recall my first classes in Moral Theology some 35 or so years ago.
The subject is an essential part of Western thought (particularly in
the Catholic and Anglican traditions). In many ways the topic was
like a journey into Law School. We learned various methods and
principles on whose basis moral questions – questions of right and
wrong – could be discussed and decided. These classes were also the
introduction of certain strains of doubt for me.
great problem with most moral thinking – is found in its
does it mean to act morally?
is moral better than immoral?
is right better than wrong?
questions have classically had some form of law to undergird them:
act morally is to act in obedience to the law or to God’s
is better than immoral because moral is a description of obedience
to the good God. Or, moral is the description of doing the good, or
even the greatest good for the greatest number (depending on your
school of thought).
is better than wrong for the same reasons as moral being better than
course, all of these questions (right and wrong, moral and immoral)
require not only a standard of conduct, but someone to enforce the
conduct. Right is thus better than wrong, because God will punish the
wrong and reward the
right – otherwise (in this understanding) everything would be
will grant at the outset that many Christians are completely
comfortable with the understanding that God rewards and punishes. I
will grant as well that there is ample Scriptural evidence to which
persons can point to support such a contention. However, this
approach is far from a unanimous interpretation within the Tradition
of the faith – and has little support within historic Eastern
Scripture says such things (God is the punisher and rewarder) is
undeniable – but there is also another strain of witness:
James and John approached Christ after He had been turned away by a
village of Samaritans, they said, “Lord, do You want us to
command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as
Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You
do not know what manner of spirit you are of. “For the Son of
Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
And they went to another village. (Luk 9:54-56)
James and John were working out of a “reward and punishment”
model (which they clearly were) Christ’s rebuke must have
caught them by surprise. The same is true of many other encounters in
Christ’s ministry. The interpretation brought by the fathers in all
of this, is that God’s role as “punisher” is only an aspect
of His role as “healer.” What we endure is not for our
destruction and punishment but for our salvation and healing.
takes everything into a different direction. It is, doubtless, an
interpretation brought to the Old Testament from the revelation of
Christ in the New. In Christ we see clearly what was only made known
in “shadow” under the Old Covenant. Through Him, we now see
as Christ brings
an entirely different set of questions to the moral equation:
does the Incarnation of God mean for human morality?
is at stake in our decisions about right and wrong?
does it mean to be moral?
Athanasius (ca. 296 – d. 2 May 373), the great father of the
Nicene Council and defender of the faith against the assaults of
Arianism offered profound insights into the nature of the human
predicament (sin and redemption). His approach, as given in De
begins with the creation of the world from nothing (ex
Our very existence is a good thing, given to us and sustained by the
mercy and grace of the good God. The rupture in communion that occurs
at the Fall (and in every sin), is a rejection of the true existence
given to us by God. Thus the problem of sin is not a legal issue,
but an ontological issue
(a matter of being and
The goal of the Christian life is union with
God, to be partakers of His Divine Life. Sin rejects that true
existence and moves us away from God and towards a spiral of
our issues are not moral in nature (obeying things because they are
right, etc.) butontological in
nature. The great choice of humanity is between union with God and
His Life, or a movement towards non-being and emptiness. Our
salvation is not a juridical matter – it is utterly ontological.
The great promises in Christ point consistently in that direction.
beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you
present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to
reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be
transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove
what is that
good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Rom 12:1-2)
we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the
Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory,
just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2Co 3:18-1)
it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has
shone in our hearts to give the
light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus
Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the
excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We
pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we
but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but
not destroyed–always carrying about in the body the dying of the
Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our
body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’
sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal
flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. (2Co
verses, which could be multiplied many times, point towards our
salvation as a change that occurs within us,
rather than a shift in our juridical status – having settled all
our justice issues, etc. Rather, we are told that “God is working
in us to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Our
salvation is nothing less than conformity with the image of God, a
true communion of life and participation in the Divine Nature.
approaches obscure all of this. Concerns for justice quickly
denigrate the faith into a cosmic law court (or penal system). Most
problematically, the issues tend to be objectified and stand outside
the life of believers. To be free of all legal issues that stand
between ourselves and God is still far short of paradise. Our goal is
to be transformed into union with Christ – to be healed of sin and
to be made new. This requires a change within our inmost being –
the establishment of the “true self” which is “hid with Christ
for justice – it remains a mystery. Christ speaks of God rewarding
one group of workers who labored only at the end of the day in a
manner that was equal to those who had labored the entire day. The
principle at work seems to be something other than a concern for
justice (this is an example used by St. Isaac the Syrian).
as a systematic form of study, is a degeneration of true Christian
teaching. Like secularism (and the two-storey universe) it can
presume to discuss questions as though there were no God. Morality
(and its ethical cousins) becomes a “science,” an abstract
exercise of reason based (often) on principles that are merely
assumed. The Scriptures tell us that there is “none good but
God,” neither can there be anything good that does not proceed from
God. The “good” actions that we make are actions that lead us
deeper into union with Christ. Such actions begin in God, are
empowered by God, and lead to God. “Morality” is fiction, at
least as it has come to be treated in modern thought.
sin that infects our lives and produces evil actions is a mortal
illness (death). Only union with the true life in Christ can heal
this, transform us and birth us into the true life which is ours in
I have stated on numerous occasions: Christ did not die in order to
make bad men good – he died in order to make dead men live.
my treatment of the word morality is
disturbing – I ask your forgiveness. I hope this small piece is of
use in considering the true nature of our life in Christ. One of my
favorite stories from the Desert Fathers illustrates (obliquely) the
difference between mere morality and a true ontological change.
Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can,
I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live
in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I
do?” then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards
heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him,
“If you will, you can become all flame
OODE NOTE :
A Christian may be Amoral (or Unmoral) which means means 'not concerned with morality' while immoral means 'not conforming to moral standards' or 'evil'. See also : Dostoevsky and Morality.