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