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What is the Foundation for Christian Ethics? Dr. Kenneth Magnuson

Home » What is the Foundation for Christian Ethics? Dr. Kenneth Magnuson

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Magnuson on the foundation for Christian ethics.

Topics of conversation include: 

  • Why it is important for Christians to develop a strong ethical foundation
  • Various perspectives for framing ethics, such as deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, and teleology
  • Scriptural guidelines for determining a Christian ethic
  • Why churches aren’t addressing ethical issues today
  • Recommended resources for further study on Christian ethics

Dr. Kenneth Magnuson serves as professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society, and is the author of several books, including Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues (Kregel Academic, 2020).

 


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

 

Brian Arnold (00:18):

We’re a couple months into 2022, and we’re already facing several major ethical questions. The Supreme court is ruling on the Dobbs v. Jackson case, which could overturn the important practice of abortion. Russia has invaded Ukraine, provoking the entire world to consider war. Men are competing as women swimmers, and winning. Within the last year, Arizona has legalized recreational marijuana. These are just four different ethical issues we’re facing that require a lot of reflection. It feels like the ethical boundaries are stretching in every direction, and many Christians are asking hard questions—what’s right? What’s wrong? And how do we know the difference? Well, to help us understand foundation of Christian ethics, we have with us today Dr. Ken Magnuson, who is professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Seminary, and also serves as the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society, which is housed at Phoenix Seminary. Dr. Magnuson has published numerous articles and essays in the field of ethics, writing on topics like teleology, virtue ethics, divine commands, and various contemporary ethical topics. Most recently, Dr. Magnuson has published Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues as part of the Invitation to Theological Studies series. Most notably, Dr. Magnuson is the only professor in my seminary education that gave me a B. And I’m not bitter about it, either. All right, Dr. Magnuson, welcome to the show.

 

Ken Magnuson (01:37):

Thank you very much.

 

Brian Arnold (01:39):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today the question is—what is the foundation for Christian ethics? So let’s just kind of set the table with how we hear people talking about morality and ethics today. Things like “love is love,” “you’ve got to be true to yourself,” are some of these things that we hear repeated often. So how do you, as you look out, see kind of the landscape of ethics in the Western world today?

 

Ken Magnuson (02:05):

Yeah. Well, there’s certainly been a move away from the Judeo-Christian framework and foundation for ethics. And in its place, ethics is very much subjective and privatized, turned towards the autonomous individual. So “love is love is love is love” is one example, and it sounds nice, but it’s very subjective and, frankly, not true, right? We properly distinguish various kinds of love, whether that’s brotherly love, or romantic love, or love for my Boston Terriers, right? And some things that may be called love, we know are not—such as a high school teacher running on off with a student, saying they love each other. But the more general point is that we have a moral relativism, where individuals think they decide what is right and wrong for them. And, you know, I was thinking, Brian, I read just this week in a post on social media, someone inserted a comment into the debate saying, “Nobody is right or wrong—it is just preference and opinion.” Now that might be true about some things, but it has been applied broadly to most any issue, and tragically this shows up in a bumper sticker like—”if you don’t like abortions, don’t have one.” And so that’s kind of where we are.

 

Brian Arnold (03:23):

It’s kind of a moral soup out there right now, isn’t it? Where things are, just like you said—we’ve gone from a place where yeah, there are places where we can have differing opinions, and there are places where there is objective truth and facts. I mean, we could not even have imagined—so I took your ethics class in 2005—I could not have imagined a world in which you have things like transgenderism. And as prevalent as it is now. And if you’re not in full-throated support of it, you’re a bigot.

 

Ken Magnuson (03:50):

Yeah.

 

Brian Arnold (03:51):

And we see, as this is even playing out, there’s some common sense things that are happening that I just think everyone 50-100 years ago would have been scratching their heads—just couldn’t even believe that we’d get to this kind of a place. So let’s set the foundation then. How…or let’s start with why. Why is it important for Christians to really develop a strong ethical foundation? I know for me, when I took your ethics class, I was thinking about all the applied ethics. What we call applied ethics, right? So—what is just war theory? And talking about things like abortion. What I found most fascinating was the first half of the semester where you just said—we’ve got to build out a foundation for how we even think, because we’re going to be hit with all kinds of issues we don’t even know yet. And if we have the right foundation built, that will be what we draw from, right? Or build upon, rather.

 

Ken Magnuson (04:41):

Yeah. Exactly. So if we were just to go from issue to issue, we may kind of settle on what we think we should think about a particular issue, but we don’t really have a way of navigating new things that come to us. And as you said, we are facing all kinds of new things all the time. And so, without some solid foundation, we’re just going to be driven by opinions and trends. I mean—so looking at broader cultural trends again, you know, we’re just driven by opinions, trends, individual desires, or, you know, the common, you know, “being on the right side of history,” as though we’re supposed to know what that is, so often. And so it’s a morality just built on shifting sand.

 

Brian Arnold (05:28):

Yeah. The right side of history thing has become the driving factor, I think, for a lot of people—is I don’t want my statues, my plaques taken down in 50 years, because I wasn’t on these issues in the right place. I think that’s going to burn a lot of people in the end, who think that they’re on the right side of history, and might not be. And the reality is, we need to be on the right side of God, more than concerned about worldly history. So what are some schools of thought that have been used over time to kind of build a foundation of ethics?

 

Ken Magnuson (06:00):

Yeah. Well, briefly, I’ll give a few that are main categories or perspectives that are used to frame ethics and moral reasoning. And one of the things I would encourage listeners to do, even as I mention these things, is to think—are these consistent with what Scripture teaches us? So first, one of the dominant perspectives in ethics is deontology. And this comes from the Greek term deon, for duty. So deontology focuses on our moral duties, and these are derived from objective moral norms or principles to which our actions should conform. And the classic statement of this view is found in the philosopher Immanuel Kant—”Only on that maxim—or we might say moral principle—which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Now what that means, is…his point is to identify universal moral principles or laws that apply to all people at all times.

 

Ken Magnuson (06:59):

So that’s deontology. A second view, which is a direct challenge to deontology, is consequentialism. And this is a view in which right and wrong are determined solely by the consequences of our acts. And the most well-known and broad version of this perspective is utilitarianism, and its basic principle is to base our actions on what will bring the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And typically the greatest good focuses on human happiness. Now I should mention a very narrow view of consequentialism is called ethical egoism, which bases the consequences on what is in the individual’s interest or, you know, what is the greatest good for me? And so, deontology and consequentialism, as much as they are antithetical to one another, I should say, have this in common—they focus primarily on what makes an act morally right or wrong.

 

Ken Magnuson (07:58):

So a focus on the action. And they also tend to think of ethics in terms of moral dilemmas or difficult situations, which take a good amount of intellectual work to figure out. I mention that, because a third perspective challenges both of these views. It’s virtue ethics. And with virtue ethics, the focus is not as much on the moral act as it is on the moral actor, or the moral agent, the person doing something. And related issues, such as character and virtue, how virtues are formed, where they’re formed in community, and that kind of thing. And so here the challenge and focus of ethics is not on moral dilemmas so much, or ethics as an intellectual problem, but rather the problem of ethics is centered, you would say, more on the will. So we know what is right and wrong. We know what we ought to do, but what does it take to do what we ought to do?

 

Ken Magnuson (08:55):

So those are three of the main categories. I should mention one other perspective, and that is teleology, which is important to distinguish from consequentialism. Some consider them to be the same, but I would say that’s not necessarily the case. And in its robust form, teleology is not the same as consequentialism at all. Teleology comes from the term telos, for end, or ends, in the sense of purpose or goal. It can mean some other things, but for our purposes, think of goal or purpose. So rather than thinking that acts should be determined solely in due of the consequences that result, teleology is critical for Christian ethics, considering things like design and order and purpose in creation, how our actions fit with purposes given by God. And also how God’s commands fit with his purposes, so that we can make the connections that God reveals to us. So those are the major sort of categories that we can think of in ethics. There’s some others, but those are the major ones.

 

Brian Arnold (10:06):

Yeah. And it shows how long people have been reflecting on this. If you think about virtue ethics, the name that we often associate that with is Aristotle. Right? So the Greeks are concerned about what is ethical? And what is a virtuous person? And how does that lead to human flourishing? Right? But it struck me, even as you were talking, how fundamentally challenging this is in our day, because even if we’re driving at something like happiness or what is the best for the most people, what is the standard by which we even judge that?

 

Ken Magnuson (10:35):

Right.

 

Brian Arnold (10:35):

And so now, lead us into maybe a Scriptural way. Like how do you put this together as a Christian? Because we do have an objective source of reality and truth that we can look back on and say—well, this is coming from God, and he establishes order, right? And what is right and what is wrong. So yeah—how do you pull those all together?

 

Ken Magnuson (10:58):

Yeah. So I would say first, when you think of those categories, consequentialism is the one that simply doesn’t fit with Scripture. Right and wrong are not established by consequences produced, even though consequences are important. So if we’re looking for a biblical foundation, as you indicate, we begin with God. We begin with God and his character, his purposes, his will. And thinking even…knowing God as creator has huge implications for ethics, because we have confidence that creation and our lives have design, and purpose, and meaning, right? God created us for a purpose, and it gives life meaning. And, I would say, we also have someone to answer to—as creator, right? Also, as we think of God as creator, we can marvel at the fact that he created us and he guides that with what he commands us to do.

 

Ken Magnuson (12:02):

He knows us, and cares for us, and instructs us how we are to live in accordance with his design and purpose. And we are grateful. We ought be thankful for that. But then also…so in that, we have something of the teleology that I’m talking about, right? God’s purposes in design and so on. Second, a foundation for Christian ethics in biblical perspective, is instruction that we have from God and his Word. So God’s will and his purposes for our lives are revealed in his command. In our day, rules and commands are often seen as oppressive, hindering how we want to live, but that’s not a biblical worldview. The Psalms, for instance, delight in the law of the Lord, the instruction of the Lord, and Psalm 1 exhorts us to meditate on it day and night.

 

Ken Magnuson (12:57):

Psalm 119 is replete with phrases delighting in the law, in God’s Word, and uses, I think it’s eight Hebrew terms for God’s Word. One of the better known ones, verse 105, says “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” So it’s…God’s Word, God’s commands are not oppressive, but liberating. I was thinking about a helpful example for this. If you were lost in the jungle, and there’s all these pathways you could take, but you have no idea which way to go, and there’s one way back to camp, which is your safety. And you just didn’t know how to get there, and somebody dropped a map down for you which showed you exactly where to go…and there’s only one way to get back to camp, right?

 

Ken Magnuson (13:52):

Every other way is perilous for different reasons. But you wouldn’t look at that map and say—”Well, this is oppressive, somebody’s trying to say I have to go this way.” Right? No, it’d be liberating to know—this is revealed to me. I’m told where to go. This is incredible, you know? So we reject God’s commands at our own peril. And we can say a number of other things, but I’ll just mention the idea of virtue, because this is so important. Christian ethics is concerned with character, as it conforms to and is grounded in the character of God, as revealed in Scripture and seen clearly in the person of Jesus. So we are to be just because God is just, we are to love because God is love and he loves, and we are to be faithful and true and compassionate and merciful because God is all of these things. And God calls us to be holy because he is holy. So you can see aspects of deontology, or things having to do with commands and principles. You see teleology—order and purpose. And you see virtue in the biblical picture. And they all fit together. I would just say last, that if these things are not grounded in God and his Word, they become subjective very easily.

 

Brian Arnold (15:16):

Well, I think a lot of people are looking for some profound way, besides—know your Bible. To know your Bible is to know God. And so when issues come up, and you know the heartbeat of God, you know how to respond to those in a biblical way. You know, one of the things that doesn’t seem to be as popular anymore is imitation. I think about, you know, the Apostle Paul saying, “follow me as I follow Christ.” I mean, if we actually look like Jesus, then we are going to be virtuous people who do ethically right things, because we’re grounded in Scripture. And I see so many people in Christian ministry these days saying—”oh, don’t look at me, don’t look at my example, don’t follow me.” And that’s not really the biblical model. We should be seeing people displaying biblical wisdom and virtue in a way that beckons people to follow after them. So one of the things you even say in your book is—the failure to make disciples and, yes, to teach ethics, is something of the great omission of the church. And so we we don’t have a lot of pastors and churches helping people build that solid foundation, and then address the ethical issues as they arrive from a biblical standpoint. Why do you think that is? You’ve been in the seminary world for 20 years. Why aren’t churches and pastors teaching through this more?

 

Ken Magnuson (16:37):

You know, I think it’s hard to pin down for me. I’ve talked to a lot of people about it, and I think there’s a lot of different reasons. And the reason I say something about it being an omission, is because right there in the Great Commission, which a lot of Christians emphasize, it’s not just making converts, but making disciples. And Jesus explains what that means. And chief among his…you know, what follows is—”teaching them to obey all things that I have commanded.” And I think, you know, in some cases, it’s just a fear of adding something to the gospel. Or it’s a fear of being legalistic. And I’ve talked to people through the years who come from a background that just feels very legalistic. And, by the way, I think in some cases, I don’t think it was quite that it was legalistic, so much as there were just really unpleasant people telling them what to do, you know? And not grounding that in Scripture.

 

Ken Magnuson (17:46):

But rather just in, you know, being bossy or, you know, that sort of thing, I don’t mean to minimize the fact that there is genuine legalism out there. And that’s…I think that’s one of the things that turns people away. Another thing is just, as you mentioned, I think there’s a…I guess I would call it something of a false humility in the issue of imitation, right? You know—”don’t follow me, look to Jesus” kind of thing. Well, that may be some form of humility, but it may also be a little bit of escaping our responsibility to seek to model how we ought to live faithfully before the Lord.

 

Brian Arnold (18:30):

It is an unfortunate pendulum swing that we’re seeing on the legalism piece, of, you know, people growing up in churches that they felt were legalistic. Didn’t understand why the commands of God are good for us—I loved your illustration—and are now in this almost what we call antinomianism, right? Like against the law. It’s all grace, grace, grace. And so there’s no tie to the ethical pieces, because that would be to lead people to legalism. And so there’s a lot of confusion in the church today about these things. I would maybe add even just one more. And that is, I think a lot of pastors are concerned about being too political. They associate a lot of the ethical issues with American politics, and then don’t say anything. Or some churches, that’s all they do. Right? And pastors are having a hard time, I think, wading through—what should they tell a congregation on marijuana? In fact, as big of an issue as that’s been in Arizona, I’ve almost never heard that from a pulpit at a church. You know, we’ve got major Supreme court cases happening on the issue of life. I don’t hear that being talked about in churches. And maybe it was just my experience, but, you know, how would you encourage pastors who might be listening how to address these issues, even from the pulpit, that they might feel like are too political, but really are just ethical issues?

 

Ken Magnuson (19:42):

Yeah. I think it’s important to frame them, first of all, that Scripture has something to say about how we live our lives, and that the pastor isn’t looking to control people, or something like that, but rather to work through what Scripture teaches us about something like marijuana. Or about gambling. You know, gambling’s becoming very widespread. And, you know, I’m afraid a lot of Christians are engaging, right? And, you know, does Scripture have something to say about that? And, you know, one of the things I would add, in terms of people’s fear, is that at least I’ve noticed in talking with people, in maybe challenging some kind of behavior, it quickly turns to—”you’re judgmental.” Right? And so that takes it out of working through—what does Scripture teach us about how we should live, into—you are telling me to do this, and you are not even a good example. Or, you know, that kind of thing. Every challenge to behavior is put in terms of being judgemental and hypocritical.

 

Brian Arnold (21:04):

Yeah. And at some point we’re just going to say—this is what God has declared. And even though we fall short of these things, we still know that these are good, right, holy, and true.

 

Ken Magnuson (21:14):

Yeah. And let’s walk together in this, right?

 

Brian Arnold (21:16):

That’s right. That’s right. Okay, Dr. Magnuson, so in addition to your book, which I found very helpful—Invitation to Christian Ethics—what is maybe one or two other resources you would point for somebody? Maybe a really introductory kind of volume, and maybe one that’s a bit more advanced?

 

Ken Magnuson (21:38):

Yeah, sure. So kind of introductory, really quick give a couple examples—Scott Rae, his book Moral Choices is very good. John Jefferson Davis’ book Evangelical Ethics. And for kind of a encyclopedic on biblical ethics, Wayne Grudem’s book on Christian ethics is excellent just for having so much there. For really advanced, for doing a deep dive, I highly recommend—this is like almost doctoral kind of level—I highly recommend Oliver O Donovan’s work, either Resurrection and Moral Order, or his three-volume Ethics as Theology. It’s richly rewarding to dive deep into that.

 

Brian Arnold (22:26):

That’s a great set of resources you’ve given. I would highly recommend those to our listeners as well. Well, it’s really clear that the world is losing any foundation for ethics. And we see that in the way that things are falling apart in those illustrations I used at the beginning. But we have the foundation, and we have objective truth. We have God’s word. And as you said, Dr. Magnuson, it’s the map. And I hope we can find it, to use it to find the path again. So thank you so much for laying that out for us, and reminding us of the truth that we have. And the ethics that we have. And that they’re good.

 

Ken Magnuson (22:59):

Thank you, Brian.

 

Outro (23:00):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

 

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