Christianity and Ethics - A Handbook of Christian Ethics
by Archibald B. C. Alexander
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Page numbers in this book are indicated by numbers enclosed in curly braces, e.g. {99}. They have been located where page breaks occurred in the original book. For its Index, a page number has been placed only at the start of that section.


A Handbook of Christian Ethics



Author of 'A Short History of Philosophy,' 'The Ethics of St. Paul,' etc.

London: Duckworth & Co. 3 Henrietta St., Covent Garden 1914 All rights reserved



The object of this volume is to present a brief but comprehensive view of the Christian conception of the moral life. In order to conform with the requirements of the series to which the volume belongs, the writer has found the task of compression one of almost insurmountable difficulty; and some topics, only less important than those dealt with, have been necessarily omitted. The book claims to be, as its title indicates, simply a handbook or introduction to Christian Ethics. It deals with principles rather than details, and suggests lines of thought instead of attempting an exhaustive treatment of the subject. At the same time, in the author's opinion, no really vital question has been overlooked. The treatise is intended primarily for students, but it is hoped that it may prove serviceable to those who desire a succinct account of the moral and social problems of the present day.

A fairly full bibliography has been added, which, along with the references to authorities in the body of the work, may be helpful to those who wish to prosecute the study. For the convenience of readers the book has been divided into four sections, entitled, Postulates, Personality, Character, and Conduct; and a detailed synopsis of contents has been supplied.

To the Rev. W. R. Thomson, B.D. of Bellshill, Scotland, who read the chapters in type, and generally put at his disposal much valuable suggestion, the author would record his most sincere thanks.







THE NATURE AND SCOPE OF ETHICS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9

I. General Definition. II. Distinctive Features—1. Ideal; 2. Norm; 3. Will. III. Is Ethics a Science? IV. Relation to—1. Logic; 2. Aesthetics; 3. Politics. V. Dependence upon—1. Metaphysics; 2. Psychology.


THE POSTULATES OF CHRISTIAN ETHICS . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22

I. Philosophical Ethics. II. Dogmatics. III. Theological Presuppositions— 1. Christian Idea of God. 2. Christian Doctrine of Sin. 3. Human Responsibility. IV. Authority and Method.


ETHICAL THOUGHT BEFORE CHRIST . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36

I. In Greece and Rome—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Stoics. Stoicism and St. Paul. II. In Israel—1. Law; 2. Prophecy; 3. Poetry. Preparatory Character of pre-Christian Morality.



THE ESTIMATE OF MAN . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55

I. Conflicting Views of Human Nature— 1. Man by nature Morally Good. 2. Man by nature Totally Depraved. 3. The Christian View. II. Examination of Man's Psychical Nature— 1. The Unity of the Soul. 2. The Divine in Man. 3. The Physical and Mental Life. III. Appeal of Christianity to the Mind.


THE WITNESS OF CONSCIENCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68

I. Treatment of Conscience— 1. In Greek Poetry and Philosophy. 2. In Old Testament. 3. In New Testament. II. Nature and Origin of Conscience— 1. Intuitionalism. 2. Evolutionalism. III. Validity of Conscience— 1. The Christian View. 2. The Moral Imperatives. 3. The Permanence of Conscience


'THE MIRACLE OF THE WILL' . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82

Is Man free to choose the Good? Creative Power of Volition. Aspects of Problem raised. I. Scientific— Man and Physical Necessity. II. Psychological— Determinism and Indeterminism. Criticism of James and Bergson. Spontaneity and Necessity. III. Theological— Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom. Jesus and Paul—Challenge to the Will. Freedom—a Gift and a Task.



MODERN THEORIES OF LIFE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99

I. Naturalistic Tendency— 1. Materialistic— (1) Idyllic or Poetic—Rousseau. (2) Philosophic—Feuerbach. (3) Scientific—Haeckel. 2. Utilitarian—Hobbes, Bentham, Mill. 3. Evolutionary—Spencer. 4. Socialistic—Marx, Engels. 5. Individualistic— (1) Aestheticism—Goethe, Schiller. (2) Subjectivism— (a) Pessimism—Schopenhauer. (b) Optimism—Nietzsche. II. Idealistic Tendency— 1. Kant—Categorical Imperative. 2. Fichte and Hegel—Idea of Personality. 3. James—Pragmatism. 4. Bergson—Vitalism. 5. Eucken—Activism.


THE CHRISTIAN IDEAL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127

Life, as the highest Good. I. Life, in its Individual Aspect— 1. Its Intensity. 2. Its Expansion. 3. 'Eternal Life.' II. Life, in its Social Aspect— 1. 'The Kingdom of God'— Eschatological Interpretation. Untenableness of Interimsethik. 2. Christ's View of Kingdom— (1) A Present Reality—a Gift. (2) A Gradual Development—a Task. (3) A Future Consummation—a Hope. III. Life, in its Godward Aspect— 1. Holiness. 2. Righteousness. 3. Love.


STANDARD AND MOTIVE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 146

I. Christ as Example— 1. Portrayal by Synoptists— (1) Artlessness of Disciples. (2) Naturalness of Jesus, 2. Impression of Power— (1) Power of Loyalty to Calling. (2) Power of Holiness. (3) Power of Sympathy. 3. Value of Jesus' Example for Present Life— Misconception of Phrase 'Imitation of Christ.' II. The Christian Motive— 1. Analysis of Springs of Conduct— (1) Divine Forgiveness. (2) Fatherhood of God. (3) Sense of Vocation. (4) Brevity of Life. (5) Idea of Immortality. 2. Question as to Purity of Motive— (1) Charge of Asceticism. (2) Charge of Hedonism. 3. Doctrine of Rewards— (1) In Philosophy. (2) In Christianity—(a) Jesus; (b) Paul.


THE DYNAMIC OF THE NEW LIFE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 164

I. Divine Power— Operative through Christ's 1. Incarnation and Life. 2. Death and Sacrifice. 3. Resurrection and Indwelling Presence. II. Human Response— 1. Repentance— (1) Contrition—Confession—Resolution. (2) Question of 'Sudden Conversion.' (3) 'Twice Born' or 'Once Born.' 2. Faith— (1) In Ordinary Life. (2) In Teaching of Jesus. (3) The Pauline Doctrine. 3. Obedience— (1) Active Appropriation of Grace. (2) Determination of Whole Personality. (3) Gradual Assimilation.



VIRTUES AND VIRTUE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 183

Definition of Virtue. I. The Natural Basis of the Virtues— 'The Cardinal Virtues.' II. The Christian Transformation of the Virtues— 1. The New Testament Account. 2. Cardinal Virtues, Elements of Christian Character. 3. Place of Passive Virtues in Life. III. The Unification of the Virtues— 1. Unity in Relation to God. 2. Love, Spring of all Virtues, 3. 'Theological Virtues,' Aspects of Love.


THE REALM OF DUTY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 199

I. Aspects of Duty— 1. Duty and Vocation. 2. Conflict of Duties— (1) Competing Obligations. (2) 'Counsels of Perfection.' (3) Indifferent Acts. 3. Rights and Duties— (1) Claim of 'Natural Rights.' (2) Based on Worth of Individual. (3) Christian Idea of Liberty. II. Spheres of Duty— 1. Duties in Relation to Self— (1) Self-Respect. (2) Self-Preservation. (3) Self-Development— Self-regarding Duties not prominent in Scripture. Self-Realisation through Self-Sacrifice. 2. Duties in Relation to Others— (1) Regard for Man: Brotherly Love— (a) Justice. (b) Veracity. (c) Judgment. (2) Service— (a) Sympathy. (b) Beneficence. (c) Forgiveness. (3) Example and Influence. 3. Duties in Relation to God— (1) Recognition. (2) Obedience—Passive and Active. (3) Worship—Reverence, Prayer, Thanksgiving.


SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 230

I. The Family— 1. Origin and Evolution of Family. 2. Christian view— (1) Christ's Teaching on Marriage. (2) State Regulation and Eugenics. (3) Tendencies to Disparagement. 3. Family Relationships— (1) Parents and Children. (2) Woman's Place and Rights. (3) Child Life and Education. II. The State— 1. Basis of Authority— Tolstoy and Anarchism. 'Social Contract.' 2. State, in New Testament. 3. Modern Conceptions— Views of Augustine and Hegel. (1) Duty of State to Citizens. (2) Duty of Citizens to State. (3) The Democratic Movement— Reciprocity of Service and Sense of Brotherhood. III. The Church— 1. Relation of Church and State. 2. Purpose and Ideal of Church— (1) Worship and Edification. (2) Witness to Christ. (3) Evangelisation of Mankind. 3. The Church and the Social Problem— (1) Christ's Teaching as to Industry and Wealth. (2) Attitude of Early Church to Society. (3) Of Roman and Reformed Churches. 4. Duty of Christianity to the World— The Missionary Imperative and Opportunity.



BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 248

INDEX . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 263





If, as Matthew Arnold says, conduct is three-fourths of life, then a careful inquiry into the laws of conduct is indispensable to the proper interpretation of the meaning and purpose of life. Conduct of itself, however, is merely the outward expression of character; and character again has its roots in personality; so that if we are to form a just conception of life we have to examine the forces which shape human personality and raise it to its highest power and efficiency. In estimating the value of man all the facts of consciousness and experience must be considered. Hence no adequate account of the end of life can be given without regard to that which, if it is true, must be the most stupendous fact of history—the fact of Christ.

If the Christian is a man to whom no incident of experience is secular and no duty insignificant, because all things belong to God and all life is dominated by the spirit of Christ, then Christian Ethics must be the application of Christianity to conduct; and its theme must be the systematic study of the ideals and forces which are alone adequate to shape character and fit man for the highest conceivable destiny—fellowship with, and likeness to, the Divine Being in whose image he has been made. This, of course, may be said to be the aim of all theology. The theologian must not be content to discuss merely speculative problems about God and man. He must seek above {2} all things to bring the truths of revelation to bear upon human practice. All knowledge has its practical implicate. The dogma which cannot be translated into duty is apt to be a vague abstraction.

In all ages there has been a tendency to separate truth and duty. But knowledge has two sides; it is at once a revelation and a challenge. There is no truth which has not its corresponding obligation, and no obligation which has not its corresponding truth. And not until every truth is rounded into its duty, and every duty is referred back into its truth shall we attain to that clearness of vision and consistency of moral life, to promote which is the primary task of Christian Ethics.

It is this practical element which gives to the study of morals its justification and makes it specially important for the Christian teacher. In this sense Ethics is really the crown of theology and ought to be the end of all previous study.

As a separate branch of study Christian Ethics dates only from the Reformation. It was natural, and perhaps inevitable that the first efforts of the Church should be occupied with the formation and elaboration of dogma. With a few notable exceptions, among whom may be mentioned Basil, Clement, Alquin and Thomas Aquinas, the Church fathers and schoolmen paid but scanty attention to the ethical side of religion. It was only after the Reformation that theology, Roman and Protestant alike, was divided into different branches. The Roman Catholic name for what we style Ethics is 'moral philosophy,' which, however, consists mainly of directions for father confessors in their dealing with perplexed souls. Christian Ethics appears for the first time as the name of a treatise by a French theologian of the Calvinistic persuasion—Danaeus, whose work, however, is confined to an exposition of the Decalogue. The first recorded work of the Lutheran church is the Theologia Moralis, written in 1634, by George Calixtus.

But the modern study of the subject really dates from {3} Schleiermacher (1768-1834), who divides theology into two sections, Dogmatics and Ethics, giving to the latter an independent treatment. Since his time Ethics has been regarded as a separate discipline, and within the last few decades increasing attention has been devoted to it.

This strong ethical tendency is one of the most noticeable features of the present age. Everywhere to-day the personal human interest is in evidence. We see it in the literature of the age and especially in the best poetry, beginning already with Coleridge and Wordsworth, and continued in Tennyson and Browning. It is the inner life of man as depicted to us by these master singers, the story of the soul, even more than the delineation of nature which appeals to man's deepest experience and evokes his finest response. We see it in the art of our times, which, not content to be a mere expression of sensuous beauty or lifeless nature, seeks to be instinct with human sympathy and to become the vehicle of the ideas and aims of man. We see it in modern fiction, which is no longer the narration of a simple tale, but the subtle analysis of character, and the intricate study of the passions and ambitions of common life. History to-day is not concerned so much with recording the intrigues of kings and the movements of armies as with scrutinising the motives and estimating the personal forces which have shaped the ages. Even in the domain of theology itself this tendency is visible. Our theologians are not content with discussing abstract doctrines or recounting the decisions of church councils, but are turning to the gospels and seeking to depict the life of Jesus—to probe the secret of His divine humanity and to interpret the meaning for the world of His unique personality.

Nor is this tendency confined to professional thinkers and theologians, it is affecting the common mind of the laity. 'Never was there a time,' says a modern writer, 'when plain people were less concerned with the metaphysics or the ecclesiasticism of Christianity. The construction of systems and the contention of creeds which once appeared the central themes of human interest are now {4} regarded by millions of busy men and women as mere echoes of ancient controversies, if not mere mockeries of the problems of the present day.' The Church under the inspiration of this new feeling for humanity is turning with fresh interest to the contemplation of the character of Jesus Christ, and is rising to a more lofty idea of its responsibilities towards the world. More than ever in the past, it is now felt that Christianity must vindicate itself as a practical religion; and that in view of the great problems—scientific, social and industrial, which the new conditions of an advancing civilisation have created, the Church, if it is to fulfil its function as the interpreter and guide of thought, must come down from its heights of calm seclusion and grapple with the actual difficulties of men, not indeed by assuming a political role or acting as a divider and judge amid conflicting secular aims, but by revealing the mind of Christ and bringing the principles of the gospel to bear upon the complex life of society.

No one who reflects upon the spirit of the times will doubt that there are reasons of urgent importance why this aspect of Christian life and duty, which we have been considering, should be specially insisted upon to-day. Of these the first and foremost is the prevalence of a materialistic philosophy. Taking its rise in the evolutionary theories of last century, this view is now being applied with relentless logic as an interpretation of the problems of society by a school of socialistic writers. Man, it is said, is the creature of heredity and environment alone. Condition creates character, and relief from the woes of humanity is to be sought, not in the transformation of the individual but in the revolutionising of the circumstances of life. As a consequence of this philosophy of externalism there is a filtering down of these materialistic views to the multitude, who care, indeed, little for theories, but are quick to be affected by a prevailing tone. Underlying the feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction, so marked a feature of our present day life, there is distinctly discernible among the masses a loosening of religious faith and a slackening {5} of moral obligation. The idea of personality and the sense of duty are not so vivid and strong as they used to be. A vague sentimentalising about sin has taken the place of the more robust view of earlier times, and evil is traced to untoward environment rather than to feebleness of individual will. And finally, to name no other cause, there is a tendency in our day among all classes to divorce religion from life—to separate the sacred from the secular, and to regard worship and work as belonging to two entirely distinct realms of existence.

For these reasons, among others, there is a special need, as it seems to us, for a systematic study of Christian Ethics on the part of those who are to be the leaders of thought and the teachers of the people. The materialistic view of life must be met by a more adequate Christian philosophy. The unfaith and pessimism of the age must be overcome by the advocacy of an idealistic conception which insists not only upon the personality and worth of man, involving duties as well as rights, but also upon the supremacy of conscience in obedience to the law of Christ. Above all, we need an ethic which will show that religion must be co-extensive with life, transfiguring and spiritualising all its activities and relationships. Life is a unity and all duty is one, whether it be duty to God or duty to man. It must be all of a piece, like the robe of Christ, woven from the top to the bottom without seam. It takes its spring from one source and is dominated by one spirit. In the Christianity of Christ there stand conspicuous two great ideas bound together, indeed, in a higher—love to God the Father. These are personal perfection and the service of mankind—the culture of self and the care of others. 'Be ye perfect' and 'love your neighbour as yourself.' It is the glory of Christianity to have harmonised these seemingly competing aims. The disciple of Christ finds that he cannot realise his own life except as he seeks the good of others; and that he cannot effectively help his fellows except by giving to them that which he himself is. This, as we take it, is the Christian conception of the moral life; and it is {6} the business of Christian Ethics to show that it is at once reasonable and practical.

The present volume will be divided into four main parts, entitled, Postulates, Personality, Character and Conduct. The first will deal with the meaning of Ethics generally and its relation to cognate subjects; and specially with the Philosophical, Psychological and Theological presuppositions of Christian Ethics. The second part will be devoted to man as moral subject, and will analyse the capacities of the soul which respond to the calls and claims of the new Life. The third Section will involve a consideration of the formative Principles of Character, the moulding of the soul, the Ideals, Motives and Forces by means of which the 'New Man' is 'recreated' and fashioned. Finally, under Conduct, the Virtues, Duties and Rights of man will be discussed; and the various spheres of service and institutions of society examined in relation to which the moral life in its individual and social aspects is manifested and developed.







Philosophy has been defined as 'thinking things together.' Every man, says Hegel, is a philosopher, and in so far as it is the natural tendency of the human mind to connect and unify the manifold phenomena of life, the paradox of the German thinker is not without a measure of truth. But while this is only the occasional pastime of the ordinary individual, it is the conscious and habitual aim of the philosopher. In daily life people are wont to make assumptions which they do not verify, and employ figures of speech which of necessity are partial and inadequate. It is the business of philosophy to investigate the pre-suppositions of common life and to translate into realities the pictures of ordinary language. It was the method of Socrates to challenge the current modes of speaking and to ask his fellow-men what they meant when they used such words as 'goodness,' 'virtue,' 'justice.' Every time you employ any of these terms, he said, you virtually imply a whole theory of life. If you would have an intelligent understanding of yourself and the world of which you form a part, you must cease to live by custom and speak by rote. You must seek to bring the manifold phenomena of the universe and the various experiences of life into some kind of unity and see them as co-ordinated parts of a whole.

When men thus begin to reflect on the origin and connection of things, three questions at once suggest themselves—what, how, and why? What is the world? How do I know it? and why am I here? We might briefly classify the three great departments of human thought as attempts {10} to answer these three inquiries. What exists is the problem of Metaphysics. What am I and how do I know? is the question of Psychology. What is my purpose, what am I to do? is the subject of Ethics. These questions are closely related, and the answer given to one largely determines the solution of the others. The truths gained by philosophical thought are not confined to the kingdom of abstract speculation but apply in the last resort to life. The impulse to know is only a phase of the more general impulse to be and to act. Beneath all man's activities, as their source and spring, there is ever some dim perception of an end to be attained. 'The ultimate end,' says Paulsen, 'impelling men to meditate upon the nature of the universe, will always be the desire to reach some conclusion concerning the meaning of the source and goal of their lives.' The origin and aim of all philosophy is consequently to be sought in Ethics.

I. If we ask more particularly what Ethics is, definition affords us some light. It is to Aristotle that we are indebted for the earliest use of this term, and it was he who gave to the subject its title and systematic form. The name ta ethika is derived from ethos, character, which again is closely connected with ethos, signifying custom. Ethics, therefore, according to Aristotle is the science of character, character being understood to mean according to its etymology, customs or habits of conduct. But while the modern usage of the term 'character' suggests greater inwardness than would seem to be implied in the ancient definition, it must be remembered that under the title of Ethics Aristotle had in view, not only a description of the outward habits of man, but also that which gives to custom its value, viz., the sources of action, the motives, and especially the ends which guide a man in the conduct of life. But since men live before they reflect, Ethics and Morality are not synonymous. So long as there is a congruity between the customs of a people and the practical requirements of life, ethical questions do not occur. It is only when difficulties arise as to matters of right, for which the {11} existing usages of society offer no solution, that reflection upon morality awakens. No longer content with blindly accepting the formulae of the past, men are prompted to ask, whence do these customs come, and what is their authority? In the conflict of duties, which a wider outlook inevitably creates, the inquirer seeks to estimate their relative values, and to bring his conception of life into harmony with the higher demands and larger ideals which have been disclosed to him. This has been the invariable course of ethical inquiry. At different stages of history—in the age of the Sophists of Ancient Greece, when men were no longer satisfied with the old forms of life and truth: at the dawn of the Christian era, when a new ideal was revealed in Christ: during the period of the Reformation, when men threw off the bondage of the past and made a stand for the rights of the individual conscience: and in more recent times, when in the field of political life the antithesis between individual and social instincts had awakened larger and more enlightened views of civic and social responsibility—the study of Ethics, as a science of moral life, has come to the front.

Ethics may, therefore, be defined as the science of the end of life—the science which inquires into its meaning and purpose. But inasmuch as the end or purpose of life involves the idea of some good which is in harmony with the highest conceivable well-being of man—some good which belongs to the true fulfilment of life—Ethics may also be defined as the science of the highest good or summum bonum.

Finally, Ethics may be considered not only as the science of the highest good or ultimate end of life, but also as the study of all that conditions that end, the dispositions, desires and motives of the individual, all the facts and forces which bear upon the will and shape human life in its various social relationships.

II. Arising out of this general definition three features may be mentioned as descriptive of its distinctive character among the sciences.


1. Ethics is concerned with the ideal of life. By an ideal we mean a better state of being than has been actually realised. We are confessedly not as we should be, and there floats before the minds of men a vision of some higher condition of life and society than that which exists. Life divorced from an ideal is ethically valueless. Some conception of the supreme good is the imperative demand and moral necessity of man's being. Hence the chief business of Ethics is to answer the question: What is the supreme good? For what should a man live? What, in short, is the ideal of life? In this respect Ethics as a science is distinguished from the physical sciences. They explain facts and trace sequences, but they do not form ideals or endeavour to move the will in the direction of them.

2. Ethics again is concerned with a norm of life, and in this sense it is frequently styled a normative science. That is to say, it is a science which prescribes rules or maxims according to which life is to be regulated. This is sometimes expressed by saying that Ethics treats of what ought to be. The ideal must not be one which simply floats in the air. It must be an ideal which is possible, and, therefore, as such, obligatory. It is useless to feel the worth of a certain idea, or even to speak of the desirability of it, if we do not feel also that it ought to be realised. Moral judgments imply an 'ought,' and that 'ought' implies a norm or standard, in the light of which, as a criterion, all obligation must be tested, and according to which all conduct must be regulated.

3. Ethics, once more, is concerned with the will. It is based specifically on the fact that man is not only an intellectual being (capable of knowing) and a sensitive being (possessed of feeling) but also a volitional being; that is, a being endowed with self-determining activity. It implies that man is responsible for his intentions, dispositions and actions. The idea of a supreme ideal at which he is to aim and a norm or standard of conduct according to which he ought to regulate his life, would have no meaning if we did not presuppose the power of self-determination. {13} Whatever is not willed has no moral value. Where there is no freedom of choice, we cannot speak of an action as either good or evil.[1] When we praise or blame a man's conduct we do so under the assumption that his action is voluntary. In all moral action purpose is implied. This is the meaning of the well-known dictum of Kant, 'There is nothing in the world . . . that can be called good without qualification except a good will. A good will is good, not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition.'[2] It is the inner aim, the good will which alone gives moral worth to any endeavour. It is not what I do but the reason why I do it which is chiefly of ethical value. The essence of virtue resides in the will, not in the achievement; in the intention or motive, not in the result.

III. The propriety of styling Ethics a science has sometimes been questioned. Science, it is said, has to do with certain necessary and uniform facts of experience; its object is simply to trace effects from causes and to formulate laws according to which sequences inevitably result from certain ascertained causes or observed facts. But is not character, with which Ethics confessedly deals, just that concerning which no definite conclusions can be predicted? Is not conduct, dependent as it is on the human will, just the element in man which cannot be explained as the resultant of calculable forces? If the will is free, and is the chief factor in the moulding of life, then you cannot forecast what line conduct will take or predict what shape character will assume. The whole conception of Ethics as a science must, it is contended, fall to the ground, if we admit a variable and incalculable element in conduct.

Some writers, on this account, are disposed to regard Ethics as an art rather than a science, and indeed, like every normative science, it may be regarded as lying midway between them. A science may be said to teach us to know {14} and an art to do: but as has been well remarked, 'a normative science teaches to know how to do.'[3] Ethics may indeed be regarded both as a science and an art. In so far as it examines and explains certain phenomena of character it is a science: but in so far as it attempts to regulate human conduct by instruction and advice it is an art.[4] Yet when all is said, in so far as Ethics has to do with the volitional side of man,—with decisions and acts of will,—there must be something indeterminate and problematic in it which precludes it from being designated an exact science. A certain variableness belongs to character, and conduct cannot be pronounced good or bad without reference to the acting subject. Actions cannot be wholly explained by law, and a large portion of human life (and that the highest and noblest) eludes analysis. A human being is not simply a part of the world. He is able to break in upon the sequence of events and set in motion new forces whose effects neither he himself nor his fellows can estimate. It is the unique quality of rational beings that in great things and in small things they act from ideas. The magic power of thought cannot be exaggerated. Great conceptions have great consequences, and they rule the world. A new spiritual idea shoots forth its rays and enlightens to larger issues generations of men. There is a mystery in every forth-putting of will-power, and every expression of personality. Character cannot be computed. The art of goodness, of living nobly, if so unconscious a thing may be called an art, is one certainly which defies complete scientific treatment. It is with facts like these that Ethics has to do; and while we may lay down broad general principles which must underlie the teaching of every true prophet and the conduct of every good man, there will always be an element with which science cannot cope.

IV. It will not be necessary, after what has been said, to trace at any length the relations between Ethics and the {15} special mental sciences, such as Logic, Aesthetics, and Politics.

1. Logic is the science of the formal laws of thought, and is concerned not with the truth of phenomena, but merely with the laws of correct reasoning about them. Ethics establishes the laws according to which we ought to act. Logic legislates for the reason, and decerns the laws which the intellect must obey if it would think correctly. Both sciences determine what is valid; but while Logic is confined to the realm of what is valid in reasoning, Ethics is occupied with what is valid in action. There is, indeed, a logic of life; and in so far as all true conduct must have a rational element in it and be guided by certain intelligible forms, Ethics may be described as a kind of logic of character.

2. The connection between Ethics and Aesthetics is closer. Aesthetics is the science of the laws of beauty, while Ethics is the science of the laws of the good. But in so far as Aesthetics deals with the emotions rather than the reason it comes into contact with Ethics in the psychological field. In its narrower sense Aesthetics deals with beauty merely in an impersonal way; and its immediate object is not what is morally beautiful, but rather that which is beautiful in itself irrespective of moral considerations. Ethics, on the other hand, is concerned with personal worth as expressed in perfection of will and action. Conduct may be beautiful and character may afford Aesthetic satisfaction, but Ethics, in so far as it is concerned with judgments of virtue, is independent of all thought of the mere beauty or utility of conduct. Aesthetic consideration may indeed aid practical morality, but it is not identical with it. It is conceivable that what is right may not be immediately beautiful, and may indeed in its pursuit or realisation involve action which contradicts our ideas of beauty. But though both sciences have different aims they are occupied largely with the same emotions, and are connected by a common idealising purpose. In the deepest sense, what is good is beautiful and what is beautiful is good; and {16} ultimately, in the moral and spiritual life, goodness and beauty coincide. Indeed, so close is the connection between the two conceptions that the Greeks used the same word, to kalon, to express beauty of form and nobility of character. And even in modern times the expression 'a beautiful soul,' indicates the intimate relation between inner excellence of life and outward attractiveness. Both Aesthetics and Ethics have regard to that symmetry or proportion of life which fulfils our ideas at once of goodness and of beauty. In this sense Schiller sought to remove the sharpness of Kant's moral theory by claiming a place in the moral life for beauty. Our actions are, indeed, good when we do our duty because we ought, but they are beautiful when we do it because we cannot do otherwise, because they have become our second nature. The purpose of all culture, says Schiller, is to harmonise reason and sense, and thus to fulfil the idea of a perfect manhood.[5]

'When I dared question: "It is beautiful, But is it true?" Thy answer was, "In truth lives beauty."'[6]

3. Politics is still more closely related to Ethics, and indeed Ethics may be said to comprehend Politics. Both deal with human action and institution, and cover largely the same field. For man is not merely an individual, but is a part of a social organism. We cannot consider the virtues of the individual life without also considering the society to which he is related, and the interaction of the whole and its part. Politics is usually defined as the science of government, which of course, involves all the institutions and laws affecting men's relations to each other. But while Politics is strictly concerned only with the outward condition of the state's well-being and the external order of {17} the community, Ethics seeks the internal good or virtue of mankind, and is occupied with an ideal society in which each individual shall be able to realise the true aim and meaning of life. But after all, as Aristotle said, Politics is really a branch of Ethics, and both are inseparable from, and complementary of each other. On the one hand, Ethics cannot ignore the material conditions of human welfare nor minimise the economic forces which shape society and make possible the moral aims of man. On the other hand, Economics must recognise the service of ethical study, and keep in view the moral purposes of life, otherwise it is apt to limit its consideration to merely selfish and material ends.

V. While Ethics is thus closely connected with the sciences just named, there are two departments of knowledge, pre-supposed indeed in all mental studies, which in a very intimate way affect the science of Ethics. These are Metaphysics on the one hand and Psychology on the other.

1. Metaphysics is pre-supposed by all the sciences; and indeed, all our views of life, even our simplest experiences, involve metaphysical assumptions. It has been well said that the attempt to construct an ethical theory without a metaphysical basis issues not in a moral science without assumptions, but in an Ethics which becomes confused in philosophical doubts. Leslie Stephen proposes to ignore Metaphysics, and remarks that he is content 'to build upon the solid earth.' But, as has been pertinently asked, 'How does he know that the earth is solid on which he builds?' This is a question of Metaphysics.[7] The claim is frequently made by a certain class of writers, that we withdraw ourselves from all metaphysical sophistries, and betake ourselves to the guidance of commonsense. But what is this commonsense of which the ordinary man vaunts himself? It is in reality a number of vague assumptions borrowed unconsciously from old exploded theories—assertions, opinions, beliefs, accumulated, no one knows how, {18} and accepted as settled judgments.[8] We do not escape philosophy by refusing to think. Some kind of theory of life is implied in such words, 'soul,' 'duty,' 'freedom,' 'power,' 'God,' which the unreflecting mind is daily using. It is useless to say we can dispense with philosophy, for that is simply to content ourselves with bad philosophy. 'To ignore the progress and development in the history of Philosophy,' says T. H. Green,[9] 'is not to return to the simplicity of a pre-philosophic age, but to condemn ourselves to grope in the maze of cultivated opinion, itself the confused result of these past systems of thought which we will not trouble ourselves to think out.' The aim of all philosophy, as Plato said, is just to correct the assumptions of the ordinary mind, and to grasp in their unity and cohesion the ultimate principles which the mind feels must be at the root of all reality. We have an ethical interest in determining whether there be any moral reality beneath the appearances of the world. Ethical questions, therefore, run back into Metaphysics. If we take Metaphysics in its widest sense as involving the idea of some ultimate end, to the realisation of which the whole process of the world as known to us is somehow a means, we may easily see that metaphysical inquiry, though distinct from ethical, is its necessary pre-supposition. The Being or Purpose of God, the great first cause, the world as fashioned, ordered and interpenetrated by Him, and man as conditioned by and dependent upon the Deity—are postulates of the moral life and must be accepted as a basis of all ethical study. The distinction between Ethics and Philosophy did not arise at once. In early Greek speculation, almost to the time of Aristotle, Metaphysics and Morals were not separated. And even in later times, Spinoza and to some extent Green, though they professedly treat of Ethics, hardly dissociate metaphysical from ethical considerations. Nor is that to be wondered at when men are dealing with the first principles of all being and life. Our view of God and of the {19} world, our fundamental Welt-Anschauung cannot but determine our view of man and his moral life. In every philosophical system from Plato to Hegel, in which the universe is regarded as having a rational meaning and ultimate end, the good of human beings is conceived as identical with, or at least as included in the universal good.

2. But if a sound metaphysical basis be a necessary requisite for the adequate consideration of Ethics, Psychology as the science of the human soul is so vitally connected with Ethics, that the two studies may almost be treated as branches of one subject. An Ethic which takes no account of psychological assumptions would be impossible. Consciously or unconsciously every treatment of moral subjects is permeated by the view of the soul or personality of man which the writer has adopted, and his meaning of conduct will be largely determined by the theory of human freedom and responsibility with which he starts. Questions as to character and duty invariably lead to inquiries as to certain states of the agent's mind, as to the functions and possibilities of his natural capacities and powers. We cannot pronounce an action morally good or bad until we have determined the extent and limits of his faculties and have investigated the questions of disposition and purpose, of intention and motive, which lie at the root of all conduct, and without which actions are neither moral nor immoral. It is surely a mistake to say, as some do, that as logic deals with the correctness of reasoning, so Ethics deals only with the correctness of conduct, and is not directly concerned with the processes by which we come to act correctly.[10] On the contrary, merely correct action may be ethically worthless, and conduct obtains its moral value from the motives or intentions which actuate and determine it. Ethics cannot, therefore, ignore the psychological processes of feeling, desiring and willing of the acting subject. It is indeed true that in ordinary life men are frequently judged to be good or bad, according to the outward effect of their actions, and material results are often regarded as the sole {20} measure of good. But while it may be a point of difficulty in theoretic morality to determine the comparative worth and mutual relation of good affections and good actions, all surely will allow that a certain quality of disposition or motive in the agent is required to constitute an action morally good, and that it is not enough to measure virtue by its utility or its beneficial effect alone. Hence all moralists are agreed that the main object of their investigation must belong to the psychical side of human life—whether they hold that man's ultimate end is to be found in the sphere of pleasure or maintain that his well-being lies in the realisation of virtue for its own sake. The problems as to the origin and adequacy of conscience, as to the meaning and validity of voluntary action; the questions concerning motives and desires, as to the historical evolution of moral customs, and man's relation at each stage of his history to the social, political and religious institutions amid which he lives—are subjects which, though falling within the scope of Ethics, have their roots in the science of the soul. The very existence of a science of Ethics depends upon the answers which Psychology gives to such questions. If, for example, it be decided that there is in man no such faculty or organ as conscience, and that what men so designate is but a natural manifestation gradually evolved in and through the physical and social development of man: or if we deny the self-determining power of human beings and assume that what we call the freedom of the will is a delusion (or at least, in the last resort, a negligible element) and that man is but one of the many phenomena or facts of a physical universe—then we may continue, indeed, as some evolutionary and naturalistic thinkers do, to speak of a science of Ethics, but such a science will not be a study of the moral life as we understand it and have defined it.

Ethics, therefore, while dependent upon the philosophical sciences, has its own distinct content and scope. The end of life, that for which a man should live, with all its implications, forms the subject of moral inquiry. It is {21} concerned not merely with what a man is or actually does, but more specifically with what he should be and should do. Hence, as we have seen, the word 'ought' is the most distinctive term of Ethics involving a consideration of values and a relation of the actual and the ideal. The 'ought' of life constitutes at once the purpose, law, and reason of conduct. It proposes the three great questions involved in all ethical inquiry—whither? how? and why? and determines the three great words which are constantly recurring in every ethical system—end, norm, motive. Moral good is the moral end considered as realised. The moral norm or rule impelling the will to the realisation of this end is called Duty. The moral motive considered as an acquired power of the acting will is called Virtue.[11]

[1] Cf. Mackenzie, Manual of Ethics, p. 32; also Wuttke, Christian Ethics (Eng. Trans.), vol. i. p. 14.

[2] Metaph. of Morals, sect. i.

[3] Mackenzie, Manual of Ethics, p. 8. See also Muirhead, Elements of Ethics.

[4] Hyslop, Elements of Ethics, p. 1.

[5] Schiller, Ueber Anmuth und Wuerde. Cf. also Ruskin, Mod. Painters, vol. ii.; Seeley, Natural Religion, and Inge, Faith and its Psychology, p. 203 ff. See also Bosanquet Hist. of Aesthetic. We are indebted to Romanticism, and especially to Novalis in Germany and Cousin in France for the thought that the good and the beautiful meet and amalgamate in God.

[6] Browning.

[7] Cf. Newman Smyth, Christian Ethics, p. 8.

[8] See Author's History of Philosophy, p. 585.

[9] Introduction to Hume's Works.

[10] Mackenzie seems to imply this view. Ethics, p. 25.

[11] Cf. Haering, Ethics of the Christian Life, p. 9.




We now proceed to define Christian Ethics and to investigate the particular postulates, philosophical and theological, upon which it rests.

Christian Ethics presupposes the Christian view of life as revealed in Christ, and its definition must be in harmony with the Christian ideal. The prime question of Christian Ethics is, How ought Christians to order their lives? It is therefore the science of morals as conditioned by Christian faith; and the problems it discusses are, the nature, meaning and laws of the moral life as dominated by the supreme good which has been revealed to the world in the Person and Teaching of Christ. It is based upon an historical event, and presupposes a particular development and consummation of the world.


The Relation of Christian to Philosophical Ethics.—Christian Ethics is a branch of general Ethics. But it is something more; it is Ethics in its richest and fullest expression—the interpretation of life which corresponds to the supreme manifestation of the divine will. For if the revelation of God in Christ is true, then that revelation is not merely a factor, but the factor, which must dominate and colour man's whole outlook and give an entirely new value to all his aims and actions. In Christianity we are confronted with the motive-power of a great Personality who has entered into the current of human history and {23} given a new direction to the moral life of man. Man's life at its highest can only be interpreted in the light of this supreme revelation, and can only be accounted for as the creation of the dynamic force of this unique Personality.

But while this truth gives to Christian Ethics its distinctive character and pre-eminent worth it does not throw discredit upon philosophical Ethics, nor indeed separate the two departments by any hard and fast lines. They have much in common. A large domain of conduct is covered by both. The so-called pagan virtues have their value for Christian character and are in the line of Christian virtue. Even in his natural state man is constituted for the moral life, and, as St. Paul states, is not without some knowledge of right and wrong. The moral attainments of the ancients are not to be regarded simply as 'splendid vices,' but as positive achievements of good. Duty may differ in content, but it is of the same kind under any system. Purity is purity and benevolence benevolence, whether manifested in a heathen or a Christian. While, therefore, Christian Ethics takes its point of departure from the special revelation of God and the unique disclosure of man's possibilities in Christ, it gladly accepts and freely uses the results of moral philosophy in so far as they throw light upon the fundamental facts of human nature. As a system of morals Christianity claims to be inclusive. It takes cognisance of all the data of consciousness, and assumes as its own, from whatever quarter it may come, all ascertained truth. The facts of man's natural history, the conclusions from philosophy, the manifold lights afforded by previous speculation—all are gathered up, sifted and tried by one all-authoritative measure of truth—the mind of Christ. It completes what is lacking in other systems in so far as their conclusions are based upon an incomplete survey of facts. It deals, in short, with personality in its highest ranges of moral power and spiritual consciousness and seeks to interpret life by its greatest possibilities and loftiest attainments as they are revealed in Christ.

But while Christian Ethics is at one with philosophic {24} Ethics in postulating a natural capacity for spiritual life, it is differentiated from all non-Christian systems by its distinctive belief in the possibility of the re-creation of character. Speculative Ethics prescribes only what ought ideally to be done or avoided. It takes no account of the foes of the spiritual life; nor does it consider the remedy by which character, once it is perverted or destroyed, can be restored and transformed. Christian Ethics, on the other hand, is concerned primarily with the question, By what power can a man achieve the right and do the good? It is not enough to postulate the inherent capacity of man. Experience of human nature shows that there are hostile elements which too often frustrate his natural development. Hence the practical problem which Christian Ethics has to face is, How can the spiritual ideal be made a reality? It regards man as standing in need of recovery, and it is forced to assume, that which philosophical Ethics does not recognise, a divine power by which character can be renewed. Christianity claims to be 'the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.' Christian Ethics therefore is based upon the twofold assumption that the ideal of humanity has actually been revealed in Christ, and that in Him also is the power by which man may realise this ideal.


The relation of Christian Ethics to Dogmatics.—Within the sphere of theology proper the two main constituents of Christian teaching are Dogmatics and Ethics, or Doctrines and Morals. Though it is convenient to regard these separately they really form a whole, and are but two aspects of one subject. It is difficult to define their limits, and to say where Dogmatics ends and Ethics begins. The distinction is sometimes expressed by saying that Dogmatics is a theoretic science, whereas Ethics is practical. It is true that Ethics stands nearer to everyday life and deals with matters of practical conduct, while Dogmatics is concerned with beliefs and treats of their origin and elucidation. {25} But, on the other hand, Ethics also takes cognisance of beliefs as well as actions, and is interested in judgments not less than achievements. There is a practical side of doctrine and there is a theoretic side of morals. Even the most theoretic of sciences, Metaphysics, though, as Novalis said, it bakes no bread, is not without its direct bearing upon life. Dogmatic theology when divorced from practical interest is in danger of becoming mere pedantry; and ethical inquiry, if it has no dogmatic basis, loses scientific value and sinks into a mere enumeration of duties. Nor is the common statement, that Dogmatics shows what we should believe and Ethics what we ought to do, an adequate one. Moral precepts are also objects of faith, and what we should believe involves moral requirements and pre-supposes a moral character. Schleiermacher has been charged with ignoring the difference between the two disciplines, but with scant justice. For, while he regards the two subjects as but different branches of Christian theology, and insists upon their intimate connection, he does not neglect their distinction. There has been a growing tendency to accentuate the difference, and recent writers such as Jacoby, Haering and Lemme, not to mention Martensen, Dorner and Wuttke, claim for Ethics a separate and independent treatment. The ultimate connection between Dogmatics and Ethics cannot be ignored without loss to both. It tends only to confusion to speak as some do of 'a creedless morality.' On the one hand, Ethics saves Dogmatics from evaporating into unsubstantial speculation, and by affording the test of workableness, keeps it upon the solid foundation of fact. On the other hand, Dogmatics supplies to Ethics its formative principles and normative standards, and preserves the moral life from degenerating into the vagaries of fanaticism or the apathy of fatalism. But while both sciences form complementary sides of theology and stand in relations of mutual service, each deals with the human consciousness in a different way. Dogmatics regards the Christian life from the standpoint of divine dependence: Ethics regards it from the {26} standpoint of human determination. Dogmatics deals with faith in relation to God, as the receptive organ of grace: Ethics views faith rather in relation to man, as a human activity or organ of conduct. The one shows us how our adoption into the kingdom of God is the work of divine love: the other shows how this knowledge of salvation manifests itself in love to God and man, and must be worked out through all the relationships of life.


We may define more particularly the relation of Ethics to Dogmatics by enumerating briefly the doctrinal postulates or assumptions with which Ethics starts.

1. Ethics assumes the Christian idea of God. God is for Ethics not an impersonal force, nor even simply the creator of the universe as philosophy might conceive Him.[1] Creative power is not of course denied, but it is qualified by what theology calls the 'moral attributes of God.' We do not ignore His omnipotence, but we look beyond it, to 'the love that tops the power, the Christ in God.'[2] It is not necessary here to sketch the Old Testament teaching with regard to God. It is sufficient to state that the New Testament writers, while not attempting to proclaim abstract doctrines, took over generally the Hebrew conception of the Deity as a God who was at once almighty, holy and righteous. The distinctive note which the New Testament emphasises is the Personality of God, and personality includes reason, will and love. The fact that we are His offspring, as St. Paul argues, is the basis of our true conception of God's nature. Through that which is highest in man we are enabled to discern something of His character. But it is specially in and through Jesus Christ that the distinctive character of the Divine Personality is declared. Christ reveals Him as our Father, and everywhere the New {27} Testament writers assume that men stand in the closest filial relations to him. In the fundamental conception of divine Fatherhood there are implicitly contained certain elements of ethical significance.[3] Of these may be mentioned:

(1) The Spiritual Perfection of God.—The Christian doctrine of God includes not only His personality, but His spiritual perfection. All that is highest and best in life is attributed to God. What we regard as having supreme moral worth is eternally realised in Him. It is this fact that prescribes man's ideal and makes it binding. 'Be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect,' says Christ. Because of what God is, spiritual and moral excellence takes precedence of all other aims which can be perceived and pursued by man. Morality is the revelation of an ideal eternally existing in the divine mind. 'The belief in God,' it has been said, 'is the logical pre-supposition of an objective or absolute morality.'[4] The moral law, as the norm and goal of our life, obtains its validity and obligation for us not because it is an arbitrarily-given command, but because it is of the very character of God.

(2) The Sovereignty of God.—Not only the spiritual perfection but the moral sovereignty of God is pre-supposed. He is the supreme excellence on whom all things depend, and in whom they find their ultimate explanation. The world is not merely His creation, it is the expression of His mind. He is not related to the universe as an artist is related to his work, but rather as a personal being to his own mental and moral activities.[5] He is immanent in all the phenomena of nature and movements of life and thought; and in the order and purpose of the world His character and will are manifested. The fact that the meaning and order of things are not imposed from without, but constitute their inner nature, reveals not only the completeness of His {28} sovereignty, but the purpose of it. The highest end of God, as moral and spiritual, is fulfilled by the constitution and education of spiritual beings like Himself, and in laying down the conditions which are necessary for their existence and perfecting. No definition of divine sovereignty can exclude the idea of moral freedom and the consequences bound up with it. Hence God must not only confer the gift of individual liberty, but respect it throughout the whole course of His dealings with man.

(3) The Supremacy of Love.—This is the highest and most distinctive feature of the divine personality. It is the sum of all the others; as well as the special characteristic of the Fatherhood of God as revealed by Christ. 'God is love' is the crowning statement of the Gospel and the fullest expression of the divine nature. The essential of all love is self-giving; and the peculiarity of God's love is the communication and imparting of Himself to His creatures. The love of God finds its highest manifestation in the gift and sacrifice of His Son. He is the supreme personality in history, revealing God in and to the world. In the light of what Christ is we know what God is, and from His revelation there flows a new and ever-deepening experience of the divine Being.

2. Christian Ethics presupposes the Christian doctrine of Sin. It is not the province of Ethics to discuss minutely the origin of evil or propound a theory of sin. But it must see to it that the view it takes is consistent with the truths of revelation and in harmony with the facts of life. A false or inadequate conception of sin is as detrimental to Ethics as it is to Dogmatics; and upon our doctrine of evil depends very largely our interpretation of life in regard to its difficulties and purposes, its trials and triumphs. In the meantime it is enough to remark that considerable vagueness of idea and looseness of expression exist concerning this subject.

While some regard sin simply as a defect or shortcoming, a missing of the mark, as the Greek word hamartia implies, others treat it as a disease, or infirmity of the flesh—a malady affecting the physical constitution which may be {29} incurred by heredity or induced by environment. In both cases it is regarded as a misfortune, rather than a fault, or even as a fate from which the notion of guilt is absent. While there is an element of truth in these representations, they are defective in so far as they do not take sufficient account of the personal and determinative factor in all sinful acts. The Christian view, though not denying that physical weakness and the influence of heredity and environment do, in many cases, affect conduct, affirms that there is a personal element always present which these conditions do not explain. Sin is not merely negative. It is something positive, not so much an imperfection as a trespass. It is to be accounted for not as an inherited or inherent malady, but as a self-chosen perversity. It belongs to the spirit rather than to the body, and though it has its seat in the heart and in the emotions, it has to do principally with the will. 'Every man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed. Then when lust has conceived it bringeth forth sin.'[6] The essence of sin is selfishness. It is the deliberate choice of self in preference to God—personal and wilful rebellion against the known law of righteousness and truth. There are, of course, degrees of wrongdoing and undoubtedly extenuating circumstances which must be taken into account in estimating the significance and enormity of guilt, but in the last resort Christian Ethics is compelled to postulate the fact of sin, and to regard it as a personal rebellion against the holy will of God, the deliberate choice of self and the wilful perversion of the powers of man into instruments of unrighteousness.

3. A third postulate, which is a corollary of the Christian view of God and of sin, is the Responsibility of Man. Christian Ethics treats every man as accountable for his thoughts and actions, and therefore, as capable of choosing the good as revealed in Christ. While not denying the sovereignty of God, nor minimising the mystery of evil, Christianity firmly maintains the doctrine of human freedom. An Ethic would be impossible if, on the one side, grace were absolutely {30} irresistible; or, on the other, sin were unalterably necessitated. Whatever be the doctrine we formulate on these subjects, Ethics demands that what we call freedom be safeguarded. An interesting question emerges at this point as to the possibility, apart from a knowledge of Christ, of choosing the good. Difficult as this question is, and though it was answered by Augustine and many of the early Fathers in the negative, the modern, and probably the more just view, is that we cannot hold mankind responsible unless we allow to all men the larger freedom and judge them according to their light and opportunity. If non-Christians are fated to do evil, then no guilt can be imputed. History shows that a love of goodness has sometimes existed, and that many isolated acts of purity and kindness have been done, among people who have known nothing of the historical Christ. The New Testament recognises degrees of depravity in nations and individuals, and a measure of noble aspiration and honest endeavour in ordinary human nature. St. Paul plainly assumes some knowledge and performance on the part of the heathen, and though he denounces their immorality in unsparing terms, he does not affirm that pagan society was so corrupt that it had lost all knowledge of moral good.


Before concluding this chapter some remarks regarding the authority and method of Christian Ethics may be not inappropriate.

1. Christian Ethics is not directly concerned with critical questions as to the genuineness and authenticity of the New Testament writings. It is sufficient for its purpose that these have been generally received by the Church, and that they present in the Person of Christ the highest embodiment of the law and spirit of the moral life. The writings of the New Testament thus become ethically normative in virtue of their direct reflection of the mind of Christ and their special receptivity of His spirit. Their {31} authority, therefore, is Christ's own authority, and has a value for us as His word is reproduced by them. It does not detract from the validity of the New Testament as the reflection of the spirit of Christ that there are discernible in it distinct signs of development of doctrine, a manifest growth in clearness and depth of insight and knowledge of the mind of Jesus. Such evidences of advancement are specially noticeable in the application of Christian principles to the practical problems of life, such as the questions of slavery, marriage, work and property. St. Paul does not disclaim the possibility of development, and he associates himself with those who know in part and wait for fuller light. In common with all Christians, Paul was doubtless conscious of a growing enrichment in spiritual knowledge; and his later epistles show that he had reached to clearer prospects of Christ and His redemption, and had obtained a fuller grasp of the world-wide significance of the Gospel than when he first began to preach.

One cannot forget that the battle of criticism is raging to-day around the inner citadel—the very person and words of Jesus. If it can be shown that the Gospels contain only very imperfect records of the historical Jesus, and that very few sayings of our Lord can be definitely pronounced genuine, then, indeed, we might have to give up some of the particular passages upon which we have based our conception of truth and duty, but nothing less than a wholesale denial of the historical existence of Jesus[7] would demand of us a repudiation of the Christian view of life. The ideals, motives, and sentiments—the entire outlook and spirit of life which we associate with Christ—are now a positive possession of the Christian consciousness. There is a Christian view of the world, a Christian Welt-Anschauung, so living and real in the heart of Christendom that even though we had no more reliable basis than the 'Nine Foundation Pillars' which Schmiedel condescends to leave us, we should not be wholly deprived of the fundamental principles upon which the Christian life might be reared. {32} If to these we add the list of 'doubly attested sayings' collected by Burkitt,[8] which even some of the most negative critics have been constrained to allow, we should at least have a starting-point for the study of the teaching of Jesus. The most reputable scholars, however, of Germany, America and Britain acknowledge that no reasonable doubt can be cast upon the general substance and tone of the Synoptic Gospels, compiled, as they were, from the ancient Gospel of Mark and the source commonly called 'Q' (i.e. the lost common origin of the non-Markian portions of Matthew and Luke). To these we should be disposed to add the Fourth Gospel, which, though a less primary source, undoubtedly records acts and sayings of our Lord attested by one, who (whosoever he was) was in close touch with his Master's life, and had drunk deeply of His spirit.

In the general tone and trend of these writings we find abundant materials for what may be called the Ethics of Jesus. It is true, no sharp line can be drawn between His religious and moral teaching. But, taking Ethics in its general sense, as the discussion of the ideals, virtues, duties of man, the relation of man to God and to his fellow-men, it will at once be seen that a very large portion of Christ's teaching is distinctly ethical. The facts of His own earthly existence, all His great miracles, His parables, and above all, the Sermon on the Mount, have an immediate bearing upon human conduct. They all deal with character, and are chiefly illustrations and enforcements of the divine ideal of life and of the value of man as a child of God which He came to reveal. In the example of Jesus Himself we have the best possible illustration of the translation of principles into life. And in so far as we find our highest good embodied in Him, He becomes for us, as J. S. Mill acknowledged, a kind of personified conscience. No abstract statement of ethical principles can possibly influence life so powerfully as the personal incarnation of these principles; and if the greatest means to the true life is personal association with the high and noble, then it need not seem strange {33} that love and admiration for the person of Christ have as a matter of fact proved the mightiest of historical motives to noble living.

However imperfectly we may know the person of Jesus, and however fragmentary may be the record of His teaching, one great truth looms out of the darkness—the peerlessness of His character and the incomparableness of His ideal of life. He comes to us with a message of Good, new to man, based on the great conviction of the Fatherhood of God. The all-dominating faith that a genuine seeking love is at the heart of the universe makes Jesus certain that the laws of the world are the laws of a loving God—laws of life which must be studied, welcomed, and heartily obeyed.

2. The Christian ideal, though given in Christ, has to be examined, analysed, and applied by the very same faculties as are employed in dealing with speculative problems. All science must be furnished with facts, and its task generally is to shape its materials to definite ends. The scientist does not invent. He does not create. He simply discovers what is already there: he only moulds into form what is given. In like manner, the Christian moralist deals with the revelation of life which has been granted to him partly in the human consciousness, and partly through the sacred scriptures. The scriptures, however, do not offer a systematic presentation of the life of Christ, or a formal directory of moral conduct. The data are supplied, but these data require to be interpreted and unified so as to form a system of Ethics. The authority to which Christian Ethics appeals is not an external oracle which imposes its dictates in a mechanical way. It is an authority embodied in intelligible forms, and appealing to the rational faculties of man. Christian Ethics, though deduced from scripture, is not a cut and dry code of rules prescribed by God which man must blindly obey. It has to be thought out, and intelligently applied to all the circumstances of life. According to the Protestant view, at least, Ethics is not a stereotyped compendium of precepts which {34} the Church supplies to its members to save them from thinking. Slavish imitation is wholly foreign to the genius of the Gospel. Christ Himself appeals everywhere to the rational nature of man, and His words are life and spirit only as they are intelligibly apprehended and become by inner conviction the principles of action.

Authoritative, then, as the scriptures are, and containing as they do the revelation of an unique historical fact, they do not present a closed or final system of truth. Christ has yet many things to say unto us, and the Holy Spirit is continually adding new facts to human experience, and disclosing richer and fuller manifestations of God through history and providence and the personal consciousness of man. No progress in thought or life can indeed be made which is inconsistent with, or foreign to, the fundamental facts which centre in Christ: and we may be justly suspicious of all advancement in doctrine or morals which does not flow from the initial truths of the Master's life and teaching. But, just as progress has been made, both in the increase of materials of knowledge and in regard to the clearer insight and appreciation of the meaning of Christian truth, since the apostles' age, so we may hope that, as the ages go on, we shall acquire a still fuller conception of the kingdom of God and a richer apprehension of the divine will. The task and method of Christian Ethics will be, consequently, the intelligent interpretation and the gradual application to human life and society, in all their relationships, of the mind of Christ under the constant illumination and guidance of the Divine Spirit.

[1] Cf. Dorner, System der Christl. Ethik, p. 48. See also Newman Smyth, Christian Ethics, p. 44.

[2] Cf. Mackintosh, Christian Ethics, p. 11.

[3] Cf. Lidgett, The Christian Religion, pp. 106, 485 ff., where the idea of God's nature is admirably developed.

[4] Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil, vol. ii. p. 212.

[5] Lidgett, idem. But see Bosanquet, Principle of Indiv. and Value, p. 380 ff.

[6] James i. 13, 14.

[7] As, for example, that of Drew's Christus Myth.

[8] Cf. Gospel History and its Transmission.




Apart from the writings of the New Testament, which are the primary source of Christian Ethics, a comprehensive view of our subject would include some account of the ethical conceptions of Greece, Rome and Israel, which were at least contributory to the Christian idea of the moral life. Whatever view we take of its origin, Christianity did not come into the world like the goddess Athene, without preparation, but was the product of many factors. The moral problems of to-day cannot be rightly appreciated except in the light of certain concepts which come to us from ancient thought; and Greco-Roman philosophy as well as Hebrew religion have contributed not a little to the form and trend of modern ethical inquiry.

All we can attempt is the briefest outline, first, of the successive epochs of Greek and Roman Ethics; and second, of the leading moral ideas of the Hebrews as indicating the preparatory stages in the evolution of thought which finds its completion in the Ethics of Christianity.


Before the golden age of Greek philosophy there was no Ethics in the strictest sense. Philosophy proper occupied itself primarily with ontological questions—questions as to the origin and constitution of the material world. It was only when mythology and religion had lost their hold upon the cultured, and the traditions of the poets had come to be doubted, that inquiries as to the meaning of life and conduct arose.


The Sophists may be regarded as the pioneers of ethical science. This body of professional teachers, who appeared about the fifth century in Greece, drew attention to the vagueness of common opinion and began to teach the art of conduct. Of these Protagoras is the most famous, and to him is attributed the saying, 'Man is the measure of all things.' As applied to conduct, this dictum is commonly interpreted as meaning that good is entirely subjective, relative to the individual. Viewed in this light the saying is one-sided and sceptical, subversive of all objective morality. But the dictum may be regarded as expressing an important truth, that the good is personal and must ultimately be the good for man as man, therefore for all men.

1. It was Socrates, however, who, as it was said, first called philosophy from heaven to the sphere of this earth, and diverted men's minds from the consideration of natural things to the affairs of human life. He was indeed the first moral philosopher, inasmuch as that, while the Sophists merely talked at large about justice and virtue, he asked what these terms really meant. Living in an age when the old guides of life—law and custom—were losing their hold upon men, he was compelled to find a substitute for them by reflection upon the meaning and object of existence. For him the source of evil is want of thought, and his aim is to awaken men to the realisation of what they are, and what they must seek if they would make the best of their lives. He is the prophet of clear self-consciousness. 'Know thyself' is his motto, and he maintains that all virtue must be founded on such knowledge. A life without reflection upon the meaning of existence is unworthy of a man.[1] Hence the famous Socratic dictum, 'Virtue is knowledge.' Both negatively and positively Socrates held this principle to be true. For, on the one hand, he who is not conscious of the good and does not know in what it consists, cannot possibly pursue it. And, on the other hand, if a man is once alive to his real good, how can he do otherwise than pursue it? No one therefore does {37} wrong willingly. Let a man know what is right, and he will do it. Knowledge of virtue is not, however, distinct from self-interest. Every one naturally seeks the good simply because he sees that the good is identical with his ultimate happiness. The wise man is the happy man. Hence to know oneself is the secret of well-being. Let each be master of himself, knowing what he seeks, and seeking what he knows—that, for Socrates, is the first principle of Ethics, the condition of all moral life. This view is obviously one-sided and essentially individualistic, excluding all those forms of morality which are pursued unconsciously, and are due more to the influence of intuitive perception and social habit than to clear and definite knowledge. The merit of Socrates, however, lies in his demand for ethical reflection, and his insistence upon man not only acting rightly, but acting from the right motive.

2. While Socrates was the first to direct attention to the nature of virtue, it received from Plato a more systematic treatment. Platonic philosophy may be described as an extension to the universe of the principles which Socrates applied to the life of the individual. Plato attempts to define the end of man by his place in the cosmos; and by bringing Ethics into connection with Metaphysics he asks What is the idea of man as a part of universal reality? Two main influences combined to produce his conception of virtue. First, in opposition to the Heraclitean doctrine of perpetual change, he contended for something real and permanent. Second, in antagonism to the Sophistic theory of the conventional origin of the moral law, he maintained that man's chief end was the good which was fixed in the eternal nature of things, and did not consist in the pursuit of transient pleasures. Hence, in two respects, Plato goes beyond Socrates. He puts opinion, which is his name for ordinary consciousness, between ignorance and knowledge, ascribing to it a certain measure of truth, and making it the starting-point for reflection. And further, he transforms the Socratic idea of morality, rejecting the notion that its principle is to be found in a mere calculation of pleasures, {38} and maintaining that particular goods must be estimated by the good of life as a whole. Plato's philosophy rests upon his doctrine of ideas, which, as the types of permanent reality, represent the eternal nature of things; and the problem of life is to rise from opinion to truth, from appearance to reality, and attain to the ideal principle of unity. The highest good Plato identifies with God, and man's end is ultimately to be found in the knowledge of, and communion with, the eternal.

The human soul he conceived to be a mixture of two elements. In virtue of its higher spiritual nature it participates in the world of ideas, the life of God: and in virtue of its lower or animal impulses, in the corporeal world of decay. These two dissimilar parts are connected by an intermediate element called by Plato thymos or courage, implying the emotions or affections of the heart. Hence a threefold constitution of the soul is conceived—the rational powers, the emotional desires, and the animal passions. If we ask who is the good man? Plato answers, it is the man in whom these three elements are harmonised. On the basis of this psychology Plato classifies and determines the virtues—adopting the four cardinal virtues of Greek tradition as the fundamental types of morality. Wisdom is the quality, or condition of all virtue and the crown of the moral life: courage is the virtue of the emotional part of man; temperance or moderation, the virtue of the lower appetites: while justice is the unity and the principle of the others. Virtue is thus no longer identified with knowledge simply. Another source of vice besides ignorance is assumed, viz., the disorder and conflict of the soul; and the well-being of man lies in the attainment of a well-ordered and harmonious life. As health is the harmony of the body, so virtue is the harmony of the soul—a condition of perfection in which every desire is kept in control and every function performs its part with a view to the good of the whole. Morality, however, does not belong merely to the individual, but has its perfect realisation in the state in which the three elements of the soul have their {39} counterpart in the threefold rank of society. Man is indeed but a type of a larger cosmos, and it is not as an individual but as a citizen that he finds his station and duties, and is capable of realising his true life.

Thus we see how Plato is led to correct the shortcomings of Socrates—his abrupt distinction between ignorance and knowledge, his vagueness as to the meaning of the good, and his tendency to emphasise the subjective side of virtue and withdraw the individual from the community of which he is essentially a part. But in developing his theory of ideas Plato has represented the true life of man as consisting in the knowledge of, and indeed in absorption in, God, a state to which man can only attain by the suppression of his natural impulses and withdrawal from earthly life: and though there is not wanting in Plato's later teaching the higher conception of the transformation of the animal passions, he is not wholly successful in overcoming the dualism between impulse and reason which besets some of the earlier dialogues.

It is a striking proof of the vitality of Plato that his teaching has affected every form of idealism and has helped to shape the history of religious thought in all ages. Not only many of the early Fathers, such as Clement and Origen, but the Neo-Platonists of Alexandria, the Cambridge Platonists of the seventeenth century, and also the German theologians, Baur and Schleiermacher, have recognised numerous coincidences between Christianity and Platonism: as Bishop Westcott has said, 'Plato points to St. John.'[2] His influence may be detected in some of the greatest Christian poetry of our own country, especially in that of Wordsworth and Tennyson. For Plato believes, in common with the greatest of every age, in 'that inborn passion for perfection,' that innate though often unconscious yearning after the true, the beautiful, the good,

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