Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Use of Scriptue in Ethical Decisions

The following is a paper I wrote for my "Growing Into Ethical Maturity" class. The assignment needed to address the following: how the atomement impacts the use of the Bible, the role of principlization, the role of spiritual illumination, how to develop a biblical response to social ethical issues, and how to use scripture in areas where it appears not to address the specific issue. At the end of this post, I also provided the two lists I mentioned in the paper.

Are we able to use the Bible when making ethical decisions? Yes, of course! But the Bible can effectively be utilized only because of Jesus’ work of atonement. By faith we are fully justified before God because of Jesus’ sacrifice, and we stand in his righteousness. No unholy thing may be in God’s presence. By the atonement, we appropriate Christ’s righteousness and thus we are able to fulfill God’s command to be holy as he is holy. Jesus promised the disciples that it would be better for them when he returned to the Father, for he would send the Holy Spirit. Jesus could send the Holy Spirit to indwell the people of God after he returned to the Father, because at that time he had completed his work of atonement and it is by the atonement that God’s people are made righteous. Thus, God may again dwell with his people.

This is key to ethical decision making because moral commands flow from God’s very nature and only God is good and wise. To act ethically, I must know the will of God, and this is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. This does not eliminate the need for study and sound hermeneutics. However, a good scholar is able to effectively argue heretical points. It is the revelation of the Holy Sprit that brings good fruit from study. Apart from identifying with Jesus’ work on the cross and seeking the Holy Spirit’s illumination, it seems that using the Bible in ethical decisions (or in any matter) ends up being “dead works.” Jesus is the Life—whatever I do on my own apart from him leads to death.

What does this mean for understanding the continuity between the Old and New Testaments? Is the Old Testament a valid guide for ethical decisions? Or is the Old Testament merely to be honored as recording the preparation for Christ’s coming? While the cross is the event of history, the entirety of scripture is vitally important in ethical decision making. Something changes at the cross, yes, but that something is me, not God. Malachi prophesies, “For I, the LORD, do not change.” (Mal 3:6). God makes this affirmation in the midst of speaking about the Day of the Lord, a future event after the cross. Hebrews 13:8 says that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” And Peter, after exhorting his readers to remember that they were redeemed by the blood of Christ, says about Christ, “For he was foreknown before the foundation of the world.” (1Pet 1:20) The three persons of the God-head—the Lord—does not change. And further, the atonement was planned before the fall. Thus, while my position before God and his law radically changes, God’s law does not.

There is a permanence to God’s word. Jesus said, “The Scripture can not be broken.” (Jn10:35) Also, Paul exhorts Timothy that, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2Tim 3:16-17) While I do not know Greek grammar, the English of this passage reads in the present tense—that all of scripture is currently profitable, so that we may be equipped for good works, which includes moral action.

The Sermon on the Mount is Matthew’s first recorded teaching of Jesus after his baptism and temptation. In this sermon, Jesus stresses the permanence of the law, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Mt 5:17-18) Those who see the greatest discontinuity between the covenants will stress that Jesus accomplished all on the cross. However, the passage itself makes this an odd interpretation. In verse nineteen Jesus goes on to commend those who keep the law, “but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is preaching the coming kingdom, but entrance into this kingdom is only by being born again, which can only truly happen after Jesus’ work of atonement. It seems odd that Jesus would so strongly praise behavior that should only be practiced for the three years preceding the cross.

The next issue of this passage in Matthew is Jesus fulfilling the law. It is clear that here abolish and fulfill are in contrast. The law remains in effect, but is fulfilled (Strongs #4137). This same word (Strongs #4137) is used in Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” and again in 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” A difficulty with “fulfillment” is that “the use of the term ‘fulfillment’ is generally conceded as deliberately ambiguous by most scholars.” (Gipp, 22) What is clear is that “fulfilled” does not mean abolished, or completed and thus set aside. No one proposes that we set aside the law of Christ, which we are commanded to fulfill.

I have difficulties with both of the discontinuity camps presented. There is unity to God’s work and purpose to which the discontinuity theories seemingly do injustice. What changes at the cross is first and foremost me. Viewing the cross as a brick wall or screen door in history through which nothing or little of the Old Testament passes through is not correct. The cross is a brick wall to my old man. When I identify with Christ’s dying and rising again in baptism, there is something in me that dies and does not continue.

While I would be most akin to moderate continuity, I also have difficulties with both continuity positions. The biggest problem I see is the tidy division of the Mosaic Law into civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. It solves the continuity tension nicely to say that in Jesus our obligation to the civil and ceremonial aspects are handled (by either observing them in him, or his vicarious fulfillment of them) and then that the remaining third, the moral law, has always and will always be in effect. However, this tripartite division strikes me as a manifestation of our Western mindset’s desire to compartmentalize, imposed onto the Hebrew text. From my studies thus far, the Hebrew mindset seems far more holistic, in that you could not isolate an event to be purely moral, with no civil or ceremonial consequences, and visa versa.

In the Mosaic Law, God is fulfilling his covenantal promise to Abraham to bring a nation from him that will be God’s own people. God’s purpose in his covenant with Abraham is to advance his plan of redemption. Thus, God impresses upon the Israelites that they are to be his people, he will be their God and will dwell with them, but they most be holy as he is holy. Gipp explains, “The law for the ancient Israelites guided their conduct in order to keep the physical presence of the Lord with them. The Lord’s consistent, physical presence forces the Israelites to be concerned about what is holy and common (status); clean and unclean (condition).” (Gipp, 8) The change at the cross is that believers are now enabled to be holy, by the appropriated righteousness of Christ and the very presence of the Holy Spirit in each of God’s people. Again, Gipp explains this shift, “Holiness that was once performed because of the physical presence of the Lord has now been molded internally because [of] the Holy Spirit’s indwelling.” (Gipp, 24) Jeremiah prophesies this shift the believer’s position before the law:

“’Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put my law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.’” (Jer. 31:31-34)

Verse 34 points to the atonement as key for this new promised covenant—God’s people know him because he forgives their iniquity. A promise of this new covenant is that God will write his law on their hearts. This is accomplished through the giving of the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ ascension.

In addition to the repeated testimony of the Old Testament that the law of God is good (e.g. Ps119), Paul is emphatic on this point, particuarly in Rom. 7:12. On the other hand, Paul also “emphasized that human transgressions horrifically exemplified the hijacking of the law done by sin. Sin takes the law hostage and perverts the law’s intention—thus making it condemnation focused.” (Gipp, 19) (See Rom. 7-8) But, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Rom. 8:1-2) The law was given for life (Dt 30:15-16) and is holy, but because of my sin it brought death. By Christ’s atonement, the way is made for me to die to sin and live to God. Identifying with Christ’s death in my baptism, my old man dies and I can live by the law of the Spirit. The law is the same, what has changed is my position. By the indwelling of the Spirit I can obey God’s law—fulfill it. (Gal 6:2)

In Numbers 11, Moses pleads with God for help in dealing with the Israelites. God tells Moses to assemble the seventy elders so that he may empower them to bear Moses’ burden with him. Two of the elders did not assemble, but stayed in the camp. God caused his Spirit to be on all seventy of the elders and they all prophesied, including the two in the camp. In response to Joshua’s defensive report of this, Moses exclaimed, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!” (Num 11:29) Moses longs for a time with all of God’s people would be able to discern his will and follow after him with all of their hearts. This would happen when God pours out his Spirit. Gipp summarizes this continuity well,

“Again the link between the Old Testament and the New is found in the person of Jesus Christ and the coming [of] of the Spirit. . . . On the basis of the personal, powerful, motivational indwelling of the Holy Spirit each individual believer can fulfill the whole law since it is written on the heart. Without needing to divide the law, abrogate the law, or eliminate the law, the believer, with study and dedication, can find the trajectories of application from one setting to another. All of these things are made possible through the Spirit of God.” (Gipp, 26)

Such heavy reliance on spiritual illumination is often charged with being far too subjective. And yes, it is possible to err. The kingdom of God is inaugurated, but not consummated—as such we still fight our flesh. But my flesh is equally capable of skewing my hermeneutics as it is of distorting my hearing of the voice of God. The primary guard against both errors is live in submission to the local and universal body of Christ. Principlization is also charged with being highly prone to err or ambiguity. There are difficulties with principlization—it is complicated. However, our cars are complicated machines, and could even kill someone if not used properly, yet we still drive. Principlization is also a biblically supported tool. Paul uses it in 1 Cor. 9:9. Principlization utilizes our God given faculties of reason. In explaining principlization, Kaiser points out our natural tendency to “appeal to the reason behind a case law.” (Clark, 199) When we are submitted to the Holy Spirit and Christian community, principlization can be used responsibly.

When approaching an ethical decision, the whole Word of God must be utilized, with spiritual illumination in the forefront. I appreciate Frame’s explanation that the Word of God includes, first and foremost, the written word, “but is also revealed in the world . . . and in the self. . . . A Christian will study those three realms presupposing their coherence and therefore seeking at each point to integrate each source of knowledge with the other two.” (Clark, 183) When approaching a social ethical decision, it requires “[s]aturation with God’s Word.” (Clark, 182) The issue must be studied from all three facets of the Word of God. From the world aspect, what is the science pertaining to this issue—biological, physical, social, other? What methodologies are used currently and are there other options? What is their impact? What has been proven around this issue and what further claims are being made? Are these claims substantiated? From the self aspect, what are the emotions attached to this issue, in myself and on all sides of the issue? Almost always those on all sides of an issue will resort to emotionally charged rhetoric for persuasion. The emotions must be recognized and analyzed to enable a more objective decision. All biases must also be identified and analyzed—those of all sides and my own. From the aspect of scripture, what does the whole of the cannon have to say on the issue? Even if there are specific passages that seem to address the issue, getting the large picture of the entire Bible is vital. Here principlization is often helpful. A useful tool for deciding if a passage of scripture is relevant to the issue, is Fee and Stuart’s guidelines found in Clark, 202-206. Their list is specifically for determining if a passage of the New Testament is culturally relative or normative for all Christians, but given the unity of scripture, their list can be profitable for passages in the Old Testament as well. When all of the data is gathered from the three aspects of God’s Word, with expectation earnestly pray and seek out spiritual illumination. God promises wisdom to those who ask him for it. (James 1:5)

If, when examining the issue from the aspect of scripture, it seems to fall into a gray area where the Bible says nothing at all, Miles’ ten questions are the way to go. They are an excellent, exhaustive treatment to which I have little to add. The ten questions examine an issue with the following order of priorities: First, does it glorify God? Second, do I love my brother through this? And third, am I built up in my faith in this? If the gray issue fails at any point in these ten questions, then I would not have faith that it is a right action and I must not do it. For whatever is not done in faith is sin.


Clark, David K. and Robert V. Rakestraw. Readings in Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994. pp 179-206.

Gipp, Kevin M. “Continuous Discontinuity? Continuously Discontinuous? Some thoughts about the relationship between the Old Testament and New” A paper for partial fulfillment of PT 811, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. 2003

Distinguishing Culturally Relative from Normative Teachings

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart

(As quoted in Readings, but taken from How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.)

1. Distinguish between the central core of the message of the Bible and what is dependent upon or peripheral to it.

2. Distinguish between what the New Testament itself sees as inherently moral and what is not.

3. Make special note of items where the New Testament itself has a uniform and consistent witness and where it reflects differences.

4. Distinguish within the New Testament itself between principle and specific application.

5. As much as one is able to do this with care, . . . determine the cultural options open to any New Testament writer. The degree to which a New Testament writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position.

6. Keep alert to possible cultural differences between the first and twentieth centuries that are sometimes not immediately obvious.

7. Exercise Christian charity at this point.

Ten Questions for Guidance in Morally Indifferent Matters

Prof. Todd L. Miles

Class notes for SFS504 "Growing Into Ethical Maturity." Western Seminary, Sp 2007.

1. Am I fully persuaded that this activity is right? (Rom. 14:5, 14, 22-23)

2. Can I practice this as “unto the Lord”? (Rom 14:6-8)

3. Can I engage in this without being a stumbling block to my brothers and sisters in Christ? (Rom 14:13, 15, 20-21)

4. Does it promote righteousness, peace and joy? (Rom 14:17, 19a)

5. Does it edify others? (Rom 14:19b)

6. Is this practice profitable? (1 Cor 6:12a)

7. Does this activity enslave me? (1 Cor 6:12b)

8. Is the Holy Spirit guiding me into this? (Gal 5:16-18; Rom 8)

9. Does it bring glory to God? (1 Cor 10:31)

10. Can I be thankful for this?

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