Paradox in Biblical Ethics

There is a broad agreement that Christians should follow biblical ethics, i.e. the ethics that is presented on the pages of the Bible. The bible teaches specific ethical rules and it also teaches ethical reasoning that tells how to apply the rules to the concrete situations. It is possible to apply good principles in the right or wrong way.

A careful reader of the bible immediately encounters a paradox, illustrated by the following two citations:

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”  (Mt 5:21-22)

“One sabbath when he went to dine at the house of a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees, they were watching him. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. Then he took him and healed him, and let him go. And he said to them, “Which of you, having an ass or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.” (Lk 14:1 – 6)

Note that in both passages, Jesus demonstrates ethical reasoning, i.e. shows how to apply ethical principles in specific situations. However, in each of them, the reasoning is different. In case of “You shall not kill” (Mt 5:21), the reasoning is very cautious and very scrupulous. It sets up a protective border between the offense (killing) and the contemplated act and prohibits even acts that are far away from killing, although in an extreme case they could lead to it.  Followers of Jesus are expected to respect this wide boundary. In a terminology of later centuries, Jesus reasons in this case as a strict rigorist.

However, the reasoning in the second passage is very different. In that case, Jesus treats the Sabbath rest as a guideline that is subject to our judgement and suggests tradeoffs with other considerations. To show mercy towards a sick person or to solve an emergency by rescuing an ox who fell into a well are explicitly cited as permissible acts during the Sabbath. Jesus still upholds the Sabbath rest, but allows use of discretion and judgement to resolve a specific issue at hand. In the later terminology, Jesus on this issue demonstrates the reasoning of a lenient laxist.

Rigorists and Laxists

For some reasons, to accept different reasoning in different situations turned out to be too much for some people. The Pharisees were an early example, as they adopted an across-the-board rigorous approach. They applied the same strict reasoning to all ethics cases, including the Sabbath rest. They produced a lengthy list of activities that they deemed to be prohibited on the Sabbath. When Jesus violated their idea of the Sabbath, they reacted with condemnation. Today’s rigorists try to reduce all ethics to prohibitions (or duties which prohibit inaction) and display the same rigorist mindset in all ethical situations.

Laxists, on the other hand, emphasize the use of judgement and balancing of various considerations, which is appropriate for biblical prescriptions like Sabbath rest, but apply this reasoning across-the-board. They are always willing to consider various exemptions and trade-offs, even in the case of clearly stated prohibitions. Many ethicists like this approach because it gives the actors wider latitude and emphasizes a human judgement rather than obedience. It seems to give the moral actors a more adult role.

Pillars rather than Silos

In order to follow Jesus and his ethical teachings, we must accept both types of reasoning and apply them correctly in the appropriate circumstances. The early rigorists, Pharisees, are criticized in the pages of the New Testament, indicating that the across-the-board rigorist approach is not a satisfactory approach to the biblical ethics.

On the other hand, laxists should note that unless they are engaging a rigorist strawman, they face very few biblical prohibitions and encounter them relatively rarely. In his dialog with the rich young man, Jesus restates only four prohibitions: ““You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness.” (Mt 19:18)

While these prohibitions are few, their violations have very serious consequences and can lead to catastrophes in the lives of the actors and their companions. That was pointed out by Veritatis Splendor, a breakthrough encyclical by Pope St. John Paul II that coined the notion of “intrinsic evil” for acts that violate biblical prohibitions, no matter what the intention of the actor is. The encyclical points out that in case of the four prohibitions, laxists assume the role that only belongs to God. (Veritatis Splendor 102)

In the biblical ethics, the prohibitions and prescriptions create an organic whole, the pillars on which the biblical ethics rests. First, we have to ask whether the act is permitted and only if it is, we should balance the various considerations and trade-offs in order to optimize the outcome. Hence the two kinds of reasoning both have a specific complementary role and they are not isolated silos or competing options.

Pillars of ethical reasoning are not unusual or incomprehensible

The pillars of ethical reasoning are intuitive and easy to grasp, with many common situations serving as an analogy. When playing chess, we first encounter prohibitions: “Do not make an illegal move.” “Do not touch a figure that you do not intend to move.” Violations of these prohibitions lead to an immediate loss of the game.

Only when all prohibitions are meticulously observed, we can consider the prescriptions that help us to play a successful game of chess: “Select the appropriate opening.” Try to control the center from the opening to the end.” These prescriptions need to be balanced against each other and exceptions in specific situations should be considered. They represent a completely different kind of reasoning that takes place only after the meticulous observation of the prohibitions takes place. If the prohibitions are not observed, there is no space for a practice of prescriptions.

Another helpful analogy is reasoning about big goals. A car trip is such an example. Suppose that Hannah, who lives in Detroit, was invited by her friend in Chicago for a weekend visit. She is a teenager, has a new driver’s license and knows how to drive, but never before took a solo road trip. She comes to you and asks, “Grandpa, how can I get to Chicago to see my friend?”

First, you might warn her about the prohibitions: “Hannah, do not drive on the left side of the freeway. It would be so dangerous that it would threaten not only your trip to Chicago, but your entire life and other people on the road as well.”

Then you would say something about the prescriptions. “Hannah, before you leave, make sure that your car is in good shape and that you have enough cash with you. On the road, watch your fuel gauge and when it gets low, stop and buy gas. Observing prohibitions first and prescriptions later, each with a different kind of reasoning, will give Hannah a good chance to successfully reach Chicago and meet her friend.

These examples show that there is nothing mysterious or inaccessible in the pillars of biblical ethics.  We may note that there are additional pillars that can be gleaned from the pages of the bible: The biblical ethics has a purpose and leads towards a goal, which is reaching the Kingdom of God. The actors must maintain proper priorities in order to reach that goal, not to be scared off or distracted. There are also favorable circumstances that allow the actors to pursue the goal, God’s providence and grace. All these pillars constitute an organic ethical system and it is intuitively clear which pillar and which type of reasoning is applicable to which situation.

A more comprehensive summary of the biblical ethics and of the four pillars of prohibitions, prescriptions, priorities, and providence/grace can be found in Václav Rajlich: How to live a good life following New Testament ethics.

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