John Frame’s Doctrine of the Christian Life is a very helpful book, perhaps a better introduction to his (so-far) trilogy than the one that came out first, the Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Leastways, as Bilbo might say, I found it easier!
Frame argues that non-Christian ethicists fall into three camps, three ways of deriving an ethical “ought” from an empirical “is,” the things they see and experience. The best of them inhabit all three camps, but all tend to privilege one over the others:
- The Teological Principle: A good act maximizes the happiness of living creatures.
- The Deontological Principle: A good act is a response to duty, even at the price of self-sacrifice.
- The Existential Principle: A good act comes from a good inner character.
Christian ethics employs all three principles in a pleasing balance.
I admit it: for years I have been tending to privilege the first principle, though the third was not far behind it in my thinking. The second I acknowledged and had a place for, but I have in the past overreacted to those who stress it.
The biblically conservative circles in which I have grown up and still travel emphasize the second principle, that of duty, as highest—reflecting their (our!) commitment to the normative value of the Word. But that Word teaches that morally good acts come only from right internal motivations (principle 3, the existential; see 1 Cor 13:1-3). Sometimes that is forgotten.
And I fear that we Protestant evangelical fundamentalists have almost entirely neglected the first principle, at least in our formal theology. I believe we sever the key motive power of sanctification when we tell people not to consider their own happiness, when we define love as mere self-sacrifice. Perhaps I’m overreaching with “key,” but I think not.