There is a basic flaw in the Western understanding of ethics. Namely, ethics attempts to clarify the moral gray areas through philosophical answers — the calculus of life, if you will. Is it okay to kill someone if you are saving the life of a 10 year old with polio who will grow up to be the next Hitler but also discovers the cure for cancer?
The basic flaw in the study of ethics is that it is seeking an exegetical guide to life. In other words, we are seeking marching orders so that we can “just go live”. The problem is that there is no way to actually come up with a single satisfactory answer for every possible situation, scenario, or vignette — because for every one that you can dream up an answer to, there are 50 more possible iterations or variations in circumstances that change the balance of the overall “common good”. Pre-visualization is helpful, but you simply cannot work out every possible scenario to come up with a logical and moralist answer to every one of them.
Quite often, this flaw gets carried forward into Biblical study. Truly, the Bible is one of the greatest treasure troves of proper social and moral ethic in all of human history — and for Christians with a value on divine inspiration and the weight of scripture, this is ever more amplified. However, the Bible often gets looked at as an exegetical guide to life… which is something it simply is not nor could it be. Ever. Maybe you have had the kind of conversation where you are giving advice to somebody and the terse response is “well where’s THAT in the Bible?!” or “Give me a verse for that!” While it should probably be noted that this shouldn’t be taken personally — in fact, if anything, this would seem to be a knee-jerk reaction to embarrassment that follows something that sounds simple but that that person never thought of — it still belies this flaw in thinking where the Bible has “the” answer for “everything”. While the Bible does have several direct instructions on social and moral ethics (Ex. Eph 5:18-20), the social and moral ethics aren’t the core point of biblical ethics instruction.
The crux of the Biblical ethics message can be summed up in Paul’s repeated admonition from Romans 13:14, Ephesians 4:34, Galatians 3:27 and Colossians 3:10 to “put on Christ.” In many respects, the flaw in the western study of ethics can be cured by changing the question from “What should I do?” to “Who should I be?” This is the point of the Biblical narrative — to become like Christ. By taking a more existential understanding of Biblical ethics, the applicability of Biblical commands fundamentally changes.
To give a common and easily understood example, imagine a young man who has been dating a certain young woman for a while. In that relationship, you ask the young man if he is going to marry her. “I don’t know yet, I just don’t know if she is ‘the right one’ or God’s will,” he says. The reason is that he is expecting the proverbial three visions and an angelic visitation to declare “THIS IS THE ONE” just like in Bible times with the camels, water jars, nose rings and all that. But those only happened a few times in ways that affected God’s plan of redemption history. In other words, it “can” happen, but most often doesn’t.
What is far more important is the Biblical definition of the Marital relationship from Ephesians 5:25. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her…” The question that young man should be asking is if he is willing to love that woman the way that Jesus loves the church. If the answer is no, the question of whether or not that woman is “da wun” or “God’z will” has already been answered.
All the prayer, and the study, and the fasting, and the meditating, and the commentary… all of it is to do one thing: change the person ingesting the information and the way they think. As the student becomes more like Jesus in their thought patterns, they should become more like Jesus in their actions because they are making decisions the same way that Jesus made decisions. In essence, instead of the categorical list of do’s and don’ts, the Bible seeks to change the decision-making process of the person reading it. This is the distinction that needs to be made between a Biblical understanding of ethics and a Western Philosophical one.