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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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DUTY.—In the widest sense of the word, ‘duty’ is the correlate of ‘ought.’* [Note: The word ‘duty’ occurs only once in the Gospels, when Jesus describes as unprofitable servants those who have only done what it was their duty to do (Luke 17:10). The word in the orig. is δφειλω, a verb which is twice used in Jn (13:14, 19:7) to express the idea of oughtness or moral obligation (EV ‘ought’). more commonly expressed by δεῖ. For examples of this use of δεῖ in the reported teaching of Jesus see Matthew 23:23; Matthew 25:27, Luke 12:13; Luke 18:1 etc. For the distinction between δεῖ and δφειλω see Cremer and Grimm-Thayer (s.vv.).] What I ought to be, to do, to feel, that is my duty. So the word covers the whole content of the moral ideal. But both to the plain man and to the philosopher duty usually has a narrower significance; and this we must make clear before we can trace the relation of the teaching of Jesus to the conception of duty.

Our type of duty is the soldier who kept guard at his post when Hereulaneum was overwhelmed by lava and ashes. His station in life prescribed an action; and he fulfilled it. What his motives were we do not ask; we do not inquire how he felt in the execution of his task, or what manner of man he was. He did what he was commanded; he did his duty. A man’s duty, then, at any time is the action determined by his station in life. He stands under a rule, which he must obey and apply. Such obedience does not, however, cover the highest moral excellence. Two men both do their duty, say, to the poor; but the one is hard, unsympathetic, the other benevolent; the one is just, the other full of charity. Although in point of duty they do not differ, we feel that the latter is a better man than the former; for he stands nearer to the ideal of goodness. This is the popular view.

But among the ancients the Stoies, and in modern times Kant, have judged differently. They exclude the emotions, and measure moral worth by the degree to which duty, and duty alone, is the motive of action. No man is good unless he obeys the law, simply because it is the law. Duty for duty’s sake is their watchword. ‘The sage,’ says Seneca, [Note: Seneca, de Clem. ii. 6; contrast John 11:35.] ‘will succour, will do good, for he is born to assist his fellow, to labour for the welfare of mankind; but he will feel no pity.… It is only diseased eyes that grow moist in beholding tears in other eyes, as it is no true sympathy, but only weakness of nerves, that leads some to laugh when others laugh, or to yawn when others yawn.’ Kant [Note: Kant’s Theory of Ethics (Abbott’s tr. pp. 14–16); contrast 1 Corinthians 13:4.] argues in a similar way, but with greater depth and sincerity, that philanthropic action has true moral worth only if done by a man whose temperament is cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others, not from inclination, but from duty, simply because he respects the law under which he stands. Further, the moral judgment is directed not to what is done, but to what the agent intended to do, to what he has willed and taken every means in his power to bring about. But even this needs qualification. Kant holds that we must leave out of account the content of what is willed, and simply inquire whether the law is obeyed just because it is the law. And so we reach the bare conception of duty for duty’s sake, and find the moral law reduced to the mere form of universality. The flesh and blood of goodness have vanished, and we are left with the spectre of a law characterized only by the admission of no exceptions.

But no one can rest satisfied with an abstraction. Kant, therefore, restores content to the idea of duty by throwing into the form of Law Universal the various kinds of action which Society enjoins or forbids. Thus we receive a code of moral laws, each demanding unconditional obedience. But this is not always possible. Conflicts of ‘duties’ will from time to time appear, not in the sense that Duty issues conflicting commands (for under any given circumstances only one action can be right), but in the sense that one of two normal lines of conduct must overcome and contradict the other. Thus arise the problems that have exercised casuists and made real tragedies. Am I to refuse either to kill my fellow-men or to defend my country? Am I to tell a lie, or to become the accomplice, however unwilling, in the murder of my friend?* [Note: cit. pp. 361–365.] Such problems are inevitable and insoluble, if we conceive duty as a group of co-ordinate and absolute laws of action. Conflicts must ensue in the application of such laws, once the ideal system of moral relations on which they are based fails to correspond point for point with the actual system in which they claim realization. But the world is full of imperfection and sin, and every man has sinned and is weak. Consequently the only possible choice may often lie between two lines of conduct, both of which are ideally wrong.

Moreover, if the moral ideal is expressed as a code of rules of action, morality tends to become no more than the rigid observance of ceremonies that characterized the Pharisee. Life hardens into conventionality, if the emphasis is laid on doing rather than on being. We do not deny that character must express itself in action; that charity without works is a contradiction; that the good will cannot be formed save by doing good. But deeds are particular, and relative to time and place; and an ethical code which prescribes or forbids particular acts not only loses touch with real life, but diverts the attention from the spirit to the letter. In the same way the institutions by which a man’s station and duties are determined tend also to become rigid and conventional.

Now Jesus Christ did not promulgate a new code of morals; nor did He do more than lay the foundations of a new society. Had He instituted a definite social, political, or ecclesiastical order, or prescribed a scheme of duties for His followers, the gospel would have possessed for Ethics only an historical interest, instead of affording, as it does, principles by which we may criticise every action and reform every institution. The words and works of Jesus are a well of living water, from which all men of whatever time or nation may drink. We do not disparage organizations and codes of duty. They are essential to the realization of any human ideal; and it is the part of practical Christianity to work out the gospel in a moral, social, and religious order, appropriate to the needs of each generation. In order to use ideas we must crystallize them; but in the process they become half-truths. The life of Jesus alone abides as the truth, reflected and refracted on the broken surface of the river of time.

We must, however, qualify what has been said in two respects. Jesus guarded the sanctuary of the family by the most stringent regulation of divorce. This was natural; for the family is the foundation-stone of the fabric of society. Where it does not remain pure and undefiled, to nourish love and duty, the nation becomes corrupt at its source. Again, Jesus instituted the Holy Sacraments by which we may participate in His living Body and Blood, i.e. in His Life and Spirit, to cleanse our hearts, to renew our wills, and to illuminate our minds with the vision of Truth.

Nothing can be gained by attempting to summarize the Sermon on the Mount. It is enough to emphasize three points.

1. Jesus turns the judgment and attention from the outward act to the inward motive, to the thought and feeling from which the act springs. ‘Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart’ (Matthew 5:27 f.). A standard such as this must shatter the Pharisaic complacency that accompanies the outward observance of a code of duties.

2. In the same way Jesus lays stress on being, not doing, on character, not action. Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the forgiving, they which hunger and thirst after righteousness. Not that deeds are unimportant or unnecessary. Far from it. But the vital thing is the will. So Jesus transcends the point of view of the casuist. In the Christian ideal there are no contradictions. In the Gospels there is no delicate balancing of considerations and consequences.

3. Jesus subordinates the love of our neighbour to the love of God. It is often said that the Second Commandment, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,’ is an adequate expression of the ultimate principle of morality. But the self that we love may be an unworthy self, perhaps even a sensual self. If so, we shall carry this conception into the treatment of our neighbour. There is much good-natured vice in the world. And apart from this, fashionable philanthropy is too often dominated by an ideal of mere comfort. That is why well-meant efforts at social improvement not seldom end in vanity and vexation of spirit. To avoid this, altruism must draw its inspiration from true religion. It must seek illumination from God, and in His light interpret the duty towards other men. In other words, the love of God, as He is seen and known in Christ Jesus, creates a new ideal of duty both in relation to ourselves and our neighbour. Finally, the Christian motive is not the abstract conception of duty for duty’s sake, but charity, the pure love of the full, concrete, and perfect ideal of humanity, realized for all time in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Literature.—Kant’s Theory of Ethics, translation by T. K. Abbott; T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics (esp. bk. iii.); F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies (Essay iv.); H. Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics, bk. iii.; Newman Smyth, Christian Ethics; Gore, The Sermon on the Mount,

A. J. Jenkinson.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Duty'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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