Lesson 1b: Is There a Specifically Christian Ethics?

The Pontifical Biblical Commission warns that according to the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church the Bible is not to be read as "biblical fundamentalists" read it, that is, without considering the different literary genres and the historical contexts in which its different parts were written. At the same time the Church unambiguously affirms that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Therefore as a whole and in all its parts it contains no error, when it is properly read as God its principal author intended it to be understood and as the Sacred Tradition of the Church interprets it. Vatican II says in Dei Verbum that to properly interpret the Bible we must always keep in mind that the Divine Author's intention was to communicate to us a "religious message of salvation" not historical or scientific information except as these are directly relevant to this religious message. Thus it is a certain historic fact that Jesus was crucified. On the other hand the seven days of creation in Genesis 1 need not be understood as historical facts. This is because it is evident from its literary genre and comparison with other creation accounts of the time that the religious message of the text is only that God is the Creator who has made the world very good and that humanity is created in his image. It does not claim to know just how creation took place and God has us to explore this question by the methods of science. Likewise the moral teachings of the Bible were often given in particular historical circumstances. Hence we must always seek the moral principle that is being applied and not confuse it with modern applications of that principle that may be quite different because of the different circumstances. For example St. Paul tells the women in the church of Corinth that they should cover their heads with a veil (the word is disputed by scholars) at the liturgical assemblies (1 Cor 11:13-16). The principle here is that Christians at worship should observe the customs of the country that indicate reverence, so as not to disturb others in the assembly. This was especially important because the enemies of the Christians spread rumors that these private assemblies were actually orgies. Perhaps some of the charismatic women in the Corinthian Church made a spectacle of themselves when praying with charismatic emotionalism. In any case Paul's advice is a pastoral application to a particular situation. Today that application is obsolete, but the principle that the conduct of worship should respect the customs of time and place remains valid for all times and places.

As was said in Lesson 1, some theologians also think that the moral precepts of the Bible are so conditioned by the historical circumstances in which they were given that they are no longer obligatory in our times. Hence there is no specifically Christian ethics, but morality must be determined by human reason as it transcends time and place and is common to believers and non-believers. At the most, they say, the New Testament highlights certain "values" such as "love your neighbor" that can be known by reason but are often neglected. The way these values are practically realized is a matter of creativity and personal responsibility.

But is it possible that Jesus, who came to teach us the truth about God, did not also teach how to live for God! Of course it is true that the moral precepts of the Old Testament (Mosaic Law) are imperfect. But in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus interprets the Old Law for us when he repeatedly says, "It was said to you of old . . . but I say to you." Yet he does not abolish the Law; instead he says (Matthew 5:17-20) that "not the least letter of the law will pass away until all is fulfilled." Thus he teaches that (1) the moral law must not only be obeyed externally but internally by the right motives; (2) the ceremonies of the Old Law and its government regulations were given to the Jews until the fulfillment of the promises of the Messiah. After that they are no longer binding because their purpose has been accomplished. The Acts of the Apostles makes clear that first St. Peter and then St. Paul understood Jesus teaching in this way. Finally, (3) Jesus teaches that though the moral Law of Moses still holds it must now take on a more perfect form than the Jews had been able to accept. For example, under the Mosaic Law men (but not women) had been permitted to divorce their spouses, provided they fulfilled legal requirements. Jesus, however, told his disciples that both men and women were forbidden to divorce and remarry.

When St. Thomas Aquinas said that the Ten Commandments of the Old Law are simply natural law, he meant that they are materially the same. According to him, however, the way any law is applied is in view of the end to be achieved and it is this relation to the ultimate goal of life that qualifies the law formally. Human reason directs us to the merely natural end of human happiness, but the Gospel revelation directs us to the supernatural end of intimate life in the Trinity. Hence it is false to say that Christian morality is nothing more than natural law ethics. It includes natural law ethics whose reasoning about human nature is often a great help in understanding God's revelation. Yet the Christian is called to live as Jesus did, a life that is not only human but also divine and can be discovered only in the light of Divine Revelation.

God's revelation is given to us through the Bible and Tradition taken together, as Vatican II in Dei Verbum made clear. In interpreting the Bible we must not cite isolated texts, but must interpret the parts by the whole and the whole by the parts. "The Bible is its own interpreter." This is what is called "Canon Criticism," taking the whole canon of the Bible into account in understanding any part of it. It is also the method of "the hermeneutic circle" in which back and forth the whole of the text explains its parts and these parts explain the whole. There are many human authors of the Bible but the One Author, the Holy Spirit, who knew what the whole canon would be, inspired it all. The Church, the People of God, through the Pope and Bishops, authoritatively canonized the Bible and its inspiration. Only in the light of the Magisterium that judges the development of understanding in the Christian Community and sifts out the wheat of true faith from the chaff of human opinion can we really understand God's teachings.

In considering the moral teaching of the Bible in subsequent lessons, we will consider (1) the Old Testament, (2) the New Testament, (3) Doctrinal Development in Sacred Tradition. Then we will consider the three specifically Christian virtues of (4) Faith, (5) Hope, (6) Love. Finally, (7) we will consider the situation of Christian morals today.


  1. Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, Chapter 1, pp. 1-13.

  2. Begin to use Raymond Brown, Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible.


  1. Why and how is there a specifically Christian Ethics?

  2. What is Canon Criticism and the hermeneutic circle?

  3. Why must the Bible be read in the context of Sacred Tradition?

  4. What is the difference between the principle of a biblical command and its application in the Bible?

  5. Give examples of how the Ten Commandments are applied in different ways in different circumstances but are always true in principle.


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