A John Frame Sighting!

Why do I think John Frame’s triperspectivalism is so important? Because it provides what I take to be scriptural (or at least scripturally-consistent) lenses; and when I look through those lenses I see with greater clarity.

It happens all the time. It just happened, in fact, as I read a 1998 Amazon review of a book called Ethics After Babel. The reviewer appears to be, like his one companion on the small list of reviews, a college ethics professor who used or evaluated the book for class. He clearly talks the lingo of his field.

One of the most interesting things Stout does with [Alasdair] MacIntyre[‘s After Virtue] is to apply M[acintyre]’s virtue ethic[s] concepts (tradition, practice internal goods, etc.) to medical ethics. Since virtue ethics is unquestionably one of the most promising strands of contemporary moral philosophy, and because applied ethics have been dominated by Consequentialists and Kantians to this point, Stout’s suggestions here cannot be but intriguing.

The reviewer mentions precisely three—aha!—major strands of contemporary moral philosophy, three different major ways that philosophers arrive at moral judgments, three different ways they answer the question of right and wrong. And those three just happen to be the very three Frame uses as emblematic of all philosophy in his Doctrine of the Christian Life:

  1. consequentialist ethics,
  2. Kantian (or categorical) ethics,
  3. and virtue ethics.

In Frame’s terms, those are (respectively)

  1. teleological approaches to ethics,
  2. deontological approaches,
  3. and existential approaches.

I’ve probably done wrong to put the “layman’s terms” at the end, but speaking simply is one of Frame’s great strengths as a theological writer. I’ll let him explain these principles (three other technical terms in his thought will show up: control, authority, and presence—but they’ll make sense in context).

1. The Teleological Principle:

A good act maximizes the happiness of living creatures.

That is to say, a good act does good. Christians emphasize that it is good for God, bringing him glory. But Scripture tells us that what brings glory to God brings good to his people: “And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day” (Deut. 6:24; cf. 10:13). Non-Christian ethical writers like Aristotle have also emphasized that doing good brings happiness, however that may be defined. The ethical life is the good life, the blessed life (Ps. 1; Matt. 5:1-11). And of course to live ethically is also to bring blessing to others.

In Christian ethics, this insight is based on God’s lordship attribute of control. For it is God who arranges nature and history so that good acts have beneficial consequences to himself, to the ethical agent, and to other persons.

I call this principle the principle of teleology, for it declares that all our behavior should be goal-oriented [should seek a telos], that it should seek the glory of God and the happiness of people.

2. The Deontological Principle:

A good act is a response to duty, even at the price of self-sacrifice.

We admire people who follow their ethical principles even at great cost to themselves. In the Bible, Abraham obeyed God’s word, even though it meant leaving his home country and moving to a place where he was a complete stranger to everybody, and even though it meant taking his son Isaac up to a mountain to serve as a human sacrifice (Gen. 22:1-19). To do his Father’s will, the Lord Jesus gave his very life.

So, God defines duties for us, absolute norms that take precedence over any other consideration. Our duty is what we must do, what we ought to do. So they are necessary. And they are universal, for they apply to everyone. If it is wrong for me to steal, then it is wrong for you to steal in the same situation. Ethics is no respecter of persons.

This insight is based on God’s lordship attribute of authority. For the ultimate source of human duties is God’s authoritative word. Some secular thinkers, such as Plato and Kant, also acknowledged the important of duty. But as we shall see, they had a difficult time determining where our duties are to be found, and what our duties actually are.

I call this principle the principle of deontology, from the Greek verb translated “owe, ought, or must.” It states that ethics is a matter of duty, of obligation.

3. The Existential Principle:

A good act comes from a good inner character.

A good person is not a hypocrite. He does good works because he loves to do them, because his heart is good. Scripture emphasizes that the only righteousness that is worth anything is a righteousness of the heart. The Pharisees cleansed the outside of their cup, their outward acts, but not the inside, their heart-motives (Matt. 23:25). Non-Christian writers, such as Aristotle, have also frequently emphasized the importance of character, of virtue, of inner righteousness. But as we shall see they have not succeeded in showing what constitutes virtue or how such virtue may be attained.

This insight is based on God’s lordship attribute of presence, for it is God “who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12). Without inward regeneration and sanctification, our best works are hypocritical.

I call this the existential principle, for it says that morality is personal, inward, a matter of the heart.

The strength of Christian ethics is that it successfully puts together all three approaches in a harmony. Read Frame and you’ll see.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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