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Review by Professor Gordon Wenham

Law and Virtue in Biblical Ethics

As an Anglican I often groan when our bishops make comments on current ethical and political issues.  They are so bland and wishey-washey if not PC.  On the other hand when the Catholic bishops open their mouths, they often give a strong Christian steer on issues such as gay adoption, bio-ethics or the environment.  Why should this be I ask?  Peter Bristow's Christian Ethics and the Human Person (2009) has given me an answer. It is published by a small publishing house and for that reason may well be overlooked, especially by evangelicals. But it presents a more coherent approach to ethics than I have met elsewhere, so I hope this extended review may be helpful in formulating a sensible biblical approach to some of today's issues.

Bristow ascribes the new confidence in the Roman Catholic episcopate to the renewal of Catholic ethics in the wake of  the Second Vatican council in the 1960s. In particular John Paul II, a former teacher of ethics and philosophy, published a number of encyclicals on ethical issues, such as Veritatis Splendor 1993 and Evangelium Vitae 1995, which apply his own personalist philosophy to modern issues. Encyclicals are pastoral letters to the bishops giving them advice on how to deal with particular current problems.

From a traditional perspective there are two main problems with modern approaches to ethics. The first is divorcing ethics from truth.  This leads to a mistaken view of freedom and a radical relativism. The second key issue is anthropology: who or what is a human being?  Scripture views man as a body-soul unity, so that the soul expresses itself through the body.  But modern philosophies tend to a dualistic approach: that is, they see a human person as a mind or consciousness plus body.  The real me is the thinking/feeling me.  The body is incidental to one's personality.  This difference in approach has particular relevance to bioethics.

In the modern era, with the death of God or at least his relegation to the role of a passive deistic observer, human autonomy has become a central ethical value.  Every human being can decide what is best for him or herself. 'liberté' came first in the slogan for the French revolution, and it remains a key note of modern ethical debate.  One can choose to behave in whatever way one likes, so long as one does not harm others.  Up to a point Christians agree with this.  God built a lot of freedom into creation.  Adam was told he could eat of all the trees of the trees of the garden save one, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of knowledge sets the limits of human autonomy, the boundaries of behaviour that should not be crossed, the basic rules of behaviour that every human must conform to.  Traditionally these principles have been termed the natural law.  When St Paul mentions that the Gentiles do by nature what the law requires (Romans 2: 14), he is referring to what ethicists understand by the natural law.  Its principles are roughly summed up in the Ten Commandments and in the golden rule, to do to others as you would like them to treat you.

It is in submitting to the law of God that Christians believe true freedom to be found, 'His service is perfect freedom.'  Bristow sees the Old Testament law as basically a set of external rules, though the prophet Jeremiah looked forward to a time when it would be written on the heart, that is internalised and integrated into one's way of life.  This is what Jesus proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5 he does not abrogate the law, but rather he extends it to words and thought.  In the beatitudes one sees a portrait of Jesus himself and also what his disciples should be like.  The fundamental principles of the Old Testament law are not abolished, rather they are reaffirmed and transmuted into virtues that need to be cultivated by habitual practice and the grace of the Holy Spirit.  One learns to love one's neighbour by treating him kindly and developing a positive attitude to him by prayer for him and for oneself.

The work of the Spirit is fundamental, as man cannot fulfil God's law fully without his aid.  Pentecost was the New Sinai. The gift of the Spirit enabled the disciples to live in accordance with their creator's intentions and fulfil the law.  It is by conforming oneself to the divine pattern that someone lives in the truth, and as Jesus said: 'If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and the truth will set you free.'  (John 8:31-32)

The second major problem with modern secularised approaches to ethics lies in its dualistic anthropology.  This conflicts with both biblical and Thomistic views of man.  One of the slogans of the biblical theology movement of the mid-20th century was that the Bible views man as a spirit-body unity. Man is not a body with a soul, but a body or a soul, depending on the context.  Thus because the body is inseparable from the soul, the Bible does not affirm the immortality of the soul but the resurrection of the body. So far so good. But there was a tendency in the biblical theology movement so to downplay the role of the soul, that one ended up with a near-materialistic anthropology, so that all that mattered was the body. The nature of the intermediate state between death and resurrection, if there was such a state, also was unclear. And no ethical implications were drawn from the unity of body and soul.

But the way Thomas Aquinas and John Paul saw the body-soul unity does have profound ethical consequences.  For them the body, through its actions, words and attitudes, expresses the soul.  Our actions reflect and embody the soul. Man can be described as an embodied soul or an ensouled body. The image of God in man is not just his rationality or emotions, it involves his ability to express himself through his body. This unitary view makes the body very important, indeed as significant as self-consciousness or the will, which are clearly activities of the soul.  But even when one is not conscious, for example in sleep, the soul is still there.

But a dualistic view of man sees things quite differently.  The human person is essentially its mental faculties: the body is an inessential accessory like the colour of one's car.  It can thus be manipulated at will. This outlook can be traced back to Descartes, who proved to himself that he existed by reasoning 'I think, therefore I exist.'  It has led many fallaciously to conclude the opposite proposition is also true: 'If I cannot think, I do not exist.'  This opens the way to embryo experimentation at one end of life, and euthanasia at the other.  But if one holds to the unity of body and soul, such a conclusion is impossible: as long as there is a living body there is a living soul, indeed a human person.  And if what one proposes in these borderline situations should not be done to normal subjects, neither should they in these edge-of-life ones.  It is a denial of that person's personhood, of their bearing the image of God.

But it is not just in the sphere of bioethics that the unitary view of man conflicts with modern thought.  Sexual ethics is an even hotter battlefield.  The natural law, revelation (Genesis 1 2 and the Pentateuchal law, Jesus) and physiology all point to life-long heterosexual marriage being the Creator's design.  Differentiation of the sexes is built into the human body with the clear aim of procreation and stable loving parenthood.  This should clearly limit the rules of behaviour between the sexes. But if one adopts a dualistic view of the human person and sees the body and its activities as accessory to the real me, one can treat sexual activity as just another recreation.  Just as I may choose to play football or tennis, give up one sport and take up another, so I can be equally flexible with my sexual behaviour.  Hence there is nothing intrinsically wrong with sex-change operations, homosexual practice or cohabitation.  But if one sees one's sexuality as an intrinsic aspect of one's personhood, the situation is very different.

There are for example many pragmatic arguments against cohabitation, such as its instability, its openness to third parties, the potential for exploitation and abuse, which are all more prevalent among cohabiting couples than among married couples.  But a unitary view of human personhood sees a much more fundamental objection.  In marriage the spouses pledge to give themselves totally and unconditionally to each other.  This total unconditional self-giving is expressed bodily in sexual intercourse.  But in cohabitation the relationship between the partners is different.  By not marrying they are avoiding total reciprocal commitment.  They live together as long as it is to each one's satisfaction, as long as they are both getting something out of the relationship.  Whereas in marriage the spouses are in it to give themselves to each other, in cohabitation the partners are in it to take what they want from the other.  Obviously these are the poles of the spectrum: most marriages fall short of the altruistic ideal, and many cohabitees do not exploit each other.  But whatever the actual situation in a cohabiting relationship, it is essentially a false one on a unitary view of man.  The bodies of the cohabitees are declaring in sexual intercourse a total giving of one to the other, but their minds and wills are refusing to make that commitment.  If they wanted to do that, cohabitees would marry not just live together.  They are thus acting a lie.

To sum up. Bristow's book provides a stimulating approach to traditional Christian ethics, which evangelicals could consult with profit. There is often a suspicion among Protestants that anything Catholics write is dubious or unsound.  Our Puritan forefathers did not think this way, but particularly in the realms of ethics drew heavily on Roman divines. This is not to say Bristow covers all the ground one would like.  The encyclicals and other papal pronouncements have not just tackled issues of personal and medical ethics, but have addressed social, political and environmental issues.  It would have been helpful if Bristow had explored how the Pope's personalism impacted his teaching on those areas too.  Like many ethicists Bristow makes little direct use of Scripture in expounding papal teaching: in fact his two chapters on biblical ethics are   rather sketchy.  This is in great contrast to the encyclicals of John Paul 2 and Benedict 16, which are shot through with apt biblical texts.  Indeed the first quarter of Veritatis Splendor is a splendid exposition of Matthew 19: 16ff, Jesus' reply to the Rich Young Ruler. John Paul had a much more direct and energetic style than Bristow, but without the latter it is difficult to appreciate the context and content of the encyclicals.

For evangelical readers I think that potentially the most valuable aspect of this book is in its relating Old Testament law and New Testament ethical teaching via the virtues.  Too often discussions of  biblical issues are a sort of casuistry. In what circumstances is divorce permissible, or can one ever  lie? It is a sort of legalism whereby we say 'What can I get away with? What is the minimum God will accept?' Law without virtue becomes dry and arbitrary. Law provides the skeleton of an ethic, it is the virtues which provide the flesh and skin and make it attractive. We should not be aiming at the minimum, but as Jesus said 'Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'(Matt 5: 48). Bristow compares the relationship between biblical law and virtue to a chess game. The laws of chess are unchangeable, but how well one plays the game depends on one's skill as a chess player, and that can always be improved. As St Paul put it: 'Not that I ...am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.' (Philippians 3: 12).

Professor Gordon Wenham

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This version: 16th December 2013

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