Origins and Ideas

by Robert Brow

Ethics and Goodness

  1. Law and Conscience
  2. Grace
  3. The Holy Spirit
  4. Fellowship

    Ethics and Goodness

    TWO OF THE BEST-KNOWN PEOPLE in North America are Ann Landers and Dear Abby. They are aid to be sisters, and their style is very similar. Every day their picture appears in the papers, and several million people read the answers they give to ethical problems. The questions are very practical. What should a girl do who is being ignored by a boy friend? When should troublesome guests be asked to leave? How should an erring child be disciplined? Should a wife divorce an unfaithful but otherwise acceptable husband? Obviously the answers satisfy a basic need of guidance in the complex problems of life. The fact that Ann Landers and Dear Abby are read and discussed so avidly is nothing new. They are doing what religious teachers have always done in the past. The prophets of ancient Israel, the Sophists of Greece, the Rabbis of later Judaism, the Sadhus of India, priests, friars, saints, palmists, astrologers and quacks, all have told men what to do, and when and how to do it.

    The interesting thing about Ann Landers and Dear Abby (and this applies to most of what is served up to modern man) is that answers are given without ever stating an ultimate philosophical or religious system. Until very recently ethics was always considered to be a department of philosophy. Before giving practical counsel a teacher was expected to state his summum bonum, the highest good that must be attained at any cost, and then he proceeded to build his ethical system around that. A classical philosopher would have refused to answer 'What must I do?' until the prior question of 'What is my end?' was clarified. Characteristic of our twentieth-century flight from philosophy is Existentialism, which denies that there is any ultimate purpose or end, and ethics becomes an exhortation to do something boldly anyway.

    Our survey of religions and philosophical systems has given us the main choices of highest good which are open to us. If we are convinced that there is no Creator or Lawgiver, we may decide with the Charvakas of India in the sixth century BC, and the Epicureans of Greece two centuries later, that the only possible summum bonum is to be happy. Having settled that, we can go on to build a complete system of laws and principles designed to make us happy. If our end is to attain union with the Absolute as in Vedanta Hinduism, then another type of ethical system is required. With the Buddhists we can outline a set of rules to help us quieten down and eventually eliminate our desires. We saw that the ethical systems proposed by Confucius, or Zeno, the Samurai of Japan, or the boarding-schools of England, inevitably were similar because they agreed in their highest good of producing a well-behaved gentleman.

    Before going any further it is essential to clarify the fact that, though the ultimate highest good may be quite different, many of the details of ethics will still be the same. If, for example, we take the Ten Commandments, we will find every major religion agreeing in most of them. The commandment to do no murder, which is of course nothing to do with warfare as a soldier or the execution of criminals, will be essential whether our aim is to be happy, or to be a gentleman, or to lose all our desires. This is why the ethical systems of Confucius, Aristotle, the Pantheist Spinoza, Islamic law, Thomas Aquinas, the Soviet State, modern Humanists, and of course Ann Landers and Dear Abby, agree in many points. This should keep us from the fallacy of pronouncing religions to be the same because they happen to agree on some points of ethics.

    A study of the ethical systems of every religion and sect of religion would be as tedious as it is unnecessary. Having grasped the summum bonum of a sect, most readers of this book should be able to work out the main lines of ethics which must follow with that end in view. If, for example, we agree with Nietzsche that the one thing needful is to produce a superman, and Germany is the nation to do it, then we could make a reasonably good job of ghost-writing another edition of Hitler's Mein Kampf. Given the end of overthrowing capitalism with a view to ushering in the Communist millennium, we can see the Chinese logic of using any means to get there. I will therefore confine myself to a survey of Christian ethics, and note at what points the system diverges from some of the other religions.

    We start with God who created the world, and man made in his image. Part of that image was the freedom to love or not to love. When man sinned he broke his relationship with God and began going his own way. The ultimate end of man is to be restored to perfect fellowship with God, so that he loves God now, and will be perfected to enjoy God and all God's people in the city of God for ever. With this end in view the Bible sets out four means, which are essential to a right understanding of Christian ethics.

    I. Law and Conscience

    We begin with law, the concept of a morally ordered universe, which was common to all religions. The Sanskrit term Rita, found in the Vedas, might be translated rightness, and it has the same root as the Persian Arta and the Greek Arete. The equivalent among the Hebrews was the word Torah, though in later Judaism the word was confined to the written laws of Moses. All peoples had the sense of a moral law, which could be disobeyed but never escaped. It included national, personal and ceremonial duties. If injustice was done blood cried from the very earth and the whole of society was responsible for putting the matter right.

    Law operates through conscience, which we can visualize as a kind of moral alarm-clock. In the beginning God set it exactly right according to the moral law of the universe, but as a result of the fall of man the setting was disturbed. The consciences of children are set by their parents, religion and the society around them, but later in life they can change the setting according to their own ideas. Obviously the consciences of men have often been set in a vicious or immoral way, and until they are conscious of the incorrectness of the setting they cannot be held directly responsible for obeying what they believe to he right. Often religion has been the worst offender in burdening men's consciences with unreasonable requirements. This was Jesus Christ's quarrel with the Pharisees, who added so much to the law that basic rightness was forgotten and men were lost in a maze of impossible regulations. Most educated Hindus and Muslims recognize that the Laws of Manu, which embody ancient Hindu law, and the traditions of Islam are equally impossible for man in a modern state. Many groups of Christians, especially the more orthodox in doctrine, tend to develop systems of do's and don'ts which are nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

    In the Old Testament we see how from time to time God intervened to reset men's consciences. The greatest occasion was the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, though we must remember that none of these commandments was new. They can be shown to have been known before among the Hebrews and other nations. Similarly the prophets kept resetting the people's conscience in personal, social, religious and international matters. Most great men who have worked out a system of ethics have adopted a majority of the Ten Commandments for the purpose of training men's consciences. It is significant that psychologists are now saying that the failure to set children's consciences in a generation of 'let the little dears express themselves' has had tragic results. Children need a framework of clearly understood law and discipline. Without it they feel insecure and lost in an anxious world. In fact true freedom is possible only within limits both for oneself and for others. The freedom to drive fast on the roads is possible only if all accept the discipline of strict road rules. Much more the freedom to live a happy life is possible only with a well-set conscience.

    The Bible recognizes that in addition to moral laws to set conscience in private matters each nation must have civil laws. These will obviously vary to suit conditions of nomadic or city life, war and peace, captivity or empire. In the New Testament Peter and Paul, who were probably both eventually martyred by the Roman state, insisted that Christians are to keep the laws of the country in which they live and give due respect to its magistrates.[1]

    There are also ceremonial laws, and each group of worshippers must adapt these to changing conditions.

    The New Testament shows how the sacrificial system of the Old Testament church and their synagogue worship gave place to other forms, which now look back to the cross instead of forwards in anticipation. There is a wide variety of church ceremony and tradition based on the New Testament. Sometimes there is an obvious divergence from early Christian patterns, but most differences are due to national, political and social factors. As with basic moral laws, there is the constant tendency for priests to complicate and confuse ceremonial law till men like George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, are forced to reject it altogether. As we saw in the first three chapters, ceremonial law must constantly be tested and reformed according to the simplicity of God's way.

    This raises the question of what Jesus Christ means by his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount He presumably gave this type of teaching on hundreds of occasions in villages, synagogues, and in the open air. Whether the Sermon on the Mount is one such occasion or a summary of teaching on many occasions is for our purpose immaterial. Scholars recognize that he spoke as one of the Jewish teachers against the background of the whole Old Testament system of ethics. What he was doing was correcting the setting of the consciences of his audience.

    The Old Testament civil laws, for example, were based on the need to protect the rights of others. Actually the prophets not only rebuked infringements of the rights of others, but also rebuked the failure actively to intervene in the defence of the downtrodden. If freedom and human rights are to be protected, civil law must be set in terms of equity, or eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. There is no evidence that Jewish judges necessarily took this literally in the sense of carefully removing the tooth corresponding to the one that was knocked out in a quarrel. Until recently all civilized law has recognized that punishment and restitution must be proportionate to the harm done. Now it is obvious that Jesus never intended the civil law to be overthrown, or that his hearers should stop upholding the rights of others. He did suggest that in certain circumstances his followers would forgo their own rights.

    II. Grace

    This brings us to the principle of grace, which is intertwined with law in the biblical system of ethics. Grace is a willing forgoing of one's rights motivated by love and at one's own cost. Grace can never go against law, least of all can it act by forgoing the rights of others. Grace must always be at the cost of the gracious one and within the framework of law. If, for example, a righteous man sees an old woman being assaulted and robbed by a bandit, he cannot remain passively non-violent, which might be the right course if he were himself the victim. Law requires him to defend the old woman, if necessary injuring the assailant in the process. He can turn his own cheek, which is grace, but he cannot turn the old woman's cheek, which would be a failure to defend her rights. After the assailant has been arrested, law requires justice to be done by having him brought before a judge, who will pronounce a just sentence. Now the righteous man can exercise grace by paying some of the fine from his own pocket, or relieving the man's wife and family in their distress, or visiting him in jail and helping him to get re-established in a job. At no point does grace contradict the principle of law and rights.

    Jesus gives similar teaching in relation to enemies. According to law an enemy is recognized as an enemy, and there is the right of self-protection and recourse to the courts for justice. Grace however makes it possible to love the enemy and to yield to him if that will help him to come to a right mind. In the case of being asked for financial help, a Christian cannot give what is not his by law. Jesus did not suggest that he should hand over his employer's money, or even his wife's housekeeping money, nor was it his intention to recommend giving liquor to a drunk or a gun to a homicidal maniac. He did however expect grace to give whenever asked, but it would be at the giver's own cost and seeking the best interests of the one in need. In marriage matters the law of Moses provided for divorce in a regularized manner, and a Christian judge today must defend the right of divorce in prescribed situations. That is law. Jesus suggested, however, that divorce is a second-best 'for the hardness of people's hearts', and a true Christian may forgo his civil right to divorce. Grace makes him love his wife for better or for worse, even under extreme provocation. As Jesus explained, this grace in the life of a Christian is only a reflection of the perfect grace evident in the love of God.[2]

    This, then, seems to be the kind of conscience-resetting that Jesus intended in the Sermon on the Mount. He said little that was not said by Moses and the prophets before him, and he certainly did not contradict them. His 'But I say unto you' is not a contradiction of law, but a stating of the principles of love and grace. In actual fact love and grace are meaningless terms until we have first stated what rights are.

    Before leaving the subject of law and grace we should note the fallacy of a fashionable type of ethical teaching, which one might call 'Lovism'. It is argued in the chapter on ethics in Bishop Robinson's Honest to God. Instead of a conscience educated by God's law, he wants us to have love in a complete ethical vacuum. Whereas biblical love is clearly definable as a forgoing of rights at one's own cost, Bishop Robinson's Lovism has no standard except itself. Unless rights are defined, love is a meaningless term, since love must obviously do more than what is right or normal. If the principle of law as a means of educating the Christian's conscience is rejected, one wonders what little children will make of love as a guiding principle. Bishop Robinson wants them to learn to make 'the calculation of what is truly the most loving thing in this situation for every person involved'.[3]

    If a person's conscience has already been set by Christian teaching and environment, such a calculation is hard enough; but one has to imagine a whole generation of children brought up without any framework of rights and wrongs learned from the Bible, making a calculation which would require an omniscient social scientist to evaluate. Even if the calculation could be made, we know that human nature would quickly intervene to change the results. Rationalizing, or finding good reason for doing what one wants to do, is the child's earliest intellectual activity, and there is no evidence that this activity decreases with age. With 'only Lovism' as our standard of reference most of us would find reasons for calling indiscipline, or compromise, or lust, or dishonesty, by the name of love, merely because they appeared easier than love's stern demands. Lovism is particularly impotent in sexual matters, where true love and selfish love are so easily confused.

    Before leaving the ethical principles of law and grace, we should note their relationship to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Ahimsa, usually translated 'non-violence', actually means 'not harming'. It was first used by Mahavir and the Jains in the sixth century BC. It was applied and is still applied by the Jains in its strict sense of not harming any living thing, which is taken to include animal and insect life. A modern proponent of this type of ethics was the late Dr Albert Schweitzer, who interrupted building operations in his African hospital to avoid harming an ants' nest which was in the way of the foundations which were to be laid. This extreme vegetarianism was incorporated in some sects of Hinduism, but it is important to remember that India's warrior castes have never held this doctrine. For three thousand years devout Hindu soldiers have had no hesitation about killing men in war, and eating venison, mutton and poultry.

    Mahatma Gandhi took this Jain word Ahimsa, combined it with the ethical principles of grace in the Sermon on the Mount, and forged it into a powerful political weapon to force the British out of India. In the modern sense it might be defined as the non-violent use of force. It has been employed in South Africa, in the United States, by the British ban-the-bomb demonstrators, and in India itself by students against their university, and in bitter linguistic and political issues. It has proved eminently successful if a moral issue is involved, where justice is evidently on the side of the demonstrators, and the Government has a conscience. Though at Mahatma Gandhi's death most Indians felt that non-violence was the solution to all national and international problems, the wars against Goa, the Chinese invaders and Pakistan have discredited non-violence as a practical solution to most problems. It now seems obvious that Gandhi never thought through, or if he did think through he never expounded, the relationship of law to grace which is basic to a comprehensive system of ethics.

    III. The Holy Spirit

    We now turn to the third principle of Christian ethics, which is the work of the Holy Spirit. Whereas the ideas of law and conscience are found in all religions, and grace is approved as a virtue even it not explicitly taught, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as an ethical principle is found nowhere but in the Bible. Man is unable to do the good even when he knows it. By self-effort he can neither love God, nor love his neighbour, nor be joyful and peaceful in a troubled world. The fruits of the Spirit are not produced by struggle, but by abiding in the Vine. Just as the branch can do nothing of itself, but requires the sap from the tree to produce its fruit, so the man of God realizes that his goodness can come only from God who does in him what he could never do himself. Jesus's invitation is not 'Come to me and I will tell you to love everybody'. The drunkard, the prostitute, the weak-minded and hot-tempered, the man in the street, all know that they ought to be loving; their problem is that no amount of trying has helped them. The power of the gospel is that Jesus says 'Come to me and I will make you what you ought to be. As you abide in me and the Holy Spirit works in you, you will be changed and will produce fruit'. It is impossible for a branch on its own to produce anything, but if it rests in the tree, sap comes in, puts out shoots, forms the clusters and sweetens the grapes to perfection. On the one hand Christ makes impossible demands, but at the same time he also offers the power, or rather the Person, to come in and make the requirements possible. The nearest equivalent to this in any other religion is found in the hymns to the grace of God in the Bhakti poets of South India who, as we saw, come six centuries after Christ in areas where Christianity had already made converts.[4]

    IV. Fellowship

    Finally we must note the importance of the fellowship of disciples as an essential ingredient of Christian ethics. Many schools of Hinduism prescribe a discipline for a man to pursue alone, or under the instruction of a teacher. Islam gathers large numbers of men, not women, to pray in unison in her vast mosques. Buddhism gathers monks and nuns out of the world in its monasteries. Shintoism invites pilgrims to its shrines and provides clubs for its gentlemen warriors. Confucianism develops family life according to the ancient traditions. Only Christianity seriously calls men and women, rich and poor, masters and slaves, to an intimate fellowship together. Paul's teaching regarding the fellowship of the body of Christ makes it clear that no Christian can act alone, any more than a cell can serve any useful purpose apart from a body. Admittedly this aspect of Christian ethics has often been stifled by institutional Christianity, but it has kept reappearing often enough to indicate that it is an essential characteristic of Christian ethics. Christians cannot normally be saved, or safe, alone; they need each other now if they are to be together in the city of God for ever.

    Chapter 13...


    1. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17.

    2. See Matthew 5:48, which concludes the teaching on law and grace.

    3. Honest to God, p.119.

    4. See p.45.

    Chapter 13...