« Prev Section XXIX. Christian Ethics. Next »


In Christianity alone morality and ethics are enabled to reach their perfection,—the former being perfected in the person of Christ himself, the latter being in process of self-perfection in the progressive intellectual activity of the church.—The subjective and the objective grounds of morality are given, in Christianity, in full sufficiency. On the one hand, the moral subject has attained to a fill consciousness of sin, of its general sway, of its historical significancy, and of its guilt; on the other, he has, by redemption, become free from his bondage under sin. and risen again to moral freedom,—has again attained to the possibility of accomplishing his moral task. On the one hand, the objective ground of the moral—God—is now for the first, perfectly, personally and historically revealed to man, and God’s will not merely manifested in unclouded clearness in his Word and through the historical appearance of the Redeemer himself, but also, by the holy, divine Spirit as imparted to the redeemed, written into their hearts; on the other, this God stands no longer in violent antithesis 174to the sin-estranged creature, but is in Christ reconciled with him, and, as a graciously loving Father, is present to him and in constant sanctifying and strengthening life-communion with him.

The goal of morality has become an other,—has risen from the state of hope to a constantly-growing reality. God-sonship is not placed simply at the remote termination of the moral career, but is from the very beginning already present; the Christian strives not merely in moral aspiration toward it, but lives and acts in it and as inspired by it; he cannot possibly live or act morally if he is not already God’s child; he has his goal already from the very beginning as a blessed reality, and his further goal is in fact simply fidelity in this God-sonship,—a sinking deeper into it, a strengthening and purifying of it by a constantly greater triumphing over the sinfiul nature which yet clings to the Christian, namely, the “flesh” which lusts against the spirit; and for collective humanity the moral goal is and has been realizing itself from the beginning in ever increasing fullness, namely, in the fact that all nation-separating barriers progressively fall away, and that the Word of life increasingly assumes form in the God-fearing of all nationalities,—constituting the kingdom of God in its gradual rising to full historical reality in a universal Christian church.

The essence of morality has risen from the stage of the obedience of a faithful servant to that of the loving, confiding freedom of the children of God. Man has the command no longer as a merely outward, purely objective one, uncongenial to his subjective nature, but as an inward one dwelling within him, and as become his personal possession, and hence as 175no longer a yoke, a burden, but as an inner power at one with his personality itself. Man lives and acts no longer as a mere individual subject, but he lives and acts in full life-communion with the Redeemer, and through him with God,—by virtue, on the one hand, of the love of faith, and, on the other, of the gift of the Spirit: I live, and yet not I, but Christ lives in me. Tile moral idea is not a mere revealed Word, it is the Son of God as become man, the personal Redeeter himself, not merely in his truth-unvailing doctrine, not merely in his truth-revealing Spirit, but pre-eminently in his person itself, both as the historical, pure example of all holiness, as also as the One who is with us always even to the end of the world.—Love to that God who is manifested in redemption as himself the highest love, is the motive of the moral life—its essence and its power; it is a life of holy communion in every respect,—a life in and with God, a life with the children of God and in the communion of the redeemed.—The morality of hope has passed over into a morality of the joyous victory-consciousness,—is rather an actual manifestation of the already-attained, grace-awarded highest good, than a mere longing, aspiring after it. The ideal goal of morality is not in the least of a doubtful character, but is absolutely assured. While the fundamental feeling of the heathen virtue-sage is that of a proud self-consciousness of personal merit, the fundamental feeling of the Christian is the feeling of grace-accepting, thankful, loving humility; while the fundamental virtue of the Greeks is self-acquired wisdom, that of Christian morality is child-like faith in God’s loving revelation both in Word and in historical act.


There is no need here of detailed developments or proofs; we desire simply to present the ground-character of Christian ethics as in contrast to heathen ethics. This much is clear from what we have already said, that morality must assume here an entirely other form than in heathendom, and even in many respects a different one from that in the Old Testament. No heathen ethical system looks to the formation of aI kingdom of God embracing all mankind; the freedom of the will is either denied or restricted to a very few favored ones, and with these it is regarded as unaffected by the historical power of sin; heathenism knows nothing of personal love to God as a moral motive, and of the personal love of God to all men as its antecedent condition. Christianity takes it just as earnestly with the reality, the power and the guilt of sin, as with the real, historical, overcoming of the same through Christ. Man, as not from nature free, but as become free by historical redemption-act and by the personal appropriation of the same, is the true subject, capable of all true morality; and hence the realization of this morality depends no longer on a mere nature-conditionment, but solely on man’s free self-determination for or against his redemption. That which is presumptuously presupposed by the Greek philosophers as already possessed by the elect few who are capable of true morality, namely, true will-freedom and a personal moral consciousness springing from the inner essence of the soul, all this has attained to its full truth only. in Christianity, namely, in that the false security of a merely natural freedom and power is overcome and remedied. Both freedom and power are procured for all who wish them, and that not by self-deception, but by a real moral redemption-act of the alone holy One.

That the highest good is not a something to be attained to exclusively by moral action, but, on the contrary, in its essence a power graciously conferred on the willing heart, a power which has true morality simply as its fruit and subjective perfection, and which manifests this morality essentially as faithfulness, as a preserving and virtualizing of the received grace,—this is a thought utterly foreign to all heathendom, and which is placed, even in the Old Testament, only in the promised future; and upon this thought, 177as upon the consciousness of personal guilt and divine grace, rests the so distinctively Christian virtue of humility, as that of a pardoned sinner. There is scarcely anywhere to be found so violent an ethical antithesis as that between the high-esteemed virtue of magnanimity in Aristotle (which corresponds to the pride of the Pharisee in the parable of Christ,) and the Christian humility of that Publican who ventures no other prayer than this: “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Such magnanimity appears to the Christian as mere self-blinding pride, while this humility appears to the Greek as servile-mindedness.

Heathen ethics is always simply of a purely individual character, or, if it relates to a moral community-life, then only of a merely civil character, as consisting in obedience to laws purely human, and valid only for a particular people; or where, as in China, the state is regarded as of divine origin and essence, there individual morality becomes essentially a mere mechanical self-conforming to an eternally on-revolving unspiritual world-order; Christian morality is, on the contrary, never of a merely individual character, but absolutely and always an expression of moral communion—on the one hand, with the personal Saviour and God, and, on the other, with the Christian society; its essential nature is therefore love in the fullest sense. of the word, and it is never of a merely civil character but belongs to a purely moral community-life,—a life that rests in no respect on nature-limits or on unfreedom,—namely, that of the Church as the historical kingdom of God.— In contradistinction to worldward-turned heathenism, Christians make the foundation and essence of all moral life to consist in the constant direction of the heart to God; and especially in prayer—(which, as exalted by the communion of devotion, becomes the principal phase of the entire religious life, and conditions and preserves a direct personal life-communion with God)—the entire moral life shapes itself into an expression of the religious consciousness as certain of its reconciliation with God. The Christian stands not alone in his moral life, nor is he merely a member of a moral society, but he stands in constant vital personal life-communion with God, and derives therefrom constantly new moral power. And precisely because Christian morality 178is not of a merely individual character, but is rooted in and grows out of the holiest of communions, is it truly free; the law stands no longer simply over against man, so that his relation to it becomes one of mere service, but, as in contrast to the self-sufficiency of the heathen mind (which finds in the natural man the pure fountain of the moral consciousness), it has become a perfectly inward personal law, one that constantly generates itself anew out of the sanctified heart of the spiritually regenerated.

But prayer, wherein man enters into communion with God, is, as also the example of the ancient church shows, essentially intercession,—implies moral communion. The development of morality into a collective life of the moral society,—into a collective morality,—is an essentially new phenomenon. Heathendom knew indeed the indefinite and merely impersonal, abstract power of national custom, as well as the very definite but unfree-working power of the civil law and of political rulers, but it knew nothing of a free moral power of the truly moral community. The Christian community itself is the clearly duty-conscious upholder, promoter and conservator of the morality of the individuals; it has the duty of the moral overseeing, furthering and guiding of all its members, and hence also of moral discipline, and, as involved in this, also the power of inflicting moral discipline upon the unfaithful,—consisting essentially in the withdrawing of communion with them, in the excluding of them from the moral whole as being non-tolerant of any immoral element. The community-life is of so purely moral, so intensely unitary, a character, that the unfaithfulness of a single member thrills through the moral whole, and, because of the intimate love of the whole for all the individuals, is painfully felt and reproved and rejected by the society. The totality stands surety for the morality of the individual, and the individual for that of totality; the moral life of the spiritual organism has attained to its truth. The thought of church-discipline,—which raises morality-above the sphere of mere individuality, without, however, giving to the community-life the power of outward coercion, such as that of the state, but on the contrary preserves and gives effect to this life as a purely spiritual power,—is an essentially Christian thought, and is only there practical where the moral idea 179and its realization in the community-life are taken really in earnest.

In the emancipation of the human spirit by redemption, in the taking up of the moral idea into the inner heart of the consciousness, there lie, now, the possibility of, and the incentive to, a scientific development of the moral consciousness. Heathendom developed an ethical science only on the basis of a presumed freedom and autonomy of the spirit of the natural man; the Old Testament religion developed none at all, because in it the divine law was as yet an absolutely objective and merely passively-given one, to which man could stand only in an obeying relation. But Christianity regains for the human spirit its true freedom,—makes the merely objective law into an also perfectly subjective one, into one that lives in the heart of the regenerated as his real property, one that enlightens the reason and becomes thereby truly rational; and hence there is here given the possibility of shaping this pure moral subject-matter as embraced in the divinely enlightened conscience, into free scientific self-development. But Christian ethics, naturally enough, developed itself as a science only after its presuppositions, namely, the dogmatical questions in regard to God, to Christ and to man had attained to some degree of ripeness in the dogmatic consciousness of the church, and hence it appears for a long while predominantly only in closest involution with dogmatics, and in popular ecclesiastical instruction in the form of rules and exhortations, and in part also in ecclesiastically-defined life-regulations enforced by ecclesiastical discipline. The notion that the ancient church could and should have passed over the great dogmatic questions and devoted itself primarily and predominantly, or in fact exclusively, to the development of a system of morals as the essence proper of Christianity, is very erroneous. If we once perceive and admit that the Christian world-theory in general, in respect to God, to the creature, and especially to the nature of man, is of a character diametrically opposed to the heathen view, and if we admit that morality cannot be of an unconscious and merely instinctive character, but must rest on a rational consciousness, then it is perfectly clear that the consciousness must first be scientifically informed in regard to the reality of existence, before that the consciousness of that which, in virtue of the character of 180this reality, becomes moral duty, can be further developed The religious consciousness of the moral was indeed given in high perfection in the first form of Christianity, but the scientific development of the moral could realize itself only very gradually and subsequently to the development of dogmatics.

The three natural chief epochs of church history constitute also those of the history of Christian ethics.

« Prev Section XXIX. Christian Ethics. Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |