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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Ethics

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It is proposed in the present article not to discuss the vast subject of ethics in general, but to attempt to ascertain what were the most striking points in which the ethical ideas of the Christiana of the Apostolic Age differed from those of earlier speculators on the subject.

1. Sources of information.-All our first-hand information is contained in the writings of the NT and of the Apostolic Fathers. Indirectly the works of later Christian authors, who treated the subject more systematically, may throw some light by way of inference on the conceptions of the Apostolic Age: for instance, if the treatment of the cardinal virtues by St. Augustine and others shows a marked difference from the treatment found in pre-Christian writers, it may perhaps be rightly inferred that the difference is due to ideas which already prevailed in the first generation of Christians. But inferences of this sort are precarious, for it is hardly possible to ascertain accurately how far the other influences which contributed to the thought of the later writers were operative in the earliest age; and in any case it is probable that later writings would not add anything of great importance to the general outline, which is all that is being attempted here. Attention will therefore be confined to the contemporary documents. And with respect to these, critical questions may be ignored. The accuracy of the historical narrative is not in question, and whatever may be the authorship or the precise date of the documents reviewed, they are all sufficiently early to reflect ethical ideas which belong to the Apostolic Age, and not those which belong to a later period.

2. General characteristics of ethical thought

(1) Absence of systematic treatment.-Ethical questions are constantly touched upon in the NT, but always more or less in connexion with particular cases as they arise, and never in connexion with a complete and thought-out system. Here there is a striking contrast with Greek philosophy. The philosophers tried to find a rational basis for human life in all its relations. In ethics they discussed the question of the supreme good-whether it was knowledge, or pleasure, or virtue; they classified the virtues, and discussed in the fullest manner their various manifestations. There is nothing of this sort in the NT. The morality of the Jews, again, was very different from that of the Greeks, fur the Jews took little interest in purely philosophical problems; but they also had a system, and a very elaborate one, of law and of ceremonial observance, with which their morality was closely bound up. Although the Christians inherited so much from the Jews, this system, after being, as it were, raised to its highest power in the Sermon on the Mount, was definitely set aside in the Apostolic Age. And in the place of a system we find an overpowering interest in certain historical facts. The Synoptic Gospels are occupied with a fragmentary narrative of the life of Christ, in which a good deal of moral teaching is contained. But it is such as arises incidentally from the facts recorded in the narrative, and it is not presented as part of a scheme of ethics. In the Fourth Gospel there is something more nearly resembling systematic moral discussion, but even here the discourses arise out of a historical framework, and the prevailing interest is not ethical but spiritual and mystical. The Acts contains little but narrative, and the teaching recorded in it centres almost monotonously around facts. In the Epistles ethical questions are constantly dealt with, but the problems are practical, and arise out of the circumstances of the time. This is not to say that in these writings there is no new point of view, but that ethics is nowhere treated in a complete and systematic way, and that there appears to be no consciousness on the part of the writers that they are in possession of a new ethical theory or philosophy. The difference, therefore, between pre-Christian and Christian ethics does not consist in a new theory or system. The subject was treated in the Apostolic Age from the practical point of view.

(2) The moral ideal.-A new element is, however, introduced into ethics by that very concentration upon a single historical life which has been noted above. The ideal man had figured largely in earlier ethical systems, but the ideal man of philosophy had been entirely a creation of the imagination, and his actual existence never seems to have been thought of as a practical possibility. Now, however, an actual human life is put forward as a model of perfection, and it is assumed without discussion that all ethical questions, as they may happen to arise, may be, and must be, tested by this.

(3) The new life.-There is, moreover, in the consciousness of the Apostolic Age something more potent than belief in a historical example. There is a sense which pervades every writing of this time that a new force has come into existence. It is not necessary to insist upon the prominence in early Christian teaching of the belief in the Resurrection, The continued life and activity of the Person who is the centre of all their thought were the greatest of all realities to the early Christians. With it was combined the belief in the continual indwelling and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And this seems to explain the apparent indifference to ethical theory which has been noted. For to the early Christians ‘outward morality is the necessary expression of a life already infused into the soul’ (Strong, Christian Ethics, p. 69). It is in this respect that the Christian conception presents the most marked contrast to pre-Christian thought, There was a note of hopelessness in the moral speculation of the Greeks, Even a high ideal was a thing regarded as practically out of reach for the mass of mankind. Plato looked upon the ideal State as a necessary condition for the exercise of the highest virtue, and its conception was a wonderful effort of the philosophical imagination; but it was not considered possible. Even the apparently practical conceptions of Aristotle require a complete reconstruction of society. The Stoic philosophers abandoned this dream, and could suggest nothing better than the withdrawal of the wise man from all ordinary human interests. The Neo-Platonist went further, and sought complete severance from the world of sense, Jewish thought was on different lines, but there was an even keener sense of sin and failure, although this was redeemed from despair by the hope of a Messianic Age which would redress all the evils of the existing order. Above all there was no sufficient solution, and among the Greeks little attempt at a solution, of the problem of how the human will was to be sufficiently strengthened to do its part in the realization of any ideal. In the writings of the Apostolic Age, on the other hand, there is found not only a belief in a perfect ideal historically realized, but also a belief in an indwelling power sufficient to restore all that is weak and depraved in the human will.

(4) The evangelical virtues.-In the NT there is no regular discussion of the nature of virtue, and no formal classification of virtues. The Greek philosophers, while they differed in their views of that constituted the chief good, were agreed in accepting what are known as the four cardinal virtues-prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice-as the basis of their classification. This division, from the time of Plato onwards (and he appears to assume it as familiar), is generally accepted as exhaustive, and other virtues are made to fall under these heads. But although this classification must have been familiar to a large number of the early Christians, and although it had been adopted in the Book of Wisdom (8:7), it is not mentioned in the NT. The cardinal virtues reappeared in Christian literature from Origen onwards, and were exhaustively treated by Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, and mediaeval writers, but this kind of discussion does not make its appearance in the Apostolic Age. Such lists of virtues us that which occurs in Galatians 5:22 f. are clearly not intended to be exhaustive or scientific, and the nearest approach to a system of virtues is made by St. Paul in 1 Cor., where he expounds what became known as the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. These three are also closely associated in Romans 5:1-5, 1 Thessalonians 1:2 f., and Colossians 1:3-5; and two other NT writers (Hebrews 10:22-24 and 1 Peter 1:21 f.) mention them in conjunction in a suggestive manner. It seems that they were generally recognized as moral or spiritual states characteristic of the Christian life. And the reason for this appears to be that they are regarded as the means by which the Christian is brought into personal relation with the historical facts, and with the new life brought by them into the world, which have been spoken of above as the point on which the Christians of the first age centred their attention. The insistence on these spiritual virtues brings out two distinct characteristics of the ethical thought of the Apostolic Age, which are nowhere defined or discussed in the NT, but which nevertheless appear to be consistently implied. These characteristics are a new doctrine of the end of man, and consequently a new criterion of good and evil, and a new view of human nature.

(a) These three virtues all take a man outside himself, and make it impossible for him to be merely self-regarding. They bring him into close relation not only with his fellow-men but with God. So union with God becomes the highest end of man. This union, moreover, is not absorption: whatever may have been the case of some later Christian mystics, the most mystical of the early writers, St. Paul and St. John, never contemplate anything but a conscious union with God, in which the whole individuality of man is preserved. ‘From first to last the Christian idea is social, and involves the conscious communion between man and man, between man and God. And no state of things in which the individual consciousness disappears will satisfy this demand ‘(Strong, op. cit. p. 88). Faith, hope, and love all relate to a spiritual region above and beyond this present life, but the existing world is not excluded from it. The Kingdom of God, which occupies as large a place in the thought of the Apostolic Age, is regarded as future and as transcendental, but it is also regarded as having come already, so far as the rule of Christ has been made effective in this life. Thus a new standard for moral judgments is set up those actions and events are good which advance the coming of the Kingdom, and those are evil which impede it.

(b) Further, the evangelical virtues assume a unity in human nature which pre-Christian systems of thought failed to recognize. Greek thought either regarded human nature as unfallen, or it adopted more or less an Oriental view of evil as immanent in matter. When evil could not be ignored it might be ascribed either to ignorance or to the imprisonment of the soul in an alien environment. In neither ease could human nature be regarded as a whole which in its own proper being is harmonious. The body and the emotions which are closely connected with it were looked upon as things which must either be kept in strict subjection to the intellect, or, as far as possible, be got rid of altogether. In early Christian thought, on the other hand, hope and love are mainly emotional, and faith is by no means exclusively intellectual. In St. Paul’s use of the term it includes a strong element of emotion-it ‘worketh through love’ (Galatians 5:6); and it is almost more an act of the will than of the intellect. And although asceticism played a great part in some departments of later Christian thought, in the Apostolic Age there can be no doubt of the importance assigned to the body. The conspicuous Christian belief in the resurrection of the body assumes a very different point of view from that of Oriental or oven of Greek philosophy. It is clear that the first generation of Christians regarded human nature as fallen indeed, but as capable in all its parts of restoration, and they believed that none of its parts could be left out from the salvation of the whole.

(5) The conception of sin.-Speaking generally, it may be said that the non-Christian view of sin regards it as natural, and that the Christian view regards it as unnatural. This is, however, a broad generalization, and requires further definition. No system of ethical thought can altogether ignore the fact of sin, though it is sometimes minimized. But there are wide differences in the way in which it is regarded. In pre-Christian thought it was often almost Identified with ignorance. It was assumed that a man cannot sin willingly, because no man desires evil for himself. Virtue is therefore knowledge, and the possibility of knowing what is right and doing what is wrong need not be considered. This was the teaching of a large section of Greek philosophy. Again, wherever Oriental ideas had influence, the seat of evil was thought to be in matter. Sometimes the strife between good and evil was explained as a contest between two rival and evenly-balanced powers. Sometimes a good deity was conceived as acting upon an intractable material. The practical conclusion was usually some form of asceticism-an attempt to be quit of the body and all that it implied; and this asceticism, by a process easy to be understood, not infrequently led to licence. These tendencies often make their appearance in Church history, and traces of them are to be found in the writings of the NT, but during the Apostolic Age the dangers of Gnosticism and Antinomianism were but rudimentary. In modern times the view of evil which regards it as undeveloped good, or as the survival of instincts that are no longer necessary or beneficial, has some points in common with the old dualisms. The common feature of all these views is that they regard evil as more or less inevitable and according to nature. It would not be true to say that they altogether disregard the human will, or deny human responsibility, but they treat the body rather than the will as the seat of evil, and they tend to look upon evil as, upon the whole, natural and necessary. The Christian view of sin, as it appears in the writings of the Apostolic Age, is in the sharpest contrast to this. It is the Jewish view, carried to its natural conclusion, and its chief characteristics may be set down under three heads.

(a) First, the freedom of the will is not considered from the philosophical point of view at all. The metaphysical difficulties are not even touched upon, nor is any consciousness shown of their existence. But the responsibility of man is always assumed, Nor is it for his actions alone that he is responsible. The Sermon on the Mount brings home to him responsibility for every thought, and for his whole attitude towards God. And in doing so it brings to its natural conclusion the course of ethical thought among the Jews. If, however, the root of sin is in the will, it follows that it is not in matter, or in the body, or in anything distinct from the will of man. The whole universe is good, because it is created by God, and sin consists in the wilful misuse of things naturally good. Asceticism therefore, except in the sense of such training as may help to restore the will to a healthy condition, is excluded.

(b) Secondly, the idea of the holiness of God, as forming a test of human action and a condemnation of human shortcomings, is another conception inherited from Judaism. Early Jewish ideas about God are anthropomorphic, but the anthropomorphism is of a very different kind from that of the Greeks, The deities of Greek mythology who aroused the contemptuous disgust of Plato were constructed out of human experience with all the evil and good qualities of actual men emphasized and heightened. To the Jew God is an ideal, the source of the Moral Law, rebellion against which is sin. So in the Sermon on the Mount the perfection of God is held up as the ideal for human perfection, and St. Paul makes the unity of God the ground for belief in the unity of the Church.

(c) Thirdly, sin was regarded as a thing which affects the race, and not only individuals. The beliefs of the Apostolic Age with regard to Christ’s redemptive work imply that there is a taint in the race, and that human nature itself, and not only individual men, has to be restored to communion with God, and requires such a release from sin as will make communion with God possible. Some practical results of this belief in the solidarity of mankind are conspicuous in early Christian writings. One is the exercise of discipline. It was left that the actions and character of individuals compromised and affected the whole body, and that they could not therefore be left to themselves. The injury done by the rebellion of one injured and imperilled the whole community. Both, for his own sake and for the sake of the Church a corporate censure was required, extending if necessary to the cutting off of the offending member (1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2, Matthew 18:15-20, etc.). Another result of the belief in solidarity is the emphasis laid upon social virtues in connexion with the corporate character of the Church (e.g. Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14, Galatians 5, etc.). It partly accounts for that special prominence of humility in Christian ethics which has been so often commented on from different points of view, for humility is regarded not only as a duty enforced by the example of Christ, but also as the practical means for preserving the unity and harmonious working of the body (Philippians 2:3-5, etc.).

3. Conclusion.-Ethics in the Apostolic Age did not consist in a re-statement of old experience or in a system of purely ethical theory, but in the recognition and acceptance in the sphere of conduct of the practical consequences of what was believed to be an entirely new experience of spiritual facts.

Literature.-A. Neander, ‘Verhältniss der hellen. Ethik zur christlichen,’ in Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen, 1851, also Geschichte der christl. Ethik (═ Theolog. Vorlesungen, v. [1864]); W. Gass, Geschichte der christl. Ethik, 1881; C. E. Luthardt, Geschichte der christl. Ethik, 1888: H. Martensen, Christian Ethics, Eng. translation , (General) 1885, (Individual) 1881, (social) 1882; J. R. Illingworth, Christian Character, 1904; T. B. Strong, Christian Ethics, 1896 (to which this article is especially indebted); H. H. Scullard, Early Christian Ethics, 1907; T. v. Haering, The Ethics of Christian Life, Eng. translation 2, 1909.

J. H. Maude.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ethics'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/e/ethics.html. 1906-1918.

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the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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