I have to warn you that this post is only tangentially related to The Sunday Philosophy Club, but I hope that if you are interested in both Christianity and moral philosophy you will find it valuable, even if just as a starting point for your own thinking. In it I’ve tried to pull together several of the threads we’ve laid out along the way, and it’s rather long, but I hope worth the effort. For those of you who make it to the end, I look forward to your comments!
Back in the first post I wrote, I distinguished metaethics (theories about what makes some things right and others wrong) from applied ethics (whether some particular act(s) or attitude is right or wrong). It can also be distinguished from an ethical code or set of moral injunctions, like the code of medical ethics, or the ten commandments.
Thinking about Christian ethics, we need to be clear what level of ethics we’re talking about, and what we mean by it being Christian. If we are thinking about an ethical code, then of course there is a Christian ethics: the set of moral imperatives found in the New Testament. But what do we mean by it being Christian? Is it an exclusively Christian code that is different to all other codes? Does it depend on Christian theology? Is it merely consistent with Christianity?
I’d like to suggest that while we can call this Christian morality, the set of moral injunctions presented in the New Testament are not exclusive to Christians (at least most of them), and they don’t depend on revealed Christianity. That might sound controversial, but I hope I can explain.
If we think about it a minute, we begin to see that morality can’t be exclusive to Christianity because Christianity presupposes morality. Before Jesus was born, before even the Old Testament Law was given, there was already a moral standard that God held people accountable to. That’s how Noah could be called righteous; that’s how Noah’s peers could be called evil and God just in wiping them out in the flood. So morality can’t be dependent on Christian theology, nor can it be exclusive to Christians. Rather, it’s universal and eternal. If the people of the world don’t know the moral standards God holds them accountable to, then they can’t justly be condemned, and don’t need saving. (Ironically then, in one sense, Christianity is inconsistent with there being a Christian ethics!)
Of course this doesn’t mean being Christian and having God’s revelation doesn’t help: of course it does. It helps because it gives us confidence, clarity, and insight into a morality that already exists—one that we already know to some extent, but which we suppress and twist in our sinfulness—but it doesn’t give us a whole new morality that no-one else has.
(to be continued on Wednesday)...