Overall, Murray’s volume on the biblical ethic is a classic text within the Reformed moral and ethical tradition for good reason. While he doesn’t address every particular issue of Christian ethics, he lays a solid foundation, grounded in God’s unchanging word and a deep knowledge of the Scriptures unlike many modern treatments of Christian ethics which tend to be organized around issues but lack an in-depth exposition of the Scriptures themselves. He does not simply apply Scripture to ethical debates but rather walks through the text showing their ethical value and calling upon God’s people to pursue a life of godliness.
The study of Christian ethics is an underdeveloped area within the evangelical tradition, as many of the resources on biblical ethics come from the Roman Catholic moral tradition. While this is an area that has seen a recent surge of interest in the last few decades, there are several older works that the church would do well to pick up and read with a discerning mind. One of these volumes, written in the 1950s, is Principles of Conduct by theologian John Murray.
It may seem odd to look back at a past work on biblical ethics given the rapidly shifting culture all around the church today. But many of these works are not only prescient in their insights but remind today’s believers that the core of the Christian moral tradition remains unchanged from generation to generation. This is because the biblical witness and the metaphysical realities do not fluctuate with the passing winds of society.
John Murray spent nearly his entire teaching career at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he taught systematic theology from 1930 to 1966. He began his teaching career at Princeton Theological Seminary, studying under J. Gresham Machen and Geerhardus Vos. He left Princeton after one year to help found Westminster Seminary. He is the author of numerous works, including Redemption: Accomplished and Applied and an exposition of Romans in the New International Commentary on the New Testament.
Although the present volume is one of his only primary works on ethics, originally delivered as the 1955 Payton Lectures at Fuller Theological Seminary, Murray serves as a seasoned and experienced model of Christian ethics, offering readers a robust biblical ethic that is refreshingly grounded in God’s Word and focused on the “goodness, purity, and holiness” that flows from a life lived in pursuit of godliness (11).
The Biblical Ethic
Murray’s work is primarily organized around the creation ordinances of marriage (the sexual union) and labor before shifting to the sanctity of life (focusing primarily on the death penalty, warfare, and seeking justice as a society) and truth-telling (lying, social order, and Jesus as the Truth). These topics are followed by chapters on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the relationship of law and grace, and the dynamic of the biblical ethic and the fear of God. The 1957 volume also contains four appendices on various scriptural questions and two essays on slavery in the Presbyterian Church in the USA and antinomianism.
One of the most striking features of the book comes at the outset. The subtitle of the book is Aspect of Biblical Ethics. But almost immediately, Murray states that his goal is “to show the basic unity and continuity of the biblical ethic” (7, emphasis mine). This shift from the plural to the singular biblical ethic is strategic because he is focused on showing readers that there is a single ethic that arises from the biblical text, not multiple truths or conflicting accounts. This ethic not only considers the individual, but he states that there is a “corporate responsibility and there is corporate action” (13). This action flows from Scripture, which does not solely focus on the individual’s heart or relationship with God, but also on the corporate nature of the church and society.
This work was heavily influenced by Geerhardus Vos and the biblical theology movement. Vos’ 1954 work, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, significantly shaped Murray, as well as his approach to ethics. His stated goal is to apply the biblico-theological methods to the ethic of Scripture (7). Murray agrees with Vos that biblical theology is the “process of self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.” Vos is highlighted throughout the volume as Murray dissects various themes and passages in Scripture, building this biblical ethic. For Murray, the Bible has an organic unity of divine revelation “of which the Bible itself is the depository” (9). The sum of this revelation is found in the greatest commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.