“Introduction” to BIBLICAL ETHICS: An Exegetical Approach to the Morality of Happiness

IDEAS have consequences. For example, the invention and devastation of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II, started with an idea of atomic fission. Likewise, beliefs have consequences. For example, the Columbine school massacre on April 20, 1999, the 110th anniversary of Adolph Hitler’s birthday, was in part the result of one of the shooter’s (Eric Harris’) nihilism with its four-fold beliefs: (1) life is meaningless;[1] (2) morality does not exist;[2] (3) reality does not exist;[3] and (4) the belief that nothing can be known.[4] What we believe about life, morality, reality, and how we come to learn about life, morality, and reality affects how we live our lives.[5]

In this book, I focus on a view of morality that best explains people’s pervasive pursuit of happiness, the positive “consequences” involved, and why so few people find true happiness. “All men seek happiness,” says Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). “This is without exception.”[6] Pascal is unequivocally correct. Whether one is religious or non-religious, it makes no difference. The ultimate reason why we, say, spend time in the yard gardening, or “break bread” with friends and family, or even worship God is because we enjoy it. We instinctively care for our wellbeing and that is the way God created us to function. We are designed not only with an intrinsic motivation for survival, but also for flourishing. It begs the question, however, as to how we flourish. And it is at this point that the religious and the non-religious differ, generally speaking.

For the majority of church history, most Judeo-Christians believed that the only way humanity can be truly happy is by living according to God’s objective moral standard found in scripture. Conversely, for most secular humanists, happiness is living according to their own subjective moral beliefs (moral subjectivism) or the subjective moral beliefs of the culture (cultural relativism).[7] But the motivation for why we all do what we do is the same—the pursuit of happiness. Listen to Christian revivalist, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758): “[Jesus] knew that all mankind were in the pursuit of happiness, he has directed them in the true way to it, and he tells them what they must become in order to be blessed and happy.”[8] As a devout reformed minister, Edwards believed deeply in the doctrine of justification—the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross to make us righteous before a holy God. But what he emphasizes here is the true motivation for what is known as the doctrine of sanctification—being holy and thus happy by becoming more like Christ.[9] Christian theologian and apologist, Edward John Carnell (1919-1967) speaks boldly about self-interest being the motivation for why we do what we do: “The Christian ethic, let us remember, is premised on the self’s love for the self. Nothing motivates us unless it appeals to our interests.”[10] For example, when we love others we are demonstrating that we love ourselves because we are all part of the same spiritual body (of Christ), which is meant to function well. And anyone who is part of something larger than himself wants to see it flourish. Joseph Butler (1692-1752), another prominent Christian theologian and apologist, demonstrates convincingly in his first sermon of fifteen preached at Rolls Chapel, London, that our motivation to, what he calls, our “private good”—our own preservation and happiness—is far from selfishness: it is self-interest, which is de facto self-love by being true to oneself and acting in submission to God. According to Butler, submitting to one’s conscience for personal fulfillment is not only compatible to promoting what he calls the “public good,” it is harmoniously complementary: private and public good “mutually promote each other.”[11] To be clear, Carnell and Butler are not prescribing that the purpose of life revolves around us always getting what we want or that we should think more highly of ourselves by putting our needs above others’; they are not reducing God to a cosmic vending machine who exists to serve our every whim. Undoubtedly, they are thinking of the Apostle Paul’s command to “not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil 2:4, NASB, emphasis added) and Jesus’ response to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39, NIV, emphasis added). Or to put it more colloquially, Randy Alcorn (1954-), theologian and prolific writer, states, “If we only think of our interests, we’re wrong. If we think of both others and ourselves, we’re right. Why should a man be a good husband? For his wife’s sake? Yes. For God’s sake? Yes. For his own sake? Yes.”[12] And the opposite is equally true: when a man is not a good husband, and, say, he commits adultery, he not only hurts his wife and God, but also his own well-being. In this sense, sin is a form of self-hatred.

Make no mistake: the starting point and ultimate end of human flourishing is for the glory of God.[13] But a salutary self-interest cannot be avoided; it is a natural “will for life” that should not be oppressed.[14] Listen to these words by modern day “church father,” Karl Barth (1886-1968): “The will for life is also the will for joy, delight and happiness…. In every real man the will for life is also the will for joy. In everything that he wills, he wills and intends also that this, too, exist for him in some form. He strives for different things with the spoken or unspoken but very definite if unconscious intention of securing for himself this joy….”[15] Unlike Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” being the driving force for everything we do, Barth sees it correctly as the “Will to Joy.” He goes on to show that anyone who rejects this “ethical truth” is a hypocrite and disobedient person: “It is hypocrisy to hide this from oneself. And the hypocrisy would be at the expense of the ethical truth that he should will to enjoy himself, just as he should will to eat, drink, sleep, be healthy, work, stand for what is right and live in fellowship with God and his neighbour. A person who tries to debar himself from joy is certainly not an obedient person.”[16]

If God created us for fellowship with himself, and God is the most supreme happy being, it certainly would be rational to conclude that we should get some kind of enjoyment out of pleasing God.[17] In Psalm 16:11, the psalter sums it up perfectly: “in Your presence is abundant joy; in Your right hand are eternal pleasures” (HCSB). So if we reject this belief for something more dutiful, then maybe Barth is correct: we are being disobedient. As we can see, beliefs have (grave) consequences.

The purpose for writing this book originated in a seminary classroom at Biola University’s graduate school program, Talbot School of Theology, in La Mirada, California, during the Spring of 2010. My History and Normative Systems of Ethics professor, David A. Horner, systematically won me over to the classical[18] approach to ethics—ethical eudaimonism, which I believe is the most biblical model. Moreover, he demonstrated that the popular deontological ethic associated with the idea of duty or responsibility in the church today is myopic and only tells part of the story. Ethical eudaimonism, which holds that human flourishing, well-being, or happiness is the highest moral good necessary for living the “good life,” makes room for both duty and desire. That got me thinking: maybe the reason why the church today has been so ineffective in both its responsibility to restore God’s creation and emulate flourishing is because it teaches and models a mistaken doctrine on the morality of happiness. What is needed then is a restoration of a proper morality of happiness to the church.

I have met countless Christians who believe that we must obey God and serve him out of a sense of duty without a modicum of desire. The consequence to this erroneous belief system is always the same—un-fulfillment. But when we obey and serve God out of a sense of duty and desire we practice and experience happiness because the purpose for which we have been designed—to glorify God via experiencing his pleasure and propagating his joy—has been satisfied or ultimately fulfilled. My inexorable conviction is that a fulfilled and satiated body of Christ would be a juggernaut in making disciples and healing a broken world.

Since my studies at Talbot, I have incessantly thought about not only the correct ethical model for the church, but also how that model fairs with the reality of suffering. My contention is that a model of happiness that does not take the problem of suffering seriously is not the correct model of happiness. In Volume II—New Testament Flourishing—I analyze the relationship between happiness and suffering in light of scripture. It is my persuasion that the proper doctrine of the morality of happiness tethered to a biblical approach to suffering can aid the church in changing the world. But first it must change the church.

I have written this book because the modern church has forgotten the role of happiness according to a biblical worldview. The bride of Christ today faintly reflects the beauty of her Hebraic birth. She has fallen asleep under the spell of deontological “duty-based” ethics, which fails to take into account God-given aspects to her humanity, such as emotions and desires. Three key Hebraic words have the hermeneutical power to transform the church back to her radiant self: אֶשֶׁר ʾesher, eh´-sher (i.e., happy, happiness), בָרַךְ bârak, baw-rak´ (i.e., bless, blessed), and שָׁלֹם shâlôm, shaw-lome´ (e.g., peace, prosperity, success, wellbeing, health, security, and salvation).

In Volume I, I discuss the LORD’s ubiquitous moral message to his people—Obey and be blessed (happy)! Here is an outline and summary of the chapters in Volume I: Old Testament Flourishing:

Chapter 1: The Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness is “Primitive”: happiness is a core human need that appeals to our basic intuition and common experience.

A Postmodern Mode of Happiness: a postmodern view of happiness has vanished the horizon of objective morality by presenting a pluralism of ethical perspectives, which made it possible to relativize right and wrong or good and evil.

A Pious Morality of Happiness: the church prides itself on piety while demoralizing pleasure; it praises duty and demonizes desire; it highlights holiness at the expense of happiness.

Chapter 2: A Proper Morality of Happiness

Defining Happiness

Happiness as General and Special Revelation: general revelation is not enough to fulfill our universal and prevailing desire for happiness. We need to be taught directly from God (i.e., special revelation) what it means to be truly happy.

Chapters 3-5: Happiness in Scripture

The proper understanding of the morality of happiness necessarily hinges on the Bible’s definition of happiness.

Chapter 3

ʾEsher

Psalm 1:1-3: happiness means to live a fruitful life.

Psalm 112:1-8: happiness is related to righteousness.

Chapter 4

Bârak

Genesis 12:1-2: happiness is lived out via obeying the Abrahamic Covenant.

Deuteronomy 28:1-6, 11-12a: happiness as blessings in every aspect of life is linked to obedience to the covenant promise.

Chapter 5

Shâlôm

Isaiah 32:14-20: happiness is the result of justice and righteousness.

Malachi 2:5-6: happiness is walking humbly with God in peace and uprightness, which inevitably turns people away from sin and towards God.

Chapter 6: Theological Happiness

Chapter 7: Happiness and The Good Life

Chapter 8: St. Augustine and St. Aquinas on Happiness

In Volume II (New Testament Flourishing), I discuss Christ’s core moral message in the Gospels called “The Beatitudes,” from the Latin, beatitudo, which can be translated as “supreme happiness” or “a condition of happiness” via divine favor.[19] So, we can say, “Happiness is at the heart of God” or, perhaps, “Happiness is the heart of God.” But what is the relationship between happiness and the ever-present problem of suffering? I demonstrate that in a world saturated with sin and suffering Jesus teaches that any one of his disciples who suffer are already happy or blessed not in spite of his or her circumstances but because of them.

In sum, Volume I takes a biblical perspective on a morality of happiness via the Old Testament. And Volume II takes a biblical perspective on a morality of happiness via the New Testament.

[1] I.e., existential nihilism.

[2] I.e., moral nihilism.

[3] I.e., ontological nihilism.

[4] I.e., epistemological nihilism.

[5] In 2012, Sunday Review Columnist for The New York Times, Ross Douthat, wrote a disturbing but accurate spread on how villains have changed, entitled, “The Way We Fear Now.” He explains how villains have changed from power-hungry dictators to lunatic nihilists: “Those older enemies—Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Mao’s China—represented a different form of evil: institutional rather than individual, strategic rather than anarchic, grasping and self-interested rather than unpredictable and nihilistic.” Undoubtedly, he is thinking of how evil has evolved from world-dominating Adolph Hitlers to “furious young men with machine guns” like Eric Harris. Ross Douthat, “The Way We Fear Now,” The New York Times, July 21, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/22/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-way-we-fear-now.html

[6] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, VII.425.

[7] For a more in-depth explanation of both types of relativism read Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, [1995] 2009), 84-85.

[8] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, [1834] 1974), 905.

[9] Similar to what I have done here via relating the doctrine of salvation (i.e., justification) and the doctrine of sanctification, which is a constituent of a morality of happiness, Ellen T. Charry in her masterful book, God and the Art of Happiness, relates the doctrine of salvation to asherism, which is a constituent of a morality of happiness: “Salvation is the healing of love that one may rest in God. Asherism works out that healing process in a life of reverent obedience to divine commands that shape character and bring moral-psychological flourishing and enhance societal well-being.” Ellen T. Charry, God and the Art of Happiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), xi.

[10] Edward John Carnell, Christian Commitment: An Apologetic (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 96-7.

[11] Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (Gloucester, UK: Dodo Press, 2009), 2.

[12] Randy Alcorn, Happiness (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2015), 347 (Emphases in the original).

[13] Pastor Rick Warren (1954-) is right: “It’s not about [us].” Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 17. But just because the purpose of life does not start or end with us does not mean that God does not use our desire for happiness to drive us to glorify him. A truly purpose driven and salutary life entails that the start and end of humanity is to glorify God by enjoying him.

[14] In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sums up the OT: “…whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them—this is the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 7:12, HCSB). This moral principle, which has come to be known as the “Golden Rule,” is redirecting us back to a healthy self-interest, which seeks the well-being of others vis-à-vis our own. For example, just as we want others to treat us justly, we treat them justly so that a “common good” is established.

[15] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark [1961] 1978), 374-5.

[16] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark [1961] 1978), 374-5. For a more thorough extrapolation on “joy” by Barth continue to read 375-85.

[17] In her essay on “Calling and Compassion: Elements of Joy in Lived Practices of Care,” Mary Clark Moschella is right to conclude that “[j]oy is right at the heart of what it means to be fully alive, and right at the tender heart of God.” Mary Clark Moschella, “Calling and Compassion: Elements of Joy in Lived Practices of Care,” in Joy and Human Flourishing: Essay on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life, eds. Miroslav Volf and Justin E. Crisp (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 126. Deepening one’s growth in the existential arena of joy and its relation to human flourishing is the strength of Moschella’s essay. However, I take issue with her assessment of happiness, which seems to lack both a moral and spiritual component.

[18] The term “classical” here refers to ancient and medieval thought up to the late Middle Ages.

[19] The Beatitudes can be found in two of the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew (5:3-12) and Luke (6:20-26).

Chester Delagneau


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