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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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ETHICS . The present article will be confined to Biblical Ethics. As there is no systematic presentation of the subject, all that can be done is to gather from the Jewish and Christian writings the moral conceptions that were formed by historians, prophets, poets, apostles. The old history culminates in the story of the perfect One, the Lord Jesus Christ, from whom there issued a life of higher order and ampler range.

I. OT Ethics . As the dates of many of the books are uncertain, special difficulty attends any endeavour to trace with precision the stages of moral development amongst the Hebrews. The existence of a moral order of the world is assumed; human beings are credited with the freedom, the intelligence, etc., which make morality possible. The term ‘conscience’ does not appear till NT times, and perhaps it was then borrowed from the Stoics; but the thing itself is conspicuous enough in the records of God’s ancient people. In Genesis 3:5 we have the two categories ‘good’ and ‘evil’; the former seems to signify in Genesis 1:31 ‘answering to design’ and in Genesis 2:18 ‘conducive to well-being.’ These terms applied sometimes to ends, sometimes to means probably denote ultimates of consciousness, and so, like pain and pleasure, are not to be defined. Moral phenomena present themselves, of course, in the story of the patriarchs; men are described as mean or chivalrous, truthful or false, meritorious or blameworthy, long before legislation Mosaic or other takes shape.

1 . In Hebrew literature the religious aspects of life are of vital moment, and therefore morals and worship are inextricably entangled. God is seen: there is desire to please Him; there is a shrinking from aught that would arouse His anger ( Genesis 20:6; Genesis 39:9 ). Hence the immoral is sinful. Allegiance is due not to an impersonal law, but to a Holy Person, and duty to man is duty also to God. Morality is under Divine protection: are not the tables of the Law in the Ark that occupies the most sacred place in Jehovah’s shrine ( Exodus 40:20 , Deuteronomy 10:5 , 1 Kings 8:9 , Hebrews 9:4 )? The commandments, instead of being arbitrary, are the outflowings of the character of God. He who enjoins righteousness and mercy calls men to possess attributes which He Himself prizes as His own peculiar glory ( Exodus 33:18-19; Exodus 34:6-7 ). Hosea represents the Divine love as longing for the response of human love, and Amos demands righteousness in the name of the Righteous One. Man’s goodness is the same in kind as the goodness of God, so that both may be characterized by the same terms; as appears from a comparison of Psalms 111:1-10; Psalms 112:1-10 .

2 . The OT outlook is national rather than individual. The elements of the community count for little, unless they contribute to the common good. A man is only a fractional part of an organism, and he may be slain with the group to which he belongs, if grievous sin can be brought home to any part of that group ( Joshua 7:19-26 ). It is Israel the people as a whole that is called God’s son. Prayers, sacrifices, festivals, fasts, are national affairs. The highest form of excellence is willingness to perish if only Israel may be saved ( Exodus 32:31-32 , Judges 5:15-18 ). Frequently the laws are, such as only a judge may administer: thus the claim of ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ ( Deuteronomy 19:21 ), being a maxim of fairness to be observed by a magistrate who has to decide between contending parties, is too harsh for guidance outside a court of law ( Matthew 5:38-39 ). When Israel sinned, it was punished; when it obeyed God, it prospered. It was not till Hebrew national life was destroyed that individual experiences excited questions as to the equity of Providence (Job, Psalms 37:1-40; Psalms 73:1-28 ) and in regard to personal immortality. In the later prophets, even when the soul of each man is deemed to be of immense interest ( Ezekiel 18:1-32 ), national ideals have the ascendency in thought. It is the nation that is to have a resurrection ( Isaiah 25:8 , Ezekiel 37:1-14 , Hosea 13:14 , Zechariah 8:1-8 ). This ardent devotion to corporate well-being a noble protest against absorption in individual interests is the golden thread on which the finest pearls of Hebrew history are strung.

3 . The Covenant is always regarded as the standard by which conduct is to be judged. Deference to the Covenant is deference to God ( Hosea 6:7; Hosea 8:1 , Amos 3:1-3 ). As God is always faithful, His people prosper so long as they observe the conditions to which their fathers gave solemn assent ( Exodus 24:8; Exodus 24:7 ). The Decalogue, which is an outline of the demands made by the Covenant on Israel, requires in its early clauses faith, reverence, and service; then ( Exodus 20:1-26 , Commandments 5 to 9) the duty of man to man is set forth as part of man’s duty to Jehovah, for Moses and all the prophets declare that God is pleased or displeased by our behaviour to one another. The Tenth Commandment, penetrating as it does to the inward life, should be taken as a reminder that all commandments are to be read in the spirit and not in the letter alone ( Leviticus 19:17-18 , Deuteronomy 6:5-6 , Psalms 139:1-24 , Romans 7:14 ). Human obligations details of which are sometimes massed together as in Exodus 20:1-26; Exodus 21:1-36; Exodus 22:1-31; Exodus 23:1-33 , Psalms 15:1-5; Psalms 24:1-10 include both moral and ceremonial requirements. Nothing is more common in the prophets than complaints of a disposition to neglect the former ( Isaiah 1:11 f., Jeremiah 6:20; Jeremiah 7:21 f., Hosea 6:6 , Amos 5:21 f.). The requirements embrace a great number of particulars, and every department of experience is recognized. Stress is laid upon kindness to the physically defective ( Leviticus 19:14 ), and to the poor and to strangers ( Deuteronomy 10:18-19; Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Deuteronomy 24:17 ff., Job 31:16 ff., Job 32:1-22 , Psalms 41:1 , Isaiah 58:6 ff., Jeremiah 7:5 ff; Jeremiah 22:3 , Zechariah 7:9 f.). Parents and aged persons are to be reverenced ( Exodus 20:12 , Deuteronomy 5:16 , Leviticus 19:32 ). The education of children is enjoined ( Exodus 12:26 f., Exodus 13:8; Exodus 13:14 , Deuteronomy 4:9; Deuteronomy 6:7; Deuteronomy 6:20-25; Deuteronomy 11:19; Deuteronomy 31:12-13; Deuteronomy 32:46 , Psalms 78:5-6 ). In Proverbs emphasis is laid upon industry ( Proverbs 6:6-11 ), purity ( Proverbs 7:6 etc.), kindness to the needy ( Proverbs 14:21 ), truthfulness ( Proverbs 17:7 etc.), forethought ( Proverbs 24:27 ). The claims of animals are not omitted ( Exodus 23:11 , Leviticus 25:7 , Deuteronomy 22:4; Deuteronomy 22:6; Deuteronomy 25:4 , Psalms 104:11-12; Psalms 148:10 , Proverbs 12:10 , Jonah 4:11 ). Occasionally there are charming pictures of special characters (the housewife, Proverbs 31:1-31; the king, 2 Samuel 23:3-4; the priest, Malachi 2:5-7 ). God’s rule over man is parallel with His rule over the universe, and men should feel that God embraces all interests in His thought, for He is so great that He can attend equally to the stars and to human sorrows ( Psalms 19:1-14; Psalms 33:1-22; Psalms 147:3-6 ).

4 . The sanctions of conduct are chiefly temporal (harvests, droughts, victories over enemies, etc.), yet, as they are national, self-regard is not obtrusive. Moreover, it would be a mistake to suppose that no Hebrew minds felt the intrinsic value of morality. The legal spirit was not universal. The prophets were glad to think that God was not limiting Himself to the letter of the Covenant, the very existence of which implied that Jehovah, in the greatness of His love, had chosen Israel to be His peculiar treasure. By grace and not by bare justice Divine action was guided. God was the compassionate Redeemer ( Deuteronomy 7:8 , Hosea 11:1; Hosea 14:4 ). Even the people’s disregard of the Law did not extinguish His forgiving love ( Psalms 25:6 ff; Psalms 103:8 ff., Isaiah 63:9 , Jeremiah 3:12; Jeremiah 31:3; Jeremiah 33:7 f., Micah 7:18 f.). In response to this manifested generosity, an unmercenary spirit was begotten in Israel, so that God was loved for His own sake, and His smile was regarded as wealth and light when poverty and darkness had to be endured. ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee?’ ‘Oh, how I love thy law!’ are expressions the like of which abound in the devotional literature of Israel, and they evince a disinterested devotion to God Himself and a genuine delight in duty. To the same purport is the remarkable appreciation of the beauty and splendour of wisdom recorded in Proverbs 8:1-36 .

II. NT Ethics . While admitting many novel elements ( Matthew 11:11; Matthew 13:17; Matthew 13:35; Matthew 13:52 , Mark 2:21-22 , John 13:34 , Ephesians 2:15 , Hebrews 10:20 , Revelation 2:17; Revelation 3:12; Revelation 5:9 ), Christianity reaffirmed the best portions of OT teaching ( Matthew 5:17 , Romans 3:31 ). Whatsoever things were valuable, Christ conserved, unified, and developed. The old doctrine acquired wings, and sang a, nobler, sweeter song ( John 1:17 ). But the glad and noble life which Jesus came to produce could come only from close attention to man’s actual condition.

1 . Accordingly, Christian Ethics takes full account of sin . The guilty state of human nature, together with the presence of temptations from within, without, and beneath, presents a problem far different from any that can be seen when it is assumed that men are good or only unmoral. Is our need met by lessons in the art of advancing from good to better? Is not the human will defective and rebellious? The moral ravages in the individual and in society call for Divine redemptive activities and for human penitence and faith. Though the sense of sin has been most conspicuous since Christ dwelt among men, the Hebrew consciousness had its moral anguish. The vocabulary of the ancient revelation calls attention to many of the aspects of moral disorder. Sin is a ravenous beast, crouching ready to spring ( Genesis 4:7 ); a cause of wide-spreading misery ( Genesis 3:15-19; Genesis 9:25; Genesis 20:9 , Exodus 20:5 ); is universal ( Genesis 6:5; Gen 8:21 , 1 Kings 8:46 , Psalms 130:3; Psalms 143:2 ); is folly (Prov. passim ); a missing of the mark, violence, transgression, rebellion, pollution ( Psalms 51:1-19 ). This grave view is shared by the NT. The Lord and His Apostles labour to produce contrition. It is one of the functions of the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin ( John 16:8 ). It is not supposed that a good life can be lived unless moral evil is renounced by a penitent heart. The fountains of conduct are considered to have need of cleansing. It is always assumed that great difficulties beset the soul in its upward movements, because of its past corrupt state and its exposure to fierce and subtle temptations.

2 . In harmony with the doctrine of depravity is the distinctness with which individuality is recognized. Sin is possible only to a person. Ability to sin is a mark of that high rank in nature denoted by ‘personality.’ Christianity has respect to a man’s separateness. It sees a nature ringed round with barriers that other beings cannot pass, capacities for great and varied wickednesses and excellences, a world among other worlds, and not a mere wave upon the sea. A human being is in himself an end, and God loves us one by one. Jesus asserted the immense value of the individual. The Shepherd cares for the one lost sheep ( Luke 15:4-7 ), and has names for all the members of the flock ( John 10:14 ). The Physician, who (it is conceivable) could have healed crowds by some general word, lays His beneficent hands upon each sufferer ( Luke 4:40 ). Remove from the Gospels and the Acts the stories of private ministrations, and what gaps are made ( John 1:35 ff., John 1:3-4 , Acts 8:25-39; Acts 8:16 , etc.). Taking the individual as the unit, and working from him as a centre, the NT Ethic declines to consider his deeds alone ( Matthew 6:1-34 , Romans 2:28-29 ). Actions are looked at on their inner side ( Matthew 5:21-22; Matthew 5:27-28; Matthew 6:1; Matthew 6:4; Matthew 6:6; Matthew 6:18; Matthew 12:34-35; Matthew 23:5; Matthew 23:27 , Mark 7:2-8; Mark 7:18-23 , Luke 16:15; Luke 18:10-14 , John 4:23 f.). This is a prolongation of ideas present to the best minds prior to the Advent ( 1 Samuel 16:7 , Psalms 7:9; Psalms 24:3-4; Psalms 51:17; Psalms 139:2-3; Psalms 139:23 , Jeremiah 17:10; Jeremiah 31:33 ).

3 . The social aspects of experience are not overlooked. Everyone is to bear his own burden ( Romans 14:4 , Galatians 6:5 ), and must answer for himself to the Judge of all men ( 2 Corinthians 5:10 ); but he is not isolated. Regard for others is imperative; for an unforgiving temper cannot find forgiveness ( Matthew 6:14-15; Matthew 18:23-35 ), worship without brotherliness is rejected ( Matthew 5:23-24 ), and Christian love is a sign of regeneration ( 1 John 5:1 ). The mere absence of malevolent deeds cannot shield one from condemnation; positive helpfulness is required ( Matthew 25:41-45 , Luke 10:25-37; Luke 16:19-31 , Ephesians 4:28-29 ). This helpfulness is the new ritualism ( Hebrews 13:16 , James 1:27 ). The family with its parents, children, and servants ( Ephesians 5:22 to Ephesians 6:9 , Colossians 3:18 to Colossians 4:1 ); the Church with its various orders of character and gifts ( Romans 14:1-23; Romans 15:1-33 , Galatians 6:1-2 , 1Co 13:1-13; 1 Corinthians 14:1-40; 1 Corinthians 15:1-58 ); the State with its monarch and magistrates ( Mark 12:14-17 , Romans 13:1-7 , 1 Timothy 2:1-2 ), provide the spheres wherein the servant of Christ is to manifest his devotion to the Most High. ‘Obedience, patience, benevolence, purity, humility, alienation from the world and the “flesh,” are the chief novel or striking features which the Christian ideal of practice suggests’ (Sidgwick), and they involve the conception that Christian Ethics is based on the recognition of sin, of individuality, of social demands, and of the need of heavenly assistance.

4 . The Christian standard is the character of the Lord Jesus Christ , who lived perfectly for God and man. He overcame evil ( Matthew 4:1-11 , John 16:33 ), completed His life’s task ( John 17:4 ), and sinned not ( John 8:46 , 2 Corinthians 5:21 , Heb 4:15 , 1 Peter 2:22 , 1 John 3:5 ). His is the pattern life, inasmuch as it is completely (1) filial, and (2) fraternal. As to (1), we mark the upward look, His readiness to let the heat of His love burst into the flame of praise and prayer, His dutifulness and submissiveness: He lived ‘in the bosom of the Father,’ and wished to do only that which God desired. As to (2), His pity for men was unbounded, His sacrifice for human good knew no limits. ‘Thou shalt love God’; ‘thou shalt love man.’ Between these two poles the perfect life revolved. He and His teachings are one. It is because the moral law is alive in Him that He must needs claim lordship over man’s thoughts, feelings, actions. He is preached ‘as Lord’ ( 2 Corinthians 4:5 ), and the homage which neither man ( Acts 10:25-26 ) nor angel ( Revelation 22:8-9 ) can receive He deems it proper to accept ( John 13:13 ). Could it be otherwise? The moral law must be supreme, and He is it. Hence alienation from Him has the fatal place which idolatry had under the Old Covenant, and for a similar reason, seeing that idolatry was a renunciation of Him who is the righteous and gracious One. Since Jesus by virtue of His filial and fraternal perfectness is Lord, to stand apart from Him is ruinous ( Luke 10:13-16 , John 3:18; John 8:24; John 15:22-24; John 16:8-9 , Hebrews 2:3; Hebrews 6:4-8; Hebrews 10:26 ). Wife or child or life itself must not be preferred to the claims of truth and righteousness, and therefore must not be preferred to Christ, who is truth and righteousness in personal form ( Matthew 10:37-39 , Luke 9:59-60; Luke 14:26-27 ). To call oneself the bond-servant of Jesus Christ ( Romans 1:1 , James 1:1 , 2 Peter 1:1 ) was to assert at once the strongest affection for the wise and gracious One, and the utmost loyalty to God’s holy will as embodied in His Son. The will of God becomes one’s own by affectionate deference to Jesus Christ, to suffer for whom may become a veritable bliss ( Matthew 5:10-12 , Acts 5:41 , 2 Corinthians 4:11 , Philippians 1:29 , 1 Thessalonians 2:14 , Hebrews 10:32-34 ).

5 . Christian Ethics is marked quite as much by promises of assistance as by loftiness of standard. The kindliness of God, fully illustrated in the gift and sacrifice of His Son, is a great incentive to holiness. Men come into the sunshine of Divine favour. Heavenly sympathy is with them in their struggles. The virtues to be acquired ( Matthew 5:1-16 , Galatians 5:22-23 , Colossians 3:12-17 , 2 Peter 1:5-7 , Titus 2:12 ) and the vices to be shunned ( Mark 7:21-22 , Galatians 5:19-21 , Colossians 3:5-9 ) are viewed in connexion with the assurance of efficient aid. There is a wonderful love upon which the aspirant may depend ( John 3:16 , Romans 5:7-8 , 2 Corinthians 5:19 f.). The hearty acceptance of that love is faith, ranked as a virtue and as the parent of virtues ( 2 Peter 1:5 , Romans 5:1-2 , 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 , Hebrews 11:1-40 ). Faith, hope, love, transfigure and supplement the ancient virtues, temperance, courage, wisdom, justice, while around them grow many gentle excellences not recognized before Christ gave them their true rank; and yet it is not by its wealth of moral teaching so much as by its assurance of ability to resist temptation and to attain spiritual manhood that Christianity has gained preeminence. Christ’s miracles are illustrations of His gospel of pardon, regeneration, and added faculties ( Matthew 9:5-6 ). The life set before man was lived by Jesus, who regenerates men by His Spirit, and takes them into union with Himself ( John 3:3; John 3:6; John 8:36; John 15:1-10 , Romans 8:2; Romans 8:9; Romans 8:29 , 1 Corinthians 1:30 , 2 Corinthians 5:17 , Galatians 5:22-23 , Philippians 2:5; Philippians 2:12-13 , Colossians 3:1-4 , James 1:18 , 1 Peter 2:21 , 1 John 2:6 ). The connexion between the Lord and the disciple is permanent ( Matthew 28:20 , John 14:3; John 14:19; John 17:24 , Hebrews 2:11-18 , 1 John 3:1-3 ), and hence the aspiration to become sober, righteous, godly (relation to self, man , and God , Titus 2:12-14 ) receives ample support. Sanctity is not only within the reach of persons at one time despised as moral incapables ( Mark 2:16-17 , Luke 7:47; Luke 7:15; Luke 19:8-9; Luke 23:42; Luk 23:48 , 1 Corinthians 6:11 , Ephesians 2:1-7 ), but every Christian is supposed to be capable, sooner or later, of the most precious forms of goodness ( Matthew 5:1-10 ), for there is no caste ( Colossians 1:28 ). Immortality is promised to the soul, and with it perpetual communion with the Saviour, whose image is to be repeated in every man He saves ( Romans 8:37-39 , 1Co 15:49-58 , 2 Corinthians 5:8 , Philippians 3:8-14 , 1 Thessalonians 4:17 , 1 John 3:2-3 , Revelation 22:4 ).

The objections which have been made to Biblical Ethics cannot be ignored, though the subject can be merely touched in this article. Some passages in the OT have been stigmatized as immoral; some in the NT are said to contain impracticable precepts, and certain important spheres of duty are declared to receive very inadequate treatment.

(i.) As to the OT, it is to be observed that we need not feel guilty of disrespect to inspiration when our moral sense is offended; for the Lord Jesus authorizes the belief that the Mosaic legislation was imperfect (Matthew 5:21 ff., Mark 10:2-9 ), and both Jeremiah and Ezekiel comment adversely on doctrines which had been accepted on what seemed to be Divine authority (cf. Exodus 20:5 with Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18:2-3; Ezekiel 18:19-20 ). It is reasonable to admit that if men were to be improved at all there must have been some accommodation to circumstances and states of mind very unlike our own; yet some of the laws are shocking. While such institutions as polygamy and slavery, which could not be at once abolished, were restricted in their range and stripped of some of their worst evils ( Exodus 21:2 ff., Leviticus 25:42-49 , 1 Chronicles 2:35 , Proverbs 17:2 ), there remain many enactments and transactions which must have been always abhorrent to God though His sanction is claimed for them ( Exodus 22:18-20; Exodus 31:14-15; Exodus 35:2-3 , Leviticus 20:27 , Numbers 15:32-36; Numbers 15:31 , Deuteronomy 13:5; Deuteronomy 13:16; Deuteronomy 17:1-5; Deuteronomy 18:20; Deuteronomy 21:10-14 , 2 Samuel 21:1-9 ). Had men always remembered these illustrations of the fact that passions and opinions utterly immoral may seem to be in harmony with God’s will, the cruelties inflicted on heretics in the name of God would not have disgraced the Church’s history; and, indeed, these frightful mistakes of OT days may have been recorded to teach us to be cautious, lest while doing wrong we imagine that God is served ( John 16:2 ). The limited area of the unworthy teaching would be noticed if care were taken to observe that (1) some of the wicked incidents are barely recorded, (2) some are reprobated in the context, (3) some are evidently left without comment because the historian assumes that they will be immediately condemned by the reader. In regard to the rest, it is certain that the Divine seal has been used contrary to the Divine will. It must be added that the very disapproval of the enormities has been made possible by the book which contains the objectionable passages, and that it is grossly unfair to overlook the high tone manifested generally throughout a great and noble literature, and the justice, mercy, and truth commended by Israel’s poets, historians, and prophets, generation after generation.

(ii.) As to the NT, it is alleged that, even if the Sermon on the Mount could be obeyed, obedience would be ruinous. This, however, is directly in the teeth of Christ’s own comment (Matthew 7:24-27 ), and is due in part to a supposition that every law is for every man. The disciples, having a special task, might be under special orders, just as the Lord Himself gave up all His wealth ( 2 Corinthians 8:9 ) and carried out literally most of the precepts included in His discourse. The paradoxical forms employed should be a sufficient guard against a bald construction of many of the sayings, and should compel us to meditate upon principles that ought to guide all lives. It is the voice of love that we hear, not the voice of legality. The Christian Etnic is supposed to be careless of social institutions, and Christianity is blamed for not preaching at once against slavery, etc. Probably more harm than good would have resulted from political and economic discourses delivered by men who were ostracized. But it is improbable that the Christian mind was sufficiently instructed to advance any new doctrine for the State. Moreover, the supposition that the world was near its close must have diverted attention from social schemes. The alienation from the world was an alienation from wickedness, not indifference to human pain and sorrow. The poverty of believers, the scorn felt for them by the great, the impossibility of attending public functions without countenancing idolatry, the lack of toleration by the State, all tended to keep the Christian distinct from his fellows. Mob and State and cultured class, by their hatred or contempt, compelled Christianity to move on its own lines. At first it was saved from contamination by various kinds of persecution, and the isolation has proved to be a blessing to mankind; for the new life was able to gather its forces and to acquire knowledge of its own powers and mission. The new ideal was protected by its very unpopularity. Meanwhile there was the attempt to live a life of love to God and man, and to treasure Gospels and Epistles that kept securely for a more promising season many sacred seeds destined to grow into trees bearing many kinds of fruit. The doctrine of the Divine Fatherhood implicitly condemns every social and political wrong, while it begets endeavours directed to the promotion of peace among nations, and to the uplifting of the poor and ignorant and depraved of every land into realms of material, intellectual, and moral blessing. There is no kind of good which is absent from the prayers: ‘Thy kingdom come’; ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

W. J. Henderson.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ethics'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​e/ethics.html. 1909.
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