Christian ethics

Christian ethics

The first recorded meeting on the topic of Christian ethics, after Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Great Commandment, and Great Commission (circa 30), was the Council of Jerusalem (circa 50), which is seen by most Christians as agreement that the New Covenant either abrogated or set aside at least some of the Old Testament ethics for non-Jews. According to Acts 15:19-21 it decreed forbidding idolatry, fornication, and blood and "things strangled" as the minimum requirements for new gentile converts. Many, beginning with Augustine[1] have seen this as derived from Noahide Law, while some modern scholars[2] reject the connection to Noahide Law (Genesis 9) and instead see Lev 17-18 as the basis. See Leviticus 18.

Christian ethics developed while Early Christians were subjects of the Roman Empire. From the time Nero blamed Christians for setting Rome ablaze (64 AD) until Galerius (311 AD) and the Peace of the Church (313 AD), persecutions against Christians erupted periodically. Consequently, Early Christian ethics included discussions of how believers should relate to Roman authority and to the empire (see also: Render unto Caesar...).

Under the Emperor Constantine I (312-337), Christianity became a legal religion. While some scholars debate whether Constantine's conversion to Christianity was authentic or simply a matter of political expediency, Constantine's decree made the empire safe for Christian practice and belief. Consequently, issues of Christian doctrine, ethics and church practice were debated openly, see for example the First Council of Nicaea and the First seven Ecumenical Councils. By the time of Theodosius I (379-395), Christianity had become the state religion of the empire. With Christianity now in power, ethical concerns broadened and included discussions of the proper role of the state (see also: Christendom).

Broadly speaking, Augustine of Hippo adapted the philosophy of Plato to Christian principles. His synthesis is called Augustinianism (alternatively, Augustinism). In the 13th century, after the recovery of the works of Aristotle, Aquinas reworked Aristotelian philosophy into a Christian framework known as Thomism.

Christian ethics in general has tended to stress the need for grace, mercy, and forgiveness because of human weakness. With divine assistance, the Christian is called to become increasingly virtuous in both thought and deed (see also the Evangelical counsels). Conversely, the Christian is also called to abstain from vice, but there are several different schema of vice and virtue. Thomas Aquinas adopted the four cardinal virtues of Plato (justice, courage, temperance, prudence) and added to them the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity (from St. Paul's 1 Corinthians 13). Other schema include the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven virtues. For more see: Christian philosophy, and Biblical law in Christianity.


Early Church

Paul teaches (Epistle to the Romans 2:14ff) that God has written his moral law in the hearts of all men, even of those outside the influence of Christian revelation; this law manifests itself in the conscience of every man and is the norm according to which the whole human race will be judged on the day of reckoning. Paul writes that in consequence of people's perverse inclinations, this law has become, to a great extent, obscured and distorted.

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 neighbor as oneself. In this, Jesus was reaffirming the teaching of the Torah, Deut 6:4-9 and Lev 19:18, see also Ministry of Jesus and The Law of Christ. 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.

Ecclesiastical 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 forbears (see also: Hellenistic Judaism).

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.

This is particularly true of Augustine, who 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. He presents hardly a single portion of ethics to us but what he does present is enriched with his keen philosophical commentaries. Late ecclesiastical writers followed in his footsteps.


A sharper line of separation between philosophy and theology, and in particular between ethics and moral theology, is first met with in 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.

The same is particularly true as regards ethics. Thomas, in his commentaries on the political and ethical writings of Aristotle, in his Summa contra Gentiles and his Quaestiones disputatae, treated with his wonted clearness and penetration nearly the whole range of ethics in a purely philosophical manner, so that even to the present day his words are an inexhaustible source from which ethics draws its supply. On the foundations laid by him the Catholic philosophers and theologians of succeeding ages have continued to build. In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas locates ethics within the context of theology. The question of beatiudo, 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."[1]

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, thanks especially to the influence of the so-called Nominalists, a period of stagnation and decline set in, but the sixteenth century is marked by a revival. Ethical questions, also, though largely treated in connection with theology, are again made the subject of careful investigation. Examples include the theologians Francisco de Vitoria, Dominicus Soto, Luis de Molina, Francisco Suarez, Leonardus Lessius, Juan de Lugo, Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz, and Alphonsus Liguori. Among topics they discussed was the ethics of action in case of doubt, leading to the doctrine of probabilism. Since the sixteenth century, special chairs of ethics (moral philosophy) have been erected in many Catholic universities. The larger, purely philosophical works on ethics, however, do not appear until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as an example of which we may instance the production of Ign. Schwarz, "Instituitiones juris universalis naturae et gentium" (1743).

Protestant ethics

Different from Catholic ethical methods were those adopted for the most part by the Protestant traditions. With the rejection of the doctrine of papal infallibility and the Roman Magisterium as the absolute religious authority, at least in principle each individual became the arbiter in matters appertaining to faith and morals. The Reformers held fast to the Bible as the singularly infallible source of revelation; many endeavored to construct an ethical system directly from the Scriptures (see also: Biblical law in Christianity).

Lutheran Philipp Melanchthon, in his "Elementa philosophiae moralis", still clung to the Aristotelean philosophy strongly rejected by Luther; so, too, did Arminian Hugo Grotius, in his work, De jure belli et pacis. But Cumberland and his follower, Samuel Pufendorf, moreover, 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.

See also

  • Brotherly love (philosophy)


  1. ^ Contra Faust, 32.13
  2. ^ For example: Joseph Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), Yale University Press (December 2, 1998), ISBN 0-300-13982-9, chapter V

Further reading

External links

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