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ETHICS, as belonging to the sphere both of philosophy and of theology, is the science of the moral, and hence Christian ethics is the science of Christian morals. But the moral lies in the sphere of the freedom of rational creatures, as in contrast to mere nature-objects. Man, as a rational being, has the end of his life, not as one realizing itself in him spontaneously and with unconditional necessity, but, on the contrary, he has it primarily only ideally, in his rational consciousness, so that he cannot attain to it by a mere unconscious letting himself alone, but only by a personally and freely-willed life-activity; but also, for that very reason, he can fail of it by his own fault;— and the essence of this life-development of man, as relating to the realizing of his rational life-purpose, is the moral; that is, when normal, the morally-good, and when guiltily-perverted, the morally-evil.
So much merely preliminarily; the more complete demonstration can be given only further on. The sphere of freedom is that of the moral; whatever is moral is essentially free, and whatever is free is moral. There is, indeed, an immorally-14incurred unfreedom, but even this unfreedom is essentially different from the unfreedom of nature. He who, in contradiction to the Christian as well as to the universally-human consciousness, denies moral freedom in general, and places even man’s moral activity into the sphere of unconditional necessity, may indeed give a description of the seemingly-moral, but he cannot place upon man a moral requirement; in the presence of the “must” the “should” disappears. Such a denier would at least have to regard the contradictory and almost universal consciousness of freedom as also posited by unconditional necessity—thus surrendering all right to assail the same. We may therefore here preliminarily presuppose it as the utterance of the general human consciousness when not perverted by one-sided theories, that the moral lies neither in the sphere of cognition nor of natural necessity, but in the sphere of the freedom of the rational will. Where there is no freedom of will, there we speak neither of the morally-good nor of the morally-evil. Moral willing, however, is not of a blind, fortuitous, but of a rational, character; that is, it wills a rational something, something willed by God, and that too in a rational manner—or, indeed, it wills it not; but also this non-willing, that is, the morally-evil, relates, though negatively, to a rational end.
In the Scriptures, the ethical phase of Christian doctrine is designated as “the knowledge of God’s will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Col. i, 9); that is, of that which God “requires” of us (Deut. x, 12; comp. Phil. iv, 8). Of other definitions of ethics we will mention but the more important. Unquestionably all such are to be rejected as express merely an outward collection of single moral thoughts, as, e. g., “an ordered digest of rules by which man, and, more specifically, a Christian, is to shape his life;” this would not be a science, but only a collection of material for a science; moreover, rules are only one phase of the moral thought, for rules must have a basis, an end, and an inner logical unity, all of which lies outside of this definition. Many writers designate ethics as the description of a morally normal development. But, properly speaking, only that can be described which is real; not, however, that which simply ought, but is not necessitated, to become real. Even the describing of the person of Christ as the ideal of the moral, gives only a part of Christian ethics, inasmuch as Christ could 15not, in his actual life, represent all the phases of the moral. And besides, ethics has not merely to do with the morally-normal, but it has also to treat of sin and the contest with it as an actual power; and, moreover, it has not merely to describe, but also to prove and to establish.
The majority of theological moralists present at once the definition of Christian ethics; but this more restricted notion cannot be understood without the more comprehensive notion of ethics in general. The declaration (Harless and others) that ethics is the theoretical presentation of the Christianly-normal life-course, or the development-history of man as redeemed by Christ, is both too narrow and too broad at the same time: too narrow, inasmuch as ethics must unquestionably speak also of the non-normal life-course, and that, too, not merely incidentally and introductorily, but as of one of its essential elements; and too broad, because, in fact, many things belong to such a life-course which belong not to the sphere of the moral, but to the objective workings of divine grace upon the moral subject. Such a definition is rather that of the order of Christian salvation, which, however, is not wholly embraced in the notion of the moral. It is true, Christian ethics must take into consideration the workings of divine grace, but only, however, as its presupposition; the becoming seized upon by the influence of divine grace leads, indeed, to morality, but lies not itself in the, moral sphere. According to Schleiermacher, Christian ethics is “the presentation of communion with God as conditioned by communion with Christ, the Redeemer, in so far as this communion with God is the motive of all the actions of the Christian, or the description of that manner of action which springs from the domination of the Christianly-determined self-consciousness;”88 Christl. Sitte, pp. 32, 33. this, however, is two mutually complementing definitions, each of which expresses by itself only one phase of ethics.
As to the name applied to the science, the German expression “Sittenlehre,” usual since the time of Mosheim, is ambiguous, being capable of being understood as the doctrine of customs instead of the doctrine of the moral. The term ethics is the most ancient, as dating from Aristotle himself; ἦθος, radically related to ἔθος, from the root ἔζω, “to set” and “to sit,” signifies in Homer the seat, the dwelling-place, the home, and hence, at 16a later period, that which has become the fixed definite home of the spirit—that wherein the spirit feels itself at home as in its own peculiar element, and hence manner, primarily in the sense of habit; that is, a manner of action as having become second nature. In this sense the word ἤθη occurs also in the New Testament (1 Cor. xv, 33.) But the signification of the word advances, further, to that of the moral proper, as objective-grown custom, which presents itself to the individual with the authority of law; ἦθος is therefore a spiritual power to which the individual subordinates himself, as in contradistinction to the rude lawlessness of man as uncultured and savage, and which, in so far as it is no longer a power foreign and opposed to man, appears as character.99 Aristot., Eth. Nic., i, 13. The Romans used generally, for this idea, the term mores, and hence Cicero and Seneca speak of a philosophia moralis. In Germany this science was formerly called “Moral”—theologia s. philosophia moralis—and frequently also theologia s. philosophia practica. But after the word “Moral” had been appropriated by the advocates of deistic illuminism, and degraded into the most spiritless superficiality, the term became involved in such prejudicial associations that later writers preferred to avoid it, and resorted again to the German term used by Mosheim, or to the one originally used by Aristotle.
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