Four Exegetical Commitments to Doing Biblical Ethics

ethicsIn his chapter ethics in Progressive Covenantalism, Stephen Wellum lists four commitments necessary for doing biblical ethics. These principles for doing ethics take into account the progressive revelation of Scripture, the progression of biblical covenants, and the unity and diversity of ethical commands in the Bible. In short, they are commitments we should make whenever we seek to be ‘biblical’ in our ethical formulations.

This approach to ethics fits with a larger vision of how to put the Bible together and provides a helpful, “thick” reading of Scripture with regards to Christians ethics. Below are the four commitments drawn from his chapter. I commend them to you and further consideration on how every topic of ethics requires a whole-Bible approach to the subject.

(For two examples of how this approach might be worked out, you can see how I sought to handle racial reconciliation and transgenderism in two recent sermons).

Four Commitments to Exegetical Ethics

1. Scripture is the fundamental baseline for ethics.

Wellum writes, “All scripture is authoritative and thus provides the norm for Christian ethics” (216). This truth must be axiomatic and unchanging if we are to do ethics along the lines of the Bible.

While not every command from the old covenant applies to us in the same way, for people under the new covenant, every word of Scripture remains useful for teaching, reprove, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Therefore, we must read the whole Bible as the authoritative basis for our ethics.

2. The Old Testament law now functions as a word of wisdom to those under the new covenant.

Wellum writes, “the tripartite distinction of the Mosaic law is not the means for determining what is morally binding for Christians today” (218). In other words, the distinction of moral, civil, ceremonial is an extra-textual grid applied to the Bible. It has a certain heuristic helpfulness to it, but it is not demanded and derived from the Bible.

When trying to apply the Old Testament to the New, this tripartite division can sometimes can give helpful guidelines, but it can also misguide us. It is far better to read the old covenant typologically, as a law given to prepare the way for Christ and his new covenant. As Wellum writes, “The New Testament teaches that as important as the law covenant is in God’s unfolding plan, it has now come to an end, as an entire covenant. For this reason the Mosaic law as a covenant is no longer directly binding on the Christian” (219).

Rather, drawing on the work of Douglas Moo, Wellum continues, “‘Our source for determining God’s eternal moral law is Christ and the apostles, not the Mosaic law or even the Ten Commandments.’ This fact helps make sense of why Christians do not ‘do’ or ‘keep’ the law; instead, in Christ, we ‘fulfill’ the law due to Christ’s work and the power of the Spirit” (220–21). This then leads to the third commitment.

3. We obey the rule of Christ.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:21, we are not obligated to the law of Moses, but to the law of Christ. Therefore, “viewing all Scripture through the lens of Christ and the new covenant determines what is morally binding upon Christians today” (222). Paying careful attention to God’s Word, revealed over redemptive history, we learned that the law which Christians now must obey is the one found in Christ, administered and explained through the apostles of the new covenant. Therefore, to quote Brian Rosner,

Christians are not under the Law of Moses, but under the law of Christ, the law of faith and the law of the Spirit. We have died to the law, Christ lives in us and we live by faith in the Son of God . . . We do not keep the law, but fulfil the law in Christ and through love. We do not seek to walk according to the law, but according to the truth of the gospel, in Christ, in newness of resurrection life, by faith, in the light and in step with the Spirit. (Paul and the Law, 134)

Likewise, Wellum cites D.A. Carson, who says,

We do not begin with a definition of moral law, civil law, and ceremonial law but observe (for example) what laws change least, across redemptive history, in the nature and details of their demands, and happily apply the category ‘moral’ to them. This seems to me to reflect better exegesis and allows space to see the teleological, predictive, anticipatory nature of Tanakh as it points forward to the new covenant and beyond to the consummation (Progressive Covenantalism225)

In these ways, the New Testament, which stands in unity with and Christological fulfillment of the Old Testament, becomes the Christians source for covenant obligations. That is, we read the Old Testament as authoritative, but understood in light of Christ and his new covenant.

4. Biblical ethics requires the whole Bible.

Wellum writes, ‘The doing of ethics requires a careful unpacking of the Bible’s storyline and categories’ (226). In other words, it is insufficient to pop a proof-text from the Bible, especially one for the Old Testament, and directly apply it to the Christian today. Instead we need, in the doing of ethics, to understand how the whole Bible relates to any given topic. As Wellum explains,

In order to discern God’s moral will, we need first to begin in creation, then think through how sin has distorted God’s order, walk through the covenants, and discover how God’s redemptive promise will restore and transform the created order—a reality that has now been realized in Christ. At every stage in redemptive history, the covenants reflect God’s moral demands, thus explaining why we expect and find a continuity of moral demand across the canon. But earlier covenants on their own do not provide a complete and binding guide for Christian morality. (227)

Putting it All Together

In any particular case, we must let all of all of Scripture in their covenantal contexts speak on any given subject. As Michael Hill observes,

On any particular issue we will need to put together the relevant sections of Scripture so that we can know what is good in particular cases. The basic creation pattern is the starting-point for this exercise. The Law and the Prophets point to the original shape and purpose of God’s good order and highlight the fractures and disorder caused by sin. Finally, the revelation in Christ gives us a glimpse of the completed and perfected order. With minds renewed by the Spirit of God through the work of Christ believers can use this information to discern what is right and good. Such discernment is the substance of wisdom. (The How and Why of Love, 75)

In short, Spirit-given, Christ-centered, Word-saturated wisdom is the way Christians navigate the world ethically. In this pursuit, God does not give us endless rules for casuistry. Rather, we are given the Word and the Spirit as sufficient means to handle any ethical issue.

Such ample resources, however, depend that we read the Bible in line with what the Spirit of Christ inspired. Wisdom comes from watching how both testaments treat a given subject. In this way, we must watch how God deals with any given subject from creation to new creation, before applying Scripture to circumstances. In truth, this way of doing ethics is longer and more time-consuming, but it is the way of Christ and the way of wisdom. And in the end, it will shape our heart to have the right affections, as well as the right moral principle.

Therefore, with the whole Bible in hand, let us seek God’s wisdom and trust God to give us wisdom in whatever ethical dilemma we face.  

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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