Book Review

Why we need ethics to survive

A review of Carl F. H. Henry’s "Christian Personal Ethics"

March 15, 2021

Often when the secular world speaks of evangelicals, these Christians are caricatured as lacking education, social and historical awareness, and even a realistic understanding of the way the world actually works. In 1957, the esteemed theologian Carl F.H. Henry wrote Christian Personal Ethics to equip the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and to engage the apparent hostility demonstrated by elites toward evangelical thought. Henry wrote this comprehensive account of Christian personal ethics in a period some have called a revival of fundamentalist scholarship. Henry’s treatise on Christian ethics was written as an introductory text for seminaries, colleges, and those desiring to be equipped to engage the debates surrounding philosophy, epistemology, and especially the role of the Bible in ethics. Henry’s aim was to expose the “severance of ethics from fixed values and standards” in modern culture, and show the ways that a Christian ethic must be rooted in the Word of God (13).

Henry was the founding editor of Christianity Today and served as a professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary. He authored the influential six-volume work, God, Revelation, and Authority, which he completed in 1983. He also wrote a number of other works including a companion volume to the present work called Aspects of Christian Social Ethics. The present volume was designed to address the personal aspects of Christian ethics. In the book, Henry walks the reader through a host of alternative ethical systems, showing readers the inherent faults of these systems in light of the moral revelation of Christianity. For Henry, “ethics is the incisive and universal requisite for survival,” meaning that ethics is essential to human existence (13).

Defining a Christian Ethic

In this work, Henry describes and analyzes the contours of a variety of ethical formulations and then lays out what he describes as a neo-evangelical ethic based on the presuppositions of Reformed theology. In the first section, which he describes as speculative philosophy, he walks the reader through an examination of naturalistic, idealistic, and existential ethics. Under each ethical system, he engages with many of the great ancient Greek philosophers as well as many modern figures such as Machiavelli, Spinoza, Kant, and Heidegger. While his critiques of these ethical systems are pointed at times, Henry’s wisdom and thoughtfulness is evident as he points out aspects of their thought that align with Christian revelation. Henry is quick to give credit to these various thinkers when they pick up a thread of truth. For example, he writes that the “world did not need to wait for Utilitarianism to assert that benevolence is good, that whatever imperiled the public good was not virtuous, that true morality tends to the welfare of the social whole. The revealed morality of the Bible had affirmed all of this” (41). Throughout the work, Henry reiterates the role of God’s revelation that shapes and produces a distinctly Christian ethic.

The second section of the book sets out Henry’s vision for Christian ethics, which is grounded in God’s revealed Word and in the life of the local church. A key aspect of Henry’s vision for Christian ethics is tied to the role of the imago Dei, which sets man apart from the rest of creation as one with reason and morality. Being image bearers, no human being can “escape ethical responsibility” (151). Henry speaks of the uniqueness of the Christian ethic based in love as the summation of the law and prophets referencing the double love command of Matthew 22:37-39 (221). He then shifts to walk through the Christian ethic as seen in the Old Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, and the larger New Testament canon. He ultimately argues that Jesus is the ideal of Christian ethics and that Christ’s humility is the hallmark of ethics, which “stands over against the high-mindedness and pride which speculative ethics approved” (417). He ends on an interesting note for a work of Christian ethics, speaking to the role of prayer in the life of the believer. Prayer is not just “the individual’s acknowledgement of creaturely dependence, but the whole souled confession that his true hope is in the supernatural world” (573). This conclusion reiterates the uniqueness of Christian ethics in a world that has been deluded with selfish ambition, pride, and haughty individualism.

The Role of Revelation

Henry speaks of Christian ethics as a revealed ethic given by God to his people, who are sinful and in rebellion. Henry states that, “Biblically-revealed ethics dismiss as shallow all evaluations of the ethical situation which hesitate to view sin, death, and Satan as determinative categories” (172). Henry’s emphasis on the role of revelation, specifically special revelation, is central to the work along with his emphasis on the fallen nature of humanity. The moral revelation of Scripture is key to defining a Christian ethic because it grounds the believer in God’s truth as he lives in the created world. “Christianity stresses the unity of Truth, and the universal validity of the Good and Right, and the universality of rational norms, along with its emphasis on special revelation, because it sets special revelation against the background of general revelation” (149). This interplay between general and special revelation is one of the most striking aspects of Henry’s Christian ethic because of the firm stance he takes regarding the role of natural law in Christian ethics, which he stridently opposes but interestingly leans upon at various points in the work.

Henry points out that an ethic of natural morality is inherently flawed and “ruled out” given the fallen state of humanity (159), but also speaks of the “implanted moral law” in humanity (154). He points out how the ethics of special revelation are not a straight-line continuity with the Thomistic tradition of confident rationalism (156), which seems to be his biggest point of concern with natural law ethics. He argues that the Thomistic tradition fails to deal realistically with the fact of a fallen human nature (196), especially as some who hold to natural law speak of the disordered will and desires of humanity, but do not emphasize the same effect of the fall on human reason. He goes on to state that, “Because Christian ethics is the ethics of special and not of universal revelation, it is not immanently accessible to all men on the basis of creation” (203).

Another of Henry’s critique of natural law ethics similarly flows from his high view of sin that extends to all of nature. He states that nature itself is sinful and split, which cannot lead one to conformity to God’s will (196). This is a consistent message throughout the work, especially as Henry rightfully exposes the flaws and dangers of naturalistic ethics earlier. While he is consistent with his emphasis on the fullness of the fall’s effects upon nature and humanity, this conflation of natural law ethics and naturalism seems a bit stretched in his critique of the Thomistic tradition. It seems that Henry actually holds to a similar understanding of natural law ethics, even if he does not use the same terminology or understand it to be salvific in any way.  This is clear as he argues, “The good and true may come through distorted and stretched. And men everywhere, who are also stamped with the image, acknowledge as good and true what reflects that image, even if sometimes in a crude way” (477).  To his credit, Henry is seeking to emphasize the particularity of the Christian ethic throughout this work, and his critique of natural law seems to be focused on defining this particularly rather than a blanket statement on the role of natural revelation in the Christian life. 

Overall, Christian Personal Ethics provides a wealth of knowledge for readers as it takes a broad approach to defining a distinctly Christian ethic in light of the multitude of ethical systems available. Henry’s engagement with these non-Christian ethics is accessible and trustworthy as he defines Christian ethics with an emphasis on the role of special revelation and the transformed life of the individual. Henry’s ending to the work on the role of prayer in a Christian ethics is laudable as well given the utter dependence of the believer on God for all things, including an understanding of morality in the first place.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24