Christianity and Ethics

Posted by on July 11, 2011

In thinking about Christian ethics, the first necessity that arises is to develop an understanding of the terms Christian and ethics.  Professor Mitchell provides a great example of ethics when he states that “ethics basically is an intellectual activity in which you are examining the bases and justifications of your moral activity.”  Morality is what you do, while ethics is what you think you should do.  In this sense, “ethics in Christian faith has to be related to theology” (Mitchell – lecture 1).  Professor Mitchell states that “there is no necessary relationship between traditional religion and ethics,” but Christian ethics “cannot be separated from its religious foundation” (Ramsey 1) because everything a Christian thinks he should do or every action a Christian takes is based on a Christian’s understanding of the message of Jesus and the message in the Bible.  A Christian, through this understanding, is an individual whose morality derives from the ethics of Jesus Christ and the ethics of the Bible.  Therefore, Christian ethics “will always still have its roots in the Bible” (Mitchell – lecture 11) even as Christian ethics changes in the face of new challenges of society.

Exercising Christian ethics requires a practice of Christian Love. Christian Love is understood to come from two sources, “The Righteousness of God” and “the Kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus” (Mitchell – lecture 11), both of which stem from “the idea of covenant between God and man” (Ramsey 2).  The reference to these two sources is the development of the understanding that “you cannot understand the New Testament, the basis of Christian ethics, without understanding the Old Testament, which is the basis of Jewish ethics” (Mitchell – lecture 11).   Professor Mitchell states that “to know what good is, you have to understand who God is, what kind of character God is.”  In this sense, “The Righteousness of God” provides us with the understanding that if a Christian ethic is to be developed it will first be through the concept of good through God.  While developing this understanding of Christian ethics, the Kingdom of God in the teachings of Jesus is understood through Jesus’ reference to God’s love and God’s kingdom, and finally that “the kingdom of God and the love of God are not ultimately separable” (Ramsey 25).

When understanding human nature as applicable to the Christian perspective, Christian ethics is “not just a rationalistic attempt to find out what human capabilities and possibilities, it’s actually an attempt to discover what human beings are created for and what they are not adequately taking care of,” therefore becoming an eschatological ethics (Mitchell – lecture 18).  One of the vital understandings of Christianity is that “human beings are created in the image of god,” (Mitchell – lecture 18) therefore, the idea of original sin tells us that in reference to human nature there was a conception of original goodness that has somehow become obscured.   While human beings were not created to be sinners, it is mostly understood “that man is sinful” (Ramsey 284).  This being the nature of human beings is evident through the fact that “something like Vietnam, something like Serbian War, something like World War I, something like World War II happens in every generation,” (Mitchell – lecture 18) while over-optimism of Americans leads them to hope that something like that never happens again.  The image of god “is not a substance human beings are born with,” (Mitchell – lecture 18) it is an ideal towards which human beings strive and that “Jesus Christ most perfectly reveals this image” (Ramsey 284).

Grace and law are two aspects in Christian ethics that are frequently found in tension.  The admission that human beings tend to sin and the commandment of love by Jesus reveal a concept of moral law and grace.  While human beings sin, they are encouraged to live up to very high standards of moral law as we find “the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:2-17; Deut. 5:6-21) [to] represent the essence of these expectations” (Wogaman 8).  At the same time, the concept of grace is introduced through Jesus’ illustration of “a love given prior to considerations of [a person’s] merit”, which is considered a “‘gift’ given freely to humanity through Jesus Christ” because no distinction is made between people since all people have at some point sinned (Wogaman 9).  The difference between law and grace lies in that law demands certain standards of human beings, whereas grace allows humans to be loved without judgment based on these standards.  While it would seem that these are contradicting forces, it is a part of “the biblical legacy of Christian ethics…somehow to do justice to both sides of the tension” (Wogaman 9).

Christian anthropology is the study of the relation of human beings to God by understanding the nature of human beings and the nature of God. Its focus is in determining what it means to be a human being in relation to God, what is the makeup of human beings, and certainly the value of individual human beings.  For example, in viewing the older conceptions of the birth of human beings, “early Christians just accepted the will of God” such that if someone were willed to be borne by God then Christians were required to welcome them (Mitchell).  This contrasted with various early cultures which either killed female babies or made sacrifices of children.   From these statements we gain the understanding that “Christian ethics cannot just be a floating card game, cannot just be out there challenging various ethical systems using their own planes” (Mitchell – lecture 24).  This is the case because Christian ethics start out with their own presuppositions and “those presuppositions have to do with nature of God and with the nature of human beings” (Mitchell – lecture 24).  What makes this anthropology difficult though is the fact that theologians must admit that they can only “know what God chooses to reveal to [them]” (Mitchell – lecture 24).

Lastly, a major tension prevalent in the understanding of Christian ethics is that of reason and revelation. Revelation is understood as the divine understanding which can only come down to human beings from God, it is a “knowledge or insight that has been given to persons of faith and that is not available to those who are outside the community of faith” (Wogaman 3).  Reason on the other hand is something that can be exercised by “any person of normal intelligence, reflecting on experience common to humanity” (Wogaman 3).  The difference lies in the fact that reason does not require revelation for a person to gain understanding of something important.  For the most part, Christian ethics seems to be a revelation as is evident through the word of the prophets when they “validate their moral teachings with ‘thus says the Lord’” (Wogaman 3).  Revelation also continues to be a major part of Christian moral understanding through the New Testament and “its variety of miracle stories bespeaking God’s intervention in human history” (Wogaman 4).  While revelation plays a key role, reason also finds an important place in biblical understanding such as the examples of “Hebrew herdsmen, rulers, warriors, and so on bargaining with or reasoning with their trading partners, subjects, fellow rulers, or adversaries” and is evident in the “rationale for commandments and moral admonitions” (Wogaman 4).  In the end this helps us to understand that while reason and revelation may provide human beings with different angles of understanding, both reason and revelation need to be employed in any serious thought on Christian ethics.

Christian ethics is an ideology that has continued to change over time as it has dealt with tensions such as grace and law and reason and revelation in a variety of ways.  Central to the tenets of these ethics has been the understanding of human nature with respect to God, and the understanding of Christian Love in the view of Jesus’ teachings and the Righteousness of God.  As new challenges continue to present themselves with the growing times, Christian ethics will inevitably continue to evolve with an understanding that revolves around Jesus Christ and the Bible.

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