Scripture and Ethics

Nijay K. Gupta

The study of Scripture and ethics is a relatively new phenomenon. For many years and for a variety of reasons, ethics was treated (especially in the academy) as a topic secondary to theology—and, more specifically, soteriology. We can trace this, in part, to the unfortunate bifurcation of “faith” and “works” that mark the Protestant tradition, where the former involves “true belief” and the latter an attempt to earn salvation. However, that unnecessary juxtaposition is giving way to a new appreciation of the moral dynamics of Scripture which are intertwined with the conceptions of belief, justification, and salvation in the NT.

A century ago, biblical ethics was understood as reflection on and commitment to the “commands” of Scripture. First comes justification, then sanctification. Correspondingly, there are texts about salvation, and there are texts about ethics. However, a number of studies in recent years have ignited an interest in Scripture and ethics that brings moral issues closer to the heart of the Bible.

Holistic Models for Studying Ethics

Three studies have helped to form more precise methodologies for studying ethics in Scripture. Richard Hays’ groundbreaking The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), for example, develops a fourfold method for approaching ethics: the descriptive task (reading the text carefully), the synthetic task (placing the text in canonical context), the hermeneutical task (relating the text to our situation), and the pragmatic task (living the text). Particularly in the synthetic analysis of the NT, Hays detects three focal images that craft the “moral vision”: the cross (i.e., the cruciform love of God in Christ’s death), new creation, and community.

Focusing particularly on Paul’s letters, B.S. Rosner endorses an approach to the apostle’s ethics that observes its complexity or dynamism from seven angles: origin, context, social dimension, shape, logic, foundations, and relevance (Understanding Paul’s Ethics: Twentieth-Century Approaches [Eerdmans, 1995]).

C.J.H. Wright has developed a model for studying OT ethics using the trifold structure of the “theological angle,” the “social angle,” and the “economic angle” (see, e.g., his Old Testament Ethics for the People of God [InterVarsity, 2004]).

The methodological proposals of these three scholars have been accepted and applied to differing degrees, but we note them here as important developments and signs that show how the study of ethics has evolved and that indicate the nature of the more nuanced approaches are taken as the field grows and progresses.

Story and Ethics

One prominent area in the study of Scripture and ethics has to do with the role of narrative, and how moral ideals are represented and rhetorically teased out through storytelling in the Bible. Of course, treating narratives as models for emulation is prominent in the whole history of biblical interpretation, but developments in narrative criticism, for instance, have stimulated further reflection and refinement of method. Gordon Wenham, using case studies in Genesis and Judges, examines the narrative ethics of the OT in Story as Torah (T. & T. Clark, 2000). In a careful manner, as one has come to expect from Wenham, the reader finds a detailed discussion of how to approach the stories of the OT as didactic lessons (cf. also J. Barton, Ethics and the Old Testament [Trinity, 1998] 19-36). One important point Wenham makes is that we must distinguish between the actions of the characters and the attitude of the implied author. Does the author seem to approve of the behavior of the characters? Before we rush in to “apply” to our lives what is found in the lives of the biblical characters, Wenham encourages due caution and circumspection about the rhetoric of the narrative.

On the side of the NT, we now have the provocative work of R. Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics (Eerdmans, 2007). Typically, in academic discussions about Jesus’ moral perspective, his teaching is brought to the fore and it is concluded that he promoted a strict and severe ethic (as demonstrated, for example, in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount). Burridge seeks to balance this perspective, though, by noting that the genre of the Gospels (which he regards as close to Greco-Roman biographies) placed significant emphasis on the deeds of the main character. When comparing Jesus’ actions and words, Burridge argues, we find that, though he taught with a very restrictive ethic, his own behavior was significantly more “inclusive” and “accepting.” Although Burridge does not directly reflect on the modern practical implications of how to respond to and apply this deeds-as-well-as-words-of-Jesus model, we can see how this is an important methodological reframing of ethical discussions particularly based on narrative (and genre) issues.

Virtue and Ethics

Another significant development in the study of Scripture and ethics is the move from focusing solely on deontological (rule or principle-based) ethics to giving attention to both rules and virtues. Virtue or character ethics, then, as a field of study, has begun to make a home in biblical studies. Its origins can be traced to the philosophical discussions of Plato and Aristotle, but one can see the usefulness of such a model in biblical ethics since “virtue language naturally arises from the Bible” (see D. Harrington and J. Keegan, Jesus and Virtue Ethics [Sheed and Ward, 2002] 197). A strong emphasis is placed on practicing virtues (e.g., temperance, prudence, fortitude, justice) as a way of developing character. This, then, leads to a good life.

Often, this building of character comes through the imitation of virtuous people. Again, these emphases can easily be found in the Bible, whether we are thinking of the loyalty of Abraham, the bravery of David, or the love and longsuffering example of Jesus. Indeed, although deontological ethics focuses narrowly on law and obedience, virtue ethics brings the necessary elements of formation, transformation, and growth to the study of Scripture and ethics. Several scholars are moving in this direction, but two edited volumes in particular present the fruit of a great deal of work on this subject: Character Ethics and the Old Testament (ed. M.D. Carroll R., and J.E. Lapsley; Westminster John Knox, 2007); and Character Ethics and the New Testament (ed. R.L. Brawley; Westminster John Knox, 2007). Within these two books, we find the works of such scholars as W.P. Brown, S. Balentine, K. O’Connor, J. Lapsley, M.D. Carroll, C.C. Black, A. Verhey, L.A. Jervis, S. Keesmaat, and W. Swartley.

Participation and Ethics

In addition to narrative ethics (especially with the focus on Jesus) and virtue ethics (and the notion of formation), we can refer to a combination of areas that develop the idea of union with Christ and participation ethics. What does it do to a person when she becomes a new creation and is “in Christ”? How does this participation transform the person in such a way as to lead to a new way of life?

Michael J. Gorman is an influential voice in the area of Scripture and ethics, and has developed a model for understanding this kind of participatory ethics by way of the term “cruciformity”—a pattern of entering into the story of Christ and living and dying with him (see, e.g., his Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross [Eerdmans, 2001]). For Gorman, the parade rehearsal of the cruciform story can be found in Phil 2:6-11: “For Paul, to be in Christ is to be a living exegesis of this narrative of Christ, a new performance of the original drama of exaltation following humiliation, of humiliation as the voluntary renunciation of rights and selfish gain in order to serve and obey” (92). Gorman’s participatory ethic is treated again most recently in Inhabiting the Cruciform God (Eerdmans, 2009). Another prominent scholar who has contributed to this kind of approach is M. Hooker in her important article “Interchange in Christ and Ethics” (JSNT 25 [1985]: 3-17).

Ethics and the Symbolic Universe

In the last several decades, biblical scholars have been aided by the social sciences. Particularly in view of the work of P. Berger and T. Luckmann on the sociology of knowledge, fruitful dialogue has taken place with respect to how language, symbols, metaphors, and ideas build a “symbolic universe” that shapes “reality” for a group of people and frames their interactions and norms. David Horrell, for example, has made use of this kind of methodology to show that Paul’s religious language and imagery is not just meant to inform, but also to structure the group identity and basis of the Christian community (Solidarity and Difference [T. & T. Clark, 2005]). When determining the ethical perspective of an OT or NT author from this perspective, one would need to go beyond laws/commands, and even beyond the morality of characters (or the author) to include key terms, symbols, images, and ideas that make up the “world” of the community, and ultimately determine their values if the text is accepted and assimilated.

The Ethics of Reading

Although most who have studied Scripture and ethics have attempted to synthesize the moral values of the Bible, there is a special interest in recent years in concentrating on the reader(s) or reading community and how their own lives both shape and are shaped by what they read. This shifts the focus away from a static assumption that the “ethic” is in the text and waiting to be discovered by the reader. Scholars such as S. Fowl and L.G. Jones argue that reading Scripture should happen within a community that can seek together, in their own context and time, how to discern the meaning of the text theologically and ethically (Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life [Eerdmans, 1991]). The encounter with Scripture, though, these scholars argue, is partly dependent on the moral character of the readers and their formation within their faith communities. This type of focus on the moral life of the reader of Scripture is exemplified in the recent book by R. Briggs, The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue (Studies in Theological Interpretation; Baker Academic, 2010).

Ethics and the Drama of Scripture

Another recent approach to Scripture and ethics involves a particular interest in drama, improvisation, and discernment. Rather than viewing the Bible as a textbook from which the modern Christian outlines a system of ethics, N.T. Wright (The Last Word [HarperCollins, 2006]) and K.J. Vanhoozer (The Drama of Doctrine [Westminster John Knox, 2005]) have both articulated the moral vision of Christianity in a more nuanced way. According to Wright’s model of Scripture as a metanarrative of Creation, the Fall, the Story of Israel, and the Story of Jesus, the grand story told in the Bible is unfinished. If it were a play, the fifth act is unwritten and, in fact, we are now living it out. Ethics is about studying those earlier acts (as recounted in the Bible) and “acting” in a way that is consistent with the first four acts. It is not a matter of repeating what was done before, but of carrying the story forward in its most natural way—that is, in keeping with the plot of the story and the values and morals of the tales that the story wants to tell. This is a more dynamic approach to ethics that requires wisdom and discernment.

Where to Start and What to Anticipate

This has been a whirlwind tour through a small sampling of the work on Scripture and ethics in the last few decades. Where to begin? For a nice entry point, try the excellent Four Views on Moving beyond the Bible to Theology (ed. G. Meadors and S. Gundry [Zondervan, 2009]). One might also pick up Ben Witherington III’s The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament (InterVarsity, 2009), where the doctrinal and moral dimensions of the NT are properly treated as two sides of the same coin. Finally, a salutary sign of the times is the forthcoming reference work project from Baker Academic entitled the Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics (ed. J.B. Green). As the many above examples show, it appears that scholarship is finally paying heed to the ways that the message of the Bible involves the life of the reader as well as the mind.

Posted Feb 01, 2011