Foundation of Christian ethics

Reverend Martin Adhikary

19 March, 2021 12:00 AM printer

Christian ethics is indistinguishable from Christian faith and practice. Throughout history it has been a great concern for thoughtful people. For Christian thinkers during the early period of Christianity and also till today Christian ethics has played and is playing a vitally important part in their entire Christian thought and life. So, what is Christian ethics? Different scholars have given their definitions. To quote some: Leander Keyser defined it as “the science which treats of the sources, principles, and practices of right and wrong in the light of the Holy Scriptures, in addition to the light of reason and nature.” According to American Methodist scholar Christian ethics is “a systematic study of the way of life exemplified and taught by Jesus, applied to the manifold problems and decisions of human existence.” Ethics is concerned with the end and the ultimate purpose for the realisation of which life should be lived pursuant to doing God’s will, ideally. That ultimate purpose is the highest good for people, who profess to the Christians.

Christian ethics is rooted and grounded in God and his absolutely holy character. God is one. However, in Christian teaching he is a Trinity, meaning he exists in three persons, but not as three individual Gods.  This is a huge area for discussion. But this piece is limited to a very brief discussion on the foundation of Christian ethics. The English word ‘Ethics’ comes from the Greek ‘Ethikos’ that refers to some standard or rule or norm by which people as social and rational beings distinguish what is right and what is wrong. Morality (Latin word ‘Mores’) is something that is concerned here and often these two words may or are used interchangeably. However, in simple language ethics refers to what one ought to do or ought not to do. But morality or morals refer to what one individual person actually does in practical terms.

Emil Brunner, a Swiss Reformed theologian describes Christian ethics as the science of human conduct as it is determined by Divine conduct”. God said to the ancient people of Israel through Moses, “Be holy because I, the LORD, your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2; and parallel passages like Leviticus 11:44, 45; 20:7; Deuteronomy 18: 13. Also it is referred to and quoted in the New Testament Matthew 5:48, 1 Peter 1: 15). Christian ethics as a science of human conduct has the twin goals of systematically discussing the “highest good”, “the summum bonum”, and the principles of human action or conduct that leads to achieve that goal.

However, in Christian ethics the achieving of the highest good in one’s life is to be viewed from the Biblical teaching on the will of the only true God, who reveals his will and purpose for man in the Holy Bible. Christian ethics exhorts us to concern our life with God’s righteousness and the values of his rule in all creation. Jesus’ person, life, teaching and conduct truly manifested that. Christian ethics calls for doing ones utmost to do the will of God from the heart and soul. All these are written in the Bible, the holy Word of God. Psalm 119 is the Psalm which exclusively testifies to the truth of the infallibility of God’s Word. Only some of the 186 verses from this great Psalm read thus: “I know, O Lord that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me. . . Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. I have taken and oath and confirmed it that I will follow your righteous laws . . . Because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path” (Psalm 119: 75, 105-106, 137-138).

 Christian ethics is based on the ethics of the Old Testament in which God revealed himself. Jesus Christ fulfilled the Old Testament. Jesus declared, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law (i.e. the Mosaic Law in the Pentateuch) or the prophets: I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill (Matthew 5: 17). The New Testament fulfills the Old Testament. There is an inherent link between the two. The Old is preparatory to what happened in the New. The Old speaks of the promise and plan of God and the New speaks of the fulfillment of the promises. This inalienable link is succinctly put by St. Augustine thus: “The Old is revealed in the New and the New is concealed in the Old.”

Jesus lived entirely a holy and righteous life. He taught all that he lived. As God-incarnate he was entirely right and without any wrong. He is our model and our source of Christian ethics. Among many others the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament and the Sermon of Jesus on the Mount encapsulate the holiness, righteousness, justice, love and grace of a personal moral God supremely revealed in Jesus Christ as we have in the Bible. But all being said, we need to remember that Christianity constitutes in a right relationship with God in and through Christ. Christian ethics cannot be thought of without the ethical life of Christ. Christian ethics is Christian faith in action. This is life lived in right relationship with God and people. Christian ethics is not any philosophy. It speaks of both a horizontal and vertical relationship. That’s why Jesus said to an expert in the Mosaic Law asking him which the greatest commandment was in the law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your entire mind. This is the first and the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. All the laws and the Prophets hang on the two commandments.” What is really highest good for man is a society? This is an age-old question before all of us.

Concluding, I wish to quote one of the great Old Testament prophets, whom God had sent to people who often trampled down the issues of love for God, for justice, peace in personal and societal life. This was the 8th century B.C. prophet Micah. Micah exhorted his people about God, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love and walk humbly with your God.” It is ultimately God’s nature and character that ought to be the inspiration for Christian ethics.


The writer is a Christian Theology teacher and a Church leader