A Plea for the Study of Christian Ethics

[This is taken from Archibald B. D. Alexander's Christianity and Ethics, originally published in 1914; revised and edited by William Mackis.]

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 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 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 scrutinizing 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 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 civilization have created, the Church, if it is to fulfill 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 revolutionizing 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 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 sentimentalizing 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 spiritualizing 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 neighbor as yourself.’  It is the glory of Christianity to have harmonized these seemingly competing aims.  The disciple of Christ finds that he cannot realize 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 the business of Christian Ethics to show that it is at once reasonable and practical.


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