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Understanding Ethical Principles

by Dr. Andrew Corbett

Ethics is the study of moral responsibilities. It is studied according to some frame of moral reference. What makes ethics a social science is the chosen frame of reference. There are three basic streams of ethics from a Christian viewpoint. These include Religious, Philosophical, and Christian ethics. While Christian ethics is relatively straight forward, Philosophical (secular) ethics often remains vague unless it clings to some ideal. An historic Philosophical ethic is “all things in moderation”. Because of this vagueness and often psuedo-christian ideals, Christian ethics plays a major role in the science of ethics.

 The aim of ethics is the pursuit of proper responsibilities derived from right conduct. The study of ethics takes into account individual and social implications. The three perspectives of ethical outlook each consider man as a social being. That is, any ethical conclusions can not possibly divorce man from social interaction. Therefore, the modern secular maxim “if it feels good, do it” fails to comply with true ethical behaviour because it may feel good but be hurtful to another. Christian ethics is distinguished from other systems because of its strong insistence upon all social considerations.

Old Testament Ethics
 Christian ethics has its roots in the Old Testament. The principles of Old Testament ethics include the Decalogue, and the character and nature of God. The Decalogue, as a frame of reference, is plain. Its ten laws gave Israel their standard of what was right and wrong. However, the governing principle of Old Testament ethics was the character and nature of God which was frequently summed up by the statement that the Lord was holy (eg. Lev. 19:2).

 The precise details of Old Testament ethics are expounded in the covenants that Yahweh made with His people. The Mosaic covenant, for example, incorporates the Decalogue and includes obligations for individual and as well as community living. One of these laws concerns the ownership of property: do not steal (Ex. 20:15). The ethical implications of this statement include the right to own property; respect for the property of others; and the manner in which an individual can freely use and store possessions within a community setting without fear of loss.

 The Old Testament’s major contribution to the study of ethics include: accountability to a monotheistic God, admonitions to live humbly, righteously, and wisely. It emphasized the social responsibilities without diminishing individual accountability.

New Testament Ethics
New Testament ethics is not so much a subject for discussion as a life to be lived; the exhortations are not academic, but practical.” (EBCE: 274)

 Contributors to New Testament ethics include the Old Testament writings, and inter-Testamental Rabbinic teaching. By far the most significant contribution is Jesus Christ: His life, teaching, and ministry form the super-structure of New Testament ethics.

 The common ground of the New Testament with the Old Testament includes the revelation of God and His Word. Every aspect of life, according to New Testament ethics, reflects this fundamental fact. The revelation of God in the New Testament assumes His lordship over His creation. Therefore every act, every attitude, every announcement is subject to God. The revelation of God’s Word means that New Testament ethics has a soteriological outlook on life. God’s Word reveals that mankind fell into sin, but God now offers mankind reconciliation through the work of Christ. Christian ethics reflects a life of acknowledgment of man’s basic sinfulness and consequent gratitude to God for salvation.

 New Testament ethics consist of people oriented principles. The Rabbis had complicated the original Mosaic Law especially through the inter-Testamental period. The Law was originally given to man for his benefit. This is summed up in the New Testament by Christ’s rebuff to the Pharisees about one aspect of the Law (the Sabbath)-

    Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
    Mark 2:27
 Subsequently the New Testament does not organise itself into a systematic arrangement of ethics. Rather it gives principles for ethical behaviour through its presentation of role models (especially Jesus), narratives, and doctrines. Even its discourses on doctrines are usually given an applicational section (particularly with the Pauline epistles). The greatest New Testament principles of ethical behaviour were taught by Christ when He said-
    Jesus replied: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
    Matthew 22:37-40

Early Christian Ethics
In recognizing the O.T. as Christian Scripture the church adopted some embarrassing moral precedents: burning of witches, the poisoned trial cup, family punishment, polygamy, concubinage, and much violence and war.

 Early Christian ethics was seemingly influenced heavily by Stoic Greek philosophy. Ambrose (ca. 340 - 397 AD) was among the first to claim that the Bible fulfilled the ideals of ancient Greek ethics.  His work: Duties of the Clergy illustrates that there was a recognition for systematic ethics among the early church. Ambrose adopted the classical Greek ethic of moderation.  From this point, the church developed its systematic ethics in the form of ecclesiastical discipline. This degenerated into legalism rather than the pursuit of moral responsibilities and principles of conduct.
 Meanwhile in the eastern part of the empire, where Christianity developed a distinctly Greek flavour (as compared to the Western part of the empire which developed a Latin flavour), a more contemplative variety of Christianity developed. Devotion was commonly expressed by joining a monastery. This necessitated the need for communal guidelines. Benedict popularised the virtues of poverty, chastity and humility. Previously ethical thought had emphasized individual responsibility. Monasteries and the Benedictine “rules” emphasised social ethical responsibilities.

 Not until Aquinas was the first attempt at articulating a truly Christian system of ethics made.  Aquinas concluded that Christian ethics stemmed from a vision of God. It therefore had to come as a result of revelation. To actually fulfil these ethical standards, Aquinas said that a person must not only receive this revelation of God but must also have faith, which was created by an infusion of divine grace. From this foundation, Aquinas systematically arranged Christian ethics under the categories of virtues, meaning of the law, emotions, dispositions, habits that form character, and faith obligations.

 Through the period of Reformation, Luther developed the notion of salvation by God’s grace but failed to systematically approach the topic of Christian ethics. The most significant and extensive work came from John Calvin. His work, Institutes, emphasized God’s sovereignty. God was to be glorified as Sovereign in individual as well as societal lives. His sovereignty was to be expressed in every aspect of living. For the first time in Christian thought, Christian ethics was viewed as encompassing business, government, law, politics, and military policy.

 Modern Christian ethics has been shifting with various theological movements. It has been viewed as a “social gospel” where the primary theological undertone is post-millennialism. This view regards Christian ethics as the “Christianising of the social order”.  A reactionary view to modern existential ethics was “the theology of the Word”, where the Bible was regarded as an absolute standard rather than experientially based standards. A more modern secular off-shoot of existential ethics is situational ethics. True Christian ethics however views the standards of God as concrete. It is these standards revealed in His Word and quickened in the believer’s heart that forms the basis of Christian ethics.


© 2000, Andrew Corbett, Legana, Tasmania

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