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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Golden Rule

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GOLDEN RULE.—This name is given to a saying of Jesus recorded in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:12 its form is fuller and probably more original than in Luke 6:31. The omission of the sentence, ‘for this is the law and the prophets,’ by the Gentile Evangelist, is in accord with the purpose of his Gospel; other variations may be due either to changes made in the course of oral transmission, or to divergences in two translations into Greek from the Aramaic. The two versions of the saying are as follows:

Matthew 7:12 ‘All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them: for this is the law and the prophets.’

Luke 6:31 ‘And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.’

The saying is rightly called a rule, for it lays down a general principle for moral guidance, and furnishes a ready test of the social value of words and deeds. But it presupposes an ideal of social well-being which determines the end of conduct; its function is to prescribe means for the attainment of that end. To the disciples of Christ the coming of the Kingdom of God is the supreme end; for them this saying is, therefore, the golden rule, furnishing a standard of excellence whose practical value consists in its universal applicability. Interpreted in the spirit of Christ, the rule, ‘Do as you would be done by,’ implies the embodiment in action of the prayer, ‘Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth’; they who walk by this rule are doing all that in them lies to bring in the Golden Age. Disparagement of the saying is the result either of failure to fathom the depths of its meaning, or of the rejection of Christ’s teaching in regard to the blessedness in which all men’s good consists.

The interpretation of the Golden Rule is little, if at all, affected by the connexion of thought. In the two Gospels the context varies. Wendt follows Luke’s order, though this necessitates the reference of ‘therefore’ in Matthew 7:12 to Matthew 5:42—the verse which corresponds to Luke 6:30. On this supposition the word ‘therefore’ is made to appear superfluous; Zahn rejects it on slight MS authority, because it seems to introduce a summary, which he regards as out of place here (*א L minn. Syrpesh om. οὖν). Yet Bengel’s pithy comment, ‘Imitate the Divine goodness,’ suggests a natural link with the previous verse: as the Father gives ‘good things’ to His children in response to the prayer which expresses desire to receive them, so the motive of His children’s actions should be a wish that others may share in the enjoyment of those good things from above. Another interpretation which preserves the unity of the Sermon on the Mount is that our Lord followed His encouragement to prayer by the reminder that if prayer is to be heard there must be a good life (Chrysostom). It is equally true, however, that the good life is impossible without prayer; the Father hears us when we ask His help, ‘ the most difficult duties of unselfish brotherly love to men become possible to us’ (Dykes, of the King, p. 572). The two views are complementary and not mutually exclusive. If we are doing unto others as Christ would have us do, He assures us that His Father will hear our prayers; on the other hand, if we will pray, He assures us that His Father will bestow the gifts of grace which will enable us to walk in love. In our Lord’s farewell discourse there is a similar interdependence of thought. Communion with the Father in Christ’s name is a means to an end, even the hearing of much fruit (John 15:7 f.); on the other hand, it is to disciples whose lives are fruitful that the promise of receiving what they ask is given (v. 16).

The Golden Rule is not, as some philosophers have held, a mere law of nature. Nevertheless, at the basis of this contention there lies a truth, well expressed by Wesley: ‘It commends itself, as soon as heard, to every man’s conscience and understanding; insomuch that no man can knowingly offend against it, without carrying his condemnation in his own breast’ (Sermon xxx. § 22). Hobbes declares that moral regulations, which he calls ‘immutable and eternal laws of nature,’ may all be summarized in the simple formula, ‘Do not that to another which thou wouldest not have done to thyself.’ ‘It is clear,’ as Sidgwick points out (Hist. of Ethics3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , p. 167 n. [Note: note.] ), ‘that Hobbes does not distinguish this formula from the well-known “golden rule” of the Gospel,—cf. Leviathan, ch. xv. p. 79, and ch. xvii. p. 85,—whereas the formula above quoted is, of course, the golden rule taken only in its negative application, as prescribing abstinences, not positive services.’

In its negative form the saying is found in both Jewish and pagan sources before the Christian era. Tobias is admonished by his father Tobit to love his brethren, ‘and what is displeasing to thyself, that do not unto any other’ (To 4:15). Hillel’s concise reply to a Gentile inquirer who asked to be taught the whole Law while standing on one foot, was, ‘What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow-man; this is the whole law, the rest is mere commentary’ (Bab. [Note: Babylonian.] Shab. 31a). A saying of Confucius is, ‘Do not to others what you would not wish done to yourself’ (Legge, Chinese Classics, i. 191 f.). Gibbon (Decline and Fall, liv n. [Note: note.] ) quotes from a moral treatise of Isocrates, ἃ πάσχοντες ὑφʼ ἑτέρων ὀργίζεσθε, ταῦτα τοῖς ἄλλοις μὴ ποιεῖτε. The passage occurs in an address (written by Isocrates, a professional writer) of Nicocles, king of Cyprian Salamis (circa (about) 374 b.c.), to his subjects, dealing with their duties as such (Isocrates, Nicocles, 61b).

The unique value of the Golden Rule of Jesus does not depend upon its never having been uttered by any earlier teacher in its positive form, but upon its connexion with His revelation of man’s chief good, His perfect example of devotion to that good, and His power to inspire and sustain those who, at His bidding, become followers of that which is good. It remains true, however, that there is little evidence of the existence of any pre-Christian parallel to the positive rule. Diogenes Laertius (v. 21) tells us that Aristotle was asked how we should act towards our friends, and replied: ‘as we would they should act to us.’ The saying is quoted with no context, but a comparison with Nicom. Ethics, ix. 8 fin., is in favour of its genuineness. Prof. Legge, commenting on the assertion that Confucius gave the rule only in a negative form, says: ‘but he understood it also in its positive and most comprehensive force, and deplored, on one occasion at least, that he had not himself always attained to taking the initiative in doing to others as he would have them do to him’ (Encyc. Brit.9 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] vi. 264b).

In the Apostolic and post-Apostolic ages the negative form of the rule is more frequent, both in Christian and non-Christian writers. The oldest Christian authority is probably Didache, 1:2. It is also inserted in the Western text of Acts 15:20; Acts 15:29, but the source of the variant is uncertain. Zahn refers the addition to the Didache; but, as Rendel Harris says, ‘the negative precept turns up everywhere in the early Church, having been absorbed in the first instance from Jewish ethics.’ (Cf. Knowling’s succinct note on Acts 15:20 in Expos. Gr. Test.). Other examples are Const. Apost. vii. 1; Clem. Alex. [Note: Alexandrian.] Strom. ii. 23, 139; Tertullian, e. Marc. iv. 16. In non-Christian authors the negative form of the rule is found in Philo (Eusebius, Praep. viii. 7. 6). One of the best of the Roman emperors, Alexander Severus, had it inscribed in his palace and on public buildings (Lamprid. c. 51). Westermarck (Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, i. 693) directs attention to an interesting passage in Epictetus (Fragm. 42): the keeping of slaves is condemned in these words, ‘What you avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others.’ The rule in its positive form is loosely quoted in Clem. Rom. [Note: Roman.] ad Cor. c. xiii., ‘As ye do, so shall it be done unto you … as ye are kind, so shall kindness be shown unto you.’ Harless (Christian Ethics, p. 110) ascribes to Seneca the saying, ‘ab altero expectes alteri quod feceris,’—a suggestive and rare contrast to the Stoic maxim, ‘Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris.’

A fair inference from these facts is that the positive form of the Golden Rule has been generally regarded as marking a distinct advance upon the negative form, its ideal of social duty being higher and therefore more difficult to realize. But Professor Hirsch takes the opposite view; in the Jewish Encyclopedia (vi. 22b) he says: ‘ “What you would have others do unto you,” makes self and possible advantages to self the central motive; “what is hateful to you do not unto another” makes the effect upon others the regulating principle.’ But how can self-interest be the motive for doing good to thankful and unthankful alike? The positive precept puts ‘doing’ first, and bids us take thought in doing good; we are to give what would please us, if we were in the place of those whom we are trying to benefit, though it may be quite certain that we shall receive nothing in return. The command of Christ accords with His teaching that they are ‘blessed’ who do not invite to their feasts those who will probably return the invitation, but those who cannot make such recompense (Luke 14:12 ff.). It is still more difficult to understand how ‘doing nothing’ to another ensures that our conduct will be regulated by altruistic principles. To do no harm is consistent with extreme selfishness. ‘The negative confines us to the region of justice; the positive takes us into the region of generosity or grace, and so embraces both law and prophets’ (Bruce, Expos. Gr. Test. in loc.).

A subtle way of obtaining a negative result from the positive precept is mentioned by Schleiermacher (Predigten. iii. 84 ff.). One may say in haughty independence, ‘What I wish is that others would let me go my own way; therefore, I let them go theirs.’ It is rightly said, in reply, that such pride is incompatible with obedience to the command of Jesus. His words, ‘whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you,’ are a recognition of the fact of men’s mutual dependence. ‘We are members one of another, and our chief danger is not that we should forget our claims on others, but that we should neglect our duties to others; nevertheless there are occasions when our possibilities of doing good to others will be lessened by unwillingness to be served by others.

A practical difficulty presents itself to the minds of many who desire to walk in accordance with Christ’s rule. A king cannot do to his subject what he desires his subject to do to him, nor can a father to his child, nor a master to his servant. But our Lord’s command is ‘even so do ye unto them.’ The narrow interpretation is not only false to the spirit, but also to the letter. The saying of Christ leaves abundant room for good actions which the recipient may be known to be altogether unable to return,—another reason for refusing to see in the positive form of the Golden Rule an appeal to self-interest. The Gr. word used is οὔτως, not ταῦτα; its meaning is rightly given by Alford (Com. in loc.), ‘After the pattern of ὅσα ἂν … Because what might suit us might not suit others. We are to think what we should like done to us, and then apply that rule to our dealings with others.’ A baldly literal interpretation would miss the beauty of St. Paul’s words, when, after enumerating the duties of servants to their masters, he says, ‘And, ye masters, do the same things unto them’ (Ephesians 6:9). The rule for masters and servants alike is ‘unto the Lord’; on each side of this and of every human relationship there is opportunity for ‘goodwill’ and for ‘doing the will of God from the heart’ (Ephesians 6:6 f.).

Many modern writers regard the Golden Rule as identical with the ethical maxim of Kant: ‘So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only’ (cf. Votaw in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, Extra Vol. p. 42a; Gore, Sermon on the Mount, 170 f.; Loofs, Predigten, ii. 227). In the language of philosophy, Kant forcefully expresses what is implied in the simpler words of Jesus. Doubtless it is inconsistent with the Golden Rule to exploit men for gain or for pleasure; in a word, to have one ideal for ourselves and another for our neighbours. Loofs shows clearly how the universality of the ethical imperative on which Kant so strongly insists is a distinct note in the command of Jesus. He also makes an instructive application of this principle to a concrete case, and shows how vainly partners in guilt try to shelter themselves behind their own parody of this rule. As though mutual agreement could ever be any excuse for collusion in dishonest actions, deceitful evasions, or even immoral pleasures. His reply to those who act on the principle of the German proverb, ‘The left hand washes the right, and the right hand washes the left,’ is in substance as follows: Jesus does not say, ‘Whatsoever one of you would that another should do to him, let him do the same to that other.’ The rule is universal. There must be no arbitrary limiting of the extension of the term ‘men’ in the saying, ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.’ A thief and his accomplice may, for the sake of dividing the spoil, wink at each other’s crimes; that is what is called honour among thieves. But neither of the accomplices can wish to make the rule of action universal; they cannot desire to be deceived by all men as they have agreed to combine in deceiving others.

In the Golden Rule, John Stuart Mill found a fitting expression of the essential principle of his ethical system. ‘To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality’ (Utilitarianism, p. 323). But when the crucial question is asked: How is the ideal perfection to be attained? the reply is that utility enjoins, ‘as the means of making the nearest approach to this ideal,’ that (1) ‘laws of social arrangements,’ and (2) ‘education and opinion’ should strive to ‘establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole’ (op. cit. p. 323). But no external force, such as law or education, can supply either the motive for doing as we would be done by, or the power to fulfil the precept we approve. It is true that on the lips of Christ the Golden Rule has its perfect expression; but its superiority as an ethical maxim rests upon a broader basis. It is more to exemplify a rule than to formulate it; it is still more to furnish the inward inspiration which constrains men to obey it. The disciples of Christ have another Golden Rule for their actions one toward another; it is expressed in His words, ‘as I have done to you’; and their all-powerful motive is the assurance that ‘ye did it unto me’ (Matthew 25:40) will be their abundant reward, if whatsoever they would have done to Christ Himself, even so they do unto men, serving them lowlily and lovingly in His name and for His sake.

Literature.—In addition to the works mentioned in this article, see Sermon on the Mount and the excellent Bibliography of Votaw in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, Extra Vol. p. 44 f.

J. G. Tasker.


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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Golden Rule'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/g/golden-rule.html. 1906-1918.

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