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Twilight Musings: Summary and Conclusions for “What’s a Body to Do?” (part 4)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

By Elton Higgs

What, then, are the practical implications of all of this for our life together within the Body of Christ?

(1) In the first place, we had better all get it right in regard to what power means within the Body. There can be no question about God’s expectation that those in authority will encourage and enhance the ability of those in their charge to realize their full potential, perhaps even enabling them to achieve a fuller potential than they realize is possible. We are one in Christ, joint-heirs and brothers and sisters of Him and of each other, without regard to our earthly, circumstantial relationships. No exercise of authority by husband, elder, employer, or parent is to involve demeaning or devaluing those who, under God, submit to them; and with the exception of parents’ responsibility to keep their children under control, in none of these situations is an individual in power authorized to demand submission from others. (It should be noted that elders may sometimes have to exercise leadership in disciplining a wayward member, but in my opinion this should be done only in cases of disruptive behavior or bringing shame on the church, and never without consultation with other mature members of the Body, so that the disciplined member is the subject of congregational action, not just excommunication by the elders.) If the attitudes of mutual submission and putting others’ welfare above our own governed every member of the Body, there would be no arguments about relative advantages enjoyed by or denied to anyone.

(2) Given our frailty and flaws in the flesh, disputes and accusations will arise, and those in authority will too often abuse their power and advantage. What are those for whom God has commanded submission to do? One form of this question was poignantly expressed to me by a dear sister in Christ: “How do I separate my own continual need for humbling and molding, obey Jesus’ command to ‘bless those who persecute,’ but still stand up against what really, honestly seems to me to be sinful, destructive power structures in our church?” The first thing to be said is that submission doesn’t mean not being able or willing to voice opposition to “sinful, destructive power structures” or to a leader’s obsessive and inordinate use of power. If those involved in such behavior are not willing to listen to respectfully presented objections, then they, like the sowers of dissension, are “self-condemned” for their lack of humility and of concern for those for whom they have been given responsibility. Husbands and church leaders, they must remold themselves to fit the paradigm by which they actively cultivate the ability of their wives and the women of the congregation to contribute to family, community, and congregational life in such a way as to demonstrate and appreciate their value as co-workers in God’s vineyard, not to humiliate them. Precisely what the effects of this paradigm are may differ between specific families and congregations, but what in all instances it must mean is that women are given equal honor with men; that whatever submission they offer is taken as the voluntary fruit of their relationship with God, and not imposed upon them; and that any limits imposed upon their activity within the congregation be determined through communication and dialogue with them, not by edict from the leaders.

In this context, I must hasten to add that women should not put themselves or their children in jeopardy when a husband has proven to be abusive. When a husband so grossly perverts his power and his physical or social advantage over those who are weaker, those who are in danger are not obligated to be enablers of his abuse, and he must be curbed by the discipline and control of both civil and church authorities. As Paul used all legal means to avoid unjust treatment, so in such cases should contemporary women in free societies avail themselves of all legal means to deliver themselves and their children from physical abuse. Preachers and elders who pressure wives to continue to live with their husbands under such circumstances are not reflecting the biblical principle of submission, but are making yet another legalistic application of it which demeans and injures the weak and brings reproach and shame on the church.

(3) The third point to be made here is that joint prayer is a marvelous leveler in the fellowship of the Body. It is very difficult for people to go on their knees together before God, sincerely submitting themselves anew to Him, and at the same time maintain the barriers to communication often raised by perceived abuses of or challenges to power. In times of prayer like this, we have a tangible manifestation of our being “all one in Christ Jesus,” where we are “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”–that is, where all the distinctions of authority and submission are set aside as we come humbly before the Lord as equals in our experience (and need) of His grace.

I know of no better place to conclude this study than “on our knees together before God,” and this is the prayer that I would leave with you:

Dear Father, enable us to think as Jesus thought, and thereby act as He acted: in humility, servanthood, obedience, and submission to the will of God. Help us also to know the power and strength of allowing these qualities to govern our lives; the freedom of grace that comes from trusting you for the outcome as we obey You; the sweetness of fellowship as You blend us together in the Body of Christ; and the certainty of our final redemption when all submission will be subsumed in our glorious eternal worship together before Your throne. In the Name of Jesus Christ, our King, amen.



Image: “Battle Center Methodist Church” by TumblingRun. CC License. 


Twilight Musings: “Legalistic Insistence on Submission Ruled Out” (part 3 of “What’s a Body to Do?”)


Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

By Elton Higgs 

In view of the principles of freely given submission through the grace of God and mutual submission in love, we must conclude that a legalistic insistence on the submission of others is an attempt to enslave those whom God has set free, and that it has no place in the Body of Christ. The possibility of submitting again to a “yoke of slavery” from which we have been delivered is a subject that Paul addresses with a great deal of feeling, and that leads us to two related final principles flowing from the example of Jesus as obedient servant.

  1. Submission according to the model of Christ is, spiritually speaking, a free and voluntary act, empowered and given meaning by the grace of God, and not by any principle of law. Christ set us free from the Law, so all acts of humility, obedience, and submission will be expressions of spiritual freedom, whatever our exterior circumstances may be (Rom. 5:18-21; Rom. 6:12-19; Gal. 3:23-4:7; 5:16-25; James 4:7-10; I John 2:3-5).

Paul’s teaching on grace continually stresses our deliverance from bondage to sin through the sacrifice of Christ and our freedom in the grace of God. In Romans 6 he says,

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:12-14)

We are no longer subject to the rule of sin because we have been delivered from slavery to it. Even the perfect Law of God delivered through Moses has served its purpose of making evident our slavery to sin and pointing us to Christ, and it is now set aside (Gal. 3:23-25).  And in the freedom of our new life, we can, by the grace of God, offer to Him ourselves and our bodies to be used “as instruments of righteousness,” because we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). Walking in this new-found freedom of grace is in another place described as living in and being led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-25), which is God’s new life within us, marking us as legitimate, free-born children and heirs of God (Rom. 8:13-17; Gal. 4:6-7).

It is significant that Paul chooses the context of these arguments affirming that we live under grace and not under law in which to make his most egalitarian statement about the relationship between those who are in Christ. Having been delivered from the authority and power of the Law, Paul says, “You are all sons [i.e., children] of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26-29). Consequently, whenever submission is practiced in the Body of Christ, it is not to be seen as in any way devaluing the one submitting, nor conferring superiority on the one being submitted to. Any submission which is forced and not freely given seeks to devalue the one submitting and compromises our deliverance from slavery to the Law. In a case of this sort, the submitter can act in free obedience to the will of God and experience the freedom of grace, while one who tries to enforce submission has stepped outside of grace by refusing to submit to God’s instructions to those having power. It is those instructions that underlie the final principle springing from the servant-example of Jesus:

  1. Any attempt within the Body of Christ to enforce submission from others (with the exception of parents controlling children–I Tim. 3:4) is a divisive work of the flesh, and not of the Spirit, and is a denial of the freedom we have through God’s grace. (Rom. 8:5-8; Rom. 16:17-19; II Cor. 11:4-9; Gal. 2:4-12; 4:8-11; 4:23-5:1; 5:24-26; Col. 2:20-23)

One kind of submission is not only forbidden in the New Testament, but is characterized as a betrayal of the freedom Christ died to obtain for us. In presenting his allegory of the two wives who bore children to Abraham, Paul says, “Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman[Hagar], but of the free woman [Sarah]. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 4:31-5:1). The “yoke of slavery” in this instance took the form of insisting that those males who had accepted Christ had to be circumcised, thus tying them to the Law based on merit which was set aside by the death of Christ. Earlier in the letter, he spoke of the work of false teachers whose purpose was to spy on the “freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.” Paul is adamant in his resistance to this attempt, saying, “We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you” (Gal. 2:4-5). When even Peter was carried away by the “circumcision group” (2:12), trying to “force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs” (2:14), Paul “opposed him to his face” (2:11) in order to defend the principle of grace as the source of salvation, and not law-keeping.

The Judaizing teachers who came in for such scathing words in the letter to the Galatians were challenging and seeking to replace both Paul’s message and his authority, both of which, he makes clear, were given to him by God Himself (Gal. 1:8-12). The foundation of Paul’s message, the “truth of the gospel,” both as originally delivered to the Galatians and in his letter to them, is that one “is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16). The charge against the false teachers is not merely that they are voicing a differing opinion, but that they are attempting to use their influence to re-enslave people to the attainment of righteousness by their own efforts, instead of relying on God through faith in Christ. They are not people who have a real concern about brothers and sisters in Christ, but rather people whose objective is to exercise control over others through requiring circumcision; as Paul puts it, “they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh” (Gal. 6:13). In other words, they are the sort of people described in Romans 16 who “cause divisions and put obstacles in your way” (v. 17), and those in Titus who foment “foolish controversies and quarrels about the law” which “are unprofitable and useless.” Such a person is to be warned once, “and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned” (Titus 2:9-11).

Motivation and attitude are everything here in evaluating the character of these disruptive teachers and assessing the danger that they pose. They were obviously more concerned with exercising power and coercing people than with following God’s way of grace, humility, and service. In the same way, if a member of the Body of Christ today seeks to gain power over others by demanding a kind of submission which would be a regression to law-keeping and a renunciation of the freedom of grace that we all have in Christ, that person is a sower of dissension and disharmony, a divisive person who is “self-condemned.” While one who refuses to submit to a divinely appointed authority may miss an opportunity for growth and cause the Body to have a weaker testimony to the world, the wielder of fleshly power in the Body who is able and willing to reject the freedom of God’s grace inflicts even greater damage on both himself and the Body by demanding legalistic conformity from others for his own satisfaction and aggrandizement.

(Next week: Part 4 of “What’s a Body to Do?:  Summary and Conclusions)

Image :Dirck van baburen – Christ washing the apostles feet. CC License. 


The Love of God in the Life of St. Patrick

by Marybeth Davis Baggett 

Most religious celebrations and feast days for saints of the church garner little attention outside ecclesiastical circles. St. Patrick’s Day is a notable exception, especially throughout America. Across the country parades and festivities are held to commemorate all things Irish. It’s a delightful holiday in many ways, with ubiquitous shamrocks and obligatory green clothing or accessories and Shamrock shakes galore. Because the church traditionally lifts the Lenten restrictions on alcohol for this celebration, the revelry of St. Patrick’s Day is often marked with more than a little inebriation. Regardless of the specific form of the celebration, rarely invoked are the particulars of the man for whom the day is named. Just who is this Patrick, patron saint of Ireland? Why commemorate his life at all?

The most obvious and the official answer is that we celebrate Patrick’s life because of the key role he played in turning the Irish away from paganism and toward Christianity. This was no mean feat. In Philip Freeman’s helpful biography of Patrick, he tells of the entrenched cultural powers—kings, druids, slaveholders—that Patrick would need to engage to carry out his sixth century mission’s work. The political structures, religious customs, and social practices of Ireland at the start of Patrick’s ministry were all overtly and fiercely anti-Christian. Patrick’s navigation of those dynamics is certainly noteworthy; his overwhelming success in subverting them is nothing short of miraculous. Attempts to capture the astonishing outcomes of Patrick’s work have elevated the man himself to something of a spiritual superhero, complete with his own folklore and fantastical stories.

Sensationalistic tales such as his banishment of snakes from the island and his staff that took root and grew into a tree give the saint an air of mystery and the heroic. The rapidity and breadth of Christianity’s growth across the island is difficult to explain without appeal to the supernatural, and these fabricated stories were probably intended to capture something of the divine power that clearly animated and directed his missions work. But the legends might just as easily distract us from understanding Patrick as the model for Christian faithfulness he provides. True, Patrick was instrumental in radically transforming the landscape of a cruel and dehumanizing culture. Yes, he is rightly recognized as a luminary of the Christian faith. But his life also serves as an example and encouragement for all Christians seeking to live out their faith. What we find in Patrick’s own words testify that the source of this work is the life of Christ available to all Christians. The inspiration of Patrick’s life is not to be found in its outsized results but in its steady faithfulness.

To be sure, the circumstances of Patrick’s life were extraordinary. He was born in fifth-century Britain, the privileged son of a Roman official. During his teenage years, he was kidnapped by Irish mercenaries and forced into slavery in Ireland for six years. After an escape from captivity prompted by an angelic vision, he returned home and devoted himself to the study of scriptures and preparation for ministry of some kind. During his years as a slave, he had become deeply aware of God’s call on his life and of his need for a savior. He later attributed his spiritual growth in this time to his terrible conditions: only when all was stripped away did he realize his complete dependence on God. His physical slavery counterintuitively brought him spiritual freedom. This transformational experience affected him so deeply that when he felt led to return to Ireland, the land and people responsible for his greatest torment, he abandoned himself wholly to that calling. Not only did he return to share the life-giving gospel message with the hardened and violent people of Ireland; he came to love them, even risking his life and reputation for their sake.

This love motivated his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, a British tribal ruler. This letter jeopardized Patrick’s standing in the church and cost him no small amount of anxiety and energy; nevertheless, his commitment to the Irish people and to the gospel overrode those personal concerns. He wrote his note in response to a raid into Ireland by British soldiers who killed and kidnapped a group of Patrick’s newly baptized converts on their way home from the baptism. Sending this missive put Patrick in danger because it violated long-standing church protocol that leaders should not meddle in the congregations of other church leaders. And Patrick’s letter did more than meddle. It condemned not only the actions of the soldiers but the soldiers themselves, appealing to scripture to justify the judgments he rendered.

God’s redemption of his brutal circumstances constituted a crucible that formed his understanding of God alone as good, as the lone source of any real value, and as the one whose calling on our lives confers on us our true purpose.

Patrick’s righteous indignation and rage at the soldiers’ actions permeate the letter, but undergirding that wrath is a devotion to God and commitment to his people. Britons thought very little of the Irish, seeing them as less than human and suited only for slavery. Patrick’s writing proclaims again and again that God cares for them. Patrick upends the British assumptions by describing the Irish as his brothers and sisters, and even more by extending that relationship to the soldiers themselves, who publically pronounced themselves Christian. Patrick puts that presumption to the test by challenging them to release those they had enslaved. He also called on other fellow Christians to cut off fellowship with them until they demonstrated their faith through their actions.

For Patrick, faith and works go hand in hand. This is demonstrated by his Confession, a follow-up to his earlier epistle that appears to be a response to challenges to his leadership that stemmed from his rebuke of Coroticus. In this recount of his testimony, what emerges is a picture of a man who submitted himself fully to God’s call on his life. What is most remarkable about this account is the way it depicts how receiving God’s love leads to serving others. The mercy God showed Patrick in his early years as a slave stirred in him gratitude and a desire to share that blessing with others. The love he offered the Irish, despite their responsibility for his kidnapping and enslavement, was an overflow of the love God bestowed on him.

Despite the time and space that divide us, the Patrick of these letters has much to teach us. He displayed remarkable courage in confronting wrongdoing, but not of his own strength. Forged in the fire of oppression was his abiding conviction about God’s love and its radical and often counterintuitive demands. The debasement of slavery and dehumanization he’d endured had stripped away all pretenses of his superiority, making him acutely aware of his desperate need for God for power and productiveness, for trust and tenacity. God’s redemption of his brutal circumstances constituted a crucible that formed his understanding of God alone as good, as the lone source of any real value, and as the one whose calling on our lives confers on us our true purpose.

Near the end of his letter, Patrick wrote these poignant words we would do well to take to heart:

“My final prayer is that all of you who believe in God and respect him—whoever you may be who read this letter that Patrick the unlearned sinner wrote from Ireland—that none of you will ever say that I in my ignorance did anything for God. You must understand—because it is the truth—that it was all the gift of God.”

Image: “Detail of St Patrick with a shamrock in a stained glass window at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier in Chicago.” by T. Zajdowicz. CC License. 


Seven Reasons Why Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity


By David Baggett

Various moral arguments for God’s existence are usually deployed for the purpose of arguing for the truth of God’s existence per se, but they strongly hint at a more specific conclusion. Namely, they are plausibly taken to be evidence that Christianity in particular is true. The claim isn’t that by moral apologetics alone one can somehow deduce all the aspects of special revelation contained in Christianity, but rather this: in light of Christianity having been revealed, moral arguments for God’s existence point quite naturally in its direction. The following list is far from exhaustive, but offers a few reasons to think this is so.

First, one of the great virtues of moral arguments for God’s existence is that they point not just to the existence of God, but to a God of a particular nature: a God who is morally perfect. A. C. Ewing once said that the source of the moral law is morally perfect. Such a notion is described in various ways: omnibenevolent, impeccable, essentially good, and the like. What does it look like when omnibenevolence takes on human form? Jesus is a powerful answer. Moral apologetics works best when it’s Christological.

Second, to conceive of God as essentially and perfectly loving requires some sort of account. The right account, again, isn’t the sort of idea that we’re able to generate on our own; we depend on special revelation to tell us what it is. But Christianity has provided us with an account of the divine nature that’s Trinitarian in nature. C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love’. But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s Trinitarian.

Third, Christianity has a demonstrated track record historically in reaching people of every race and ethnicity, and every socioeconomic background, and radically transforming their lives. In a book chronicling the spiritual lives of various Christian saints called They Found the Secret can be found this description: “Out of discouragement and defeat they have come into victory. Out of weakness and weariness they have been made strong. Out of ineffectiveness and apparent uselessness they have become efficient and enthusiastic. The pattern seems to be self-centeredness, self-effort, increasing inner dissatisfaction and outer discouragement, a temptation to give it all up because there is no better way, and then finding the Spirit of God to be their strength, their guide, their confidence and companion—in a word, their life.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s individually transformational.

Fourth, Paul Copan speaks of an historical aspect of moral apologetics: the historical role played by Christ and his devoted followers to promote social justice. Morality demands deep cultural transformation too. Copan cites specific cultural developments that can be shown to have flowed from the Jewish-Christian worldview, leading to societies that are “progress-prone rather than progress-resistant,” including such signs of progress as the founding of modern science, poverty-diminishing free markets, equal rights for all before the law, religious liberty, women’s suffrage, human rights initiatives, and the abolition of slavery, widow-burning, and foot-binding.

Jürgen Habermas, who isn’t a Christian himself, writes the following: “Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and a social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s culturally transformative.

Fifth, Christianity holds out the hope for total moral transformation. Morality upholds a standard that all of us fall short of all the time, yet there’s nothing about morality that hints at accommodation or compromise. The right ultimate explanation of morality should be able to make sense of our aspirations for radical moral transformation, and even perfection as something more than a Pollyannaish pipedream. Christianity offers, by God’s grace through faith, moral hope instead of moral despair, forgiveness and liberation from guilt, and the prospect to be totally conformed to the image of Christ, in whom there’s no shadow of turning. The resurrection offers the prescription from both death and sin: abundant and everlasting life. Moral apologetics works best when it is soteriological (offering both forgiveness and transformation, both justification and sanctification).

Sixth, Christianity offers principled reason to think that the glory to come will not just outweigh, but definitely defeat, the worst evils of this world. Christian philosopher Marilyn Adams writes, “If Divine Goodness is infinite, if intimate relation to It is thus incommensurably good for created persons, then we have identified a good big enough to defeat horrors in every case.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s eschatological.

Seventh, Christianity gives compelling reasons to think that every person possesses infinite dignity and value. To be loved by God, the very archetype of all goodness—each of us differently, but all of us infinitely—and to have been made a person in his image is to possess greater worth than we can begin to imagine. And humanity isn’t just valuable in the aggregate, according to Christianity. Rather, each person is unique, each is loved by God, each is someone for whom Jesus suffered and died. And in the book of Revelation, for everyone who accepts God’s overtures of love, a white stone will reveal a unique name for each one of them—marking their distinctive relationship with God and vocation in him. Moral apologetics works best when it’s universal.

The way a labyrinthine maze of jumbled metal filings suddenly stands in symmetrical formation in response to the pull of a magnet, likewise the right organizing story—classical theism and orthodox Christianity—pulls all the moral pieces of evidence into alignment and allows a striking pattern to emerge.




Jesus, the Bible, and Moral Knowledge (Part 2: Aristotelian, Kantian, and Christian Accounts of Moral Knowledge)

Part I

By Jonathan Pruitt

Non-Trinitarian Accounts of Moral Knowledge

There are a variety of non-Trinitarian accounts of moral knowledge, but perhaps the most popular and viable are Aristotelian and Kantian accounts. Before briefly laying out these accounts and showing some of their short comings, we should note that Aristotelian and Kantian accounts have different targets. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is not primarily concerned with spelling out the conditions for right action or the framework for moral duties. Rather, his aim is to provide an explanation of the human good.[1] What will make human beings happy; what realizes eudaimonia? Kant, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with accounting for the existence of the moral law  and its applicability to us.[2] A rough way of seeing the difference is this: Aristotle is concerned with the good and Kant is concerned with the right.[3]

Aristotle’s Ethics 

Aristotle begins with the a priori premise “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”[4] Any rational endeavor seeks some good. If human beings want to live rationally, they ought to seek after the good. But what is the human good? Whatever it is, it must be something chosen for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. Aristotle thinks that only happiness (eudaimonia) meets this requirement; “happiness is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action.”[5] But saying simply that “happiness is the chief good seems a platitude.”[6] Therefore, Aristotle seeks to specify exactly what characterizes happiness. Aristotle suggests that the human good consists in proper function according to a telos. What a human being is will determine what counts as proper function as well as the conditions and nature of happiness.

Aristotle thinks that the essential nature of human beings can be discerned by empirical means. Through observation, Aristotle thinks he can detect two kinds of proper function or virtue. First, one can see the difference between man and lower animals. Man possesses a rational element which beasts do not.[7] Aristotle argues that a life of contemplation is the highest good because it is “the best thing in us” and reason is either “itself divine or only the most divine element in us.”[8] The virtues that allow for full utilization of the rational faculty (contemplation) are the intellectual virtues. But in addition to these, Aristotle says there are also the ethical virtues, or virtues of character.[9] Traditionally, the Greek virtues include, according to Thomas Aquinas, “temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude.”[10] Aristotle thinks that these virtues of character can be discerned through the “doctrine of the mean.” A virtue is the balance between two vices. Temperance, for example, is the mean between self-indulgence and insensibility.[11]  Aristotle further thinks that the human good needs the right environment. Aristotle holds that it can be observed that man flourishes best when he lives in the Greek polis. The human good also requires certain material conditions, like physical health and monetary wealth. Happiness is not merely a matter of inward reflection and self-discipline; it also requires the right physical setting.

The upshot of Aristotle’s ethic for our purposes is this: Aristotle thinks that a full account of moral knowledge is available to us through the use of common sense and empirical observation. By considering the nature of human beings and their endeavors, and by observing how humans flourish, we can determine what the human good is.

Even in this brief sketch of Aristotle’s ethic, one can see how rich and multi-valent Aristotle’s account of the human good is. It strives to include all dimensions of embodied human life, and in this way, has some advantages over more Platonic accounts. The substantial nature of Aristotle’s conclusions along with his seemingly modest epistemological commitments may be why Aristotle’s model of ethics continues to be utilized. Philippa Foot, for example, argues for a naturalistic virtue ethic that attempts to justify moral realism and moral knowledge along Aristotelian lines.[12] Erik Wielenberg in his attempt to justify value and virtue in a Godless universe, suggests that Aristotle’s ethic provides “the most powerful response” to Christian morality.[13]  For many, an Aristotelian strategy provides a promising way to account for moral knowledge outside of the Bible.

While there is much to be commended in Aristotle’s approach, like his belief in the connection of facts and values, there are still some problems. One concern is whether Aristotle’s account of virtue actually follows from his insight about human beings. Kraut suggests that Aristotle’s argument in the Nicomachean Ethics may not establish the virtues, but merely shows a reason to be virtuous: “We may conclude that Aristotle proposes flourishing as the ‘ultimate justification of morality [why we ought to be moral].’”[14] In other words, Aristotle begins with the assumption that humans ought to be moral and his project, despite his intentions, only provides motivation to be moral rather than an explanation of morality itself.  Further, Aristotle’s project begs the question about the nature of the human good and the associated virtues; these values are assumed rather than demonstrated.

John Hare brings a similar charge against eudaemonist or Aristotelian ethics.[15] His contention, following Scotus, is that the moral law, or what humans ought to do, cannot be deduced from facts about human nature. Hare’s basic contention is that Aristotle’s account of moral goodness is too narrow. One piece of evidence Hare supplies comes in the contrast of Jesus and Aristotle’s view of “competitive goods.” Aristotle often thinks of the human good as requiring wealth and power; honor and magnanimity. For one to possess these qualities, others most have them in lesser degrees; they are competitive goods. Jesus, on the other hand, advocates for the virtue of humility. This is the inversion of Aristotle’s vision of the ideal man. As MacIntyre puts it, “Aristotle would certainly not have admired Jesus Christ and he would have been horrified by St. Paul.”[16] This deep disagreement about the nature of the human good, argues Hare, highlights the inscrutability of ethical virtue from human nature.[17] What facts about human nature and how we flourish could be produced to settle the disagreement? This is one reason why Hare thinks special revelation with specific divine commands is necessary for justified moral beliefs. While Hare does not take his conclusion explicitly in this direction, one could extend his argument to say that the Word of God is necessary to supplement what we can know about the human good by reason.[18] For if divine commands are required, then the Bible would be a good place to look for those commands.

Another concern with Aristotle’s approach comes from his view of God. As mentioned above, Aristotle thought that greatest possible ways of human flourishing were intimately connected with the divine. It is not altogether clear how Aristotle conceives of this relation, however. Is contemplation the highest good simply because it is the full realization of the highest element in humanity, or because it resembles the activity of God? In support of the latter possibility, Aristotle says that the value of all things is judged by reference to “God and the good.”[19] Aristotle frames this dilemma rather directly:

It is reasonable that happiness should be god-given, and most surely god-given of all human things inasmuch as it is the best. But this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry; happiness seems, however, even if it is not god-sent but comes as a result of virtue and some process of learning or training, to be among the most godlike things; for that which is the prize and end of virtue seems to be the best thing in the world, and something godlike and blessed.[20]

Aristotle seemingly wants to gloss over the relation of God and the human good, but this relation is critical to his theory in at least two ways. First, it raises the question of the nature of goodness itself to human goodness. If God is the highest good, then should not he be the telos of humanity? If all rational endeavors pursue the good, then this question is not trivial. Second, if the human good is God-given, then what does this imply about the connection of the human telos and God’s intentions for human beings? If God is both the standard of the good and the one who gives goodness or happiness to humanity, then it would seem that the question of human virtue would be primarily theological and not philosophical (assuming there is a sharp distinction between these disciplines). Investigation into morality would be a question of who God is, what he is like, and whether or not he has revealed himself and his intentions for human beings.[21] In sum, Aristotle’s approach to ethics does not actually succeed at what it sets out to do and it leaves important theoretical questions about the nature of the good, specifically the relation of the good to God and the human telos, unanswered.

Kantian Ethics 

Kant’s approach to moral knowledge is different both in its method and its goal. Kant’s epistemology assumes a split between the phenomenal and the noumenal. There is a way that things appear to us which is determined by the mind and there is a way things actually are. We do not know external objects as they are, but only as they appear to us, as they are shaped by the categories of the mind. On the other hand, Kant says, “other possible things, which are not objects of our senses, but are cogitated by the understanding alone, and call them intelligible existences (noumena).”[22] God exists in the noumenal realm and is not directly accessible to us. Considering our epistemic situation, Kant thinks that the basis of moral knowledge must be established based on “pure reason.” Moral knowledge would not be knowledge of the Platonic forms, but knowledge of the entailments of reason. Pure reason operates only the analytic and a priori; it utilizes only those things known prior to experience and that are internal to the person. Kant thinks that one can postulate the existence of noumenal objects on the basis of practical reason. If some concept known analytically requires the postulation of some noumenal object to explain its existence, then this postulation is warranted. Seemingly, Kant thinks that the notion of the moral law is an a priori concept for in The Critique of Practical Reason, it is on the assumption of existence of the moral law that Kant, by use of practical reason, establishes the reality of human free will.[23]

Kant, like Aristotle, has an important role for God. But also like Aristotle, Kant’s search for moral knowledge does not begin with God. Rather, since God is in the realm of the noumenal, Kant says he “must, therefore, abolish knowledge [of noumenal objects like God], to make room for belief [in these objects]. The dogmatism of metaphysics, that is, the presumption that it is possible to advance in metaphysics without previous criticism, is the true source of the unbelief (always dogmatic) which militates against morality.”[24] Despite this move, Hare rightly argues that for Kant, God has three specific roles, the legislative, executive, and judicial so that for Kant “God gives us the assistance required to live according to the law. And God sees our hearts, as we do not, knows whether we are committed to obedience, and rewards us accordingly.”[25] It is based on God’s necessary judicial function that Kant develops a moral argument for God by means of practical reason. Kant held that a person was always obliged to keep the moral law. However, one’s self-interest or happiness and keeping the moral demand can seemingly conflict so that it would not be rational to follow the law. To keep this seeming contradiction from becoming actual, Kant, as a postulate of practical reason, thought that God must exist to make sure that the moral law and happiness coincide.

Kant’s understanding of human epistemological limitations shapes how he thinks of morality in general and moral knowledge in particular. The full extent of our moral obligations must be discovered a priori, without appeal to any external authority or empirical observation. According to Johnson, Kant’s method is to begin with analyzing our moral concepts, like “good will,” “moral agent,” and “obligation” and their logical relationship to one another.[26] Since the moral law should be necessary and absolute, it cannot consider any contingent features. It is these analytic considerations that lead Kant to his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”[27]

This brief sketch of Kant’s account of moral knowledge does create some concern. One problem has to do with Kant’s understanding of the epistemic starting point. Hume may have awoken Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, but Kant seems to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. Hume’s skeptical challenge leads Kant to embrace epistemological and ontological dualism, when he should have rejected the skepticism.[28] The result is the Kant believes an implicit contradiction. He says he cannot have knowledge of God, except by practical reason. But this is an a priori theological belief which is no better established than the alternative. A better response can be found in the work of Alvin Plantinga, which takes seriously the implications of the Christian worldview.[29] Kevin Diller suggests that Plantinga and Barth have similar positions on this front. When faced with the problem of skepticism, Diller argues that traditionally philosophers have seen the problem as a dilemma. Either one can embrace the skepticism or change the definition of truth and knowledge (anti-realism). Diller argues that both Barth and Plantinga “chart an escape through the horns of this dilemma by rejecting certain core epistemological assumptions of modernity. Plantinga identifies its origins in the unreasonable deontology associated with classical foundationalism. Barth heralds the pre-engaged givenness and self-grounding of divine self-revelation.”[30] They, instead of buckling under the weight of modernism, opt for a critical realist position of knowledge that “strongly affirms the possibility of theological knowledge.”[31]

Here is a related problem to Kant’s view. If his ethical theory ends up affirming the necessity of God, then why would God be left out of the epistemic story? Surely, if God exists and he is personal in the way that Kant’s view requires, then perhaps he might, as Plantinga suggests, create us to know him, perhaps even in a properly basic way. Considering the earlier argument that all epistemology is inherently theological, it would seem to make Barthian and Plantingian accounts at least prima facie more plausible because they at least acknowledge the determinate relation of epistemology to worldview.

A Trinitarian Account of Moral Knowledge

Having now shown some reasons to be skeptical of Aristotelian and Kantian accounts of moral knowledge, we will now see how a Trinitarian and biblical account is superior. But first we must sketch out this Trinitarian account. A significant difference between a Trinitarian account and the other accounts concerns their respective starting points. We begin with theology rather than epistemological method (particularism over methodism). The first theological assumption relevant to moral knowledge is that God is the good and that, therefore, any moral knowledge we might have will in some way be dependent on him. That God ought to be identified with the good is widely held Christian belief shared among theologians from Augustine to Robert Adams.[32] If goodness is identified with God, then the goodness of all other things must be explained in terms of resemblance to God. Moral knowledge, then is a kind of knowledge of God, either of himself directly or derivatively in his creation. That moral knowledge would be available to us given the existence of God is internally coherent and plausible. Plantinga, in a discussion of the availability of knowledge of God in general says this: “[If it is true that God exists, then] the natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold true beliefs as that there is such a person as God, that he is our creator, that we owe him obedience and worship, that he is worthy of worship, that he loves us, and so on. And if that is so, then the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do produce belief in God are aimed by their designer at producing that belief.”[33]  The other assumption is that the God in view is the Trinitarian God of the Bible who is revealed primarily by his Word, Jesus Christ.

Considering these assumptions, the obvious concern given our aim is to say what moral knowledge God has revealed in his Word and how he has done this. God’s modes of revelation can be divided into two categories: general and special and God has made moral knowledge available through both means, though to varying degrees. God the Father, through his Word, who made all things, reveals some of morality in his creation (Col. 1:15-16; Rom. 1:18; 2:14). However, this moral knowledge is suppressed because of sin. Some limited amount of moral knowledge is available by this route, but it is fragmentary and clouded by what Plantinga calls “the noetic effects of sin.”[34] This means that the only ultimately reliable and full source of moral knowledge must come by way of divine grace and special revelation.

If special revelation is required for this sort of moral knowledge, which is a species of the genus “knowledge of God,” then written Word of God, the Bible, would be the place to turn. But if God primarily reveals himself in and through his Word, who is Jesus Christ, then this could create a problem. The problem arises if there is a disconnect between God’s primary and supreme mode of revelation, his Son, who is the Word, and the Bible, for as John writes, “No one has ever seen God. The only one [Who is the Word of God], himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known” (John 1:18, NET). Carson concludes from this text that “the Word was simultaneously God and with God—has broken the barrier that made it impossible for human beings to see God, and has made him known.”[35] If this separation between written Word and Word of God were actual, then the implication would be that the only special revelation to which we have ready access would be inferior to the ideal revelation of God in Jesus Christ. To put the problem another way: If in the Bible we do not encounter the Word of God, who is the only one to make the Father known, then the Bible cannot be a reliable or full source of moral knowledge. The only sure source of moral knowledge is encounter with the Living Word, who is Jesus Christ. Therefore, if our moral knowledge is going to be the best kind possible for us, it must find its source in the Word of God; the Bible must be a revelation of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, Barth shows us the way to understand the Written Word and the Word as intimately connected.

Barth contends that Holy Scripture is composed of the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ. In the Written Word, the Church is given “the promise of God’s mercy which is uttered in the person of Him who is very God and very Man and which takes up our cause when we could not help ourselves at all because of our enmity against God.”[36] The promise of the Written Word is “Immanuel;” it is the working out of John 1:18. Barth adds that the Bible is the word of men “who yearned, waited and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it. And by its declaration, attestation and proclamation it promises that it applies to us also and to us specifically.”[37] For Barth, then, the Bible functions on two levels. First, its subject is Jesus Christ. All of the Bible either looks forward or back to the revelation of God in his Son. Second, God is at work in the Bible. The Bible is not a static object, but has the character of “event.” God speaks in and through the Written Word and what he speaks is his Word, who is the Son. Thus, the content of the Written Word points to the Son, and in the Written Word, we encounter the Word of God. In this way, the Bible can serve as the best possible ground for moral knowledge. It is this sure ground that allows the Bible to not only supplement the limited moral knowledge available via general revelation, but also to correct misunderstandings. What is implicit in creation, is made explicit in Jesus Christ and his Written Word.

Barth’s comment about the person of Christ being “very God and very man” also shows why the Bible is especially fit to be our source of moral knowledge. Jesus as “very God,” possesses the right kind of authority to place upon us binding moral obligations for, plausibly, God as the creator of humanity would ipso facto have moral authority over them.[38] If Jesus were not God himself, then God’s revelation of himself in Christ would be deficient and not self-authenticating. On the other hand, the fact that Jesus is “very man” is also relevant, for in the life and person of Jesus, we find the ideal moral exemplar.[39] Jesus authoritatively as God not only tells us what we ought to do, but he also shows how humans ought to function. He gives us a clear picture of the human good. It is Jesus’ status as both “very God and very man” that puts him in a position to set forth authoritatively and completely moral knowledge with respect to the right and the good. And the fact that he communicates through and encounters us in the Written Word means this knowledge is accessible to us. The Written Word, as Barth says, is the concrete realization of Immanuel.

What the Written Word says about the right and the good also provide reason to prefer the Trinitarian account over the alternatives considered. With respect to the good, Aristotle’s virtue ethic is deficient in two ways when compared with the ethic of the Bible. First, Aristotle’s account of the virtues is both incomplete and in error at certain points. The cardinal virtues, discoverable by general revelation according to Thomas Aquinas, are supplemented by the Written Word. The theological virtues are beyond “the capacity of human nature” to apprehend and therefore it is “necessary for man to receive [knowledge of them] from God.”[40] Second, Aristotle’s vision of the good life is inferior to the biblical vision. Aristotle’s conception of life in in the polis is based on a truncated view of the good for man. Fully realized human flourishing only occurs in shalom, where God and man live in love with one another and harmony with the whole of the created order (cf. Zeph 3:15;19-20; 8:3-12). With respect to the right, we also see that Kant’s account is inferior. While Kant argues that one ought to always treat others as ends and never merely as means, Jesus commands that we “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). While Kant may have intended to arrive at a conclusion like Jesus’, his insistence on basing moral knowledge of the deliverances of pure reason deemphasizes the central role that love ought to play in the working out of our moral obligations. One advantage of a Trinitarian account should already be evident: a Trinitarian account takes seriously the finitude of man and the inescapabilty of making theological assumptions (either implicitly or explicitly) in our quest for moral knowledge, but the other primary advantage is this: The central place of love in the Christian ethic and its deep, natural connection with the Trinity shows that the biblical ethic is both internally coherent and that it confirms our highest possible vision of what the ethical life  should be. This should count as evidence in favor of the credibility of the Bible as the source of moral knowledge for us.

However, we must not forget the kind of objection raised by Peter Enns at the beginning. Throughout Christian history, readers of the Bible have found certain elements of its moral vision to be abhorrent and incompatible with their understanding of a loving God. Some have seen the picture of God in the Old Testament to be the opposite of loving; they instead seem him as violent and vindictive. If the Bible presents an ultimately incoherent vision of ethics, then this would count as a defeater for thinking of the Bible as the source for moral knowledge. Therefore, some response to this charge must be made. Here are two suggestions. First, it may be that many of the objections to the ethics of the OT are simply based on hermeneutical error. For example, Copan and Flanagan argue that texts claiming the complete destruction of the Canaanites are hyperbolic and that all that God actually commands is that Israel drive them from the land.[41] The language of “total extermination” is an ancient idiom that should not be read literally. Second, we should not expect that our moral beliefs match univocally with what is actually the case about morality. There is also no reason to think our natural moral knowledge should be totally equivocal, either. Rather, we should expect that our knowledge of the good and the right is analogical and open to revision, but not that it would be totally overturned.[42] Lewis argues this view:

Divine “goodness” differs from ours, but it is not sheerly different: it differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel. But when the child has learned to draw, it will know that the circle it then makes is what it was trying to make from the very beginning. This doctrine is presupposed in Scripture. Christ calls men to repent – a call which would be meaningless if God’s standard were sheerly different from that which they already knew and failed to practice.[43]

If the Bible did not challenge, expand, and correct our moral beliefs, then would it would be superfluous to moral knowledge, but as we have seen, there are good reasons to think it is necessary. So, while this objection should be taken seriously, there are at least two promising ways of responding that will preserve the coherence of the Bible as our source of moral knowledge.



The aim was to show why the Bible is necessary for moral knowledge. It was shown that two of the most popular alternative accounts for moral knowledge beg theological questions, have internal inconsistencies, and present a relatively truncated vision of the ethical life. For this reason, these alternate accounts do not provide the best explanation of moral knowledge. However, the Trinitarian account is internally coherent, has considerable explanatory power, and presents an ethical vision that exceeds our highest expectations. This vision is communicated to us by the Word of God in and through the Written Word, which means that moral knowledge is readily accessible to us. In view of the possibilities considered, the Bible as the source for moral knowledge for us is the best explanation available.


[1] Gavin Lawrence, “Human Good and Human Fuction ” in The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Richard Kraut (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006). 50.

[2] John E. Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History (Malden, MA ; Oxford: Blackwell Pub., 2007). 138.

[3] Of course, pressing these distinctions too far would be a mistake. Aristotle’s account of the virtues is an account of right action, and Kant emphasizes the role of the “Supreme Good” in his ethic.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics trans. W. D. Ross (MIT, 1994).Book 1 chapter 1.

[5] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 7.

[6] Ibid.Book 1, chapter 7.

[7] Ibid. Book 1, chapter 9.

[8] Ibid. Book 10, chapter 7.

[9] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Aristotle’s Ethics.”

[10] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New Advent, 1920). First Part of the Second Part; Question 61. However, Aristotle in Rhetoric, extends the list: “The forms of Virtue are justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, wisdom.”

[11]Aristotle. Book 2, chapter 1.

[12] See Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[13] Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). 31.

[14] Richard Kraut. The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (p. 344). Kindle Edition.

[15] John E. Hare, God’s Command (New York, NY: Oxford University, 2015). 99.

[16] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). 181.

[17] Hare, God’s Command. 118.

[18]This does not mean that fact and value come apart, however. The problem is epistemological and not ontological. And Hare does think that some ethical facts can be discerned, but they are more limited than many Aristotelians tend to think.

[19] Aristotle. Book 1, chapter 7.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Naturalist versions of virtue ethics do not escape this problem. All virtue theories require a realist account of teleology. That is, a necessary condition of a virtue ethic is that human beings have purpose or telos. Teleology is irreducibly mental. For a thing to have a telos just is for someone in appropriate relation to that thing to have intentions or purposes for that thing. In other words, any account of virtue ethics would require a Creator. I have argued for this position in more detail here:

[22] Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason trans. J. M. D. Meiklejohn (Project Gutenberg, 2003 ). Chapter III.

[23] Immanuel Kant, The Critque of Pratical Reason, trans. Thomas Abbot (Start 2012). Kindle Location 13.

[24] Kant.

[25] Hare, God and Morality : A Philosophical History. Kindle Locations 1739-1742.

[26] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy.”

[27] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals ; with, on a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, trans. James W. Ellington, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett 1993). 12.

[28] For a discussion of this see Morrison., 38-39.

[29] See Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[30]Kevin Diller, Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma : How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014). 169.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Though I take this as an assumption, that does not mean the view cannot be supported. For example, Adams ably argues that identifying God with the good has considerable explanatory power and makes sense of our moral language. See Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods : A Framework for Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). David Baggett and Jerry Walls also contend successfully that this view best explains all the moral facts in question. See David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God : The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[33] Plantinga. 189.

[34] Ibid.146.

[35] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press 1991). 134.

[36] Barth, The Church Dogmatics (I,1). 108.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Mark C. Murphy, An Essay on Divine Authority, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002). 18.

[39] See Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). 247.

[40] Aquinas. First Part of the Second Part, Question 62.

[41] Paul Copan, Did God Really Command Genocide? : Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014). 76.

[42] Baggett and Walls. 48.

[43] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). 86.

30.1971##S (1)

A. Thornhill’s The Chosen People: Chapter 1: “The Missing Link in Election”


Summary by C. P. Davis

No, this chapter is not discussing the problems with the political election cycle in the United States. Instead, A. Chadwick Thornhill focuses upon the doctrine of election, and how the Jewish mindset most certainly affected its formulation in the New Testament. Specifically, Thornhill narrows his topic to the way in which the apostle Paul’s concept of election was formed. Thornhill begins by discussing the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), and how certain elements of this theory should be retained. His main contention is that most scholars who deal with the NPP never deal directly with the concept of election. It is his goal to remedy this situation.

Thornhill begins by defining three theories of election: “national and unconditional,” “national and cooperative,” and “remnant-oriented and conditional.” The first theory develops election along the lines of a once-saved-always saved mentality. Specifically, it views the election of Israel as a holistic enterprise, whereby God chose this people for salvation. Anyone who is an Israelite is therefore saved by the nature of his covenantal relationship with Yahweh. Supporters of this theory (e.g., Sanders) often seek to adjust the common view that salvation in Israel was based upon works-righteousness. The second theory views Israel’s soteriological position as a tension between two poles: obedience and election. This is the least clearly defined category of the three. The third position argues that unconditional election of the nation Israel was never the point of the covenant. Instead, by studying Qumranic material and Pseudepigraphical works, it becomes clear that a conditional view of the covenant was the predominant Jewish view. Developing this third theory, then, is the major focus of the present book.

51djmwg4wpl-_sx331_bo1204203200_    The first major question addressed deals with how Second Temple Jews viewed their election. This is an important area of study because it leads to a second question: how might this understanding have affected the apostle Paul’s writings? He was, after all, a Jew of this time period. Thornhill believes that it is inappropriate to assume that Paul necessarily stood against the tide of all Jewish thought, just because he argued against some ideas. It is illogical to assume that due to a few instances of disagreement, Paul would have denied all of his Jewish background. Indeed, if this concept were taken to its logical conclusion then one would have to argue that Paul stood even against the Old Testament! At the same time, Thornhill is cautious not to overstate this point. He is clearly aware that Jewish thought at this time was rather amorphous. Nevertheless, there are certain widespread characteristics that he will seek to illustrate in subsequent chapters.

With this in mind, our author establishes a criterion by which he will proceed: each work from Second Temple Judaism that he will analyze will be addressed on its own merits and only then will it be compared with Paul’s material. The hope is that this methodology will offer a necessary safeguard against reading a preconceived notion of Paul’s theology into surveyed material and vice versa. The goal is to develop a picture of the zeitgeist of the Second Temple Jewish world, in relation to the doctrine of election. This goal is to be reached by analyzing three sources: the Dead Sea scrolls, the Apocrypha, and the Pseudepigrapha. In each case, an attempt will be made to expose those ideas that seem to be held by a broad sector of the Jewish world.


The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism (Part 1 of 5)

Part 2

By Jonathan Pruitt


Aristotle, the great teacher of Greece, once asked, “What is the good for man?” This is a question that every worldview seeks to answer. The Israelites said that good for man consisted in living a life of holiness to God, as a separate and distinct people. The Greeks said that man was meant for the polis.[1] Christ taught men were for his kingdom. The Buddha held his own view.

The heart of Buddhism is ethics.[2] This is evident even in the legendary accounts of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha first encountered the problem of suffering after he finally escaped the isolation of the palace he had grown up in. His father, a powerful ruler, wanted to force his son into a life of politics and war. He had been warned that if his son was exposed to the kind of life people experience every day, a life marked by suffering, that his son would likely become a great teacher instead of a ruler. However, despite his father’s best efforts, the Buddha eventually ventured outside the palace walls. There he was faced with illness, old age, and death. As a result, the Buddha became a renunciate; he gave up his royal lifestyle and began searching for a way to bring an end to suffering. In his search, the Buddha tried all the available philosophies and religions; whether they be hedonistic or ascetic. Whatever he tried, the Buddha excelled beyond his teachers, but in each case, he found that suffering still remained. Eventually, while under the Bodhi tree, and after much effort, the Buddha attained enlightenment. He saw reality as it really is and was able to formulate a solution.

The solution he came up with was an entirely practical one: cultivate happiness.[3] This was to be achieved by taking “the appropriate action: seeking nirvana.”4   This emphasis on action means that Buddhism is primarily an orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.[4][5] What is important is “the harmony of behavior, not harmony of doctrines.”[6]

What this means is that Buddhism as a worldview is in a unique position. Since it is primarily a particular set of practices, essentially an ethic, the validity of the Buddhist worldview rises and falls on whether or not Buddhism succeeds as an ethical system.  This provides an opportunity to test Buddhism to see whether it is a coherent worldview.

Statement of the Problem

There are two leading interpretations of Buddhist ethics. The first and most popular interpretation understands Buddhism as a kind of utilitarianism. Proponents of this view argue that Buddhist ethics are merely provisional and ought to be disregarded once nirvana is attained.

The well respected Saddhatissa takes a utilitarian view and argues that the moral teachings of the Buddha “were never ends in themselves, confined to a mundane life, but were the essential preliminaries, and the permanent accompaniments, to attaining the highest state.”[7]  However, a system that is merely provisional will not do if it is agreed that ethics must account for what is ultimately good or valuable. But there is another interpretation. Damien Keown, as well as several others, suggests that Buddhism is a kind of virtue ethic, very much similar to the kind taught by Aristotle.[8] A Buddhist version of virtue ethics offers the possibility of a complete, substantive account of ethics. Whether or not virtue ethics can be meaningfully understood in a

Buddhist context is the first problem that thesis will seek to solve.

The second problem concerns whether a Christian worldview might accommodate a virtue view of ethics better than a Buddhist one. Increasingly, Christians are adopting a blended approach to ethics, usually holding to a combination of deontological and virtue ethics.[9]  This thesis will put the possibility of a Christian virtue ethic to the test. If it turns out that Christianity can, in fact, provide a more robust context for a virtue ethic, then in order to be a fulfilled virtue ethicist, one ought to abandon the Buddhist worldview and adopt a Christian one.

Statement of the Importance of the Problem

A prima facie look at this thesis might cause some readers to think it is relevant only to Buddhists who hold to a virtue view of ethics–the subject matter here ought not concern the average Buddhist, much less anyone else. However, this is not the case. To understand the importance of this thesis, one must first understand just how the topic falls within contemporary scholarship. First, there is the current state of Buddhist ethics as a scholarly discipline. Many writers on the subject have been quick to point out that serious study of Buddhist ethics from a theoretical standpoint is a rather new phenomenon.

So far, there have been primarily only two theoretical accounts of Buddhist ethics offered: utility and virtue. If one agrees that a utility view is not a satisfactory account of ethics, then there is only one other viable option: the virtue view. Of course, there can also be new interpretations and revisions to old ones, but that is why this thesis is significant: the best contemporary interpretations of Buddhist ethics may need to be adjusted.  Second, since Buddhism is primarily a system of ethics, then whether or not it succeeds as an ethical system is vitally important to the entire worldview. If the Buddhist worldview does not succeed as an ethic, it does not succeed at all.

Foundational questions of worldviews are always weighty, so it is hard to overestimate the importance of engaging the foundations of a religion, especially a religion as influential as Buddhism. While it has been shown that the discussion in this thesis will be relevant for more than just a few, it also needs to be understood that a goal of this thesis is to be part of a wider conversation about the nature of Buddhist and Christian ethics and not the final word. The topics discussed are immensely important; the thesis itself is only part of that vital conversation.

Hopefully, it will contribute to a greater understanding of both systems.

Statement of Position on the Problem

As stated above, this thesis seeks to discover whether a virtue ethic interpretation of

Buddhist ethics is viable. This thesis addresses the question both negatively and positively. Negatively, the position taken on this problem is that a virtue view is inadequate for multiple reasons. Positively, this thesis holds that a Christian view of virtue ethics succeeds and is superior to the Buddhist view. Consequently, if one wants to be a satisfied virtue ethicist, one ought to abandon the Buddhist worldview and become a Christian.


Since the label “Buddhism” covers a wide array of beliefs and practices, this thesis will be limited specifically to early Buddhism. All Buddhist scriptures are taken from the Pali Canon, a set of scriptures considered authoritative by nearly all Buddhists.  Further, the clarification needs to be made that Buddhist cosmology or metaphysics itself is not under scrutiny. It is specifically the relationship between worldview and ethics that is being examined. This means that questions like, “How can it be the case that these are the four marks of existence and not three others?” will not be addressed. Also, this thesis will be limited to metaethical concerns.

Issues of practice will not be discussed. Primarily, the goal will be show that foundational issues in early Buddhism prevent Buddhist ethical practices from being applied in a way consistent with a virtue view of ethics.


Comparative ethics can be a difficult endeavor. There are two primary pitfalls. The first is to presume the truthfulness of one view at the start. The result is that opposing viewpoints are inadequate due to mere definition and no understanding is gained. A Buddhist, presuming Buddhism to be correct, might say that Christianity is inadequate simply because it does not further progress toward nirvana. The other danger is to assume that there can be no conclusions. Systems may be compared, but each one is right in its own context. The best we can hope for is greater understanding. This produces unsatisfactory results as well. There ought to be resolution: one view demonstrated to be superior to another. To avoid these dangers, a neutral framework is needed. The first component of this framework is a shared assumption: the fundamental relationship between ethics and reality. This is the same assumption as made by Geertz:

It is the conviction that the values one holds are grounded in the inherent structure of reality, that between the way one ought to live and the way things really are there is an unbreakable inner connection. What sacred symbols do for those to whom they are sacred is to formulate an image of the world’s construction and a program for human conduct that are mere reflexes of one another.[10]

The second component needed is an account of virtue ethics that is neutral to both Christianity and Buddhism. Alasdair MacInytre has established such a view of virtue ethics. His view presupposes at least two features that are required of a worldview in order to accommodate a virtue ethic: an account of teleology and the narrative unity of a single human life.

The next step will be to take these criteria and their necessary conditions and apply them to Keown’s interpretation of Buddhist ethics. If it turns out that Keown has adequately accounted for these in his system, then perhaps it is correct to characterize Buddhism as a kind of virtue ethic. However, if Keown does not succeed, then he has not saved Buddhist ethics from the other primary interpretation: Buddhist ethics is merely utilitarian. The final step will be to apply the criteria to the Christian worldview in order to determine whether the Christian worldview provides a superior account of virtue.


[1] Rosalind Hursthouse, “Virtue Ethics,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford : Stanford University, 2007). Par 6.

[2] 2

Damien Keown, Buddhism A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 1.

[3] 3  Christopher W Gowans.  Philosophy of the Buddha (London: Routledge, 2003), 25.

[4] Mark Siderits, Buddhism As Philosophy: An Introduction (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007), 22.

[5] Keown, Buddhism, 3.

[6] 6 Paul Williams and Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000),  99.

[7] 7  H.  Saddhatissa, Buddhist Ethics: Essence of Buddhism ( New York: G. Braziller, 1971), 81.

[8] 8 Keown, Buddhism, 33.

[9] This is the position of Reuschling, Moreland, and Craig .

[10] Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia(Chicago: University

of Chicago Press), 97.

Image: CC BY 2.0,


Mailbag: Why Do You Think Christianity is True?


Hello professor, I was just wanting to reach out to you and ask you for some guidance. I recently came across a post of the computer that stated this. Do you identife with a specific religion? If you do, ask yourself these questions: 1. Why did so many Gods and beliefs predate your own?   2. Why didn’t your God choose a global revelation instead of a culture specific one? 3. Why were you born in the “right religion”? Now I am kind of stumped by these questions. Do you think, if you have time, could you give me your thoughts on them? Thanks, Billy

Response by Jonathan Pruitt 

Hi Billy,

Thanks for writing to us at Moral Apologetics! Dr. Baggett has just left on vacation and so I’ll be responding to your letter. Let’s take these one at a time. The first question is “Why did so many Gods and beliefs predate your own?” The question as stated is imprecise, but I think the heart of the question is something like this: “As a Christian, what do you say about the fact that there are religions older than yours?” That’s a fair question and one we can offer several responses to.

First, we might ask what the problem is supposed to be. If there are religions older than Christianity, does that suggest Christianity is not true? I am not sure how an argument for that position might go. The age of the religion has little to do with the likelihood of it being true; what’s more important is the sort of evidence that gives credibility to the claims of the religion. Say, for example, that tomorrow all the stars moved in space so that from earth they spelled out, “Scientology is true.” That would make Scientology much more plausible than, say, Baal worship, even though the Baal religions are much older.

Second, if what the Bible teaches about God’s interactions with mankind is true, then the Christian God has been revealing himself to mankind since the beginning. Worship of the Christian God was the original religion, according to the Bible.  So the first question presumes a certain view of the development of religion and of world history in general that Christians deny. Worship of the Christian God is as old as mankind itself and so, in a sense, Christianity is the oldest religion.

The second question concerns the kind of revelation that the Christian God provides. The questioner seems to think that if a religion were true, then it ought to have “global revelation” pointing to its truth. I take it that this is a critique of the resurrection of Jesus, which happened at a specific time and place in history. This sort of revelation is what I suspect the questioner means by “local” revelation—sometimes this goes by the name “the scandal of particularity.”

In response, I will first say that I share the questioner’s concern. If God exists and he is good, then we should expect that he provides everyone with adequate reasons for believing in him. Of course, what the skeptic thinks are adequate reasons and what actually are adequate reasons are not always the same. As Paul Moser points out, we are often presumptuous when considering the evidence for God. We ask, “What evidence would satisfy me?” And we expect God to personally tailor the evidence to fit our expectations. We do not usually ask, “If God exists, how would he like me to know him?”

That said, I think God has given universally accessible reasons to believe in him. Let me give some examples. First, even if we take the resurrection which is supposed to be an example of a “local” revelation, the fact of the matter is that most people in the world are aware of the Christian claim to the resurrection of Jesus. Most people in the Western world even have the resources to conduct serious investigation into the veracity of these claims. So even though the resurrection is a localized event, it is open to investigation by a very large number of people.

The Bible also teaches that God does reveal himself universally. For example, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, God’s righteousness, and the coming judgment (John 16:8). Paul says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). In his speech in Athens, Paul proclaims,

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:24-28).

So the Bible clearly teaches that God reveals himself on a global scale and that he specifically arranged the world so that people would have the best chance at knowing him. The Bible teaches that God is intimately concerned with the salvation of the whole world and that he has actually revealed himself to every human being.

We also have highly intuitive theistic arguments which are universally accessible. If there is a moral law, there must be a moral law giver. If there is a universe, there must be a cause to the universe. If the universe appears intelligently designed, then likely there is a designer. Those are just very brief and rough summaries of only three of the theistic arguments, but the point is that they rely on common sense and basic empirical observations; they are open to investigation by any human person. In that way, they provide a kind of universal (or global) revelation of God.

The third and final question is “How do you know you were born in the right religion?” Clearly, if a person inherits their beliefs from their parents, this does not make them true. But the fact that I learned Christianity from my parents does not make it not true, either. If the questioner intends to say that, he would be committing the genetic fallacy. But if we answer the question as asked, we can provide two kinds of responses. The first answer is that I know that Christianity is true on the basis of my encounters with the Christian God. The Holy Spirit has provided the conviction of the truth of the gospel to me. And I have direct awareness and relationship with the Jesus of the Bible. These provide good reasons for me to believe in Jesus. But I also know that Christianity is true on the basis of critical thinking and the use of evidence. I mentioned some of the theistic arguments earlier, but there are also good arguments that Christianity in particular is true. There are philosophical arguments, like the one provided by Moral Apologetics contributor Brian Scalise that says a Trinitarian (and therefore Christian) conception of God makes the most rational sense. And there are empirical and historical arguments, like the minimal facts case for the resurrection employed by scholars like Gary Habermas and Mike Licona. So I know that I was born in the right religion because I have encountered the living Jesus myself and because careful and fair analysis of the evidence leads me to that conclusion.

In sum, it seems that the questioner is concerned about why we should think Christianity is true given the many religions in the world. The bottom line is that Christianity is better evidenced and more plausible than any other worldview.



An Easter Reflection

By David Baggett 

My wife’s an English professor, and she’s helped me realize I’m late to a game, or a party—or an awkward social occasion; whatever! I’m late—that of seeing the power of stories, the way they shape us, how we define ourselves by and see ourselves in relation to them. It makes sense, but as a philosopher I’ve heretofore tended to be more interested, when it comes to something like “worldview,” to think in terms of what’s true and what’s false, what we have good reason to believe and what we don’t. It’s why my philosophy stuff, as much as I love it, sometimes seems so thin and dry in comparison with the richness and thickness of her literature.

 Today is Easter, for example, and the evidential case for the resurrection is important to me. I am confident there’s a nondiscursive way of knowing, via personal experience, the truth of the resurrection, and it may be the most important knowing of all—but though that may be good for those who have it, it doesn’t much help those who don’t. Fortunately the historical case for the resurrection is amazing; my colleague Gary Habermas is one of the world’s leading experts on the topic. For those interested in wondering whether the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is actually true, whether there’s evidence for it historically, I’d encourage them to read Gary’s books.

 That sort of thing is a fun intellectual exercise, and it appeals to me as a philosopher. But suppose we establish the truth of the resurrection, or at least the credentials necessary to believe in it rationally. It’s hardly the end of the story, but just the beginning. Even devils presumably believe in the historicity of the resurrection. That it’s true is extremely important, but its truth doesn’t mean we’re conducting our lives according to that truth. This is where seeing worldview as more than a set of propositions one believes to be true can come in so handy, and seeing the power of stories can help.

 We are all of us inveterate storytellers. We love a good yarn—to hear them, to tell them. And the most important stories are the ones we most closely associate with our identity. On a garden-variety note, but one that rings with significance for me, I think of a few years ago, when my mom was still alive. A brother, my mom, a sister, and I met in Kentucky—and for a few hours one afternoon we reclined in a room together and endlessly rehearsed stories that make up our family lore. They were stories we’d told and retold a thousand times, each recounting as delightful as the one before, tickling us all to no end. We didn’t need to exaggerate or stretch the details; the canon’s already fairly established; too much deviation isn’t even allowed. The same stories, yet still rife with significance. I remember that afternoon, while regaling my family members with stories, and being regaled by them, I felt what I can only describe as unbridled joy. I was with people who’d known me my whole life, and we were relishing the stories that, to a significant degree, defined our shared lives together and knit us together as family. I was home.

 The best literature shouldn’t be enjoyed just once. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers “I’ve read it already” to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. Some stories are good for ingestion; others are worthy to be relished, savored, digested. The greatest Story most of all.

 Each Easter, I go to church, and hear the Easter story one more time. The details are the same. Nothing changes. But as my pastor said this morning, we change. Each time we hear it we’re different. We bring a new set of needs to it, but the story itself remains the same. I couldn’t help but think of Holden Caulfield’s visits to the Museum of Natural History—where the exhibits are always the same, which he found deeply comforting, but those visiting the museum, he recognized, are always different, either in big ways or small. The Easter story provides an even more significant point of constancy, an even more fundamental Archimedean point on which to stand. The narrative of self-giving love reaches its climax each Easter and offers itself to each of us, and though the story is the same, how it speaks to us is always slightly different. For it meets us where we are, at our point of need, reminding us of what doesn’t change, and offers to transform us. It offers us the chance to become part of that universal Story, to define ourselves anew in relation to it.

 That the Story is true is obviously crucial, but recognizing its truth isn’t enough. The Story challenges us to become part of it, to define ourselves by It and Him, to grab hold of what’s constant and permanent, eternal and ultimate, while bracing ourselves for needed and inevitable change in the midst of growing and of life’s vicissitudes and contingencies.

 The Story tells me who I am and what I’m called to be. It reminds me of what love looks like and that death isn’t the end. It challenges me not just to believe that it happened, but that the fact that it happened makes all the difference. It was the key plot point on which the whole narrative turned, marking love’s victory and the death of death. It reminds me that as a Christian I don’t merely believe static truths, but dynamic life-transforming ones—that I’m part of a Story that’s still in the process of unfolding. And we’ve been afforded a glorious peek to see how it ends.

Image: Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons