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"It is through conscience that human beings see and recognize the demands of the divine law. They are bound to follow their conscience faithfully in everything they do."
Religious Liberty, no 2.

Christianity and Ethics

Principles of Christian Theology. Revised edition. by John Macquarrie. SCM Press. London 1966.

Christianity in the World. Chapter 21. Christianity and Ethics. pages 503-512.

Fr John MacquarrieThe theme of the present chapter is beautifully summed up in a sentence of W. Adams Brown: “The sense of God’s presence, which is the crown of the religious life, reaches over into the sphere of ethics and glorifies it.” 1 I say that this sums up the theme to be unfolded in the present chapter, and it does so for two reasons. The quotation recognizes, as we have done in the earlier parts of this book, that the heart of religion is the awareness of the divine presence, so that this awareness will be the determinative factor in any distinctively Christian understanding of ethics; and the quotation further recognizes, as we have consistently done, that the Christian contribution is continuous with our “natural” endowment, for the sense of God’s presence does not create a new ethic but rather “glorifies” the ethic that is already there—and the expression seems to mean that we are enabled to understand the moral life in a new light and a new depth

We have been brought to consider the implications of Christian theology for the moral life by our study of the sacraments and worship which, we have claimed, put the presence of God and the process of conformation to Christ at the center of life, so that from this center the transforming influence of the divine grace must spread out even to our most peripheral interests. But not only the past two or three chapters, but our whole study of Christian theology has led us up to this point of considering its application to the daily problems of human existence. We took our start from an analysis of this existence itself, as it is disclosed generally in the very act of existing. Now that we have studied this existence in the light of the Christian revelation, we come back to it, hoping to see it in a new depth and to have fresh light on its problems.

But the unbroken connection from first to last stresses our point that we make no sharp separation between man’s natural understanding of himself and the understanding that is given in revelation, or between the understanding that we find in the Christian religion and that which is attained in other faiths. To use the expression which we have used so often and which we have tried to explain in various connections, the difference between “natural” and “revealed” is not that the latter sees anything different or anything additional, but the same things are seen “in depth,” that is to say, in the light and transparency of Being. This continuity is nowhere more obvious than in the field of ethics. The great world religions come nearer to each other in their moral teaching than anywhere else, and unite in demanding of their adherents love, compassion, altruism; and in this respect, they stand nearest also to the best secular ethics. Nothing could be more arrogant than the absurd claim that Christianity has some kind of monopoly of the good life, though, regrettably, this claim is sometimes made. Yet, on the other hand, the Christian understanding of existence and Being is bound to have a very profound effect on the way in which adherents of the Christian faith conceive the good life, and I certainly wish to maintain that the moral life is in a very significant way illuminated in new depth by the Christian faith.

In the field of ethics, as in the other fields we have considered, it is necessary to maintain that dialectical tension which is so characteristic of Christian theology. The understanding of the moral life in Christian faith is, on the one hand, continuous with the understanding that belongs to human existence as such; yet, on the other hand, this faith “glorifies” or gives new depth to our “natural” morality. Although I shall stress the continuity of the Christian ethic with man’s natural moral aspirations, I hope to do justice also to the distinctive quality of a morality that is informed by grace and revelation, so that the Christian ethic is not presented only in terms of continuity, but in terms of a genuine transfiguration. This is surely in line with all that has already been said about our human existence in this world. If we take seriously sin and the need for repentance and justification, then we have already denied a mere continuity; and if we go on to visualize the Christian life as man’s cooperation in the divine work of letting-be, then we are seeing his moral aspirations “glorified” or “transfigured,” and given a new seriousness and dignity beyond what “natural” morality discloses.

We have already had an interesting illustration of the kind of thing that we have in mind, when we took note of the deepening of the conception of sin in the light of Christian teaching. We began with that uneasy sense that existence is not in order—a sense that belongs to the “natural” man, that is to say, to all human existence in virtue of its basic existentiality; then we found that our understanding of sin was deepened and enlarged when we saw it in the light of the biblical doctrines of creation and providence; but even this was still an interim understanding of sin, and its full depth was seen only in the light of the atonement, with its dual aspects of grace and judgment.2

There has been a similar progression on the positive side. At an early stage of our inquiry, we met the phenomenon of conscience, as a kind of synoptic self-knowing belonging to existence as such; conscience was in turn seen to be associated with the quest for selfhood, a quest which is likewise intrinsic to existence itself; then the doctrine of creation showed how the kind of being that opens up as the potentiality for the human existent is characterized by letting-be; and finally, this upper level toward which human existence tends as the fulfillment of its potentialities was illuminated in terms of christhood and sonship.3

These successive analyses, which moved from the general disclosedness of existence without a radical break into the sharper definitions that come out of the Christian revelation, established the case for what has been traditionally known as “natural law.” We are not to think of this as some basic, unchanging corpus of commands and prohibitions. Our conception of man as “existing,” that is to say, as not having a fixed “nature” but standing in the openness of possibility, rules out the idea of an unchanging law based on an unchanging “nature.” If there is any unchanging formulation of natural law, it could be only in the most general, and therefore the emptiest, of terms, as, for instance, St. Thomas’ formulation of the first precept of the natural law: “Good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided.” 4 This, of course, can become the basis for more detailed formulations, and we might understand the Ten Commandments as an attempt to formulate some of the basic features of the natural law. Yet even a formulation so simple and universal in its appeal as the Decalogue is shaped by particular historical and cultural conditions. If we are to talk of “natural law” (as I believe we should) as meaning the moral awareness that belongs to man in virtue of the existentiality into which he has been created, we must at the same time avoid the error of suggesting an unchanging body of clearly formulated precepts, based on a supposedly unchanging nature. We must look in the direction suggested by J. V. Langmead Casserley: “The natural law for men must necessarily grow and expand as man’s potentialities and responsibilities are deepened and widened through his gradual fulfillment of God’s purpose in creating him. Natural law doctrine is not conservative. . . . We might even describe ‘natural law’ as an existential concept. Natural law is the insurgent authenticity.” 5

We have seen in the doctrine of creation how man, in his freedom and responsibility, has a share of creativity and cooperates with God in the shaping of the world. More and more, man takes over the direction of “nature”—both external nature and his own nature, that is to say, those elements of his being that are simply “given.” As this process goes on, it is clear that “natural law,” in the sense explained above, must have flexibility. What might have been against natural law at one time may not still be against it as man, fulfilling his destiny, reshapes his own “nature” or develops it or reduces the area of the “given” by bringing more of his being under his conscious responsible will. One obvious controversial example of these matters is the question of contraception or birth control. On the one hand, man has, by better health arrangements, extended his life-span and his chances of survival far beyond what was once “natural,” that is to say, simply given. No one condemns this. On the other hand, then, surely it is equally in order to take over from nature control of procreation, and to achieve in a responsible way by suitable techniques that balance between new life and death which was once regulated by the merely “given” factors in both man and his environment, for some such regulation is required if we are to have regard to the quality of existence and not just to the biological (and probably miserable) proliferation of life.

Of course, there are terrible risks lying all along the way. But these are the risks inherent in creation itself, and man cannot back away from the demand that he take over control more and more. We hear of responsibilities in the future that frighten us, such as the possibility of so-called “genetic engineering.” There will be those who will think of this as a kind of usurping of divine prerogatives, and the assuming of godlike powers by man. But we have seen that it is man’s destiny to be godlike. There is no usurpation of the divine, if the taking over of new powers is done not with proud autonomy but with a sense of stewardship and a consciousness of the divine grace and judgment over man. Certainly I cannot see that any supposed unchanging natural law could be invoked against such developments, or that it would be likely to halt them.

Thus, as we understand the expression “natural law,” it lies beyond any formulation except the simplest and emptiest, and the word “natural” points only to what belongs universally to man’s existentiality. We mean the tendency toward fulfillment that is intrinsic to existence itself. This is the tendency to actualize selfhood, but since there cannot be selfhood without community, it is also the tendency toward authentic community. In terms of our existential-ontological approach, we may say that the natural law directs toward letting-be, which is both the highest potentiality for the existent and is also the essence of Being (God). It is entirely in line with our general approach to theology to hold that the specific task of a Christian ethic or moral theology is to help us to understand in the depth and fullness of the Christian revelation the tendencies, aspirations, and obligations that already belong to us in virtue of the “natural law.”

Just as some Protestant theologians hold that there is no continuity between the Christian revelation and what they regard as the merely human wisdom of philosophy or of the non-Christian faiths, so they deny any continuity between the Christian ethic and natural law. We must therefore spend some time in defending the case for continuity in ethics, just as we have defended continuity elsewhere. Moreover, as we discuss these matters, it will become clearer what is meant by the “depth” or “illumination” which, we have claimed, the Christian revelation brings to man’s “natural” moral strivings; and in the end, it is the distinctive Christian contribution that we wish to bring out.

It seems to me that both continuity and a new depth can be clearly illustrated from Jesus’ own ethical teaching. On the one hand, there is surely no question about the continuity of his teaching with Old Testament ethics and so with the “natural law.” However revolutionary he may have been, Jesus understood himself as standing in the Hebrew tradition. His aim, he says, is to fulfill the law, not to destroy it.6 It is true that he is strongly opposed to all legalism and self-righteousness. Apparently, too, he had little use for minute regulations concerning the sabbath and the like. He befriended sinners and outcasts. He strongly asserted the primacy of love and charity. He showed extraordinary freedom toward the law, especially in the so-called “antitheses” where he radically reinterprets the traditional laws.7 Yet all this need not be understood as destroying continuity. Actually, we know that many of Jesus’ sayings can be paralleled from the words of other Jewish teachers; and although Christian apologists sometimes set up a sharp contrast between “Jewish legalism” and the ethic of Jesus, what they represent as “Jewish legalism” is often a mere caricature. We can learn from such Jewish writers as Martin Buber or, for that matter, from the Hebrew scriptures themselves, that inwardness, charity, and humanity were by no means foreign to the law. The Hebrew ideal of the righteous man, as depicted in Job,8 is no narrowly legalistic one. Buber, pointing out that “torah” means not “law” but “instruction,” claims that Jesus and Judaism (both biblical and post-biblical) have been at one in fighting against the perversion of torah into a merely external legalism, and have sought rather “to extend the hearing of the word to the whole dimension of human existence.” 9

Yet while we recognize this continuity, we have also to acknowledge or rather to assert that in a signal way Jesus lets us see the law in a new depth. He directs attention away from overt behavior as the fulfilling (or not fulfilling) of laws, to existential attitudes. These attitudes are what determines conduct, and since these attitudes in turn constitute the faith (or lack of faith) by which selfhood is formed (or missed), conduct is firmly linked to the formative influences of faith. In stressing the existential basis of conduct, Jesus also directs attention to the concrete situation rather than to general rules. This comes out above all in his conception of the “neighbor,” the person with whom we are in direct confrontation.10 Most strikingly of all, there is the radicalizing of the moral demand, which gets expressed in extreme and apparently “impractical” formulations, such as that we should not resist evil or that we should love our enemies.11 Here, it might seem, there is no longer any continuity with “natural law” but rather a complete reversal of its promptings. But the full significance

6 Matt, 5: 17. of this demand for “radical obedience” (as Bultmann has called it) is to be seen in the career of Jesus himself, as the one who was obedient even to the cross.12 We have seen that it was this self-emptying, this absolute letting-be, that constitutes Jesus the Christ, so that we confess him as the incarnate Word.13 Yet however far this christhood is from the imperfect humanity that we see every day in ourselves, we nevertheless perceived that because humanity is not something fixed but stands in the openness of possibility, this very humanity is at its upper limit continuous with christhood—if, indeed, we are not going to think of Christ in docetic terms. So the radical obedience which Christ both demanded and exemplified is after all, and despite the fact that the connection has been so sadly obscured by sin, continuous with the “natural law,” that is to say, with those potentialities for fulfillment that God placed in man at creation. Jesus’ ethical teaching reveals the obscured and forgotten depths.

In the ethical teaching of St. Paul, one can likewise trace both the notion of continuity with “natural law” and the novel depth that had been given to the moral situation by the Christian revelation. On the one hand, he has something like an explicit conception of natural law, for he talks of the Gentiles as having a “law written in their hearts,” 14 and apparently thinks of the content of this law as similar to the content of the law of Israel. This natural law is also associated with conscience, and St. Paul is the first Christian writer to use the term “conscience.” St. Paul is indeed critical of the law conceived as a way to salvation. He seems to think that both the natural law and the law of Israel simply reveal man’s sinfulness and his impotence to fulfill the demands intrinsic to his own existence. This in turn points to the need for grace, and for justification by faith. But we have seen already that justification is not to be separated from sanctification.15 Having established faith, and with it, hope and love, as the foundations of Christian existence, St. Paul still sees the law as providing the guidelines for our life on earth. The law is not “made void” by grace, but “established.” 16 The point he is making is that self-sufficient moral endeavor will not lead to salvation, but that entry upon the Christian way of salvation brings moral renewal as part of that whole “new creation” which is Christian existence and yet which, we must say, is also the fulfilling of the potentialities of creation. The “new creation” is the man “in Christ,” the man whose life is conformed in the body of Christ to the dying and rising of Christ, and in which therefore love is paramount.17

The manner in which the Christian ethic combines continuity with distinctiveness gets its classic illustration in the history of theology from St. Thomas’ treatment of the virtues.18 He brings together the four “cardinal virtues” of classical philosophy and the three “theological virtues” of the New Testament. The four cardinal virtues may be taken as summing up man’s “natural” aspirations for the good, that is to say, the tendencies toward fullness of being that are intrinsic to existence. The three theological virtues are not, strictly speaking, additional virtues, but rather they supply an additional dimension to the moral life, so that it is seen in a new depth.

We have already said something about faith, hope, and love as basic characteristics of the Christian life.19 Here it will be sufficient to add a few remarks on their significance for ethics.

Faith, as acceptance and commitment, is fundamental to the realization of selfhood. We are concerned, however, not with any and every faith or with a merely formal conception of faith, but with specifically Christian faith. This is directed to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, the particular being in whom expressive Being has most fully expressed itself. The center of this Christian faith is therefore the incarnation, the presence and manifestation, or the advent and epiphany, of Being among the beings. Thus, as was stated at the beginning of the present section, the awareness of the divine presence becomes the determinative factor in any distinctively Christian understanding of ethics. Differently stated, this means an extension of the sacramental principle to the whole of life, the movement out from the center of which we have already spoken. How this movement occurs, we shall see later. But for the present, it is enough to note that the faith that holy Being presents and manifests itself in the neighbor and even in material things lends a new depth to the world and profoundly influences behavior in it.

Hope belongs to the eschatological dimension of the Christian life and, from the ethical point of view, provides a dynamic to action. Many moral philosophers have noted that if moral ideals have to be realized in an alien or indifferent world, then the moral task is a harsh and discouraging one; while, on the other hand, if the very structure of Being supports moral aspirations, then one can embark on the moral life with an enthusiasm and confidence that would be hard to attain otherwise. We are not concerned here with any “moral arguments” for the existence of God or with the question of whether morality needs to be “completed” or filled out by religion. After all, it may be the case that morality and human existence with it just do not make sense. Yet even to say this is to indicate the difference which the Christian hope makes in the human approach to morality. A philosophy which takes existence (and a fortiori morality) to be absurd is surely less likely to spur moral endeavor than the faith that creation is good and moves toward the good. Of course, if this were simply a fatalistic belief, then again it might produce indifference and inaction. But if it is understood in Christian terms as the coworking of divine grace and human endeavor, then it would be difficult to imagine any more powerful moral dynamic.

Finally, the good, or the goal of moral striving, is exhibited with a new clarity and depth as Christian love—that is to say, not any and every love, but the love revealed in Jesus Christ as absolute letting-be. The good is fullness of being, and this in turn is letting-be. The whole Christian interpretation of the world as creation-reconciliation-consummation points to the end, or summum bonum, as that perfect community of love in God which we call the “kingdom of God,” and it already sees the actualizing of this in the incarnation and in the extension of the incarnation in the Church. Yet the vision extends far beyond the borders of the recognizably Christian Church to embrace all men and all beings.

An attempt has been made in the foregoing paragraphs to delineate some of the basic considerations that will shape a Christian view of morality, and to show how such a view is both continuous with “natural law” and yet makes its own very distinctive contribution. The working out in detail of the principles of Christian behavior belongs to moral theology, and like the other specialized studies on which we have impinged in our discussions of “applied theology,” moral theology involves not only theological questions but questions belonging to other disciplines that make a study of human behavior'in its many activities. We do not intend therefore to invade the field of the moral theologian, but are only concerned to draw such implications from our general theology as may be helpful toward the work of those who make a special study of Christian ethics. Nevertheless, there are some matters that it is legitimate for us to pursue further, and among other things, we have still to fulfill our promise of showing how the center of worship moves out to shape all the activities of life.


1. Christian Theology in Outline, p. 391.

2. See above, pp. 68-73, 259~267, 338-339.

3. See above, pp. 63-64, 231, 300.

4. Summa Theologiae, 1a 11ae, q. 94, a. 2.

5. “Liberal Catholicism,” in The American Church Quarterly, vol. V, p. 87 (italics mine).

6. Matt. 5:17

7. Matt. 5:2 1ff.

8. Job 31: 1ff.

9. Two Types of Faith, p. 58.

10. Luke io:29ff.

11. Matt. 5:39, 44.

12. Phil. 2:8.

13. See above, pp. 302-303.

14. Rom. 2:15.

15. See above, p. 343.

16. Rom. 3:31.

17. II Cor. 5:17; etc.

18. Summa Theologiae, la Ilae, qq. 61-62.

19. See above, pp. 345-350.