A Simple Thought on Christian Ethics


It seems that among many Christians, it is popular to ignore holy living or ethics. When we look to conservatives, “ethics” is adhering to a strict code of law, where everything that is right and wrong is laid out in black and white. How you act towards others seems to be irrelevant. When we look to liberals or those in the Emergent conversation, it seems that “ethics” is defined by acting in social justice; the ethics of Christ require helping the poor. What you do in your personal life seems to be irrelevant.

In both cases, ethics are treated as rules to follow. Though the liberal/emergent spectrum is more fluid and claims to be relational, it’s really not. It’s fluid concerning personal morality or personal holiness, but not so much when considering public action. For instance, if you say you are a Capitalist, favor letting people fail, or are against most forms of public welfare, then such a Christian would chastise you. If you responded, “This is what my relationship with God has taught me,” they would immediately argue that you are wrong and misguided and most likely point to Scripture to prove their point. Thus, they still operate under a set of rules.

Such rules are good, but only when applied in a general sense. Rules give us a general idea of what we should do – “do not kill” is general, because sometimes killing might be justified (e.g. in defense of another). The ethics of the Bible tend to be general rules for living (making them absolute) that we then apply to our lives in our specific situation (making the application of ethics subjective). While the principle of ethics is absolute, the application of ethics will look different according to time and place.

But being moral relies on one factor more than all others; a true relationship with God. While those who reject Christ can still be moral (it is within their nature to be moral), they can never obtain a “higher” morality as someone who has a relationship with Christ can.

Morality flows from the nature of God. God is either a person or He isn’t a person. If He isn’t a person, this means He lacks a will, which then raises the question, “How can we say He is God?” If He is a person, then He has a will, which means He has a purpose in all that He does. In creating us, this would indicate He has a purpose. That purpose is for us to get closer to Him. However, since He is a person and is higher than humanity, this means that humanity must rise up to Him.

If John, who is the president of a nation, wishes to befriend Peter, who is the peasant of that nation, both must make compromises and change how they react around each other in order to become friends and become closer to each other. It requires change and compromise on both their parts.

God, however, is higher than humanity and therefore does not need to change or compromise. That is, He doesn’t need to conform to us in any way in order to befriend us. We, on the other hand, must be conformed to God in order to befriend God. Thus, whatever flows from His nature is holy and therefore ethical.

In conforming to God, we both work towards personal holiness and toward helping our communities. We have the broad command to “be holy,” and we look to Scripture and our experience with God to see what it means to be holy. When the two align, we know what it is to be holy. In this holiness, we will help others because that is what God does. We will begin to mimic Him and His actions, meaning we will help the public. This help might come in various forms among different people (subjective), but the overall principle of help will remain (absolute).

Christian ethics is not about being personally holy first and then helping the community or about helping the community and then (maybe) becoming personally holy. Rather, Christian ethics is about finding and seeking God and discovering His holiness and then attempting to live in that holiness. When we do this, we both grow in our personal holiness and in our public holiness. The target should never be ourselves or the community, but rather our target should be God.

In doing the above, we must accept that often times we are wrong. Often times, the things that make us feel good – such as rampant drug use, sexual activities, drinking, constant entertainment, wealth, etc – may go against God’s nature and therefore prevent us from conforming to His nature. If I try to be personally holy, then I can define what is holy by making up a set of rules. If I try to be publicly holy, then I can ignore my own personal conduct so long as I help my community. If I try to conform to the nature of God, then I am without excuse as to my actions and must conform to Someone higher than myself. To submit to the nature of God, one must be humble.

Though rules exist, keep in mind that these are broad rules. In order to understand these rules properly and to apply them perfectly, we must seek after God first and all else will fall into place.

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4 thoughts on “A Simple Thought on Christian Ethics

  1. Joel,

    I think you are on target in describing how both conservatives and liberals (to use those labels loosely) have a moral code. Conservatives tend to focus on personal morality, whereas liberals tend to focus on social morality. Both have an incomplete morality because they fail to do justice to the other aspect that they downplay.

    While I agree with you that God’s essential nature remains constant (he is good, he is loving, he is uncreated), I disagree with you when you say that God “does not need to change or compromise. . .[or] conform to us in any way to befriend us” (paragraph 7). If God did not change in any sense, then how would he be comprehensible to us, finite beings? How would we be able to relate to God, the infinite, and how would he be able to relate to us? At issue here, I think, is God’s pathos. And I believe that God’s pathos, his adaptability and relationality, is seen most clearly and strikingly in the beauty and mystery of the Incarnation.

    In any case, you are completely right that morality and ethics flow from who God is and that they flow into our lives through a relationship with him. They are also present in the created order, since Israel’s wisdom literature shows us that God has embedded into the world — woven into the fabric of the cosmos — meaning and value and moral contingency.

    Thank you for reminding us how crucial it is for us to focus on our relationship with God rather than rules and codes. As Jesus said, “The first and greatest commandment is to love God with your whole life,” and the second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When we love God, we will love our neighbor, and then everything else will fall into place.

    1. You bring up an excellent point and it’s something I thought about while writing this post. I came to a few conclusions though that might help to answer your objection:

      1) God doesn’t relate to us; we relate to God – What I mean by that is that God shares certain attributes with us. Rationality, the tool we use to know God, ultimately belongs to Him. Our rationality is infinitely less than His rationality, but it still stems from Him. So we understand God not because He has lowered Himself so that we can understand Him, but instead He has lifted us up so that we can understand Him.

      2) We grow to understand God through theosis; He does not lower Himself – Through theosis we become like God (not in identity or being though) and thus begin to take on the mind of God. Though such an act is imperfect, it is still the act of us being lifted up to God rather than God coming down to us.

      3) In the Incarnation, God did not change, but instead added a nature – In the Incarnation, we do not see the nature of God fusing with human nature to create a third thing. Rather, we see the second person, the Word, adding a human nature to His divine nature. This means that He was (amongst other things) serving as an example of how humans are to relate to God. He served as the perfect human, fulfilling and completing the capacity of the human essence.

      Likewise, the traditional view in the Church – especially through Athansasius – is that the Incarnation lifted man up rather than bringing man down. Though the Word lowered Himself to take on a human nature, the Divine as a whole did not lower Himself. In the mystery of the Incarnation, humanity (flesh) is uplifted or as many Church Father said, humanity is deified. This doesn’t mean we become God, but rather we are elevated to a point where we can understand certain aspects of God.

      4) God is not comprehensible and defies a definition – That God is incomprehensible shows that He has not lowered Himself, but rather has uplifted humanity to understand certain aspects of Himself. If He had lowered Himself, then He would be more on our level and therefore we could understand Him insofar as we understand other humans. Instead, I can understand a fellow human more than I can understand God because God remains above me.

      Likewise, we have no definition of God. To have a definition, we must understand God’s nature (or essence), but we can’t do that and therefore we can’t define God. All we can do is describe Him and even then, our descriptions tend to be more apophatic than cataphatic. When we say that God is omnipresent, we’re saying God is not limited by physicality. When we say God is all knowing, we are saying that God is not ignorant of anything. Even the name, “I AM,” which describes that He is reality, is still just a description and not a definition.

      I point this out to show that while we can provide a definition for humans (“rational animal”) or a definition for any number of things we encounter in existence, we cannot provide a definition of God. This shows that He is still above us and is in comprehensible. So when you argue that my view would make God incomprehensible, let me point out that I agree. God is incomprehensible. But this is not to say we cannot have knowledge of God, merely that our knowledge of God, though substantial, is not comprehensible. The substantial knowledge we have of God comes because of our God-given reason, an attribute He shares with us.

      Now none of this is to say that God didn’t make a sacrifice in creating us, for God plus anything else is less than God, but God did not lower Himself (in His nature) in order to relate to humans. Instead, He lifted us up.

      1. Joel,

        Concerning point 1, I never considered the relationship in that way. What causes me to momentarily hesitate from affirming it completely is that it seems to compromise what we ordinarily think of when we think of the word “relationship,” ideas such as mutuality, reciprocity, risk-taking, and give-and-take. I do think that you are on to something when you say that God has raised us up — after all, Paul says as much when he says “God has raised us up to sit with him in the heavenly places in Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 2.6), a realized eschatological resurrection experienced through our participation in Jesus. At the same time, could this be a both-and scenario, rather than an either-or? Perhaps God did lower himself, most strikingly in the Incarnation, so that he could lift us up.

        As for point 2, theosis is a beautiful doctrine that the Western churches would do well to contemplate and make use of in their theological and devotional life. I assume that your familiarity with theosis, cataphatic theology, and apophatic theology implies that you are a member of the Orthodox Church? Whether you are or not, over the past year or so I have become interested in better understanding the Orthodox, even though I do not agree with all they think or believe. In any case, I think that Jesus was the perfect human, that he demonstrated how God intended humanity to be and how it was intended to relate to God and the world, that he is the divine interacting with the human and through the human absorbing into the divine all that we are (minus sin, of course), that he represents the destiny God had always planned for his creatures, and that he is the definitive revelation of God, the ultimate way of knowing God. In that sense, you could call Jesus epistemological. I think we could mostly agree on these points.

        Also, that we are to be conformed to God’s likeness is clear from Genesis 1.26-27 as well as wisdom literature, and definitely from Romans 8.29, where Paul talks about the eschatological destiny of the redeemed.

        As for point 3, I do not profess to be able to say too much meaningful about the mystery of the Incarnation, hence why I dub it a mystery. You are right that the fundamental nature of God does not change, as I outlined before as well, but consists in his taking a nature to himself. But I still think this is tantamount to real change. After all, this is a new experience for God, one that was novel in the history of God and the history of the world. Again, though, you are right that humanity is lifted up so that we can know and love God.

        As for point 4, I used the word “comprehensible” in the sense of knowable, not in the sense of omniscience. I just wanted to clarify that. I think that if God were truly incomprehensible, he would not be knowable in any sense, and then we have here the Gnostic Ineffable, who must communicate with and save its creatures through infinite emanations. I think the Judaeo-Christian scriptures show a very different God, a God who is willing to get down in the dirt with humans, to get muddy, to wrestle with us, to take risks, to get hurt, to even die. Because God is, I dare say, -not- ineffable, for that very reason we can know him and love him.

        Nevertheless, we are in total agreement that God in his entirety can never be known by humanity, because that is not within our faculties. To know God through and through, we would have to be God, and we both agree that is not going to happen.

        As for cataphatic and apophatic ways of speaking about God, I prefer to stick just a little closer to scripture and be just a little bit more way of imposing philosophical categories on the text. We all do have philosophies and metaphysics, and they definitely can help us interpret and engage the text. At the same time, they must submit to critique by scripture as well, and thus be in conversation with scripture. After all, I think too often in the history of Christian thought, the God of the philosophers has become too unlike the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. On the other hand, to reject the help of centuries of Christian thought and the aid of philosophy is just foolish.

        Lately, I have been reading Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah, & Israel in Modern Judaism by Rabbi Neil Gillman, and in the first part about God, he especially looks to the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who I think can provide valuable insights about how we understand God. To be perhaps too simplistic, he argues that God in his pathos reveals himself in symbols and metaphors, and that we can only understand and speak about God in symbols and metaphors. And I think he is on to something there.

        In any case, I think we do agree on some very important aspects. First, we agree that God’s essential nature/character does not change. Second, we agree that we can know God, but we cannot know him exhaustively. Third, we agree that we can only talk about God meaningfully in certain ways. Fourth, you emphasize humanity’s ascension, whereas I emphasis God’s condescension, but I think these are two sides of the same coin — two facets of the same diamond. Finally, we both agree that God is wonderful, that he created us to be in relationship with him, and we find the restoration and fulfillment of that relationship ultimately in Jesus of Nazareth.

        Thank you for your thoughtful response, and I look forward to reading many other of your articles. I hope that I can comment on them, and feel free to occasionally read and respond to some of the articles on my blog, should they interest you.

        — CK

      2. This is a really long post to reply to, so I’ll do my best!

        Concerning point 1, I never considered the relationship in that way. What causes me to momentarily hesitate from affirming it completely is that it seems to compromise what we ordinarily think of when we think of the word “relationship,” ideas such as mutuality, reciprocity, risk-taking, and give-and-take. I do think that you are on to something when you say that God has raised us up — after all, Paul says as much when he says “God has raised us up to sit with him in the heavenly places in Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 2.6), a realized eschatological resurrection experienced through our participation in Jesus. At the same time, could this be a both-and scenario, rather than an either-or? Perhaps God did lower himself, most strikingly in the Incarnation, so that he could lift us up.

        Personally, I love “both/and” situations and always look for them, especially in theology. This could be a “both/and” scenario if we believed that God was mutable, for to lower Himself entirely would require Him to change. Of course, if God is mutable, then He is created (see my article, The Cosmological Argument of St. John of Damascus for a further explanation). The idea of God being created would create too much of a problem in theology (namely, how can He be God if He’s created?), so we have to stick with the idea that He is immutable.

        Since God is immutable, this would mean that He raises us up in a relationship. This doesn’t mean He doesn’t make a sacrifice in doing so, but He doesn’t become lesser or smaller in order to make Himself known (the Incarnation not withstanding, but we’ll get to that).

        As for point 2, theosis is a beautiful doctrine that the Western churches would do well to contemplate and make use of in their theological and devotional life. I assume that your familiarity with theosis, cataphatic theology, and apophatic theology implies that you are a member of the Orthodox Church? Whether you are or not, over the past year or so I have become interested in better understanding the Orthodox, even though I do not agree with all they think or believe. In any case, I think that Jesus was the perfect human, that he demonstrated how God intended humanity to be and how it was intended to relate to God and the world, that he is the divine interacting with the human and through the human absorbing into the divine all that we are (minus sin, of course), that he represents the destiny God had always planned for his creatures, and that he is the definitive revelation of God, the ultimate way of knowing God. In that sense, you could call Jesus epistemological. I think we could mostly agree on these points.

        It seems you and I are in similar situations concerning the Orthodox Church – learning quite a bit from it, but not accepting all of it. There are just a few issues that I’m still facing, but they are big issues which prevent me from taking communion at an Orthodox Church.

        You’re right that we agree on this points (though I’m a bit confused by you calling Christ “epistemological”), but I was trying to make a bigger point on it and failed. The act of theosis is the act of man coming up to God, not God coming down to man. This was merely to show that God is not lowering Himself so that we can know things, but instead that God is raising us up.

        As for point 3, I do not profess to be able to say too much meaningful about the mystery of the Incarnation, hence why I dub it a mystery. You are right that the fundamental nature of God does not change, as I outlined before as well, but consists in his taking a nature to himself. But I still think this is tantamount to real change. After all, this is a new experience for God, one that was novel in the history of God and the history of the world. Again, though, you are right that humanity is lifted up so that we can know and love God.

        You do have to be careful in saying that God changed, mostly because of the aforementioned problem (a changed God equals a created God). God did not change in the Incarnation, because for “change” to occur it would require that His nature be impacted. As the Incarnation is only one person in the Trinity and not the entirety of the Trinity, it’s difficult to say that the entire nature of the Trinity changed.

        This is why Paul says that the Deity dwelt within Christ, to make it quite clear that the entirety of God was not attached to the human nature, merely that one Person had taken on a human nature.

        An inadequate illustration is assume that I’m standing behind two opaque curtains. Now, these curtains are strange in that I can see through them perfectly and without obstruction. Anyone on the other side, however, can only know that someone is on the other side of these curtains, but not know anything about that person. I then stick my arm through both curtains and allow people to grab onto my arm and come through the first curtain, but stop at the second. They can see more clearly through the second curtain than they could in the first.

        Now, this analogy – like all other analogies that attempt to explain the incarnation or the Trinity – is a heresy (it’s Modalism, indicating that Christ is just a part of God and not a distinct person). But the point I’m trying to make is that in the Incarnation, though the fullness of the Deity was in Christ, no change actually occurred with God. He reached through into our world via the Person of Christ and took on a human nature in order to raise us up to Him, but in all of this He did not change. While He might have experienced human nature, this does not indicate a change; He did not become less or more omnipresent, omnipotent, etc. He did not change His moral stances. He did not change His plans. Thus, no real change occurred.

        Does that make sense?

        As for point 4, I used the word “comprehensible” in the sense of knowable, not in the sense of omniscience. I just wanted to clarify that. I think that if God were truly incomprehensible, he would not be knowable in any sense, and then we have here the Gnostic Ineffable, who must communicate with and save its creatures through infinite emanations. I think the Judaeo-Christian scriptures show a very different God, a God who is willing to get down in the dirt with humans, to get muddy, to wrestle with us, to take risks, to get hurt, to even die. Because God is, I dare say, -not- ineffable, for that very reason we can know him and love him.

        This has been a problem for philosophers and theologians for quite some time, that is, defining our knowledge of God. He is incomprehensible in that we cannot comprehend Him, but He is not wholly incomprehensible as we can understand some things about Him. So exactly how far can we know God?

        The Bible does present a God who relates to humans, but I would argue that this relation only occurs because we have been made in His image. Likewise, His partaking with humans, both in the Old and New Testaments, is through the person of Christ. Thus, we don’t see His divine nature lowering as a whole so that humans can relate to Him, but instead we see Him relating to us and revealing His divine nature through the person of Christ.

        In terms of ethics, this means we know what is ethical because we are (1) made in His image and (2) made divine through the Incarnation. Nothing in God’s nature, ethical view, or personality changes.

        As for cataphatic and apophatic ways of speaking about God, I prefer to stick just a little closer to scripture and be just a little bit more way of imposing philosophical categories on the text. We all do have philosophies and metaphysics, and they definitely can help us interpret and engage the text. At the same time, they must submit to critique by scripture as well, and thus be in conversation with scripture. After all, I think too often in the history of Christian thought, the God of the philosophers has become too unlike the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. On the other hand, to reject the help of centuries of Christian thought and the aid of philosophy is just foolish.

        Lately, I have been reading Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah, & Israel in Modern Judaism by Rabbi Neil Gillman, and in the first part about God, he especially looks to the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who I think can provide valuable insights about how we understand God. To be perhaps too simplistic, he argues that God in his pathos reveals himself in symbols and metaphors, and that we can only understand and speak about God in symbols and metaphors. And I think he is on to something there.

        Concerning Scripture, Scripture does not really go into detail on what we can and cannot know about God. The vast majority of Christian theology is implicitly found in Scripture, which is what causes so many problems. Much of what we know about God is implicit (at least our explanations). This is why falling back on Scripture can sometimes be a hindrance to understanding God because we can place too much of an emphasis on Scripture. What I mean is when people say, “If Scripture doesn’t say it, I don’t believe it.” Well, Scripture never explicitly states that God is Trinitarian, but the concept of the Trinity is the centerpiece of Christian theology. At the same time, we do need to at least show how Scripture implicitly supports what we’re saying otherwise we’re most likely bringing in a foreign philosophy to Christianity.

        This is why much of modern Christianity seems so foreign to what we see in the Bible. The one exception I would make would be the Orthodox Church. I’ve been to two Antiochian churches (one Eastern Rite and the other Western Rite) and it’s the closest you can get to the description of a service found in the Didache. It’s eerily similar to a traditional synagogue. But for the most part, our theology, specifically in the West, seems to be different from ancient Jewish thoughts.

        A lot of that is in the West, theologians were more susceptible to adopting foreign ideas in their theology, such as the great divorce between orthodoxy and orthopraxi. It seems there isn’t a huge emphasis on living the doctrines we learn, but instead to keep them abstract. In the East, however, and under Judaism, all doctrine is to be lived, which makes it non-abstract.

        As for studying Judaism, I would be very careful. It seems most Christians forget or ignore (for fear of being called anti-semitic) that modern Judaism is the grandchild of the Pharisees. It is NOT the Judaism of the Bible, thus it’s quite difficult to rely on modern Judaism in order to understand how ancient Judaism functioned or believed. For instance, though God reveals Himself in symbols and metaphors, He also reveals Himself propositionally (e.g. “I AM” is a proposition). He also reveals His Will propositionally, especially concerning ethics. The understanding of such propositions, however, is nigh impossible outside of a relationship with God. So here is a case of “both/and.”

        I have to say CK, your comments are a nice change of pace. Lately I’ve been getting either abrasive comments, comments that aren’t thought out, or a mixture of the two. It’s nice to have comments where someone disagrees, but is both thoughtful and civil about it!

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