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A REVIEW OF BIBLICAL ETHICS

An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom. 3rd ed. By Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014. 667 pp. $ 45.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-2818-0.

            Whether people know it or not, and whether or not they are willing to admit it, ethical issues are some of the most highly debated issues both in the Christian church and without. For church goers, almost every single sermon and small group study will, given enough time, turn to ethical subjects – how should we live our lives in light of what the Bible says. For those who are not church goers the subject is just as important, and is discussed in political campaigns, during lunch break, at the barbers shop, and just about anywhere people take the time to stop and think. It should be of the utmost importance, therefore, for Christians (minimally – those who accept the Bible as the word of God and seek to model their lives after it) to be able to make wise ethical choices in their daily lives, and be able to (biblically, at least) defend those choices. This fact is why An Introduction to Biblical Ethics by Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan is so important. There have been many books written on moral philosophy (ethics), probably more than books can be read in one lifetime. I would suggest that if you, as a Christian, are only going to read one book, in your entire lifetime, on Christian morality, then it should be this book. I am not saying that you shouldn’t read other books on the subject, nor that this book is perfect in every aspect. I am saying that the approach taken in this book provides such a broad introduction to the subject of biblical ethics that it is the ideal book for a person who wants to be able to understand the issues, but does not have the time to read a pile of books on the subject. In this book review I will begin by noting, as usual, the purpose of the book, its approach to ethics, and the general positions that the authors seem to hold concerning ethics. I will then provide an overview of the subjects covered in each chapter, and will finish by noting (or repeating) the relative worth of this book.

            The main text for this book was originally written by Robertson McQuilkin, and then edited expanded by Paul Copan. The purpose of this book, and its approach to ethics, is to deal with ethical issues that are treated in Scriptures, as well as those which are met in contemporary life, by starting from, and remaining true to, the moral teachings of the Bible. They assume, unless it is explicitly mentioned in the Bible, that the Bible’s teachings are morally normative. The book is essentially based around the Ten Commandments, and a number of issues which do not necessarily fall under the Ten Commandments are covered along the way. One of the interesting elements of the book is that on a couple of occasions McQuilkin and Copan disagree on how to properly understand the biblical answer to a moral question. When this happens they each present, and support, their respective positions. They also do their best to not impose any ethical system on scripture (p. 23). This being said they hold to a form of Divine Command Theory (p. 69-70) in which they deny deontology (p. 88, 123), and affirm a form of virtue theory (p. 88, 91, 123-132). They argue that man’s motivation for doing good should be his love for, and devotion to, God (p. 89). Finally, they claim that the standard for humanity is the divine nature, to which we are supposed to conform (p. 219).

            Prior to looking at the contents of the book, let’s look at how the book is structured. The book is divided into two main sections. The first main section is divided into 5 parts and 11 chapters. The second main section is divided into 6 parts and 23 chapters. The book is introduced with a preface and introduction, and concludes with a short afterword, endnotes, and indexes of proper names, subjects and scripture references. Each of the main chapters ends with a list of books for further reading on the subject covered in the chapter. This book has been created, quite evidently, so that the interested reader will be able to easily find the subjects that he/she is looking for, as well as further references for advanced study in each of the subjects approached. As far as the contents of the book are concerned, the first main section sets down foundational considerations for a profitable discussion of biblical ethics. The second main section turns to the task of applying the scriptures to ethical issues. It is in the second main section that we see the application of the 10 commandments to ethical concerns.

            In part 1 they look at the biblical concept of love. In chapter 1 they propose that the foundation of biblical ethics is love (Love God…& love your neighbour…). The authors then seek to define and describe what is biblically portrayed as love. A definition if formed out of their observations (p. 35), internal and external aspects of love are discussed as well as reciprocal and sacrificial love. In chapter 2 the authors consider the appropriate objects of our love, the relationship between the various objects of our love, their relationship to us, and how to resolve potential conflicts that may arise due to our love for these different objects. A hierarchy of those things that can be loved by us is proposed: (1) God, (2) others, (3) self, (4) things. The authors also introduce us to 3 other love related discussions: love and forgiveness, God’s character as love and our divine image, and the results of properly ordering our love.

            In part 2 they look at the biblical concept of law. In chapter 3 the authors begin by giving a biblical definition of law. In so doing they survey the general use of ‘law’ in the Bible, the law of nature, etc. They explain their theory of divine commands. We are then introduced to the purpose of the law, the role of conscience, and the relationship between faith and works in the writings of Paul and James. In chapter 4 the authors explain 5 ways in which Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses. We are then taken through Romans 7 in order to explain the relationship of the Christian to the law – that is, that Christians are no longer under the law (they properly interpret these difficult verses). We are also introduced to the notion of “already-not yet”. The chapter ends by explaining 6 problems with Legalism, and 5 errors that must be avoided in attempting to avoid legalism. The authors make sure, in their explanation of the importance of the law, to emphasize that obedience out of love is more important than obedience out of fear, a virtuous character more important than blind obedience to the law.

            In part 3 they consider the biblical concept of sin. In chapter 5 we are introduced to a description/definition of sin and an explanation of the origin of the first sin. In chapter 6 the authors take an in-depth look at the biblical notion of sin. They begin by providing 2 descriptions of sin (transgression & missing the mark). They then discuss the human condition of sin (Noting that we are sinners from birth. In this section they tackle the question of original sin & the various views of how sin effects human nature.), sin in thought and sins of omission. This chapter finishes with a summary of 5 sin-related subjects: guilt, shame, depravity, addiction, and judgment.

            In part 4 they consider the biblical notions of virtues and vices. In chapter 7 the reader is introduced to virtue ethics. They begin by comparing Aristotle’s virtue ethics with that of the Bibles (the comparison is relatively accurate except for a false contrast on pages 124-125, where they claim that for Aristotle and other Greek thinkers growth in virtue was an individualistic thing, whereas in scriptures it is a community thing. The reality is that for Aristotle it is impossible to become virtuous on one’s own, one must necessarily find the virtuous person and follow them. For Aristotle growth in virtue is very much the result of being part of a community that is encouraging this growth.). In this comparison they introduce the notions of virtues, vices and character formation. They then give an overview of how we can promote virtue formation and avoid vice (including the importance of the spiritual disciplines). The emphasis on the necessary role of the community (church, friends, family, etc.) in character formation is wonderful! In chapter 8 the authors look at the vice of Greed and the virtue of contentment. They spend the first part of the chapter looking at self-control and its related vices. One of the interesting parts of this chapter is the differing views of McQuilkin and Copan on the consummation of Alcohol. In their discussion of greed and contentment they consider both money & time usage. In chapter 9 the authors consider the vices of pride and crippling fear, as well as the virtues of humility, faith and hope. They interact with great thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, but base their ultimate analysis on the Bible.

            In part 5 they consider the various alternative moral systems that have been proposed by different thinkers through the ages. In chapter 10 the authors look at three important moral theories: Moral Relativism, Social Contract Theory, and Utilitarianism. They rapidly explain the general idea of each theory, note, if possible, some positive insights from each position, and present numerous critiques of each view. In chapter 11 they consider non-Christian versions of deontology, and evolutionary ethics. This part is, by far, the shortest section of the book, and is, in my humble opinion, the biggest let-down of the book. I would have liked to see a more developed explanation of the various views, as well as consideration of Christian views of deontology, theories of eudaimonian morality, and moral theories that base find the foundations of morality in the human nature.

            Turning to the second main section, Part 6 looks at the application of the first 4 commandments. Part 7 considers the contemporary application of the 5th and the 7th commandment. Part 8 applies the 6th commandment to a number of contemporary and perennial moral issues. Part 9 looks at the application of the 8th and 9th commandments. Part 10 looks at questions concerning church and state, and Part 11 looks at two difficult, but important, questions: how to approach questions where Christians differ, and the Bible gives no clear teaching? How do we understand Gods will concerning matters that are not revealed in scripture?

            In chapter 12 the authors explain the moral importance of the first and second commandments. Of special interest is the discussion of the use of images in worship and devotion (such as is common in Catholic and Orthodox Churches). Chapter 13 looks at the 3rd and 4th commandments. In looking at the 3rd commandment the authors consider questions concerning swearing, crude language and how even certain forms of modern evangelical worship can break the 3rd commandment. In considering the 4th commandment we are given the differing views of McQuilkin and Copan, both in their understanding of the Christian view of the Sabbath and in their understanding of the application of their respective views in contemporary society.

            In chapter 14 the authors provide some ground work for further considerations concerning sexuality and marriage. They discuss the nature of God in relation to the two human sexes, the biological differences between the sexes, the biblical standard of equality between the sexes, celibacy and marriage. In discussing marriage they consider the importance of spiritual and physical unity as well as the importance of unity in seeking God. Their section on the “purposes” of marriage is quite interesting, though one wonders if 2 of the 3 purposes mentioned are not subordinate ends, which help obtain that one ultimate purpose for marriage, namely, “relational unity and wholeness”. In chapter 15 they consider the various violations of the marriage commitment that are explicitly mentioned in the Bible. In chapter 16 they consider a number of sexual deviations from Gods purpose for sexuality including issues related to lust, modesty, pornography, homosexuality and sex-changes. In chapter 17 the authors discuss the steps (and give valuable advice) that should be followed prior to marriage. In chapter 18 the authors explain the biblical perspective on homosexuality, the scientific perspective on homosexuality, and how the church should treat homosexuals. In chapter 19 they consider the question of what constitutes the proper definition and nature of marriage. From the proper definition they conclude that “gay marriages” are not true marriages. They then consider two objections to the position that we should maintain, and defend, the traditional definition of marriage. In chapter 20 the authors explore the various relations, purposes and responsibilities of the various members of a healthy Christian home. Two views on the relationship between husband and wife are presented: Complimentarian (McQuilkin’s view) and Egalitarian (Copan’s view). They then explore the parent’s responsibilities towards children and children’s responsibilities towards parents.

            In chapter 21 the authors begin considerations of violations of the 6th commandment. They here discuss subjects such as self-defence, physical and verbal violence, anger and racism. In chapter 22 the authors present a number of biblical, scientific and philosophical arguments against abortion, and respond to counter-arguments. In chapter 23 the authors look at some health (and death) related moral problems such as suicide, euthanasia (doctor-assisted suicide), plastic surgery, and animal rights. In chapter 24 they follow Leo Tolstoy in considering War and Peace. The look at the biblical (Old and New Testaments separately) teaching on the subject. They then present numerous arguments in favour of the just war theory. They also consider questions such as torture and nuclear war. Leaving Tolstoy behind, they follow Fyodor Dostoevsky, in chapter 25, in considering Crime and Punishment. Here they look at the causes and nature of crime (they also elaborate a distinction between sin and crime). The also consider the purposes for punishment of crimes and discuss various methods of punishment.

            In chapter 26 the authors discuss working and leisure, slavery, taxation and the biblical understanding of how employers and employees should interact. In chapter 27 the take on a number of economy and possession related issues including stealing, gambling, social justice, and, among other things, church and government based help of the poor. In chapter 28 the look at the question of lying and deception. They argue that in certain situations lying is biblically acceptable. In chapter 29 the authors give a general overview and history of the relationship between church and state, including how the church has traditionally influenced the state. In chapter 30 they propose that, of 4 possible relationships between church and state, the best arrangement is a relationship where they are “distinct but mutually influential”. In chapter 31 the authors consider how the church (both as an official institution, and as individual Christians), and the government, should be involved in socially beneficial actions. Of interest is the proposed biblical hierarchy of social involvement for Christian individuals (seek to help, in the following order: (1) one’s own family, (2) fellow Christians, (3) the surrounding society). In chapter 32 the authors discuss the engagement of Christians in Education and the Media. Of particular interest is the discussion concerning how Christians can influence public schools, the pros and cons of private Christian schools, and some of the advantages and myths related to homeschooling.

            In chapter 33 the authors lay down the biblical principles concerning how to interact with fellow Christians who hold different ethical views, regardless of whether or not those issues are explicitly addressed in the Bible. In chapter 34 the authors give their views on how to understand and seek Gods will for one’s life; the extent to which God reveals “particular”; things to do to discover God’s will, and methods to avoid.


            All in all this is an exceptional introduction to biblical ethics. It is as complete an introduction as one could wish for. Keeping in mind that it is intended as an introduction to the subjects that are treated, and considering its size, no one should be disappointed by the fact that some of the subjects are not treated as thoroughly as one would like. I would highly recommend this book as the academic standard for any course on Biblical Ethics. Every Christian pastor, lay-person, Apologist, Theologian and Philosopher should have this book in their personal library.

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