As I previously mentioned, I would be going through John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Christian Life in accordance with the sections of the book. The second section of the book is an examination of Non-Christian Ethics. This section of the book is extremely helpful for understanding politics, not just ethics, since politics is often a large scale expression of ethics.
As one should expect, Frame utilizes both his understanding of Lordship attributes and triperspectivalism to analyze the numerous ways that non-Christians have done ethics. He starts with the biblical tension between transcendence and immanence. The biblical concept of transcendence includes God’s control and authority. Immanence focuses on God’s presence. Since God is Lord, he is present, in control and has full authority.
Non-Christians (and some poor theologians), obviously, in rejecting the testimony of Scripture separate them and emphasize one over the other. Or completely ignore one. Deism, for instance, rejects the immanence of God. He is not present in creation but set it in motion. Rabbi Kushner embraces God’s presence but rejects his control and authority. Shirley McClaine is even more radical in stressing God’s immanence by thinking she is part of God.
Politically, an unbiblical transcendence makes the State god who determines right and wrong as well as dispensing rights (as well as taking them away according to who is in power). An unbiblical immanence places all the power in the self and gives rise to forms of libertarianism that reject external authority, like Ayn Rand.
Frame does the same thing with irrationalism and rationalism. We are rational beings, being made in the image of God. Yet, being finite, our knowing is not autonomous. We admit that there are things we cannot understand as a result of our finitude and our sinfulness. We see our irrationalism as a function of the Creator-Creature distinction.
Non-Christian ethics do not recognize this distinction and veer off into either rationalism or irrationalism (skepticism). Even the rationalists eventually devolve into irrationalism because there are things they cannot explain or understand.
He briefly puts all of this together from a Reformed point of view. God is with us in our struggles, knowing all of our circumstances. He also speaks authoritatively and has ordained those circumstances in which we find ourselves. We recognize both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. God, in his providence, establishes secondary means including our actions.
He moves into the three most common ethical principles:
- The teleological principle: A good act maximizes the happiness of living creature.
- The deontological principle: A good act is a response to duty, even if it requires self-sacrifice.
- The existential principle: A good act comes from a good inner character.
Christians should recognize all three as reflecting the situational, normative and existential perspectives. Non-Christians pit them against one another.
He moves to ethics and world religions in the next chapter. Religions that embrace the notion of fate, emphasize the transcendence but deny immanence. They become irrational because people cannot learn right from wrong or pursue anything like justice. Whatever is, is. That’s just the way it is.
“It is only the cross of Christ that can put to rest that pride and despair. God’s grace brings us fellowship with him that is not based on our works, so we may not boast. And it brings us into deeper fellowship with God as he sees us in his beloved Son, so we may not despair.”
One of the biggest problems now is ethics as self-realization. With no transcendent laws, everything is now being justified in the name of discovering and being who you are. Another common distortion is ethics as law without gospel.
Frame explores the existential tradition first. It focuses on the inner life. Early, we find the Sophists. Later Hume and Rousseau who thought that ethical standards are subjective. Karl Marx viewed ethics as “relative to one’s class”. And so “ethical systems are tools of political movements, aiming to promote the interest of one class against the other.” This has been a large part of American politics of late. Special interest classes are being used to transform society and strip the established groups of power.
He moves through Emotivism and Existentialism proper. Satre is an interesting character wanting to free us from all moral rules, though he claims some behavior is inauthentic. He becomes the authority or judge of authenticity. But my thought was, how can I be inauthentic if I do not yet have an essence? In this thought I am striving to become something through my choices. But I haven’t arrived. So … it is a mess, frankly.
He then covers the teleological tradition, which includes Epicurus, Aristotle, Utilitarianism and John Dewey. Then he moves into the deontological tradition represented by Plato, Cynicism, Stocism, Kant and Idealism.
Sadly, many Christians have lost sight of biblical ethics and resort to essentially unbiblical ethics. Anthony Bradley has long complained about this. He recently illustrated his point by linking to a blog post by Rachel Held Evans on, of all things, masturbation (a similar one on Her-menutics appears on female masturbation in particular). Most of the people she asked (as well as people who left comments for both articles) rejected a larger biblical context in which to fit it (deontological) and arrived at either utilitarianism (satisfy the desire so you can move on to important things since it is distracting) or self-actualization (discovering what feels best for you). Gone is the discussion of marriage as the proper context for sexual activity, self-denial, giving oneself to another in sexual love etc. This is just a symptom.
There is a crisis among evangelical churches when it comes to ethical thinking. People are not being taught to think biblically. As a result, some find it alluring to cross the Tiber. And others just embrace non-Christian ethical systems and become increasingly like the world around them.
Frame’s book shows, on the other hand, that in the Reformed heritage there is a healthy, robust tradition of biblical ethics. This book, while incredibly large, is so precisely because of the great lack of such thinking in the broader evangelical world. There is much work to be done, and this book is much needed.