Principles of Biblical Ethics
(Ed’s note: The
following is an article that I wrote twenty years ago, as basis
for ethics. I present it here as a defense of my position that
ethics and worldview principles are one and the same. Thus, all
work in Biblical ethics is directly transferable to those
Worldview Areas in which they correspond. Those interested in
learning and developing worldview principles should use those
excellent works that have been done in Biblical ethics, but do
not have “worldview“ in their title.)
Among Christians a new
consciousness in ethics has been raised by abortion, infanticide
and euthanasia. The horror of these practices is often called
"sound medical practice." This situation brings into question
all the ethics of a worldview that allowed such practices to
become routine. Many ethicists have observed that Protestants
have lagged behind in their development of ethics. As
evangelicals, we must be concerned that our approach to ethics
is thoroughly and distinctively Biblical. The work that has
been done in ethics by most evangelicals, however, does not meet
The statement of this
failure is not meant to impugn the intentions of those who have
tried. They may not have known what is required. The task is not
a simple one, but neither is it impossible. We will define an
approach for those who desire to be truly evangelical, that is,
First, let me clarify
the word “evangelical.” An evangelical is a Christian who
believes the inerrancy of the Bible (some distinguish between
inerrancy and infallibility, but I do not), the existence of God
in three persons (the Trinity), central truths about Jesus
Christ (His deity, virgin birth, sinless life, substitutionary
atonement, true miracles, bodily resurrection, ascension, and
personal return), the necessity of
indwelling Holy Spirit in the believer, the eternal conscious
existence of believers in heaven and unbelievers in hell, and
the spiritual unity of all believers. These seven "fundamentals"
appear in the National Association of Evangelicals' Statement of
Faith. Organizations and churches may make slight modifications,
but these convey the basic position.
These fundamentals are
They have been hammered out over the twenty centuries that the
church has existed. A correct synonym for evangelical would be
"orthodox," but it is less desirable because of its association
with certain denominations and Neo-orthodoxy. The watershed
issue, however, has been stated by Dr. Francis Schaeffer in his
last book.(1) Formerly, inerrancy and/or infallibility meant
that the Bible was without error in the whole or in its parts.
Lately, however, some evangelicals have begun to limit these
This may come
from the theological side in saying that not all the
Bible is revelational. Or it may come from the
scientific side in saying that the Bible teaches little
or nothing when it speaks of the cosmos. Or it may come
from the cultural side in saying that the moral
teachings of the Bible were merely expressions of the
culturally determined and relative situation in which
the Bible was written and therefore not authoritative
The person who speaks
or writes must be identified with his position concerning
Scripture. Without this identity it is dangerously deceptive to
accept the teaching of anyone who claims to be an evangelical.
There are wolves among the sheep (John 10:1-18). With some
discernment they can be identified, and we will cover some means
by which this discernment can be made. On the foundation that
Scripture is inerrant and infallible, what principles enhance
our ability to develop Biblical ethics? My observation is that
among evangelicals, the development of these principles is much
more the problem than agreement in theory. Arbitrarily, I am
dividing these principles into two categories: three basics and
The first basic is the
sufficiency of the Bible to provide principles that govern all
problems that we encounter,
even in the complexity of modern science (1I Timothy 3:16-17; II
Peter 1:3). In many instances, principles that apply are one or
more steps removed from the explicit statements of Scripture.
Logic, systematization, and harmonization, however, can give a
certainty and finality about many ethical problems that may not
be explicitly found in Scripture.
The second basic is the
Bible as the starting-point for these principles.
Too often, Christians start with the positions that other
Christians take rather than what the Bible says. Although their
ethical principles may be Biblical, they still must be proved by
Scripture and identified with specific texts. “Christian” ethics
is not necessarily “Biblical ethics.” Christians ethics too
often are what some Christians propose or what they do. Such
ethics may have nothing to do with Biblical truth.
What must be examined
is the thoroughness of the ethicist's work and his commitment to
Biblical truth as the authority of God. A major error today is
that a principle is based upon one or two verses that do not
take into account many others that deal with the same topic
(that is, systematics is not applied). An example is the concept
of medical practice. I am unaware of any work that reviews all
words and concepts relative to the practice of medicine in the
New Testament other than in two sections of my book.(2)
The third basic is the
authority given to Scripture.
In other words, how seriously is what the Bible says taken into
account? For example, it is clear that the Bible both forbids
murder and states that life begins at conception. Compromise of
that authority begins when the deformity of the child, the rape
or incest of the mother, or the mental illness of the mother is
used to justify induced abortion. To say that the Bible is the
authority does not mean that other sources are not valuable or
that they do not help us to understand Scripture. As the final
authority, however, Biblical principles must be given functional
control (a term coined by Dr. Robertson McQuilkin). The "edge"
must always be given to the Bible if there is any doubt or
conflict with another opinion. It is crucial to hold the
position that no condition or idea can overrule Biblical
principle or statement. Christian psychologists and
psychiatrists often make this error. I have detailed arguments
to illustrate some of their errors in my book.(3)
Directives to Biblical Ethics
Biblical ethics are
The Christian is engaged in "a gigantic battle that splits the
universe."(4) Our Biblical ethic by its nature must contrast
with the particular ethic of any worldview area. The Bible
describes this contrast in various ways: a lack of unity, light
and darkness, righteousness and lawlessness, disagreement, no
fellowship, the temple of God and the temple of idols (11
Corinthians 6:14-16); the foolishness of the world and God's
wisdom (I Corinthians 1:18 31); and a lack of conformity (Romans
12:2). This contrast does not mean that we will differ at every
point because all men have some knowledge of right and wrong
(Romans 2:15) and of God's presence in the universe (Romans
Biblical ethics build
on the work of other Biblical scholars.
I have encountered more
than one Christian who has stated that he is going to develop a
Christian approach to his profession without recourse to the
work of others. The intent is right; the means is totally
unbiblical. Such an attitude reflects the epitome of modernism
and individualism. First, all believers are dependent on other
believers (I Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-16). Second, no one
person in an entire lifetime can learn Greek and Hebrew, develop
his own systematic theology, write commentaries on all the books
of the Bible, and in essence develop a library on the Bible that
is necessary to assure oneself and others that one's work is
consistent with all that the Bible teaches.
Who or what do we build
upon? Primarily, we build upon the extensive knowledge already
available in the church. Creeds, confessions, commentaries,
textbooks on systematic theology, and other such works have been
painstakingly written over the centuries to mine the depths of
the Word of God. Obviously, all these cannot be read or studied,
but one can select those that are faithful to the Bible, as the
revealed will of God,, and that will give concrete
identification to the Biblical truth that is relevant to the
area in which one is studying. This position is not to say that
these words are without error, but one can know the basic truths
of our faith with sufficient certainty to distinguish truth and
error. The necessary comprehensiveness of this approach brings
us to the next principle.
includes all Christian minds.
Since all believers make up the body of Christ, the Christian
mind consists of the minds of all Christians. No one can be left
out. This inclusion means that every Christian potentially has
some thought to contribute. I say potentially because his
contribution must be consistent with a comprehensive and
systematic Biblical ethic and because every Christian does not
necessarily have a new thought. The teachable mind receives
ideas from unlikely sources, but a journal can be an effective
vehicle to develop this
Christian mind. A
journal provides a wide exposure of Christian minds to each
other; the authors express their thoughts and the readers can
respond with additions and disagreements. Thus, the Christian
mind becomes a more comprehensive process.
Biblical ethics are
Prior to modern times "science" applied to any area of knowledge
that was approached systematically. For example, theology was
"Queen of the Sciences"
(a reflection of what we have called "functional control"
above). Today, science is narrowly confined to the natural
sciences. Here, we are using science according to its former
meaning. Biblical ethics must be systematic. Until any knowledge
is systematic its inconsistencies and errors can remain obscure.
Each principle must be compared and contrasted with others to
see if and where it fits into the whole. Unfortunately, logic
and philosophy are no longer generally taught in both secular
and Christian schools. These disciplines can provide the
methodology for systematization. Further, any systematization of
Biblical ethics must be consistent with some established
systematic theology as the foundation to Biblical ethics.(5)
Biblical ethics become
more fully developed through experience.
Experience challenges our
ethics: Are they comprehensive to cover all contingencies? Are
they defined with enough clarity to be readily applied? Are they
consistent from one situation to another? Should our principles
be modified because of the situation? The last question seems
more of an existential, than a Biblical, philosophy. But,
reality may at times require a certain modification, sometimes
to a broader principle and sometimes to a more restricted
principle. For example, we would like to say that a baby should
never be delivered so prematurely that it has no chance to live.
Real situations, albeit rare, do require that a choice be made
between the continuing presence of the baby in the mother's womb
and the mother's life. Of course, extreme care must be taken
that situations are always governed by principle, and not vice
versa, but until principles are tested in the reality of
situations, some openness to modification must be maintained.
This interaction of principle and practice is thoroughly and
clearly presented elsewhere.(6)
requires an understanding of
Sound theology is not haphazard. Standard principles of
interpretation have been developed and these are ignored with
the certain result that serious error will occur. Biblical
ethics require that Scripture be interpreted; such
interpretation must be careful and complete. It cannot be done
without some understanding and application of hermeneutics.
Fortunately, Dr. R.C. Sproul has written a concise book that
contains much of what we need.(7) See Bookstore to order.
requires precise definitions.
Theologians say that some
words are "univocal," that is, words that have only one meaning.
The modern existentialists have obscured such precision of
definition and evangelicals have been unduly influenced. Precise
definitions are rarely a part of evangelical writing, frequently
with the excuse that they make reading too "dry." For such lack
of definition and precision evangelicals are losing their
distinctiveness. Biblical ethics defines the way of "the way,
the truth and the life" (John 14:6) and "the narrow way"
(Matthew 7:14). Can it accomplish its purpose with imprecision?
requires certain spiritual gifts.
With the popularity of teaching about spiritual gifts, the
willingness of Christians to follow almost anyone is a striking
failure to discern those who have teaching gifts. I have been
painting a very laborious task for Biblical ethics. Few will be
willing or have the desire to pursue such a course except those
whom God has gifted for that work. The many who are not called
to this task will not have such a desire, but they are lacking
in their spiritual duty when they ignore these Biblical
requirements for their teachers. Spiritual gifts necessary to
develop Biblical ethics are teaching, wisdom, knowledge,
discernment and prophecy (as forthtelling, not foretelling).
Biblical ethics must
consider the situation.
In our reaction to
situational ethics (re: Joseph Fletcher), evangelicals have
often overlooked the place of the situation in Biblical ethics.
The principle is this: The situation determines which Biblical
principles apply to that situation. The key concept is that the
situation does not determine the principles. The situation is
set within the Biblical worldview and governed by it.
Traditional situational ethics essentially have no principles
and certainly none that are absolute and specific, as the Ten
Commandments are. An example of this principle is a teenager who
receives a prescription for birth control pills from her
physician. His act would be immoral if she wanted the pills for
contraception. His act would be moral if she needed the pills to
control heavy menstrual bleeding (a common problem). The act is
the same; the situation determines which principles apply. For
more on this subject, see
Standard, Goal, and Attitude as
Perspectives on Ethics.
Biblical ethics must be
a concern of the local church.
The local church exists to
nurture believers in their spiritual development. Since complete
casuistry is impossible in in any approach to ethics, many
believers will need or ought to seek counsel for ethical
decisions that are not clear. The pastor and elders of their
church are God's chosen men to provide the particular
application needed. Although a church may refer its members to a
Christian leader of another church for such counsel, most
churches should be able to develop their own resources through
the teaching of those who have the spiritual gifts for such
Biblical ethics must
have appropriate review before they are made public.
The susceptibility of
Christians to erroneous teaching is clear in Scripture (I
Timothy 1:3-11, 4:1-5; II Peter 2:1-22). Likely, our modern
approach to publishing Christian materials violates these
warnings. As we have listed those spiritual gifts that are
required to develop Biblical ethics, those same gifts should be
possessed by Christian editors. Many Christians believe that any
publication by an "evangelical" organization or company is
trustworthy. That assumption is seriously erroneous. The role of
guardian of the truth is assigned to church leaders,
specifically pastors and elders or their equivalents (I Timothy
4:6). Freedom of the press is necessary in a free society, but
the freedom of the evangelical press is limited to Biblical
truth guarded in a Biblical manner. These church leaders should
be much more active to discern what their members read.
Biblical ethics finally
rests within the conscience (self-government) of individuals.
practice in the situation where individuals live. It is perilous
for Christians to ignore the teaching and counsel of others. We
have discussed the impossibility that one Christian can even
begin to accomplish all that is required to know Biblical
principles. Preferably, individuals are taught and should seek
this teaching in their local church. In turn this expectation
requires church leaders to have been taught by others through
books, lectures, preaching, tapes and other means. Thus we see
the universal church and the particular (local) church in their
respective, God-ordained roles.
Serious Approach Is Needed
Will this diligent
course of action guarantee Biblical ethics? Obviously, it will
not. My concern, however, is the superficial manner in which
such ethics are frequently undertaken. This superficiality is
common throughout evangelicalism.
A call to serious and
careful study is needed everywhere. With an application of these
principles, we are more likely to arrive at agreement on many
issues and have some certainty of our results. Most Christians
are not called to make this effort, but all are called to
discern to whom they should listen and to contribute in some way
(no matter how small) when they have an insight or they have a
Biblical reason to disagree with what has been said. The
Christian mind needs to be developed to its fullest capacity for
our times. The process, however, must follow certain prescribed
principles or its result is likely not to be Biblical and honor
our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Our goal is
articulately stated by Dr. Abraham Kuyper:
Only in the
combination of the whole race of man does this
revelation reach its creaturely completeness . . . The
knowledge of God is a common possession, all the riches
of which can only be enjoyed in the communion of our
race . . . but because humanity is adapted to reveal
God, and from that revelation to attain unto His
knowledge, does not individual complement another, and
only by the organic unity and by the individual in
communion with that unity, can the knowledge of God be
obtained in a clear and completer sense.(8)
** Great resource for
Biblical Ethics by Greg Bahnsen.
1. Schaeffer, F.A.,
The Great Evangelical Disaster, Westchester, Illinois;
Crossway Books, 1984, p.50
2. Payne, F.E.,
Biblical/Medical Ethics, Milford, Michigan; Mott Media,
1985, pp. 101-107.
3. Ibid., pp. 155-180
4. Blamires, H., The
Christian Mind, Reprint. London: SP.C.K., 1963, Ann Arbor,
Michigan: Servant Books, 1978, p.70.
5. Stob, H., Ethical
Reflections, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company,
1978, pp. 31-49.
7. Sproul, R.C.,
Knowing Scripture, Wheaton, Illinois: Intervarsity Press,
8. Kuyper, A.,
Principles of Sacred Theology. Trans. by J. Hendrik de
Vries,. Reprint. Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology: Its
Principles. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1898. Grand Rapids: Baker
Book House, 1980, p.