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Christian ethics

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Title: Christian ethics  
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Subject: Christian theology, Abrogation of Old Covenant laws, Søren Kierkegaard, Ethics, Law of Christ
Collection: Christian Ethicists, Christian Ethics, Mosaic Law in Christian Theology
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Christian ethics

Depicted is the famous Sermon on the Mount of Jesus in which he commented on the Old Covenant. Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant.[1] Painting by Carl Heinrich Bloch, Danish painter, d. 1890.

Christian ethics is a branch of Christian theology that defines concepts of right (virtuous) and wrong (sinful) behavior from a Christian perspective. Various sources inform Christian ethics but "comprehensive Christian ethical writings use four distinguishable sources: (1) the Bible and the Christian tradition, (2) philosophical principles and methods, (3) science and other sources of knowledge about the world, and (4) human experience broadly conceived."[2] Jewish ethics and the life of Jesus also figure prominently.[3] According to D. Stephen Long, "The Bible is the universal and fundamental source of specifically Christian ethics",[2] as "Christian ethics finds its source in diverse means, but it primarily emerges from the biblical narrative."[4]

Christian ethicists often engage with and draw from secular ethics. Like secular ethicists, different thinkers approach Christian ethics from different perspectives, variously using deontological, consequentialist, utilitarian and other frameworks for ethical reflection. The approach of virtue ethics has also become popular in recent decades, largely due to the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas.[5]

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. Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire erupted periodically, beginning with the Crucifixion of Jesus in Roman Judaea (c.30-33 AD) and periodically continued until Christianity was legalized under Constantine and become the dominant religion in the empire (313 AD-onward). Consequently, early Christian ethics included discussions of how believers should relate to Roman authority and to the empire. It also included questions regarding how the rich should treat the poor, how women should be treated, and the morality of war.

Christian ethics have been criticized for a variety of reasons, including ideas that exist in Biblical scripture that Christians have relied on to guide their actions. These include Old Testament stories that provide bad lessons along with good, as well as prescriptions that have caused some people to act in ways many modern observers would find wrong (such as permitting slavery). Various ideas in the New Testament have also been criticized as being morally suspect.


  • Early Church 1
  • The Bible and Christian ethics 2
  • Scholasticism 3
  • Protestant ethics 4
  • The ethics of Christian Anarchism 5
  • What would Jesus do? 6
  • Judeo-Christian ethics 7
  • Criticism 8
    • The Old Testament 8.1
    • The New Testament 8.2
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13

Early Church

The [6]

The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Ethics[7] makes the following observation:

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. Paul is also the source of the New Testament household code.

Under the Emperor Constantine I (312–337), Christianity became a legal religion. The Edict of Milan made the empire safe for Christian practice and belief. Consequently, issues of Christian doctrine, ethics and church practice were debated openly at the First seven Ecumenical Councils. By the time of Theodosius I (379–395), Christianity had become within the empire its state church. With Christianity now in power, ethical concerns broadened and included discussions of the proper role of the state.

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. 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 and the intersection of Greek and Jewish thought known as Hellenistic Judaism.

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. 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. Late ecclesiastical writers followed in his footsteps.

The Bible and Christian ethics

Much of Christian ethics derives from Biblical scripture. According to the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, "There is no 'Christian ethics' that would deny the authority of the Bible, for apart from scripture the Christian church has no enduring identity".[8] It further states that
Christian churches have always considered it a part of their calling to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness, and they have always considered the Bible 'profitable' for that task. With virtually one voice the churches have declared that the Bible is an authority for moral discernment and judgment. And Christian ethicists—at least those who consider their work part of the common life of the Christian community—have shared this affirmation.[9]

There are various views on how to interpret Christian ethics in relation to Biblical scripture. For example, "Many Christian ethicists have claimed that Jesus Christ is the center of the biblical message in its entirety and the key to scripture".[10] Other Christian ethicists "prefer a more Trinitarian rendering of the message of scripture".[10] Some modern Christian ethicists "understand 'liberation' or deliverance from oppression to be the message of scripture".[10]

The link between scripture and Christian ethics is further highlighted as follows: "Fundamentalism's identification of the human words of scripture with the word of God has justified an identification of biblical ethics with Christian ethics."[11] "The Prophets ground their appeals for right conduct in God's demand for righteousness."[12] 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.[13] 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".[14]

Many biblical accounts inform Christian ethics. This includes the Noahic Covenant: the commandments which "were often reduced to three by Christians: avoid fornication, bloodshed, and blasphemy or idolatry".[15] 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.[16] Although Christians today "do not feel compelled to observe all 613" of the commandments described in Exodus, the Ten Commandments figure prominently in Christian ethics.[17]

Various issues today are informed by biblical passages in the Old and New Testaments. For example, 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.[18] The Old Testament provides advice on adultery in Exodus's seventh commandment, as well as the New Testament Gospel of Matthew.[19] Christian views on divorce are informed by verses in Deuteronomy, Matthew, Mark, and others.[20] Homosexuality is discussed in the Old and New Testament as well; for example, male homosexual acts merit the death penalty in Leviticus 18.[21] This is, however, only one example of a long list of sexual sins that are mostly heterosexual sins of incest, and bestiality; homosexuality was not a major concern in ancient times. Constraints on sexual conduct are heavily discussed in the Bible's Old and New Testaments.[22] For example, The Old Testament "presents procreative marriage as the norm".[22]


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. 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."[23] 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."[24]

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

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.

The ethics of Christian Anarchism

Christian Anarchism is the name of a Christian movement that rejects secular authority, such as that of governments, instead arguing that God is the sole source of authority for Christians. Christian Anarchists argue that the state is violent and often idolatrous. Thinkers espousing this perspective include Leo Tolstoy and Jacques Ellul. More than any other Bible source, the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' call to not resist evil but turn the other cheek, are used as the basis for Christian Anarchism.[25] Christian Anarchists are pacifists and oppose the use of violence, such as war.[26] Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894) is regarded as a key text in the movement. However, the most clear description of Christian Anarchism came from Soren Kierkegaard in 1850 in his work Practice in Christianity.

What would Jesus do?

There are many ethical movements which have risen to prominence in popular culture but are not academic in nature.

One movement was based on the phrase "What would Jesus do?" (often abbreviated to WWJD). The phrase became popular in the United States in the 1990s as a personal motto for adherents of Evangelical Christianity. Many used the phrase as 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. A follow-up motto answered the question "Fully Rely On God" (often abbreviated to "FROG").

Judeo-Christian ethics

Another movement was Judeo-Christian ethics, in which Jews and Christians collaborated to develop an ethical platform and decide what policies to support. The present meaning of "Judeo-Christian" regarding ethics first appeared in print on July 27, 1939, with the phrase "the Judaeo-Christian scheme of morals" in the New English Weekly.[27] The term gained much currency in the 1940s, promoted by groups which evolved into the National Conference of Christians and Jews, to fight antisemitism by expressing a more inclusive idea of American values rather than just Christian or Protestant values.[28][29] By 1952 Dwight Eisenhower looked to the Founding Fathers of 1776 to say:

"all men are endowed by their Creator." In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.[30]


Christian ethics have been criticized for various reasons. 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".[31] 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".[32] 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.[33]

The Old Testament

Blackburn provides examples of Old Testament moral issues that Jesus did not repudiate such as the phrase in Exodus 22:18 that has "helped to burn alive tens or hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and America": "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live";[31] he also notes that the Old Testament God apparently has "no problems with a slave-owning society", considers birth control a crime punishable by death, and "is keen on child abuse".[34] Additional examples that are questioned today are: the prohibition on touching women during their "period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19–24)", the apparent approval of selling daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7), and the obligation to put to death someone working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2).[35] Elizabeth S. Anderson says that those who accept "biblical inerrancy ... must conclude that much of what we take to be morally evil is in fact morally permissible and even morally required".[32] She provides a number of examples to illustrate "God's moral character" such as: "Routinely punishes people for the sins of others ... punishes all mothers by condemning them to painful childbirth", punishes four generations of descendants of those who worship other Gods, kills 24,000 Israelites because some of them sinned (Numbers 25:1–9), kills 70,000 Israelites for the sin of David in 2 Samuel 24:10–15, and "sends two bears out of the woods to tear forty-two children to pieces" because they called someone names in 2 Kings 2:23–24.[36] She goes on to note commands God gave to men in the Bible such as: kill adulterers, homosexuals, and "people who work on the Sabbath" (Leviticus 20:10; Leviticus 20:13; Exodus 35:2, respectively); to commit ethnic cleansing (Exodus 34:11-14, Leviticus 26:7-9); commit genocide (Numbers 21: 2-3, Numbers 21:33–35, Deuteronomy 2:26–35, and Joshua 1–12); and other mass killings.[37] Finally, the bible permits slavery, the beating of slaves, the rape of female captives in wartime, polygamy (for men), the killing of prisoners, and child sacrifice.[38]

The New Testament

Blackburn notes morally suspect themes in the Bible's New Testament as well.[39] 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.[39] Anderson notes the Christian apologist argument that the Jesus of the New Testament is "all loving".[40] 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 as gods" (1 Corinthians 11:3, 14:34–5, Eph. 5:22–24, Col. 3:18, 1 Tim. 2: 11–2, 1 Pet. 3:1)[41] in the New Testament household code. Anderson states that the Gospel of John implies that "infants and anyone who never had the opportunity to hear about Christ are damned [to hell], through no fault of their own".[42]

See also


  1. ^ Such as Hebrews 8:6 etc. See also  : "The central thought of the entire Epistle is the doctrine of the Person of Christ and His Divine mediatorial office.... There He now exercises forever His priestly office of mediator as our Advocate with the Father (vii, 24 sq.)."
  2. ^ a b Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 88
  3. ^ Long 2010, p. 13
  4. ^ Long 2010, pp. 23–24
  5. ^
  6. ^ "St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II, 26, 4, corp. art". Retrieved 2010-10-30. 
  7. ^ : EthicsCatholic Encyclopedia
  8. ^ Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 60
  9. ^ Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 57
  10. ^ a b c Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 59
  11. ^ Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 58
  12. ^ Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 434
  13. ^ Childress & Macquarrie 1986, pp. 437
  14. ^ Childress & Macquarrie 1986, pp. 435–436
  15. ^ Long 2010, pp. 25–27
  16. ^ Long 2010, pp. 27–28
  17. ^ Long 2010, p. 31
  18. ^ Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 2
  19. ^ Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 10
  20. ^ Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 161
  21. ^ Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 272
  22. ^ a b Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 580
  23. ^ Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica, “Of Cheating, Which Is Committed in Buying and Selling.” Translated by The Fathers of the English Dominican Province. pp. 3 [1] Retrieved June 19, 2012
  24. ^  
  25. ^  
  26. ^ Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre (March 2010). "A Christian Anarchist Critique of Violence: From Turning the Other Cheek to a Rejection of the State". Political Studies Association. 
  27. ^  
  28. ^ Silk, Mark (1984), "Notes on the Judeo-Christian Tradition in America", American Quarterly 36 (1): 65–85 
  29. ^ Sarna, 2004, p.266
  30. ^ Patrick Henry, "'And I Don't Care What It Is': The Tradition-History of a Civil Religion Proof-Text," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, March 1981, Vol. 49 Issue 1, pp 35-47 in JSTOR
  31. ^ a b Blackburn 2001, p. 12
  32. ^ a b Anderson 2007, p. 336
  33. ^ Anderson 2007, p. 337
  34. ^ Blackburn 2001, p. 10
  35. ^ Blackburn 2001, p. 11
  36. ^ Anderson 2007, pp. 336–337
  37. ^ Anderson 2007, p. 337
  38. ^ Anderson 2007, p. 337
  39. ^ a b Blackburn 2001, pp. 11–12
  40. ^ Anderson 2007, p. 338
  41. ^ Anderson 2007, p. 338
  42. ^ Anderson 2007, p. 339


  • Childress, James F.; Macquarrie, John, eds. (1986). The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.  

Further reading

  • De La Torre, Miguel A., "Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins," Orbis Books, 2004.
  • Doomen, Jasper. "Religion's Appeal", Philosophy and Theology 23, 1: 133-148 (2011)
  • al-Faruqi, Ismail Ragi. Christian Ethics: an Historical and Systematic Analysis of Its Dominant Ideas. McGill University Press, 1967. N.B.: Written from an Islamic perspective.
  • Hein, David. "Christianity and Honor." The Living Church, August 18, 2013, pp. 8–10.

External links

  • Christian Ethics Reading Room, Online Literature, Tyndale Seminary
  • Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics - Institute based in Cambridge, England. KLICE triannually publishes Ethics in Brief, issues of which can be read here.
  • Catholic Encyclopedia: Ethics
  • Catholic Encyclopedia: Moral Theology
  • Thomas Aquinas: Moral Philosophy entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Three Good Deeds, Collection of resources focused on the Judeo-Christian values of caring for the environment, yourself and others
  • Compassion In Judaism, Collection of resources dedicated to the Jewish perspective on the values of compassion and loving-kindness
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