Metaethics is a branch of philosophy that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Here are some of the main questions addressed in metaethics from a biblical perspective:
The Meaning of Ethical Terms
What do words like “good,” “right,” “ought,” and “virtue” actually mean? Are they purely descriptive terms or do they express some kind of objective moral value or duty? According to the Bible, words like good and right do have objective meaning based on God’s unchanging moral character and commands. Passages like Matthew 19:17 explain that there is only one who is truly “good” – God himself. His laws and decrees reflect his perfectly holy nature.
Moral Objectivism vs Subjectivism
Are moral claims universal truths that apply to all people, or are they merely personal opinions or preferences? The Bible presents God’s moral commands as universal obligations for all people in all cultures. For example, prohibitions against murder, theft, and lying are not restricted to certain nationalities or eras in history. Moral subjectivism is ruled out.
Moral relativists claim ethics vary between societies and that no universal ethical standards exist. But the Bible upholds objective moral values rooted in God’s nature that apply to all humanity. Relativism is rejected since God’s standards do not change based on cultural fads.
Divine Command Theory
Are morally good actions good simply because God declares them to be so, or is there an independent standard of goodness that precedes God’s commands? The Bible affirms that God himself is the standard of moral goodness. His commands flow necessarily from his holy character. He does not arbitrarily declare certain actions to be right or wrong.
Moral Realism vs Anti-realism
Moral realists believe that moral facts exist independently of people’s beliefs or feelings about those facts. Anti-realists argue moral claims do not refer to real objective facts. Biblically, morality is not based on human intuition or emotion but is grounded in the fixed moral character and commandments of God. Moral values exist objectively whether or not people recognize them.
Moral Cognitivism vs Non-cognitivism
Cognitivists think moral statements express propositions that can be true or false. Non-cognitivists believe moral statements only express personal attitudes, not facts open to debate. The Bible presents morality as objective divine revelation, not merely subjective human emotion. Moral claims do convey real knowledge that can be rationally understood and discussed.
This view claims moral truths can be reduced to scientific facts about the natural world. Biblically, morality originates from the transcendent holy character of God, not merely material processes. Though some general moral precepts may be evident from nature (Rom 1:20), full ethical knowledge depends on special revelation.
Intuitionists contend that fundamental moral truths are known intuitively and cannot be supported by logical arguments alone. But the Bible does use logical reasoning to derive moral guidance. God’s word, not mere intuition, is the ultimate moral standard. Scripture engages the mind, not just the heart (Luke 10:27).
Emotivism proposes that moral utterances are neither true nor false but merely express personal attitudes and emotions. Yet according to the Bible, morality is not simply a matter of subjective taste. Moral claims can be meaningfully discussed and analyzed for objective rightness or wrongness based on scriptural teachings.
Prescriptivists argue that moral statements function primarily to issue commands, not state facts. But biblical ethics encompasses both descriptive moral truths grounded in God’s nature and prescriptive commands that follow from those truths. Morality includes both “is” and “ought” statements, interdependent aspects of one divine reality.
Skeptics assert that objective moral knowledge is impossible. But the Bible provides sure moral guidance grounded in the revealed truth of God’s authoritative word (2 Tim 3:16). Absolute moral truths exist and can be known rationally through divine revelation.
The Naturalistic Fallacy
This fallacy involves attempting to derive moral oughts exclusively from natural is statements without any reference to God. Biblically, natural facts alone cannot establish moral duties – only the revelation of God’s will can. While general morality may be evident from nature, full ethical knowledge depends on God’s spoken commands.
The Open Question Argument
This argument claims moral concepts cannot be reduced to any natural properties. The Bible affirms morality ultimately originates from God’s supernatural, not natural, attributes. No amount of empirical data can determine how humans ought to act without reference to God’s holy character as revealed in Scripture.
This view contends that moral properties are non-natural, supernatural realities that cannot be fully accessed through empirical science alone. Scripture presents morality as originating from the divine nature of God, not simply material sensations. Moral truths are spiritual realities that transcend the physical world.
Utilitarians think morality should aim to maximize happiness and minimize suffering for the greatest number. But in Scripture, right and wrong are not determined by outcomes alone. Actions must align with God’s moral decrees, even if that does not produce the most happiness. Obedience to divine command is the moral priority.
Deontologists judge morality by motives and adherence to duty, not results. Biblically, both motives and outcomes matter in ethics. Virtuous character and obedience to God’s commands are essential, regardless of situational outcomes. But good intentions alone do not justify actions that oppose God’s moral precepts.
This emphasizes forming virtuous moral character over keeping rules. Scripture commends developing Christlike virtues through the Spirit, but also stresses obeying God’s commands. Virtue cannot be severed from obedience to divine moral laws. The two must go hand in hand, according to texts like Romans 8:4.
Particularists believe morality must be determined case-by-case based on situational details, not fixed universal principles. But biblical ethics is grounded in the changeless nature and decrees of God, which generate moral duties that transcend circumstances. God’s commands apply universally, though their outworking may vary.
Moral Error Theory
This view claims all moral claims are inherently erroneous and untrue. Scripture affirms that God’s word contains no falsehood and presents an objectively true moral framework originating from God’s flawless moral character. Sound moral guidance can be known definitively through God’s inerrant revelation.
Fictionalists argue that ethics is like a useful fiction which need not reflect any moral reality. Yet biblical metaethics grounds morality in the actual holy attributes and divine commandments of the real, living God, not imaginary constructions. God’s moral will is no fiction.
The Is-Ought Problem
This issue concerns deriving moral obligations solely from physical states of affairs. Scripture teaches that moral duties depend on the authoritative commands of a transcendent, personal God, not just material circumstances. God’s moral will and words bridge the is-ought divide.
What motivates moral actions? Biblically, awe for God’s glory and desire for eternal fellowship with him should drive holiness (1 Peter 1:14-16), along with love and gratitude for Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf (1 John 4:19). Moral actions are spiritually, not just physically, motivated.
How can we know what is moral? The Bible teaches we can access objective moral knowledge through God’s verbal revelation in Scripture mediated by the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:14-16). Ethics is revealed wisdom, not human discovery.
What is the meaning of ethical language? In the Bible, moral terms find their origin and definition in the holy attributes of God expressed through his commands and modeled by Christ. Moral language points to divinely revealed truths, not merely human custom.
Freedom and Determinism
Are humans morally responsible agents with free will or causally determined beings? Scripture teaches that while God ordains all things, humans remain morally responsible creatures able to make real choices, for which they are held accountable before God (Luke 12:48; Rom 2:6).
Conscience and Moral Judgments
The conscience is an inner faculty that judges moral actions. Scripture warns it can be weakened or distorted by sin. Though useful, the conscience must be informed by God’s moral revelation to function properly (1 Tim 4:2; Rom 2:14-15). A depraved conscience produces errant judgments.
Moral Progress and Regress
Views differ on whether moral progress is possible. Biblically, ethical knowledge progresses through fuller understanding of Scripture. Yet application wavers between periods of revival and decay. Ultimately, full righteousness awaits Christ’s return. God’s word, not culture, determines moral truths.
In summary, metaethics from a Christian perspective recognizes morality is grounded in the authoritative, objective revelation of God in Scripture. God’s holy nature and commands establish fixed moral truths that transcend changing human cultures and philosophies. Absolute moral knowledge is possible through God’s inerrant word.