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Book Review

What we can learn about biblical ethics from the storyline of Scripture

The relevance of John Murray’s volume for today

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June 14, 2021

The study of Christian ethics is an underdeveloped area within the evangelical tradition, as many of the resources on biblical ethics come from the Roman Catholic moral tradition. While this is an area that has seen a recent surge of interest in the last few decades, there are several older works that the church would do well to pick up and read with a discerning mind. One of these volumes, written in the 1950s, is Principles of Conduct by theologian John Murray. 

It may seem odd to look back at a past work on biblical ethics given the rapidly shifting culture all around the church today. But many of these works are not only prescient in their insights but remind today’s believers that the core of the Christian moral tradition remains unchanged from generation to generation. This is because the biblical witness and the metaphysical realities do not fluctuate with the passing winds of society.

John Murray spent nearly his entire teaching career at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he taught systematic theology from 1930 to 1966. He began his teaching career at Princeton Theological Seminary, studying under J. Gresham Machen and Geerhardus Vos. He left Princeton after one year to help found Westminster Seminary. He is the author of numerous works, including Redemption: Accomplished and Applied and an exposition of Romans in the New International Commentary on the New Testament. 

Although the present volume is one of his only primary works on ethics, originally delivered as the 1955 Payton Lectures at Fuller Theological Seminary, Murray serves as a seasoned and experienced model of Christian ethics, offering readers a robust biblical ethic that is refreshingly grounded in God’s Word and focused on the “goodness, purity, and holiness” that flows from a life lived in pursuit of godliness (11). 

The biblical ethic

Murray’s work is primarily organized around the creation ordinances of marriage (the sexual union) and labor before shifting to the sanctity of life (focusing primarily on the death penalty, warfare, and seeking justice as a society) and truth-telling (lying, social order, and Jesus as the Truth). These topics are followed by chapters on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the relationship of law and grace, and the dynamic of the biblical ethic and the fear of God. The 1957 volume also contains four appendices on various scriptural questions and two essays on slavery in the Presbyterian Church in the USA and antinomianism. 

One of the most striking features of the book comes at the outset. The subtitle of the book is Aspect of Biblical Ethics. But almost immediately, Murray states that his goal is “to show the basic unity and continuity of the biblical ethic” (7, emphasis mine). This shift from the plural to the singular biblical ethic is strategic because he is focused on showing readers that there is a single ethic that arises from the biblical text, not multiple truths or conflicting accounts. This ethic not only considers the individual, but he states that there is a “corporate responsibility and there is corporate action” (13). This action flows from Scripture, which does not solely focus on the individual’s heart or relationship with God, but also on the corporate nature of the church and society.

This work was heavily influenced by Geerhardus Vos and the biblical theology movement. Vos’ 1954 work, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, significantly shaped Murray, as well as his approach to ethics. His stated goal is to apply the biblico-theological methods to the ethic of Scripture (7). Murray agrees with Vos that biblical theology is the “process of self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.” Vos is highlighted throughout the volume as Murray dissects various themes and passages in Scripture, building this biblical ethic. For Murray, the Bible has an organic unity of divine revelation “of which the Bible itself is the depository” (9). The sum of this revelation is found in the greatest commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Murray states at the beginning that the people of God are commanded to love God and love neighbor, which speaks to the deontological focus of Murray’s understanding of the biblical ethic. This theme is reiterated throughout the volume and featured prominently again near the end where Murray reminds readers that these commands have often “been used (we should say abused) as vague generalizations to conceal antipathy to the particulars of divine demand which these commandments require us to fulfill” (227). This two-fold emphasis on the actual text of Scripture and the pursuit of godliness is foundational to Murray’s entire work and serves as one of the primary strengths of the volume.

While Murray does not touch on some of the moral modern moral issues we have become accustomed to seeing in books on ethics, the principles he articulates are directly applicable to today’s complexities. For example, his emphasis on truth in chapter 6 is directly applicable today given the rise of conspiracy theories and misinformation with the ubiquity of social media and digital communication today. The church would do well to heed the biblical ethic charted by Murray as we seek to apply the timeless truths of Christianity to the important matters of today.

Foundational truths

One of Murray’s primary concerns for the church and her moral witness is shown in how he models a robust, biblical, and theological foundation especially in regard to the relationships of law and grace, epitomized in how many pit the Old and New Testaments against one another in some formulations of Christian ethics. Murray sees this move as a misunderstanding springing from a misinterpretation of Paul’s statement in Romans 6:14, which may lead some to create a false division between the Mosaic economy and covenant in relation to the new covenant found in the New Testament. (195) Murray focused this debate over law and grace on the fulfillment of the law in Christ, as well as on the constant call toward a life of godliness for the believer and by extension the entire church. He brilliantly states, “the fear of God is the soul of godliness,” which encapsulates the biblical ethic he models of seeing God as the center of the Christian life and the Scriptures as divine revelation calling God’s people to live in light of the gospel in every aspect of their lives. (229) Grace doesn’t free us from obligation, but nor does duty bring about salvation.

While this robust and thoroughly biblical volume is a testament to Murray’s own teaching career, one area of weakness is that the volume lacks a substantive discussion of the imago Dei and its implications on the biblical ethic, even though the concept of human dignity is prevalent throughout the work. Opening the book with the biblical ordinances would have been even more forceful had he set a foundation of the value of each human being as created in God’s image. As mentioned, human dignity is touched on numerous times in the work, but Murray doesn’t delve into the doctrine or show how it functions within the biblico-theological storyline. Though this omission could be based on how Murray seeks to stick to the biblical theological thread since the Bible does not spend considerable amounts of time on the doctrine even though, based on creation, it undergirds the entirety of the biblical ethic.

Overall, Murray’s volume on the biblical ethic is a classic text within the Reformed moral and ethical tradition for good reason. While he doesn’t address every particular issue of Christian ethics, he lays a solid foundation, grounded in God’s unchanging word and a deep knowledge of the Scriptures unlike many modern treatments of Christian ethics which tend to be organized around issues but lack an in-depth exposition of the Scriptures themselves. He does not simply apply Scripture to ethical debates but rather walks through the text showing their ethical value and calling upon God’s people to pursue a life of godliness. Murray’s ultimate vision for Christians ethics is that “the ethics of the bible reflect the character of God,” thus God’s people are to seek to become more like God as his unique image bearers as they follow him. (202)

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics at ERLC. He writes and speaks on various topics including human dignity, ethics, technology, public theology, digital governance, and artificial intelligence. His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with Zondervan. He is … Read More