What Is Morality?
Written by Dr Andrew Corbett, lecturer in Hermeneutics (Bible Interpretation) and President of ICI Theological College Australia
by Dr. Andrew Corbett
The issues of right and wrong are integral to the study of ethics which is a core component to morality. Right is understood as morally right, as distinct from absolutely right such as in the science of mathematics. Naturally, wrong is understood as morally wrong, as distinct from incorrect. Moral is understood to be: the best individual and social outcome. As Christians we believe that the best individual and social outcome is only achieved when the mind of God is sought and followed. In the Old Testament era, this was encapsulated within the Decalogue (The Ten Commandments). Now in the New Testament era, its understanding is enhanced by Christ’s teachings.
THE PURSUIT OF “MORALITY”
In the story Gulliver’s Travels, the author continually depicts Lemuel Gulliver travelling among different peoples who each reflect an aspect of British morality and culture. After describing the British as either war-mongers, snobs, greedy, out-of-touch intellectuals, he finally concludes with a scene where Gulliver travels to an island of savages, called Yahoos. These savages are caucasian, filthy, and promiscuous. Also on this island are horses (referred to as Qwinum). The Qwinum are cultured. They know nothing of lying, greed, or stealing. Each Qwinum is committed to just one other Qwinum as their spouse.
Upon arriving back in England, Lemuel Gulliver is awakened to the revelation that he is a refined Yahoo. A thought which absolutely detests him. What he found more detestable was that his people claimed the morality of Qwinum, while they secretly lived as over-sexed Yahoos. He concluded that even the simple horse grazing in country fields was more moral than average Englishman. He reflected that the Qwinum had asked him why his people wore clothes. He had replied to them it was because of modesty. He continued by saying that men and women would be tempted to live most crudely with each other if they didn’t wear clothes. The Qwinum then logically asked if that was because his people couldn’t control their sexual urges. He conceded that this was probably the case.
Just as Lemuel Gulliver in this fabled story realised that people are basically immoral in nearly every area of life, the Bible reveals to us that our every thought and intent is toward evil.
The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
Because of the Biblical revelation that man is thoroughly selfish, it is an absurd proposition to postulate that man is completely capable of setting his own moral standards. The history of pagan and psuedo-christian cultures bears out this point. True morality (the best outcome for both the individual and the society) is short circuited immediately when anarchy is permitted and men are left to their devices. Unlike Lemuel Gulliver, the Christian need not conclude that the lifestyle of the horse is the only right moral choice confronting man. We are confronted by a holy God who has determined the means by which we can experience the best individual and social outcome.
THE REVELATION OF MORALITY
The Decalogue was clearly not the first revelation to mankind about morality. But it does serve as the articulation of what God had already revealed to people. To obey the Decalogue was to achieve the moral maxim (the best individual and social outcome). To break the Law was to be “immoral”. As time went on, it became clear that morality flowed from a person’s attitude before their actions. Therefore a person’s actions could be seen to be “moral” while their heart attitude was immoral-
The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”
For someone to divorce their attitude from their actions in their observance of God’s Law, was a serious error in judgment. The only way that the Law could achieve a heartfelt attitude of adherence was for there to be a revelation of it. This is something that the Psalmist seems to have both sought and later experienced-
Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.
Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart.
Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.
When morality became a matter of externals, Israel missed entirely the nature of what the law could do- provide the best individual and social outcome.
Because of the integral role that the heart plays in morality, motives can determine in some situations whether an action is right or wrong. For example, the smacking of a child is both right and wrong. (This is where the study of ethics is not like mathematics, which deals with integrals and absolutes.) God’s Word can be used to support either position (Prov. 22:15 and Ephesians 6:4). What determines whether smacking a child is morally right or not is the circumstances and motives behind the disciplinarian. This point is made by Paul about several noble, and usually quite moral acts, in his famous passage about love in First Corinthians 13. If a person’s motives are not fuelled by love, then even the most noble deeds are worthless. Christ made a similar point about this in Matthew 7:21-23, and also Matthew 25:35-40.
Values are also determined within a person’s heart. The New Testament pays much respect to individual values where they blatantly do not impinge on God’s standards. Paul regarded values as a legitimate source of right and wrong.
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.
If the New Testament shows respect to the values of individuals then we are also obliged to do the same. This is especially worth deeper consideration for those involved with cross-cultural ministry.
We are left to conclude that right and wrong is determined primarily from morals. True morality is that which God has revealed as being best for both individuals and societies. These moral standards must permeate a person’s heart to become meaningful. Where a person’s values do not violate the foundation of morality, which is love, they must be respected
(c) 2009, Andrew Corbett
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I have written a fuller explanation of the book of Revelation in my eBook- THE MOST EMBARRASSING BOOK IN THE BIBLE (click here to read a preview). The application from the Book of Revelation is that despite what appears to be an impotent Church struggling to serve an apparently impotent Christ, the Church is in reality made up of overcomers who lay down their lives gladly to promote Christ and His Gospel. In so doing, the Kingdom of Christ is extended, prayers are offered and heard, miracles are graced, and the believer can die with infinite hope that their Lord will keep them for eternity and clothe them with a new body which can not be subject to pain, injury, sorrow, or sin. With this knowledge we can endure momentary hardship during the brevity of this life on earth. We can be assured that our greatest delights and deepest moments of fulfilment are yet to come in the life to come.
John 5:25 ¶ “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
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