Thoughts on Ethics and Morals
Installment 18 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine.(Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)
Questions pertaining to ethics and morals have arisen with increasing frequency in public discussion. As I write this, on the radio there is a discussion on helping refugees. One discussion participant refers to his ethical and moral duty in defending his potential acts of civil disobedience. In the news it tells how in one legislative issue members of parliament are given freedom to vote according to their conscience.
In everyday life, we constantly make choices. Often we do not need to ponder very deeply the reasons for making these choices. Sometimes, however, we encounter questions that give us cause to pause and think how to act correctly in this situation and what to base my decision on.
In this article, I will consider the relationship between faith and morals. An ethical dimension is an integral part of all religions. There are, however, many non-religious people in the world whose actions appear good and right. I will ponder the origins of morality, how it manifests itself and its significance in human life. I will examine these issues from the perspective of faith that is personal, biblical and based on the Lutheran Church’s confessional writings.
Morals and Ethics
The word moral is derived from the Latin word mores which means established habits or patterns of behavior. Morals mean distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong and actions based on these, which are reflected in an individual’s decisions and choices. Only humans have the ability to distinguish between good and evil. Throughout time it has been recognized that the problem is not so much distinguishing between good and evil or right and wrong but the fact that a person does not do what he or she knows to be right and good. Even the Apostle Paul had to state, “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Rom. 7:19).
The word ethics comes from the Greek word ethos meaning “habit” or “manner.” Ethics is understood to be the philosophy of morality. As such, it is an examination of morals that considers, for example, a good life and how to attain it. In everyday language, morals and ethics are often used as synonyms.
Ethical questions can be approached from several perspectives. Theological ethics is based on human’s relationship with God and the influence of the relationship with God on human relationships. It is thought that people are accountable to God for their choices. Philosophical ethics considers e.g. how the concept of good should be defined. Ethics can also be divided into personal ethics and social ethics. These perspectives are often intertwined and in some cases may also contradict one another.
Morals includes an idea of what is good and worth pursuing. Things that are considered good are called values. They are goals and aspirations that are strived for. Values include e.g. happiness, justice and gender equality. Some things are pursued for their own sake, while others are a means to achieve some other value. For example money can be a means in the pursuit of happiness.
In addition to values, morals contain rules, or norms. They help put values into practice by providing guidance for different situations. A norm that forbids killing a person protects life and human dignity. Norms can be commands, suggestions or prohibitions. Customs and habits represent unwritten norms, while laws and rules of procedure represent written norms.
People are moral actors who acknowledge responsibility for their actions. As Christians we think that God has created humans in His own image to know the difference between good and evil.
Doing the right thing, i.e. moral good is a broader issue than obeying laws and rules. Some matter or action can be considered wrong even if it is not prohibited by law. Many in a position of power have had to take responsibility for their actions and resign from their duties even if they have not broken the law. There may also be situations in which society’s rules and laws are contrary to biblical faith and guide one to sin. In such a case a Christian obeys God rather than people (Acts 5:29; Augsburg Confession, article XVIII).
Moral decisions are influenced by e.g. knowledge, emotions and will. Which of these is emphasized in a person’s decisions depends on a person’s background, upbringing and worldview. Ethical ideals often emphasize empathy, i.e. the ability to place oneself in another’s situation. Sometimes, however, a person may put his or her own perceptions above others’ views and judge their actions based on one’s own perceptions. This is called moralism. Dual moralism meanwhile means that one presents an image of being better than one is or that one does things that he or she disapproves of in others.
Distinguishing right from wrong is not always simple. Sometimes one must choose between bad options and choose the lesser evil.
The Basics of Doing the Right Thing
Morals are part of humanity. Pursuing good and doing the right thing are an inseparable part of being human. We expect good of others and we assume we will be treated fairly and that we will be told the truth. We make selfless choices e.g. on behalf of our children. It would be impossible to deal with a person who functions outside that which is moral. Good morals on the other hand drive one to take responsibility and lays the foundation for social interaction.
Christians think that the origin of morals is in God’s actions. It is part of God’s world dominion. Lutheran ethics represents the so-called natural law tradition in ethics, according to which the commandment of faith and love is written in each person’s heart (Rom. 2:14–16). According to this the ethical guidelines of the Bible are based on the natural law and are its interpretations. The Ten Commandments, the Dual Commandment of Love and the Golden Rule summarize the demands of the natural law to be applied at all times.
The demands of natural law apply equally to all people. Even though different cultures have different understandings of morals, people agree on many things. Harming the innocent and stealing another’s belongings are considered wrong everywhere, whereas kind and merciful treatment of others is valued. On the other hand, different cultures and communities have starkly different perceptions of a good life. A person who is aware of the reasons for the way he or she thinks is able to discuss his or her views, defend them and, if necessary, critically evaluate them.
Regardless of one’s worldview it is thought that the conscience is a person’s inner voice, an inner ability to determine right and wrong. Its functions are evident when a person is remorseful over his or her actions or refrains from doing something because he or she considers it wrong. It is a generally accepted notion that all people have a conscience and each person has the right to act according to his or her conscience. This is also expressed in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience, and they are to act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (Article 1). According to the Declaration, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (Article 18).
As a Lutheran Christian, I think that conscience is not just the result of environment and upbringing. Its foundation is in the influence of the natural law, in the fact that God has written His law in the hearts of all people. Due to this, all people in their innermost are aware of what is good and what is evil (Rom. 2:15). After the fall into sin, however, the conscience no longer provides completely certain knowledge of God’s will. A fallen one may consider permissible something that God has forbidden, or forbidden that which God has allowed (Rom. 14:1). The Bible is the only guide from which we can learn to know God’s will. It is necessary for us to learn His will in the hearing of the Word in God’s congregation. A conscience that functions properly is cared for by God’s Word and enlightened by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 9:1).
The Finnish word omatunto (conscience) emphasizes a person’s own understanding of right and wrong. In Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament, the functioning of the conscience was described by speaking of the heart (e.g. 1 Sam. 24:5,6). In Greek, the original language of the New Testament, the word syneidesis was used for the conscience; this word literally means knowing something together with someone else. This same connotation is present in the Latin conscientia, English conscience and Swedish samvete. Christian tradition has interpreted this as knowing together with God. A person’s own thought or experience of innocence and being right is not a sufficient and sustainable basis for life. Apostle Paul stated that he knew of nothing on his conscience, but that that did not make him innocent; rather, the Lord is his judge (1 Cor. 4:4).
The conscience is functioning when it warns of wrong or unjust actions. The human mind often tries in different ways to silence the voice of the conscience, but this is a bad path to follow. If a person continuously acts against the conscience, its voice weakens and eventually becomes silent. The Reformer Martin Luther stated well-known words at the Council of Worms in 1521, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. So help me God.” The conscience can harden, but on the other hand it can also become too sensitive. Then a person takes on a burden that is not his or her fault or about which he or she can do nothing.
The functioning of a healthy conscience includes feeling guilt and remorse. At times it is asked whether the ability to deal with feelings of guilt, confront distress and feel remorse has been lost in the lives of modern people. What must one do when the conscience accuses?
The conscience cannot forgive anyone’s sins. The gospel of Christ that cleanses one from sin must be heard in God’s congregation. Hearing the gospel gives birth to faith in the atonement of Christ and it gives the conscience true peace (Heb. 10:22).
Morals in the Old Testament
Christian ethics’ values and life instructions arise from the Bible. The Christian understanding of morals is based on the creation narratives, according to which God created humans in His own image. Only humans can hear God’s voice and be in connection with their Creator (Christian Doctrine, item 15). Humans are accountable to God for how they use the abilities and skills they have received. The command to cultivate and protect means that humans are considered God’s coworkers. Humans’ job is to act in creation’s best interest such that they do not subjugate or ruthlessly exploit anyone or anything. On the basis of creation work, each person has human value. He or she as the image of God is irreplaceable and unique. According to Christian faith, being human includes respecting the image of God both in others as well as in oneself.
Most of the moral teaching of the Old Testament is contained in its first five books, which we know as the books of Moses. Jews use the name Torah for this collection of books. In addition to ethical instruction, it contains regulations on purity and sacrifice. In Christianity, the Old Testament is read from the perspective of the New Testament. According to Christian understanding, Jesus has atoned for the sins of all in His sacrificial death, and therefore God does not need to be appeased with sacrifices or by following purification regulations. Nonetheless, the law of the Ten Commandments, i.e. the Decalogue, also applies to Christians.
The people of Israel did not receive a new collection of moral norms in the tablets of the Decalogue (i.e. Ten Commandments). God merely clarified that natural law that the first person knew in his heart. The first three commandments in the Decalogue address the relationship between human and God. The other commandments speak of one’s relationship with other people. The commandments summarize in an excellent way the content of natural law. In them are fulfilled love and what is good for one’s neighbor. For this reason Martin Luther called the Ten Commandments “the law of the whole world.” The validity of the Decalogue is recognized even outside Christendom.
There is also important ethical material in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. God instructed many prophets to warn those in power in their time about e.g. greed, deception and injustice toward the disadvantaged. The prophets condemned hypocrisy. Sacrifices and piety cannot replace doing good for one’s neighbor (Isa. 1:15–17).
Jesus’ Ethical Teaching
Jesus was a Jew and the basis of His instruction was Jewish law. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) can be considered a summary of the central teachings of Christian ethics. In this sermon, Jesus interpreted the Law of Moses. He actually emphasized the demands of the law by repeating, “Ye have heard…but I say unto you.” Jesus’ instruction contained the principle that that which is morally significant is not a mere act. Proper compliance with the law also requires that the act includes the right attitude and motive. Jesus’ instruction emphasized the principle of reciprocity. It culminates in an exhortation called the Golden Rule: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matt. 7:12).
The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount reveal the nature and ideals of God’s kingdom: righteousness, peace, joy, love, justice, reconciliation, moderation, truth and faithfulness as well as the thought that one need not worry too much. Jesus himself served as an ethical role model when He defended the oppressed and marginalized. His motive was a love for His neighbor that is unfathomable to human reason. Jesus demanded people to love even their enemies and evildoers in addition to their friends and benefactors.
The law and the proclamation of the prophets are encapsulated in the Great Commandment, the dual commandment of love that Jesus taught: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 22:36–40). This instruction expresses the Christian view of a person’s place in the world. One always functions before the face of God and is accountable to Him for one’s actions. One cannot escape or deny one’s moral responsibility. Jesus’ ethical teaching was also fulfilled when He healed the sick and conversed with societal outcasts as well as in the parables He told. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan is an answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25–37).
Ethics of New Testament Letters
The New Testament letters address moral issues in addition to Christian faith. For example, they ponder how to function in the world and what is our relationship with authorities (Rom. 13:1–7). The letters also provide advice for spouses, children and parents in homelife as well as at work and in free time. Paul also indicated that love for one’s neighbor is the core concept of Christian ethics (Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14).
The first letter to the Corinthians has been called Paul’s ethical letter. In that letter he addressed many problems in personal life and the congregation. The best-known portion of the letter is probably chapter 13, which discusses love. Other well-known and oft-quoted portions concern sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5; 6:18–20) and the position of women in the congregation (1 Cor. 14:34,35). In recent decades the question has been posed whether these viewpoints of Paul were based on cultural mores of his time or on God’s revelation that binds Christians at all times. This discussion is part of a broader development that began in the 1970s of questioning the Bible’s theological authority.
There is moral instruction in other New Testament letters as well. For example, the current Finnish Bible the first section of the last chapter of Hebrews is labeled, “Living according to the will of God.” The writer gives the congregation four important exhortations for faith and life: he exhorts unto brotherly love and hospitality, to remember prisoners and the mistreated, to honor marriage and to guard against greed (Heb. 13:1–5). Apostle James emphasized, as Paul did, the importance of love for one’s neighbor. He reminded that it is not selective nor discriminatory (James 2:1–17).
Characteristics of Lutheran Ethics
A study published by the Church Research Institute [of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland] in 2016 Osallistuva luterilaisuus (Participatory Lutheranism) showed that Lutheranism still profoundly shapes Finnish values. The significance given to everyday encounters and interpersonal relationships is important in the Lutheran tradition. The Lutheran Reformation adopted the notion of God’s love as the basis of reality. According to this notion, a person is primarily understood to be a recipient of gifts and one who shares those gifts with others. This occurs in temporal activities and in everyday encounters amidst daily responsibilities.
At the core of Lutheranism is the notion of salvation which humans cannot earn by their own deeds. In our relationship with God, we are always the receiving party and unable to advance our cause in any way. Another core belief that structures Lutheran thinking is making a clear conceptual distinction between the spiritual and temporal realms.
Luther thought that God enacts and uses His power in the world in two ways, temporally and spiritually. Both domains or regiments are ordained by God. The regiments are different and separate but not detached from one another. They embody God’s dual dominion in life. The temporal regiment is needed to resolve moral, political and societal questions. The authorities passes laws and establishes office in order to maintain outward order in society. People fulfill the will of God even when they are acting in the best interests of society e.g. in non-governmental organizations and political parties. Social ethics guides a person to enact temporal justice, but it must not force one’s conscience.
In His spiritual regiment – His congregation – God gives birth to faith and love. Christ’s atonement work changes the significance of morality in the life of a person who has been helped into faith. A Christian is no longer a slave of sin but rather free and independent of all demands placed on him or her. This freedom is the basis of Lutheran ethics. Due to having received love as a gift, the Christian treats his or neighbors well as a fruit of faith. However, being helped to faith does not make a person sinless. The person’s life is a constant battle between the “old and new self” (Eph. 4:17–24).
One well-known and often misinterpreted aspect of Lutheran ethics is the work ethic. The Protestant work ethic is often spoken of in a negative light. It is thought that it requires overly conscientious, joyless and hard labor. This is a misunderstanding at its core Lutheranism defines work as a calling received from God. Luther found this concept in Paul’s writings (1. Cor. 7:17–20). A calling describes a person’s inner tendency and gift to do something for the common good. In this way, work has purpose other than merely earning a living. According to the Osallistuva luterilaisuus (Participatory Lutheranism) study, nearly half of respondents considered it important that work be a calling. It was also important for many that work would become a life task to which one could dedicate oneself. These work-related values reflect the Lutheran view on the meaning of work.
Morals and Secularization
The ever-quickening spread of secularization and the crumbling of biblical authority have been evident in recent decades in both church life and in how society functions. Increasingly, the basic textbook of Christianity are considered bound to time and culture. The Bible’s guidance has been replaced by “biblical relativism.” The principle of the Reformation by which the Bible is the highest authority of Christian faith has been replaced by equality and love. It has been suggested that controversial issues surrounding e.g. the female priesthood and marriage should be resolved by separating the law and the gospel. It is thought that the law belongs to the realm of love and is bound to its time and therefore does not bind the church today.
The spread of secularism is also visible in the fact that early childhood education and primary education offered by society provide little moral and religious support in the lives of children and young people. The early childhood education plan implemented in 2018 [by the Finnish National Agency for Education] caused much debate for this reason. A significant change in the most recent upper secondary school curriculum [in the Finnish education system] was the elimination of ethics instruction. In the future, ethical content based on Christian values and concept of humanity will only be taught in [Finland’s] primary and lower secondary schools.
Conservative Laestadian Christianity has from time to time raised its concerns over the secularization of [Finnish] society. In a public statement released at Suviseurat (Summer Services) in Perho in 2005, it states “In our time, the understanding of right and wrong has become blurred. The teachings and authority of the Bible have been widely abandoned in our society and church [Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland].” This public statement recalls the principle of the Confessional Writings by which all doctrine in the church must be studied and evaluated according to God’s holy Word. The public statement draws attention to e.g. true love for our neighbor, questions concerning marriage, abortion, euthanasia, homosexual behavior and sober lifestyles. A 1993 public statement ended with the words, “We acknowledge our own shortcomings, but as pardoned sinners we, for the sake of love and truth, express our deep concern that the Word of God could guide our nation and our church.
Humans have received as a gift at birth the awareness of right and wrong. God speaks to us in our conscience and requires us to do what we know is right, while forbidding us from doing what we know to be wrong. As a result of this, humans have a natural need and desire to act morally right. Morals are within us whether we are religious or not. However, the efforts of the community and of childrearers are necessary in order for the inner moral voice to develop and strengthen. As Christians we think that faith in God keeps our consciences in the right direction. A fallen person must continuously learn to know the will of God. Faith also gives strength to live according to the guidance of the conscience enlightened by God’s Word.
Living a moral life is part of a human’s wellbeing. Good morals include acknowledging and appreciating neighbors. This is important in harmonious coexistence. For a Christian, however, the most important matter in life is to know God and the Savior and to become a child of God. A morally good life does not save a person. According to the material principle of the Reformation, a person is saved by faith alone, by grace alone, for the sake of Christ alone. The Holy Spirit calls through the gospel into the fellowship of God’s congregation. In this congregation we are in living fellowship with Christ and other Christians. The Bible is the highest authority of our faith and life. In Paul’s words, it is important that we remain in what we have learned and what we are convinced of (2 Tim. 3:14).
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