IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 18, June 28 to July 4, 1999

Part 3 of 3: “The Word of God and Christian Ethics”

by John M. Frame

In the last two lectures I have discussed the nature and the media of the Word of God, using the triperspectival categories of my book to unpack some of the distinctions which Scripture makes at least implicitly. In this lecture, I turn to the human use of the Word of God, specifically in making ethical decisions. Rather than discussing specific ethical problems, I will be presenting a “metaethic,” or a general method for approaching ethical problems. This method does not provide a simple, automatic solution for all our ethical dilemmas; indeed, part of its value is that it shows us why ethical problems are often so difficult. Still, it does provide us with some Christian guidelines that we need to follow if we are to make any progress at all in finding solutions. I have presented the most basic features of this metaethic in my recently published Medical Ethics: Principles, Persons and Problems.1 I have also alluded to it in my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God,2 which applies the same general scheme to epistemology. Although I published my epistemology before my ethics, I developed the threefold scheme in ethics before applying it to epistemology. Ethics is its natural home, and I think the ethical applications of it are more easily understood than the applications to epistemological theory. Indeed the point of my epistemology is that epistemology can be fruitfully understood as a subdivision of ethics and thus can be fruitfully analyzed by the use of my metaethic. But although I have described this metaethic elsewhere, I intend here to present it in more detail than I have before, with some comparisons and ramifications that I have not discussed in published materials. Particularly I would like to compare this approach with those of secular philosophical ethical systems.

The history of secular philosophical ethics presents us with three (there’s that number again!) metaethical tendencies. I say “tendencies” rather than “positions” because most ethical writers reflect more than one; rarely does anyone seek to be a pure representative of one or another. Let me name them as they have sometimes been named by others: existential, teleological and deontological.

1. Existential Ethics

Existential ethics is the view that ethics is essentially a matter of human inwardness, a matter of character and motive. Ethical behavior, on this view, must not be motivated by external reward, which would be mercenary, or by mere law, which would be drudgery. Either of these would also be hypocrisy, for in these cases people do things they would prefer not to do, for the sake of something outside themselves, masking their true character and therefore masking their true ethical state. Rather, ethical behavior is an expression of what a person is. One ought not to mask his nature; rather he should act it out. He should be what he is. There is no standard outside ourselves; what values there are in the world are the results of our decisions.

The existential tendency can be found in the Greek sophists,3 who denied the existence of objective truth but sought to teach young people how to accomplish the young people’s own ambitions. It is also found in the Socratic “know thyself” and the Aristotelian-Thomistic concept of self-realization or self-actualization.4 The Hegelians also emphasized self-realization.5 The modern existentialist Jean Paul Sartre offered a self-realization ethic without the self.6 Since he denied the existence of any objective human nature, he argued that ethical behavior was at best an expression of human freedom, of our difference from all things with objective natures. Sartre’s view would be the purest philosophical form of “existential” ethic, but one suspects that there are many non-philosophers who hold, in effect if not in word, this sort of view. For those who have become epistemological skeptics or, worse, have come to despair of all values, there is no very plausible form of ethics except existentialism.

Non-existentialists have appreciated and sometimes appropriated the existentialist emphasis upon the inner life, upon good motives as the source of right action. Indeed, this emphasis echoes the biblical teaching that out of the heart are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23; cf. 29:13). Jesus taught that from the heart comes human speech (Matt. 12:34), true forgiveness (Matt. 18:35), true love (Mark 12:30, 33), as well as all other ethical good and evil (Matt. 15:19; Luke 6:45; 8:15; 16:15; Acts 5:3). But when, as in Sartre, the existentialist tendency reaches the point of denying objective, external value, many resist. This sort of skepticism is always self-refuting, for in it the denial of value is presented as a value, the denial of truth as a truth. Sartre, indeed, proposes a human lifestyle which he describes as “authentic.” But what is that, if it is not an objective value?

2. Teleological Ethics

Many who cannot accept the skepticism of existential ethics are attracted to teleological ethics, which affirms the existence of objective values to some extent. The term “teleological” is from the Greek telos, which means “end” or “goal.” The teleologist sets forth one relatively simple, objective goal for ethics which, he thinks, no human being can legitimately question. That goal is usually called “happiness” or “pleasure.” The teleologist, then, seeks to evaluate all human behavior by judging what that behavior contributes to happiness or pleasure. This procedure seems to them to be practical and reflects the way many non-philosophical people make ethical judgments.

Teleological ethics is frequently linked to an empiricist theory of knowledge. The empiricist thinks he can show by sense experience that everyone naturally seeks pleasure or happiness. Once that is granted, he presents another argument from sense experience to show the best means of attaining pleasure or happiness.

Aristotle’s ethic has teleological elements (as well as elements of the other two tendencies).7 More consistently teleological were the Greek Cyrenaics and Epicureans.8 The best known modern teleologists have been the nineteenth century utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham9 and John Stuart Mill.10 Most of us, indeed, find ourselves arguing ethical issues this way at times: what legislative policy, we often ask, will bring the greatest good for the greatest number? That is teleological ethics. Indeed, one might say that democracy is biased in favor of teleological ethics; for the voting process (and to a great extent also the Gallup-type poll) gives people frequent means of expressing to their representatives their degree of happiness. Arguments about what is right, therefore, often get resolved into arguments about what will make people happy, and that question in turn becomes the question of what people will vote for, or what pollsters think the people want.

Most reflective people will agree with Bentham and Mill that ethics is goal-oriented, that it seeks means of attaining goals that we find valuable. Beyond that, however, many have found problems in teleological ethics. For one thing, the teleologists disagree among themselves as to precisely what the goal is. Is it individual pleasure (Epicurus)? the pleasure of society in general (Mill)? Is pleasure to be measured by mere intensity (Cyrenaics, Bentham), or are there also qualitative judgments to be made (Epicurus, Mill)?

Further, what basis is there for saying that pleasure is the goal of human life? This is not, contrary to many teleologists, a simple empirical question. Nietzsche, for instance, denied that human beings pursue pleasure above all other goals; he thought that power was more fundamental than pleasure as a goal of human life. How would we settle this kind of disagreement? And even if we agree with Mill that human beings naturally seek pleasure for themselves, what proof is there that they seek it for society in general (“the greatest pleasure for the greatest number”)? And even if we grant that human beings do naturally seek the happiness of society, how can we prove, as the teleologist must, that they ought to do so? Teleologists have never succeeded in satisfying their critics on these points.

Indeed, some have criticized the principle of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” as a quite wicked idea. Might not a racist nation one day derive its maximum happiness from inflicting terrible cruelties upon a despised minority? Teleological ethics seems far too open to the principle that the end justifies any means whatsoever.

And for good measure: even if we grant “happiness” as a social goal, how do we calculate the means of attaining it? To calculate that, we must seek the causes of universal happiness, through a possibly infinite period of future history encompassing the whole universe. But who knows what effects any human action may have over such a wide stretch of space and time? And there are so many different kinds of pleasure and pain! What computer would be capable of taking all these data and problems into consideration?

3. Deontological Ethics

The third tendency is toward “deontological ethics,” or an ethic of duty. Deontologists realize that objective moral standards are hard to find on either an existential or a teleological basis. They frankly admit that no such standards can be found either in human subjectivity (as in existentialism) or in empirical knowledge (as in teleological approaches). But they believe that objective ethical standards, absolute duties, can be found in some other way, and that one may define proper ethical behavior simply as the fulfillment of those duties.

In their view, a truly righteous person does not do his duty out of personal inclination (as in existentialism) or out of some calculation of happiness (as in teleological systems). Rather, a good will is one which does its duty “for duty’s sake,” as Kant put it. A good person does his duty simply because it is his duty. A duty is self-attesting, supremely authoritative; it doesn’t need to be recommended on the basis of some supposedly more ultimate consideration. We should not do our duty to get rewards, or to please other people, or to become happier, or to achieve self-realization, but simply because duty is duty, because it is moral law.

Plato’s thoughts about ethics were probably more deontological than anything else, though not purely so. His “Idea of the Good” is a kind of self-attesting value which transcends all others and is known in a non-empirical way.11 More consistent, though less profound, were the ethical systems of the Cynics and Stoics, who both urged their hearers to renounce the supremacy of pleasure.12 In more recent times, Immanuel Kant13 is the most famous deontologist, flanked by David Hume14 and G. E. Moore15 who developed influential arguments against teleological ethics, specifically arguments against trying to prove moral principles empirically. Hume argued that “you cannot reason from ‘is’ to ‘ought,’” you cannot reason from a factual state of affairs to a conclusion stating an ethical value or obligation. Moore called this sort of argument “the naturalistic fallacy.” And if teleological ethics is guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, and if existentialist ethics are otherwise objectionable, it would then seem that we should choose a deontological alternative.

Most writers since Moore have accepted, in general, Moore’s account of the naturalistic fallacy. The broader concern of deontologism, for having a system of absolute duties, is also appreciated by many of those who are seeking to get beyond the popular relativism and ethics-by-Gallup-poll of our present day. There is, especially since C. S. Lewis’s influential article, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,”16 a greater willingness among ethical thinkers to consider certain actions intrinsically wrong and others intrinsically praiseworthy, apart from judgments about the general happiness of society. Christians especially can appreciate the affirmation here of moral absolutes.

But there is a major problem in deontologism as well, namely the problem of identifying the absolute, self-attesting moral principles. Plato attempted to do it by means of his general arguments for the existence of the world of forms. But even granting those controversial assertions, we must note that Plato’s “Good” was at best an abstraction, a generality incapable of prescribing human duties in concrete situations. Kant tried to establish his catalogue of duties by logical analysis of ethical concepts. An action is obligatory, he said, when I can prescribe it for all persons equally without logical contradiction. But few would agree today that logic alone will distinguish between ethical good and evil in the absence of any empirical or subjective premises.17

4. Mixed Approaches

The three approaches described above are, I think, the only substantial alternatives available to non-Christian ethicists. Most others will boil down to one of these, or some combination of them.

It is sometimes thought that while a “pure” deontologism, teleologism or existentialism will not work, some combination of these may be adequate. Certainly we must have some initial sympathy for this project, for as I shall argue later, the biblical approach is essentially multi-perspectival. Why not a secular multi-perspectivalism?

The greatest ethical thinkers, those who had the best sense of the problematics of the “pure” positions, generally held mixed positions. I have mentioned that Plato, who was generally deontologist, included some elements of existentialism. His forms are derived from self-knowledge, the Socratic “know thyself.” Similarly Kant, whose moral law is essentially existential in origin: the moral self telling itself what to do. For him, as for Hegel, the good will is the only thing in the world which is unconditionally good. How, then, does Kant avoid the problems of existentialism? Why ought I to obey the voice of the moral law which is essentially my own voice? Is there really an objective moral law after all? I doubt that there is any adequate answer in Kant to this sort of question.

Then there is the case of Henry Sidgwick, the nineteenth century thinker who despite his utilitarianism recognized the danger that a pure utilitarianism could lead to the slaughter of minorities and so on. So he supplemented his utilitarianism with a “principle of justice.” Not only should we seek the “greatest good for the greatest number,” but we should seek also an equal distribution of happiness. But why? At this point Sidgwick resorts to deontologism — a kind of intuition of what is right. But that introduces the problems of deontologism and robs us of the apparent simplicity and practicality, the perceived benefits of utilitarianism.18

G. E. Moore, who baptized the “naturalistic fallacy,” believed that the ends or goals of ethics had to be learned along deontological lines: non-empirically, by way of what Moore called “intuition.” What of the means to those ends or goals? Here Moore, evidently, was satisfied with utilitarianism and taught that one simply seeks the most efficient means of reaching the deontological goal. Others however, argued that this combination of deontologism with teleologism was unworkable, since it reintroduces the problem of the end justifying any means whatsoever. These critics of Moore sought to be more consistent deontologists, but without, I think, escaping the problems I earlier ascribed to consistent deontologism.19

Certainly I have not given an exhaustive survey of ethical options, but I have presented the general lines of a critique which will prove plausible to those who are acquainted with this literature and which will apply to most if not all forms of non-Christian ethical systems. I have presented fairly “standard” criticisms of these systems, criticisms made by others before me. But when we put all these criticisms together, they suggest that some radical departure is needed, rather than some mere reworking or recombining of the same ideas.

5. Christian Ethics

Before I present a positive Christian alternative, let me try to diagnose, from a Christian point of view, the reason why secular ethics is regularly led down such blind alleys. The main problem is not just conceptual confusion or lack of logical skill, nor ignorance of facts, though such problems do exist in both Christian and non-Christian ethical systems. The chief problem is rather unbelief itself. Secular ethics, like secular epistemology, seeks to find an absolute somewhere other than in the Word of God. It therefore seeks its ethical standard in the most probable locations: human subjectivity (existentialism), the empirical world (teleologism), logic or reason (deontologism). Seeking truth in those locations is not entirely wrong; as we shall see, one who looks faithfully in those places will find the Word of God which is an adequate ethical standard. And what truth exists in secular ethics exists because, despite its metaethic, it has encountered God’s Word in the self, in the world, and in the realm of norms (Rom. 1:32). But the secularist is forced to reconcile what he finds in these three realms with his fundamental atheism, and herein the difficulties begin. For if God doesn’t exist, what assurance do we have that self, world and law will tell us the same things? On a theistic basis, God creates the human self and the world to exist together in harmony; and he reveals his own law as the law by which self and world will find fulfillment. But on a non-theistic basis, there is no reason to suppose that self, world and law will peacefully coexist, or that ethical judgments derived from one source will necessarily cohere with ethical judgments derived from the other two. Indeed, on such a basis, there is every reason to suppose that these supposed sources of ethical knowledge will not be mutually consistent, and that therefore one must choose which of the three to accept unconditionally. Those who reject God, in other words, must find an alternate source of absolute truth, a substitute god, an idol. But different people prefer different idols. Hence all the confusion.

My positive Christian alternative should be evident by now. A fully Christian ethic accepts as final only God’s Word. That Word is found pre-eminently in Scripture, the covenant constitution of the people of God (Deut. 6:6-9; Matt. 5:17-20; 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 2 Pet. 1:21), but is also revealed in the world (Ps. 19:1ff.; Rom. 1:18ff.) and in the self (Gen. 1:27ff.; 9:6; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). A Christian will study these three realms presupposing their coherence and therefore seeking at each point to integrate each source of knowledge with the other two.

a. The existential perspective: So a Christian ethical study of the self will proceed in the light of Scripture and with a recognition of the world as our God-created environment. A Christian will, like the existential tradition, seek an ethic which realizes human nature and human freedom at their best. But through Scripture he will be able to judge what in human nature is the result of sin and what expresses God’s image. This sort of ethical study I describe as coming from the “existential perspective.” It is existential in focus, but it does not seek to isolate the self from other sources of God’s revelation. Rather it treats the self as a “perspective,” a vantage point or angle of vision, from which to view the full range of ethical norms and data. It does justice to the subjective side of human life, particularly our sense of the direct presence of God in his Holy Spirit, recreating us to know and to reflect his holiness. But it does not result in skepticism, because it is anchored in the objectivity of God’s Word.

b. The situational perspective: Similarly, a Christian may study the created world, observing the patterns of cause and effect which produce pleasures and pains of different sorts. He cannot be blind to that, for Christ calls him to love others as himself. He cares whether people are in pain or having pleasure. But he will carry out this study in the light of scriptural norms (thus escaping the problems of the naturalistic fallacy and of cruelty to minorities which trap the secular utilitarians) and of his own subjectivity. This sort of study I describe as being from the “situational perspective:” it studies the situation as the milieu into which God’s norms are to be applied.

c. The normative perspective: And of course a Christian may study God’s law in a more direct way, focusing on Scripture itself. But to determine what Scripture says about a particular ethical problem, we must know more than the text of Scripture. To know what Scripture says about abortion, we must know something about abortion. To know what Scripture says about nuclear weapons, we must know something about nuclear weapons. So, odd as it may sound, we cannot know what Scripture says without knowing at the same time something of God’s revelation outside of Scripture. So this sort of study is also a “perspective”; I call it the “normative perspective.” For even when we study the Bible we don’t study only the Bible, but we seek to relate the biblical texts to situations and to human subjectivity. We may call this a “Christian deontologism” if we like, but it does not face the difficulties of a secular deontologism. Rather than arbitrarily postulating moral rules or trying futilely to derive them from logical analysis, a Christian ethic accepts God’s moral law as an aspect of God’s revelation, and for the same reasons that he accepts that revelation as God’s Word.

In each perspective, then, we study all the data available, all the revelation of God. It is not that we study some under the existential perspective, other data under the situational, and still something else under the normative. Rather, in each sort of study we study everything, but with a particular emphasis or focus. The term “perspective” describes well this concept of emphasizing or focusing.

Put in more practical terms, all of this means that when we face an ethical problem, or when we are counseling someone else, we need to ask three questions: (1) what is the problem? (situational perspective); (2) what does Scripture say about it? (normative perspective); and (3) what changes are needed in me (him, her), so that I (he, she) may do the right thing? (existential perspective). Each of those questions must be asked and answered seriously and carefully. And it should be evident that none of those three questions can be fully answered unless we have some answer to the others.

6. Some Applications

Put this way, it sounds simple enough. And yet this scheme also helps us to see why it is that ethical questions often become difficult. For ethical judgments involve knowledge of exegetical, empirical and psychological sorts, which in turn involve logical and other sorts of skills. Since different Christians have different gifts, we need to work together. Not only professional theologians, but Christians of all walks of life, need to help in the ethical enterprise. There is much to do and, unlike the situation in secular ethics, much hope for success.

Thus the Scriptures provide us with a metaethic which avoids the traps of the various secular ethical positions. This fact has obvious apologetic significance. Not only philosophers, but non-philosophers as well are searching today for ethical stability. We are living at a time when ethical issues are among the most widely discussed topics of interest. The Christian witness can easily get a hearing, when he discusses ethical problems, from people who otherwise have no interest in Christian theology. But most people have no clarity as to how ethical decisions ought to be made; most flounder around amid half-baked versions of existentialism, teleologism and deontologism. And many fear that beneath all this debate there may not be any substantial basis for ethical certainty. We can help them and show them that in this matter as well as others, the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found in Christ.

Our metaethic also has value within the Christian community, as we seek to edify one another in the Lord. Christians, too, need greater clarity on the basis of ethical certainty. Some would admit to having no consistent view of ethics at all; and among those who think they have a consistent view, there is disagreement over what that view should be. Those in the Reformed tradition, especially the theonomic wing, tend to see the law of God in Scripture as the one source of ethical knowledge. Dispensationalists, charismatics and others (I realize these are strange bedfellows) fear that an emphasis on law will lead to legalism and thus they tend to develop dangerously subjective notions of divine guidance. Two other groups find the source of ethical certainty in the historical “situation:” (1) those oriented toward “biblical theology” or “redemptive history,” who find their authority not so much in Scripture itself as in those events which Scripture describes; and (2) those who seek to find God’s leading in present-day events (one extreme variety of this tendency being liberation theology).

The view that I am presenting, however, has ecumenical implications; for it helps us to listen to one another and to see both the insights and the limitations of the common views. Yes, the scriptural Word is primary as the covenant constitution of the people of God. Yes, we cannot properly use the Scriptures without the subjective illumination of God’s Spirit. Yes, Scripture is meaningless unless it is applicable to situations, so we must indeed understand the times in which we are living. No, none of these perspectives, rightly understood, takes precedence over the other two, because each includes the other two.

In a seminary like Trinity, where many varieties of evangelical theology are represented, you have a great opportunity to observe different “perspectives” on the wonderfully rich gospel God has given us in the Scriptures. If you open your ears and your heart, you can have a rich experience, benefiting from the viewpoints of Christians from traditions other than your own. Of course, sometimes you may hear or read viewpoints that don’t deserve to be called “perspectives,” but rather are simply wrong. Still, I commend to you an attitude of openness with some wariness (rather than the reverse). You do not need to fear that openness will dissolve into relativism, because God’s Word, the covenant constitution of his people, stands firm. Hear the viewpoints of your classmates and professors, but hear God’s Word most of all.

1.Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1988.

2.Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987.

3.My comments on the history of ethics are not particularly original. I owe mush to sources such as Frank Thilly and Ledger Wood, A History of Philosophy (N. Y.: Holt and Co., 1951), Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (N. Y.: Macmillan, 1966), and Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (N. Y.: Macmillan and The Free Press, 1967). My purpose is to take standard criticisms of various secular ethicists and to show that those standard criticisms form a pattern which invites Christian interpretation and evaluation. For that purpose, I believe that to produce truly original critiques of these figures would be counter-productive.

4.Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics in R. McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (N. Y.: Random House, 1941), 935-1127.

5.For example, F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1876).

6.See his Being and Nothingness, tr. Hazel Barnes (N. Y.: Methuen, 1957) and his summary article, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in W. Kaufmann, ed., Existentialism From Dostoyevsky to Sartre (N. Y.: Meridian, 1956).

7.Aristotle, Op. Cit.

8.For readings in these schools, see T. V. Smith, ed., Philosophers Speak For Themselves: From Aristotle to Plotinus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934).

9.See his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (N. Y.: Hafner, 1948; originally published 1823).

10.See his Utilitarianism, reprinted often, most interestingly found in a volume of the Encyclopedia Brittanica’s Great Books of the Western World entitled American State Papers (Chicago, 1952). The volume also contains the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Mill’s works on democracy On Liberty and Representative Government. I may be reading too much into this, but it is interesting that Brittanica has included utilitarian ethics as among the foundational principles of U. S. politics.

11.See various Platonic dialogues dealing with ethical matters, such as Gorgias, Euthyphro, and Republic, especially chapter 23 of the latter. See, e.g., Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, ed., The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1961).

12.See T. V. Smith, op. cit., for readings in these movements.

13.See Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, in Brendan Liddell, ed., Kant on the Foundations of Morality (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1970).

14.See especially the last paragraph of Part I, Section 2 of Treatise of Human Nature, III, in , ed., H. D. Aiken, ed., Hume’s Moral and Political Philosophy (N. Y.: Hafner, 1948).

15.Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903).

16.In God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 287-300.

17.See, for example, Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of “the logical emptiness” of Kant’s criterion of the categorical imperative, A Short History of Ethics (N. Y.: Macmillan, 1966).

18.Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (N. Y., Dover, 1966).

19.One such critic was H. A. Prichard. See his Moral Obligation (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949).