What is Christian Ethics?

jak2010 By jak2010, 5th Jun 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/1h6bx193/
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The article tries to define “what is precisely Christian ethics” by systematically drawing the general question, “what is ethics to conclude with a specific definition of a Christian ethics from a jungle of definitions. Christian Ethics is one of many ways of reflecting ethical values but is a very distinctive one, as it is determined by theological premises of Christian faith about a loving God.

Outline of Christian Ethics

A rough outline of Christian Ethics is: “Discipline of reflection and analysis that lies between Christian theology on one side and social science on the other, or simply put, between faith and the facts. Christian theology transmits faith –premises that validate its moral norms while sciences that study empirical human behaviour bring understanding of complex factors involving reasons of human nature and cultural situations surrounding the problem of choice and decision. Without sciences, Christian ethics become moralistic, unrealistic and irrelevant to problems in decision a person must make. Vise versa, without Christian ethics, any decision based on data of social sciences, the choices in actions become unprincipled, normless and anomic.
When a problem is encountered with above sketch it “is-ought” problem. “What is called the naturalistic fallacy is the flaw of believing that moral is “ought” is derived only from empirical “is.” For instance, a news poll of how women should dress is not a sole criterion for deciding how the women should behave in public. In Christian ethics moral “ought” should come from the theological faith – premises affirm the transcendental will of God. How the will is understood is now subject of enquiry by the author.

The main types of ethical theories are between teleological and deontological ethics. Roman Catholics ethics are more teleological as it is based more on Aristotle’s eudaimonia (or “well being). It translates that telos into viseo Dei, the vision of God, to be attained by diligent cultivation of good habits of virtues, which leads one to beatific vision. Another example is the Protestant ethics of the Social Gospel Movement, whose goal is the kingdom on earth, toward which we will progress by systematic changes in the economic order. Roman Catholics also have deontological ethics in the form of Papacy encyclicals, which lay down rules for her members in matters regarding divorce, contraception etc which Protestants refer to Bible as the authority in which they found God’s commands toward such actions.

Roman Catholic Ethics

Another way of looking at the difference among the Christian Ethics is to distinguish the main historic church traditions: Roman Catholic and Protestantism ethics. Roman Catholic, since Thomas Aquinas based her ethics on issues of the world in teleological style, but with some deontological elements. In hierarchy of creatures, human beings are endowed with gifts of free will and reason, which enable us to make rational choices. We are endowed with a natural capacity to distinguish right from wrong. With proper training of the reason that can be called conscience, we have the capacity to apply universal principles to practical choices. The conscience and reason must guide person to achieve the 7 virtues of temperance, courage, justice, and prudence (from Greek philosophy) and theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. God sets two external guidelines to moral perfection. These are Divine law and Natural law. One principle of natural law is that good must be sought and evil avoided. Examples of good are self-preservation, private property for common use etc. Divine laws are special revealed laws of God in the Bible. When human being cultivate the virtues of Christian life and follow the precepts of natural law, they are on the road to eternal blessedness. The Church is the instrument of grace in which one who wonders off can receive forgiveness of sins. The principles of natural law and virtues of good life are for all people but special grace of God is in hand of the church. No true salivation can be found outside of Roman Church.

Protestant Ethics

Protestant ethics, on other hand, comes from Martin Luther’s experience and teaching of “justification by grace through faith alone.” He questions the teleological ethics of earning salvation by work. His protested that authentic Christian faith is not a matter of mind but of heart. He did not discourage all the virtues and good Christian life but all good works must be a response of what God did for man when we believe and receive that pardon. Calvin stressed God’s absolute sovereignty and pervasive original sin of mankind, which one could only be saved by the grace of God.

Still another way of looking at Christian Ethics is Christ and culture issue. These are ways of explaining norms of Christian life that exists between demands of God in Christ and demands of secular culture in which Christians live and work. Troelttsch developed three typologies.1.a compromise between church and world where worldly things are renewed, accepted and blessed as Christian. 2. A sect-type where total withdrawal of worldly things and live in obedience to God, like the Quakers.3. Christian mysticism, similar to the sect-type but is more individualistic. Richard Niebuhr’s expanded on Troeltsch’s typology and came up with five different ways to show how Christians have tired to live within the tension between their culture and the moral demands of God in Christ. Christ against culture on one extreme, the ideal that denounces the world, the flesh and the devil and tries to preserve its ethical pristine. On other extreme, the ‘Christ of culture,’ accommodates Christ to various moral norms of secular culture, making him hero of secular values and thus resolving the tension. Between these two poles, lies three more types: Christ above culture,’ is a more Catholic approach, ‘Christ and culture in paradox,’ is a type of Luther’s ethics, and lastly “Christ transforming the culture. Example of the last type is the aim of the Calvinists and Puritans that seeks to mould the political order after the model of the Kingdom of God of righteousness. The Protestant Social Gospel movement is another group, which fought to transform the capitalistic economy from competitiveness to communal type of compassionate justice.


What do we make of Christian ethics after divergence and convergence of these traditions? What does it mean to be a Christian in these jungles of ethical backgrounds? What do we have in common? Since an issue can be approached from different angles, one can hear conflicting answers and can be confusing at times. Yet within this seemly chaotic ethical situation, remains integrity of Christian ethics. Within this difference is a shared faith premises, a trust in the loving God who is the sovereign power of all. His will for mankind is made known through Jesus Christ. Christian ethics, despite its diversity, consists in faithful and obedient response to that will by actions that seek the well- being of neighbours near and far. This is the ‘one’ shared though many varied historical and contemporary answers to the question, “what is Christian ethics? God is the final authority of the human reason and decisions.

Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teachings of the Christian Church, Michigan, (two volume edition in translation by Harper Row, 1960
Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, Michigan, Harper & Row, 1956


Christian Ethics, Martin Luther, Roman Catholic Protestanism, Theology

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author avatar jak2010
A teacher from Papua New Guinea, English is my sixth language and love to write articles using my sixth language.

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