Foundations of ethics

“Ethics is the study of how humans ought to live as informed by the Bible and Christian convictions.” So wrote Stanley Grenz in his book The Moral Quest. This is the Christian view.

Both the Christian and the secularist draw on the ideas of the Greek philosophers in understanding ethics. Western thinking on the subject has been significantly influenced by Plato and Aristotle. Their teaching centered largely on virtuous living. Traditional philosophy of ethics is based on reason.

The secular foundation of ethics goes no further than reason. The highest good is found in the self. Ethics is based on what a man sees to be beneficial to himself or his society. That is, if a well-ordered society can be maintained and it does no harm to the individual, the act in question is moral.

In questions of morality, it is not inappropriate to consider the effects of our words and deeds on ourselves or others. But, for the Christian, reason is only a tool we use to further our ethical goals. Reason helps us in the application of ethics, not in the initial knowledge of what is ethical. We appeal to something beyond our ken, beyond ourselves, beyond our society, even beyond our universe.

We appeal to the Creator as the author and judge of all ethics. Ethics is founded on God’s nature, on his character. Man can only be truly ethical when he reflects the character of God. We learn of his nature through his revelation of himself: revealed in nature, revealed in conscience, and most importantly revealed in the Holy Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ.

Man’s moral standard does not begin–or end–with himself. He is not the judge of good and evil. Instead, good is defined by God’s nature, and evil is defined by that which is contrary to God’s nature, that which seeks to supplant God’s authority and God’s will.

The Ten Commandments serve as a succinct enumeration of God’s character, but there is meaning that goes beyond the plain words. Throughout the Scriptures, we see the application of those commandments to all of life. We find, for example, that the prohibition of murder is about more than killing; it also involves justice and respect for the dignity of all men; it includes respect for man and honor for God. Christ’s summary of the law is morally binding on the conscience and will of man.

In seeking to live ethically, we find our ultimate example in the life of Christ. He lived to honor the Father, and so must we live. We honor him in obeying his commandments, by walking in his ways.

The secular philosopher will never lead us to this standard of behavior. Reason will help us understand ethical living, but it will never lead us to the unmovable standard. Good derives meaning not from self-reflection but from God-reflection. If we seek to understand transcendent values by limiting ourselves to finite things, we’ll find no answers to the question of what we ought to do.

The man who rules himself will find he is ruled by a despot and a tyrant. The ruler changes his mind based on the unbridled passions of his heart. In looking to the True Ruler, we learn what is truly ethical–and we also find mercy.