The term ‘morality’ has been defined in an explanatory way under two broad classifications in this article: (a) general description, (b) biblical description. The main reason for this classification is to be able to compare biblical system of morality, which is the focus of the study with other systems of morality. Scott B. Rae observed, ‘most people use the term morality and ethics interchangeably. Technically, morality refers to the actual content of right and wrong. Morality is the end result of ethical deliberations, the substance of right and wrong’.1 While noting this difference, the terms would be discussed as an inseparable pair in this paper.
General Definition of Morality
According to the New Bible Dictionary, the words ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ according to the Greek and Latin books mean ‘customs’.2 The idea is to discover the things that are usually done and conclude that these are the things one ought to do. Logically, it follows that these are the things that will seem right to the individual and also to society. Scott B. Rae goes a bit further in stating what morality is primarily concerned about. He said that morality is primarily concerned about questions of right and wrong, the ability of distinguishing between the two, and the justification of the distinction.3 There may be norms in society, with reference to what is right and wrong. However, society faces so many new and challenging issues, that people are forced into ethical deliberations. Samuel Enoch Stumpf, in his book, ‘Elements of Philosophy’, possesses the following questions: Why can’t we do just what we want to do? What difference does it make to anyone how we behave? Why does the question of ethics arise in the first place? Why should we think that one way of behaving is better than the other? That telling the truth is better than trying to get ourselves out of trouble by telling a falsehood? And who has the authority to tell us what to do? He concludes by saying that one should study ethics in order to find answers to the questions, what should I do? And why should I do it?4 From Stumpf’s statement it can be seen that the main issue that divides people in their moral views is that of the ultimate source of moral authority.
Norman L. Geisler in the first seven chapters of his book, ‘Ethics: Options and Issues’ shows this division among people as he discussed the basic approaches to ethics. He states that ethical systems could be broadly divided into two main categories: deontological (duty centered) and teleological (end-centered). Deontological systems are systems that are based on principles in which actions (or character or even intentions) are inherently right or wrong. Teleological systems, on the other hand are system that are based on end result produced by an action.5 Scott B. Rae, in his discussion on ethical systems included one more division – relativism, to that already stated by Geisler. According to him ‘relativism’ refers to an ethical system in which rights and wrongs are not absolutes and unchanging, but relative to one’s culture (cultural relativism) or one’s own personal preferences (moral subjectivism).6 However, this third category can still fit under Geisler’s two divisions. Further, Geisler stated that there are six major ethical viewpoints: (i) Antinomianism – says there are no moral norms; (ii) Situationism – affirms that there is one absolute law (the law of love); (iii) Generalism – claims that there are some general laws but no ones; (iv) unqualified absolute laws that never conflicts; (v) conflicting absolutism – contends that there are many absolute norms that sometimes conflicts and one is obligated to do lesser evil; and (vi) graded absolutism – holds that many absolute laws sometimes conflict, but one is responsible to obey the higher law. Geisler pointed out these six sub-categories are based on a view of ethical approach, which revolves around norms – deontological.7 In contrast the other approach does not stress norms but ends – teleological, and is described as non-normative or utilitarian approach.
1. General Observations
D. H. Field observed that, ‘biblical ethics are God centered, instead of following majority opinion, or conforming to customary behaviour, the scripture encourages us to start with God and his requirement – not with man and his habits – when we look for moral guidelines’.8 In order to understand the Bible’s definition of morality, one needs to examine the scripture, as Field observed, to see what God says and requires. He points out five things from the Bible about biblical morality points us to the person of God to discover that nature of goodness. God alone is good and it is his will that expresses what is good and acceptable and perfect; ii) the source of moral knowledge is revelation. According to the Bible, Knowledge of right and wrong are not so much an object of philosophical inquiry as an acceptance of divine revelation; iii) moral teaching is phrase as commend not statements. With the exception of the OT wisdom literature, moral judgements are laid down flatly, not argued out reasonably. The philosophers on the other hand had to reason their moral judgment in order to convince people that they are good; iv) The basic ethical demand in biblical ethics is to imitate God. God sums up goodness in his own person. Man’s supreme ideal according to the Bible is to imitate him; v) Religion and ethics is theocentric. The moral teachings of scripture loose its credibility once the religious undergirding is removed. Religion and ethics are related as foundation to building. Biblical ethics spring from biblical doctrine and the two are inseparable. 9
2. Morality in the Old Testament
From a amore general overview of biblical morality, it is but proper to understand the concept as presented in the two testaments. In the OT a close understanding of the covenant, the Law and the Prophets can give one a clearer understanding of morality. These three aspects will now be examined individually examined.
a) The Covenant
The covenant God made with Israel through Moses (Exod. 24) had direct and far-reaching significance. God’s grace as seen in his actions of love and concern in delivering Israel from Egypt, supplies the chief motive for obedience to his commandments. The Israelites as God’s partners were united to respond gracefully to God’s prior acts of underserved love. They were called to his will in gratitude for his grace, rather than submit in terror to threats of punishment. For this reason, for example, slaves were to be treated generously because God treated the Hebrew slaves with generosity in Egypt.
The covenant also encourages an intense awareness of corporate solidarity in Israel. Its effect was not only to unite the individual to God, but also to bind all covenant members into a single community. A man’s transgression therefore can affect the whole community (josh 7), and everyone is under obligation to help a needy person. The strong emphasis on OT ethics hinges on social ethics.
b) The Law
The covenant provided the context for God’s law giving. A distinctive feature of the OT law was its stress on the maintenance of right relationships between people and between people and God. It can be noted that the most serious sequence of the law breaking was not any material punishment, but the resulting breakdown in relationships. (Ho 1:2). The Ten Commandments, which should be seen as the heart of the law, are concerned with the most fundamental of relationships. They set out the basic sanctity governing belief, worship and life.
c) The Prophets
Social conditions in Israel changed dramatically since Moses’ time, and the Israelites failed to see how the law required obedience in their daily dealings in society, which also affected their relationship with God. The Prophets made it their business to interpret the law by digging down to its basic principle and applying these to the concrete moral problems of their day.
2. Morality in the New Testament
Norman L. Geisler made the following observations about New Testament
1) That Christian ethics is based on God’s will. It is, as she puts it, a form of
divine command position; an ethical duty, which is something we ought to
do. It is prescriptive;
2) that Christian ethics is absolute. The fact that God’s moral character does
not change (Mal 3:16) means those moral obligations that flow from his nature are absolute. Geisler points out that whatever is traceable to God’s unchanging moral character is a moral absolute e.g. holiness, justice, love, truthfulness and mercy. Other commands flow from God’s will, but they are not absolute. That is, they must be obeyed because God prescribed them, but he did not prescribe them for all people, times and places. Absolute moral duties, on the contrary are binding on all people at all times and in all places;
3) That Christian ethics is based on God’s revelation. What God commands
has been revealed both generally (Rom. 1:19-20;2:12-15) in nature, and
specifically (Rom. 2:2-18;3:2) in scripture. God’s general revelation
contains his command for all people. His special revelation declares his
will for believer;
4) That Christian ethics is prescriptive since moral rightness is prescribed by
a Moral God. Geisler pointed out that there is no moral law without a
moral Lawgiver, or a moral legislation without a moral legislator. Therefore
Christian ethics is prescriptive not descriptive. Christians do not have their
ethics in the standard of Christians but in the standard for Christians – The
5) Christian ethics is deontological. That is, based on principles in which
actions (or character or even intentions) are inherently right or wrong.10
Morality, as defined in this paper is the actual content of right and wrong. The major issue however is how to determine it. The main question that arises out of this issue is: Where lies the ultimate source of moral authority? One group of people believes that authority is immanent, human beings have the authority to create their own moral rules and systems – they fall under the category of teleological ethics. The other group believes that moral authority is transcendent, that is, authority exists outside of ordinary human experience. In biblical morality, that authority is God, who has revealed himself to human beings through his special and general revelation. That makes biblical ethics unique. It is deontological. In both the old and New Testament it is seen that morality is grounded in the nature and character of God.
As was pointed out, ethics and morality are inseparable. For Christians, ethics is not so much of determining the good but of choosing it. For non-Christians it is more of determining the good. Whether one is a Christian or not as human being, one will certainly engage in ethical deliberations.
1Scott Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics (Michigan: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1995), p. 15.
2D.H. Field, Ethics: New Bible Dictionary. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982),
p. 351 .
3Scott Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics (Michigan: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1995), p. 21.
4Enoch Stumpf, Elements of Philosophy (London: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993), p. 21.
5Norman L. Geisler, Ethics: Options and Issues. Michigan: Baker Book House,
1989), p. 24.
6Scott Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics (Michigan: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1995), p. 16.
7Norman L. Geisler, Ethics: Options and Issues. Michigan: Baker Book House,
1989), p. 25.
8D.H. Field, Ethics: New Bible Dictionary. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982),
p. 351 .
9Ibid, p. 351.
10Norman L. Geisler, Ethics: Options and Issues. Michigan: Baker Book House,
1989), pp. 22 -24.