Digest of terms

Christian ethics

From the outset, as evidenced already in the New Testament writings, Christian ethical teachings have been very varied. In principle the example and teaching of Jesus have been the foundational source, but the written gospel sources do not provide a consistent account of either. On the one hand he is represented as advocating the meticulous observance of Torah (see Jewish Ethics), on the other as undermining it. The Sermon on the Mount has been upheld as inspiring, but subjected to a bewildering variety of interpretations, and rarely taken seriously in practice. The famous summary of Torah, to love God and one's neighbour as oneself, is regarded as authoritative, but controversies over its application have remained unresolved. In so far as there are norms associated with a coming Kingdom of God, scholars disagree over whether these are intended to be realized in the here and now or deferred to a long distance future. What may perhaps be agreed (though not by all) is that his teaching, however interpreted, focuses on a personal rather than a social ethic. This allows some flexibility for Christians to adapt to changing social circumstances, but at the price of lack of agreement on how to do so.

With Paul and the early church we find, in addition to a personal ethic, the beginning of an internal community ethic, as Christians are exhorted to love one another. Yet again, though, there is divergence: sometimes wives are declared to be of equal status with husbands, and women with men, while at others they are subordinated in traditional patriarchal fashion, both Jewish and Hellenistic. Moreover some ethical teaching is predicated on an erroneous eschatology - at least temporarily, many in the early church expected the imminent return of Christ and a Final Judgment, so there was no point in developing a long-term ethic because the time was short in a doomed world. The ethical consequences of this error would prove longstanding leeway for: acquiescence in slavery, an elevation (perhaps unintended) of celibacy over marriage (since in the short term marriage is an encumbrance), and acceptance of state authority as divinely ordained. Only in these respects is there the beginning of a specifically social ethic.

As Christianity gradually became dominant, theologians, while they already drew on the Hebrew Bible (their Old Testament) with its prophetic concern for social justice, increasingly turned to Greek philosophy to help supply the deficiency in their resources. This would eventually culminate in the Christian Aristotelian synthesis of Thomas Aquinas, and a strong doctrine of Natural Law, which in turn, from the 18c onwards, would generate doctrines of natural and, eventually, human rights. In the application of both social and personal values a place was safeguarded for the role of informed individual conscience.

The question arose of whether right conduct is to be approved simply because it is right - and discernible as such by reason, or whether it is right simply because God commanded it (see Euthyphro Dilemma). The first option connected with natural law theory, received strong support from Aquinas, and became the dominant tradition, but the second option also had its champions. Mediating positions continue to be explored.

In the Roman Catholic church a complex system of Canon Law and casuistry was developed, an impulse analogous to the emergence of sharia in Islam and halakha in Judaism (Muslim Ethics, Jewish Ethics). At the other end of the spectrum, in recent Situation Ethics, rules and regulations are subordinate to the overriding value of Christian love, agape - a position akin to secular act utilitarianism, though with clear New Testament precedents.

Further variants include a 'church' ethic and a 'sect' ethic. The former accepts the need for compromise with the world and its standards, e.g. in developing a Just War theory; the latter seeks to avoid compromise in order to uphold an allegedly pure Christian ethic, e.g. pacifism, and therefore tending to limit worldly contacts. Monasticism may be seen as an expression of this, radically challenging predominant social norms but remaining within the ecclesiastical institution. Sectarian stances continue to this day, especially among Protestants, but some originally sectarian groups like the Baptists gradually evolved into more church-like denominations.

The variety of Christian ethical stances remains apparent in talk of, say, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and Calvinist traditions, although recent decades have seen strong attempts at greater unity in the ecumenical movement. On specifically ethical issues, however, disagreement frequently cuts across denominational lines, with controversy raging over issues ranging from homosexuality, divorce, contraception, abortion and women's rights (and the ordination of women) to pacifism or nuclear deterrence. Christian voices often blend with secular opinions on all sides in these debates, and the relation between specifically Christian ethics and broader human morality (Humanist Ethics) remains a matter of debate, as does the question of what indeed should count as a specifically Christian ethic.

This website uses cookies to improve your user experience. By using the site, you agree to our use of cookies. For more information about how we use cookies click here.