Ethics – Christian Ethics

Hi, it’s another ethics A2 today, and I haven’t done an ethics blog in a while so please enjoy!

Christian Ethics

Main Ethics Principles

Key assumptions:

  • God exists
  • God is good
  • God reveals and speaks
  1. The Jewish Roots of Christian Ethics (Old Testament):

Christianity has its roots in Judaism because Jesus was born and brought up as a Jew. Jewish ethics were revealed by God and written in the Old Testament.

  • The moral principle behind Jewish ethics is that God is just and loving.
  • In the first five books of the Bible (the Jewish scriptures) God lays down laws and rules so humans can live good lives.
  • Christians tend to drop the ‘divine command’/‘legalism’ approach in favour of using scripture as tool giving guidelines.
  • However, the Ten Commandments are followed without exception. The Ten Commandments are hugely influential in Christianity and seen by many as a set of deontological, absolute rules as they were revealed to Moses by God.
  1. The Ethics of Jesus (New Testament):

Jesus is the Son of God and a part of the Holy Trinity. Therefore, anything he said or did is given the same status as coming directly from God. If any of His teachings contradict the Old Testament, what Jesus says is written over the old laws/rules.

  • Jesus overturns the ideas in the Old Testament and often speaks of love. Old stories messages are thus not to be followed due to this overturning.
  • He teaches a revolution in attitudes in the Sermon on the Mount e.g. love your enemies; love of sinners.
  • He said that loving God is the greatest commandment and loving others the second greatest. This is known as the Golden Rule: do to others as you wold have them do to you (Matthew 7:12).
  • He taught by open-ended parable, not rules.
  • Jesus said he was the fulfilment of the Old Testament law and his emphasis was on approaching the law in the right spirit rather than just going through the motions of obeying.
  • The idea of a Kingdom of God is recreated in the New Testament: to enter the Kingdom one must follow the ethical principles of loving God, loving one another, accepting forgiveness and having a desire to do God’s will.
  1. The Ethics of St. Paul:

Jesus’ teachings were interpreted in the years following Him death by the apostle Paul. Paul is credited for spreading Christianity across the world. His letters doing this are found alongside the Gospels in the New Testament.

  • Paul saw love as the main ethical principle of Christianity.
  • He wrote that Christians did not need a legalistic code (laws like the Old Testament) because ‘their conduct shows that what the law commands is written in their hearts’.
  • The type of love Paul refers to is ‘agape’. He sees this as the main ethical rule in Jesus’ teaching and believes that all ethical decisions arise naturally from the principle of love.
  • Paul believed we should imitate the virtues of Jesus such as mercy and generosity.
  • Early Christians developed the idea of being guided by the Holy Spirit, which lives within them, rather than being ruled by laws or tradition.
  • The Epistles (letters) of Paul were written at a time when it was believed God would soon intervene and establish His kingdom. This means there is no emphasis on ethical principles which establish justice, social equilibrium or law.
  1. The principle of love:
  • Since Paul, Christian theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas have applied Paul’s message to love thy neighbour to exercise social responsibility. They argue that love is the reason we were made and what unites us with God.
  • More recently, in the 20th century Fletcher developed Situation Ethics: an ethical theory based on agapeism: following the most loving course of action.

Sources of Authority

Christians set out to follow the Will of God. They use the following different sources of authority to discover what the Will of God is. Different Christians place different emphasis on the relative importance of each source.

Authority Explanation
Bible Absolute and relative: tells us the facts and laws of Christianity (Ten Commandments) but it can have ambiguous teachings and contradictory teachings so you may not be able to make a fact from all of it.

Christians believe that the Bible was written by people whom God was speaking through and others that were recording Jesus’ teachings. Authority is given to the book because of this, since it is the nearest to understanding God and what He wants while on earth. However, some Christians do believe that there may be errors in the book due to when it was made and because it was made by humans.

Others believe that God wrote the Bible and handed it to humans much like the Ten Commandments, meaning it would be absolute and divine.

Church Absolute and relative: tells us things from the Bible which we must follow, but has the same ambiguous problems and what the Church tell us may be different from what we get from the Bible.

Authority in the Church includes priests, whom are taught how to interpret the Bible, or ‘Word of God’, in order to teach others, and going to Church is a traditional part of Christianity so a lot of them listen to the Church and what is taught there.

Holy Spirit Absolute: what God says is absolute and the Holy Spirit is a part of God, thus making it absolute.

Christians believe that a part of God is inside humans in the form of the Holy Spirit, as well as everywhere else in the world. Through prayer and worship in general, it reveals itself more and more to Christians and this ‘talking’ to them will reveal moral codes and answers. This is where its authority comes from.

Conscience Absolute: It is the voice of God, so it needs to be followed.

The conscience is regarded as a guide whom the Holy Spirit and thus God use to talk to humans with, since we all have one. Prayer, worship and the Church help the conscience, which Aquinas described as reason- making moral decisions.

Reason and Natural Law Absolute: it tells us exactly what is what and we have to go by it.

God-given Natural Law has authority due to it being God-given, and it gives us an ethical code to follow. God gave us the ability to reason and this use Natural Law which then tells us what is good and evil in the world.

Love Relative: there is no set rule to it, people see and love things differently, and you’d have to love all things equally to be able to make a decision.

Some Christians believe that the source of moral authority comes from love, and that decisions should be made based on love and what is the most loving act, just as Jesus is described as doing in the Bible.

What is the Most Important Ethical Theory?

The point here is to understand that there is no set answer. Different Christians will give you different answers. Remember, religious ethics are in many ways respects unlike philosophers call ethical theories. Philosophers seek to produce theories based on logic, coherence and clarity. However, for religion the starting point is God, and human understanding of God is far from clear and coherent. This is why a religious ethics can get very messy, contradictory and diverse. Ethical arguments between different groups of Christians are regularly in the news: for example, over the issue of women priests and bishops; the use of contraception. The difference of opinion comes because different Christians are placing different levels of emphasis on different ethical principles and employing different sources of authority to support them.

Theories and Religion

The different perspectives:

Autonomy: morality existing independent of religion. Its ideas are shaped by reason alone.

  • This position is argued by atheists and humanists, such as A.J. Ayers – they argue that it is under fair to nonreligious people to assert that morality is dependent on God. It is not the case that “without God, anything is permissible.” Morality is a product of human nature, Society and experience, to enable us to live together cooperatively and harmoniously.

Heteronomy: if shipped via a religious belief. Its rules are taken directly from religious teachings.

  • This position is argued by traditional religious believers. God is seen as the lawgiver and judge of every person’s behaviour and so God has a central place in moral decision-making. The reason to act morally, is because it is the will of God.

Theology: the principles and values behind both religious and ethical rules are the same.

  • This is the position put forward by the liberal theology and, Paul Tillich. Moral rules are not imposed on us against our reason by God; instead morality fits with what our reason would conclude and what God would have us do.

Euthyphro Dilemma

This was posed by Plato on the issue on religion and morality it asks:

Is something good because God commanded?    or    Does God commanded because it’s good?

Is something good because God commands it?

  • This means that what other God commands is good in itself.
  • We cannot apply reason or verifies anyway.
  • Morality is not separate from God; God is variety.
  • This side of the argument is the Divine Command theory.
  • However, there is a problem of arbitrary (random) and abhorrent (evil) commands of God: e.g. Joshua were 8:1 God commands genocide – according to this way of thinking, crawl or dishonest actions would be right where God commands them.

Does God command it because it is good?

  • This is saying that there are a set of absolute moral rules which are separate from God but known to him.
  • God has not created these rules, he merely commanded humans to use them.
  • However, the problem with this is God is not the most powerful or all-knowing since He didn’t create

Way out of the dilemma:

  • Aquinas argues that God would never issue evil or random commands because God’s moral commands are and will always be expressions of the goodness in his nature.
  • The command in Joshua eight, would then be explained by saying that we don’t fully understand why God commanded this, but knowing what we do of God’s character we must conclude that it was commanded out of goodness.

Divine Command Theory

This is the argument that something is good simply because God commanded. It is supported by William of Oakam, Descartes, and many modern evangelists. However, many Christian thinkers, such as Aquinas, William Temple and Pope John Paul II, have rejected the theory, because they said some things are innately good or bad.

Strengths Point Weaknesses
The obedience to God is required – it does not matter if we don’t understand why. Reflect teachings in the Bible such as story of Abraham and Isaac and in the book of Job.  




God is the source of moral goodness.

There are other, more popular, Christian ethical theories, such a situation or ethics and Natural Law which do not simply stress blind obedience, and in the case of situation or ethics are more relativist.

Is an act truly moral if you are just following commands? No free will.

Means that God is always right, so it leads to an absolute morality that is clear and easy to follow.  



If God commands something then it is good.

Couldn’t tell an obituary and illogical system of morality – rape would be good if God commanded.

What about the importance of reason in moral decision-making?

Fits with the lead us to words fits in with other attributes of God: creator and omnipotence.  

God’s commands must be acted upon.

Does good exist independently of God? Euthyphro Dilemma.

Where does this leave atheists? Humanities to argue morality exist without God.

 Situation Ethics

In situation ethics, right and wrong depend upon the situation. There are no universal moral rules or rights – each case is unique and deserves a unique solution.

Situation ethics rejects ‘prefabricated decisions and prescriptive rules’. It teaches that ethical decisions should follow flexible guidelines rather than absolute rules, and be taken on a case by case basis.

So a person who practices situation ethics approaches ethical problems with some general moral principles rather than a rigorous set of ethical laws and is prepared to give up even those principles if doing so will lead to a greater good.

Situation ethics was originally devised in a Christian context, but it can easily be applied in a non-religious way.

Elements of situation ethics

The elements of situation ethics were described by Joseph Fletcher, its leading modern supporter, like this:

  • Moral judgments are decisions, not conclusions
    • Decisions ought to be made situationally, not prescriptively
    • We should seek the well-being of people, rather than love principles.
  • Only one thing is intrinsically good: love
    • Love, in this context, means desiring and acting to promote the wellbeing of people
    • Nothing is inherently good or evil, except love (personal concern) and its opposite, indifference or actual malice
    • Nothing is good or bad except as it helps or hurts persons
    • The highest good is human welfare and happiness (but not, necessarily, pleasure)
    • Whatever is most loving in a situation is right and good–not merely something to be excused as a lesser evil
    • Moral theology seeks to work out love’s strategy and applied ethics devises love’s tactics.
  • Love “wills the neighbour’s good” [desires the best for our neighbour] whether we like them or not
    • The ultimate norm of Christian decisions is love: nothing else
    • The radical obligation of the Christian ethic to love even the enemy implies unmistakably that every neighbour is not a friend and that some are just the opposite.
  • Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed
    • Love and justice both require acts of will
    • Love and justice are not properties of actions, they are things that people either do or don’t do
    • Love and justice are essentially the same
    • Justice is Christian love using its head–calculating its duties. The Christian love ethic, searching seriously for a social policy, forms a coalition with the utilitarian principle of the ‘greatest good of the greatest number.’
  • The rightness depends on many factors.
    • The rightness of an action does not reside in the act itself but in the loving configuration of the factors in the situation–in the ‘elements of a human act’ –i.e., its totality of end, means, motive, and foreseeable consequences.

Strengths and weaknesses

Strengths Weaknesses
It’s personal – situation ethics is sensitive to circumstances, context, particularity, and cultural traditions. Every moral decision is required to demonstrate respect for individuals and communities and the things that they regard as valuable. This avoids the logical, detached, impersonal ways of thinking that some people think are overemphasised in some other forms of ethics. It excludes most universal moral truths – by doing this it seems to remove any possibility of guaranteeing universal human rights, and satisfying human needs for a useful ethical framework for human behaviour.
It’s particular – because moral decisions are treated on a case-by-case basis, the decision is always tailored to particular situations. It’s not clear what ‘love’ means – although the notion of love used in situation ethics seems attractive, it’s pretty vague and can be interpreted in many ways.
It’s based on doing good – situation ethics teaches that right acts are those motivated by the wish to promote the well-being of people. It’s difficult to implement – situation ethics seems to be little more than a form of act consequentialism, in that a person can only choose the right thing to do if they consider all the consequences of their possible action, and all the people who may be affected.
  It can’t produce consistent results – situation ethics produces a lack of consistency from one situation to the next. It may be both easier, and more just and loving, to treat similar situations similarly – thus situation ethics should not be treated as a free-for-all, but should look for precedents while continuing to reject rigid ethical rules.
  It may approve of ‘evil’ acts – situation ethics teaches that particular types of action don’t have an inherent moral value – whether they are good or bad depends on the eventual result.


So, situation ethics permits a person to carry out acts that are generally regarded as bad, such as killing and lying, if those acts lead to a sufficiently good result.

This is an uncomfortable conclusion, but it does seem to be accepted in certain situations. As an obvious example, killing people is generally regarded as bad, but is viewed as acceptable in some cases of self-defence.

The popular TV drama 24 regularly brought up this issue with regards to torture. The characters in the drama claimed they were justified in the (sometimes brutal) torture of suspects because the information gained in doing so saved thousands of lives.

Absolute or Relative

Christian ethics are usually seen as they ontological and absolute – certain acts are either right or wrong. Therefore legalism (strict adherence to the law) is associated with Christian ethics. However, Jesus’s teachings about love and arguments against legalism (i.e. that strict adherence to the law, doesn’t necessarily mean adherence to the spirit of the law), can allow for more relativist ethics.

However, it should be noted that those who argue that agape is subjective argue that there is no right or wrong standards, only what different individuals and cultures think. Christians should not agree with this, because they believe that there is an objective source of morality i.e. God. So Christian ethics can be relativist in terms of the way in which some approach it, such as situation ethics, because they look at the situation and calculate the consequences of an action in order to determine what is right (teleological approach), rather than by simply applying rules.

Divine Command Theory: absolutist – what God tells us to do is what is good; his roles and commands must always be obeyed, regardless.

It could be argued that Divine Command theory could have relativistic effects, since (in theory) one day God could forbid rape, and the next he could encourage it. However, Aquinas argues that God would never do this because God’s moral command are and all ways will be expressions of the goodness of his nature.

Natural Law: absolutist – the law that is written in our hearts is said and does not change; our task is to discover, through reason, what’s that is and to stick to it.

However, while Aquinas argues that the Primary Precepts are absolute, the Secondary Precepts are not totally absolute. For example, Aquinas felt that masturbation went against the natural end (Telos) of sex, which is procreation. This means that ‘do not masturbate’ is an absolute Secondary Precept. However, in modern infertility treatment, masturbation might be used to assist procreation through artificial insemination by a husband. On this issue, Natural Law and philosophers disagree about whether masturbation is unnatural, and therefore disagree about the Secondary Precepts ‘do not masturbate’.

Situation ethics: relativist – do the most loving thing; and this may well be different to according to different situations.

However, Situational Ethics starts with an absolute: agape. This point is not derived as through logical reasoning, but through faith – i.e. the following of Jesus’s Golden Rule (an absolutism). The application of love that follows is then wearable colours relativistic.


Strengths Criticism
It can provide moral certainty – simply need to follow the will of God. Variety of sources of authority, and of which provide for clarity, mean that deciphering what the will of God is, is a derisive issue.
Question of where morality lies is answered – i.e. with God. Practical issues of hypocrisy (e.g. God behaving badly in old Testament stories) and inbuilt contradictions (follow the law or followed love and bracket within religious ethical standards.
The teachings of Jesus means that it can incorporates relativist ethics, i.e. in liberal Protestant arguments to do the most loving thing. Not always absolutist – e.g. liberal Protestant situation ethics – and so right course of action not always clear.
  The Bible says nothing about modern ethical issues (e.g. IVF, generic engineering) and so it is not useful for sources of rules for the modern world.
  Open to the Euthyphro attack – it is something goes because God commanded or does God commands it because it is good?
  Humanists argue that morality is a product of human society, and so God is not needed. (Autonomy)
  This deal starts with an unproven absolute – that love is the most important thing.
  Despite Jesus’s call of love and to overthrow the legalism, much of the Christian tradition is authoritarian and bases to lead us word-based on the strict adherence to laws.
  Many of the Christian (in particular catholic) laws are counter to widespread modern attitudes (e.g. homosexuality, conception) and so shows that Christianity is backwards and cannot move with the times.

There we are! I hoped you enjoyed, please follow if you want some more, like to encourage and talk about any debate points you think of – have a great day!

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