15 million Ukrainian are displaced by Russia's war.
Millions miss a meal or two each day.
Help us change that! Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


Additional Links
The study of good behavior, motivation, and attitude in light of Jesus Christ and biblical revelation. The discipline of ethics deals with such questions as: “What ought I do?” “How should I act so as to do what is good and right?” “What is meant by good?” “Who is the good person?”

Biblical ethics likewise addresses some of the identical questions. While neither Testament has an abstract, comprehensive term or definition which parallels the modern term “ethics,” both the Old Testament and the New Testament are concerned about the manner of life that the Scripture prescribes and approves. The closest Hebrew term in the Old Testament for “ethics,” “virtue” or “ideals” is the word musar , “discipline” or “teaching” (Proverbs 1:8 ) or even derek , “way or path” of the good and the right. The closest parallel Greek term in the New Testament is anastrophe , “way of life, life-style” (occurring nine times in a good sense with 2 Peter 3:11 being the most significant usage). Of course the Greek terms ethos or ethos appear twelve times in the New Testament ( Luke 1:9; Luke 2:42; Luke 22:39; John 19:40; Acts 6:14; Acts 15:1; Acts 16:21; Acts 21:21; Acts 25:16; Acts 26:3; Acts 28:17 and Hebrews 10:25 ). The plural form appears once in 1 Corinthians 15:33 . It is usually translated “conduct,” “custom,” “manner of life,” or “practice.”

The Biblical Definition of Ethics is Connected With Doctrine The problem with trying to speak about the ethics of the Bible is that ethical contents are not offered in isolation from the doctrine and teaching of the Bible. Therefore, what God is in His character, what He wills in His revelation, defines what is right, good, and ethical. In this sense then, the Bible had a decisive influence in molding ethics in western culture.

Some have seriously questioned whether there is a single ethic throughout the Bible. Their feeling is that there is too much diversity to be found in the wide variety of books and types of literature in the Bible to decide that there is harmony and a basic ethical stance and norm against which all ethical and moral decisions ought to be made. Nevertheless, when following the claims made by the books of the Bible, some conceive their message to be a contribution to the ongoing and continuous story about the character and will of God. This narrative about the character and will of God is the proper basis for answering the questions: “What kind of a person ought I to be?” “How then shall we live so as to do what is right, just, and good?”

As some have pointed out, the search for diversity and pluralism in ethical standards is as much the result of a prior methodological decision as is the search for unity and harmony of standards. One may not say the search for diversity is more scientific and objective than the search for harmony. This fact must be decided on the basis of an internal examination of the biblical materials; not as an external decision foisted over the text.

Three Basic Assumptions Can ethical or moral decisions rest on the Bible, or is this idea absurd and incoherent? Three assumptions illustrate how a contemporary ethicist or moral-living individual may be able to rest his or her decision on the ethical content of the biblical text from a past age. The three are: (1) the Bible's moral statements were meant to be applied to a universal class of peoples, times, and conditions, (2) Scripture's teaching has a consistency about it so that it presents a common front to the same questions in all its parts and to all cultures past and present; (3) the Bible purports to direct our action or behavior when it makes a claim or a demand. In short the Bible can be applied to all people. The Bible is consistent. The Bible seeks to command certain moral behavior.

To take Scripture's universalizability first: every biblical command, whether it appeared in a biblical law code, narrative text, wisdom text, prophetic text, gospel, or epistle was originally addressed to someone, in some place, in some particular situation. Such particulars were not meant to prejudice their usage in other times, places, or persons. Lurking behind each of these specific injunctions can be found a universal principle. From the general principle a person in a different setting can use the Bible to gain direction in a specific decision.

Are our problems, our culture, and our societal patterns so different that even though we can universalize the specific injunctions from Scripture, they have no relevance to our day? Can we assume consistency between cultures and times for this ethic? All that is required here is that the same biblical writer supplied us elsewhere with a whole pattern of ethical thought that has led up to this contextualized and particular injunction. If we may assume that the writer would not change his mind from one moment to the next, we may assume that he would stand by his principle for all such similar situations regardless of times or culture.

Finally, the Bible claims to command mortals made in the image of God. Whether the ethical materials are in the imperative or indicative moods makes little difference. The writers of Scripture intended to do more than offer information; they purported to direct behavior.

Five Basic Characteristics of Biblical Ethics In contrast to philosophical ethics, which tends to be more abstract and human—centered, biblical morality was directly connected with religious faith. Hence immoral men and women were by the same token irreligious men and women, and irreligious persons were also immoral persons (Psalm 14:1 ).

Biblical ethics are, first of all, personal . The ground of the ethical is the person, character, and declaration of an absolutely holy God. Consequently, individuals are urged, “Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 ). The moral and ethical commands of the Bible are no less personal in their subject, for they are addressed to individuals who must decide. Thus, “If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands” (Leviticus 26:3 NIV); or “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” ( Philippians 4:8-9 NIV).

In the second place, the ethics of the Bible are emphatically theistic . They focus on God. To know God was to know how to practice righteousness and justice. Jeremiah 22:15-16 (NIV) taught: “He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and the needy, and so all sent well. Is that not what it means to know me? declares the Lord?” Compare Proverbs 3:5-7 .

Most significantly, biblical ethics are deeply concerned with the internal response to morality rather than mere outward acts. “The Lord looketh on the heart” ( 1 Samuel 16:7 ) was the cry repeatedly announced by the prophets (Isaiah 1:11-18; Jeremiah 7:21-23; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8 ).

Scripture's ethical motivation was found in a future orientation . The belief in a future resurrection of the body (Job 19:26-27; Psalm 49:13-15; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2-3 ) was reason enough to pause before concluding that each act was limited to the situation in which it occurred and bore no consequences for the future. Peter gave the New Testament summary: “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Peter 3:11-12 NIV).

The fifth characteristic of biblical ethics is that they are universal . They embrace the same standard of righteousness for every nation and person on earth. Abraham's question was, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25 ). The five Gentile cities of the plain “were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly” (Genesis 13:13 ) and thereby invited the inevitable judgment of God if they did not repent.

Long sections in the Old Testament text are specifically addressed to the nations at large including Isaiah 13-23; Jeremiah 45-51; Ezekiel 25-32; Daniel 2:1; Daniel 7:1; Amos 1-2 , Obadiah; Jonah; and Nahum. The living God revealed in Scripture set the norm for all peoples, nations, and times.

The Organizing Principle: God's Character That which gives wholeness, harmony, and consistency to the morality of the Bible is the character of God. Thus the ethical directions and morality of the Bible were grounded, first of all, in the character and nature of God. What God required was what He Himself was and is. The heart of every moral command was the theme that appeared in Leviticus 18:5-6 ,Leviticus 18:5-6,18:30; Leviticus 19:2-3 ,Leviticus 19:2-3,19:4 ,Leviticus 19:4,19:10 ,Leviticus 19:10,19:12 ,Leviticus 19:12,19:14 ,Leviticus 19:14,19:18 ,Leviticus 19:18,19:25 , Leviticus 19:31-32 ,Leviticus 19:31-32,19:34 ,Leviticus 19:34,19:36-37 , “I am the Lord” or “Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy.” Likewise, Philippians 2:5-8 agreed: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God,;b3 yet he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death—even the death of the cross.”

The character and nature of the holy God found ethical expression in the will and word of God. These words could be divided into moral law and positive law . Moral law expressed His character. The major example is the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21 ). Another is the holiness code (Leviticus 18-20 ). Positive law bound men and women for a limited time period because of the authority of the One who spoke them. Positive law claimed the peoples' allegiances only for as long and only in as many situations as God's authority determined when He originally gave that law. Thus the divine word in the Garden of Eden, “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17 NIV) or our Lord's, “Untie [the colt]” ( Luke 19:30 ) were intended only for the couple in the garden of Eden or the disciples. They were not intended to be permanent commandments. They do not apply to our times. A study of biblical ethics helps us distinguish between the always valid moral law and the temporary command of positive law.

The moral law is permanent, universal, and equally binding on all men and women in all times. This law is best found in the Decalogue of Moses. Its profundity can be easily grasped in its comprehensiveness of issues and simplicity of expression. A few observations may help in interpreting these Ten Commandments. They are:

[1] The law has as a prologue. This established the grace of God as seen in the Exodus as the basis for any requirement made of individuals. Ethics is a response to grace in love not a response to demand in fear.

[2] All moral law is doublesided, leading to a positive act and away from a negative one. It makes no difference whether a law is stated negatively or positively, for every moral act is at one and the same time a refraining from a contrary action when a positive act is adopted.

[3] Merely omitting or refraining from doing a forbidden thing is not a moral act. Otherwise, sheer inactivity could count as fulfilling a command, but in the moral realm this is just another name for death. Biblical ethics call for positive participation in life.

[4] When an evil is forbidden in a moral command, its opposite good must be practiced before one can be considered obedient. We must not just refuse to murder, but we must do all in our power to aid the life of our neighbor.

The essence of the Decalogue can be found in three areas: [1] right relations with God (first command, internal worship of God; second, external worship of God; third, verbal worship of God); [2] right relations with time (fourth command), and [3] right relations with society (fifth command, sanctity of the family; sixth, sanctity of life; seventh, sanctity of marriage and sex; eighth, sanctity of property; ninth, sanctity of truth; and tenth, sanctity of motives).

Three other major blocks of legislation may be added to the Decalogue; the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22-23:33 ); the Law of Holiness (Leviticus 18-20 ); and the Law of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 12-25 ). These laws serve as illustrations and further amplification of the basic morality found in the Decalogue.

The Law of Holiness sets forth the holiness of God as the central attribute in the whole character of God by which all ethical judgments are to be made. Holiness is the mark of His uniqueness and moral otherness from His creatures. Practically every one of the Ten Commandments is raised in the most amazing nineteenth chapter of Leviticus.

The Content of Biblical Ethics Biblical ethics is based on the complete revelation of the Bible. The Decalogue and its expansions in the three other basic law codes join the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:17-49 as the foundational texts of the Bible's teaching in the ethical and moral realm. All other biblical texts—the narratives of wrongdoing, the collection of Proverbs, the personal requests of letters—all contribute to our knowledge of biblical ethics. The Bible does not offer a list from which we pick and choose. It hammers home a life-style and calls us to follow.

Several examples of the content of biblical ethics may help to better understand how the character of God, especially of His holiness, sets the norm for all moral decision-making.

Honor or respect for one's parents was one of the first applications of what holiness entailed according to Leviticus 19:1-3 . This should come as no surprise, for one of the first ordinances God gave in Genesis 2:23-24 set forth the monogamous relationship as the foundation and cornerstone of the family.

Husband and wife were to be equals before God. The wife was not a mere possession, chattel, or solely a childbearer. She was not only “from the Lord” (Proverbs 19:14 ) and her husband's “crown” (Proverbs 12:4 ), but she also was “a power equal to” him (the word “helper” (Genesis 2:18 NIV) is better translated “strength, power”). The admonition to honor parents was to be no excuse to claim no responsibility to help the poor, the orphan, and the widow ( Leviticus 25:35; Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Job 29:12-16; Job 31:16-22; Isaiah 58:1; Amos 4:1-2; Amos 5:12 ). The oppressed were to find relief from the people of God and those in authority.

Similarly, human life was to be regarded as so sacred that premeditated murder carried with it the penalty of capital punishment in order to show respect for the smitten victim's being made in the image of God (Genesis 9:5-6 ). Thus the life of all persons, whether still unborn and in the womb (Exodus 21:22-25; Psalm 139:13-6 ) or those who were citizens of a conquered country (Isaiah 10:1; Habakkuk 3:1 ), were of infinite value to God.

Human sexuality was a gift from God. It was not a curse, nor an invention of the devil. It was made for the marriage relationship and meant for enjoyment (Proverbs 5:15-21 ), not just procreation. Fornication was forbidden (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ). Sexual aberrations, such as homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Deuteronomy 23:17 ) or bestiality (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:23-30; Leviticus 20:1 : 15-16; Deuteronomy 27:21 ) were repulsive to the holiness of God and thus condemned.

Finally, commands about property, wealth, possessions, and concern for the truth set new norms. These norms went against the universal human propensity for greed, for ranking things above persons, and for preferring the lie as an alternative to the truth. No matter how many new issues were faced in ethical discourse, the bottom line remained where the last commandment had laid it: the motives and intentions of the heart. This is why holiness in the ethical realm began with the “fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 15:33 ).

The greatest summary of ethical instruction was given by our Lord in Matthew 22:37-39 : it was to love God and to love one's neighbor. There also was the Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12 . The best manifestation of this love was a willingness to forgive others (Matthew 6:12-15; Matthew 18:21-35; Luke 12:13-34 ).

The New Testament, like the Old, included social ethics and one's duty to the state as part of its teaching. Since God's kingdom was at work in the world, it was necessary that salt and light also be present as well in holy living.

While both Testaments shared the same stance on issues such as marriage and divorce, the New often explicitly adopted different sanctions. Thus, church discipline was recommended in the case of incest in 1 Corinthians 5:1 rather than stoning.

The main difference between the two Testaments is that the New Testament sets forth Jesus as the new Example of uncompromising obedience to the will and law of God. He came not to abolish the Old, but to fulfill it. The New Testament is replete with exhortations to live by the words and to walk in the way set forth by Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah (1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 1 Peter 2:21-25 ).

Some of the motivators to live ethical and moral lives carry over from the previous Testament, but to these are added: the nearness of God's kingdom (Mark 1:15 ); gratitude for God's grace in Christ (Romans 5:8 ); and the accomplished redemption, atonement, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20-21 ). Like the Old Testament, love is a strong motivator; however, love does not take the place of law. Love is not itself the law; it is a “how” word, but it will never tell us “what” we are to do. Love is a fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:9 ) because it constrains us to comply with what the law teaches. Thus, love creates an affinity with and an affection for the object of its love. It gives willing and cheerful obedience rather than coerced and forced compliance.

Finally, the content of biblical ethics is not only personal, but it is wide-ranging. The letters of Paul and Peter list a wide range of ethical duties; toward one's neighbors, respect for the civil government, and its tasks, the spiritual significance to work, the stewardship of possessions and wealth, and much else.

The ethic which Scripture demands and approves has the holiness of the Godhead as its standard and fountainhead, love to God as its impelling motivation, the law of God as found in the Decalogue and Sermon on the Mount as its directing principle, and the glory of God as its governing aim.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Ethics'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Next Entry