What Should We Keep in Mind When Considering the Ethics of the Bible?

The Ethics of the Bible

When we speak about the ethics in the Bible, we are not just thinking of the Old Testament law or of the Sermon on the Mount, nor do we only have in mind actual moral instructions, injunctions, and prohibitions. The ethics of the Bible is much wider than that and includes the advice of Solomon and other sages, and the stories of Bible characters whose exemplary behavior we should emulate, like David who knows how to forgive his enemies (see 1 Samuel 24 and 26). What this means is that it is likely that every passage in the Bible will have ethical implications, such that it is not possible or desirable to discuss the theology of the Bible without also taking account of its ethics. This is why Andreas Köstenberger and I decided that we needed to write a biblical theology with lots of ethics in it, and indeed, this is one of the distinctives of the book we wrote (Biblical Theology). The important “So what?” question needs to be asked and answered in the contemporary situation in which traditional apologetics does not cut through anymore, for this is a time when Christian truth and values just do not seem relevant to the time in which we live. That, at least, is how many people see things today.

Biblical Theology

Andreas J. Köstenberger, Gregory Goswell

Biblical Theology provides an essential foundation for interpreting all 66 books of the Bible, identifying the central themes of each text and discussing its place in the overall storyline of Scripture.

The Christian needs to use both testaments as an ethical resource. Certainly, the Old Testament is an underutilized source of ethical guidance and training for many believers. Now, there are reasons for this. Many believers have the impression that the Old Testament, in general, presents a lesser ethical demand than does the New Testament, but a closer look reveals that this is not usually the case. For example, the six antitheses of Matthew 5:21–48 (“You have heard that it was said, . . . . But I say to you. . . ”), properly interpreted, are not contradicting or correcting the teaching of the Old Testament, but distortions of its injunctions as practiced and taught by the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matt. 5:17–20). In addition, the two great commandments—love of God and of neighbor—drawn from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 not only sum up the ethics of the Old Testament (Matt. 22:36–40) but that of the New Testament as well, such that both testaments make essentially the same moral demands on those who would follow God’s way.

There is also the challenge of working out what are the ethical implications of a Bible narrative, for they are not always obvious—at least at first sight. It is not a simple matter of “go and do thou likewise.” Jesus is the perfect model of all that we should be and the apostle Paul is reliably exemplary, but most Bible characters are not totally good or totally evil, and there is difficulty in trying to find ethical models—positive and negative—seeing that it is reductionistic to think in terms of heroes and villains. The complexity of the David of the books of Samuel (especially in 2 Samuel 10–20) makes it difficult to evaluate his actions and motives. Naomi is not necessarily the nice character that readers would like her to be, though Ruth and Daniel appear uniformly noble. The disciples of Jesus in the Gospels are often faulty in their actions and attitudes, though the female characters more often embody the virtues of faith and devotion (e.g., Luke 8:1–3). The list could go on. To preach moralistic sermons from biblical texts is to pay insufficient attention to the ambiguity of its characters, so that sometimes we do not know whether to praise or blame them.

Doctrine and ethics are not competitors; nor is one more important than the other; each needs the other.

The fact is that the biblical narrators seldom preach. They routinely fail to either approve or disapprove of the conduct of their characters. The reader is not always meant to supply this lack, and it is easy to make wrong judgments. Close attention to the text will prevent us from falling into error. The Old Testament does not provide Jesus-like models. In this situation it is best to follow the advice of Gordon Wenham when using Old Testament narrative for ethical guidance. The biblical author gives clues, whether by putting an ethical judgment in the mouth of a character, such as when Nebuchadnezzar comments on the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan. 3:28), by the way an action is described (e.g., Gen. 16:6: “Sarai ill-treated her”), by the reaction of other characters to an action (e.g., 2 Sam. 13:22), by the detrimental consequences of an action (e.g., Gen. 16:4), or by the same trait being shown in a series of scenes (e.g., the positive attitude of the patriarchs to foreigners). In Biblical Theology, we use all these tools and more to explore the ethical import of the various biblical books and we find that they are replete with many valuable moral lessons—if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Detecting ethics in the prayers of the psalms is another challenge. The connection of the Psalter with the worship system of the Old Testament at tabernacle and temple cannot be denied, given the liturgical directions in many of the psalm titles (e.g., “To the choirmaster”), but its canonical presentation shows that its prime use is for continual meditation on the divine instruction contained in the five books of the Psalter (Ps. 1:2), on analogy with use of the “Five Books” of Moses (cf. Josh. 1:8). Again, as noted by Wenham, features that would help to mold the attitude and behavior of the user of the Psalter include: the blessings that approve a particular way of life as pleasing to God (e.g., Pss. 1:1; 2:12; 84:12); the presence of first-person expressions of devotion (e.g., Ps. 34:1), leading the user to identify with the sentiment placed on their lips; and the depictions of the wicked and their awful fate make their alternate behavior look unattractive. In other words, the poetry of the Psalter is not just a means to express our thoughts and feelings to God; its effusion of religious sentiments also provides instruction for God’s people as to what they should be feeling, what they should be doing, and what they should be saying in prayer. When these factors are kept in mind we are able to derive valid and helpful ethical guidance from the poems of the Bible.

Don’t Separate God’s Character and Will

It is artificial and wrong to entirely separate the character and ways of God from the will of God for his people. Doctrine and ethics are not competitors; nor is one more important than the other; each needs the other. The truths we believe are meant to lead to a certain way of living. Our motivation for doing what is right and good is fed by the convictions we hold about God. There is less controversy about using the warnings and injunctions of the New Testament as a moral guide to living, though that does not mean that expositors and commentators have always been careful to demonstrate the essential connection between the doctrine and ethics of the New Testament writings, the first being the ground of the second. For example, the Sermon on the Mount has often been lifted from the Gospel of Matthew that has as its climax the death and resurrection of Jesus, with the result that its ethic is turned into a “social gospel” rather than viewed as an essential part of our submission to the risen Christ who claims the obedience of the nations. The famous linchpin in Romans 12:1 (“I appeal to you, therefore, by the mercies of God . . .”) shows that the ethics of Romans 12–14 spring from the doctrine taught in Romans 1–11. It is the task of systematic theology and preaching to make specific application to life in the 21st century, but the role of biblical theology is to accurately uncover the basic ethical demands and import of the two testaments.

In the Bible we have an ethic that never goes out of fashion, though, of course, the applications may have to be adjusted for different times. Many people wonder whether the ethics of the Bible, and of the Old Testament in particular, are useful after the many centuries that have elapsed, or whether it is even appropriate to make application from the stories and teaching of the Old Testament after the provision of the New Testament. However, often the stories and the instructions of prophets and sages encourage what could be called “global virtues”—namely, their ethics are easily transferable to the present, for they commend such things as hospitality, modesty, prayerfulness, and perseverance; they warn against stereotypical sins such as sexual immorality, greed, and idolatry; and they teach basic moral principles that have no use-by-a-certain-date label (the fear of God, the love of neighbor). In addition, the new creation is not yet complete, and believers have been taught to pray, “Your kingdom come.” We still live in a world where sin, selfishness, and violence are endemic, and not dissimilar moral choices face every generation of believers. With the Bible in our hands and a grasp of its truth and relevance, we are ready to face every challenge.

Gregory Goswell is the coauthor with Andreas J. Köstenberger of Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach.

Related Articles

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.