Christian Ethics

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CHRISTIAN ETHICS . The three primary manifestations of ChristianityEastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantismhave recognized that Christian faith involves a particular way of life. The good news of salvation in Jesus Christ calls for a life of discipleship. The scriptures point out that Christian believers are to live and act in certain ways. Conversion to Jesus Christ and membership in the Christian community involve moral exigencies.

Christian Ethics in General

The Bible is the book of Christianity, but it does not contain Christian ethics as such. The Bible does include moral teachings and descriptions of the moral life of believers in Yahveh and in Jesus. The distinction between morality and ethics is significant. Morality refers to the actions, dispositions, attitudes, virtues, and ways of life that should characterize the moral person and society, in this case the Christian person and the Christian community. Christian ethics operates on the level of the theoretical and the scientific and tries to explain the Christian moral life in a thematic, systematic, coherent, and consistent manner. It is possible for one to attempt a biblical ethic that makes such an explanation of biblical morality, but that ethic would be based on the moral teaching found in Scripture. Biblical ethics and Christian ethics are not coextensive. The subject matter of Christian ethics is the Christian moral life and teaching, which is much broader than biblical moral life and teaching.

The relationship between Christian ethics and philosophical ethics is important. The significant differences between the two result from the different sources of ethical wisdom and knowledge employed. Philosophical ethics is based on human reason and human experience and does not accept the role of faith and revelation that is central to Christian ethics. However, Christian ethics poses the same basic questions and has the same formal structure as philosophical ethics. All ethics attempts to respond to the same questions: What is the good? What values and goals should be pursued? What attitudes and dispositions should characterize the person? What acts are right? What acts are wrong? How do the individual and society go about making ethical decisions? What are just societal structures?

Contemporary ethicists speak about three generally accepted formal approaches to ethics. The classical forms are teleology and deontology. The teleological approach determines what is the end or the good at which one should aim and then determines the morality of means in relationship to that end. The deontological model understands morality primarily in terms of duty, law, or obligation. Such an approach is primarily interested in what is right. In the twentieth century, some ethicists (e.g., H. Richard Niebuhr) have proposed a third model: the responsibility model, which is primarily interested in what is "fitting." Within Christian ethics all these different models have been employed. Teleology, for example, sees the end of the moral life as union with and participation in God, which becomes the good and the end of the moral life, thus specifying as good those means that attain that end. Deontological Christian ethics has often seen the moral life in terms of the Ten Commandments or the revealed word of God as the law Christians are to follow. God's law determines what is right and wrong. The responsibility model understands the moral life on the basis of the Christian's response to the action and working of God in the world and in history.

The vast majority of Christian ethicists would agree that theological ethics is truly a form of ethics, that it asks the same questions and has the same formal structure as philosophical ethics. However, some Christians working out of a more fundamentalistic approach to the scriptures or out of a Barthian perspective might not agree that Christian ethics is a species of ethics as such.


What distinguishes Christian ethics from philosophical ethics and other religious ethics are the sources of wisdom and knowledge that contribute to Christian ethics. All Christian ethics recognizes the Christian scriptures, tradition, and church teaching as the revelatory sources of moral wisdom and knowledge. However, there is much discussion as to how these sources relate to one another and to the nonrevelatory sources of Christian ethics. The three major expressions of ChristianityEastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantismand their corresponding ethical traditions emphasize different sources of Christian ethics. At least in theory, all these traditions give primary emphasis to sacred scripture, but there is no general agreement about how the scriptures should be used in Christian ethics.

The role accorded scripture in Christian ethics depends heavily on one's understanding of scripture's relationship to other sources of wisdom and knowledge. On such questions as those having to do with conversion or change of heart, the general attitudes a Christian should have, and the goals and dispositions of the Christian life, the scriptures can give much content to Christian ethics. On the question of precise norms and rules of moral action, however, many Christian ethicists are cautious in their attempts to find specific concrete norms that are absolutely binding in all circumstances. Protestantism's emphasis on the primacy of scripture and downplaying of tradition and church teaching distinguishes its ethics from that of the other two major forms of Christianity.

Since the church is a living communion proceeding through different historical and cultural circumstances under the guidance of the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit, God's self-revelation comes also through tradition as the preaching, teaching, celebration, and practice of the Christian faith. Within the general category of tradition, special emphasis is given, especially by the Eastern Orthodox churches, to the teachings of the patristic period and to the councils and legislation of that time. Authoritative or authentic church teaching is a special form of tradition that is found in the councils and synods of the churches, and in Roman Catholicism it is connected with the teaching office of the bishops, especially of the pope as the bishop of Rome and pastor of the universal church.

Christian ethics has always grappled with the question of whether human nature, human reason, and human experience can be sources of ethical wisdom and knowledge. The Roman Catholic tradition has emphasized natural law based on the ability of human reason to arrive at ethical wisdom and knowledge. This emphasis has often been more primary than the influence of revelatory sources. Eastern Orthodox and Protestant ethics have been more suspicious of human reason and experience, although today many ethicists in these traditions give reason and experience an important, though still subordinate, role.

Early History

In the first one thousand years of Christianity, there was no discipline of Christian ethics as such. Moral teaching was primarily pastoral, apologetical, homiletical, and catechetical, although at times there were systematic studies of particular issues. An early problem for the Christian church was the relationship of Christian mores to the culture and mores of the wider society. Pedagogical devices such as "the two ways" (elaborated on in the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas ) and catalogs of virtues and vices were used by the early Christian writers. Often the patristic authors borrowed from Stoic and Neoplatonic philosophies of the times. The apologists of the second century attempted to show that Christian morality was in keeping with the best pagan understandings of morality.

In the third century, Tertullian stressed the differences between pagan and Christian moral teaching and proposed a rigorous and legalistic morality. The early church fathers relied heavily on scriptural teaching and often understood moral life in terms of the imitation of Christ. Exhortation to perseverance in the face of martyrdom, the avoidance of any type of idolatry, and the need for prayer, fasting, almsgiving, chastity, patience, and justice were stressed. Eastern moral thought, as reflected in that of Athanasius and the Alexandrians, stressed the divinization of human beings through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Antiochian school understood justification in terms of sharing in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Throughout the period of persecution great emphasis was put on martyrdom, but afterward substitutions for martyrdom (the word originally meant "witness") were proposed: the monastic life or strict obedience to God's will, sometimes called "the martyrdom of conscience."

In the West after the third century, the most significant figures were Ambrose, Augustine, and Pope Gregory I. Ambrose's De officiis is perhaps the most systematic, scientific approach to Christian morality, with its basis in the treatise of Cicero. Gregory, in his homilies and his Moralia in Job, often relies on the moral teaching of Augustine but emphasizes the practical and pastoral aspects of Christian morality. Augustine defends a Christian moral understanding against the dualism and pessimism of Manichaeans on the one hand and the optimism of Pelagians on the other. Augustine devoted a number of works to specific moral questions, such as lying, continence, marriage, and concupiscence. His major works, the Confessions and the City of God, also contain some methodological and substantive considerations in Christian ethics, even though there is no fully systematic treatise on moral theology. Augustine stresses the centrality of the grace of God, which delivers sinners from evil and makes the Christian life possible. The moral life is described in terms of love. The love of God aims at the enjoyment of God for God's own sake and uses everything else for the love of God, whereas desire involves attempts to enjoy self, neighbor, and earthly things without reference to God. These two different loves are the sources of the good life and the bad life, respectively. Augustine's eschatology emphasizes a great difference between the present world and the future reign of God at the end of time, a recognition that grounds his profound realism about life in this world.

In the East, the fathers showed a great interest in contemplation. Obedience to God's commandments, the practice of asceticism, and contemplation were proposed not only for monks but for all Christians. At the end of the patristic era in the East, John of Damascus (d. 749) summarized patristic teachings on the moral life by using Aristotelian concepts.

Before the end of the first millennium an important development occurred in the practice of the sacrament of penance. In the West, the new form of private penance spread from Ireland to the continent, and with the new repeatable private penance the libri poenitentiales (penitential books) came into existence. These books assigned a particular penance for a particular sin and were often used in a very mechanistic way. There were also penitentials in the East, such as the Penitential of John the Faster and others, which were borrowed from the West. However, the sacrament of penance in the East always emphasized the spiritual direction aspect of the relationship between penitent and monk-confessor, thereby avoiding, at least in theory, the dangers of legalism and ritualism. A scientific and systematic Christian ethic developed only in the second millennium.

The Eastern Orthodox Tradition

Eastern Orthodox theology, in both its Greek and Russian approaches, is distinguished from other Christian ethics by its emphasis on tradition, especially the teachings of the church fathers, as important sources of moral wisdom and knowledge. The most distinctive characteristic of Orthodox ethics is its relationship to spirituality. Pastoral practice has emphasized the role of monks and confessors as spiritual directors who help guide the spiritual life of the faithful. The goal or end of the moral life is to become like God. The way to this full deification (theosis in the Greek) is through asceticism and prayer. Contemplation and contemplative prayer as parts of the struggle for deification are stressed. This perfectionist ethic calls for constant deepening of the believer's participation in divine life.

The anthropological basis for this movement toward deification is the creation of human beings in the image and likeness of God. "Image" consists in the human moral capacities of virtue, intellect, ethical judgment, and self-determination. The image of God is darkened and wounded by sin but still remains. "Likeness" refers to the human potential to become like God. In the Orthodox tradition, as in the Roman Catholic tradition, Christian morality is not heteronomous, for Christian morality brings the human to its fullest perfection. In the same way such an ethics stresses both the providence of God and the responsibility of Christians.

Within the Orthodox tradition there is doubt that natural law is a source of ethical wisdom and knowledge. Many affirm such knowledge on the basis of creation and the image of God embodied in human moral capacity, but others strongly deny this knowledge. At times the polemical nature of discussions between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions seems to have influenced the Orthodox denial of natural law.

Law in general has a significant but not exclusive role to play in Orthodox ethics. Law is found in the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the teachings of the New Testament, and the sayings of the church fathers. Although some Orthodox ethicists might have become legalistic or ritualistic, the tradition itself generally guards against legalism, especially by invocation of the principle of "economy." Economy allows exceptions to the law when the law stands in the way of the higher values of human persons and communities.

Orthodox ethics has been accused of lacking a world-transforming aspect and failing to develop an adequate social ethic, but many defenders of the Orthodox tradition deny this charge. In the past, social ethics was colored by recognition of a "symphony" between the church and the state in the single organism of the Christian empire. Today, the diverse settings in which the Orthodox church functions have forced it to try to work out a social ethic and the church's relationship to the state. Russian Orthodoxy in the twentieth century often found itself in relationship to communist governments, but the situation dramatically changed after 1989. In Europe and the United States, Russian and Greek Orthodox churches now also find themselves in a diaspora situation in which they, as a minority, must develop their own approach to social ethics. The Greek Orthodox church and the Russian Orthodox church have joined the World Council of Churches, so that Orthodoxy now participates, though not without tensions, in the current discussions and positions taken on contemporary social questions by the World Council.

Historical Development of Eastern Orthodox Ethics

Christian ethics as a separate discipline emerged comparatively late in the Orthodox tradition. After the Great Schism of the ninth century, the penitentials continued to be an important genre of moral teaching in the East. Despite some legalistic and ritualistic tendencies, Orthodoxy's emphasis on spirituality and striving for perfection served as a safeguard against a minimalistic legalism.

In Russian Orthodoxy the seventeenth-century Kiev school attempted to refute Roman Catholicism and its ethics by developing a theology strongly influenced by scholasticism. The Orthodox Confession of Petr Moghila (d. 1646), which was approved with slight modifications by the Greek patriarch at the Synod of Jerusalem (1672), explains Christian moral teaching on the basis of the nine precepts of the church, the seven sacraments, the Beatitudes, and the Ten Commandments. However, even the Kiev school stressed more distinctly Russian and patristic theology in its ascetical and spiritual works.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Russian Orthodox ethics again saw both dialogue and polemics with Roman Catholic and Protestant ethics in the West. Feofan Prokopovich (d. 1736) ignored the Orthodox tradition, rejected Catholic scholasticism, and turned to Protestant authors for his ethical principles. Some subsequent authors followed the same approach, but F. Fiveiskii (d. 1877) returned to more patristic sources and to a more Catholic methodology in his manual of moral theology, the official textbook in all seminaries until 1867.

The years from 1860 to 1863 saw the publication of P. F. Soliarskii's moral theology, which tried to combine patristic, Roman Catholic, and Protestant approaches to ethics. An abridged edition of this influential work was used in the schools for forty years. In the late nineteenth century the influence of modernism and its stress on the role of the natural moral sense influenced some approaches to moral theology. However, in addition to these manuals of moral theology, there was also a spiritual and mystical literature that drew heavily from patristic sources. In the twentieth century, Nikolai Berdiaev and Sergei Bulgakov appealed to the Russian Orthodox tradition in developing what can be called a communitarian personalism with emphasis on subjectivity, freedom, love, and the need to transform the objective world.

According to Stanley S. Harakas, Christian ethics as a separate theological discipline in Greek Orthodoxy developed in the modern period and emerged as a separate, distinct, scientific discipline only in the nineteenth century. Three different schools or approaches characterize Greek Orthodox moral theology from that time. The Athenian school, strongly influenced by philosophical idealism, sees no vital differences between Christian ethics and philosophical ethics. The Constantinopolitan school is Christocentric and depends heavily on Scripture and the church fathers. The Thessalonian school is apophatic in character, stresses a personalist perspective, and is heavily dependent on the monastic tradition. In his Toward Transfigured Life, Harakas tries to bring these three schools together.

The Roman Catholic Tradition

The characteristics of Roman Catholic "moral theology," as Christian ethics has come to be called in the Catholic tradition, are insistence on mediation, acceptance of natural law, and the role of the church. Mediation is perhaps the most characteristic aspect of Roman Catholic theology in general. There is a distinctive Catholic emphasis on conjunctionsof Scripture and tradition, faith and reason, faith and works, grace and nature, the divine and human, Jesus and the church and Mary and the saints, love (as well as the virtues) and the commandments. This approach is an attempt to be universal and to embrace all elements, but it may fall into dichotomy. For example, rather than seeing tradition as a mediation of revelation whose privileged witness is in sacred Scripture, Scripture and tradition were seen as two separate fonts of revelation. Further, faith and works, properly understood, mean that the gift of salvation is mediated in and through the human response; a perennial danger is to absolutize works. Likewise, mediation insists on the importance of love, but love mediated through all the other virtues and commandments, which, however, must not be emphasized only in themselves.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, natural law can best be understood as human reason directing human beings to their end in accord with their nature. In the classic tradition based on Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), human nature has a threefold structure: that which is shared with all substances, that which is common to humans and all the animals, and that which is proper to human beings as such. Human nature has its innate teleology on these three levels, and human reason discovers these ends and directs all human activity to them. In practice, Catholic moral theology often considered life in this world or in the temporal sphere as almost totally governed by natural law and not by the gospel, or by any explicitly Christian considerations. Before Vatican II, Catholic moral theology was dependent on reason and philosophical ethics and downplayed the role of the Scriptures and specific theological understandings.

The third characteristic of Roman Catholic moral theology is its insistence on relationship to the church. Catholic ecclesiology recognizes a special teaching office in matters of faith and morals that is given to the church, specifically the pope and the bishops. Since the seventeenth century there has been a growing intervention of authoritative papal teaching in moral matters. Catholic ecclesiology in accord with the teaching of Vatican I (1870) recognizes an infallible teaching function that is exercised through ecumenical councils and the ex cathedra teaching of the pope, as well as definitive teachings by the pope and the bishops. A noninfallible, authoritative teaching office is also exercised by the councils and especially by the pope through encyclicals, allocutions, and the various offices of the Curia Romana. The vast majority of Catholic moral theologians agree that there has never been an infallible papal teaching on a specific moral matter.

The authoritative church teaching offices have also served to keep the methodology of Catholic ethics somewhat monolithic. In the late nineteenth century, and subsequently, the popes have authoritatively directed that Roman Catholic theology and philosophy be taught according to the principles and the approach of Thomas Aquinas. Until comparatively recently, Catholic theology in general and moral theology in particular followed a Thomistic philosophical approach.

Church rites and practice have also influenced Catholic moral theology. Ever since the seventeenth century the primary purpose of moral theology textbooks has been to train confessors for the sacrament of penance, with emphasis on their role as judges of sinful actions. This narrow orientation resulted in an act-centered approach that was casuistic, based primarily on law, and aimed at determining the existence and gravity of sins.

Historical Development of Roman Catholic Ethics

Roman Catholic moral theology or Christian ethics developed into a scientific discipline earlier than in Eastern Orthodoxy. In the thirteenth century, systematic and scientific theology appeared with the work of the great Scholastic theologians, especially Thomas Aquinas. Moral theology in Thomas's thought is an integrated part of his systematic theology, not a separate discipline. The basic structure of Thomas's moral theology is teleological. The ultimate end of human beings is a happiness attained when the intellect knows perfect truth and the will loves the perfect good. For the Christian, the beatific vision fulfills and perfects human nature. The Franciscan school, represented by Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), Bonaventure (d. 1274), and John Duns Scotus (d. 1308), affirmed the primacy of the will and of charity and emphasized moral theology as wisdom.

The fourteenth century saw a criticism of Thomas from a nominalist perspective that grounded the good not in ontological reality but solely in the will of God and employed a more deontological approach to ethics. After the thirteenth century there appeared the Summae confessorum, very practical handbooks without any philosophical basis or analysis, which often arranged in alphabetical order the problems that the confessor would face in practice.

The Institutiones theologiae moralis appeared in the seventeenth century. These manuals, which became the standard textbooks of Catholic moral theology until Vatican II, began with a brief description of the ultimate end, which was followed by treatises on human acts, law as the objective norm of morality, and conscience as the subjective norm of morality. The virtues are mentioned, but sinful acts, often described on the basis of the Ten Commandments, remain the central concern. The sacraments are discussed, but almost exclusively from the viewpoint of moral and legal obligations. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a controversy that arose between rigorists and laxists was finally resolved after papal intervention through the moderate approach of Alfonso Liguori (d. 1787), who was later named the patron of Catholic moral theology and of confessors.

Beginning with Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum in 1891, a series of official teachings on the social question appeared. Leo and his immediate successors used a natural-law methodology, understood the state as a natural human society, proposed an anthropology that insisted on both the personal and communitarian aspects of human existence (thus avoiding the extremes of capitalism and socialism), recognized the right of workers to organize, and called for the state to intervene when necessary to protect the rights of workers or any particular class that was suffering. The tradition of hierarchical social teaching still exists, but now it stresses some of the newer methodological emphases in Catholic theology and deals with contemporary political and economic problems, especially in a global perspective.

There were attempts at renewal in moral theology, especially from the scriptural and Thomistic perspectives, but Bernhard Häring's The Law of Christ (1954) was the most significant single work in the renewal of Catholic moral theology in the preVatican II period. Häring proposed a biblically inspired, Christocentric approach to moral theology based on the divine call to be perfect even as the gracious God is perfect.

The Second Vatican Council (19621965) greatly influenced the renewal of moral theology. Now there was greater dialogue with other Christians, non-Christians, and the modern world in general. Contemporary Catholic moral theology, while upholding the goodness of the natural and of the human, has tried to overcome the dichotomy or dualism between the supernatural and the natural. The gospel, grace, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are related to what happens in daily life in the world. Contemporary moral theology recognizes the need to consider more than acts and lays more emphasis on the person and on the virtues and attitudes of the person. No longer is there a monolithic Catholic moral theology based on a Thomistic natural law; instead, many different philosophical approaches are used. In general, there has been a shift from classicism to historical consciousness, from the objective to the subjective, from nature to person, from order to freedom. In addition to developments in methodology, there are also widespread debates in contemporary Catholic moral theology about the existence of intrinsically evil actions, absolute norms, and the possibility of dissent from noninfallible church teaching. As a result of these differences, some contemporary Catholic moral theologians are calling into question some official Catholic teachings in such areas as sexual and medical ethics, but the official teaching office has not changed on these issues.

The Protestant Tradition

Protestant Christian ethics has as its distinctive characteristics an emphasis on freedom, an anticasuistic approach, the primacy of Scripture, and an emphasis on the theological nature of the discipline. Martin Luther (d. 1546) and the reformers in general stressed the freedom of the Christian, and freedom has characterized much of Protestant life and ethics. In Protestantism there is no central church teaching authority to propose authoritative teaching on specific issues or to insist upon a particular approach, as in Roman Catholicism. Consequently, in Protestant ethics there is a great pluralism and a diversity of approaches.

The emphasis on freedom colors the Protestant understanding of God and how God acts in human history. God is free to act and to intervene in history. Generally, Protestant ethics opposes any attempt to claim that God must always act in a particular way. The stress on God's freedom has also influenced a general Protestant unwillingness to base absolute norms on human reason and nature. The freedom of the believer as well as God is safeguarded in Protestant ethics.

The early reformers objected to the Roman Catholic emphasis on merit. They held that salvation comes from faith, not from human works. Protestantism ultimately rejected the Catholic sacrament of penance and thus never developed the casuistry involved in carrying out the role of the confessor as judge. Protestant ethics has been described as an ethics of inspiration, primarily because it does not usually get into a minute philosophical discussion of the morality of particular acts.

The Reformation insistence on the importance of Scripture characterizes much of Protestant ethics, but Scripture has been used in different ways. When God's immanence is stressed, there is a tendency to find in Scripture a moral message that can be lived by Christians in this world. When the transcendence of God is stressed, Scripture tends to be used more dialectically to include a judging and critical role with regard to every human enterprise. Perhaps the greatest change in Protestantism came to the fore in the nineteenth-century dispute over a critical approach to Scripture. Whereas liberal Protestantismand soon most of mainstream Protestantismemployed literary and historical criticism to understand the Bible, fundamentalist Protestantism has continued to see the Bible primarily in terms of propositional truths or ethical norms and rules that God has revealed for all time and that Christians are called to obey. Such a deontological approach based on God's absolute laws given in Scripture cannot be accepted by Protestants who approach Scripture with the hermeneutical tools of biblical scholarship. Many contemporary Protestants see in Scripture the description of the mighty acts of God in history to which followers of Jesus must respond, and they consequently adopt a responsibility model of Christian ethics rather than a deontological approach.

Protestantism in general gives more significance to the theological aspects of Christian ethics than did traditional Roman Catholic ethics. Catholic ethics tended to see the moral life of all in this world in the light of natural law, whereas Protestantism has generally understood life in this world in relationship to the Bible and to theological concerns. Soteriology, Christology, and eschatology all have some influence on much of Protestant ethics. For example, Protestant ethics tends to see sin primarily in theological categories as a lack of faith, whereas Roman Catholicism understands sin primarily as actions that are morally wrong.

For some Protestants the primacy of grace and of Christ rules out any significant role for the human and the natural in Christian ethics. For others the effects of sin are so strong that human reason and human nature cannot be valid sources of ethical wisdom and knowledge. Even those Protestant ethicists who would be more open to the human on theological grounds shy away from the ontology and metaphysics that undergird Roman Catholic natural-law thinking. Protestants have also tended to give more significance to history than to nature, because history is more compatible with biblical categories and with the insistence on the freedom of God and of human beings.

Historical Development of Protestant Ethics

The first systematic, scientific, and independent treatment of Protestant ethics separated from dogmatic theology was produced by Georg Calixtus (d. 1656). Although the early reformers did not write scientific Christian ethics as such, they dealt with significant methodological and substantive issues affecting Christian ethics.

Justification by faith active in love stands at the heart of Lutheran theology and is opposed to merit, justification by works, and legalism. The emphasis on Scripture, even to the point of accepting the axiom "scripture alone," is another characteristic of the Reformation. Luther stressed freedom above all, but the dialectical aspect of his thought is seen in his famous saying "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."

Lutheran social ethics is based on the two-realm theory, referring to the realm of creation and the realm of redemption. In the realm of creation, which involves the social life of human beings, there are true vocations for Christians, but the content of these vocations and what one does are not affected by Jesus, faith, or grace. Redemption affects only one's motivations. For this reason, Lutheran social ethics has often been accused of passivism and acceptance of the status quo.

John Calvin (d. 1564) shared much of Luther's theological presuppositions, but he gave greater emphasis to the will, both in God and in human beings. God is primarily sovereign will. Justification does not involve a pietistic response in trust; it means that the will of God becomes active in believers. Calvin came closer to a Roman Catholic understanding, and Calvinists (like Catholics) have tended to become legalists. Calvin was also more open than Luther to a natural-law approach, although not to the Catholic metaphysics of natural law. Like Luther, Calvin stressed the secular vocation of Christians, but he interpreted Christian work in the world in a more active and transforming way. Some later Calvinists have seen in worldly success a sign of God's predestining will for the individual. In the twentieth century, Max Weber proposed the controversial theory that the spirit of capitalism was compatible with and abetted by Calvinist ethics.

The Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, or the left wing of the Reformation, from its sixteenth-century origins has stressed the radical call of discipleship, believer's baptism, and a committed, inflexible following of the radical ethical demands of the gospel. The believers form a sect that stands in opposition to the existing culture and society and bears witness to the gospel, especially the call to peace and nonviolence.

There has been no dominant figure in Anglican ethics, and thus no established pattern of doing Anglican ethics. However, in the Anglican community there have been important ethical thinkers who have served as a bridge between Roman Catholic ethics and Protestant ethics. Methodism developed a moral theory calling for spiritual growth and moral renewal.

The Enlightenment had a great influence on Protestant theology and ethics. Nineteenth-century Protestantism saw the emergence of liberal theology. Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834), the most outstanding theologian in the nineteenth century, stressed experience and has been called the founder and most famous proponent of Protestant liberalism. Schleiermacher proposed an ethical theory dealing with goods, duties, and virtues, and he saw moral concerns as present and influencing all other areas of life, especially political, intellectual, aesthetic, and religious. Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century liberal theology stressed the immanence of God working in human experience and history, the possibility of Christians living out the ethics of Jesus, and evolutionary human progress, while it downplayed divine transcendence and the power of sin. Within the context of liberal Protestant theology, the Social Gospel movement came to the fore in the first two decades of the twentieth century in the United States, especially under the leadership of Walter Rauschenbusch (d. 1918). In response to the problems created by the industrial revolution and in response to the privatism and individualism of past Christian ethics, the Social Gospel stressed that the kingdom of God should be made more present on earth and that the social order can and should be Christianized. In England and Germany many Christian thinkers embraced a moderate Christian socialism.

The harsh realities of World War I and the Great Depression occasioned the rise of the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth in Europe and the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr in the United States. The reaction stressed the transcendence of God, the dialectical relationship between the existing world and the kingdom of God, the power of sin, and the fact that the fullness of God's kingdom lies outside history. In respect to the contemporary international scene, the World Council of Churches has addressed many contemporary social issues with strong support for liberation movements and has called for just, participative, and sustainable societies.

Even greater diversity characterized Protestant ethics in the latter part of the twentieth century. Methodologically, teleological, deontological, and responsibility models continued to thrive. Some newer methodological approaches have also appearedan emphasis on praxis, narrative approaches, virtue theory, and on the particularity of Christian ethics as directly addressing only the Christian church and not the world. In terms of content or substance, conservative, liberal, and radical approaches have appeared in both personal and social issues.

Contemporary Scene

It is impossible to summarize the developments in Christian ethics since the mid-twentieth century. Paradoxically, greater diversity exists in Christian ethics in general and in each of its three traditions, but at the same time the boundaries separating the three traditions are disappearing and a more ecumenical approach has come to the fore. There are many reasons for this greater diversity. No longer does the EuropeanNorth American world totally dominate the field of Christian ethics, especially in the Catholic and Protestant traditions. South America, Africa, and Asia have produced an increasing number of Christian ethicists. The emphasis on context and particularity intensifies the diversity as Christian ethicists deal with the realities of their own cultures and ethos. The industrialized world has also witnessed a growing number of women teaching and writing in Christian ethics. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, the seminary was the primary home of Christian ethicists, but now the discipline exists in colleges and universities. As a result, the number of people teaching and writing in the area of Christian ethics has grown considerably. The move to the academy means that Christian ethics now addresses both the church and the academy with different emphases according to different individuals. In this milieu, methodological diversity has flourished. The field of Christian ethics has become so vast and complex that different specializations, such as personal ethics, sexual ethics, bioethics, economic ethics, and political ethics, have come into existence. It is difficult now for any one person to claim to embrace the whole area of Christian ethics.

But the ecumenical aspect of Christian ethics has also increased dramatically, together with shared concerns and approaches even in different cultures and countries. In the United States, Europe, France, and England, ecumenical societies of Christian ethicists exist, hold annual meetings, and encourage greater professionalization in the discipline. These groups both exemplify and facilitate a more ecumenical way of doing Christian ethics. In the diaspora situation, Eastern Orthodox ethicists are a small minority, but they are actively involved in many of these societies.

The important moral issues facing the world in the political, economic, technological, biomedical, and personal areas are the same for all Christians. Addressing issues such as violence, poverty, justice, and bioethical experimentation brings Christian ethicists from diverse traditions closer together. Not only content but also methodological approaches have blurred the lines separating the different traditions and have emphasized common traits. Liberation theology well illustrates a methodological approach that is found today in different religious traditions. Liberation theology began primarily with Catholic theologians in South America in the late 1960s who emphasized the option for the poor, praxis, and the scriptural account of Exodus as paradigmatic for understanding salvation and the role of the church today. Various forms of liberation theology now exist in practically all countries of the world, especially in those with a large number of poor, oppressed, and marginalized people. In the United States, black liberation theology began around the same time, originally as a black Protestant approach, though one which has now influenced both black and white, and both Protestant and Catholic, churches in the United States. Feminist liberation theology originally developed primarily in the United States and quickly spread across the globe and across religious traditions and boundaries. Diverse groups of women have occasioned the development of more particular forms of feminist liberation theology, such as womanist (African American women) and mujerista theology (Latina and Hispanic women). Thus, on the contemporary scene, Christian ethics has become much more diverse, but, at the same time, communalities and more ecumenical approaches among the three traditions have come to the fore.

See Also

Discipleship; Free Will and Predestination, article on Christian Concepts; Grace; Justification; Merit, article on Christian Concepts; Political Theology.


There is no in-depth contemporary overview of the history of Christian ethics. The best available work remains Ernst Troeltsch's The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, 2 vols., translated by Olive Wyon (New York, 1931; Louisville, Ky., 1992), which was originally published in German in 1911 but is still valuable today despite its datedness and somewhat biased perspectives. Troeltsch, like most Westerners writing on the subject, does not discuss Eastern Orthodox ethics. H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture (New York, 1951) is a frequently cited analysis of Western Christian ethics in the light of five possible models for understanding the relationship between Christ and culture. J. Philip Wogaman's Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction (Louisville, Ky., 1993) is a concise and informative historical overview of Christian ethics from biblical times in the light of contemporary perspectives.

There are many studies of individual thinkers in the patristic era, but the best history of the period written by a Christian ethicist is George W. Forell's History of Christian Ethics, vol. 1, From the New Testament to Augustine (Minneapolis, 1979).

There is comparatively little literature on Eastern Orthodox ethics in modern Western languages. In addition to encyclopedia articles, George A. Maloney's A History of Orthodox Theology Since 1453 (Belmont, Mass., 1976) and Man: The Divine Icon (Pecos, N. Mex., 1973) provide both historical details and anthropological considerations for Christian ethics. Georges Florovsky's Collected Works, 5 vols. (Belmont, Mass., 1972), and John Meyendorff's Byzantine Theology, 2d ed. (New York, 1979), include helpful chapters dealing with Christian ethics. Stanley S. Harakas's Toward Transfigured Life (Minneapolis, 1983) and Wholeness of Faith and Life: Orthodox Christian Ethics, 3 vols. (Brookline, Mass., 1999), provide a systematic Christian ethics from the Greek Orthodox tradition that includes valuable historical data.

No one has written a definitive history of Catholic moral theology. Louis Vereecke, the recognized authority in the field, has published four volumes of printed notes for students at the Accademia Alfonsiana with the general title Storia della teologia morale moderna (Rome, 19791980). Vereecke has also published a collection of essays on the history of moral theologyDe Guillaume d'Ockham à Saint Alphonse de Liguori: Études d'histoire de la théologie morale moderne (Rome, 1986). John Mahoney's The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition (Oxford, U.K., 1987) does not pretend to be a complete history but is the best historical volume available in English. Thirteen volumes of the series Readings in Moral Theology (New York, 19792003), originally edited by Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, indicate the contemporary developments and discussions within Catholic moral theology.

In the contemporary era, various authors have dealt with the historical development of Protestant ethics, in addition to earlier works by Troeltsch and H. Richard Niebuhr mentioned above. William H. Lazareth's Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Minneapolis, 2001) explains and defends Lutheran ethics from a contemporary perspective. Eric Fuchs's La morale selon Calvin (Paris, 1986) takes a similar perspective with regard to John Calvin. James M. Gustafson's Christ and the Moral Life (New York, 1968) explains and criticizes six different approaches taken in Christian ethics to the role of Jesus Christ. Edward LeRoy Long Jr.'s A Survey of Christian Ethics (New York, 1967) elucitates the history of Christian ethics in the light of three motifs for formulating the ethical norm and three motifs for implementing ethical decisions. Gary J. Dorrien's Soul in Society: The Making and Renewal of Social Christianity (Minneapolis, 1995) provides an overview of the development of Christian social ethics in the twentieth century.

Charles E. Curran (1987 and 2005)

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