The essays are a considered effort to probe the Reformed heritage and find fresh theological language with which to move beyond the poles that divide us.
The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a sleeper. People on the street readily agree, the Golden Rule is the way to live–to get along with other people, be successful, be happy. Since the Golden Rule is found in all major religions throughout history, people often say it is the single truth of moral life to which all religions can be reduced, stripped of their rituals and doctrines. If we just live by the Golden Rule, everything else will take care of itself.
There is a problem, however.
The Golden Rule can be taken negatively as well as positively, as the variations say: “do to others before they do to you,” or “those who get the gold rule.” What we want others to do to us may be affected by false expectations and our actual experiences of life, but the effect is the same. If we see ourselves as victims, as worthless, as damaged, or as tools to be exploited, people will probably treat us as such. If the experience reinforces our low expectations, and theirs, the cycle will repeat itself. Thus a vicious circle of mutually destructive attitudes and reinforcing behavior actually can confirm the Golden Rule negatively. Recognizing its negative possibilities, theologians as far apart as fundamentalist J. Gresham Machen and liberal Paul Tillich simply dismiss the Rule. In the negative (= pure take), the Golden Rule can make a person cynical about other people, morality, the institutions of society, and life in general.
The positive side of the Golden Rule is easily derailed as a platitude. For Christians, however, the Golden Rule requires Jesus Christ and living together in Christ. The following essay makes this point first with Jesus in Luke 6, second with Paul in Ephesians 5, and third with John Locke in The Second Treatise of Government (1689), which brings us into modern times.
1. Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, Luke 6:17-46. This passage probes the positive side of the Golden Rule. Verse 31 states the Golden Rule in the form, “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” Jesus sets the tone of the Rule with an amazing string of examples (22-30): love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, turn the other cheek, give your coat as well as your cloak, give to everyone who begs from you, etc.
Then come the questions (32-35). What credit is it to you merely to love those who love you, do good to those who do good to you, or lend to those from whom you expect to receive as much again? “Even sinners do that,” says Jesus. These are intentional interactions: love for love, good for good, money for money, etc., confirming what we learned as children on the playground: life is a rough-and-tumble (= give and take) experience with the world and other people. We know we have to give something to get anything back, but we expect to get something back for what we give. With a keen sense of self-awareness, we tally what, in all fairness, we earn or deserve, and what cost-benefits or rewards-punishments we can expect from interacting with others.
Jesus springs the clincher in verse 35 and following: do all these things (love, do good, lend) expecting nothing in return. At this level (= pure give) the calculation of fairness is broken. On the one hand we give of ourselves expecting nothing from other people. On the other hand God guarantees we will get a reward (“your reward will be great,” v. 35). The reward from other people, however, may be a slap on the other cheek, losing our coat, contempt from our enemies, and various degrees of presumption, ingratitude, or outright hatred. The stated reward from God is to be “sons of the most high,” i.e., children of God (35).
The obvious, immediate, head-slapping question is, “What kind of reward is that?!” Jesus is plainly standing the whole notion of reward on its head. In the Book of Job the Adversary asks God, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (Job 1:9, also 2:4f). That is, will a human serve God if there’s no clear benefit, advantage, or reward to gain from it? Will we serve God if all we get in life is suffering, oppression, injustice, poverty, sickness, pain, grief, constant struggle for survival, or loss of human dignity? In the end Job answers, “Yes,” though not lightly. For Job, fellowship with God – life as God’s children – is something we do for no higher purpose than itself, with no calculation of rewards-and-punishments or salvation-and-damnation, and with no guarantee or promise of a better, easier life. God restores Job’s fortune at the end of the story, but not as a reward, as Job 42:1-6 makes plain. Jesus makes the same point in Mark 8:34 and following.
At the pure give level the Golden Rule is above all a reflection upon God and God’s ways with a sinful humanity. For GOD is kind to the ungrateful and the evil (35d), merciful (36), forgiving (37), and giving beyond all measure (38). To live according to the Golden Rule at the pure give level is to share in God’s own, on-going, active life.
The problem is, once again, we humans cannot stop calculating, “What’s in it for me?” “What do I get out of it?” “What do I have to do to get the reward/benefit or avoid the cost/punishment?”Our behavior reverts to the give-and-take level. Even in our closest relationships we are always, however minimally, checking how things are going and what we have to do for the sake of ourselves, our cause, and our tribe. When do we ever attain the Golden Rule at the pure give level? The harder we try, the more it escapes us, staying always beyond our grasp.
Jesus, who is speaking, provides the way out of this dilemma. By the Gospel accounts, Jesus is THE Son of the Most High God (Luke 1:32, 35; 8:28). He is called Son of God/Man in all four Gospels. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus gave himself to others without counting the cost. In so doing he accomplished the Golden Rule utterly and completely at the pure give level – the only human who ever did. What Jesus secures for the rest of humanity is a participation in his accomplishment. Note well: participation in Christ is not the same as
• an incentive (= calculation of cost/benefits),
• a capacity (= restored ability to do good/keep the law out of ourselves),
• an ideal (= striving for something always just beyond our reach),
• an example (= Jesus showing us how to do what he did),
• an embodiment (= the Rule working itself out in and through us),
• a partial accomplishment (= the good part/intention/effort in place of the whole),
• a platitude (= moralistic advice anybody can do).
Participation is full fellowship with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As branches grafted into a root or as children adopted into the family (John 15), we are united with Jesus’ accomplishment of the Golden Rule at the pure give level. Participating in Christ, we fellowship with God, for Jesus is God as a human being. Within that fellowship by God’s grace, not our own efforts, we want – and vigorously seek – to live at the pure give level, because that’s where God is.
The Golden Rule pervades the entire Bible, stretching from the Old Testament to multiple authors in the New Testament. The most recognizable form is,
(a) “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31, Matthew 7:12), but that’s only one form of the Rule in the Bible. Another form is,
(b) “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which summarizes the Old Testament law (Lev. 19:18/Matt. 22:39 & 19:19 and synoptic gospel parallels; Romans 13:9/Gal. 5:14; and James 2:8). A third, distinctively Johannine form of the Rule is:
(c) “love one another” (John 13:34f; 15:17; I John 2:5f; 3:11, 23; 4:7, 10f, 12, 21. See also I Thess. 4:9 and I Peter 1:22, 3:11, 4:8). When phrased, “love one another as I [Jesus] have loved you” (John 13:34, 15:12), this form pegs the Golden Rule to the pure give level in and with Christ.#1
2. The Golden Rule produces a particular kind of community. At the pure give level, every member gives respect to every other person – whether earned, deserved, or not – and contributes to the well being of his/her neighbors, without counting the cost, like the Samaritan toward the man who fell among thieves in the parable (Luke 10:25-37). When “I” do not have to guard “my” backside alone – because others are doing it, too – “I” am free from self-concern to maximize “my” own efforts for both “myself” and others. The collaboration among people is extraordinary. The increase in freedom, creative effort, and productivity for all members of the community is enormous. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes such a community eloquently in Chapter XXVI, “Of the Communion of the Saints.”
The same kind of community shows up in Ephesians 5:21-33. With echoes of “love one another,” the passage begins, “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (21). Then come two forms of the Golden Rule. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (25, 29) matches the Johannine, “love one another as I have loved you.” “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (28, 33) matches “love your neighbor as yourself.” What does it mean, however, for one person to submit to a boundless, self-giving love practiced by another? The unrestrained, self-giving of each to the other explodes from within any notion of a calculating give-and-take or an authoritarian subjugation of one person to the other. Notice that the community here takes place entirely within the framework of belonging to Christ (“out of reverence for Christ,” “as to the Lord,” “as Christ loved the Church”), in whom alone the Golden Rule is accomplished.
3. John Locke (1632-1704) envisions civil society at the pure give level in his Second Treatise of Government (1689).#2 He was a lay Reformed theologian who grew up while the Westminster Assembly was meeting in England (1643-49). The Second Treatise (ST) was foundational for the American Declaration of Independence (1776), Constitution (1687), Bill of Rights (1791), and the prevailing structures of government and economics in the world today. Civil society, Locke says, is based on the rule of charity, the second form of the Golden Rule (ST §5): “Everyone” is bound “to preserve the rest of mankind … as he is bound to preserve himself” (ST §6). A state of war that pits everyone against everyone else (pure take, ST §§16-24) is unacceptable, he says. A state of nature, which puts all people on their own without social obligations or government or a higher authority that can resolve disputes (give-and-take, ST §§ 4-15), is inherently unstable. Civil society overcomes these defects when it becomes the guarantor of every member’s life, liberty, and property (ST §§77-122 and passim = pure give). Society thus protects its citizens against would-be oppressors (vs. the state of war) and provides a floor on which every member can stand and flourish, a floor below which no member of civil society is allowed to sink (vs. the state of nature).
Locke understood that civil society could approximate but never fully achieve the radical possibilities envisioned by the pure give level of the Golden Rule. For Locke the Christian religion, centered in Jesus Christ, is an essential companion to civil society. Further, Locke saw plainly how
• radical individualism pits everyone against everyone else, pushing civil society back toward a state of war;
• laissez-faire policies by government push society toward a state of rights without rules, where eventually might makes right; and
• government is no substitute for the mutual interaction among citizens in civil society. Modern attempts to make that substitution have failed: monarchism in the 17th-19th centuries, socialism and communism in the 18th-20th centuries.
The world today faces massive population numbers, huge corporations, staggering sums of money capital, life-altering innovations in technology, and raw political-economic-military power concentrated in mammoth nation-states. The sheer scale of things boggles the mind, threatening to swamp the Golden Rule at the pure give level and undermine any society based on it. For Christians, nonetheless, the Golden Rule remains a vision by which they can penetrate the realities of modern life, create an authentic human community, and live intentionally under God.
The foregoing shows several things. First, the Golden Rule cannot reach its full depth without Jesus Christ. The religious dimension is indispensable. The Rule does not function well as a self-standing principle of morality. Second, it goes to the heart of what it means to be Christian, living at the pure give level in fellowship with Jesus Christ (Emmanuel, God with us), with one another, and with all humans. Third, through John Locke and others, the Golden Rule has shaped our socio-political-economic world over the last 400 years.3#
The Golden Rule, further, applies directly to the Church as a community of Christians. Maybe recovering its vision can break the current, vicious circle of low expectations and destructive behavior in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
One more thing: in the New Testament the Golden Rule rarely appears without a companion, Leviticus 18:5. But that will have to wait for another essay.
Merwyn S. Johnson currently is professor of historical and systematic theology emeritus at Erskine Theological Seminary, Due West, S.C., and visiting professor of theology at Union-PSCE in Charlotte, N.C.
1The Bible recognizes the negative side, too, as a special case of the Rule at the pure take level, namely, as
•“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Gen. 4:12-15; Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:19, Deut. 19:21, +);
• as part of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt 5:12, explained further in 14f); and
• in the implied threat, “whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Gal. 6:7+Gal. 5:16-25. See also Matt.16:27, Romans 2:6-11+).
#2For further details, see Merwyn S. Johnson, Locke On Freedom (Austin, 1978).
#3This point can be expanded. Beginning at least with the Corpus Juris Civilis (notably the Institutiones) of Justinian, ca. 530, the Golden Rule was widely perceived in the West as part of the law of nature. The same perception ran through the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation, and the beginnings of the scientific-industrial age in the 17th-18th centuries. Curiously, after Kant’s categorical imperative, ca. 1800, the Golden Rule disappears from direct consideration except as an unexplored moral principle or platitude, found with slight variations in all world religions and moral philosophies. Indirectly, however, the equivalencies established by the Rule at all levels have clear implications for modern mathematics (the equals sign in algebra+), commerce (mutual exchange of labor, goods, and capital), the rule of law (the regulation of social interactions), civil society (fair provision for all people), religion (interactions with God and one another), and even science (interaction between cause and effect, as in the 3rd law of thermodynamics; interaction between matter and energy, as in the theory of relativity, E = mc ?).