Understanding ethical systems: Biblical ethics (Part 2)

January 26, 2021

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on what Christians should know about ethical theories. The first article and future articles can be found here.

In this series, we’re looking at several of the most common ethical systems within normative ethics (such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics), considering their strengths and weaknesses, and comparing them to a baseline standard, which we’ll call “biblical ethics.” The first article explained what biblical ethics is and how we know an action is moral. In this article we’ll examine moral decision-making, including how we know which biblical rules or principles apply to a given situation and what we do when moral acts conflict.

How do we know which rules or principles apply to a given situation?

As pertains to moral decision-making, the Bible should be understood as a revelation of God’s commands, principles, and virtues. God’s moral instruction comes to us in the form of commands and principles and is also revealed in Christian virtues and examples (particularly in the example of Jesus). We should therefore prioritize commands because they help us to most clearly understand God’s standards for our conduct. They also help us determine how principles and virtues are to be applied.

Within Scripture we find two basic categories of commands: broad (or general) commands and narrow (or specific) commands. Broad/general commands typically apply to many situations, such as the command to love our neighbor, and always apply in some way to all cultures and all contexts.

Narrow or specific commands relate to a particular circumstance, often in a culture that differs from our own. An example is Deuteronomy 22:8, which says, “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” An application in our day might be to build a fence around your backyard pool so that a neighbor’s child doesn’t fall in and drown.

Narrow commands might not always apply to all cultures and all contexts. In some cases (as with the example above) there might be a parallel application. Narrow commands are similar to “case law” (i.e., law as established by the outcome of former cases) in that they give us paradigmatic examples for situations we might encounter.

In determining how a command applies we must consider the reason for the command. If the reason for the command is a theological principle that is always true, then the rule will almost always apply today. As a general rule, if the Old Testament gives a moral command it is still in effect unless later canceled, either explicitly or implicitly, in the New Testament.

Sometimes it is rather obvious how a command in Scripture can be applied. But oftentimes, to determine whether an action or circumstance is similar to an action judged to be wrong in Scripture, we must use analogical reasoning. In his essay “The Place of Scripture in Christian Ethics,” James Gustafson states the commonly accepted method of scriptural analogy:

Those actions of persons and groups are to be judged morally wrong which are similar to actions that are judged to be wrong or against God’s will under similar circumstances in Scripture, or are discordant with actions judged to be right or in accord with God’s will in Scripture.

An example of how to use analogical reasoning would be to consider the question of whether abortion is immoral. Our first step would be to ask, “What ethical rules or principles apply in this situation?” For this question, the answer is rather straightforward since the Bible has a clear command that prohibits the taking of innocent life.

The command was given by God to Moses as one of the Ten Commandments on two separate occasions (Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17). In the New Testament, we also find the commandment reconfirmed by Jesus (Matthew 5:21), and reiterated by his apostle, Paul (Romans 13:9). As pastor-theologian Kevin DeYoung notes, the sixth commandment prohibits much more than just cold-blooded, premeditated murder. It prohibits killing or causing to be killed, by direct action or inaction, any legally innocent human.

An elective abortion (as opposed to a spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage) is the killing of an innocent human being. Based on scientific knowledge of human development, we know a human embryo/fetus is an actual human being and that human life begins at fertilization/conception. Several passages in the Bible also strongly suggest that human life begins at conception (cf. Job 31:13-15; Psalms 51:5; 139:13-16; Matthew 1:20). Because elective abortion unjustly takes the life of a defenseless human being, abortion is prohibited by God under the sixth commandment.

What do we do when moral acts conflict?

There may be times when we may find that two or more moral commands or principles appear to be in conflict. An oft-used example is the “Nazi at the door” problem:

Imagine that you are living in World War II Germany and are hiding a family of Jews in your basement. A Nazi SS soldier comes to your door and asks if there are any Jews in your home. On the one hand, you know it is morally wrong to lie. On the other hand, you also know it would be morally wrong to answer in a way that would get the family killed. What should you do?

There are three ways to resolve this issue. The first is to determine whether there is an actual moral conflict. The second is to conclude that true ethical conflicts cannot exist. The third is to determine the hierarchy of commands.

Many Christians—including me—would say that in this particular situation there is no moral conflict because there is no lie being told. A lie is an intentional falsehood that violates someone’s right to know the truth. I’m convinced there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. The Nazi at the door has forfeited his right to know the truth about whether you have Jews in your home because he has a nefarious intent. It would be similar to the Hebrew midwives who deceived Pharaoh when he wanted to kill all newborn male babies (Exodus 1:17–21).

If there was an actual moral conflict (because you believe failing to acknowledge the Jews hidden in your home would be lying to the Nazi), then we have to apply the second or third approaches. The second approach is called “non-conflicting absolutism.” It denies that a true ethical conflict can even exist and claims that any perceived conflict is a result of human misinterpretation. Under this view, if we have a perfect view of ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ any illusion of conflict is dispelled. The problem, of course, is that we have no perfect view and so it is not clear how we would know what decision to make under this perspective. This is why the non-conflicting absolutism is rarely held by Christian ethicists.

The third approach is called “hierarchicalism” (or graded absolutism). This view holds that moral conflict can exist and that when ethical laws are in conflict a “right” choice is available through a hierarchy of principles found in Scripture. Under hierarchicalism, if one duty clearly has priority, we must choose that duty. Even if we believed that we would be lying to the Nazi and that it would be morally wrong, the duty to protect the lives of the Jewish family would take priority. According to hierarchicalism, as long as we follow the higher moral law, we are not held responsible for failing to keep the lower-level command.  Also, under hierarchicalism, if both duties appear to have equal priority, we are free to obey either duty (though we need to be certain they are indeed of equal priority).

Hierarchicalism has solid biblical support, as even Jesus prioritized some rules and commands when they appear to come into conflict (see, for example, Matthew 12:9-13). It’s important to remember that hierarchicalism is about selecting the better of two goods, not choosing the “lesser of two evils.” We are not called to choose any evil—even a lesser one. We are not called to choose an evil that good may come.

What is the process for moral decision-making?

We can put all of this together to devise a seven-step process for making moral decisions:

This may initially seem like a labor-intensive process, and too burdensome for use in real life. But once we develop a solid grasp of God’s commands and the relevant fact patterns, the process often becomes rather straight-forward.

In the next article in this series, we’ll wrap up our focus on biblical ethics by considering the role of conscience. The remaining articles in this series will then compare and contrast other ethical systems—deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics—to the biblical standard.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More