Christian moral principles


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This topic is about the theological debate over what is the source of moral principles for Christians. There are three main views:

Heteronomy. Moral authority comes from the combination of Church, Bible and reason. This is typically a Catholic view.

Theonomy. Moral authority comes from God, which we access through God’s revelation in the Bible. This often involves suggesting the Church has less authority than the Bible. This is typically a protestant view.

Autonomy. Individual people have to figure out for themselves what is right or wrong. E.g. situation ethics.


 Moral authority comes from the combination of Church, Bible and reason.

The apostolic succession

The apostolic succession is the basis on which the Catholic Church claims to be an authoritative source of Christian moral principles. The people who first spread Christianity, such as Jesus’ disciples and others like St Paul, are known as the apostles. Catholics argue that Christ began the apostolic tradition where he commanded his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” – thereby creating a social institution with a mission. He also said to the apostles ‘whoever hears you, hears me. Whoever rejects you, rejects me’. That gave them great authority. Jesus also told his disciple Peter to watch over his people. When Jesus said these words, the Bible did not yet exist. The teachings the disciples would give in the service of their mission must therefore have been what they had learned from Christ’s words, his way of life and the holy spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic church interprets this as Christ telling them to preach “what they had learned” from Jesus. Jesus thus gave the Church the authority to create its own teachings.

The apostles then left bishops as the successors to their own positions of teaching authority, creating an apostolic succession which is meant to continue until the end of time. The current Catholic Church is the latest iteration of that history. The apostles and their successors created teachings which were separate from the Bible, yet meant to help interpret and explain it for the laity. This created ‘sacred tradition’, distinct from sacred scripture ‘though closely connected to it’. Through tradition, the Church ‘transmits’ its own moral teaching. This is why the Catholic church thinks it has the right to create its own teachings in addition to the Bible and to interpret the Bible. It was what Jesus wanted.

Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are closely linked and both have the same source; God. Scripture is the word of God put in writing by the power of the Holy Spirit. Tradition transmits the word of God that Christ and the Holy Spirit have entrusted to the apostles which transmits to their successors (The Church) so they can preach it. Both scripture and Church must therefore be viewed with ‘equal sentiments of devotion and reverence’. The Magisterium of the Catholic Church claims that the Apostolic succession means it alone can interpret the word of God and that it is the servant of the word of God, teaching ‘only what has been handed on to it’.

The second Vatican council’s document Dei Verbum states that Sacred Scripture ‘is the word of God’ as it was written “under the inspiration of the divine spirit” and sacred Tradition “takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors” so that they can faithfully “preserve” and “explain” it.

“Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence”

“But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church … explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit.”

“It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”

The Catholic view of the Bible

links Biblical authority to the authority of the Church.

The second Vatican council’s document Dei Verbum states that the Bible is indeed written by humans but inspired by God via the Holy spirit such that it is “without error” and contains “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings”.

“In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.”

Sacred Scripture ‘is the word of God’ as it was written “under the inspiration of the divine spirit” and sacred Tradition “takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors” so that they can faithfully “preserve” and “explain” it.

The Catholic Church’s corrupt sale of indulgences. There have been many crimes perpetrated by the Church such as the paedophile priest scandals and allegiance with fascism, especially Hitler. Protestants suggest that the Church is therefore corrupt. They arguably don’t act like they are guided by the Holy Spirit.

The sale of indulgences was the policy of the Catholic Church to accept money in return for forgiveness of sins. Purgatory was an important part of this – if you gave the Church money, the priests would pray for your recently dead relative, claiming to get them out of purgatory faster. Luther claimed Purgatory was ‘fabricated by goblins’ and wrote a 95 thesis critique of the practice of the sale of indulgencies. Here are some of them:

  1. “preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity?
  2. “What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul’s own need, free it for pure love’s sake?”
  3. “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”

Ultimately, the invention of purgatory for use in the sale of indulgencies looks like the Church is abusing its power to invent false doctrines purely for the sake of making money. It  is corrupt.

Catholics would respond that of course the Church can sin because it is populated by human beings. Christ knew this yet still wanted them to be a source of moral authority. We can’t use human flaws as evidence that Jesus didn’t want humans to have this role.

Protestants could respond that the extent of their corruption is so great that they have betrayed and sacrificed their right to the authority Christ entrusted them with. Arguably the crimes of the Catholic Church go beyond normal human flaws. Jesus entrusted flawed humans with the role of forming a Church, but if the Church went beyond normal human flaws then they are going beyond Jesus’ expectations.

But what human has the right to decide to end something Jesus started?

Arguably Jesus never wanted the Church to have equal authority to the Bible. This depends on the interpretation of Jesus’ words regarding the mission he gave his disciples.

Issues around the role of reason in ethics 

The Catholic Church follows Natural theology, including Natural Law ethics, such as Aquinas’ natural law theory; the view that humans can use their God given reason to figure out God’s ethical precepts. This is part of the ‘reason’ element of heteronomy. However, protestants like Luther, Calvin and Barth, reject natural theology and natural law with it, because they claim that human reason was corrupted by the fall and thus is not able to be a source for Christian moral principles.

Aquinas’ natural theology

Aquinas believed that human reason could never know or understand God. However, Aquinas is a proponent of natural theology through reason which he claimed could support faith in God. Human reason can gain knowledge of:

  • God’s existence: through the teleological (design) and cosmological arguments.
  • God’s natural moral law through the ability of human reason to know the synderesis rule and primary precepts.
  • God’s nature by analogy, through the analogies of attribution and proportion.

Aquinas thought that reason could not provide an absolute proof that God existed, since that would make faith and revelation useless. This is why he rejected the deductive ontological argument but accepted and formulated teleological and cosmological arguments which are only inductive evidence for the Christian God, not conclusive proofs, which therefore support faith in God. 

Karl Barth argued that Aquinas’ natural law theory was a false natural theology which placed a dangerous overreliance on human reason. Barth argued that if humans were able to know God or God’s morality through their own efforts, then revelation would be unnecessary. Yet, God clearly thought revelation necessary as he sent Jesus.

Barth also argued that “the finite has no capacity for the infinite”; our finite minds cannot grasp God’s infinite being. Whatever humans discover through reason is therefore not divine so to think it is must then amount to idolatry – the worship of earthly things. Barth argued idolatry can lead to worship of nations and then even to movements like the Nazis. It follows for Barth that after the corruption of the fall, human reason cannot reach God or figure out right and wrong by itself. Only faith in God’s revelation in the bible is valid.

In defence of Aquinas, he is not suggesting that our finite minds can understand God’s nature or goodness (eternal law). Aquinas is only suggesting that reason can understand the natural law God created within our nature and that some necessary being or uncaused cause exists. If reason only has this goal of supporting faith in such ways, then it cannot make revealed theology unnecessary.

Tillich defends Aquinas to a degree, arguing that Barth was too negative in denying the possibility of reason discovering anything whatsoever of the natural law.

“there is self-deception in every denial of the natural moral law … The very statement that man is estranged from his created nature presupposes an experience of the abyss between what he essentially is and what is existentially is. Even a weak or misled conscience is still a conscience, namely, the silent voice of man’s own essential nature, judging his actual being” – Tillich.

To deny that our conscience can discover the natural law is to claim that there is a gap between what we currently are and what we could be. Yet, to have an awareness of that gap is to have a conscience that is aware of its fallen state. So it is contradictory to deny the natural law. Even it now involves a weakened conscience, that still tells us at least something of the direction we have fallen in and the direction back towards righteousness.

However, whatever a weak and misled conscience discovers is surely not God’s morality. Humanity believing it has the ability to know anything of God is the same arrogance that caused Adam and Eve to disobey God. Humanity believing that it has the power to figure out right and wrong is what led to the arrogant certainty of the Nazis in their own superiority. The arrogance of natural theology is evidence of a human inability to be humble enough to simply have faith.


Moral authority comes from God, usually sourced from his revelation in the Bible. Both religion and ethics have a shared source; God. This often involves suggesting the Church has no authority since God’s commands can be found in the Bible.

Sola Scriptura

Sola Scriptura is a form of theonomy involving Christians who think the bible alone is the source of Christian moral principles, not the Church. This is typically a protestant view since Luther thought the Catholic Church was corrupt and had deviated from God’s revelation in the Bible for their own political earthly agenda. It follows that a return to the Bible was the method for placing God at the centre of religion and ethics again. The role of the Church for protestant reformers was merely to preach the Bible. The Church may interpret the Bible, but they should be considered subject to correction by the Bible. This is radically different to the catholic view of the equal validity of sacred tradition to sacred scripture.

“A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it”. – Luther.

The priesthood of all believers is the doctrine developed by Luther that all people have the status of priest. The aim of this is to counteract the Catholic view, that priests have a special spiritual status which sets them apart from laypeople and gives them an important role in their salvation, acting as a mediator between the people and God. This again lessens the role, value and authority of the Church.

1 Timothy 2:5 says that Jesus is the only mediator between God and humanity.

The Bible is thought to derive its authority from its discernible excellence as a text and the religious experience of the holy spirits’ engagement with the human soul through it. Jesus said “the Holy Spirit, whom the father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” John 14:26-27. The Bible says that ‘Ru-ach’ – God’s breath, was breathed into the authors of the bible – directly inspiring them.

Sola scriptura is not in the Bible. These quotes suggest that the Bible should be a source of Christian moral principles, but they do not claim it is the only source nor speak against other sources. It is self-contradictory to believe that all religious knowledge should come from sola scriptura when sola scriptura itself cannot be derived from scripture.

The books in the New Testament (biblical canon) were not decided on until the 4th century by Catholic clergy. This suggests that the Bible should not be the only source since it grew out of the church and therefore if it is authoritative, the Church is also. It also seems strange for the protestants to trust those Catholics in their choice of what to include in the Bible.

Protestants could respond that the holy spirit influenced the creation and choosing of the Bible, thus ensuring its validity.

Jesus said “the Holy Spirit, whom the father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” John 14:26-27.

But they only know Jesus said that because the catholic Church decided to put that part in the Bible!

Furthermore, Catholics also argue that the holy spirit guides their magisterium too.


Individual people have to figure out for themselves what is right or wrong.

Fletcher rejects heteronomy as a form of legalism which don’t take situations into account. Fletcher proposes an Autonomous form of Christian ethics focused on Agape; is the principle of Christian selfless love. The importance of Agape in Christianity for Fletcher is drawn from Jesus saying that the ‘greatest commandment’ is to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.

William Barclay thought situation ethics had some validity but didn’t agree with it fully. He argues that situation ethics gives moral agents a dangerous amount of freedom. For freedom to be good, love has to be perfect. If there is no or not enough love then ‘freedom can become selfishness and even cruelty’. If everyone was a saint, then situation ethics would be perfect. John A T Robinson called situation ethics ‘the only ethic for man come of age’ – but Barclay argues mankind has not yet come of age and so ‘still needs the crutch and protection of law’.

Fletcher and Robinson would respond (influenced by Bonhoeffer) that humanity has ‘come of age’, however. This means that humanity has become more mature. In medieval and ancient time, when humanity had not come of age, people in general were less educated and less self-controlling. This meant that they needed fixed ridged clear rules to follow, because they could not be trusted to understand and act on the nuances and complexities in how a rule could justifiably be bent or broken if the situation called for it. However, now people are more civilised, to the point that granting them more autonomy will increase love without risking the stability of society.

Barclay disagrees however, and thinks that although people might appear improved, if granted the freedom (and thus power) to do what they want, they won’t choose the loving thing they will choose the selfish or even the cruel thing. This is essentially the classic argument that power corrupts. It also echoes the debate about the extent to which human nature is corrupt, such as by original sin. Also relevant is psychology like the Stanford prison experiment and literature like lord of the flies. It is a well-known feature of human psychology that power is corrupting. The freedom to decide what is good or bad without external supervision of legalistic laws grants humans more power and thereby corrupts them.

Fletcher vs sola scriptura

Fletcher faces criticism from traditional Christian ethics that his theory cannot be considered properly Christian, since it seems to only follow the command to love, ignoring most of the teachings in the Bible. For example, Protestants, following Luther, believe that in ethical judgement we should only follow the Bible’s teachings, a view they called ‘sola scriptura’ meaning the ‘Bible alone’ is the source of moral authority, not the autonomous individual deciding the demands of agape in their situation.

Fletcher responds with his liberal view of the Bible. Fletcher argued that traditional views of Biblical inspiration face a dilemma of two possible approaches, each with serious downsides. Option one is to view the Bible as needing interpretation, from which rises the issue of the impossibility of deciding whose interpretation is correct. Fletcher illustrates this with the competing interpretations different theologians have made of the Sermon on the mount.

Option two is to take the Bible literally, an even worse solution, because the “headache” of interpreting what the bible meant is far less trouble compared to trying to live as a literalist. Fletcher gives the example of ‘do not resist one who is evil’ as an example.

Fletcher concludes that the Bible should not be thought of as a legalistic ‘rules book’ and that ethical teachings like even those of the sermon on the mount at most offer us ‘some paradigms or suggestions’. This makes Fletcher’s approach to the Bible an example of the liberal view of inspiration; that the Bible is not the perfect word of God. So, although the Bible states that many things (e.g. killing, homosexuality and adultery) are wrong, Fletcher doesn’t think a Christian should view those as unbreakable rules. Whatever maximises agape is allowed, no matter the action.

Extra credit:

J. S. Mill on the Catholic Church, sola scriptura, the distinctness of Christian morality and Agape

Mill argued that neither Jesus nor the Apostles intended the New Testament to be a complete system of morals, as it always refers to the pre-existing morality of the Old Testament and is often about the correction or superseding of that morality. Mill points out that St Paul thought Christian morals should accommodate Greek and Roman morals. This suggests the ‘sola scriptura’ protestant idea is actually against the ideals of Christ and the Apostle Paul.

Mill also argues that the New Testament morals are expressed in very general terms which are often impossible to be interpreted literally and lack the precision of legislation, making them more like poetry and therefore requiring interpretation. The Old Testament has a precise elaborate system but is barbarous and ‘intended only for a barbarous people’.

Mill argues that what is called Christian morality in the 19th century was really built up by the Catholic Church during the first 5 centuries, and although protestants reversed Catholic influence somewhat, Mill points out that was only really by cutting off the Catholic additions made during the middle ages, not those made by the early Church.

Mill also makes arguments against the validity of Christian morality to show that it requires the improving influence of other ethical systems.

Mill argues that Christian morality is mainly a reaction to paganism and is therefore about ‘abstinence from evil, rather than energetic pursuit of good’ as can be seen by how often ‘thou shalt not’ predominates unduly over ‘thou shalt’.

Mill claims that Christianity holds out the hope of heaven and the threat of hell as the appropriate motives for a virtuous life, giving to human morality an ‘essentially selfish’ character and is a less successful morality than the ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle or Romans like Marcus Aurelius who teach the importance of being virtuous.

He claims Christian morality is a doctrine of ‘passive obedience’ which makes people submissive to authority, making them more likely to endure mistreatment. If people learn to be virtuous, it is in spite of rather than because of their education in Christianity.

Mill claims these faults are not essential to Christian ethics and are largely the fault of the Church.

For Mill Christian ethics are not distinctive, but should exist in relation to other ethical systems just as it used to with Jewish, Greek and Roman ethics, before the more modern version of Christianity started to proclaim it was the only source of ethics. Then these faults would be fixed.

“a large portion of the noblest and most valuable moral teaching has been the work, not only of men who did not know, but of men who knew and rejected, the Christian faith”. – Mill.

Mill therefore makes similar criticisms to protestants of the Catholic Church but argues that the ‘sola scriptura’ approach of Protestantism doesn’t go far enough and we need to regard Christian ethics not as distinctive but merely one among many. That will solve the problems Christian morality has, for Mill. This is a very different solution than Fletcher’s proposal of relativizing Christian moral principles to Agape. If Mill’s suggested problems for Christian ethics are correct – heaven and hell as selfish motivations, the ‘passive obedience’ and its implications and the claim that Christian morals is about avoiding evil rather than pursuing good – then Fletcher would have to be able to respond to them in order to justify his solution and retain the distinctness of Christian morals.

Possible exam questions for Christian moral principles

Is the principle of love sufficient to live a good life?
Is the Bible a comprehensive moral guide?
‘Christian ethics should combine the Bible, Church and reason’ – How far do you agree?

Does the Bible reveal God’s will?
What is the implication for Christian ethics of Jesus’ command to love?
Critically compare the view of the Bible having the only authority with it having equal authority to Church teachings.

Is Christian ethics distinctive?
Are Christian ethics personal or communal?
“The Bible reveals God’s will, so only biblical ethical commands must be followed” – Discuss.
“Jesus’ only command was to love” – Discuss.
“Human reason must work with the bible and Church teaching, not only in applying agape” – Discuss.

Quick links

Year 12 Christianity topics:
Augustine. Death & afterlife.
Knowledge of God’s existence. Person of Jesus.
Christian moral principles. Christian moral action.

Year 13 Christianity topics:
Pluralism & theology. Pluralism & society.

Gender & society. Gender & theology.
Secularism. Liberation theology. 

OCR Ethics
OCR Philosophy
OCR essay structure
OCR list of possible exam questions