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Christian ethics

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Sermon on the Mount (1877, by Carl Bloch) depicts Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in which he commented on the Old Covenant and summarized his teachings. Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant.[1]
Sermon on the Mount (1877, by Carl Bloch) depicts Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in which he commented on the Old Covenant and summarized his teachings. Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant.[1]

Christian ethics is a branch of Christian theology that defines virtuous behavior and wrong behavior from a Christian perspective. Systematic theological study of Christian ethics is called moral theology.

Christian virtues are often divided into four cardinal virtues and three theological virtues. Christian ethics includes questions regarding how the rich should act toward the poor, how women are to be treated, and the morality of war. Christian ethicists, like other ethicists, approach ethics from different frameworks and perspectives. The approach of virtue ethics has also become popular in recent decades, largely due to the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Hauerwas.[2]

The curriculum for seminary formation of Catholic priests commonly includes multiple, required courses in Catholic moral theology.

Historical development


In the Wesleyan tradition, Christian theology (and thus Christian ethics) are informed by four distinguishable sources known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The four sources are scripture, tradition, reason, and Christian experience.[3]

According to D. Stephen Long, Jewish ethics and the life of Jesus figure prominently in Christian ethics,[4] but "The Bible is the universal and fundamental source of specifically Christian ethics".[5] Long also claims "Christian ethics finds its source in diverse means, but it primarily emerges from the biblical narrative".[6]

From its beginnings, Christian ethics has also had a sometimes intimate, sometimes uneasy, relationship with Greek, Hellenistic and Roman philosophy.[7]:16

According to Fr. Servais Pinckaers, the sources of Christian ethics are the "Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, the Gospel law, and natural law" which is seen, in the Bible, as humankind's natural moral inclination to truth and goodness which "provides the first principles of moral action".[8]:xxi, xiii

New Testament

The New Testament can be seen as both a contributor to, and a product of, early Christian ethics.[7]:1 The earliest Christian writers depended most heavily upon the Hebrew canon, even while in the process of writing the New Testament.[7]:1

The tremendous diversity of the Bible means that it does not have a single ethical perspective. It has a variety of perspectives which have created points of conflict for Christian ethics.[7]:2,3 Since the New Testament became the accepted canon, Christians have, in general, seen it, and the Old Testament, as morally authoritative. Seeing it as the revealed Word of God, it is used "to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness".[9][10] But reason has also been a foundation for Christian ethics, right alongside revelation, and Christian ethicists have not always agreed upon "the meaning of revelation, the nature of reason and the proper way to employ the two together."[7]:3,5

Other ethical conflicts created by the diversity of the Bible are found, for example, where the Bible strongly affirms "the goodness of created, physical, even sensual existence" yet also asserts the spiritual as transcending it.[7]:6 "Much of the work of twenty centuries of Christian ethics has been an effort to resolve this tension."[7]:6 Within the New Testament, there is a tension between inclusivity and exclusivity, as there is in all three of the Abrahamic religions. The God of the Bible is the inclusive God of all nations and all people, yet there is also "special membership" in the exclusive community identified with Him. Christians and non-Christians have, throughout much of history, interacted on significant moral and legal questions concerning this particular conflict.[7]:8 The value of each individual life, and the self-sacrifice necessary for the health of community, are ethical conflicts found in the nature of Grace and Law. Christian ethics requires doing justice to both sides.[7]:9 Paul is the source of the phrase "Law of Christ", though its meaning and the relationship of Paul of Tarsus and Judaism are disputed. Justice and mercy are also areas of conflicting ethics.

A related ethical conflict is between the love of God and the use of political force for moral ends such as upholding law. The New Testament generally asserts that all morality flows from the Great Commandment, to love God with all one's heart, mind, strength, and soul, and to love one's neighbour as oneself. In this, Jesus was reaffirming teachings of Deut 6:4–9 and Lev 19:18. Christ united these commands together and proposed himself as a model of the love required in John 13:12, known also as the New Commandment. Yet political authority and responsibility are also recognized as necessary and even good. Jesus says "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" (Matthew 22:21). Other passages such as Romans 13:1,4 and 1 Peter 2.13–14 seem to indicate that "political authority, even when expressed through the power of the sword, is a part of the divine scheme of things".[7]:11 How such opposing concepts can be reconciled has fueled debates through twenty centuries of Christian ethics.[7]:12 There has also been enough conflict between the biblical concepts of respect for authority and teachings of equality to "provide grounds for enduring controversy".[7]:15 The Bible says people are created in the image of God and capable of goodness and morality, and they are also naturally sinful and fallen.[7]:88

These are the biblical reference points to which all Christian ethics has repeatedly returned.[7]:15

Early Christianity

Christian ethics began its development during the period of Early Christianity which is generally thought to have begun with the ministry of Jesus (c. 27-30) and ended with the First Council of Nicaea (325).[11][12]:51 It emerged out of the heritage shared by both Judaism and Christianity with scholars such as J. Philip Wogaman saying that the earliest Christian writers depended heavily on the Hebrew scriptures.[13]:1 From its beginnings, Christian ethics depended on such ancient traditions, including important legacies from Greek and Hellenistic philosophy.[13]:1,16 Early Greek philosophers such as Thales, Heraclitus, and Democritus, Plato and Aristotle, were convinced that rationally explainable principles could be found that would bring coherence to human understanding.[13]:17,18 The movements their views created helped set the agenda for Christian ethics.[13]:18–21

The Council of Jerusalem, as reported in Acts 15, may have been held in Jerusalem about 50AD. Its decree, known as the Apostolic Decree, was held as generally binding for several centuries and is still observed today by the Greek Orthodox.[14] Toward the end of the second century, more sophisticated thinking began to appear.[13]:24 This thinking owed much to Platonism, and became increasingly dominant among orthodox Christian authors.[11]

"The world of the earliest Christian centuries was framed by the Roman empire" where Christians had little political influence for three centuries.[13]:23 Many aspects of Roman life conflicted with central aspects of the Christian faith, and it became necessary for the church to think through the meaning of those for Christians. Early Christian writings give evidence of "a vivid reaction to the social setting" as Christian ethics sought "moral instruction on specific problems and practices".[13]:24 These were not sophisticated ethical analyses, but were instead the practical application of the teachings and example of Jesus to confront specific issues.[13]:24 The Christian minority felt the pressure to defend their theology, ethics, practices and rituals in the face of legal and cultural hostility.[11] This "age of the apologists" lasted through the second and third centuries.

After Christianity became legal in the fourth century, the range and sophistication of Christian ethics expanded and had a defining and lasting influence upon Christian thought through such figures as Augustine.[11] :774 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.[15]

The Middle Ages

Penitence and virtue

In the centuries following the fall of the Roman empire, practices of penance and repentance, and a recognition of the vices that lead to a need for them, became practical considerations.[12]:52–56 Monks carried the practice of penance with them on their missionary journeys, using books known as penitentials which listed known sins and what should be done to remedy them.[12]:57 These were often arbitrary personal opinions, with a lack of systemization that created more problems for the church than they solved.[12]:57 In the 8th and 9th centuries, the Penitentials were subject to Carolingian reforms furthering the development of Christian ethics.[12]:58

It was determined there are "7 capital sins... 7 works of mercy, 7 sacraments, 7 principle virtues, 7 gifts of the Spirit, 8 beatitudes, 10 commandments, 12 articles of faith and 12 fruits of faith". This was explained as part of the numerical symbolism of the Bible.[16]:287 The seven Christian virtues are from two sets of virtues. The four cardinal virtues are Prudence which is self-discipline through reason, Justice which is fair-play and respect for others, Restraint (or Temperance) which is moderation in all things, and Fortitude, the strength that enables courage in the face of adversity. The cardinal virtues are so called because they are regarded as the basic virtues required for a virtuous life. The three theological virtues, are Faith, Hope, and Love (or Charity).

The ethics of mysticism accentuated the inner nature of relationship to God.[16]:288 Additional virtues, such as the "Fruit of the Holy Spirit" were the frequent focus of Christian meditation. Found in Galatians 5:22–23, the previous text has explained that laws are aimed at wrongdoing: "By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit it is benevolent-love: joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, benevolence, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is absolutely no law against such a thing."[17]

The medieval and renaissance periods saw a number of models of sin listing the seven deadly sins and the virtues opposed to each.

(Sin) Latin Virtue Latin
Pride Superbia Humility Humilitas
Envy Invidia Kindness Benevolentia
Gluttony Gula Temperance Temperantia
Lust Luxuria Chastity Castitas
Wrath Ira Patience Patientia
Greed Avaritia Charity Caritas
Sloth Acedia Diligence Industria
  • Prudence: also described as wisdom, the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time
  • Justice: also considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue[18]
  • Temperance: also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, and moderation tempering the appetition
  • Courage: also termed fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation
  • Faith: belief in God, and in the truth of His revelation as well as obedience to Him (cf. Rom 1:5:16:26)[19][20]
  • Hope: expectation of and desire of receiving; refraining from despair and capability of not giving up. The belief that God will be eternally present in every human's life and never giving up on His love.
  • Charity: a supernatural virtue that helps us love God and our neighbors, the same way as we love ourselves.

The Jews

According to Anna Sapir Abulafia, "Most scholars would agree that, with the marked exception of Visigothic Spain in the seventh century, Jews in Latin Christendom lived relatively peacefully with their Christian neighbors through most of the Middle Ages."[21]:xii[22]:3 Jeremy Cohen says historians generally agree this is because, before the 1200s, the church followed the ethic of Augustine of Hippo who had rejected those who argued that the Jews should be killed, or forcibly converted. Augustine taught that Jews should be allowed to live in Christian societies and practice Judaism without interference because they preserved the teachings of the Old Testament and were living witnesses of the truths of the New Testament.[23]:78–80


In 1096, the church launched the First crusade as a just war response to a call to defend others. Jonathan Riley-Smith says the crusades were products of the renewed spirituality of the central Middle Ages as much as they were of political circumstances.[24]:177 Senior churchmen of this time presented the concept of Christian love to the faithful as the reason to take up arms.[24]:177 From its early days, Christian ethics had generally frowned upon participation in the military, but in the Middle Ages, the idea of chivalry began to form, and the ideal of the religious warrior who fought for justice, defended truth, and protected the weak and the innocent was created.[25]:130–132 Riley-Smith concludes, "The charity of St. Francis may now appeal to us more than that of the crusaders, but both sprang from the same roots."[24]:180,190–2 The crusades made a powerful contribution to Christian ethics through the concept of Christian chivalry, "imbuing their Christian participants with what they believed to be a noble cause, for which they fought in a spirit of self-sacrifice. However, in another sense, they marked a qualitative degeneration in behavior for those involved, for they engendered and strengthened hostile attitudes..."[26]:51

Scholasticism and Thomism

Marco da Montegallo, Libro dei comandamenti di Dio ("Book of the Commandments of God"), 1494
Marco da Montegallo, Libro dei comandamenti di Dio ("Book of the Commandments of God"), 1494

From about 1000 onward, the monastic school system that had briefly existed under Charlemagne, was revived. By 1200 the Universities arose.[27]:219 The curriculum was based on the seven liberal arts codified by Boethius in the sixth century: "the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music)".[27]:220 There was no department of ethics, no separate class of ethics.[28]

Classical writings, notably those of Aristotle, which had previously been known only through inaccurate Latin translations, were replaced in the twelfth century with more accurate translations from copies in Arabic left by Muslims with the Jews in Spain.[27]:221 Their arrival caused an intellectual revolution, and by 1300, Aristotle's writings monopolized school curriculum at every level and elevated Aristotle to "the status of an authority whose word could not be questioned".[27]:220,221 This led to the body of thought called scholasticism.[27]:221

In general, scholasticism involved harmonizing Aristotelian and Christian thought, but it was also a system of reasoning and a method of debate. It used deductive logic to clarify existing issues and explore the intellectual ramifications of any particular topic. The debate method was the favorite of the universities who regularly held quodlibetals, or what Americans might call "Town hall meetings", where questions were not limited to friend or foe.[29] Quodlibetal is from the Latin quod (what) + libet (it pleases), meaning the topic of these debates was “whatever pleased” the debaters.[30] The most famous of the quodlibetal leaders is probably Thomas Aquinas who, as a professor at the University of Paris two separate times (1252 to 1259 and again from 1269 to 1272), answered "questions from the floor in a public context".[29][27]:221

The influx of Greek thinking caused controversy. On the one hand, the theological faculty in Paris were scholastics, and on the other hand was the art's faculty, (called Latin Averroists after the Arabic philosopher Ibn Rushd known in the West as Averroes), who wanted philosophy separated from theology and reason fully divorced from faith.[27]:221 The view that resolved the conflict was the via media, the view of Thomas Aquinas. He avoided the pure rationalism of the Averrosits while still giving Aristotle a central role and honoring Christian beliefs. Known as Thomism, "this theological system in its complex design and sheer elegance remains one of the outstanding achievements of the High Middle Ages".[27]:222

In his masterpiece - the Summa Theologica - Aquinas says reason and faith are both paths to truth, and human senses are the only source for human knowledge.[27]:222 Aquinas locates ethics within the context of theology as much as philosophy. 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".[31] The question of beatitudo, perfect happiness in the possession of God, is posited as the goal of human life. Thomas also argues that the human being by reflection on human nature's inclinations discovers a law, that is the natural law, which is "man's participation in the divine law".[32] Aquinas saw secular life as natural and necessary and believed that "natural law - which derived from the divine order - offered a correct guide to individuals and society". Rejecting Augustine's view, he followed Aristotle in "claiming that a settled society with justice for all is the highest human goal on earth".[27]:222

Aquinas defined "love" for the Christian believer as "to will the good of another".[33] Aquinas supported tolerance as a general principle. He taught that governing well included tolerating some evil in order to foster good or prevent worse evil.[34] But in his Summa Theologica II-II qu. 11, art. 3, he adds that heretics — after two fruitless admonitions — deserve only excommunication and death.[35] Thomism had a lasting impact on Christian ethics. Six hundred years after his death, the papacy declared (in 1874) that Thomism was the official philosophy of Roman Catholic thought.[36][27]:222


The veneration of the Virgin Mary began to flourish in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries with the invention of "affective piety", the “tenderness for the human suffering Christ” that exhibited itself in compassion toward the suffering of others.[37]


R. I. Moore calls the 1100s "pivotal" because this is when Europe began laying the foundation for its gradual transformation from the medieval to the early modern era of the 1400s.[38]:154[38]:ix According to Moore, and other contemporary scholars such as John D. Cotts and Peter D. Diehl "the growth of secular power and the pursuit of secular interests, constituted the essential context of the developments that led to a persecuting society."[38]:4,5[39]:8–10 [40]:224 Moore explains that the church "played a significant role in the formation of the persecuting society but not the leading one."[38]:146 Still, the centralization and secularization that was going on in society also took place within the church, and the church gradually began to resemble its secular counterparts in its conduct, thought, objectives, and ethics.[41]:72

By the 1200s, both civil and canon law had become such a major aspect of ecclesiastical culture that law began dominating Christian ethics.[42]:382 Most bishops and Popes were trained lawyers rather than theologians.[42]:382 The legal regulations of the church, and divine moral law, became confounded, and the moral principle was lowered to the level of jural legislation.[16]:286 "This mixing of the ethical and the juridicial was communicated to the whole thinking of the age".[16]:292 In the High Middle Ages, the religion that had begun centuries before by decrying the power of law (Romans 7:6), developed the most complex religious law the world has ever seen. It was a system in which the ethics of equity and universality were largely overlooked.[42]:382 Ethics of this period became little more than an extension of law which was then used to aid the state in the production of new rhetoric, patterns, and procedures of exclusion and persecution.[40]:224[39]:8–10

Heresy was a religious, political, and social issue, and "the first stirrings of violence against dissidents were usually the result of popular resentment". This resentment was often demonstrated by mobs murdering heretics. Most historians agree this breakdown of social order was what led to the medieval inquisitions.[43]:189 Leaders reasoned that both lay and church authority had an obligation to step in when sedition, peace, or the general stability of society was at issue.[43]:189 Because the Late Roman Empire had developed an inquisitorial system of justice that seemed useful in these circumstances, that system was revived in the Middle Ages. Essentially, the church reintroduced Roman law in Europe in the form of the Inquisition when it seemed that Germanic law had failed.[44] This revival of Roman law made it possible for Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) to make heresy a political question when he took Roman law's doctrine of lèse-majesté, and combined it with his view of heresy as laid out in the 1199 decretal Vergentis in senium, thereby ethically, and theologically, equating heresy with treason against God.[44]

Jacob J. Schacter and Elisheva Carlebach reference eminent historian David Berger saying historians agree that the period which spanned the eleventh to the thirteenth century was a turning point in Jewish-Christian relations.[45]:2 This led the church to sometimes support mistreatment of Jews, and at other times, still oppose it and protect them. Political authorities maintained order by keeping groups separated both legally and physically in what would be referred to in the twenty-first century as segregation.[46]:7,8 Christian ethics said nothing to oppose this because, in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council, known as the Great Council, had met and accepted 70 canons of church law, the last three of which required Jews to distinguish themselves from Christians in their dress, prohibited them from holding public office, and prohibited Jewish converts from continuing to practice Jewish rituals.[45]:58[38]:7 "Officially, the medieval Catholic church never advocated the expulsion of all the Jews from Christendom, or repudiated Augustine's doctrine of Jewish witness... Still, late medieval Christendom frequently ignored its mandates..."[47]:396[48]:222

In the Northern crusades, monks and priests had to work with the secular rulers, on the ruler's terms, and the military leaders seldom cared about taking the time for peaceful conversion.[49]:2[50]:76 "While the theologians maintained that conversion should be voluntary, there was a widespread pragmatic acceptance of conversion obtained through political pressure or military coercion".[50]:24 The Church's acceptance of this led some commentators of the time to endorse it, something Christian ethics had never done before.[51]:157–158 [50]:24


By the time of the early Reformation, (1400 — 1600), the conviction developed among many early Protestants that pioneering the ethics of religious freedom and religious toleration was necessary.[52]:3 There was a concerted campaign for tolerance in mid-sixteenth century northwestern Switzerland in the town of Basle. Sebastian Castellio, who was among the earliest of the reformers to advocate both religious and political tolerance, had moved to Basle after he was exiled from France. Castellio's argument for toleration was essentially theological and ethical: "By casting judgment on the belief of others, don't you take the place of God?"[53]:907,908 He also pled for social stability and peaceful co-existence.[53]:908 Making similar arguments were, Anabaptist David Joris (1501 - 1556) from the Netherlands, and the Italian reformer Jacobus Acontius (1492 - 1566) who also gathered with Castellio in Basle. Other advocates of religious tolerance, Mino Celsi (1514 - 1576) and Bernardino Ochino (1487–1564), joined them, publishing their works on toleration in that city.[52]:3[54] In time, many would follow.

Modern Christian ethics

The Reformation

The unity of the universal church, for which Thomas Aquinas had provided elaborate theological rationale, broke under the weight of moral corruption and a lack of responsiveness to movements of reform. While the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century appeared as a vast theological and ecclesial revolution, ... It also played an important role in shaping the modern world.[55]:108

Grace was the basic ethic of Reformation thinkers Martin Luther and John Calvin, and the fourth century Catholic, Augustine, was one of their primary sources. Benjamin Warfield is quoted as saying the Reformation was a "triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the church".[55]:109 Luther, in his classic treatise On Christian Liberty argued that moral effort is a response to grace. Luther said humans are not made good by the things they do, but if they are made good by God's love, they will be impelled to do good things.[55]:111 Luther posited "two kingdoms": the temporal and the spiritual. This sharp delineation meant secular power must not be used to enforce spiritual ends, and spiritual authorities must not have the temporal power to enforce any law or decree on others without their consent.[55]:115

John Calvin adopted and systematized Luther's main ideas. In His Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin grounds everything in the sovereignty of God, "transforming every act of human self-seeking into a radical endeavor to bring every aspect of human existence into conformity with the divine will".[55]:120 Since all Christians are equally "called by God to a morally responsive life", that can be expressed in whatever manner is appropriate to our situation including secular pursuits.[55]:116 This had the effect of liberating the concept of vocation from being limited to the priesthood and monastic orders.[55]:120 In Calvin's view, all humans have a vocation, a calling, and in all our callings, the guiding measure of its value is simply, and profoundly, whether it impedes or furthers God's will. This gives a 'sacredness' to the most mundane and ordinary of actions.[55]:122 The Reform ethic contributed to ideas of popular sovereignty asserting human beings are not "subjects of the state but are members of the state".[55]:125

Moral law, according to Calvin, has three purposes: as evidence of our moral powerlessness to keep it apart from the grace of God, as a teaching tool for believers, and as constraint upon the wicked.[55]:118,119 He upheld the separation of the spiritual and temporal asserting that one important role of civil government is to provide restraint for evildoers.[55]:122,123 Thus, Calvin also supported just war in opposition to the pacifism of the Anabaptists of his time.[55]:124 Calvin upheld the concept of private property but also taught that all property is held in trust for God and will require an accounting for its use.[55]:122 This combination of principles produced what is sometimes called the Protestant work ethic.[55]:116

The Reformers held fast to Sola Scriptura and constructed an ethical system directly from the scriptures. Lutheran Philip 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 ac pacis. 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.

Max Weber asserted that there is a correlation between the ethics of the Reformers and the emerging political and economic cultures of those predominantly Protestant countries where modern capitalism and modern democracy developed first.[55]:124[56] The Reformers articulation of the Christian ethic had immense influence on the shaping of both the secular and the religious views that came after them. The secular ideologies of the Enlightenment followed shortly on the heels of the Reformation, but "it is a nice question whether those (Enlightenment) ideas would have been as successful in the absence of the Reformation, or even whether they would have taken the same form".[55]:125

The Counter Reformation

According to Roy T. Matthews and F. DeWitt Platt, the Roman Catholic church of the 1600s lost virtually half its members to Reformation Protestantism. As a result, it was driven to respond in three ways.[27]:335 Beginning with Pope Paul III (1534 - 1549) papal reform reclaimed moral leadership of the church. Now that the printing press had appeared, they tried to protect the church from deviant ideas by developing the first Index of Forbidden books.[27]:335

The second major response of the Counter Reformation was through the many new monastic orders. The most influential of these was the Society of Jesus commonly known as the Jesuits.[27]:336 The Jesuits were set apart from other orders by their special vow of loyalty to the Pope which in later years led them to be called "the shock troops of the papacy".[27]:336 Their commitment to education put them at the forefront of many colonial missions.[27]:336

The third response was established by the Council of Trent in 1545 and 1563. The Council asserted that the Bible and church tradition were the foundations of church authority, not just the Bible as Protestants asserted; the Vulgate was the only official Bible and other versions were rejected; salvation was through faith and works, not faith alone; and the seven sacraments were reaffirmed. The power of bishops was extended. "The moral, doctrinal and disciplinary results of the Council of Trent laid the foundations for Roman Catholic policies and thought right up to the present".[27]:337

By the sixteenth century, ethical questions had become the subject of careful investigation by Francisco de Vitoria, Dominicus Soto, Luis de Molina, Francisco Suárez, Leonardus Lessius, Juan de Lugo, Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz, and Alphonsus Liguori. Since the sixteenth century, special chairs of ethics (moral philosophy) have been funded in many Catholic universities. Among topics they discussed was the ethics of action in case of doubt, leading to the doctrine of probabilism.

With the rejection of the doctrine of papal infallibility and the Roman Magisterium as the absolute religious authority, each individual, at least in principle, became the arbiter in matters pertaining to faith and morals.[citation needed]

Christian humanism

Christian humanism shared some of the aesthetic values of the Renaissance but focused on the state of the church and the wider Christian world.[27]:338 They studied Christian writings and Greco-Roman classics and taught that any Christian with a "pure and humble heart could pray directly to God" without the intervention of a priest.[27]:338 They believed that imitating the early church would revitalize Christianity and restore its original purpose. "The outstanding figure among the northern humanists — and possibly the outstanding figure among all humanists — is the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus".[27]:338 His ethical views included advocating for education in the humanities, "emphasizing the study of Classics, and honoring the dignity of the individual". He promoted the philosophy of Christ as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and in living a humble and virtuous life. His most famous work, The Praise of Folly "captures the gentle grace and good sense of the Christian humanists".[27]:339

Twentieth century


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

Charles Sheldon's 1896 book, In His Steps was subtitled "What Would Jesus Do?"[57] and posed the question in the form of a novel. In a popular movement of the 1990s, many used the phrase "What would Jesus do?" (abbreviated WWJD) as a personal motto.[relevant? ][citation needed] The question was a reminder of their belief in a moral imperative to act in a manner that would demonstrate the Love of Jesus through the actions of the adherents.[citation needed]

Christians today "do not feel compelled to observe all 613 commandments" in the Torah,[58] but the Ten Commandments often figure prominently in Christian ethics.[58] "The Prophets ground their appeals for right conduct in God's demand for righteousness."[59] 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.[60] 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".[61]



Christian views on abortion have a complex history as there is no explicit prohibition of abortion in either the Old Testament or New Testament books of the Christian Bible. While some writers say that early Christians held different beliefs at different times about abortion,[62][63][64] others say that, in spite of the silence of the New Testament on the issue, they condemned abortion at any point of pregnancy as a grave sin,[65] a condemnation that they maintained even when some of them did not qualify as homicide the elimination of a fetus not yet "formed" and animated by a human soul.[66] The Didache, a Christian writing usually dated to sometime in the mid to late 1st century, prohibits abortion in Ch 2.[67]

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that "human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception".[68] Accordingly, it opposes procedures whose purpose is to destroy an embryo or fetus for whatever motive (even before implantation), but admits acts, such as chemotherapy or hysterectomy of a pregnant woman who has cervical cancer, which indirectly results in the death of the fetus, is morally acceptable.[69] Since the first century, the Church has affirmed that every procured abortion is a moral evil, a teaching that the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares "has not changed and remains unchangeable".[70]

Since the twentieth century Protestant views on abortion have varied considerably, with Protestants to be found in both the "anti-abortion" and "abortion-rights" camps.[71] Conservative Protestants tend to be anti-abortion whereas "mainline" Protestants lean towards an abortion-rights stance. African-American Protestants are much more strongly anti-abortion than white Protestants.[72] Even among Protestants who believe that abortion should be a legal option, there are those who believe that it should nonetheless be morally unacceptable in most instances.

Although scripture is mostly silent on abortion, various elements of scripture inform Christian ethical views on this topic, including Genesis 4:1; Job 31:15; Isaiah 44:24, 49:1, 5; and Jeremiah 1:5, among others.[73]


Current views on alcohol in Christianity can be divided into moderationism, abstentionism, and prohibitionism. Abstentionists and prohibitionists are sometimes lumped together as "teetotalers", sharing some similar arguments. However, prohibitionists abstain from alcohol as a matter of law (that is, they believe God requires abstinence in all ordinary circumstances), while abstentionists abstain as a matter of prudence (that is, they believe total abstinence is the wisest and most loving way to live in the present circumstances).[74]

Some Christians, including Pentecostals, Baptists and Methodists, today believe one ought to abstain from alcohol. Fifty-two percent of Evangelical leaders around the world say drinking alcohol is incompatible with being a good Evangelical.[75] Evangelicals in Asia, Africa, and also in Muslim-majority countries are decidedly against drinking.


Christian views on divorce are informed by verses in Matthew, Mark, Deuteronomy, and others[76] and political developments much later. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus emphasized the permanence of marriage, but also its integrity. In the book of Matthew Jesus says "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so."[77] When Jesus discusses marriage, he points out that a certain talent is needed to live together with another human being. Not having assets of their own, women needed to be protected from the risk of their husbands' putting them on the street at whim. In those times marriage was an economic matter.[78] A woman and her children could easily be rejected. Restriction of divorce was based on the necessity of protecting the woman and her position in society, not necessarily in a religious context, but an economic context.[79] Paul concurred but added an exception for abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.

The Catholic Church prohibits divorce, but permits annulment (a finding that the marriage was never valid) under a narrow set of circumstances. The Eastern Orthodox Church permits divorce and remarriage in church in certain circumstances.[80] Most Protestant churches discourage divorce except as a last resort, but do not actually prohibit it through church doctrine.

Sexual morality and celibacy

Modern Christian sexual morality rejects adultery,[81] extramarital sex,[82] prostitution,[83] and rape.[84] Christian views on the moral benefits of celibate and marital lifestyles has varied over time.

In his early writings, Paul described marriage as a social obligation that has the potential of distracting from Christ. Sex, in turn, is not sinful but natural, and sex within marriage is both proper and necessary.[85] In his later writings, Paul made parallels between the relations between spouses and God's relationship with the church.[86] Paul encouraged both celibate and marital lifestyles.[78][87]

While Jesus made reference to some that have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven,[88] there is no commandment in the New Testament that Jesus' disciples have to live in celibacy.[78] The general view on sexuality among the early Jewish Christians was quite positive.[89]

During the first three or four centuries, no law was promulgated prohibiting clerical marriage. Celibacy was a matter of choice for bishops, priests, and deacons.[78]

Today, the Roman Catholic Church teachings on celibacy uphold it for monastics and priests.[90]

Protestantism has rejected the celibate (unmarried) life for preachers since the Reformation. Many evangelicals prefer the term "abstinence" to "celibacy". Assuming everyone will marry, they focus their discussion on refraining from premarital sex and focusing on the joys of a future marriage. But some evangelicals, particularly older singles, desire a positive message of celibacy that moves beyond the "wait until marriage" message of abstinence campaigns. They seek a new understanding of celibacy that is focused on God rather than a future marriage or a lifelong vow to the Church.[91]


Within Christianity there are a variety of views on the issues of sexual orientation and homosexuality. The many Christian denominations vary in their position, from condemning homosexual acts as sinful, through being divided on the issue, to seeing it as morally acceptable. Even within a denomination, individuals and groups may hold different views. Further, not all members of a denomination necessarily support their church's views on homosexuality. In the Bible, procreative marriage is presented as "the norm".[92]


In modern times, Christian organizations reject any permissibility of slavery,[93][94][95][96] but Christian views on slavery did vary both historically. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century debates in the UK and the US, passages in the Bible were used by both pro-slavery advocates and abolitionists to support their respective views.

Violence, war and pacifism

Blessed are the Peacemakers (1917) by George Bellows
Blessed are the Peacemakers (1917) by George Bellows

Christian pacifism is the position that any form of violence is incompatible with the Christian faith. Christian pacifists state that Jesus himself was a pacifist who taught and practiced pacifism, and that his followers must do likewise. Notable Christian pacifists include Martin Luther King Jr., Leo Tolstoy,[97] and Ammon Hennacy.

Jesus opposed use of violence in his statement that "all who will take up the sword, will die by the sword", which suggested that those who perpetrate violence will themselves face violence. Historian Roland Bainton described the early church as pacifist – a period that ended with the accession of Constantine.[98]

In the first few centuries of Christianity, many Christians refused to engage in military combat. In fact, there were a number of famous examples of soldiers who became Christians and refused to engage in combat afterward. They were subsequently executed for their refusal to fight.[99] The commitment to pacifism and rejection of military service is attributed by Allman and Allman to two principles: "(1) the use of force (violence) was seen as antithetical to Jesus' teachings and service in the Roman military required worship of the emperor as a god which was a form of idolatry."[100]

The first conscientious objector in the modern sense was a Quaker in 1815.[101] The Quakers had originally served in Cromwell's New Model Army but from the 1800s increasingly became pacifists. A number of Christian denominations have taken pacifist positions institutionally, including the Quakers and Mennonites.[102]

Pacifist and violence-resisting traditions have continued into contemporary times.[103][104][105]

In the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr. adapted the nonviolent ideas of Gandhi to a Baptist theology and politics.[106]

Wealth and poverty

There are a variety of Christian views on poverty and wealth. At one end of the spectrum is a view which casts wealth and materialism as an evil to be avoided and even combatted. At the other end is a view which casts prosperity and well-being as a blessing from God. Some Christians argue that a proper understanding of Christian teachings on wealth and poverty needs to take a larger view where the accumulation of wealth is not the central focus of one's life but rather a resource to foster the "good life".[107] Professor David W. Miller has constructed a three-part rubric which presents three prevalent attitudes among Protestants towards wealth. According to this rubric, Protestants have variously viewed wealth as: (1) an offense to the Christian faith (2) an obstacle to faith and (3) the outcome of faith.[108]

American theologian John B. Cobb has argued that the "economism that rules the West and through it much of the East" is directly opposed to traditional Christian doctrine. Cobb invokes the teaching of Jesus that "man cannot serve both God and Mammon (wealth)". He asserts that it is obvious that "Western society is organized in the service of wealth" and thus wealth has triumphed over God in the West.[109]


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".[110] He notes morally suspect themes in the Bible's New Testament as well.[111] He notes some "moral quirks" of Jesus: that he could be "sectarian" (Matt 10:5–6), racist (Matt 15:26 and Mark 7:27) and placed no value on animal life (Luke 8: 27–33).[111]

Elizabeth S. Anderson, a professor of philosophy and women's studies at the University of Michigan, states that "the Bible contains both good and evil teachings", and it is "morally inconsistent".[112] 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."[113] To Anderson, Peter and Paul elevate men over their wives "who must obey their husbands" (1 Corinthians 11:3, 14:34–5, Eph. 5:22–24, Col. 3:18, 1 Tim. 2: 11–2, 1 Pet. 3:1)[114] in the New Testament household code.

See also


  1. ^ Such as Hebrews 8:6 etc. See also Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Epistle to the Hebrews" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.: "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 ff)."
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  3. ^ Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the Archived 2 February 2017 at the Wayback MachineA Dictionary for United Methodists, Alan K. Waltz, Copyright 1991, Abingdon Press. Revised access date: 13 September 2016
  4. ^ Long 2010, p. 13
  5. ^ Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 88
  6. ^ Long 2010, pp. 23–24
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Wogaman, J. Philip (1993). Christian Ethics A Historical Introduction. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 9780664251635.
  8. ^ Pinckaers, Servais (1995). Noble, Mary Thomas (ed.). The Sources of Christian Ethics (paperback). Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 9780813208183. First published in 1985 as Les sources de la morale chrétienne by University Press Fribourg, this work has been recognized by scholars worldwide as one of the most important books in the field of moral theology.
  9. ^ 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". Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 60
  10. ^ Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics: 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 Childress & Macquarrie 1986, p. 57
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  14. ^ Karl Josef von Hefele's commentary on canon II of Gangra Archived 20 December 2016 at the Wayback Machine notes: "We further see that, at the time of the Synod of Gangra, the rule of the Apostolic Synod with regard to blood and things strangled was still in force. With the Greeks, indeed, it continued always in force as their Euchologies still show. Balsamon also, the well-known commentator on the canons of the Middle Ages, in his commentary on the sixty-third Apostolic Canon, expressly blames the Latins because they had ceased to observe this command. What the Latin Church, however, thought on this subject about the year 400, is shown by St. Augustine in his work Contra Faustum, where he states that the Apostles had given this command in order to unite the heathens and Jews in the one ark of Noah; but that then, when the barrier between Jewish and heathen converts had fallen, this command concerning things strangled and blood had lost its meaning, and was only observed by few.[citation needed] But still, as late as the eighth century, Pope Gregory the Third (731) forbade the eating of blood or things strangled under threat of a penance of forty days. No one will pretend that the disciplinary enactments of any council, even though it be one of the undisputed Ecumenical Synods, can be of greater and more unchanging force than the decree of that first council, held by the Holy Apostles at Jerusalem, and the fact that its decree has been obsolete for centuries in the West is proof that even Ecumenical canons may be of only temporary utility and may be repealed by disuse, like other laws."
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Further reading

External links

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