Deeply embedding within Christian discourse is
However, it is my contention that this deontic view of Christian ethics is an unnecessary hangover from a particular deontological view of the Torah stemming from the Catholic usage of law framing how Torah was understnading. As laws often operate in accordance to deontic princoples, particuarly when they are legitimated through hierarchical pronouncements, through Protestantaism characterization the Torah in legal terms, Protestant ethical thinking, alongside Catholicism, retaining a deontic structure insofar as ethical and moral thinking was still related to Torah. In suggesting this source for deontological ethics in Protestant thinking, my argument is not contingent on how historically accurate this assessment is; only that deonotological ethics 1) primarily characterizing Protestant and even Western Christan thinking about ethics and 2) deontological ethics is not an adequate descriptor of the systems of ethical expressions in the Old or New Testament. Rather, I would content for the hypothesis that Biblical ethics, and New Testament ethics more particuarly, have an ungirding ethical framework that is implicitly a more consequentialist of a peculiar sort. Put differently, Christian ethics is fundamentally grounded upon ethical prescriptions built towards certain formative results as the consequence of actions, but does not fit with the the utilitarian ethics that classified Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, and had a large influence on classical liberalism.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus rejected the commandments of the Torah as defining people who are genuinely righteous. His discussion of the Torah begins in Matthew 5:17-20 with three pronouncements. Firstly, Jesus states he is completing (πληρόω), not abolishing the
These series of pronouncements can be understood in relation to other statements Jesus makes. For the Pharisees as the target of Jesus disdain in the term “hypocrites” in Matthew 6:1-18. Jesus remarks that their self-serving purposes have already received their “reward.” Right here, we see the connection between action and consequence. This falls right on the heels of Jesus conclusion to his teaching on Torah in Matthew 5:48, where the ultimate goal is to “Be mature (τέλειος) as your heavenly Father is mature.” (5:48) Thus, I would suggest that Jesus intends to contrast the purpose and consequence of their self-serving action with the God-directedness motivating Jesus’ employment of the Torah.
This is strengthened by the notion that Jesus describes following his teaching as making one like a ἀνδρὶ φρονίμῳ. (“prudent/wise man”) The word φρόνιμος recurs repeatedly in the LXX, recurring repeatedly in the Wisdom literature of Proverbs and Sirach with also another
This wisdom context also explains the usage of the word τέλειος, which was not exclusively used in the wisdom literature, but it does commonly occur in contexts of wisdom, such as Sirach 44:17, recounting the
All this leads to the purpose of the Torah in
So, Jesus view of the Torah is contrasted with his of the status of the Pharisees and scribes. The hypocrites’ real purpose behind Torah is ultimately consequences that benefit themselves, whereas Jesus’ employment and instruction of Torah is ultimately geared towards the consequences of imitating the matured state of the heavenly Father, which has echoes of the Levitical prescription to be holy as God is holy. Thus, viewed in this manner, the ethical regulations of the Torah are not construed in some deontic sense of “you better do this because God said so,” but rather “If you do these things, for the right purpose, you will move towards possessing the type of character that God has.” Hence, Jesus refers to peacemakers as those who will be called God’s children, which evokes a sense of resemblance, even though peacemaking is not a literal command of the Torah.
In short then, the purpose of God’s instructions via commandments isn’t to define what is good and what is evil in a deontological sense. Rather, they function as pedagogical guides and instructions, which when put in practice for the right purpose, lead to formation of people who resembles God’s character who also are the types that bring peace/shalom through their actions. The problem with Torah throughout the Old Testament, however, is that this formation of Israel never occurs because they never retain this rightly directed purpose of the love of God and pursuit of His holiness, but that God Himself must circumcise their hearts (Deuteronomy 30:6), putting His instruction in their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33-34), giving them a new heart and new spirit in place of a hardened heart of stone. (Ezekiel 36:26) The problem of the Torah can be summarized by this: the Torah is not done for the right purpose.in terms of the setting of one’s relationship to God.
With this in mind: there are a few corollaries this this premise.
- What is “good” and “bad” is ultimately defined by the experiences of human life which was created and fashioned by God. However, this need not be an oversimplistic manner of “if it brings pleasure, it is good; if it brings pain, it is bad.” Why? In this view, God’s commandments are not what simplistically define, delimit, and differentiate the “good” and the “bad.” Rather, God’s instruction
formus into people who do the “good.” Therefore, we are free not to judge the people of the world simplistically based upon their conformity and deviance from Christian principles. Christian ethics are intended to form people to take upon the character of God; they are not, in and of themselves, the barometers of goodness and badness. For instance as relevant to today’s divisions in the Church as it pertains to sexuality, gay and lesbian persons are not be judged as “bad” because of their sexual activity, which has caused unnecessary degrees of shame and pain on people. However, that does not negate the Biblical call to sex within the confines of a relationship to marital relations between a male and female; rather it clarifies the nature of this call towards the formation is has on those who submit to God’s principles rather than a judgment on the world for failing to adhere to it. The practice of sex in a heterosexual *faithful* marriage3 or celibacy aside from that is about the nature of the impact those two particular type of practices have, not the status of goodness or badness the actions themselves transmit to or signal about the people who do them.
- Our understanding of sin as the failure to adhere to God’s instructions would shift from simply being that which disobeys God and His commands, to that which has a negative consequence upon our relationship to God, to others, and the creation God has made. Too long, people have heard the echoes of a harsh judge passing a terrible sentence when they hear the word “sin.” Rather, sin is concerned about the consequences such actions has upon ourselves and the world around us, echoed in Paul’s statement “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) as an expression of the consequences of human actions that God seeks to redeem us from, rather than itself expressing the judgment of God. (Paul expresses the nature of God’s judgment in Romans 2)
- Jesus’ formative consequentialism takes one’s seeking of God and His righteousness as the hinge by which adherence to the Torah properly functions for Israelites. As such, formative consequentialism can put Paul’s statement about the faith of Jesus Christ against the works of Torah into context. For Paul, the most essential criteria for righteousness is what God does and our relationship to God’s action in the attitude of faith and trust. Through faith, one’s life set upon a new way of life by God that will come to define one’s life by righteousness, as we are formed in a new pattern in Christ through the leading of the Holy Spirit. Faith is the attitude by which we relate to God’s powerful actions on our behalf, in which also we are guiding towards the purposes that the Spirit leads us towards. Thus, problems of works by the Torah for Paul is that seeking to add adherence to it for Gentiles works against the Spirit who is at work in them, thereby taking them off course from “waiting for the hope of righteousness” “through the Spirit by faith,” as concerns about Torah obedience blinds one from the rightful direction and purpose of “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:5-6) It isn’t that Paul is sayings our actions don’t matter, but rather not losing track of what God is doing by trying to add the Torah. One’s faith as being lead by the Spirit determines the direction and purpose of one’s actions rather than trying to conform to the words of the Torah.4 In other words, the problem of Gentiles trying to add on circumcision and Torah obedience is that it is taking the people off course from God’s purposes working themselves out through the Spirit.
- Deontological ethics misses the entire point of God’s guidance of Israel and the guidance of the Church through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Deontological ethics on its own terms is a spiritually dead ethic, done simply for the status of being “right” and “good” instead of “wrong” and “bad.” This leads the heart to find an motivation and purpose for doing “good,” which will commonly in
curvatus selead us to the motivation of “I want to be seen as right and good by others.” While this implicit, unconscious form of this isn’t by itself condemning as it doesn’t rule of the motivation for seeking after God, the more we define Christian ethics in a deontological manner, the more we leave a motivational vacuum that will be filled with our own, more “natural” purposes for doing what is “good” and “bad” rather than seeking God’s righteous character as the purpose of submission to His instruction.
In other words, I would put forth that formative consequentialism enabled by and accomplished through God’s redemptive actions in Christ and the Spirit best defines the ethical trajectory of the Bible, and when taken to is logical conclusions, would dramatically shift our theological, social, and psychological discourse and practices from what is the common practice in Christian circles.