Ethics is traditionally the third realm covered by philosophy. Once we know what is (metaphysics) and how we have knowledge (epistemology), it is then necessary to ask, what do we do? How does one act in such a world? If our metaphysic posits that what is real is not the physical world but the immaterial realm beyond it, the resulting ethic will involve the repudiation of the physical. If knowledge is based on the world beyond, not the present, then the standard for what is ethically right or wrong will be sought in the immaterial beyond and not in the physical world. Thus, in Platonism, virtue was to be cultivated, but the standard of virtuosity was conformity with the eternal patterns of the real world—the immaterial world of which the physical is just a shadow. This is not the Christian worldview. Christianity says that matter is good, created by God, and that the ultimate standard of knowing is God Himself. This demands that ethical norms—the laws concerning what is right and wrong—should be sought in Him and His revelation. But the Bible recognizes that ethical decision making is not a black and white matter, it is situational: murder is wrong, but killing in war is not. The Old Testament case laws demonstrate the need to pay attention to the particularities of each situation in order to determine right and wrong in each case. John Frame helpfully brings together these different facets of ethical decision making in his tri-perspectival model, which we have seen applied to epistemology (see The Christian Worldview (3)).
When facing any ethical dilemma, one must consult the standards of right and wrong (the law), consider the concrete situation faced (how does the law apply here), and consider the individual acting (a human is not allowed to take any life and any time, but God can). I will consider the situational context, the world in which we live as Christians, in other articles. In what follows, I want to briefly unpack the normative (law) and existential (acting subject) contexts as they regard ethics. That is, I want to examine what standard Christians use for ethical decisions and what how individuals factor into ethics.
This article adapted from the first appendix of my paper, To Love God with All One’s Heart Soul and Strength.
<sub>Image: “Balance Scales (Ethics)” flickr photo by The Open University (OU) https://flickr.com/photos/the-open-university/8958807534 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license</sub>