The spring semester is over at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. It ended last week, and I’m posting for the first time since March. This past semester I took a two credit Ethics course with Dr. Nelson Kloosterman, and it was outstanding. I have to say that it was the best and most enjoyable class I’ve ever taken, despite it being offered in a four hour block on Mondays throughout the semester. That being said, I’m going to do a series on Christian ethics here on the blog.
Raised in evangelicalism, ethics was a troubling subject. I have vivid memories of youth group discussions where we were told it would be a sin to lie if we were in World War II Germany trying to hide Jews from Nazis. This boggled my mind at the time, and the explanations given were weak at best. In this hypothetical situation, we were told that had we been hiding Jews in the house and the SS showed up and asked us point blank if we knew where any Jews were hiding, the best answer would be to say, “I don’t see any Jews.” This of course would be trying to lie… badly. The intent was to mislead the authorities, but without actually telling a lie.
These kinds of situations were always creeping around the corner, and they brought about a lot of stress to a young person, trying to understand what his moral, and ethical obligations were in the modern world. Looking back, I can see that my answers to such problems were usually correct, and I would say that they were based on common sense; but my common sense was lacking a solid starting point in the discussion. Christian ethics starts and ends in Scripture, specifically the Decalogue. But how does this help us with regard to creation, and our relation to it?
A robust doctrine of creation is important and relevant to the discussion of Christian ethics because human beings are created in the image of God, by God, and for God. Christian ethics deal with the intra- and inter-human relationships. As this is the case, creation is an important place to start when dealing with the subject. For starters, when speaking of creation, we do not limit the word to only human beings, but to animals and to the environment. Surely we differentiate between these categories, but they must all be included. Though there is a qualitative difference between man and animal, we must remember that we are to be stewards of creation, and thus while the animal is not our neighbor, it is still important to protect our animals, and make sure they are taken care of. The same can be said for the environment. While we certainly do not make the mistake that some new-age cultists do, by worshiping the created order, we have to take responsibility for taking care of it. It is the obligation of the Christian ethicist to not only take account of his actions in relation to other human beings, but also to the rest of creation. While many animals are raised merely to be slaughtered, it is important that we treat them with respect because God told us to do so. Proverbs 12:10 tells us, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.” And Matthew 10:29 says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Not only has God told us to take care of our animals, but he himself also takes an interest in them, and cares for them. If they are important to him, surely they should also be important to us.
When looking at the relationship of creation and culture (in relation to Christian ethics), one can clearly see that culture will be benefited by a Christian ethic. When men understand their identity as a creation of God, it will impact how they treat their fellow men. As noted, this will also influence how he will treat animals and his environment. Living according to the golden rule, that is, doing unto others what you wish they would do unto you, sounds great, but even that must be bound by what Scripture says (Matthew 7:12). While other cultures and religions have the general golden rule teaching, they do not have Scripture, and so their version of the rule can be, and often is self-serving and wicked because it has no Scriptural foundation. Only through Scripture can one understand his proper place in the universe, as well as his relationship to the rest of creation. When men understand this their culture blossoms, where they do not, their culture withers and dies. Of significance for the Christian and his culture is the civil magistrate. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 23, tells us that God has established the magistrate for the good of the public (WCF 1.1). It goes on to explain that the magistrate is to be obeyed regardless of his religion, so long as his commands are lawful (WCF 1.4).
The Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei, or image of God is extremely important for Christian ethics. Scripture tells us that we were created in the image of God. While some of what the Imago Dei entails may have been lost at the fall, it remains in some form or other on the human race. This can be seen where capitol punishment is commanded for murder (Gen. 9:6), and where we curse at other men, who are also made in God’s image (James 3:9). Again, if we understand other human beings as created in the image of God we will treat them with more respect because of what it means to be human in light of creation.
All of creation is headed toward the consummation; this is the key to eschatology, and all of Christian theology. While Scripture tells us that we are living in the present, with all of its ethical implications, it tells us that we must persevere to enter the new heavens and new earth. All of the Christian life points to the future fulfillment. As already established, the golden rule doesn’t function without the rest of Scripture to inform us how to live. Thus, it is extremely important to realize that if one is to be truly ethical, certainly biblically ethical, he has to tie his ethics to Scripture. Matthew 5:18 says, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Therefore, the law abides with us until the end of the age. In the new heavens and new earth the law will still exist, but no one will break it. All men will honor God and their neighbors perfectly, and all men will finally practice the Christian ethic with consistency.