Chapter Nine The Epistemology of a Christian Ethic
Synopsis In this chapter we continue developing a Christian metaethic. Building on the metaphysical foundation developed in the previous chapter, we delve into the epistemology of a Christian approach to ethics, emphasizing the role of divine revelation but eventually also returning to the previously-discussed philosophical ethical theories, finding value in many of them when placed within the framework of a Christian ethic. Along the way we discuss how to interpret the Bible accurately and the logic used in applying the Bible to issues in applied ethics. Introduction In the previous chapter we saw that a cogent answer to the fundamental question “What is the nature and source of moral goodness?” is that moral goodness is an aspect or reflection of the nature of God, who is perfectly good.40 However, this answer to our metaphysical question about the nature of morality leads us to a similarly fundamental epistemological question: How can we know what is morally good? This could be a vexing question, for if morality is an aspect or reflection of God’s nature, and if God’s nature transcends human understanding, then how can we possibly know what the good is? An epistemologist is someone who studies how people gain knowledge, what knowledge is, and similar 40 Good discussions of why moral goodness is a fundamental aspect of the nature of God are found in Thomas Morris, Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1991) 47-64, and David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls. Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (NY: Oxford University Press, 2011) chapter 5, “God and Goodness.”
issues. Epistemologists have identified a range of approaches to knowledge acquisition and belief justification, including versions of rationalism, empiricism, intuitionism, foundationalism, and others. Each of the metaethical theories that we have discussed implicitly or explicitly utilizes some such approach to knowledge acquisition. For example, consequentialist metaethical theories do not appeal to intuition or abstract rationality but rather to experience, making inferences from past experiences to conclusions about the likely results of actions or rules, and as such they are employing an empiricist epistemology. Kantian Duty Ethics, on the other hand, is intentionally rationalist, for Kant believes that the categorical imperative is discovered through an abstract, rational contemplation of morality. Neither consequentialism nor Duty Ethics was ultimately successful in building a satisfactory ethical system. This suggests that the epistemological strategies underlying these metaethics (empiricism and rational empiricism, respectively) are not the best epistemology by which to approach ethics. What epistemology should we use, then? That is the subject of this chapter.41 Theory Since morality is a reflection of the nature of God, it makes at least prima facie sense that we would apply the same epistemology in ethics that we would apply when doing theology. How would you expect to gain knowledge about the nature or God? Many theologians, past and present, believe that we can only have knowledge of God if he 41 A very readable introduction to epistemology is James K. Dew Jr. and Mark W. Foreman, How Do We Know?: An Introduction to Epistemology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).
reveals himself to us. This could be true for ethics as well. A revelational approach to ethics would fit extremely well with the position that morality is a reflection of the holy nature of a transcendent God who himself can only be known through his self-revelation. This naturally leads to the question “Has God revealed himself, and does this revelation include an ethical system, or at least the foundational principles necessary for constructing an ethical system?” Theologians argue that God has revealed himself in a number of ways, and theistic ethicists believe that God has revealed foundational ethical principles as well as applications of these principles. These positions do not need to be taken on blind faith. Theistic scholars have worked diligently to show that there are good reasons for believing in God and divine revelation.42 One fruitful line of argumentation begins with the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Scholarly historical research has shown that there is very solid evidential support for belief in Jesus’ resurrection.43 Gary Habermas has argued cogently that this resurrection cannot be a natural event, hence there must exist a supernatural power; that this power is best understood as a personal God; and that the resurrection places God’s stamp of approval on the life and teachings of the one resurrected. Hence Jesus’ life and teachings are approved by God. Since truthfulness is part of God’s 42 A very interesting and readable book on these issues is Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd’s autobiographical Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with his Father’s Questions about Christianity (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1994). A more academic volume is Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011). 43 See, for example, Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010) and N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003).
Habermas’ 12 Widely- Accepted Facts The American historian and philosopher Gary Habermas provides a list of 12 facts accepted by most historians that, when put together, strongly support the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was miraculously resurrected. 1. Jesus died by crucifixion. 2. He was buried. 3. His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope. 4. The tomb was empty (this is the most contested of the 12). 5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. 6. The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers. 7. The resurrection was the central message of the early church. 8. The message of Jesus’ resurrection was preached in Jerusalem. 9. Christianity was born and grew. 10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship. 11. James had been skeptical but was converted to Christianity when he saw the resurrected Jesus. 12. The Pharisee Saul was converted to Christianity and became the Apostle Paul when he encountered the resurrected Jesus. Habermas’ work can be found on his website: www.garyhabermas.com
nature, God would not approve of Jesus’ teachings if they are substantially false. Hence Jesus’ teachings should be accepted as true. One of the things that Jesus taught was that the Hebrew Bible was revealed by God. Thus we arrive at the conclusion that God has revealed himself through the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, since the Hebrew Bible contains many ethical principles and applications, we can affirm that God’s revelation includes ethical data that can be used in forming an ethical system. Habermas extends this argument to include the New Testament by showing that Jesus anticipated that the apostles would preserve and pass on his teachings and that the apostles viewed their writings as scripture.44 This argument is found in Gary R. Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). Oliver O’Donavan explicitly connects the resurrection to ethics in Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics 2nd edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
Hermeneutics The question that follows for us is, “How should the Bible be used in ethics?” The answer is less obvious and much more detailed than some would expect. Many Christians seem to think that the Bible is a plain and simple book of moral and religious sayings the meaning of which is, in general, fairly obvious. There is some truth here – a smidgeon. An average person can study and understand the Bible; an advanced degree in theology is not required. But the Bible is not some middle-school piece of literature: it is a collection of writings that were composed over a long expanse of time by people with a variety of backgrounds who were communicating some pretty advanced religious and philosophical ideas. In order to understand what the authors are trying to communicate we need to read it in a manner that is hermeneutically informed. Hermeneutics is the science of accurately interpreting difficult texts. If your goal is to uncover the original message of the author (called “authorial intent”), then what you are trying to do is called “exegesis.” Exegesis is the process of drawing out of a text its original meaning. The opposite of exegesis is eisegesis, which is the process of reading ideas or an interpretation into a text instead of drawing out of the text the authorial intent. The most reliable way to perform an exegesis of a biblical text is to utilize a grammatical-historical- contextual hermeneutic. That sounds much more intimidating than it actually is. Let me break it down into parts for you. “Grammatical” refers to the language of the text you are reading. If you want to uncover the authorial intent, you need to pay close attention to the actual words that the author uses, trying to understand them as they were used in the day that the text was originally written. Most of the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, but those who do not know these ancient languages can learn much about
the meaning of the original words by using Bible commentaries, the indices in Strong’s Concordance, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, and other such secondary sources.45 Paying attention to the author’s language does not stop at the words; in fact, that is just the beginning. We also need to pay attention to how he puts the words together – what phrases, idioms, metaphors, and other figures of speech he uses when trying to communicate his message, which he probably views as being urgently important – with conviction and persuasiveness. “Historical” refers to the historical context in which the text was written. Quite often a knowledge of the times in which a text is written and the religious, cultural, political climate of that era will shed new light on a text. For example, if someone were to try to understand the New Testament who has no knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, much of what she would read would seem strange and would be confusing, for much of the New Testament is based on and reflects the events, teachings, and revelations contained in the Hebrew Bible. Sometimes readers of the New Testament who are fairly familiar with the Hebrew Bible seem to forget that the history recorded therein forms a significant aspect of the historical context of the New Testament and as a result they misinterpret parts of the New Testament. An example of this is the reading of Hebrews 11:1 (“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”) that interprets this passage as defining faith as believing in God without evidence. Many of the examples of faith provided in verses three through 40 are examples of people in the Hebrew 45 James Strong, The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Thomas Nelson Publishing Co., 2010); W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Thomas Nelson Publishing Co., 2003).
Bible who experienced God and then learned to trust in him, so the term “faith” in the first verse of the chapter is not likely to have such a fideistic meaning.46 “Contextual” refers to the literary context in which the text is found. Perhaps the most common mistake people make when using the Bible is to take verses out of their context. Always check the context of the verses that you think support your position! When checking the context you usually need to read the whole paragraph in which the verse occurs in order to get a broader understanding of what the author is talking about before you can be sure what he is addressing in the particular verse that you are studying. It’s not uncommon for me to read several paragraphs, amounting to a chapter or two of the Bible, in order to follow a writer’s train of thought leading up to the verse that I’m trying to interpret. An additional aspect of “literary context” is the literary genre in which the verse occurs. When trying to exegete a passage it is very helpful to be aware of the type of literature you are reading. If you are reading history, for example, the degree of literalness of the message will be much higher than if you are reading poetry. (There are some books in the Bible that are almost completely history, while the book of Psalms is almost completely poetic.) Poetic, prophetic, and apocalyptic literature contain much more symbolism than do the gospels and the epistles of the New Testament, but those contain more symbolism than do the historical books. And within individual books it is good to be aware that the author can utilizes a variety of literary styles, such as parables, analogies, and metaphors. I cannot overstate how important it is to pay close attention to the historical and literary context when you are 46 Fideism is the view that faith is a form of belief that does not derive its justification from supporting evidence. It is, in essence, the view that faith is a result of an act of the will.
interpreting the Bible. As they say in hermeneutics, “context is king!”47 Logic More remains to be said about the Bible and ethics. I still need to explain how the carefully-interpreted Bible is useful in responding to ethical dilemmas. When we think about the logic behind applying the Bible to ethical dilemmas, those who are versed in logic see at least three different ways that this can be done. The most obvious way to use the Bible in ethics is to seek passages that directly address the moral issue that you are facing. The Bible contains many commands, prohibitions, proverbs, exhortations, and the like that give us direction on how to live morally, ranging from the Ten Commandments given early in the Hebrew Bible to the warning at the end of the Book of Revelation not to add to the prophecies contained therein.48 However, the Bible provides more than a simple “list metaethic” – much more. And that’s an important point. For the number of commands and prohibitions contained in the Bible, though large, is considerably smaller than the number of moral dilemmas that you could conceivably face in your lifetime. So how would you proceed if you were faced by a moral dilemma that you cannot find dealt with in a direct way in the Bible? 47 This is an extremely brief summary of a few basic hermeneutical principles. For those who have never studied hermeneutics, I highly recommend reading an introductory hermeneutics textbook like Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard Patterson, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2011). 48 Revelation 22:18, 19
When the Bible does not address an issue directly, another way to use the Bible as a resource for ethics is to seek general principles in the Bible from which you can deduce conclusions about things that are not addressed directly.49 Preachers do this all the time, though often they are not aware that this is what they are doing. Any time you argue that the Bible teaches that in situation X you should do Y, the situation you are facing is a type of X, and therefore you should do Y, you are doing exactly what I am describing. An example of this is the advice often presented to teens by youth pastors. Youth workers often exhort young people in their congregations not to date unbelievers. Sometimes they go as far as to say that the Bible commands believers not to date (or marry) unbelievers. That may be an overstatement, though. First of all, there is a legitimate hermeneutical question about taking commands that were specifically given to Israel and applying them to people outside of Israel, Christian or otherwise. We should not blithely ignore the context in which those commands were originally given. If by some legitimate theological or hermeneutical principles the command can be applied to non-Israelites, that’s fine, but only in the presence of such a principle should that ever be done. Youth leaders are on less difficult ground when they support their message with a New Testament passage directed to Christians. Here the most commonly-used passage is II Corinthians 6:14, where the Apostle Paul writes, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with 49 Deduction is a way of reasoning that works by showing that a conclusion follows from the evidence in a logically necessary, unavoidable way. Deductive arguments lead to conclusions that are just as true as the evidence that supports them because of the close logical relationship between the evidence and the conclusion.
unrighteousness?” The problem with this passage is that, when read in its context, it is not talking about dating at all. Paul’s primary concern seems to be that the church in Corinth be a pure congregation, not accepting into their assembly those who are not true believers. It’s an ecclesiastical issue, not a dating issue. But when we look at Paul’s argument more closely, we see that he takes a general principle, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers,” and applies this to the particular issue that he is facing. Hence this passage provides us with both a general principle and an example of an application of the principle. The principle itself can be applied to issues other than the one that Paul was facing. One such issue is dating unbelievers. In short, while this passage is not talking about dating, the principle that it contains can legitimately be applied to dating, as well as to church membership, business relationships, and any other situation that could involve a Christian being “yoked” to an unbeliever in a way that would be problematic. When a youth worker uses this passage to advocate that those under his or her ministry not date unbelievers, the logic of the application is deductive: 1. If you date an unbeliever then you are unequally yoked to that person. 2. The Bible says not to be unequally yoked. 3. Therefore you should not date an unbeliever.50 There are many other general principles in the Bible. Examples include the Shema, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and Paul’s teaching that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Principles like 50 The logical form of this argument is called modus tollens or “denying the antecedent.”
these can be used for guidance in a wide range of situations. How will you proceed, though, if you find yourself facing a moral dilemma that isn’t directly addressed in the Bible and for which you are having difficulty finding a general principle that could be applied to it without twisting the principle and distorting it beyond recognition? There is at least one more way that we can use the Bible for guidance, and this time it involves inductive rather than deductive logic. If there is a situation in the Bible that is parallel to the situation that you are facing, then you can reason to a conclusion about how you should respond to your situation by comparing it to the Biblical situation and how the biblical character(s) responded. Here you will be using analogous induction, which is a form of reasoning that compares two things that are similar in many ways in order to make a judgement about the likeliness that they are similar in other ways, too.51 It is easier to illustrate how this works than to explain it. Happily, the Bible contains many examples of analogous induction. One comes from the Apostle Paul’s response to an issue that he addresses in the ninth chapter of I Corinthians. Apparently there was a controversy in the Corinthian church about whether a person should be paid for ministry performed. This would apply to apostles, like Paul, and also to other ministers, be they pastors, missionaries, or something else. The argument that Paul provides in support of his position – that ministers should be paid for the work they do – is a bit surprising, but it’s clearly based on an analogy between his problem and a 51 Inductive reasoning is a form of logical thought where evidence is used to show that some conclusion is likely to be true, even if it can’t be know with complete certainty that it is true. Induction is the sort of logic most often used in historical research and is also often used in science.
situation in the Hebrew Bible. The heart of his argument is found in verses nine and ten: For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope. Here Paul sees that there is an important parallel between an ox that labors for its owner and a minister who labors in the gospel. He infers that, even as God cares about the ox being rewarded and deriving sustenance from his labor, so should the minister be rewarded sustenance because of his labor in the ministry and be encouraged in his labor by receiving sustenance through it. This analogy is a bit of a surprise, but it’s a legitimate argument, and it serves as a fine example of analogous induction in Christian applied ethics. Other, less surprising examples can be found in the Bible. Many times the New Testament uses passages in the Hebrew Bible in a way that is essentially analogous induction (though it often has to do with spiritual rather than moral issues).52 Philosophical Metaethics Revisited At the heart of the Christian metaethic that I have been developing lies the idea of revelation. It is a metaethic of 52 Another example is Jesus’ use of I Samuel 21:1-6, which records David taking shewbread from the tabernacle in order to feed his men, to show that it is acceptable for his disciples to shell and eat grain on the Sabbath, as is recorded in Luke 2:23-28.
Christian revelation. As such it is essentially theological. But what about all of those philosophical metaethical theories that we discussed in chapters three through seven – are they of no value? Did we examine them merely to see that philosophical ethics fails and must be replaced by theology? Definitely not! There is quite a bit of value in the philosophical approaches to ethics that we have studied. In fact, most of the theories that we discussed reflect principles that we can find in the Bible but might not have noticed had not the philosophers brought them to our attention. Allow me to elaborate. The heart of Virtue Ethics is the insight that what we do flows from who we are and therefore we need to cultivate a virtuous character if we are going to respond to situations morally. Although Aristotle didn’t get this insight from the Bible, it is a very biblical idea. Consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:34, 35, “…out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.” His language is even stronger in Matthew 15:17-20, “Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.” In harmony with Jesus’ teaching that our actions follow from our essence is Paul’s exhortation to therefore cultivate a Godly character in I Timothy 4: 7, 8, “…train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of
some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”53 Another aspect of Virtue Ethics is the idea of looking to a virtuous role model in order to determine how to respond to complex moral dilemmas. One problem with this suggestion is that no mere human role model is completely above reproach. Furthermore, selection of the right role model could be rather subjective. But Jesus provides us with the ultimate role model, since he is the God-man, as perfectly moral as God the Father. The sometimes-derided bumper sticker slogan “WWJD” is actually a very good guide to morality! Turning our attention to Duty Ethics, the similarity between Kant’s Categorical Imperative (“I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law”54) and Jesus’ Golden Rule (“as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise”55) can hardly be missed. Both are implying that you should treat others as you would want to be treated, though Kant’s version is rule-oriented while Jesus’ appears more focused on acts, and Jesus’ version also seems more individualistic than Kant’s. But affirming that a person ought to give such thought to the rules by which she guides her life complements the idea that she should treat others as she would want to be treated. There is a complementarity between these principles rather than a competition. Duty ethics compliments the Golden Rule. Since the heart of both principles is the same (even though the argument that Kant provided for his principle is not found in the Bible), it can be affirmed that the Categorical 53 New American Standard Bible (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995). 54 Kant, 14. 55 Luke 6:31. In the Jewish tradition this principle is first found in Leviticus 19:18 and is reiterated in other Jewish sources prior to and following Jesus.
Imperative is at its heart a biblical principle, and it can be argued that the Categorical Imperative sheds light on implications of the Golden Rule that we might otherwise miss. Utilitarianism is an approach to ethics that prima facie seems to fit well with the spirit of Christianity. After all, didn’t Jesus sacrifice himself for the wellbeing of all humanity, one man being killed for the salvation of many? Wasn’t that doing what would bring about the greatest good for the most people? However, some Christian thinkers are very uncomfortable with any sort of consequentialism. As Kant pointed out, this does introduce an element of relativism into ethics, for what is right according to consequentialism (be it Utilitarianism or Egoism) is relative to the consequences. Would we really want to say that it is moral to kill an innocent person if the consequences would benefit a great many other people? Although Jesus gave his life willingly, we must bear in mind that the Bible condemns Judas for betraying him and bringing about his death. The Bible does not portray Judas’ betrayal as a good deed, despite the enormously beneficial results stemming from it (propitiation and reconciliation between God and humanity, for instance). Hence it is not transparently clear that Jesus’ death actually provides a basis for an argument for Utilitarianism. However, there are examples of what appears to be consequentialist reasoning and consequentialist justification in the Bible. For example, the eighth chapter of Joshua records the Israelites’ capture of the city Ai. Their first attempt was a failure; their second attempt succeeds because God gives them a battle plan that involves deceiving the city’s defenders into thinking that the Israelites are retreating so that the defenders will pursue the Israelites and leave the city defenseless. Then other Israelites who are in hiding attack and conquer Ai. This passage raises interesting ethical and theological questions.
If God is perfectly holy, how could he be the instigator of such deception? Isn’t deception sinful? The Bible does affirm that God is perfectly holy.56 Philosophical arguments support this conclusion as well.57 In this passage God appears to be commanding (and hence condoning) an immoral act, but that interpretation of the passage is not consistent with the ancient Hebrew view of God and the biblical conception of God and hence it is not likely to be the correct interpretation of the passage. A more likely alternative is that God considers deception justified in certain contexts, including in war.58 Why would deception be justified in war? Perhaps because it is necessary to achieve the needed outcome, which in this case is the victory of the Israelites over Ai. There are other examples of consequentialist reasoning in the Hebrew Bible, but let us turn to the New Testament. Matthew 7:15-20 records Jesus warning his followers about false teachers. He says, 56 Many passages affirm this, such as Isaiah 6:3, “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” and Revelation 4:8, “And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.” 57 For example, God is greater than any other conceivable being. He is perfect in his power, knowledge, wisdom, and all of his other attributes. If this were not true, then we could think of a god greater than God, but that’s impossible, for our very idea of God is that of a maximally great being. So if God is perfect in all of his attributes, then he must be perfectly holy, for holiness is one of his attributes. To see this argument developed in more detail, see Morris, Our Idea of God, 35-56. 58 This is not such a radical suggestion: deception is a necessary part of many other activities such as sports and acting where it isn’t considered immoral by anyone. For example, a football quarterback fakes a handoff to a running back and then throws the ball to a receiver. The fake momentarily causes the defense to think that the running back has the ball, thus allowing the receiver to gain more yardage. The quarterback deceived the defense – was that immoral? I don’t think so.