Christianity and Ethics - A Handbook of Christian Ethics
by Archibald B. C. Alexander
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'Those obstinate questionings Of sense and outward things,'

which are the heritage of human nature.


3. The Ethics of Aristotle does not essentially differ from that of Plato. He is the first to treat of morals formally as a science, which, however, in his hands becomes a division of politics. Man, says Aristotle, is really a social animal. Even more decisively than Plato, therefore, he treats man as a part of society. While in Plato there is the foreshadowing of the truth that the goal of moral endeavour lies in godlikeness, with Aristotle the goal is confined to this life and is conceived simply as the earthly well-being of the moral subject. 'Death,' he declares, 'is the greatest of all evils, for it is the end.' Aristotle begins his great work on Ethics with the discussion of the chief good, which he declares to be happiness or well-being. But happiness does not consist in sensual pleasure, nor even in the pursuit of honour, but in an 'activity of the soul in accordance with reason.'[3] There are required for this life of right thinking and right doing not only suitable environment but proper instruction. Virtue is not virtuous until it is a habit, and the only way to be virtuous is to practise virtue. To be virtuous a man's conduct must be a law for him, the regular expression of his will. Hence the virtues are habits of deliberate choice, and not natural endowments. Following Plato, Aristotle sees that there is in man a number of impulses struggling for the mastery of the soul, hence he is led to assume that the natural instincts need guidance and control. Moderation is therefore the one chief virtue; and moral excellence consists in an activity which at every point seeks to strike a 'mean' between two opposite excesses. Virtue in general, then, may be defined as the observation of the due mean in action. Aristotle also follows Plato in assigning the ideal good to contemplation, and in exalting the life of reason and speculation above all others. In thus idealising the contemplative life he was but reflecting the spirit of his race. This apotheosis of knowledge infected all Greek thought, and found exaggerated expression in the religious absorption of Neo-Platonism.


Without dwelling further upon the ethical philosophy of Aristotle, a defect which at once strikes a modern in regard to his scheme of virtues is that benevolence is not recognised, except obscurely as a form of magnanimity; and that, in general, the gentler virtues, so prominent in Christianity, have little place in the list. The virtues are chiefly aristocratic. Favourable conditions are needed for their cultivation. They are not possible for a slave, and hardly for those engaged in 'mercenary occupations.'[4] Further, it may be remarked that habit of itself does not make a man virtuous. Morality cannot consist in a mere succession of customary acts. 'One good custom would corrupt the world,' and habit is frequently a hindrance rather than a help to the moral life. But the main defect of Aristotle's treatment of virtue is that he tends to regard the passions as irrational, and he does not see that passions if wholly evil could have no 'mean.' Reason pervades all the lower appetites of man: and the instincts and desires, instead of being treated as elements which must be suppressed, ought to be regarded rather as powers to be transformed and employed as vehicles of the moral life. At the same time there are not wanting passages in Aristotle as well as in Plato which, instead of emphasising the avoidance of excess, regard virtue as consisting in complementary elements—the addition of one virtuous characteristic to another—'that balance of contrasted qualities which meets us at every turn in the distinguished personalities of the Hellenic race, and which is too often thought of in a merely negative way, as the avoidance of excess rather than as the highest outcome of an intense and many-sided vitality.'[5]

4. After Aristotle philosophy rapidly declined, and Ethics degenerated into popular moralising which manifested itself chiefly in a growing depreciation of good as the end {42} of life. The conflicting elements of reason and impulse, which neither Plato nor Aristotle succeeded in harmonising, gave rise ultimately to two opposite interpretations of the moral life. The Stoics selected the rational nature as the true guide to an ethical system, but they gave to it a supremacy so rigid as to threaten the extinction of the affections. The Epicureans, on the other hand, fastening upon the emotions as the measure of truth, emphasised the happiness of the individual as the chief good—a doctrine which led some of the followers of Epicurus to justify even sensual enjoyment. It is not necessary to dwell upon the details of Epicureanism, for though its description of the 'wise man,' as that of a person who prudently steered a middle course between passion and asceticism, was one which exercised considerable influence upon the morals of the age, it is the doctrines of Stoicism which more especially have come into contact with Christianity. Without discussing the Stoic conception of the world as interpenetrated and controlled by an inherent spirit, and the consequent view of life as proceeding from God and being in all its parts equally divine, we may note that the Stoics, under the influence of Platonism, regarded self-realisation as the true end of man. This idea they expressed in the formula, 'Life according to nature.' The wise man is he who seeks to live in all the circumstances of life in agreement with his rational nature. The law of nature is to avoid what is hurtful and strive for what is appropriate. Pleasure, though not the immediate object of man, arises as an accompaniment of a well-ordered life. Pleasure and pain are, however, really accidents, to be met by the wise man with indifference. He alone is free who acknowledges the absolute supremacy of reason and makes himself independent of earthly desires. This life of freedom is open to all: since all men are members of one body. The slave may be as free as the consul, and in every station of life each may make the world serve him by living in harmony with it.

There is a certain sublimity in the ethics of Stoicism which has always appealed to noble minds. 'It inspired,' {43} says Mr. Lecky, 'nearly all the great characters of the early Roman Empire, and nerved every attempt to maintain the dignity and freedom of the human soul.'[6] But we cannot close our eyes to its defects. Divine providence, though frequently dwelt upon, signified little more for the Stoic than destiny or fate. Harmony with nature was simply a sense of proud self-sufficiency. Stoicism is the glorification of reason, even to the extent of suppressing all emotion. Sin is unreason, and salvation lies in an external control of the passions—in indifference and apathy begotten of the subordination of desire to reason.

The chief merit of Stoicism is that in an age of moral degeneracy it insisted upon the necessity of integrity in all the conditions of life. In its preference for the joys of the inner life and its scorn of the delights of sense; in its emphasis upon individual responsibility and duty; above all, in its advocacy of a common humanity and its belief in the relation of each human soul to God, Roman Stoicism, as revealed in the writings of a Seneca, an Epictetus, and a Marcus Aurelius, not only showed how high Paganism at its best could reach, but proved in a measure a preparation for Christianity, with whose practical truths it had much in common.

The affinities between Stoicism and Paulinism have been frequently pointed out, and the similarity in language and thought can scarcely be accounted for by coincidence. There are, however, elements in Stoicism which St. Paul would never have dreamt of assimilating. The material conception of the world, the self-conscious pride, the absence of all sense of sin, the temper of apathy, and unnatural suppression of feelings were ideas which could not but rouse the apostle's strongest antagonism. But, on the other hand, there were characteristics of a nobler order in Stoic morality which, we may well believe, Paul found ready to his hand and did not hesitate to incorporate in his teaching. Of these we may mention, the Immanence of God, the idea of Wisdom, the conception of freedom as {44} the prerogative of the individual, and the notion of brotherhood as the goal of humanity.[7]

The Roman Stoics, notwithstanding their theoretic interest in moral questions, lived in an ideal world, and hardly attempted to bring their views into connection with the facts of life. Their philosophy was a refuge from the evil around them rather than an effort to remove it. They seek to overcome the world by being indifferent to it. In Neo-Platonism—the last of the Greek schools of philosophy—this tendency to withdraw from life and its problems becomes still more marked. Absorption in God is the goal of existence and the essence of religion. 'Man is left alone with God without any world to mediate between them, and in the ecstatic vision of the Absolute the light of reason is extinguished.'[8]

Meagre as our sketch of ancient thought has necessarily been, it is perhaps enough to show that the debt of religion to Greek and Roman Ethics is incalculable. It lifted man above vague wonder, and gave him courage to define his relation to existence. It caused him to ask questions of experience, and awakened him to the value of life and the meaning of freedom, duty, and good. Finally, it brought into view those contrasted aims of life and society which find their solution in the Christian ideal.[9]


Christianity stands in the closest relation with Hebrew religion. Much as the philosophy of Greece and Rome have contributed to Christendom, there is no such intimate relation between them as that which connects Christian Ethics with the morality of Israel. Christ Himself, and still more the Apostle Paul, assumed as a substratum of {45} their teaching the revelation which had been granted to the Jews. The moral and religious doctrines comprehended under the designation of the 'law' served, as the apostle said, as a paidagogos or usher whose function it was to lead them to the school of Christ.

At the outset we are impressed by the fact that the Ethics of Judaeism was inseparable from its religion. Moral obligations were conceived as divine commands, and the moral law as a revelation of the divine will. At first Jehovah was simply a tribal deity, but gradually this restricted view gave place to the wider conception of God as the sovereign of all men. The divine commandment is the criterion and measure of man's obedience. Evil, while it has its source and head in a hostile but subsidiary power, consists in violation of Jehovah's will.

There are three main channels of Hebrew revelation, commonly known as the Law, the Prophecy, and Poetry of Old Testament.

1. LAW

(1) The Mosaic Legislation centering in the Decalogue[10] is the first stage of Old Testament Ethic. The ten commandments, whether derived from Mosaic enactment or representing a later summary of duty, hold a supreme and formative place in the teaching of the Old Testament. All, not even excepting the fourth, are purely moral requirements. They are, however, largely negative; the fifth commandment only rising to positive duty. They are also merely external, regulative of outward conduct. The sixth and seventh protect the rights of persons, while the eighth guards outward property. Though these laws may be shown to have their roots in the moral consciousness of mankind, they were at first restricted by Israel in their scope and practice to its own tribes.

(2) The Civil laws present a second factor in the ethical education of Israel. The 'Book of the Covenant'[11] reveals a certain advancement in political legislation. Still the {46} hard and legal enactments of retaliation—'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'—disclose a barbarous conception of right. Alongside of these primitive laws must be set those of a more humane nature—laws with regard to release, the permission of gleaning, the privileges of the year of jubilee.

(3) The Ceremonial laws embody a third element in the moral life of Israel. These had to do chiefly with commands and prohibitions relative to personal conduct—'Meats and drinks and diverse washings'; and with sacrifices and forms of ritual worship.[12]

With regard to the moral value of the commandments two opposite errors are to be avoided. We must not refuse to recognise in the Old Testament the record of a true, if elementary and imperfect, revelation of God. But also we must beware of exalting the commandments of the Old Dispensation to the level of those of the New; and thus misunderstanding the nature and relation of both.

The Christian faith is in a sense the development of Judaeism, though it is infinitely more. The commandments of Moses, in so far as they have their roots in the constitution of man, have not been superseded, but taken up and spiritualised by the Ethic of the Gospel.


The dominant factor of Old Testament Ethics lay in the influence exerted by the prophets. They, and not the priests, are the great moralists of Israel. The prophets were speakers for God, the interpreters of His will. They were the moral guides of the people, the champions of integrity in political life, not less than witnesses for individual purity.[13]

We may sum up the ethical significance of the Hebrew prophets in three features.

(1) They were preachers of personal righteousness. In {47} times of falsehood and hypocrisy they were witnesses for integrity and truth, upholding the personal virtues of justice, sincerity, and mercy against the idolatry and formalism of the priesthood. 'What doth the Lord require of thee,' said Micah, 'but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.'[14] In the same strain Isaiah exclaimed, 'Bring no more vain oblations, but wash you and make you clean.'[15] And so also Habakkuk has affirmed in words which became the keynote of Paul's theology and the watchword of the Reformation—'The just shall live by faith.'[16]

(2) They were the advocates of the rights of man, of equity and justice between man and man. They denounce the tyranny of kings, and the luxury of the nobles. They protest against the oppression of the poor and befriend the toilers of the cities. They proclaim the worth of man as man. They reveal Jehovah as the God of the common people, and seek to mitigate the burdens which lie upon the enslaved and down-trodden.

(3) They were the apostles of Hope. Not only did they seek to lift their fellow-men above their present calamities, but they proclaimed a message of peace and triumph which was to be evolved out of trouble. A great promise gradually loomed on the horizon, and hope began to centre in an anointed Deliverer. The Hebrew prophets were not probably conscious of the full significance of their own predictions. Like all true poets, they uttered greater things than they knew. The prophet who most clearly outlines this truth is the second Isaiah. As he looks down the ages he sees that healing is to be brought about through suffering, the suffering of a Sinless one. Upon this mysterious figure who is to rise up in the latter days is to be laid the burden of humanity. No other, not even St. Paul himself, has grasped so clearly the great secret of atonement or given so touching a picture of the power of vicarious suffering as this unknown prophet of Israel.



Passing from the prophets to the poets of Israel—and especially to the book of Psalms—the devotional manual of the people, reflecting the moral and religious life of the nation at the various stages of its development—we find the same exalted character of God as a God of Righteousness, hating evil and jealous for devotion, the same profound sense of sin and the same high vocation of man. The Hebrew nation was essentially a poetic people,[17] and their literature is full of poetry. But poetry is not systematic. It is not safe, therefore, to deduce particular tenets of faith or moral principles from passages which glow with intensity of feeling. But if a nation's character is revealed in its songs, the deep spirituality and high moral tone of Israel are clearly reflected in that body of religious poetry which extends over a period of a thousand years, from David to the Maccabean age. It is at once national and personal, and is a wonderful record of the human heart in its various moods and yearnings. Underlying all true poetry there is a philosophy of life. God, for the Hebrew psalmist, is the one pervading presence. He is not a mere impersonation of the powers of nature, but a personal Being, righteous and merciful, with whom man stands in the closest relations. Holy and awful, indeed, hating iniquity and exacting punishment upon the wicked, He is also tender and pitiful—a Father of the oppressed, who bears their burdens, forgives their iniquities, and crowns them with tender mercy.[18] All nature speaks to the Hebrew of God. He is no far-off creator, but immanent in all His works.[19] He presides over mankind, and provides for the manifold wants of his creatures. It is this thought which gives unity to the nation, and binds the tribes into a common brotherhood. God is their personal friend. In war and peace, in worship and labour, at home and in exile, it is to Jehovah they look {49} for strength and light and joy. He is their Shepherd and Redeemer, under whose wings they trust. Corresponding to this sublime faith, the virtues of obedience and fidelity are dwelt upon, while the ideal of personal righteousness and purity is constantly held forth. It is no doubt largely temporal blessings which the psalmists emphasise, and the rewards of integrity are chiefly those of material and earthly prosperity. The hope of the future life is nowhere clearly expressed in the Old Testament, and while in the Psalter here and there a dim yearning for a future with God breaks forth, hardly any of these poems illumine the destiny of man beyond the grave. The hope of Israel was limited mostly to this earth. The land beyond the shadows does not come within their purview. Like a child, the psalmist is content to know that his divine Father is near him here and now. When exactly the larger hope emerged we cannot say. But gradually, with the breaking up of the national life and under the pressure of suffering, a clearer vision dawned. With the limitations named, it is a sublime outlook upon life and a high-toned morality which the Psalter discloses. Poetry, indeed, idealises, and no doubt the Israelites did not always live up to their aspirations; but men who could give utterance to a faith so clear, to a penitence so deep, and to longings so lofty and spiritual as these Psalms contain are not the least among the heralds of the kingdom of Christ.

We cannot enlarge upon the ethical ideas of the other writings of the Old Testament, the books of Wisdom, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Their teaching, while not particularly lofty, is generally healthy and practical, consisting of homely commonplaces and shrewd observations upon life and conduct. The motives appealed to are not always the highest, and frequently have regard only to earthly prosperity and worldly policy. It must not, however, be overlooked that moral practice is usually allied with the fear of God, and the right choice of wisdom is represented as the dictate of piety not less than the sanction of prudence. The writers of the Wisdom literature are the {50} humanists of their age. As distinguished from the idealism of the prophets, they are realists who look at life in a somewhat utilitarian way. With the prophets, however, they are at one in regarding the inferiority of ceremonial to obedience and sincerity. God is the ruler of the world, and man's task is to live in obedience to Him. What God requires is correct outward behaviour, self-restraint, and consideration of others.

In estimating the Ethics of Israel the fact that it was a preparatory stage in the revelation of God's will must not be overlooked. We are not surprised, therefore, that, judged by the absolute standard of the New Testament, the morality of the Old Testament must be pronounced imperfect. In two respects at least, in intent and extent, it is deficient.

(1) It is lacking in Depth. There is a tendency to dwell upon the sufficiency of external acts rather than the necessity of inward disposition. At the same time, in the Psalter and prophecy inward purity is recognised.[20] Further, the character of Jehovah is sometimes presented in a repellent aspect; as in the threatenings of the second commandment; the treatment of the children of Achan and the Sons of Korah; the seeming injustice of God, implied in the complaint of Moses, and the protests of Abraham and David. But again there are not wanting more kindly features of the Divine Being; and the Fatherhood of God finds frequent expression. Though the penal code is severe, a gentler spirit shines through many of its provisions, and protection is afforded to the wage-earner, the dependent, and the poor; while the care of slaves, foreigners, and even lower animals is not overlooked.[21] Again, it has been noticed that the motives to which the Old Testament appeals are often mercenary. Material prosperity plays an important part as an inducement to well-doing. The good which the pious patriarch or royal potentate contemplates is something which is calculated to enrich himself or advance his people. But here we must not forget that {51} God's revelation is progressive, and His dealing with man educative. There is naturally a certain accommodation of the divine law to the various stages of the moral apprehension of the Jewish people. Gradually the nation is being carried forward by the promise of material benefits to the deeper and more inward appreciation of spiritual blessings.

(2) It is lacking in Scope. In regard to universality the Hebrew ideal, it must be acknowledged, is deficient. God is usually represented as the God of Israel alone, and not as the God of all men, and the obligations of veracity, honesty, and mercy are confined within the limits of the nation. It is true that a prominent commandment given to Israel and endorsed by our Lord runs thus: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.'[22] But the extent of the obligation seems to be restricted by the context: 'Thou shalt not avenge nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people.' It is contended that the word translated 'neighbour' bears a wider import than the English term, and is really applicable to any person. The larger idea is expressed in vv. 33, 34, where the word 'stranger' or 'foreigner' is substituted for neighbour. And there are passages in which the stranger is regarded as the special client of God, and is enjoined to look to Him for protection.

The Jews were not in practice, however, faithful to the humanitarianism of their law, and, in keeping with other nations, showed a tendency to restrict divine favours within the limits of their own land, and to maintain throughout their history an attitude of aloofness and repellent isolation which even amounted to intolerance towards other races. In early days, however, the obligation of hospitality was regarded as sacred.[23] Nor must we forget that, whatever may have been the Jewish practice, the promise enshrined in their revelation involves the unity of mankind; while several of the prophecies and Psalms look forward to a world-wide blessing.[24] In Isaiah we even read, 'God of the whole earth shall He be called.'[25]


The stream of preparation for Christianity thus flowed steadily through three channels, the Greek, the Roman, and the Jew. Each contributed something to the fullness of the time.

The problem of Greek civilisation was the problem of freedom, the realisation of self-dependence and self-determination. In the pursuit of these ends Greece garnered conclusions which are the undying possessions of the world. If to the graces of self-abasement, meekness and charity it remained a stranger, it gave a new worth to the individual, and showed that without the virtues of wisdom, courage, steadfastness and justice man could not attain to moral character.

The Roman's gift was unbending devotion to duty. With a genius for rule he forced men into one polity; and by levelling material barriers he enabled the nations to commune, and made a highway for the message of freedom and brotherhood. But, intoxicated with material glory, he became blind to spiritual good, and in his universal toleration he emptied all faiths of their content, driving the masses to superstition, and the few who yearned for a higher life to withdrawal from the world.

The Jewish contribution was righteousness. Not specially distinguished by intellectual powers, nor gifted in political enterprise, his endowment was spiritual insight, and by his dispersion throughout the world he made others the sharers of his inheritance. But his tendency was to keep his privilege to himself, or so to load it with legal restrictions as to bar its acceptance for strangers; and in his pride of isolation he failed to recognise his Deliverer when He came.

Thus, negatively and positively, by failure and by partial attainment, the world was prepared for Him who was the desire of all nations. In Christ were gathered up the wisdom of the Greek, the courage of the Roman, the righteousness of the Jew; and He who came not to destroy but to fulfil at once interpreted and satisfied the longings of the ages.

[1] Apologia, pp. 38-9.

[2] Cf. Adam, Vitality of Platonism, p. 3.

[3] Nic. Ethics, bk. i. chap. 5.

[4] histharnikai ergasiai, Arist., Politics, iii. 'There is nothing common between a master and his slave,' Nic. Ethics, viii.

[5] Butcher, Harvard Lectures on Greek Subjects, quoted by Barbour, Philos. Study of Christian Ethics, p. 11. Cf. also Burnet, Ethics of Aristotle, p. 73. 'The "mean" is really the true nature of the soul when fully developed.'

[6] Hist. of Europ. Morals, vol. i. chap. ii.

[7] See Author's Ethics of St. Paul for further discussion of relation of Paul to Stoics.

[8] Cf. E. Caird, Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers, vol. i. p. 48.

[9] Cf. Caird, idem. Pfleiderer, Vorbereitung des Christentums in der Griech. Philos.; Wenley, Preparation for Christianity.

[10] Exod. xx.; Deut. v.

[11] Ex. xx.-xxiii.

[12] Amos v. 25; Hos. vi. 6; Isa. i. 11-13.

[13] Cf. Wallace, Lectures and Essays on Natural Theol. and Ethics, p. 183.

[14] Micah vi. 8.

[15] Isa. i. 13-17; Micah vi. 7.

[16] Hab. ii. 4; cf. Rom. i. 17; Gal. iii. 2.

[17] Though Houston Chamberlain, in his recent work, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, maintains that they were 'a most prosaic, materialistic people, without any real sense of poetry.'

[18] Ps. 51.

[19] Ps. 19.

[20] Ps. 51; Isa. 1.

[21] Deut. xxiv. 14, 15; Jer. xxii. 13-17; Matt. iii 5; Deut. xxv. 4.

[22] Lev. xix. 18.

[23] Gen. xviii. xix.

[24] Isa. lxi.; Ps. xxii. 27; xlviii. 2-10; lxxxvii.

[25] Isa. liv. 5.







Having thus far laid the foundations of our study by a discussion of its presuppositions and sources, we are now prepared to consider man as the personal subject of the new life. The spirit of God which takes hold of man and renews his life must not be conceived as a foreign power breaking the continuity of consciousness. The natural is the basis of the supernatural. It is not a new personality which is created; it is the old that is transformed and completed. If there was not already implicit in man that which predisposed him for the higher life, a consciousness to which the spirit could appeal, then Christianity would be simply a mechanical or magical influence without ethical significance and having no relation to the past history of the individual. But that is not the teaching of our Lord or of His apostles. We are bound, therefore, to assume a certain substratum of powers, physical, mental and moral, as constituting the raw material of which the new personality is formed. The spirit of God does not quench the natural faculties of man, but works through and upon them, raising them to a higher value.[1]

I. But before proceeding to a consideration of these elements of human consciousness to which Christianity appeals, we must glance at two opposite theories of human nature, either of which, if the complete view of man, would be inimical to Christianity.[2]


1. The first view is that man by nature is morally good. His natural impulses are from birth wholly virtuous, and require only to be left to their own operation to issue in a life of perfection. Those who favour this contention claim the support of Scripture. Not only does the whole tone of the Bible imply the inherent goodness of primitive man, but many texts both in the Old and New Testaments suggest that God made man upright.[3] Among the Greeks, and especially the Stoics, this view prevailed. All nature was regarded as the creation of perfect reason, and the primitive state as one of uncorrupted innocence. Pelagius espoused this doctrine, and it continued to influence dogmatic theology not only in the form of Semi-Pelagianism, but even as modifying the severer tenets of Augustine. The theory received fresh importance during the revolutionary movement of the eighteenth century, and found a strong exponent in Rousseau. 'Let us sweep away all conventions and institutions of man's making and get back to the simplicity of a primitive age.' The man of nature is guileless, and his natural instincts would preserve him in uncorrupted purity if they were not perverted by the artificial usages of society. So profoundly did this theory dominate the thoughts of men that its influence may be detected not only in the political fanaticism which found expression in the French Revolution, but also in the practical views of the Protestant Church acting as a deterrent to missionary effort.[4] This view of human nature, though not perhaps formally stated, finds expression in much of the literature of the present day. Professor James cites Theodore Parker and other leaders of the liberal movement in New England of last century as representatives of the tendency.[5] These writers do not wholly ignore moral effect, but they make light of sin, and regard it not as something positive, but merely as a stage in the development of man.


2. The other theory of human nature goes to the opposite extreme. Man by nature is utterly depraved, and his natural instincts are wholly bad. Those who take this view also appeal to Scripture: 'Man is shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin.' Many passages in the New Testament, and especially in the writings of St. Paul, seem to emphasise the utter degradation of man. It was not, however, until the time of Augustine that this idea of innate depravity was formulated into a doctrine. The Augustinean dogma has coloured all later theology. In the Roman Catholic Church, even in such a writer as Pascal, and in Protestantism, under the influence of Calvin, the complete corruption of man's nature has been depicted in the blackest hues.

These theories of human nature represent aspects of truth, and are false only in their isolation.

The doctrine that man is innocent by nature is not in agreement with history. Nowhere is the noble savage to be found. The primitive man exhibits the same tendencies as his more civilised neighbour, and his animal passions are indulged without control of reason or consideration for others. Indeed, Hobbes's view of early society as a state of war and rapacity is much truer to fact than Rousseau's. The noble savage is simply a fiction of the imagination, an abstraction obtained by withdrawing him from all social environment. But even could we conceive of a human being kept from infancy in isolation, he would not fulfil the true idea of virtue, but would simply develop into a negative creature, a mutilated being bereft of all that constitutes our notion of humanity. Such experiences as are possible only in society—all forms of goodness as suggested by such words as 'love,' 'sympathy,' 'service'—would never emerge at all. The native instincts of man are simply potencies or capacities for morality; they must have a life of opportunity for their evolution and exercise. The abstract self prior to and apart from all objective experience is an illusion. It is only in relation to a world of moral beings that the moral life becomes possible for man. The innocence which the advocates of this theory contend for is {58} something not unlike the non-rational existence of the animal. It is true that the brute is not immoral, but neither is it moral. The whole significance of the passions as they exist in man lies in the fact that they are not purely animal, but, since they belong to man, are always impregnated with reason. It is reason that gives to them their moral worth, and it is because man must always put his self into every desire or impulse that it becomes the instrument either of virtue or of vice.[6]

But if the theory of primitive purity is untenable, not less so is that of innate depravity. Here, also, its advocates are not consistent with themselves. Even the systems of theology derived from Augustine do not contend that man was created with an evil propensity. His sin was the result of an historical catastrophe. In his paradisiacal condition man is conceived as possessing a nobility and innocence of nature far beyond that even which Rousseau depicted. Milton, in spite of his Calvinistic puritanism, has painted a picture of man's ideal innocence which for idyllic charm is unequalled in literature.[7] Nor does historical inquiry bear out the theory of the utter depravity of man. The latest anthropological research into the condition of primitive man suggests rather that even the lowest forms of savage life are not without some dim consciousness of a higher power and some latent capacity for good.[8] Finally, these writers are not more successful when they claim the support of the Bible. Not only are there many examples of virtue in patriarchal times, but, as we have seen, there are not a few texts which imply the natural goodness of man. Our Lord repeatedly assumes the affinity with goodness of those who had not hitherto come into contact with the Gospel, as in the case of Jairus, the rich young ruler, and the Syrophenician woman. It has been affirmed by Wernle[9] that the Apostle Paul in the interests of salvation grossly {59} exaggerates the condition of the natural man. 'He violently extinguished every other light in the world so that Jesus might shine in it alone.' But this surely is a misstatement. It is true that no more scathing denunciation of sinful human nature has ever been presented than the account of heathen immorality to be found in the first chapter of Romans. Yet the apostle does not actually affirm, nor even imply, that pagan society was so utterly corrupt that it had lost all knowledge of moral good. Though so bad as to be beyond hope of recovery by natural effort, it was not so bad as to have quenched in utter darkness the light which lighteth every man.

3. Christianity, while acknowledging the partial truth of both of these theories, reconciles them. If, on the one hand, man were innately good and could of himself attain to righteousness, there would be no need of a gospel of renewal. But history and experience alike show that that is not the case. If, on the other hand, man were wholly bad, had no susceptibility for virtue and truth, then there would be nothing in him, as we have seen, which could respond to the Christian appeal.[10] Christianity alone offers an answer to the question in which Pascal presents the great antithesis of human nature: 'If man was not made for God, how is it that he can be happy only in God? And if he is made for God, how is he so opposite to God?'[11] However, then, we may account for the presence of evil in human nature, a true view of Christianity involves the conception of a latent spiritual element in man, a capacity for goodness to which his whole being points. Matter itself may be said not merely to exist for spirit, but to have within it already the potency of the higher forms of life; and just as nature is making towards humanity, and in humanity at last finds itself; as

'Striving to be man, the worm Mounts through all the spires of form,'[13]

{60} so man, even in his most primitive state, has within him the promise of higher things. No theory of his origin can interfere with the assumption that he belongs to a moral Sphere, and is capable of a life which is shaping itself to spiritual ends. Whatever be man's past history and evolution, he has from the beginning been made in God's image, and bears the divine impress in all the lineaments of body and soul. His degradation cannot wholly obliterate his inherent nobility, and indeed his actual corruption bears witness to his possible holiness. Granting the hypothesis of evolution, matter even in its crudest beginnings contains potentially all the rich variety of the natural and spiritual life. The reality of a growing thing lies in its highest form of being. In the light of the last we explain the first. If the universe is, as science pronounces, an organic totality which is ever converting its promise into actuality, then 'the ultimate interpretation even of the lowest existence of the world, cannot be given except on principles which are adequate to explain the highest.'[13] Christian morality is therefore nothing else than the morality prepared from all eternity, and is but the highest realisation of that which man even at his lowest has ever been, though unconsciously, striving after. All that is best and highest in man, all that he is capable of yet becoming, has really existed within him from the very first, just as the flower and leaf and fruit are contained implicitly in the seedling. This is the Pauline view of human nature. Jesus Christ, according to the apostle, is the End and Consummation of the whole creation. Everywhere in all men there is a capacity for Christ. Whatever be his origin, man comes upon the stage of being bearing within him a great and far-reaching destiny. There is in him, as Browning says, 'a tendency to God.' He is not simply what he is now, but all that he is yet to be.

II. Assuming, then, the inherent spirituality of man, we may now proceed to examine his moral consciousness with a view to seeing how its various constituents form what we have called the substratum of the Christian life.


1. We must guard against seeming to adopt the old and discredited psychology which divides man into a number of separate and independent faculties. Man is not made like a machine, of a number of adjusted parts. He is a unity, a living organism, in which every part has something of all the others; and all together, animated by one spirit, constitute a Living whole which we call personality. While the Bible is rich in terms denoting the different constituents of man, neither the Old Testament nor the New regards human nature as a plurality of powers. A bind of unity or hierarchy of the natural faculties is assumed, and amid all the difference of function and variety of operation it is undeniable that the New Testament writers generally, and particularly St. Paul, presuppose a unity of consciousness—a single ego, or Soul. It is unnecessary to discuss the question, much debated by Biblical psychologists, as to whether the apostle recognises a threefold or a twofold division of man.[14] Our view is that he recognised only a twofold division, body and soul, which, however, he always regarded as constituting a unity, the body itself being psychical or interpenetrated with spirit, and the spirit always acting upon and working through the physical powers.

Man is a unique phenomenon in the world. Even on his physical side he is not a piece of dead matter, but is instinct through and through with spirit. And on his psychical side he is not an unsubstantial wraith, but a being inconceivable apart from outward embodiment. Perhaps the most general term which we may adopt is psyche or Soul—the living self or vital and animating principle which is at once the seat of all bodily sensation and the source of the higher cognitive faculties.

2. The fact of ethical interest from which we must proceed is that man, in virtue of his spiritual nature, is akin to God, and participates in the three great elements of the divine Personality—thought, love and will.[15] Personality has been called 'the culminating fact of the {62} universe.' And it is the task of man to realise his true personality—to fulfil the law of his highest self. In this work he has to harmonise and bring to the unity of his personal life, by means of one dominating force, the various elements of his nature—his sensuous, emotional, and rational powers. By the constitution of his being he belongs to a larger world, and when he is true to himself he is ever reaching out towards it. From the very beginning of life, and even in the lowest phases of his nature he has within him the potency of the divine. He carries the infinite in his soul, and by reason of his very existence shares the life of God. The value of his soul in this sense is repeatedly emphasised in scripture. In our Lord's teaching it is perhaps the most distinctive note. The soul, or self-conscious spiritual ego, is spoken of as capable of being 'acquired' or 'lost.'[16] It is acquired or possessed when a man seeks to regain the image in which he was created. It is lost when he refuses to respond to those spiritual influences by which Christ besets him, and by means of which the soul is moulded into the likeness of God.

3. A full presentation of this subject would involve a reference even to the physical powers which form an integral part of man and witness to his eternal destiny.

(1) The very body is to be redeemed and sanctified, and made an instrument of the new life in Christ. The extremes of asceticism and self-indulgence, both of which found advocates in Greek philosophy and even in the early Church, have no countenance in scripture. Evil does not reside in the flesh, as the Greeks held, but in the will which uses the flesh for its base ends. Not mutilation but transformation, not suppression but consecration is the Christian ideal. The natural is the basis of the spiritual. Man is the Temple of God, every part of which is sacred. Christ claims to be King of the body as of every other domain of life. The secret of spiritual progress does not consist in the unflinching destruction of the flesh, but in its firm but kindly discipline for loyal service. It is not, therefore, by {63} leaving the body behind but by taking it up into our higher self that we become spiritual. As Browning says,

'Let us cry all good things Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more now Than flesh helps soul.'

Without dwelling further upon the physical elements of man, there are three constituents or functions of personality prominent in the New Testament which claim our consideration, reason, conscience and will. It is just because man possesses, or is mind, conscience and will, that he is capable of responding to the life which Christ offers, and of sharing in the divine character which he reveals.

(2) The term nous, or reason, is of frequent occurrence in the New Testament. Christianity highly honours the intellectual powers of man and accords to the mind an important role in apprehending and entering into the thoughts and purposes of God. 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind,' says Jesus. Many are disposed to think that the exercise of faith, the immediate organ of spiritual apprehension, is checked by the interference of reason. But so far from faith and reason being opposed, not only are they necessary to each other, but in all real faith there is an element of reason. In all religious feeling, as in morality, art, and other spheres of human activity, there is the underlying element of reason which is the characteristic of all the activities of a self-conscious intelligence. To endeavour to elicit that element, to infuse into the spontaneous and unsifted conceptions of religious experience the objective clearness, necessity and organic unity of thought—is the legitimate aim of science, in religion as in other spheres. It would be strange if in the highest of all provinces of human experience intelligence must renounce her claim.[17] The Ritschlian value-judgment theory in its disparagement of philosophy is practically a dethronement of reason. And the protest of Pragmatism and the voluntarists {64} generally against what they term 'Intellectualism'[18] and their distrust of the logical faculty, are virtually an avowal of despair and a resort to agnosticism, if not to scepticism. If we are to renounce the quest for objective truth, and accept 'those ideas only which we can assimilate, validate, corroborate,'[19] those ideas in short which are 'practically useful in guiding us to desirable issues,' then it would seem we are committed to a world of subjective caprice and confusion and must give up the belief in a rational view of the universe.

(3) In spite of the wonderful suggestiveness of M. Bergson's philosophy, we are unable to accept the distinction which that writer draws between intuition and intelligence, in which he seems to imply that intuition is the higher of the two activities. Intelligence, according to this writer, is at home exclusively in spatial considerations, in solids, in geometry, but it is to be repelled as a foreign element when it comes to deal with life. Bergson would exclude rational thought and intelligence from life, creation, and initiative. The clearest evidence of intuition is in the works of great artists. 'What is implied is that in artistic creation, in the work of genius and imagination, we have pure novelty issuing from no premeditated or rational idea, but simply pure irrationality and unaccountableness.'[20] The work of art cannot be predicated; it is beyond reason, as life is beyond logic and law.[21] But so far from finding life unintelligible, it would be nearer the truth to say that man's reason can, strictly speaking, understand nothing else.[22] 'Instinct finds,' says Bergson, 'but does not search. Reason searches but cannot find.'[23] 'But,' adds Professor Dewey, 'what we find is meaningless save as measured by searching, and so instincts and passions must be elevated into reason.'[24] In the lower creatures instinct does the {65} work of reason—sufficiently for the simple conditions in which the animal lives. And in the earlier stages of human life instinct plays an important part. But when man, both as an individual and as humanity, advances to a more complex life, instinct is unequal to the new task confronting him. We cannot be content to be guided by instinct. Reason asserts itself and seeks to permeate all our experiences, and give unity and purpose to all our thoughts and acts.

The recent disparagement of intellectualism is probably a reaction against the extreme absolutism of German idealism which, beginning with Kant, found fullest expression in Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. But the true way to meet exclusive rationalism is not to discredit the function of mind, but to give to it a larger domain of experience. We do not exalt faith by emptying it of all intellectual content and reducing it to mere subjective feeling; nor do we explain genius by ascribing its acts to blind, unthinking impulse. 'The real is the rational,' says Hegel. Truth, in other words, presupposes a rational universe which we, as rational beings, must assume in all our thought and effort. To set up faith against reason, or intuition against intelligence is to set the mind against itself. We cannot set up an order of facts, as Professor James would have us do, outside the intellectual realm; for what does not fall within our experience can have for us no meaning, and what for us has no meaning cannot be an object of faith. An ineradicable belief in the rationality of the world is the ultimate basis of all art, morality and religion. To rest in mere intuition or emotion and not to seek objective truth would be for man to renounce his true prerogative and to open the door for all kinds of superstition and caprice.

III. In the truest sense it may be claimed that this is the teaching of Christianity. When Christ says that we are to love God with our minds He seems to imply that there is such a thing as intelligent affection. The distinctive feature of our Lord's claim is that God is not satisfied when His creatures render a merely implicit obedience; He {66} desires also the enthusiastic use of their intellect, intent on knowing everything that it is possible for men to know about His character and ways. And is there not something sublime in this demand of God that the noblest part of man should be consecrated to Him? God reveals Himself in Christ to our highest; and He would have us respond to His manifestations with our highest. Nor is this the attitude of Christ only. The Apostle Paul also honours the mind, and gives to it the supreme place as the organ of apprehending and appropriating divine truth. Mr. Lecky brings the serious charge against Christianity that it habitually disregards the virtues of the intellect. If there is any truth in this statement it refers, not to the genius of the Gospel itself, nor to the earlier exponents of it, but rather to the Church in those centuries which followed the conversion of Constantine. No impartial reader of St. Paul's Epistles can aver that the apostle made a virtue of ignorance and credulity. These documents, which are the earliest exposition of the mind of Christ, impress us rather with the intellectual boldness of their attempt to grapple with the greatest problems of life. Paul was essentially a thinker; and, as Sabatier says, is to be ranked with Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Kant, as one of the mightiest intellectual forces of the world. But not content with being a thinker himself, he sought to make his converts thinkers too, and he does not hesitate to make the utmost demand upon their reasoning faculties. He assumes a natural capacity in man for apprehending the truth, and appeals to the mind rather than to the emotions. The Gospel is styled by him 'the word of truth,' and he bids men 'prove all things.' Worship is not a meaningless ebullition of feeling or a superstitious ritual, but a form of self-expression which is to be enlightened and guided by thought. 'I will pray with the understanding and sing with the understanding.'

It is indeed a strong and virile Christianity which Paul and the other apostles proclaim. It is no magic spell they seek to exert. They are convinced that there is that in {67} the mind of man which is ready to respond to a thoughtful Gospel. If men will only give their unprejudiced minds to God's Word, it is able to make them 'wise unto salvation.' It would lead us beyond the scope of this chapter to consider the peculiar Pauline significance of faith. It is enough to say that while he does not identify it with intellectual assent, as little does he confine it to mere subjective assurance. It is the primary act of the human spirit when brought into contact with divine truth, and it lies at the root of a new ethical power, and of a deeper knowledge of God. If the apostle appears to speak disparagingly of wisdom it is the wisdom of pride, of 'knowledge that puffeth up.' He warns Timothy against 'science falsely so called.' On the whole St. Paul exalts the intellect and bids men attain to the full exercise of their mental powers. 'Be not children in understanding: but in understanding be men.'[25]

If, as we have seen, the body be an integral part of man, and has its place and function in the Christian life, not less, but even more, has the mind a special ethical importance. It is to the intelligence that Christianity appeals, and it is with the rational faculties that moral truth is apprehended and applied to life. Reason in its broadest sense is the most distinctive feature of man, and by means of it he exerts his mightiest influence upon the world. Mental and moral growth are closely connected, and personal character is largely moulded by thought. 'As a man thinketh in his heart so is he.' Not only at the beginning of the new life, but in all its after stages the mind is an important factor, and its consecration and cultivation are laid upon us as an obligation by Him in whose image we have been made, and whom to know and serve is our highest end.

[1] See Author's Ethics of St. Paul.

[2] Cf. Murray, Sandbank of Christian Ethics. See also Hegel, Phil. der Religion, vol. ii. p. 210 ff., where the antithesis is finely worked out.

[3] Gen. i. 26; Eccles. vii. 29; Col. iii. 10; James iii. 9.

[4] See Hugh Miller's Essays, quoted by Murray, op. cit., p. 137.

[5] Cf. W. James, Varieties of Religious Experience, pp. 81-86.

[6] Cf. Goethe's Faust. See also Nietzsche, Goetzendaemmerung for trenchant criticism of Rousseau.

[7] Murray, idem.

[8] Max Mueller, Fraser, Golden Bough, and others.

[9] Anfaenge des Christentums.

[10] Cf. Ottley, Christian Ideas and Ideals, p. 52. 'Christianity does justice both to man's inherent instinct that he has been made for God, and to his sense of unworthiness and incapacity.'

[11] Pensees, part ii. art. 1.

[12] Emerson.

[13] Ed. Caird, Critical Philosophy of Kant, p. 35.

[14] See Author's Ethics of St. Paul.

[15] Ottley, idem, p. 55.

[16] Luke xxi. 19.

[17] Cf. John Caird, Introd. to the Philosophy of Religion.

[18] Cf. Wm. James's Pragmatism and A Pluralistic World.

[19] Idem, p. 201.

[20] Cf. Bosanquet, The Principles of Individuality and Value.

[21] Bergson, Evol. Creat., p. 174 f.

[22] Cf. E. Caird, Kant, vol. ii. pp. 530 and 535.

[23] Evol. Creat., p. 159.

[24] Hib. Jour., July 1911.

[25] Some sentences in the above are borrowed from the writer's Ethics of St. Paul.




Passing from the physical and mental constituents of man, we turn to the more distinctly moral elements; and in this chapter we shall consider that aspect of the human consciousness to which mankind has given the name of 'conscience.'

No subject has presented greater difficulties to the moralist, and there are few which require more careful elucidation. From the earliest period of reflection the question how we came to have moral ideas has been a disputed one. At first it was thought that there existed in man a distinct innate faculty or moral sense which was capable of deciding categorically man's duty without reference to history or condition. But in modern times the theory of evolution has discredited the inviolable character of conscience, and sought rather to determine its nature and significance in the light of its origin and development. Only the barest outline of the subject can be attempted here, since our object is simply to show that however we may account for its presence, there is in man, as we know him, some power or function which bears witness to divine truth and fits him to respond to the revelation of Christ. It will be most convenient to consider the subject under three heads: I. the history of the Conception; II. the nature and origin of Conscience; and III. its present validity.

I. History of the Conception.—'The name conscience,' says a writer on the subject, 'appears somewhat late in {69} the history of the world: that for which it stands is as old as mankind.'[1]

1. Without pushing our inquiries back into the legendary lore of savage life, in which we find evidence of the idea in the social institutions and religious enactments of primitive races, it is among the Greeks that the word, if not the idea of conscience, first meets us. Perhaps the earliest trace of the notion is to be found in the mythological conception of the Furies, whose business it was to avenge crime—a conception which might be regarded as the reaction of man's own nature against the violation of better instincts, if not as the reflection or embodiment of what is popularly called conscience. It can scarcely be doubted that the Erinnyes of Aeschylus were deities of remorse, and possess psychological significance as symbols of the primitive action of conscience.[2] Though Sophocles is less of a theologian than Aeschylus, and problems of Ethics count less than the human interest of his story, the law of Nemesis does find in him dramatic expression, and the noble declaration put into the mouth of Antigone concerning the unwritten laws of God that 'know no change and are not of to-day nor yesterday, but must be obeyed in preference to the temporary commandments of men,'[3] is a protest on behalf of conscience against human oppression. And even in Euripides, regarded as an impious scoffer by some scholars,[4] there are not wanting, especially in the example of Alcestis, evidence of belief in that divine justice and moral order of which the virtues of self-devotion and sacrifice in the soul of man are the witness.

Socrates was among the first teachers of antiquity who led the way to that self-knowledge which is of the essence of conscience, and in the 'Daemon,' or inner voice, which he claimed to possess, some writers have detected the trace {70} of the intuitive monitor of man. Plato's discussion of the question, 'What is the highest good?' involves the capacity of moral judgment, and his conception of reason regulating desire suggests a power in the mind whose function it is to point to the highest good and to subordinate to it all the other impulses of man. In the ethics of Aristotle there is a reference to a faculty in man or 'rule within,' which, he says, the beasts lack.

But it is among the Stoics that the word first appears; and it is to the Roman moralist, Seneca, that we are indebted for the earlier definite perception of an abiding consciousness bearing witness concerning a man's own conduct. The writings of Epictetus, Aurelius, and Seneca approach in moral sublimity and searching self-analysis the New Testament Scriptures. It was probably to the Stoics that St. Paul was indebted for the word syneidesis to which he has given so distinctive a meaning that it has coloured and determined the whole later history of the moral consciousness.

2. But if the word as used in the New Testament comes from Greek sources the idea itself was long prevalent in the Jewish conception of life, which, even more than the Greek, was constitutive of, and preparatory to, the Christian view. The word does not, indeed, occur in the Old Testament, but the question of God to Adam, 'Where art thou?' the story of Cain and the curse he was to suffer for the murder of his brother; the history of Joseph's dealing with his brethren; the account of David's sin and conviction, are by implication appeals to conscience. Indeed, the whole history of Israel, from the time when the promise was given to Abraham and the law through Moses until the denunciations of wrong-doing and the predictions of doom of the later prophets, is one long education of the moral sense. It is the problem of conscience that imparts its chief interest to the book of Job; and one reason why the Psalms in all ages have been so highly prized is because they are the cries of a wounded conscience, and the confessions of a convicted and contrite heart.


3. If we turn to the New Testament we find, as we might expect, a much clearer testimony to the reality of the conscience. The word came into the hands of the New Testament writers ready-made, but they gave to it a richer meaning, so that it is to them we must go if we would understand the nature and the supremacy of the conscience. The term occurs thirty-one times in the New Testament, but it does not appear once in the Gospels. It is, indeed, principally a Pauline expression, and to the apostle of the Gentiles more than to any other writer is due the clear conception and elucidation of the term. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the doctrine itself depends entirely upon the use of the word. Our Lord never, indeed, employs the term, but surely no teacher ever sounded the depths of the human heart as He did. It was His mission to reveal men to themselves, to convict them of sin, and show the need of that life of righteousness and purity which He came to give. 'Why even of yourselves,' He said, 'judge ye not what is right?' Christ, indeed, might be called the conscience of man. To awaken, renew and enlighten the moral sense of individuals, to make them know what they were and what they were capable of becoming was the work of the Son of Man, and in contact with Him every one was morally unveiled.

The word occurs twice in Acts, five times in Hebrews, three times in the Epistles of Peter, and more than twenty times in the Pauline Epistles. St. Paul's doctrine of the conscience is contained in Romans ii. 14, 15, where he speaks of the Gentiles being 'a law unto themselves,' inasmuch as they possess a 'law written in their hearts,' 'their conscience bearing witness, therewith accusing or excusing them.' The idea underlying the passage is the responsibility of all men for their actions, their condemnation in sin, and their acceptance in righteousness. This applies to Gentiles as well as Jews, and it applies to them because, though they have not the explicit revelation of the law, they have a revelation of the good in their hearts. The passage therefore teaches two things: (1) That man has received a {72} revelation of good sufficient at all stages of his history to make him morally responsible; and (2) That man possesses a moral faculty which indeed is not a separate power, but the whole moral consciousness or personality in virtue of which he recognises and approves of the good which, either as the law written in his heart or as the law communicated in the Decalogue, has been revealed to him, and by whose authority he judges himself.

II. Nature, and Origin of Conscience.—While experience seems to point to the existence of something in man witnessing to the right, there is great diversity of view as to the nature of this moral element. The word 'Conscience' stands for a concept whose meaning is far from well defined, and the lack of definiteness has left its trace upon ethical theories. While some moralists assign conscience to the rational or intellectual side of man, and make it wholly a faculty of judgment; others attribute it to feeling or impulse, and make it a sense of pleasure or pain; others again associate it more closely with the will, and regard its function to be legislative or imperative. These differences of opinion reveal the complexity of the nature of conscience. The fact is, that it belongs to all these departments—the intellectual, emotional, and volitional—and ought to be regarded not as a single faculty distinct from the particular decisions, motives, and acts of man, not as an activity foreign to the ego, but as the expression of the whole personality. The question of the origin of conscience, though closely connected with its nature, is for ethics only of secondary importance. It is desirable, however, to indicate the two main theories which have been held regarding its genesis. While there are several varieties, they may be divided broadly into two—Intuitionalism and Evolutionalism.

1. Nativism, of which Intuitionalism is the most common form, regards the conscience as a separate natural endowment, coeval with the creation of man. Every individual, it is maintained, has been endowed by nature with a distinct faculty or organ by which he can immediately and clearly {73} pronounce upon the rightness or wrongness of his own actions. In its most pronounced form this theory maintains that man has not merely a general consciousness of moral distinctions, but possesses from the very first, apart from all experience and education, a definite and clear knowledge of the particular vices which ought to be avoided and the particular virtues which ought to be practised. This theory is usually connected with a form of theism which maintains that the conscience is particularly a divine gift, and is, indeed, God's special witness or oracle in the heart of man.

Though there would seem to be an element of truth in intuitionalism, since man, to be man at all, must be conceived as made for God and having that in him which points to the end or ideal of his being, still in its most extreme form it would not be difficult to show that this theory is untenable. It is objectionable, because it involves two assumptions, of which the one conflicts with experience, and the other with the psychological nature of man.

(1) Experience gives us no warrant for supposing that duty is always the same, and that conscience is therefore exempt from change. History shows rather that moral convictions only gradually emerge, and that the laws and customs of one age are often repudiated by the next. What may seem right to one man is no longer so to his descendant. History records deeds committed in one generation in the name of conscience which in the same name a later generation has condemned with horror. Moreover, the possibility of a conflict between duties proves that unconditional truth exists at no stage of moral development. There is no law so sacred that it may not in special cases have to yield to the sacredness of a higher law. When duties conflict, our choice cannot be determined by any a priori principle residing in ourselves. It must be governed by that wider conception of the moral life which is to be gained through one's previous development, and on the basis of a ripe moral experience.[5] (2) Nor is this theory consistent with {74} the known nature of man. We know of no separate and independent organ called conscience. Man must not be divided against himself. Reason and feeling enter into all acts of will, since these are not processes different in kind, but elements of voluntary activity itself and inseparable from it. It is impossible for a man to be determined in his actions or judgments by a mere external formula of duty, a 'categorical imperative,' as Kant calls it, apart from motives. Moreover, all endowments may be regarded as divine gifts, and it is a precarious position to claim for one faculty a spiritually divine or supernatural origin which is denied to others. Man is related to God in his whole nature. The view which regards the law of duty as something foreign to man, stern and unchangeable in its decrees, and in nowise dependent upon the gradual development and growing content of the moral life is not consistent either with history or psychology.

2. Evolutionalism, which since the time of Darwin has been applied by Spencer and others to account for the growth of our moral ideas, holds that conscience is the result of a process of development, but does not limit the process to the life of the individual. It extends to the experience of the race. While admitting the existence of conscience as a moral faculty in the rational man of to-day, it holds that it did not exist in his primitive ancestors. Earlier individuals accumulated a certain amount of experience and moral knowledge, the result of which, as a habit or acquired capacity, was handed down to their successors. From the first man has been a member of society, and is what he is in virtue of his relation to it. All that makes him man, all his powers of body and mind, are inherited. His instincts and desires, which are the springs of action, are themselves the creation of heredity, association and environment. The individual takes its shape at every point from its relation to the social organism of which it is a part. What man really seeks from the earliest is satisfaction. 'No school,' says Mr. Spencer, 'can avoid taking for the ultimate moral aim a desirable {75} state of feeling.'[6] Prolonged experience of pleasure in connection with actions which serve social ends has resulted in certain physiological changes in the brain and nervous system rendering these actions constant. Thus, according to Spencer, is begotten conscience.

While acknowledging the service which the evolutionary theory has done in calling attention to the place and function of experience and social environment in the development of the moral life, and in showing that moral judgment, like every other capacity, must participate in the gradual unfolding of personality, as a conclusive explanation of conscience it must be pronounced insufficient. Press the analysis of sensation as far back as we please, and make an analysis of instincts and feelings as detailed as possible, we never get in man a mere sensation, as we find it in the lower animal; it is always sensation related to, and modified by, a self. In the simplest human instincts there is always a spiritual element which is the basis of the possibility at once of knowledge and morality. 'That countless generations,' says Green, 'should have passed during which a transmitted organism was progressively modified by reaction on its surroundings, by struggle for existence or otherwise, till its functions became such that an eternal consciousness could realise or produce itself through them—might add to the wonder with which the consideration of what we do and are must always fill us, but it could not alter the results of that consideration.'[7]

No process of evolution, even though it draws upon illimitable ages, can evolve what was not already present in the form of a spiritual potency. The empiric treatment of conscience as the result of social environment and culture leads inevitably back to the assumption of some rudimentary moral consciousness without which the development of a moral sense would be an impossibility. The history of mankind, moreover, shows that conscience, so far from being merely the reflex of the prevailing customs and institutions of a particular age, has frequently {76} closed its special character by reacting upon and protesting against the recognised traditions of society. The individual conscience has often been in advance of its times; and the progress of man has been secured as much by the champions of liberty as by those who conform to accepted customs. In all moral advance there comes a stage when, in the conflict of habit and principle, conscience asserts itself, not only in revealing a higher ideal, but in urging men to seek it.

III. The Validity and Witness of Conscience.—It is not, however, with the origin of conscience, but with its capacities and functions in its developed state that Ethics is primarily concerned. The beginning must be interpreted by the end, and the process by the result to which it tends.

1. The Christian doctrine is committed neither to the intuitional nor the evolutionist theory, but rather may be said to reconcile both by retaining that which is true in each. While it holds to the inherent ability on the part of a being made in God's image to recognise at the different stages of his growth and development God's will as it has been progressively revealed, it avoids the necessity of conceiving man as possessing from the very beginning a full-fledged organ of infallible authority. The conscience participates in man's general progress and enlightenment. Nor can the moral development of the individual be held separate from the moral development of the race. As there is a moral solidarity of mankind, so the individual conscience is conditional by the social conscience. The individual does not start in life with a full-grown moral apparatus any more than he starts with a matured physical frame. The most distinctively spiritual attainments of man have their antecedents in less human and more animal capacities. As there is a continuity of human life, so individuals and peoples inherit the moral assets of previous generations, and incorporate in their experience all past attainments. Conscience is involved in man's moral history. It suffers in his sin and alienation from God, becoming clouded in its insight and feeble in its testimony, but it shares also in his {77} spiritual advancement, growing more sensitive and decisive in its judgments.

(1) Conscience, as the New Testament teaches, can be perverted and debased. It is always open to a free agent to disobey his conscience and reject its authority. On the intuitional theory, which regards the conscience as a separable and independent faculty, it would be difficult to vindicate the terrible consequences of such conduct. It is because the conscience is the man himself as related to the consciousness of the divine will that the effects are so injurious. Conscience may be (a) Stained, defiled, and polluted in its very texture (1 Cor. viii. 7); (b) Branded or seared (1 Tim. iv. 2), rendered insensible to all feeling for good; (c) Perverted, in which the very light within becomes darkness. In this last stage the man calls evil good and good evil—the very springs of his nature are poisoned and the avenues of his soul are closed.

'This is death, and the sole death, When man's loss comes to him from his gain.'[8]

(2) But if conscience can be perverted it may also be improved. The education is twofold, social and individual. Through society, says Green, personality is actualised. 'No individual can make a conscience for himself. He always needs a society to make it for him.'[9] There is no such thing as a purely individual conscience. Man can only realise himself, come to his best, in relation to others. The conditions amid which a man is born and reared—the home, the school, the church, the state—are the means by which the conscience is exercised and educated. But the individual is not passive. He has also a part to play; and the whole task of man may be regarded as an endeavour to make his conscience effective in life. The New Testament writers refrain from speaking of the conscience as an unerring and perfect organ. Their language implies rather the possibility of its gradual enlightenment; and St. Paul specially dwells upon the necessity of 'growing in spiritual {78} knowledge and perception.' As life advances moral judgment may be modified and corrected by fuller knowledge, and the perception of a particular form of conduct as good may yield to the experience of something better.

2. 'It is one of the most wonderful things,' says Professor Wundt, 'about moral development, that it unites so many conditions of subordinate value in the accomplishment of higher results,'[10] and the worth of morality is not endangered because the grounds of its realisation in special cases do not always correspond in elevation to the moral ideas. The conscience is not an independent faculty which issues its mandates irrespective of experience. Its judgments are always conditioned by motives. The moral imperatives of conscience may be grouped under four heads:[11] (1) External constraints, including all forms of punishment for immoral actions and the social disadvantages which such actions involve. These can only produce the lowest grade of morality, outward propriety, the mere appearance of virtue which has only a negative value in so far as it avoids what is morally offensive. (2) Internal constraints, consisting of influences excited by the example of others, by public opinion and habits formed through education and training. (3) Self-satisfaction, originating in the agent's own consciousness. It may be a sense of pleasure or feeling of self-approbation: or higher still, the idea of duty for its own sake, commonly called 'conscientiousness.' (4) The ideal of life, the highest imperative of conscience. Here the nobility of life, as a whole, the supreme life-purpose, gives meaning and incentive to each and every action. The ideal of life is not, however, something static and completed, given once and for all. It grows with the enlightenment of the individual and the development of humanity. The consciousness of every age comprehends it in certain laws and ends of life. The highest form of the ideal finds its embodiment in what are called noble characters. These ethical heroes rise, in rare and exceptional circumstances, above the ordinary level of {79} common morality, gathering up into themselves the entire moral development of the past, and radiating their influence into the remotest distances of the future. They are the embodiments of the conscience of the race, at once the standard and challenge of the moral life of mankind, whose influence awakens the slumbering aspirations of men, and whose creative genius affects the whole history of the world, lifting it to higher levels of thought and endeavour.

The supreme example—unique, however, both in kind and degree, and differing by its uniqueness from every other life which has in some measure approximated to the ideal—is disclosed in Jesus Christ. Thus it is that the moral consciousness of the world generally and of the individual in particular, of which the conscience is the organ and expression, develops from less to more, under the influence of the successive imperatives of conduct, till finally it attains to the vision of the greatness of life as it is revealed in its supreme and all-commanding ideal.[12]

3. Finally, in this connection the question of the permanence of conscience may be referred to. Is the ultimate of life a state in which conscience will pervade every department of a man's being, dominating all his thoughts and activities? or is the ideal condition one in which conscience shall be outgrown and its operation rendered superfluous? A recent writer on Christian ethics[13] makes the remarkable statement that where there is no sense of sin conscience has no function, and he draws the inference that where there is complete normality and perfect moral health conscience will be in abeyance. Satan, inasmuch as he lacks all moral instinct, can know nothing of conscience; and, because of His sinlessness, Jesus must also be pronounced conscienceless. Hence the paradox attributed to Machiavelli: 'He who is without conscience is either a Christ or a devil.' But though it is true that the Son of Man had no actual experience of sin, and could not, indeed, feel remorse or contrition, yet in so far as He was man there was in Him {80} the possibility of sin, and in the intimate relation which He bore to the human race He had a most accurate and clear knowledge both of the meaning and consequences of evil. So far from saying that Christ had no conscience, it would be nearer the truth to say that He had a perfect conscience, a personality and fullness of consciousness which was a complete reflection of, and harmony with, the highest conceivable good. The confusion of thought into which Professor Lemme seems to fall is due, we cannot help thinking, to the too restricted and negative signification he gives to conscience. Conscience is not merely the faculty of reproving and approving one's own conduct when brought into relation with actual sin. It is involved in every moral judgment. A good conscience is not only the absence of an evil one. It has also a positive sanctioning value. The 'ought' of life is constantly present. It is the whole man ever conscious of, and confronted by, his ideal self. The conscience participates in man's gradual progress and enlightenment; so far from the individual growing towards a condition in which self-judgment ceases, he is progressing rather in moral discernment, and becoming more and more responsive to the will of Him whose impress and image he bears upon his soul.

The tendency of modern physiological accounts of conscience has been to undermine its authority and empty life of its responsibility, but no theory of the origin of conscience must be permitted to invalidate its judgments. If conscience has any moral worth it is that it contains the promise and witness of God. The prime question is, What is the nature of its testimony? According to the teaching of Scripture it bears witness to the existence of a higher than man—to a divine Person with whom he is spiritually akin and to whom he is accountable.

'God's most intimate presence in the soul.' As the revelation of God's will grows clearer man's ideal becomes loftier. Hence a man's conscience is the measure of his moral life. It reveals God, and in the light of God reveals man to himself. We carry a 'forever' within our bosom, {81} 'ein Gott in unserer Brust,'[14] as Goethe says, which reminds us that even while denizens of this earth we are citizens of heaven and the sharers of an eternal life. Like another John the Baptist, conscience points to one greater than itself. It emphasises the discord that exists between the various parts of man's nature, a discord which it condemns but cannot remove. It can judge, but it cannot compel. Hence it places man before Christ, and bids him yield to the sway of a new transforming power. As one has finely said, 'He who has implanted in every breast such irrefragible testimony to the right, and such unappeasable yearnings for its complete triumph, now comes in His own perfect way to reveal Himself as the Lord of conscience, the Guide of its perplexities, the Strength of its weakness and the Perfecter of its highest hopes.'[15]

[1] Davidson, The Christian Conscience.

[2] Cf. Symonds, Studies of Greek Poets, first series, p. 191.

[3] Antigone, Plumptre's Trans., 455-9.

[4] Cf. Bunsen, God in History, vol. ii. p. 224; also Campbell, Religion in Greek Literature.

[5] Cf. Wundt, Ethik, vol. ii. p. 66.

[6] Data of Ethics, p. 18.

[7] Proleg., section 83.

[8] Browning.

[9] Proleg., section 321.

[10] Ethik, vol. ii. p. 66.

[11] Idem.

[12] Cf. Wundt, Ethik, vol. ii. pp. 67-74.

[13] Lemme, Christliche Ethik, vol. i.

[14] Tasso, act iii. scene 2.

[15] Davidson, The Christian Conscience, p. 113.




Closely connected with the conscience as a moral capacity is the power of self-determination, or as it is popularly called—free-will. If conscience is the manifestation of man as knowing, will is more especially his manifestation as a being who acts. The subject which we now approach presents at once a problem and a task. The nature of freedom has been keenly debated from the earliest times, and the history of the problem of the will is almost the history of philosophy. The practical question which arises is whether the individual has any power by which the gulf between the natural and the spiritual can be transcended. Can man choose and decide for a spiritual world above that in which he is by nature involved? The revelation of the good must, indeed, precede the activity of man. But at the same time the change cannot merely happen to him. He cannot simply be a passive recipient. The new life must be taken up by his own activity, and be made his by his own decision and acceptance. This responsive activity on the part of man is the task which life presents to the will.

Much obviously depends upon the answer we are able to give to this question. If man has no power of choice, no capacity of self-determination, and is nothing more than a part of the natural world, then the ethical life is at once ruled out of court.

The difficulties connected with the problem of moral freedom resolve themselves mainly into three: a scientific, a psychological, and a theological.

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