Here are some further considerations on the domain of Christian Ethics, some terms, principles or references that may be useful for newcomers to Christian ethics or references for scholars thinking about research topics; this is intended for persons of any and all orientations.
Students, professors, and other interested parties might find it good to do some study of how to argue with persons who come from different points of view or different religions. Ed Langerak has a new book that speaks to this. Here is his summary of the book:
“My book Civil Disagreement: Personal Integrity in a Pluralistic Society helps readers cope with diversity and conflicts in ways that allow them to be true to their convictions while being appropriately open to those who disagree. The first chapter discusses conversations, arguments, and civility while explaining that when we converse with each other in civil and open-minded ways we may find some common ground but are just as likely to become clearer about how deep and wide our differences are. The second chapter sorts out different senses of pluralism, argues for a “perspective pluralism” that embraces a relativism about what is reasonable to believe but not a relativism about truth, and helps readers think in nuanced ways about such issues as religious pluralism, intellectual humility, and skepticism. The third chapter clarifies what is meant by toleration and intolerance and addresses the issue of when we should tolerate or even cooperate with actions or practices that flow from views we regard as wrong (whether or not we respect these views as reasonable). It considers how various combinations of toleration, cooperation, and respect (and their opposites) can be used in civil disagreement and thereby helps readers understand how they can be open-minded toward differing viewpoints without embracing a broad-minded approval of them. The final chapter applies these ideas to political issues that arise in a pluralistic and liberal democracy, issues such as disagreement in the public square about laws and legislators and disagreement about whether and how to accommodate dissident groups.”
For general background, see the second edition of the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy of Religion.
An excellent work on religious pluralism is the Oxford Handbook of Religious Diversity, edited by Chad Meister.
Here is a very positive review of a book that will bring you up to date on arguments concerning Christianity and contemporary philosophy. This appeared in the Heythrop Journal of Theology:
Review of Philosophy and the Christian Worldview
This very rich collection, a Festschrift for Keith Yandell, is divided into four parts, respectively on religion and worldview assessment, epistemology, morality, and metaphysics. It well illustrates the new rapprochement between orthodox Christianity and analytical philosophy, which would have astonished informed persons fifty or sixty years ago.
In their Introduction, the editors remind us that to believe anything just is to believe that it is true; for all that this is jarring to the modern mind-set, which feels ‘that there is something arrogant and benighted about taking our own views to be true to the exclusion of the beliefs of others’ (1). In the course of an inquiry whether philosophy of religion is possible, Yandell makes justified philosophical fun of his former anthropology professor, who confidently propounded his belief that all beliefs are culturally determined, and so not true beyond the culture of those who hold them. Of course this, ‘if true, is true of all beliefs in all cultures but held in his, and so false.’ He wisely reminds us that ‘(e)vidence is truth-favoring, not truth-entailing’ (13 – the wisp of hair found at the scene of the crime would appear to implicate the redhead, but may have been planted by someone else). Harold Netland points out that, whether or not this seems proper in the contexts of globalization and post-colonialism, ‘the Christian faith has been regarded by Christians as true and salvific in ways that other religions are not. This has given rise to the new discipline of “the theology of religion”, which addresses issues as complex as they are controversial’ (25). He takes to task such ‘religious pluralists’ as John Hick and Peter Byrne; the charm of such pluralism is largely that it seems to enable one to avoid affirming that large numbers of sincere, intelligent and virtuous people are mistaken in their religious belief. Yet Hick himself is quite clear that such central Christian beliefs as that Jesus Christ is the unique incarnation of the triune God, ‘taken as they have been understood within orthodox Christianity’, are actually false; and just the same applies to central tenets of Islam, Buddhism and Jainism (37). As Paul Copan sees it, one can find hints of natural theology in the most unlikely places; and he argues the greater explanatory power of theism as compared with naturalism in accounting for such diverse facts as our stubborn conviction that moral values are objective (60), and the origin of the universe, as accepted now by the large majority of cosmologists, a finite time ago. Furthermore, a philosopher of science has exclaimed at the difficulty of biologists, for all their efforts, in eliminating teleology from their account of organisms; this is not surprising if theism is true. ‘The sound of naturalism’s voice has gone to the ends of the earth, inadvertently declaring the Creator’s glory’ (66).
In their investigation of ‘Internalism and Properly Basic Belief’, Matthew Davidson and Gordon Barnes, in a highly sophisticated manner, defend a version of both theories. Charles Taliaferro’s paper is ‘In Defense of the Numinous’; as he says, myriads of people over a wide tract of time and range of cultures report ‘some sense or experience of there being a greater, intentional, good, purposive reality, … often thought to be divine.’ Several contemporary philosophers of religion have maintained that, short of evidence to the contrary, their witness should be convincing (95–6). He concludes that such arguments should be taken as part of a cumulative case for theism as against naturalism, as allegedly accounting more satisfactorily for central elements in our experience and justified belief; and he adds that there are not lacking contemporary philosophers who make a powerful case for theism against the prevailing naturalism (107). William J. Wainwright investigates further the question of the cognitive value of religious experience; if sense-experience may have cognitive validity, as would be agreed on all hands, why should not the same apply to religious experience (109)? He makes the interesting suggestion that monistic mystical experiences of undifferentiated union with the Godhead, at least when taken in conjunction with the kinds of experience which are liable to precede and follow them, are not so foreign to mainstream Christian spirituality as may appear at first sight (131). Terence Penelhum provides an enthusiastic yet profoundly judicious assessment of Yandell’s views of Hume on religion. This is one of Penelhum’s finest contributions to scholarship; from this reviewer, there could scarcely be higher praise. He remarks that, among Hume’s followers, there has been a strong tendency to assume that the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion ought to close off debate over the rationality of theistic belief; but he finds in order the contemporary backlash against this assumption, of which he takes Yandell’s work to be the finest representative (146). He concludes with the hope that a contemporary natural theology may perhaps not after all be beyond our reach, a hope he finds strengthened by Yandell’s writings (151).
Why Bertrand Russell, at least as represented by his mature thinking (as opposed to his early Moorean phase), was not a moral realist any more than he was a Christian, is the topic discussed by Mark Linville. It was George Santayana who finally convinced Russell that his previous moral realism was not in the last analysis compatible with a naturalistic metaphysics (157–9); and it remains a question of enormous importance how far they were right in this (171). That many metaphysical naturalists are very good people is of course true, but not to the point.). For a number of decades now, William Rowe has been elaborating an argument that the existence of the amount of evil that there is in the world, even if ingenious believers can make it somehow formally compatible with the existence of God, remains decisive evidence against it (175). This argument is examined by Michael Peterson, who concludes that if various important realities, like ‘free will, agent causation, and objective moral values’, can hardly be supported within a naturalistic framework, but are better accommodated on a theistic view, then one can give an adequate account of evil in terms of this (191). A refreshing picture of how different religious traditions, whatever their ineliminable cognitive differences, may in some matters confirm and enhance one another, is painted by Paul Reasoner in ‘Confucian Sincerity and the Imago Dei’. Sincerity, or ch’eng, is declared by Confucian sages to be ‘the beginning and end of things. Without sincerity there would be nothing’ (196). Doesn’t this sound rather like the logos in the prologue to John’s Gospel?
As William Hasker wryly comments, ‘(n)o headlines are made when a leading philosopher of mind announces his rejection of substance dualism’. But stringently-argued cases against dualism, such as that presented by Jaegwon Kim, are more unusual; appeals to cultural prejudice are generally thought enough (215). Kim has the great merit of having put forward an argument which is genuinely new, ‘related to and yet distinct from the time-honored but ineffective and over-rated “problem of mind-body interaction” ’. But Hasker argues that there are some forms of dualism which escape Kim’s objections (226). ‘Do we have free will?’ is surely a good candidate for being the most important of all questions. Noel Hendriksen writes that many approaches to the subject, especially by way of the problem of moral responsibility, are well-worn; but a few remain to be explored, including that according to which it is a ‘proposal about the explanatory history of an agent’s decisions’ (229). Either Christ could have yielded to temptation or not. If he could, he is not divine; if he could not, he is not fully human. ‘If this argument is sound, the doctrine of the incarnation is not (252). The dilemma can be rebutted, suggests David Werther, along the following lines: – ‘Feeling a pull toward a lesser good and having the ability to choose that good are jointly sufficient conditions for Christ being tempted. Since choosing a lesser good is not wrong, this sort of temptation is compatible with essential goodness’ (262).
Points of orientation
The above references will assist in locating the current state of play in arguments about the existence of God in theistic or Abrahamic tradition. A few things to keep in mind, many philosophers today discount the force of arguments for the existence of God (as conceived of theistically), but there is significant work on such arguments that is worthy of attention:
In a course or project focusing on ethics, some of the background here will not be of enormous importance, but it is important to realize that the current intellectual climate is more receptive to Christian (and other forms of) theism than in previous decades.
What follows are some elements of Christian tradition that have a bearing on ethics in general and Christian ethics in particular.
God as Triune and Incarnate
Christians are monotheists (they believe in one God) but the Godhead is not a homogenous, undifferentiated substance; it rather consists in a relationship between the persons (traditionally referred to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Christian theology has tended to sometimes minimize the difference between persons to avoid being trii-theists (believing in three Gods / gods) or over-stress their difference. The main editors of the EIN site (currently) favor what is called the Social doctrine of the Trinity which sees the three persons in a relationship of intimate, co-inherence. This way of thinking was articulated by Richard of St. Victor and others as the Godhead embodying the three greatest loves: self-love, love of one for another and love of two for a third. Here are two texts from Richard:
“When one person gives love to another and he alone loves only the other, there certainly is love (dilectio) but it is not a shared love (condilectio). When two love each other mutually and give to each other the affection of supreme longing; when the affection of the first goes out to the second and the affection of the second goes out to the first and tends as it were in diverse ways– in this case there certainly is love (dilectio) on both sides, but it is not shared love (condilectio). Shared love (condilectio) is properly said to exist when a third person is loved by two persons harmoniously and in community, and the affection of the two persons is fused into one affection by the flame of love for a third. From these things it is evident that shared love (condilectio) would have no place in Divinity itself if a third person were lacking to the other two persons.
That love must be mutual is required by the fact that supreme happiness cannot exist without the mutuality of love. A further analysis of the nature of true charity reveals that three persons, not two, are necessary. For charity to be excellent, as well as perfect, it must desire that the love it experiences be a love shared with another. Thus charity is not only mutual love between two; it is fully shared love among three.”
Christianity is a dynamic tradition with many strands, and so some Christians have used different models to understand the Trinity and Incarnation. For further work on the Trinity and Incarnation see the entry on Christian Ethics I and II. One should note that some self-described Christian theologians go a very long way from the main classical positions. So, Gordon Kaufman, Dewi Phillips, and others have been atheists or non-theists and yet strongly adhering to what they see as the essence and practice of Christian faith. Howard Wettstein is an example of someone who is a non-theist and yet defends a profoundly Judaic understanding of life, the divine and values. Here is a link to his most recent work.
For a philosophical treatment of the Incarnation, see the two-minds model of the Incarnation as developed and re-presented in modern times by Thomas V. Morris in The Logic of God Incarnate:
In the case of God Incarnate, we must recognize something like two distinct ranges of consciousness. … The divine mind of God the Son contained, but was not contained by, his earthly mind, or range of consciousness. That is to say, there was what can be called an asymmetric accessing relation between the two minds. (pp. 102-3)
There are other models. Some involve Kenotic theories of divine self-limitation or involve what are sometimes called “low Christologies” in which the incarnation is construed as the view that Jesus Christ (as disclosed in scripture and tradition) is our model or guide to the reality of God, a kind of ideal embodiment of an icon (icon meaning picture) of God.
The moral significance of the belief in the incarnation, Jesus Christ being fully God and fully human: There are many points that might be stressed here but several stand out. The incarnation has been understood to involve God’s hallowing (or making holy or proclaiming the holiness) of the material world. Some in the ancient world conceived of God as radically different and even hostile to matter; by assuming or becoming fully human, the God of Christianity proclaims and leads us to (ideally, from a Christian point of view) a sanctified holy reconciliation with the divine. Other tenets that are important to consider: Christ has been held to be an exemplar of what Christians should value and how they should live. Christ’s life of self-sacrificing love has taken to be an end that his followers should aspire to. Through the incarnation, Christians believe that God draws near to us through enjoyment of this life (turning water into wine) but most profoundly through sharing in suffering (as Christ does in the cross). The incarnation is also a key to Christian beliefs in the importance of mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and displaying a divine love that will, in the end, conquer death itself.
Here are some terms, principles, ideas that are in play in Christian ethical tradition. Before getting to these, it should be noted that Christian spirituality and values is not limited to ethics. In terms of Jesus’ moral teaching, much of what he proclaimed was not absolutely original but rooted in earlier Hebrew sources (Love your neighbor as yourself…). What seems more central to the Christian contribution to world history is its particular understanding of God’s revealing Godself in a human life, teaching, and a call to be in relationship with God through the sacrifice, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus which one is respond to through confession, repentance, and a union with God in Christ. A great deal of Christian practice does not involve an immediate, obvious ethical component. Consider the rites of communion or the call to meditation and centering prayers, as well as the enormous attention to worship, praise and what Christians refer to as abiding in God (as one can see in the Gospel of John). Indeed, it seems that a great deal of Christian art, architecture, literature, and ordinary sharing of meals and goods, are interwoven with the aim of being inclusive of all who wish to partake of such (perceived) goods, but the ethos seems not limited to what theologians have referred to as corporeal acts of mercy (this involves providing the destitute with material or corporeal goods). The church (using the term ‘church’ broadly to refer to most Christian communities) has repented when “Christians” have indulged in opulence at the expense of the poor, and forgotten the primacy of serving those who are least well off in society—a calling that is affirmed historically on many levels. For example, Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” But for all that, it would be hard to understand that the very focus and heart of Christian tradition is only justice. If that were the focus, there would be no point to Christianity if justice was achieved. The fact that Christianity is committed to justice in a foundational way is a firm commitment, but it is not the whole of Christianity. As Martin Luther remarked, justice was made for peace, peace was not made for justice. We understand this as the claim that once justice is achieved and peace is possible (or a reality) that is an occasion for going even further into the life and blessing and communion with God.
In thinking through Jewish and Christian approaches to evil in the world, it is vital to consider the covenant with Noah –referred to as the Noahic covenant. In this covenant, the social and geological / natural stability of creation is confirmed and human history is granted limited autonomy free from divine judgment and justice. God foreswears in this life bringing judgment on the wicked
We have highlighted above the idea that the Godhead itself has what some theologians call an INNER GLORY of mutual love which leads to an outpouring of love in God creating and sustaining the cosmos. The creation is considered theologically part of the external glory of God. That is the end or goal of creation (in much Christian theology) but such a goal is marred by sin (greed, envy, jealousy, hatred, etc). Christians (overall or in general) hold that God works with the created order through prophets, saints, the incarnate Jesus Christ to bring about redemption. ‘Redemption’ is the recovery of what has been wrongly lost or unjustly taken, in which God acts not to make unjust acts or wrongful events just or good, but to deliver persons who have been perpetrators of evil from their evil and to work toward (in this life and the next) to their regeneration through repentance. This redeeming love is articulated in different ways we highlight below in terms of: virtue and vice, the ordo amoris (the order of love), justice and mercy, freedom – bondage –grace, agape, salvation (limited, conditional or unlimited and unconditional), heaven and hell. Consider the following.
Virtue and vice. In general, Christian ethics has identified seven “deadly sins” in terms of the vices of vanity, rage, lust, envy, sloth, avarice, and gluttony. One trick to remembering them is to recall the absurd term “PALE SAG” which can be represented as:
Some (but not all) Christians in ethics think of vices or evil in terms of the privation (or absence of virtue or goodness) or a malignant pursuit of what a person thinks is good (at least for himself). So, the vice of pride or vanity would be a lack of proportionate appreciation of others, an inflated view of one’s own importance (or self-importance). Vanity also can be reflected in an inordinate desire for preeminence. Ironically, vanity can also be reflected in inordinate estimations of one’s sin (e.g. you think you were wicked; I was far worse.)
Vices are typically seen as parasitic or corrosive of the good –as opposed to virtues being seen as parasitic or corrosive of evil or something evil. To draw on a trivial example to make this point, when you have a cold (as in an illness), someone will probably ask you “How is your cold?” If you answer “The cold is fine” it seems you are replying that your ill health is continuing and the pain / suffering is not going away. On balance, if you are improving in health, it would probably be best to reply with something like: “I am doing better, thank you for asking.”
One point to notice in approaching good and evil in terms of vices and virtues, is that the reference point is not bare utility or the right balance of pleasure. Pain or suffering (in general) has not been condemned as bad or evil (as such) in Christian ethics, for pain and suffering can be a manifestation or reflection of proper love. If you love your friend, it is natural and even good to sorrow when she has suffered some ill.
Another point concerns what may be called the primacy of the good. So, romantic love is not the perfection of the vice of lust or justice is not the perfection or refinement of revenge. Rather, lust (here we mean a self-centered desire for sexual satisfaction that disregards the good of the other) is a perversion of romantic love; that is, someone who is lustful may disguise themselves as romantic lovers. Similarly, if one is set on revenge, one is involved in a twisted, perverted form of justice. What makes an act revenge is that suffering is imposed or willed without any moderating force of proportion; revenge is also typically personal and easily makes innocent persons the object of cruelty.
Some comments on the different vices: anger as a vice is not the same as righteous anger or proportionate anger at injustice. Envy and Jealousy need not be vices under some circumstances. Envy can reflect a desire to emulate someone; it is a vice when it motivates one to want another person to loose a good or be harmed. Jealousy may be a dimension or side-effect of a committed, loyal relationship; it is a vice when it threatens harm (think of the Beatles’ unfortunate lyrics: “I’ld rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man”). Sloth has been defined by some Christians as the refusal of joy.
Virtues are understood by many Christian ethicists as essential conditions for human flourishing; virtues are traditionally thought to include justice, temperance, courage, prudence, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Here is a sample of how the Christian virtues are articulated.
Forgiveness is an important dimension of Christian ethics. We comment here on only one question. Should Christians always forgive those who sin against them? It might be thought that Matthew 6:12-15; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37; Luke 11:4 may suggest that Christians should be readily disposed to forgive others, but Colosians 3:13 and Ephesians 4:32 makes explicit the idea that we should forgive as Christ forgives, and Matthew chapter 18 suggests (or teaches?) that a condition for forgiveness is a wrong-doer’s confession and desire for mercy. The later implies that a follower of Christ is not required to forgive someone who is both unrepentant and does not seek forgiveness.
For those who advance what may be called Biblical ethics, there is a problem. There have been forceful ethical critiques of the Hebrew Bible and later the New Testament both historically and today. It has been argued from the first century onward that God is depicted as a moral horror in the Bible and thus the Bible as a whole cannot or should not be considered as a possible source for ethical reflection. Please see Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? for a discussion of this. Apart from considering such texts as Copan’s and others that situate the different parts of the Bible in historical contexts, it might also be appreciated how some arguments against the Bible as a source of ethics often appeal to values (love, compassion, concern for the vulnerable) that seem to be at the heart of much Biblical testimony. This does not mean that the critics are at all engaged in any kind of inconsistency; it is simply evidence of the complexity of the Bible.
We note below how Christians have differed in their view about how the Bible may be revelatory or itself revelation, but at the outset it needs to be appreciated that the Bible is a virtual library of different “books” each with their own history (histories) and that the Bible functions (or has functioned) in multiple ways in different cultures.
The Bible as Source for Ethics
The use of the Bible for doing Christian ethics will depend, in part, on one’s assessment of the New Testament’s historical reliability and on one’s philosophy of revelation.
Here is some background information first concerning the Bible and history. There is good reason to believe that, after the life, death, and the testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the teaching of the early Christians (who were at first called followers of “the Way” Acts 9:2) was oral and memorial. The use of oral and memorial (mnemonic) practices was in keeping with the practice at the time of Jesus when teachers would use memorization –whether or not there were texts in existence—in education.
Now a brief aside: the art of memory was considered an important dimension in first century Palestine (as it is for some now) for one’s spiritual and moral (and historical) formation. The art of memory (or ars memorativa) involved using practical devices (rhymes, brevity, alliterations, humor) and frequent repetition with commentary to secure reliability over time. Today, it is almost impossible for some of us to appreciate the importance given to memorization. There is, for example, a game often called “Telephone” in which players will be successively and privately are told a story that he or she is to pass on to the next person. The game is supposed to be amusing, as the last person in a sequence will report something quite different from the original story. This is profoundly different from memorization and transmission in the ancient world, in which trustworthiness in memory and teaching were considered of the utmost importance. Some scholars argue that they see patterns in Jesus teaching in which precepts and parables are terse, poetic, repetitive and show other signs of making them easy to recall (such as the inclusion of humor).
Back to the early Christian faith: Some of the content of the oral expression of faith was in the form of hymns, proclamations (apostolic, as in the form of preaching in the Book of Acts) and in the story / stories of the teaching of the life of Christ. Christ lived in what was largely an oral culture, but writing and reading was not limited to the elite. In Luke 4:16-22, Jesus is described as skilled in reading and, according to the New Testament coupled with early church writings, there is testimony that Paul, John, Matthew or Levi, Luke, Mark, James, Peter, Jude wrote “books.” Here is the text about Jesus’ reading:
Luke 4:16-22 (ESV) 16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, … 20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
The story / stories of and about Jesus took shape in what became the four Gospels (“Gospel” comes from the term “good news”): Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and is some of the early Epistles (letters). Christians reached stability in identifying the body of twenty-seven “books” that make up the New Testament by the mid-4th century.
There is considerable scholarly disagreement over the dating of the New Testament; some of us date all of what becomes the New Testament as written in the first century of the Common Era while others push the date out to the late second century. In our view, the dating of the New Testament and the different historical evaluations of its reliability often reflect philosophical presuppositions. So, if you believe there is no God, no possibility of an incarnation, miracles are always irrational to believe occurred, and so on, then you are going to date the writings as late as is credible. If you are a theist or do not rule theism out, and you think it is possible that Jesus might have predicted some things (like the destruction of the temple) some 40 years after his death, then you will be less inclined to insist that Jesus’ prediction and the other stories of Jesus had to have taken shape over 40 years after his death. John Robinson addresses this in his text Redating the New Testament.
Christians over the centuries have taken different positions on the authority and nature of the Bible (Old and New Testament), and there have been radically different positions on the Bible by historians since the Enlightenment. Philosophers such as Spinoza, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and others were critical of the Biblical accounts of miracles and the supernatural in general (demon possessions, angels announcing the coming of the Messiah, a resurrection from the dead). Some Christian theologians from the 18th century on have shared such reservations and engaged in different levels of “demythologizing” the Biblical narratives. In a sense, these more skeptical Christians were applying a practice of early theologians who interpreted some Biblical narratives as allegories or parables. This was in keeping with early Jewish philosophers such as Philo. But the case against the supernatural has not (in our view) been definitive and there are many replies to, for example, Hume’s argument against the rational believability of miracles, including Hume’s Abject Failure, The Cambridge Companion to Miracles, and Taliaferro and Hendrickson’s essay “Hume’s Racism and His Case against the Miraculous.”
In terms of the evidential reliability of the New Testament, a useful comparison could be to contrast the work of Marcus Borg (who sees the New Testament as more a document of faith than history) with N.T. Wright.
Some Christians, especially starting in the Reformation adopted a theology of Sola Scriptura (only by Scripture or Scripture alone) and used this as grounds for breaking with Roman Catholicism and its recourse to tradition and what the Reformers saw as idolatry and additions to Christian expected practices that either had no scriptural foundation or was contrary to Scripture. Those affirming Sola Scriptura divide between those who believe that nothing should be added that is not in Scripture or cannot be derived (as entailed by Scripture) versus holding that material can be added (creeds, ecclesiastic or cannon law) so long as it is not contrary to scripture. But Reformers (in general) thought that the ideas that clergy had to be celebrate, that monasteries were special sites of vocations that marked a more sacred calling than ordinary work, and so on, were accretions to the more authentic gospel of the early church. Christians in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and other traditions have tended to hold that the Bible is a means of divine revelation (and in some sense may be said to contain revelation) that is subject to God’s ongoing providential inspiration, and our use of reason. One text frequently referred to in recognizing that the community of the followers of Jesus will be led to further truths or deeper understandings of revealed truths is John 14:26 in which Jesus says: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
This has been taken by some Christians to recognize that the meaning and interpretation of scripture needs to balanced with tradition and reason in order to find its meaning as divine revelation. A related principle to consider in using the Bible as a source of ethics concerns what is called ‘accommodation.’ This is addressed next. But what may be important to appreciate here is that Christians may be genuine Christians (followers of Christ) and yet diverge in the ethical lessons to be drawn from the New Testament portrait of Jesus. Some will see divine revelation in and through what we may see in the New Testament as identified as right and wrong, good and bad, as God’s actual will and nature. Others will see in the New Testament a record of what devout and earnest followers of God (and Christ) believe to be God’s actual will and nature, while others see the New Testament as a mixture of the declaration of a good news (Gospel) for all of everlasting significance but in terms that are less than everlasting.
Accommodation and Ethics
Theologians have sometimes used the term ‘accommodation’ to convey the idea that in divine revelation and especially in the life of Christ, in order for God’s word to be communicative in terms that are understandable, there must be some accommodation or incorporation of what was believed at the time. Imagine that during the Sermon on the Mount Jesus started teaching about quantum mechanics. How far accommodation may be assumed will depend on the gravity of the issues. So, it is one thing to think that God might appear to accommodate eating meat when this is something God wills to be ultimately and over time abolished and another thing to think that God would countenance anthropopathagy for a time…. The later (except in extremity) seems incompatible with God’s moral attributes.
As Christians historically sought to come to terms with pre-Christian Jewish practices, there tended to be distinctions made between the laws (as these are found in the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament) that are civil, ceremonial or ritualistic, culturally and temporally specific versus enduring. So, the proclamation of the “New Covenant” in and by Christ is thought (by most Christians) to set aside the dietary restrictions of the Mosaic covenant (no pork or shellfish) and ceremonial rites (the garments specified for priests), and well as circumcision. Christians sometimes distinguish between the abolishing of the [earlier] laws or their fulfillment.
Anthropomorphism and the Bible
Jewish and Christian philosophers / theologians have wrestled on when to treat the language of God in the Bible as literal or metaphorical. It is almost always assumed that the language in which God is described as having eyes or ears is metaphorical, but what about texts that describe God as angry? Here there might be genuine disagreement. Consider, however, this text from Miroslav Volf –who was born in Croatia and lived through the horrors of mass killings. In this text he explains why he came to believe that God is indeed outraged / angry / wrathful over injustice:
“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”
The focus on how to read and understand the language in the Bible about God is important from the standpoint of Christian ethics. In terms of the wrath of God, there are at least two possible readings: one is that this is the interpolation of a merely human projection and the other is that one should think of divine wrath as a vital important dimension of the wrath we are called to have in the face of injustice.
A fundamental precept in Christian ethics is expressed in Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” It is on these grounds that Christians are not to overcome or meet hate with hate, rage with rage, envy with envy and so on. Even in the case of one’s own moral or spiritual formation, one is to seek to mortify a vice by cultivating the opposite virtue. So, in overcoming impatient spite one needs to cultivate patient compassion, and so on.
The precept that we should overcome evil with goodness leads observant Christian to regard worthy sacrifices (or sacrifices that are permissible or saintly or sacred) as the giving up of something good to bring about something good, rather than committing an evil act (for example) to prevent a worse evil. An example: A Christian may give up the food he needs if he is to live to another person in order that they might live. In the course of this transaction, imagine the Christian dies. This self-sacrifice may be deemed sacred and worthy on the assumption that the Christian was motivated to show love by providing the needed food. But this would be considered a tarnished good if the real reason was that the Christian wanted to commit suicide or he gave the food so that the other person might live to undergo an even worse fate. This leads us to consider a theology of sacrifice more closely.
Sacrifice in Christian Religious Tradition
The term ‘sacred’ is derived from the term for ‘sacrifice.’ Often in religious traditions some sacrifice is involved in the face of the sacred. One might engage in a fast, give alms to the poor, go out of your way to assist someone in trouble, undertake vigils and so on. And, ultimately, there are supreme sacrifices as when a person sacrifices her or his life. In terms of sacrificing ritually (as when a Christian may fast on certain holy days) the sacrifice involves the foregoing of some good (e.g. not eating as much as one does normally) It is not, however, the giving up or moderating of a vice. So, giving up smoking tobacco during Lent is not considered acceptable. And, for an alcoholic, giving up alcohol for Lent is not licit. But if one is not an addict and enjoys wine (for example) in a healthy, moderate fashion, giving up wine would be a suitable sacrifice for Lent. In the case of self-sacrifice or the sacrificing of oneself, there are strictures, for it is not permissible for a Christian to give up her life for unworthy ends (e.g. to engage in thrill-seeking, high-risk sports without any training or equipment). Martyrdom is a case of when a Christian gives up her life as a witness to the faith. The church has distinguished between types of martyrdom: a red martyr gives up her life; a white martyr gives up what she loves (but not necessarily her life).
Christian Ethics and Homicide
Christian philosophers have rarely claimed that we would not know that homicide is wrong unless this was revealed to us (e.g. in the 10 commandments). The prohibition against homicide is, however, strengthened by its being part of the Decalogue. Many Christian theologians (but not all) have held that directly intending to kill another human person is wrong. In self-defense, for example, Thomas Aquinas claimed it was permissible to intend to stop an unjust assailant from killing yourself or another person (you may act to defend another person on the basis of her right to life) but this is distinct from directly willing or intending to kill another person. Christians also distinguish the right to self-defense from the duty of self-defense. If you have a duty to defend yourself, it would not be permissible for you to wave this duty unless you had very strong reasons to do so. Some of the ways in which Christians disagree about the ethics of homicide come to the fore in considering capital punishment. For example, one reason why Roman Catholic theologians oppose capital punishment is that they believe that while a person who unjustly kills another person cannot make restitution for the act (i.e. cannot bring the victim back to life), he can make for some compensation in the way of service or goods to be given to family members, survivors, etc. Not executing a criminal at least opens the door for some good (perhaps through labor producing goods) in which a penitent criminal can make some (albeit imperfect) restitution. For a survey of positions, see The Ethics of Homicide by Philip Devine. Also, see The Ethics of Killing by Jeff McMahan.
For recent defenses of pacifism or nonviolence from a Christian point of view, see the work of Stanley Hauerwas and John Yoder. For a celebrated recent case that Christianity supports an ethics of nonviolence, see The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays.
Some editors of this site are impressed by Hays, Yoder, and Hauerwas, but we also think that they often do not allow for cases of when resorting to lethal force may be (not just compatible with but) required by love and compassion. There is little place in their ethic for righteous anger that leads to proportionate force. The New Testament seems (with all its diversity) to give rise to a clear, divinely commanded practice of love –love must be pure (not motivated by greed or manipulation) and unilateral (that is, the command to love is not conditioned by reciprocation, e.g. you should love those who love you), but it may be argued that this does not entail pacifism. There is an interesting case against Christian pacifism in Nigel Biggar’s book In Defence of War.
Christianity and salvation
In terms of the ethos of the New Testament and much of Christian tradition, we (creatures) are at enmity or alienated from God. In a central case of model of salvation, a person may be in discord with God due to self-centered vices. Salvation occurs through a process of confession, repentence, seeking union with God through the life and death and resurrection of Christ. See the entry on Atonement for further material on the nuanced different models of Christ’s saving work. Here are three additional points.
First, salvation (in Christian tradition) in terms of “believing in Jesus Christ” is not “believing” in the noetic or propositional sense, e.g. Someone says (sincerely) Jesus Christ is God incarnate is not necessarily “saved.” The term translated as “believe” would be more accurately translated as “trust.”
Second, many Christians hold that salvation is through Jesus Christ, yet this does not mean that salvation only takes place when a person explicitly comes to trust Christ and seeks union with God through Christ. It may be that Christ is active in a person’s life but appearing as a moral principle, a calling to live a life of humility and compassion, and so on. As suggested in the entry on atheism, it may be that a professing theist (a Christian one, let us imagine) could be less of a theist or less of a Christian than a professed non-Christian atheist. The importance of a personal experiential encounter with Jesus is warranted in light of the New Testament and Christian tradition, but it need require be explicit or only in this life (from a Christian point of view). This brings up a third point.
Third, to those who are not Christians it may appear that “salvation” is an all or nothing matter, and a crucial step that needs to occur to participate in a Christian community. “Baptism” is a rite that most Christians do adhere to as marking an entry into the church, but it may be that “being saved” is more like “being forgiving” – it can take time to forgive someone, and being “rescued” from one’s being vain (for example) can take time.
Original Sin and Past Injustice
Christians have (in general) limited moral considerations to those matters that are within the control of persons but there has also been a significant endorsement of the idea that a person can either inherent collective obligations due to ancestral acts and one can also inherit burdens from ancestral sins.
As for the first, the Christian endorsement of the importance of an inter-generational community (the church) over time, if the church at one time makes a commitment or covenant it can bind future members of the church to such a commitment. So, after the second world war, the Roman Catholic Church made a series of commitments to expunge anti-semitism. These commitments would be invalid unless they are considered binding for future generations of Christians.
In terms of inheriting burdens, there is the notion of ‘original sin.’ One way to provide some intuitive support for this idea is the following: Imagine that you are a person who was conceived by a wrongful act. Most heinously, we can suppose this was due to rape, but we can imagine less violent acts (imagine that the mother deceived the father through identity theft). Let’s assume that it is obvious that such an act should not have taken place. If we also assume that you would not have come into being without that act, then there is a sense in which you should not have been born. What follows from this? We suggest that if we were to discover that we were the result of a wrongful act, this would be a reason for us to have some grief or sadness; we would very probably wish that the past was different. And we might endeavor to live a good, morally rich life in part to put as much distance as possible between oneself and the sins of ones parents. This thought experiment is not (we should add) a mere thought experiment. The military historian John Keegan (who died in 2012) has claimed that it is highly unlikely that any human being does not have as an ancestor someone who has killed, raped, deceived …others. One might add, that if there can be original sins, there can also be original blessings, ways in which a person might be the recipient of the gift of life.
Intentionality and Responsibility
Christians have placed a great deal of stress on discerning when someone acts with voluntary intentionality. They distinguish voluntary, free, deliberate acts from acts that are spontaneous or unreflective. Aquinas noted that deliberate action involves choice (vis elective) which occurs when a subject considers: Shall I resist this desire? Shall I acquiesce and do what I want? This involves what is sometimes called interrogative awareness. Because some of our intentional action has temporal implications, there are distinctions between when one (for example) intentionally chooses to travel to Istanbul and one voluntarily boards a plane that is flying there, and the person deciding (half way through the trip) that he does not wish or intend to go to Istanbul. Imagine that there are many reasons why the plane cannot reverse course, and so on. The first intention secures that the passenger acted voluntarily and so the second intention (or change of mine) does not make the passenger a hostage.
In secular contexts, the intention behind an act that is ostensibly criminal is often relevant, but sometimes quite difficult to process legally. Consider this classic case (that appears to come from a kind of Downton Abbey setting):
“Lady Eldon, traveling on the Continent, bought what she supposed to be a quantity of French lace, which she hid, concealing it in one of the pockets of the coach. But the package was discovered by the customs officer at Dover. The lace turned out to be an English manufactured article of little value, and, of course, not subject to duty. She had bought it at a price far above its value, believing it to be genuine, intending to smuggle it into England.”
Given these details, it seems that she is guilty of attempting to do something (she believes to be) wrong, but given that the act itself was not wrong, the law seems to be silent on the matter. If Lady Eldon is a Christian, she needs to confess her sin and make amends, however. To take a less trivial and more serious case: imagine that a person wants to kill his neighbor and, to do so, he fires his rifle at a shape he believes is his neighbor but it turns out to be an old tree. Assuming the person does not go on to find the neighbor and try again (imagine after firing he changes his mind), the law would have little room to record and penalize the person. But, from the standpoint of God (who knows the secrets of the heart) the person.
The vice of being good out of fear of punishment: there is an important distinction between attrition and contrition in Christian ethics. If you are good because you fear punishment (including fear of hell) and express sorrow, this is called attrition, whereas if you seek to be good for the love of God and goodness and are sorrowful when you do not live up to this calling and express sorrow, this is called contrition. Attrition is not always condemned in Christian theology – it may be seen as an imperfect but early sign of contrition. But the endpoint in Christian life is to seek the good for the sake of goodness and thus, when on falters, to feel contrition rather than attrition.
On fear: fear in Christian ethics is not necessarily a vice, but a natural response to the apprehension of a danger, present or future. Theologians sometimes distinguish between serious fear and trifling fear, and are observant of when such fears are vices (fear of exposure for some past wrong) or constitutive of a virtue (one fears that one’s partner may go blind).
Sins: Internal, External, Actual or Occasioned
As noted earlier, Christian ethics has tended to put stress on the significance of intentions, desires, wishes of persons as well as the external actions of persons. From such a standpoint Christian ethicists have tended to think that it is sinful to intentionally desire or to cultivate the desire to do something sinful even if this desire is never acted on externally. This topic, perhaps more than most, brings to the fore that in Christian ethics it is rare to think of sin as something private or restricted to the individual – restricted even from the eyes and life of God. Christians have sometimes taught that it can be a sin to deliberately put oneself in a state of affairs where it is likely that one will sin. In a sense, this collapses the difference between committing an actual sin versus only creating the occasion for sin.
In Christian ethics it is a duty that parents provide aliment (support or maintenance) for children (whether the birth is from marriage or outside of marriage). Aliment refers to whatever is necessary to sustain a healthy life (and thus, the care extends beyond minimal food and shelter). When a Christian joins a Christian community such as a monastery, it is often assumed that this is a form of adoption and there is a rightful expectation of aliment. Of course, when a parent is unable to prove aliment, provisions are expected to be undertaken (perhaps through placing a child up for adoption) to the best of one’s ability.
Being freed from sin. It is a term more at home in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican rather than Protestant and Reformed churches, for it absolution is sometimes seen as a priestly forgiveness or a proclamation of the remission (withdrawal) of sin after a penitent has expressed contrition in confession, made a promise of satisfaction (restitution for past wrongs) and repentance.