Beyond Ethics and the Law; A Trinitarian Approach to Christian Morality

Ethics and The Law

Before we can answer the question "what ought I to do?" we must first come to terms with the question "how do I discern what I ought to do?" On what foundation should Christian morality be based? The Bible does not give us an abstract system of ethics. What we are predominantly given is case law. The examples the bible gives us are finite in number, limited in scope, and rooted in their historical context. This precludes the possibility of consulting the bible directly for our ethical questions, except in those instances, which the scripture directly addresses. In the few places where commands are stated in a universal form, such as the Decalogue, it is still necessary to interpret, what exactly is meant by statements like "thou shalt not steal", because our understanding of theft is contingent on how we define property. The same holds true of the all universal commands, "honor your father and mother" for instance. Cultures will differ dramatically on what this means.1

A casual survey of Christian ethics will reveal numerous approaches; however most of these will fall into one of two categories; for the purposes of this essay, I will refer to them as

That is not to say that morality is relative, for nowhere do we find the belief that theft, murder and the like called “good”. The gleaning laws of Leviticus 19:9-10 are certainly based on a differtn concept of property than we possess today.

command-based systems and abstract systems. By command-based systems, I mean those approaches that look at the commandments of God recorded in scripture, as the foundation of Christian morality. By abstract-systems, I mean those approaches that attempt to look behind the commandment, for some abstract principal on which to ground Christian morality.2 Ultimately, I hope to show that the ground of Christian morality is not to be found in the command of God, or in some abstraction thereof, it can only be found in the unchanging character of God. However, there is a lot of ground, which must be covered before we can get to this point. Let us begin with a representative look at the world of ethics.

Command-Based Systems Command-based systems of ethics, seek answers to ethical questions in the commandment of God. God's commands are considered moral absolutes - norms, which allow no exception. No doubt, the place where God's will is most clearly expressed is in the divine commandments of the Old and New Testaments. Yet, while these undoubtedly provide moral direction, one quickly discovers that the commands, in their current state, are not sufficient to address the numerous ethical challenges of human life. Please recall, in the introduction to this paper I mentioned that the commands of God are primarily expressed through case law, and as such are finite in number, limited in scope, and rooted in their historical context. In order to apply the commands given in the bible to our lives today we must employ some strategy, which allows us to translate the command into our contemporary context.3 What we are left with is something of human production, which may no longer carry the weight of divine imperative.4 Another question that must be raised in command-based systems is how we deal with the problem of competing absolutes. Three major approaches to resolving this problem will be

These categories are not synonymous with the deontological, (duty-based) and teleological, (result-based) distinctions. While all command based systems are clearly deontological, not all abstrqact systems are teleological. For instance, an ethic based on the idea that we should always do the loving thing is clearly a deontological system of ethics based on an abstract principal. 3 How can Christians Derive Principals from the Specific Commands of the Law? Walter Kaiser Jr. Readings in Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids; Baker, 1994), 192-201. Kaiser describes a number of models for doing this, including his own Ladder of Abstraction. 4 It seems this is what Jesus was referring to when he quoted Isaiah to the Pharisees in Matt. 15:9

examined here, non-conflicting absolutism, graded absolutism and ideal absolutism.

Non-conflicting absolutism, operates on the premise that moral absolutes will never contradict - hence, all moral dilemmas are merely a product of our own lack of understanding. This view is hard to maintain however because it requires perpetual qualifying of definitions to allow for exceptions that it should not in theory ever have to encounter. For instance, if we hold that "abortion is a sin" as a moral absolute, how do we deal with situations where abortion is necessary if the life of the mother is to be saved such as tubal pregnancies? The non-conflicting absolutist is forced to redefine the termination of a pregnancy as something other than an abortion in order to maintain the absolute, or else concede that not all abortion is sinful. Let us further consider another "absolute", lying. If we are to be honest about lying, we must say that a lie is more than merely stating something that is not true. Anytime we intentionally deceive another person, it is a lie. If the Nazis come to the door and say, "Are you hiding anyone in here?" It is still a lie if I say "if I were, I would not tell you." Though my statement is true, contextually it is not an answer to the question asked. The impression that I give, (that I am in fact answering the question,) is deceptive and leads to the wrong conclusion. The act of hiding in general is a form of deception. Consider the story of Samuel anointing David.5 Samuel was afraid that Saul would kill him if he attempted to anoint another king, so God commands Samuel to take a heifer with him. He is to tell Saul's men that he has come to make an offering to God; this however is merely a secondary reason intended to conceal the primary reason for his journey to anoint a new king. The nonconflicting absolutist must say that this is not technically a lie - or else concede that lying is not always wrong. The more terms need to be adjusted to eliminate exceptions, the less plausible the argument for non-conflicting absolutism becomes.

1st Samuel 16:1-13

Graded-Absolutism, attempts to get around this problem by proposing that absolutes are ranked in a Hierarchical manner and that our obligations to some precede our obligations to others. Under this system, telling a lie would be permissible if one did it in order to obey a greater command. The problem with this system is that, it is not exactly clear how these absolutes should be ranked. Certainly, nearly everyone can agree that love and the preservation of life should be at the top of the list, but beyond that is anybody's guess. In an article titled Indefensible War, Miroslav Volf considers the U.S.'s potential (at that time) use of pre-emptive force against Iraq. A pre-emptive war is unjust for a very simple reason: it cannot be just to condemn masses of people to certain death in order to avert the potential death of an equal or lesser number of people.6 In light of the recent elections, one must ask how justifiable the strong support of this president, by pro-life evangelicals, should actually be, when a war strategy like the "Shock and Awe" campaign (that opened this war) resulted in the indiscriminate killing of untold numbers of civilians - in a country that proved to be no true threat at all. Is the popular evangelical movement correct in putting the pro-life issue above all other issues? Does the life of American unborn take precedence over the lives of Iraqi men, women, and children? How does one reconcile graded absolutism with passages like James 2:10?7

Finally let me briefly consider one last command-based system, Ideal absolutism. This is the belief that apart from sin, moral norms do not conflict, but in a sinful world they often do, in which case we must choose the lesser of two evils and seek forgiveness. Unlike the previous two models this model acknowledges that if moral norms are absolute then there will be times when we no choice is morally right. I believe this is the most realistic of the three models and is the only viable option given the premise that the commandments of God are morally absolute, but

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Volf, Miroslav: Indefensible War, Christian Century. 119.20 p. 35 James 2:10 For whosoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all (NAS)

how can we reconcile this with 1 Cor. 10:13?8

Are there in fact moral absolutes at all? I believe so. If there were no moral absolutes then moral relativism would be true. Yet moral relativism is not true because no matter how different societies may be, no society every completely reverses what we commonly call "good". It would be impossible for a society to exist that held up theft, murder, and deception as virtues. Perhaps the absolute is not found in the pronounced commandment but in the principal that lies behind the commandment, on which abstract systems are based. Abstract Systems Abstract systems of ethics; seek to avoid the pitfalls of command-based systems by prescribing universal principals, which act as a template for ethical decision-making. Some of the secular approaches are Egoism, Utilitarianism, and Pragmatism. Their Christian equivalents would be approaches like Situationism, and Evangelical Contextualism. The problem with all such abstract templates is that there is no clear way to decide between them - other than personal conviction. What makes an action good, because it benefits me; because it will benefit the most people all around; because it works; because it is the most loving thing?

Even if one of these systems could clearly be identified as the right approach, navigating within these systems is equally uncertain. For example, if we establish the principal that one ought always to do the loving thing, as in situational ethics, how are we to know exactly what the loving thing to do is? Joseph Fletcher's arrives at some highly questionable conclusions when he sets about expounding on this method.9 There is one criticism, which can equally be applied to abstract as well as command-based

1 Cor 10:13, “No Temptation has overtaken you but such is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it. (NAS) 9 Some of Fletcher’s conslusions are detailed in Readings in Christian Ethic’s, vol. 1 Situations and Principles, J.I. Packer, 153. Such acts as patriotic prostitution, pre-marital sex, are considered justifiable in certain cases.

systems; that is, that they each promote a system that can operate independently of God. It is possible, even when starting with God given commandments, to proceed thereafter, to live independently of God, when the commandments themselves then become oracles, standing in the way of true communion with God. This fact alone calls the entire ethical enterprise into question. Do we seek to know good and evil independently of God, so that we do not have to know God? This would seem to be the lesson behind the story of the fall. Perhaps there is something beyond ethics and the Law - This is what I will explore in the second half of this paper.

Beyond Ethics and The Law

I would contend that Christian morality does not have its foundation in ethics or the law. I have attempted to show how rational systems based on either command or abstract principal fail to lead us to consistent ethical conclusions, I have also indicated that they are inadequate in that they tend to promote a state of independence from God. Where then, does the foundation of Christian morality abide? It can only be in the unchanging character of God - which is love expressed in community.10 The ideal model of this is in God himself -the community of persons that exist in the trinity.11 It is no accident that the New Testament exalts love above all other virtues. Love is not merely one virtue among many; it is the wellspring, from which all virtue proceeds. 1 John tells us that God himself, is Love.12 One of the difficulties of theism, which under girds much of our thinking about the one true God is its inability to portray a

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This is the purpose behind the writing of 1st John. The Trinity is our Social Program, MIroslav Volf. Modern Theology. 14.03, July 1998. pp. 403-423. I would like to explore Volf’s thought more thoroughly than I have been able to for this paper. I believe it would be a very productive investigation. 12 1 John 4:8

picture of God that is consistent with the God of the bible. It fails to produce a God who is love. Therefore, from the perspective of Theism, the things we commonly ascribe to God; love, justice, mercy, etc. cannot be a part of God's eternal nature; for these qualities only exist in relation to other things. Further more, there is no apparent motivation behind God's first act that does not somehow, diminish God. Did God need to create in order to be fulfilled as a creator? Did he do it because he needed someone to Love? Was he lonely? The monotheistic God who exists alone as perfection becomes a rock - the unmoved mover must remain immobile, for change represents either, a move toward or away from perfection.13

Reflection on the triune nature of God has given us many insights that lead us beyond these roadblocks. Miroslav Volf describes identity and self-donation as aspects inherent in the nature of the trinity. There are two qualities to identity, which Volf points out as important here. First, identity is non-reducible.14 This means that we cannot reduce a person to mere

relationship this is true of us as well as the persons of the trinity. Secondly, identity is not selfenclosed. Identity somehow is a product of relationship.15 Volf’s second aspect, self-

donation - he describes this as a communion of perfect lovers.16
The self gives something of itself, of its own space, so to speak, in a movement in which it contracts itself in order to be espanded by the other and in which it at the same time enters the contracted other in order to increase the other's plentitude. This giving of the self which coalesces with receiving the other is nothing but the circular movement of the eternal divine love - a form of exchange of gifts in which the other dies not emerge as a debtor because she has already given by having joyfully received and because even before the gift has reached her she was already enganged in a movement of advanced reciprocation.17

Reflection on the triune nature of God accounts for how the nature of God, can be essentially dynamic in nature. This removes one of the barriers to creation. It also accounts for how love can
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The Trinity is our Social Program, 408. Ibid. 410 15 ibid. 16 ibid 413 17 ibid 412-413

exist as a part of God's eternal nature. God does not create us in order to become love - God is love - in himself, expressed in the divine community of the trinity. What about God's other qualities, justice and mercy for instance? Surely there is no need for justice or mercy among perfect lovers. This is true, but then I would contend that Justice and Mercy are aspects of love. They are a part of God from eternity, but they find no expression in the essential relationship of the trinity, it is only through relation by creation that the emergent properties of justice and mercy are manifest. The act of Creation was essentially an expression of divine love, the divine love that already exists in the trinity. God did not create out of need, but out in an act of self-donation. In the two creation accounts of Genesis, you see humanity described variously as the pinnacle of God's creation Gen. 1; and as the one for whom the creation was made Gen. 2. The God of creation who made all things for us, is the same God revealed in Jesus - who gave all things for us. The Justice and Mercy emerges as two sides of the singular expression of God's love – in response to human sin. It is God, in his response to humanity - who we are to emulate. The concept of imitation is strong in the NT.18

Love is the wellspring of all other virtues. Consider a well-known passage 1 Corinthians 13:3-7. All the things that Paul tells us love is are virtues. Virtues very similar to the fruit of the spirit he describes in Galatians 5:22-23, which itself, proceeds to tell us that against such things there is no Law. The preeminence of love among all other virtues was not just recognized by Paul. It has its roots in the words of Jesus himself. The synoptic gospels each tell the story of how Jesus was questioned about the greatest commandment.19 Clearly each author wrestled with the exactly how this command was preeminent. For Mark, it was the greatest commandment - the most important, MK 12:3 1. For Matthew however, it is the foundation of the Law, on which the whole of the Law and the Prophets depend, Matt 22:40. For Luke, whose audience did not have
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Matt 5:48, 1 Cor 11:1, Eph. 5:1, 1 Thess. 1:6, 1 Jn 2:6 Jesus answers giving two commands “love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength and mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself”.

as direct a relationship to the Law, it is the summation of the Law - the essence of it, LK 10:2528. The Law is also held up in James as the Royal Law,20 this is the same Perfect Law that gives liberty.21 It is also found throughout the writings of John. Christian moral life is not developed by cataloging, ranking, and abstracting the various commands of God, then extrapolating or abstracting from them our moral duty. Rather it is by reflection on the laws of God - in order to discern God's character, indeed not only on the Law but also on the whole, of Scripture. What are the commandments of God? What are God's judgments? How has God dealt with humanity? As we draw nearer to an understanding of who God is we come closer, not only to an understanding of our moral responsibility our current

situation, but also to an empowerment and a willingness to take on that responsibility. For we learn not only of God's requirements but also of his provision. The scripture provides no conclusive answer for many questions. The NT seems to push us toward a greater dependence on God for our moral decision making. It does this by cutting off the road to the past and refusing us a map for the future. The Law, as I have said before is insufficient, and no abstract system is given for us to apply. We are confronted with many issues that the church never had to confront before. For instance, how do we live alongside people of differing beliefs and values in a free society? What are our responsibilities? To transform the culture, to withdraw? Commands exist to correct aberrant behavior. One way it does this is regulating abusive systems. Once the abusive system is transformed or destroyed the law no longer applies. This is true of those societies where slavery is no longer practiced. Clinging to the command rather than understanding the character of the lawgiver can only result in preserving or restoring the abusive system. Some have sought to apply Paul's instructions regarding slaves and masters to employer/employee relationships - this is horribly wrong. The free contractual agreements between free people have nothing to do with the one sided relationship of slavery.
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James 2:8 James 1:25, 2:12

One could infer from such a misuse of the law - as some have - that Unions and collective bargaining are somehow un-godly and wrong. If we are to know good from evil, and we are to know right from wrong, the only way to achieve this is to God. In our choices we can only act on what we know of the Character of God – in faith.