Monday, February 20, 2017

Principles of Conduct by John Murray - Introductory Questions: What is Ethics?

Chapter 1 of Murray's book Principles of Conduct is entitled "Introductory Questions."

There is always a temptation in reading books like this to jump ahead to the "issues" he will tackle in later chapters. But in a book like this one, if we miss the introduction, we may miss some important pieces of the foundation of biblical ethics. 

This chapter requires the reader to pay attention. It could probably be improved with some formatting so as to break it up into several organized chunks. The actual "introductory questions" flow with only the smallest break in the text to show he is moving on to a new question. For the sake of this blog, I'm going to tackle each of the questions as an individual post.


The first question he deals with is "What is ethics?" Alongside this question is a second one: What is biblical ethics? Or, to put it another way, "What is the study of biblical ethics?"

Murray examines the Greek words used in the New Testament for "ethics" or words similar to that. He shows that, at the root, ethics is concerned with a "way of life" or "manner of life" or "conduct" or "behavior." 

That said, he makes several qualifying statements to be sure we are clear about what is meant by ethics and the study of biblical ethics. For example, he says that:

1) Biblical ethics is about more than outward behavior. Rather, "biblical ethics has paramount concern with the heart out of which are the issues of life [p.13]." In other words, ethical behavior, according to the standard of God's Word, is not only a matter of what we DO, but WHY we do it. 

2) Biblical ethics is not simply concerned with isolated actions of individuals, but the relationship of all those actions together. I guess I would compare this to keys on a piano. Each key may be in tune. But ethics is concerned about how all those keys work together to play a song.

3) Biblical ethics also looks at the relationship of individuals to society itself. Murray calls it "individuals in their corporate relationships." Again, I would now compare this to a piano playing as part of an orchestra.

4) Finally, he reminds us that biblical ethics cannot simply be about the sum total of behaviors in society, because individuals are imperfect.  He says "we find inconsistency and contradiction in the holiest of men in the most sanctified society."

Having gone through these qualifications, an examination of the words themselves, and several references to Scriptures in which the relevant words are used, Murray concludes with this definition:

"The biblical ethic is that manner of life which is consonant with, and demanded by, the biblical revelation."

Here, then, is his starting point for this book. The "ethics" he has in mind is not what people actually DO per se, but what we OUGHT to do. He is looking not at behavior (which is faulty) but "standards of behavior which are enunciated in the Bible for the creation, direction, and regulation of thought, life, and behavior consonant with the will of God [p. 14]."

Personal Application: We live in a society that places much value on the concept of a "role model." We talk about public figures as being good or bad role models. We talk about parents as role models. We talk about being a good role model for others. But if people are faulty (and we know that we are) then the practice of continually comparing ourselves to others, over generations, will likely take us further and further from the real pattern we should be following, which is the Word of God. 

I suggest that one of the greatest dangers among Christians is that we look merely to the patterns of behavior established by our most popular public figures (pastors, authors, conference speakers). They may be good men and women. They may have much knowledge, many degrees, significant accomplishments and a seemingly spotless public record. But they (like us) are flawed. And we don't necessarily know in what areas of life they are most unlike the original pattern found in God's Word. 

Murray's definition of ethics reminds me that I'm not to draw my sense of "ethics" by comparing myself to others, but by comparing myself to Scripture. 

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