You Can’t Have Ethics Without Stories

That’s how ethics works. It’s not simply that we are given a list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” and we comply, or that we are convinced of all of the positive and negative consequences of our actions, and we are persuaded.

The Ten Commandments don’t work that way. This code of objective morality begins with “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). The Sermon on the Mount, likewise, comes in the context of Jesus’ announcement of himself as the fulfillment of Israel’s story, the year of Jubilee in the flesh. Likewise, the moral admonitions of the New Testament epistles are situated within the story of the gospel, a story personalized in the constantly repeated testimony of the Apostle Paul.

As Nienhuis puts it, “The faith-forming narrative of Scripture provides us with a plotline within which we may orient our own lives today.”

We need abstract commands. “Love the stranger.” But those abstract commands come to us in the context of a story about ourselves and about the universe. “Love the stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We tell ourselves stories to justify our actions, and often we convince ourselves of false stories. We can even lull our consciences by repeating these false stories. We become like Christ by following his commands by the power of the Spirit, yes, but, beyond that, by joining ourselves to his life, to his story, as branches to a vine.

Some seem to believe that the times are so perilous that we should boil down the biblical witness to what’s absolutely necessary: the fundamental doctrines and the lists of biblical principles on how to obey God and how to make it in life. Why would we, with the stakes so high and the time so limited, teach people the difference between Melchizedek and Jehoiakim? If we bypass the story, though, we bypass the core of the person. More importantly, we bypass the way God speaks to us. And that, the Word of God, is what can sanctify, can make us holy.

We can’t have ethics or morality or justice without stories, without the Story.

This article originally appeared here.

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Russell Moore
Dr. Moore is the Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as a preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church, where he ministers weekly at the congregation’s Fegenbush location. Moore is the author of several books, including "The Kingdom of Christ," "Adopted for Life," and "Tempted and Tried."