrews 1:1-3; 12:28). Of course, the claim and its justification could also be extended by consideration of other passages like the mention of superior freedom in Christ with its dramatic contrast between the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the spirit” (Galations 5:1, 19-26). Thus, my claim herein should not be taken as a claim for a personal account of ethics as superior—mine or some other Christian account. Rather this claim is for the superiority of that system articulated as part of God’s plan for people created in His image and for His kingdom. That is the claim to be explained and defended herein.
Second, this particular article will not engage the primary sources in the literature of biblical or philosophical ethics. The defense here focuses on a careful, preliminary explanation and clarification of the biblical claim to the superiority of the Christian ethical system. Though neither a full, systematic account of Christian ethics nor detailed, interaction with primary sources in traditional philosophical accounts of normative ethics is here offered; what I provide is an overview of key concepts in any adequate account of the superiority of the claims of biblical Christian moral philosophy. I start with the Bible because as Christians this is the right place to start, the essential foundation for interacting with normative philosophical ethics.
Revelation: Some Available to All and Some from God’s Spokesmen
Undeniably, Christianity claims to be a religion grounded in special revelation with God confirming its truths through the miracles, signs, and wonders associated with the work of His spokesmen (Hebrews 1:1-3; 2:1-4). In addition, however, Christian writers claim that God has provided a general or natural revelation in creation and in the nature of what it means to be human (Romans 1:18-32; 2:13-14). The biblical claim is that God makes some moral principles accessible to all people (and has made them available since the creation) through the gift of rationality and the consequent ability to reflect on the moral implications of what it means to be human. Similar claims are included in passages like Amos 1-2 where the prophet also speaks of the wrath of God appropriately targeting those who violate moral norms that all people should recognize and obey. For example, expectant mothers and their babies should not be murdered simply to allow expansion of national borders (Amos 1:13). This explanation of “revelation” and its moral claims on all people provides a foundation and background to more detailed moral obligations revealed in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, what we are calling “special revelation.”
Thus, revealed moral norms are available to all people everywhere and have been available from the beginning of time. God holds all people accountable for these norms, and His wrath is revealed against those who neglect or reject such moral guidelines (according to spokesmen like the prophet Amos or the apostle Paul).
In addition, some norms are revealed to God’s special spokesmen and the recipients of their messages. For example, God made sure that Noah was aware of a specific moral prohibition concerning the taking of innocent human life (Genesis 9:6). He also guided His chosen people not only with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), but also explained how those commands applied in particular cases in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-24). Moreover, God called attention to inappropriate moral choices with outcries of prophets calling the people back to His plan for them. He also preserved the wisdom of inspired wise leaders (Proverbs 31:8-9; and many other possible entries from the Prophets and Writings). The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings all provide significant guidance intended “for our learning” (Romans 15:4).
In addition, the records of the Gospels and Letters from Matthew to Revelation include specially revealed insights about what it means for God’s people to live like those who have “put off” unacceptable moral practices and “put on” a new way of living (Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3:5-14). Jesus’ followers are taught behavior principles more excellent than their former immoral choices (Ephesians 4:17). He also taught them proper, loving interpretation of the Law and demanded that their choices should exceed choices expected from sinners (Luke 6:34). Similarly, letters to early Christians demonstrate special revelation of such norms—like those from James, with his emphasis on care for widows and orphans or what it means to avoid favoritism respecting both the poor and the rich (James 1:27; 2:1ff), and Peter whose moral encouragement emphasizes the strength of mind to cope even with slavery or persecution (1 Peter 1:13, NIV; 2:13-20; 4:12-17). This is not the place to defend the inspiration and authority of the Bible or to explain details about the meaning or process of revelation, inspiration, and preservation of God’s written word. However, it is clear that revelation from God—whether available naturally to all or specially to those hearing prophets and other divinely inspired writers—is one crucial element in explaining why the Christian ethical system may be described as superior.
Human Nature: Created in the Image of God to Grow up as His Children
Three texts in Genesis ground another important insight for Christian ethics—the reference to humanity, male and female, created in the image of God (use of the Latin term, imago dei, for this concept of God’s image probably began with these passages in Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1; 9:5-6). Not only does Moses use this concept to explain the previously mentioned prohibition against taking innocent life, but this characterization of humanity in Genesis also highlights moral accountability for other people and important respect for gender in the shared nature of theimago dei. When mentioning our role as children of the Most High and the mercy appropriate to that role (Luke 6:35-36), Jesus connects being children of the Father (Matthew 5:45) to our very purpose in life, our “perfection” (Matthew 5:48, telos, a complex Greek term here referring to the end or mature goal of human nature). While I seldom hear these ideas connected with creation in the image of God, I am convinced that He is teaching the disciples what it means to pursue the very purpose of our existence—the created nature given to us, male and female, in the plan God began even in the Garden of Eden. This concept of created human nature, with its correlation to the very nature of God, is a second essential piece of the puzzle if the superiority of the Christian ethical system is represented appropriately.
Rationality: Transformed Christian Minds
Giving Christian moral behavior its proper representation and due respect is what Paul claims is missing when people reject the knowledge of God (Romans 1:28) and pursue immoral choices instead (Romans 1:18-32). Proper minding of the good and the right that prepares the way for rational moral choices should not be confused with over-dependence on reason (more properly called “rationalism” and grounded in the rationalizations of human system-builders often omitting God the Creator from their ethics). Rational moral choice, from a biblical Christian perspective, involves accepting God’s revelation in nature, what is revealed of Him and His plan for us from our own human nature, and that special revelation from His chosen inspired spokesmen in Scripture. Only when proper consideration is given to the transforming power of such accepted revelation (Romans 12:1-2) can Christian ethics approach the pinnacle of a superior systematic account like Paul’s in the extended discussion of Romans 12:3-15:6.
Kant’s rational account of human moral obligation became the paradigm example of duty-based moral philosophy as his work captured the imagination of a large segment of those discussing ethics in the twentieth century. Kant, however, was not the first to recognize the role for appropriately well-reasoned moral choice having universal applicability and well-justified pursuit of respect of persons. God reveals Himself in our nature, in His messages to a chosen people, and in His final word in Jesus His Son. Thus, the Creator has provided continual glimpses of our nature and how we were meant to live. He expects us to understand, accept, and be transformed by that information about ourselves in relation to Him and what it means to be moral beings—not rebellious immoral people rejecting the knowledge of God (Romans 1:28). So, appropriately reasoned human choice provides this third rational element for the Christian system of ethics.
Duty: Obligation Accepted; Creator Acknowledged
That duty and moral obligation are essential elements of the Christian ethical system seems hardly controversial, but still important to mention. As the wise ones of Israel recognized, to “fear God and keep his commandments is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13); or as Moffatt renders it “Stand in awe of God, obey his orders: that is everything for every man.” Of course, such insights about obligation have led some to think of Christian ethics only as a system of commands and duties. Recognizing that the Christian ethical system is inextricably tied to duty has even led some to defend legalistic, narrow-minded approaches to Christian ethics that seem judgmental and harsh to others. I am convinced such interpretations are unfair, failing in two important ways. First, some omit sufficient consideration of God’s plan of forgiveness and blessedness. Second, some neglect biblical clarification of absolutism. Often only superficial consideration is given to what it means to have absolutes, and this can be as misleading as the neglect of God’s plan of forgiveness. Our next consideration in the Christian ethical system is inextricably tied to that plan the blessings the Father ultimately wants to give His children.
Goal Orientation: Godliness on the Path Planned for Us
Moral absolutism must be clarified with proper understanding of commands, duties, and forgiveness. Those trying to tie the truths of Christianity to duty-based truths of twentieth century philosophical ethics may cite Ecclesiastes 12:13. This classic deontological text is more carefully nuanced as part of God’s revelation than some seem to notice. The King James Version and other translations supply the term “duty” to complete the expression of their best judgment for the sense of the Hebrew text; and no literal term for “duty” actually occurs in the text of Ecclesiastes 12:13. On the other hand, another Hebrew term rendered “commandments” (mitsvoth from a noun from the verb tsavah) does occur in the verse and justifies our claims that compliance with the Creator’s commands is essential to well-lived human life. In addition, the whole “matter” (representing dabar in the plural) may itself be translated “commandments” (e.g. Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13, literally “the Ten Words” leading to the Latin term “Decalogue”). I am convinced such obligations must be clarified by God’s own explanations of His concerns and of how commandments are to be understood and applied, setting precedents for how absolutist principles work in properly explicated biblical ethics (Exodus 20-24). We should not build a claim that biblical ethics is duty-based on such passages without explaining further what it means to be “duty-based” according to special revelation.
Returning to the very next verse in Ecclesiastes reminds us that God will bring both good and evil deeds into judgment. Thus, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 should be regarded as more than just a proof text for duty-based ethics. In its reference to good and evil deeds brought to judgment, the passage also foreshadows God’s revelation of the goal for command-oriented, duty-based ethics.
To be distracted by the modern question “Is Christianity deontological or teleological?” is to be misled. Such a question likely became an issue only after the distinction was introduced into mid-twentieth century discussions of philosophical ethics. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor any other biblical writer actually contrasted duty-based to goal-based ethics; and if they were asked their position on the matter, they might feel compelled to redirect us to core concepts of biblical ethics as revealed. Such normative philosophical contrasts have some truth, but these should not shape the Christian system.
The question “Is Christian ethics duty-based or goal-based?” is problematic—too preoccupied with contemporary characterizations of ethics. However, since such issues have seemed important to some and since the distinction has played a significant role in modern discussions, I will address the issue with four brief observations.
First, we could choose to stipulate definitions of “deontology” and “teleology” making it possible to claim Christianity is deontological. One’s definition of deontology could then prohibit goal-based outcomes as any part of appropriate moral choice. We could define deontology so broadly that it would include goals, but exclude any goal-based approach neglecting commands. Such approaches seem to put the “cart before the horse” allowing twentieth-century concepts to control our explanation of a revealed normative system reaching its final form in the first-century Author and Exemplar, Jesus Christ.
Second, an eschatological goal orientation is essential to Christianity. Studying God’s revelation about “last things” (eschatology), enriches our appreciation for the principle of justice and helps us grasp the demanding nature of biblical ethics in terms of required obedience. Incorporating this, we are less likely to forget His loving-kindness and forgiveness. People should all know that God wants us in heaven, and we should want to go there. Something better awaits us after the resurrection (Hebrews 11:35). Humans, as humans, have a goal; and God has a plan to get us there. His goodness is complex, but it is goodness revealed—goodness that can clarify the very nature of “the good.”
Third, and most important here, Christianity seems unembarassingly teleological to Jesus and biblical writers. I said earlier that Ecclesiastes 12:14 foreshadows God’s clarification concerning the relation of commands, duties, goals, and ends. Jesus’ words: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) is crucial. It does not need to be explained away. The text needs to be treasured. The term “perfect” (for the Greek telos) calls attention to human “perfection”— our end, goal, completion, maturity, etc. We were meant to grow up to be like our Father in Whose image we were created. Understanding what it means to be “children of the Highest” (Luke 6:35) can move us toward His mercy and toward the mercifulness (Luke 6:36) central to the Law properly appreciated. Understanding our telos can also help disciples grasp the message of Jesus and avoid misinterpretations of the Law (Matthew 5:21-48; 22:37-40). [This insight about our telos is notable also in its connection to Jesus as exemplar, the “finisher” (Hebrews 12:2, teleioten) to be briefly addressed in the last major section of this essay.]
Fourth, I do not need to hold to deontology, or any claim that Christianity is primarily duty-based, to hold to biblical Christian absolutism. Such might even be detrimental to proper proclamation of the Christian ethical system with its emphasis on creation in the image of God and the telos—godliness. Yes, commands must be obeyed and recognizing human duty to the Creator is essential; but the modern duty-based/goal-based terminological distinction is not biblical in any real sense coming from the text. Claims that Christian ethics must be exclusively duty-based are isogetical, not exegetical. Earlier, I identified command-oriented, duty-acceptance as a fourth essential element in the Christian ethical system. I have also argued that Christian ethics includes teleology as a fifth essential element.
Absolutism: Principled Priorities and Choices—Some Clear Distinctions, Some Discretion
Some things are always right, and some things are always wrong. As mentioned already, the clear distinction between “the works of the flesh” and “the fruit of the spirit” makes the Christian ethical system absolutist. However, as with the commandments written in stone (Exodus 34:1; 20:1-17), God’s assertion of absolute moral obligation is clarified for application (Exodus 20:18-24:18; Numbers 35:6-32). Commandments, even those involving the death penalty, do not always require execution; but could be “satisfied” or ransomed in other ways under some circumstances (Numbers 35:31, etc.). Jesus set the example for making a different choice when pressured to see that the woman caught in adultery should be executed (John 8). Absolute moral principles may include capital punishment without always requiring it.
The Christian ethical system also includes some prioritizing of the set of absolute commands. For example, while subjection to governmental powers is appropriate (Romans 13:1), obedience to God is an even higher priority. As Peter said: “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29).
As important as it is to note that these absolute commands are carefully defined and limited for clarity, it is just as important to remember that God tells us that some right things can under different circumstances be wrong (e.g. eating meat or marriage, Romans 14-15; 1 Corinthians 7-8). The Father wants us to make careful choices so that others will not be tempted to do wrong because of our actions. He also allows us some discretion about our own preferences on matters not commanded, prohibited, or negatively affecting others. Critical unbelievers sometimes attack a “straw man,” over-simplifying what Christians mean, or should mean, by absolutism. Judgmental Christian extremists may sometimes be guilty of a similar over-simplification, acting as though absolutism allows explication of biblical principles that overlooks the complexity of applying principles to specific cases in context. The Christian ethical system involves revealed absolute moral commands with correlative duties. These are associated with what it means to be created in the image of God and pursuing our telos in a context of rational, sensitive, discretionary choices. Properly clarified moral absolutes are the sixth essential element in biblical Christian ethics as here described.
Example: Moral Heroism Focused on the Prime Exemplar
Finally, late nineteenth and late twentieth century pedagogy sometimes emphasized learning from discussion of cases and practical choice situations. The re-introduction of case studies in law and business schools reflected an insight similar to that pursued with internships and trade apprenticeships; and studies in moral philosophy, especially in the context of applied ethics like medicine and business education, turned to cases with renewed vigor. Some even seemed to think that teaching with cases was something new and innovative. Casuistry, in both its best and worst senses, has a much longer history. What came to be called “casuistry” is grounded in efforts to learn from others’ experience and pre-dates these discussions whether medieval, modern, or contemporary.
Special revelation in the Judeo-Christian tradition has always included cases. God provided lessons from cases beginning with the Garden of Eden, continuing through the character descriptions of the Jewish Scriptures, and completed in texts like the parables of Jesus. The familiar New Testament passage of Hebrews 11-12 makes such use of revelation about moral heroism in a dramatic way, though other Judeo-Christian texts like the book of Judges might also be mined for paradigmatic passages. Hebrews 12 appeals to “a cloud of witnesses” alluding to the list of heroes of the faith (Hebrews 11) each of whom might be described as providing exemplary lessons in moral choice. However, the climactic example is not described as sitting in a stadium cheering others on to moral victories, but rather as standing at a finish line for the race we are running—the race He had already completed having pioneered the way and “having endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Many insights about the Christian ethical system might be gleaned from a study of God’s plan for redeeming moral failures, but for our limited purpose here the essential and final element to be addressed is the life Jesus lived (as Peter put it elsewhere “leaving us an example” that we might follow in His steps—1 Peter 2:21). The question “What would Jesus do?” is not just a modern, trivial sales promotion, as WWJD might have seemed in the Evangelical Christian circles of the 1990s. Instead, this powerful question actually reflects another of the elements I am calling essential to the Christian ethical system—Jesus as exemplar, the ideal model. “No one has ever seen God; the only Son . . . he has made him known” (John 1:18, RSV); and John had prefaced this comment, saying: “to all who received him, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). While God reveals much about moral heroism and villainy in the stories of those who came before, Jesus truly is the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2)—especially when we try to unpack what it means for Him to be our “finisher,” the “source and goal” (Hebrews 12:2, Phillips). Remembering that the term “finisher” in Hebrews 12:2 is the Greek teleioten, related to the term telos we found in Matthew 5:48, may help us understand how significant our observations here really are. We are meant to “grow up” to be like our Father in Whose image we were created, and Jesus came to show us how. Thus, I have chosen to describe Jesus the Exemplar as the seventh and final “essential element” demonstrating the superiority of the Christian system of ethics.
Many wise moral philosophers have articulated parts of the truth about ethics—the value of joy and pleasure prudently chosen, the strength and tranquility of contented self-control, the virtue and moral excellence of pursuing one’s highest aspect and calling, the obligations and duties coming from a well-reasoned account of human existence in the midst of so many challenging phenomena, and the great goodness of pursuing the best for the many especially when one protects the rights and needs of individuals and minorities. Epicureans, Stoics, Virtue Theorists, Deontologists, and Utilitarians may all have grasped part of the truth. Christians claim to articulate God’s revelation in our own nature and in the special communications of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, more than just an eclectic selection of partial truths others have identified. The Bible does not offer an encyclopedic, systematic account of ethics; but the Bible does remind us of God’s revelation of a Christian ethical system and of elements that demonstrate its superiority. I have claimed that this biblical Christian ethical system is superior, and that assertion actually parallels claims made within the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Though the account of Christian ethics here has been limited to only seven representative essential features, I am convinced that the superiority claim is well justified and worthy of much further reflection. Most importantly, the Christian ethical system is worthy not only of our study but also of our personal instantiation.
Rolland W. Pack, Ph.D. in Philosophy from Georgetown University, was a research and teaching fellow of the Kennedy Institute for Ethics while at Georgetown. He may be reached at Rolland.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks from the author are due Dr. Suzanne Marrero, Dr. Kippy Myers, Dr. Bill Collins, Dr. Clyde Woods, and Mr. Matthew Sokoloski who read earlier drafts and made this paper better by their reactions. Flaws that remain are my responsibility not theirs.
I am deeply indebted to many whose conversations and publications have influenced my thinking about biblical ethics. This is not the article or place to document that assistance. However, the publication of this particular article does call for special acknowledgment of my first formal ethics professor, Dr. Thomas B. Warren. He later mentored my Master’s Degree thesis on ethical absolutism, and this article is offered as a tribute to him.