Christian Ethics

Christian ethics, also known as moral theology, is a multi-faceted ethical system: it is a virtue ethic which focuses on building moral character, and a deontological ethic which emphasizes duty. It also incorporates natural law ethics, which is built on the belief that it is the very nature of humans – created in the image of God and capable of morality, cooperation, rationality, discernment and so on – that informs how life should be lived, and that awareness of sin does not require special revelation. Other aspects of Christian ethics, represented by movements such as the social Gospel and liberation theology, may be combined into a fourth area sometimes called prophetic ethics.

Christian ethics derives its metaphysical core from the Bible, seeing God as the ultimate source of all power. Evidential, Reformed and volitional epistemology are the three most common forms of Christian epistemology. The variety of ethical perspectives in the Bible has led to repeated disagreement over defining the basic Christian ethical principles, with at least seven major principles undergoing perennial debate and reinterpretation. Christian ethicists use reason, philosophy, natural law, the social sciences, and the Bible to formulate modern interpretations of those principles; Christian ethics applies to all areas of personal and societal ethics.

Originating in early Christianity from c. 27 to 325 AD, Christian ethics continued to develop during the Middle Ages, when the rediscovery of Aristotle led to scholasticism and the writings of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). The Reformation of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the subsequent counter-Reformation, and Christian humanism heavily impacted Christian ethics, particularly its political and economic teachings. A branch of Christian theology for most of its history, Christian ethics separated from theology during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For most scholars of the twenty-first century, Christian ethics fits in a niche between theology on one side and the social sciences on the other. Secularism has had significant influence on modern Christian ethics.

Historical development

Sources

Sermon on the Mount

Sermon on the Mount (1877, by Carl Heinrich Bloch) depicts Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which he commented on the Old Covenant and summarized his teachings. Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant.

In the Wesleyan tradition, Christian theology (and thus Christian ethics) are informed by four distinguishable sources known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The four sources are scripture, tradition, reason, and Christian experience. According to D. Stephen Long, Jewish ethics and the life of Jesus figure prominently in Christian ethics, but “The Bible is the universal and fundamental source of specifically Christian ethics”, Long also claims “Christian ethics finds its source in diverse means, but it primarily emerges from the biblical narrative and especially the call of Abraham and Sarah and subsequent creation of the Jewish people”.

Childress and Macquarrie state that “Many Christian ethicists have claimed that Jesus Christ is the center of the biblical message in its entirety and the key to scripture”. Other Christian ethicists “prefer a more Trinitarian rendering of the message of scripture”. Some modern Christians “understand ‘liberation’ or deliverance from oppression to be the message of scripture”.

Christians today “do not feel compelled to observe all 613 commandments” in the Torah, but the Ten Commandments often figure prominently in Christian ethics.

“The Prophets ground their appeals for right conduct in God’s demand for righteousness.” On the other hand, “It is not… true to say that for the OT writers righteousness is defined by what God does; i.e., an act is not made righteous by the fact that God does it. Also noted as ethical guidelines adhered to by Old Testament figures is “maintenance of the family“, “safeguarding of the family property“, and “maintenance of the community”.

New Testament

See also: Ethics in the Bible

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Ethics

Much of Christian ethics derives from Biblical scripture and Christians have always considered the Bible profitable to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness.

The New Testament generally asserts that all morality flows from the Great Commandment, to love God with all one’s heart, mind, strength, and soul, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. In this, Jesus was reaffirming a teachings of Deut 6:4-9 and Lev 19:18. Christ united these commands together and proposed himself as a model of the love required in John 13:12, known also as The New Commandment.

Paul is also the source of the phrase “Law of Christ”, though its meaning and the relationship of Paul of Tarsus and Judaism are still disputed. The Pauline writings are also the major source of the New Testament household code.

The Council of Jerusalem, as reported in Acts 15, may have been held in Jerusalem in about 50 AD. Its decree, known as the Apostolic Decree, was held as generally binding for several centuries and is still observed today by the Greek Orthodox.

Early Christianity

Christian ethics developed during Early Christianity as Christianity arose in the Holy Land and other early centers of Christianity while Christianity emerged from Second Temple Judaism. Consequently, early Christian ethics included discussions of how believers should relate to Roman authority and to the empire.

The Church Fathers had little occasion to treat moral questions from a purely philosophical standpoint and independently of divine revelation, but in the explanation of Christian doctrine their discussions naturally led to philosophical investigations.

Writers, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine of Hippo all wrote on ethics from a distinctly Christian point of view. They made use of philosophical and ethical principles laid down by their Greek philosopher forebears and the intersection of Greek and Jewish thought known as Hellenistic Judaism.

Under the Emperor Constantine I (312–337), Christianity became a legal religion. With Christianity now in power, ethical concerns broadened and included discussions of the proper role of the state.

Augustine in particular made use of the ethical principles of Greek philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism. He proceeded to develop thoroughly along philosophical lines and to establish firmly most of the truths of Christian morality. The eternal law (lex aeterna), the original type and source of all temporal laws, the natural law, conscience, the ultimate end of man, the cardinal virtues, sin, marriage, etc. were treated by him in the clearest and most penetrating manner. Augustine identified a movement in Scripture “toward the ‘City of God’, from which Christian ethics emerges”, as illustrated in chapters 11 and 12 of the book of Genesis. Broadly speaking, Augustine adapted the philosophy of Plato to Christian principles. His synthesis is called Augustinianism (alternatively, Augustinism). He presents hardly a single portion of ethics to us but what he does present is enriched with his keen philosophical commentaries. Later writers followed in his footsteps.

Scholasticism and Thomism

Main articles: Scholasticism and Thomism

A sharper line of separation between philosophy and theology, and in particular between ethics and moral theology, is first met within the works of the great Schoolmen of the Middle Ages, especially of Albertus Magnus (1193–1280), Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Bonaventure (1221–1274), and Duns Scotus (1274–1308). Philosophy and, by means of it, theology reaped abundant fruit from the works of Aristotle, which had until then been a sealed treasure to Western civilization, and had first been elucidated by the detailed and profound commentaries of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas and pressed into the service of Christian philosophy.

In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas locates ethics within the context of theology. For example, he discusses the ethics of buying and selling and concludes that although it may be legal (according to human law) to sell an object for more that it is worth, Divine law “leaves nothing unpunished that is contrary to virtue.” The question of beatitudo, perfect happiness in the possession of God, is posited as the goal of human life. Thomas also argues that the human being by reflection on human nature’s inclinations discovers a law, that is the natural law, which is “man’s participation in the divine law.”

The meaning of the word love can be imprecise, so Thomas Aquinas defined “love” for the benefit of the Christian believer as “to will the good of another.”

Modern Christian ethics

After a couple centuries of stagnation, in the sixteenth century ethical questions are again made the subject of careful investigation. Writers include the Francisco de Vitoria, Dominicus Soto, Luis de Molina, Francisco Suarez, Leonardus Lessius, Juan de Lugo, Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz, and Alphonsus Liguori. Since the sixteenth century, special chairs of ethics (moral philosophy) have been funded in many Catholic universities.

Among topics they discussed was the ethics of action in case of doubt, leading to the doctrine of probabilism.

With the rejection of the doctrine of papal infallibility and the Roman Magisterium as the absolute religious authority, each individual, at least in principle, became the arbiter in matters pertaining to faith and morals. The Reformers held fast to Sola Scriptura and many endeavored to construct an ethical system directly from the scriptures.

Lutheran Philipp Melanchthon, in his “Elementa philosophiae moralis“, still clung to the Aristotelian philosophy strongly rejected by Martin Luther, as did Hugo Grotius in De jure belli et pacis. But Richard Cumberland and his follower Samuel Pufendorf assumed, with Descartes, that the ultimate ground for every distinction between good and evil lay in the free determination of God’s will, an antinomian view which renders the philosophical treatment of ethics fundamentally impossible.

In the 20th century some Christian philosophers, notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer, questioned the value of ethical reasoning in moral philosophy. In this school of thought, ethics, with its focus on distinguishing right from wrong, tends to produce behavior that is simply not wrong, whereas the Christian life should instead be marked by the highest form of right. Rather than ethical reasoning, they stress the importance of meditation on, and relationship with, God. Other important Protestant Christian ethicists include H. Richard Niebuhr, John Howard Yoder, Glen Stassen, and Stanley Hauerwas.

Charles Sheldon’s 1896 book, In His Steps was subtitled “What Would Jesus Do?” and posed the question in the form of a novel. In a popular movement of the 1990s, many used the phrase “What would Jesus do?” (abbreviated WWJD) as a personal motto. The question was a reminder of their belief in a moral imperative to act in a manner that would demonstrate the Love of Jesus through the actions of the adherents.

Virtues and principles

The seven Christian virtues are from two sets of virtues. The four cardinal virtues are Prudence, Justice, Restraint (or Temperance), and Courage (or Fortitude). The cardinal virtues are so called because they are regarded as the basic virtues required for a virtuous life. The three theological virtues, are Faith, Hope, and Love (or Charity).

  • Prudence: also described as wisdom, the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time
  • Justice: also considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue
  • Temperance: also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, and moderation tempering the appetition
  • Courage: also termed fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation
  • Faith: belief in God, and in the truth of His revelation as well as obedience to Him (cf. Rom 1:5:16:26)
  • Hope: expectation of and desire of receiving; refraining from despair and capability of not giving up. The belief that God will be eternally present in every human’s life and never giving up on His love.
  • Charity: a supernatural virtue that helps us love God and our neighbors, the same way as we love ourselves.

Areas of applied Christian ethics

Abortion

Main article: Christianity and abortion

Christian views on abortion has a complex history as there is no explicit prohibition of abortion in either the Old Testament or New Testament books of the Christian Bible. While some writers say that early Christians held different beliefs at different times about abortion, others say that, in spite of the silence of the New Testament on the issue, they condemned abortion at any point of pregnancy as a grave sin, a condemnation that they maintained even when some of them did not qualify as homicide the elimination of a fetus not yet “formed” and animated by a human soul. The Didache, a Christian writing usually dated to sometime in the mid to late 1st century, prohibits abortion in Ch 2.

The Roman Catholic Church and teaches that abortion that “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” Accordingly, it opposes procedures whose purpose is to destroy an embryo or fetus for whatever motive (even before implantation), but admits acts, such as chemotherapy or hysterectomy of a pregnant woman who has cervical cancer, which indirectly results in the death of the fetus, is morally acceptable. Since the first century, the Church has affirmed that every procured abortion is a moral evil, a teaching that the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares “has not changed and remains unchangeable”.

Since the twentieth century Protestant views on abortion have varied considerably, with Protestants to be found in both the “anti-abortion” and “abortion-rights” camps. Conservative Protestants tend to be anti-abortion whereas “mainline” Protestants lean towards an abortion-rights stance. African-American Protestants are much more strongly anti-abortion than white Protestants. Even among Protestants who believe that abortion should be a legal option, there are those who believe that it should nonetheless be morally unacceptable in most instances.

Although scripture is mostly silent on abortion, various elements of scripture inform Christian ethical views on this topic, including Genesis 4:1; Job 31:15; Isaiah 44:24, 49:1, 5; and Jeremiah 1:5, among others.

Alcohol

Main article: Christian views on alcohol

Current views on alcohol in Christianity can be divided into moderationism, abstentionism, and prohibitionism. Abstentionists and prohibitionists are sometimes lumped together as “teetotalers”, sharing some similar arguments. However, prohibitionists abstain from alcohol as a matter of law (that is, they believe God requires abstinence in all ordinary circumstances), while abstentionists abstain as a matter of prudence (that is, they believe total abstinence is the wisest and most loving way to live in the present circumstances).

Some Christians, including Pentecostals, Baptists and Methodists, today believe one ought to abstain from alcohol. Fifty-two percent of Evangelical leaders around the world say drinking alcohol is incompatible with being a good Evangelical. Evangelicals in Asia, Africa, and also in Muslim-majority countries are decidedly against drinking.

Divorce

Main article: Christian views on divorce

Christian views on divorce are informed by verses in Matthew, Mark, Deuteronomy, and others and political developments much later. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus emphasized the permanence of marriage, but also its integrity. In the book of Matthew Jesus says “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. When Jesus discusses marriage, he points out that a certain talent is needed to live together with another human being. Not having assets of their own, women needed to be protected from the risk of their husbands’ putting them on the street at whim. In those times marriage was an economic matter. A woman and her children could easily be rejected. Restriction of divorce was based on the necessity of protecting the woman and her position in society, not necessarily in a religious context, but an economic context. Paul concurred but added an exception for abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.

The Catholic Church prohibits divorce, but permits annulment (a finding that the marriage was never valid) under a narrow set of circumstances. The Eastern Orthodox Church permits divorce and remarriage in church in certain circumstances. Most Protestant churches discourage divorce except as a last resort, but do not actually prohibit it through church doctrine.

Sexual morality and celibacy

See also: Celibacy and Catholic teachings on sexual morality

Modern Christian sexual morality rejects adultery, extramarital sex, prostitution, and rape. Christian views on the moral benefits of celibate and marital lifestyles has varied over time.

In his early writings, Paul described marriage as a social obligation that has the potential of distracting from Christ. Sex, in turn, is not sinful but natural, and sex within marriage is both proper and necessary. In his later writings, Paul made parallels between the relations between spouses and God’s relationship with the church. Paul encouraged both celibate and marital lifestyles.

While Jesus made reference to some that have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven, there is no commandment in the New Testament that Jesus’ disciples have to live in celibacy. The general view on sexuality among the early Jewish Christians was quite positive.

During the first three or four centuries, no law was promulgated prohibiting clerical marriage. Celibacy was a matter of choice for bishops, priests, and deacons.

Today, the Roman Catholic Church teachings on celibacy uphold it for monastics and priests.

Protestantism has rejected the celibate (unmarried) life for preachers since the Reformation. Many evangelicals prefer the term “abstinence” to “celibacy.” Assuming everyone will marry, they focus their discussion on refraining from premarital sex and focusing on the joys of a future marriage. But some evangelicals, particularly older singles, desire a positive message of celibacy that moves beyond the “wait until marriage” message of abstinence campaigns. They seek a new understanding of celibacy that is focused on God rather than a future marriage or a lifelong vow to the Church.

Homosexuality

Main article: Christianity and homosexuality

Within Christianity there are a variety of views on the issues of sexual orientation and homosexuality. The many Christian denominations vary in their position, from condemning homosexual acts as sinful, through being divided on the issue, to seeing it as morally acceptable. Even within a denomination, individuals and groups may hold different views. Further, not all members of a denomination necessarily support their church’s views on homosexuality. In the Bible, procreative marriage is presented as “the norm” and homosexuality is discussed in the New Testament, but in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries whether or not the Bible condemns homosexuality, and whether the various passages apply today, have become contentious topics.

Slavery

Main article: Christian views on slavery

In modern times, Christian organizations reject any permissibility of slavery, but Christian views on slavery did vary both historically. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century debates in the UK and the US, passages in the Bible were used by both pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists to support their respective views.

Violence

Main articles: Christianity and violence and Christianity And Domestic Violence

Christian pacifism is the position that any form of violence is incompatible with the Christian faith. Christian pacifists state that Jesus himself was a pacifist who taught and practiced pacifism, and that his followers must do likewise. Notable Christian pacifists include Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy, and Ammon Hennacy.

Blessed are the Peacemakers (1917) by George Bellows

Blessed are the Peacemakers (1917) by George Bellows

Jesus opposed use of violence in his statement that “all who will take up the sword, will die by the sword”, which suggested that those who perpetrate violence will themselves face violence. Historian Roland Bainton described the early church as pacifist – a period that ended with the accession of Constantine.

In the first few centuries of Christianity, many Christians refused to engage in military combat. In fact, there were a number of famous examples of soldiers who became Christians and refused to engage in combat afterward. They were subsequently executed for their refusal to fight. The commitment to pacifism and rejection of military service is attributed by Allman and Allman to two principles: “(1) the use of force (violence) was seen as antithetical to Jesus’ teachings and service in the Roman military required worship of the emperor as a god which was a form of idolatry.”

The first conscientious objector in the modern sense was a Quaker in 1815. The Quakers had originally served in Cromwell’s New Model Army but from the 1800s increasingly became pacifists. A number of Christian denominations have taken pacifist positions institutionally, including the Quakers and Mennonites.

Pacifist and violence-resisting traditions have continued into contemporary times.

In the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr. adapted the nonviolent ideas of Gandhi to a Baptist theology and politics.

Wealth and poverty

Main article: Christian views on poverty and wealth

There are a variety of Christian views on poverty and wealth. At one end of the spectrum is a view which casts wealth and materialism as an evil to be avoided and even combatted. At the other end is a view which casts prosperity and well-being as a blessing from God. Some Christians argue that a proper understanding of Christian teachings on wealth and poverty needs to take a larger view where the accumulation of wealth is not the central focus of one’s life but rather a resource to foster the “good life”. Professor David W. Miller has constructed a three-part rubric which presents three prevalent attitudes among Protestants towards wealth. According to this rubric, Protestants have variously viewed wealth as: (1) an offense to the Christian faith (2) an obstacle to faith and (3) the outcome of faith.

American theologian John B. Cobb has argued that the “economism that rules the West and through it much of the East” is directly opposed to traditional Christian doctrine. Cobb invokes the teaching of Jesus that “man cannot serve both God and Mammon (wealth)”. He asserts that it is obvious that “Western society is organized in the service of wealth” and thus wealth has triumphed over God in the West.

Criticism

Simon Blackburn states that the “Bible can be read as giving us a carte blanche for harsh attitudes to children, the mentally handicapped, animals, the environment, the divorced, unbelievers, people with various sexual habits, and elderly women”. Elizabeth S. Anderson, a Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, states that “the Bible contains both good and evil teachings”, and it is “morally inconsistent”. She concludes that, “Here are religious doctrines that on their face claim that it is all right to mercilessly punish people for the wrongs of others and for blameless error, that license or even command murder, rape, torture, slavery, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. We know such actions are wrong.”

Blackburn notes morally suspect themes in the Bible’s New Testament as well. He notes some “moral quirks” of Jesus: that he could be “sectarian” (Matt 10:5–6), racist (Matt 15:26 and Mark 7:27), placed no value on animal life (Luke 8: 27–33), and believed that “mental illness is caused by possession by devils”. He also did not repudiate any of the more brutal portions of the Old Testament. Anderson notes the Christian apologist argument that the Jesus of the New Testament is “all loving”. She states, however, that the New Testament has some morally repugnant lessons as well: “Jesus tells us his mission is to make family members hate one another, so that they shall love him more than their kin (Matt 10:35–37)”, “Disciples must hate their parents, siblings, wives, and children (Luke 14:26)”, children who “curse their parents … must be killed”, and Peter and Paul elevate men over their wives “who must obey their husbands ” (1 Corinthians 11:3, 14:34–5, Eph. 5:22–24, Col. 3:18, 1 Tim. 2: 11–2, 1 Pet. 3:1) in the New Testament household code.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia