Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Discussion on Scripture and Command Ethics & The Foundation of Orthodox Christian Ethics


An ethical law establishes a relationship between God and His people - and this Holy law has been handed down to Moses, and to the whole world in order to guide the human race; as a moral code of discipline from God to man.

There is no document which has exercised a greater influence upon morals, than the Divine Commandments. The Ten Commandments constitute the ethical code by which human beings are guided; on one hand to believe in the True God, and on the other hand to sustain a Godly and Holy society, in the application of God's Will on earth. They are rules of life for us all, and are deepened by Christ's teachings in the 'Sermon on the Mount.' 

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” ( Mark 12:29-31)

Command Ethics : Calvin's 'Exposition of the Moral Law'

The law given to us in the Holy Scriptures, reveals true goodness and at times shows us that we are simply incapable of fulfilling these commandments. This however gives us a never ending battle, to 'fight the good fight' ( 1 Tim 6:12 ) and try to aim for true goodness and righteousness. The command theory of ethics tells us that God is the first and uncaused cause of everything in the world; and by observing the Lord's commandments means that we will fulfil God's Will. Calvin claims that the law that is revealed to us in the Scriptures is morally sufficient, and 'should not be crowded out by good works.'

Surely we need something else to assist us, in making sure we adhere and obey to the moral teachings of the Gospel, and Christ's commandments? The main problem lies in the fact that we are fallen - we are sinners that are frequently faced with the conflicts between our confession of faith ( so the ability to understand what is being asked of us in the Scriptures ) and our passions. Our passions are the impulses of the flesh, that lead to separation from God and His commandments. The Lord is the only source and true fulfilment of our human existence, so we must find ways to get rid of these passions, that divert us away from the Will of our Creator, and His law. Perhaps if it had not been for this conflict, then Calvin's view would be valid - however his stance is far from being realistic. It is clear that the closer we become to fulfilling the commandments of Christ, the more temptations we face - increasing this conflict and tension between living God's will , and our self-centred passions. 

John Breck writes ' were it not for this conflict, we would by our very nature know the will of God and conform our attitudes and actions to it. There would be no ethical dilemmas, no hard choices in the moral life.' So without sin, and our selfish and inward looking tendencies, we would of course be able to look at the commandments of the scriptural laws, and abide by them. As a clergyman told me recently ' the canons of the Church, and the commandments are there to be broken!' As soon as we are surrounded by rules and laws, we will want to contradict them and reject them. This is where Calvin's idea of having scripture alone as our guide, seems to fail. 

Sin, which is the destruction of human autonomy - has corrupted our capacity to know, to love and consequently to obey God above all.  Paul tells us 'all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God' ( Rom 3:23 ) Therefore every one of us, even the most devoted among us, have to deal with this conflict between our faith, and fulfilling God's will, and passions. Sin brings unclarity and confusion, and this is no different when we try to read the Bible, and decide exactly what its moral and ethical teachings are. There are various ways of interpreting several commandments, even some of the Ten Commandments; therefore Calvin could have a very different moral stance to that of one of his contemporaries. This is where we see the unclarity, and difficulties of command ethics.

So if we cannot base morality and ethics solely on certain commandments (as they can be unclear and contradictory) , then what can we base it on ?

Morality and Ethics, must be based on revelation. We must collectively look for answers to our moral questions in the Holy Scriptures, as well as the teaching tradition of the Church. When we do so, clear indications emerge, and that is that 'God is Love' (1 John 4:7-12) Our attitudes and actions should reflect the sacrificial love that 'shone forth…in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ' as John Breck writes. As I discussed in the first piece of writing this week, love is something that surpasses laws and commands; it reiterates them, but at least when we act out of this selfless and pure love that Christ shows to us, then we can be sure we are acting upon His will and commandments. This is not going against the Commandments of the Old and New Testaments, but it is putting them into practice, in a true way. Love is the complete opposite of sin, as is it God's very presence within the world; and so we can be sure that when we act out of this, we are acting in a way which is morally and ethically right. 

This conviction, has led Orthodox Moral Theologians to develop a 'love ethic'. This guides us in a way that is different to the perhaps narrow-minded Command ethic, virtue ethic or natural law. It gives human beings 'the chance to breath' as a dear clergyman once said to me when describing the Orthodox way of life ( Fr Mark McBeth ). Of course we live in sin and corruption, but once we are in the boundless, endless, transcendent realms of Christ's love, and act out of this humble and sacrificial love, then we are on the right path; not only in making the right decisions in our lives, but also to salvation.

All the ethical theories that are used in the field of Christian theological ethics are not invalid at all - they are all very much important, but they all fit together into a wider, purer, ethic - the ethic of Christ's love. Even though I have criticised them ( and in particular command ethics), as being insufficient; as Breck puts it , these other ethical theories such as command, virtue and natural law are not 'mutually exclusive. Orthodox Ethics may stress the importance of reflecting divine love through human deeds, but the motivation behind such 'works of love' will be the quest for virtue, and its content and application will be specified by God's own law' ( which is of course revealed in the Commandments).

To conclude, in order to discern the divine will of our Lord, we must draw upon the full range of ethical theories ( but perhaps not dividing them up, because for example the natural law is not separate from the commandments or the virtues that the Holy Spirit brings ). We must look upon all the rich sources of revelation within the Church, and the created world in which we live. From Scripture, to the doctrinal ascetic and mystical writings of the Fathers, as well as the Church's liturgy, worship and traditions, with the iconography and hymnography : they will all lead to the sacred path of love. 
The Risen and Glorified Lord, is present and active in the whole Church , and in the whole of Creation and its experiences. When a human being welcomes all this sacred revelation, they will gradually be guided and transformed into a free, virtuous, loving person, who is in the divine image and likeness of the Triune God;  radiating the ethos and love that the Scriptures proclaim. 


In one of my next pieces of writing, I will be concentrating on Love in Orthodox ethics, with reference to the great theologian and teacher Vigen Guroian.



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