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by Hans Urs von Balthasar

This document was approved by the Commission “in forma generica”.


The Christian who lives by faith has the right to base his moral activity on his faith. Since the content of his Faith, namely, Jesus Christ, who revealed to us God s trinitarian love, assumed not only the form and the guilt of the first Adam but also the limitations, anxieties, and decisions of his existence, there is no danger that the Christian will fail to find the first Adam in the Second Adam and along with him his own moral dilemma. Even Jesus had to choose between his Father and his family: “My child, why have you done this to us?” (Lk 2:48). Thus the Christian will make the basic decisions of his life from Christ’s perspective, that is, from his Faith. One cannot properly designate an ethics, which proceeds from the fullness of revelation and then works back to the defective preparatory stages, as a “descending” ethics (in contrast to a so-called ascending ethics, which proceeds from anthropological data as its primary foundation).

Nor should one qualify this ethics as nonhistorical just because it gives priority to the New Testament over the Old. One must remember that the road is determined and illumined by the destination—a point that applies even to this unique road of salvation, which attains its goal only in the dialectic between discontinuity and superabundance (stressed by Paul), and inner fulfillment (stressed by Matthew and James). It is undoubtedly correct to say that from the historical and chronological point of view Theses 5 and 6 should have come before the Christological theses, and that Theses 7 and 8 should have preceded all of them. However, it is a fact that the Christian lives in the specifically “eschatological age”. He must constantly strive to overcome in himself those tendencies that belong to the preparatory stages so that he can pass on to what belongs to the final stage of human existence. Rather than excluding, this includes the fact that Christ too lived his obedience to the Father not only in a prophetic, as it were, immediate vision of him, but also by keeping the Old Law and by believing in the promise. The Christian follows him in that too.

Our theses are given only in outline form, and many essential points have been omitted. For instance, the text speaks of the Church only indirectly. Nothing is said about the sacraments or about their relationship to the authority of the Church. Nothing is said about various opinions of far-reaching consequences that confront the Church today and that she must face eventually. We only wanted to consider Christian ethics as it comes forth from and depends on the mystery of Christ, which is the center of the history of salvation as well as of the history of man.


1. Christ as the Concrete Norm


Christian ethics must be elaborated in such a way that its starting point is Jesus Christ, since he, as the Son of the Father, fulfilled the complete will of the Father (= everything that must be done) in this world. He did this “for us” so that we might gain our freedom from him, the concrete and plenary norm of all moral action, to accomplish God}s will and to live up to our vocation to be free children of the Father.

1. Jesus Christ is the concrete categorical imperative, in the sense that he is not only a formal, universal norm of moral life, which can be applied to everyone, but also a concrete and personal norm. By virtue of his suffering for us and the eucharistic giving up of his life for us as well as his handing it on to us (per ipsum et cum ipso), he has given us the interior strength to do the will of the Father with him (cum ipso).

Thus his imperative is based on the “indicative” (cf. Rom 6:7ff.; 2 Cor 5:15). The will of the Father, however, is twofold: (1) to love his children in him and with him (1 Jn 5:If.) and (2) adoration in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:23). Christ’s life is at the same time action and cult. This unity is the perfect norm for the Christian. It is only with an attitude of deep respect (Phil 7:12) that we can cooperate in the saving work of God. His absolute love infinitely surpasses us, being more unlike our love than like it (in maiori dissimilitudine). Liturgy therefore cannot be separated from moral life.

2. The Christian imperative places us beyond the question of autonomy vs. heteronomy:

a. Because the Son of God, begotten by the Father, is “another” (heretos) but not something other than (heteron) the Father. As God he is autonomously equal to the Father (his Person coincides with his procession and thus with his mission). On the other hand, as man he possesses in himself the divine will and his own affirmation of it as the very foundation of his existence (Heb 10:5f.; Phil 2:6f.) and as the inner source of his personal activity (Jn 4:34ff.). This also holds true for those cases in which he wishes to experience in suffering the resistance of sinners to God.

At this point please note: when the divinity of Christ is not acknowledged, he appears necessarily only as a human model, and so Christian ethics once again becomes heteronomous on the supposition that the Christ-norm is considered simply binding on my moral activity Or, it becomes autonomous when his example is still interpreted as the perfect way for the human moral subject to determine himself.

b. As created beings we remain “heteron”, but we are also given the capacity to unfold our personal and free activity by virtue of God’s strength (the “drink” becomes in us a “spring” or “well” [Jn 4:13ff.; 7:38]). This strength comes to us from the Eucharist of his Son through our being reborn with him from the Father and through the gift of their Spirit. Since God in bestowing his grace works gratuitously, and since we likewise should act gratuitously when we love (Mt 10:8; Lk 14:12—14), the “great reward in heaven” (Lk 6:23) can therefore be nothing else but Love itself. Thus in God s eternal plan (Eph 1:10) the last end coincides with the first movement of our freedom (interior intimo meo; cf. Rom 8:15ff., 26ff.).

By virtue of the reality of our divine filiation all truly Christian actions are performed in freedom. To be more precise: for Christ the total burden of the saving task laid upon him (dei)—which will take him to Calvary— flows forth from his privilege of revealing in full liberty the saving will of God. For us sinners, however, the freedom of the children of God often becomes a heavy cross both with regard to our personal decisions and in the framework of community life. Even if it is true that the purpose of the rules of the Church is to free the believer from the alienation of sin and to lead him to his true identity and freedom, they may and indeed often must seem to be harsh and legalistic to the imperfect believer, just as the will of the Father appeared harsh to Christ hanging on the Cross.

2. The Universality of the Concrete Norm


The norm of the concrete existence of Christ is both personal and universal, because in him the Father’s love for the world is realized in a comprehensive and unsurpassable way.  This norm, therefore, embraces all men in their different ethical situations and unites all persons (with their uniqueness and freedom) in his Person. As the Holy Spirit of freedom it also hovers over all men in order to bring them to the Kingdom of the Father.

1. The concrete existence of Christ—his life, suffering, death, and bodily Resurrection—takes up in itself, supplants, and abrogates all other ethical systems. In the last analysis, a Christian has to give an account of his moral life only to this norm, which proposes the prototype (Jesus) of perfect obedience to God the Father. Christ abolishes in his own being the difference that separates those “who are subject to the law” (Jews) from those “without the law” (gentiles) (1 Cor 9:20ff.), slaves from their masters, men from women (Gal 3:28), etc. In Christ all have received the same freedom of the children of God and strive for the same goal. The “new” Commandment of Jesus (Jn 13:34) as realized in Christ is more than the principal command of the Old Law (Deut 6:4ff.). It is also more than just the sum of the Commandments of the Decalogue and their particular applications. The perfect fulfillment of the will of the Father in the Person of Christ is an eschatological, unsurpassable synthesis. Hence it is itself an a priori, universal norm.

2. Since Christ is the incarnate Word and the Son of God, he abolishes in himself the separating duality of the Old Testament Covenant. More even than a mediator (who intervenes between opposed groups), he is a personified encounter, and for this reason he is a “unifier”: “an intermediary implies more than one; but God is one” (Gal 3:20). The Church of Christ is nothing else but the plenitude of this one Person. She is his “Body” to which he gives life (Eph l:22f). She is his “Bride” insofar as he forms “one Flesh” (Eph 5:29) or “one Spirit” (1 Cor 6:17) with her. Even as “the people of God” she is no longer many, but “you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). To the extent that Jesus’ work of salvation was accomplished “for all”, life in his community is at the same time both personalizing and socializing.

3. That our destiny was already determined by Jesus’ death on the Cross (“one has died for all; therefore all have died ... that those who live might live no longer for themselves”, 2 Cor 5:14-15), that we have been inserted “into Christ”, does not constitute our alienation. Rather, it constitutes our being “transplanted” out of the “darkness” of our sinful and alienated being into the truth and freedom of divine sonship. It is for this that God created us (Eph l:4ff). By the power of the Cross we have been given the Holy Spirit of Christ and of the Father (Rom 8:9-11). In that Spirit the Person of Christ and his work are made present in all ages and are also at work in us. The same Spirit also makes us continuously present to Christ.

This mutual inclusion has a markedly ecclesial dimension for the believer. For, love for one another, which is the object of the new command that Jesus gave us to fulfill, is poured out into the hearts of the faithful (Rom 5:5) antecedently in a more profound way through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of the Father and of the Son as the divine “We”. On the personal level of the Church, actual membership in “one Body” includes the conferring of a personal consciousness of one another among the members. The moral task of the Christian is to accomplish this in a vigorous way. In this way the Church is open to the world, just as Christ is open to the Father and his all-embracing Kingdom (1 Cor 15:24), and both “mediate” only in immediacy. Such personal immediacy characterizes, therefore, all Church structures and activities—even the most particular ones.

3. The Christian Meaning of the Golden Rule


On Jesus’ lips and in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the “Golden Rule” (Mt 7:12; Lk 6:31) can be described as the sum total of the law and the prophets only because it firmly roots in Christ all that Christians mean to each other and give to each other. This rule, therefore, goes beyond mere human fraternity and includes the interpersonal exchange of the divine life.

1. The “Golden Rule” occurs in Matthew—and even more directly in Luke—in the context of the Beatitudes, of a forsaking of claims of distributive justice, of the love of one’s enemies, of the demand to be “perfect” and “merciful” as the heavenly Father is. For this reason, gifts received from the Father are precisely what a Christian may expect from his neighbor and what he should give to his neighbor. This confirms once again that both the “law” and universal “brotherly love” have their “end” (Rom 10:4) in Christ.

2. The “law” itself was not just an expression of brotherly love. Rather, it revealed the faithfulness of God our Savior, who wanted to enter into a Covenant with his people (cf. Thesis 6). The prophets, however, spoke of a fulfillment of the law that would not be possible until God should abolish all heteronomy and place the law of his Spirit in the hearts of men (Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26f).

3. From the Christian point of view no social ethics or ethics of the person can abstract from the fact that God is addressing himself to us. In order to be morally correct, dialogue between men presupposes, as the very condition of its possibility, a dialogue between God and man, whether human beings are explicitly aware of it or not. Mans new relationship with God, however, has a direct relationship to the dialogue between Jew and gentile, master and servant, man and woman, parents and children, rich and poor, etc. But this dialogue must now be conducted on a new level.

Thus Christian ethics takes on the form of the Cross: though both vertical and horizontal, this “form” can never be isolated from its concrete content, that is, from Jesus who was crucified and lifted up between God and men. He makes himself present as the only norm in every situation. “All things are lawful for me” (1 Cor 6:12; cf. Rom 14-15), if I only remember that I owe my liberty to my belonging to Christ (1 Cor 6:19; cf. 3:21-23).

4. Sin


Only where God in his love has gone to the very end does human guilt appear as sin, and the attitude behind it as proceeding from a spirit positively hostile to God himself.

1. The unique and concrete character of the personal moral norm (= Jesus) implies, whether one admits it or not, that all moral guilt refers to Christ, is accountable to him, and was carried by him on the Cross. The nearness of the morally functioning Christian to the source of divine holiness, which vivifies him because he is a member of Christ, turns guilt with regard to a mere “law” (according to the Jewish view) or with regard to a mere “idea” (according to the Greek view) into sin. The holiness of the Holy Spirit in Christ-and-Church convinces the world of its sinfulness (Jn 16:8—11)—a world to which we also belong (“if we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar”, 1 Jn 1:10).

2. The presence in the world of God’s absolute love increases mans guilt so that it becomes a demonic No, more negative than man realizes; indeed, it tries to lure him into the anti-Christian camp (cf. what the book of Revelation says about the beast, what Saint Paul says about the powers of this world; cf. also 1 Jn). The individual, as a part of the battle of Christ-and-Church against these powers, must also fight with the “armor of God” (Eph 6:11). The work of the devil shows itself above all in a proud gnosis without love, which pretends to be coextensive with the agape that is submissive to God, but actually “puffs up” (1 Cor 8:1). Because this gnosis does not want to acknowledge the concrete personal norm (Jesus), it depicts sin as mere guilt—as a transgression of a law or as opposition to an idea—and it will try to exculpate the guilt by appeals to psychology, sociology, etc.

3. The full impact of anti-Christian sin strikes the very center of the personal norm: it pierces the heart of the Crucified, who concretely represents in this world the trinitarian love of God. That Jesus on the Cross took upon himself our sins remains a mystery of Faith—one that cannot be shown by philosophy to be “necessary” or “impossible”. Hence judgment over sin is reserved to the crucified Son of Man, to whom “all judgment” has been given (Jn 5:22). “Do not judge” (Mt 7:1).


5. The Promise (Abraham)


The moral subject (Abraham) is constituted by God’s call and by obedience to this call (Heb 11:8).

1. After Abraham had made his act of obedience, the deeper meaning of his call as an unforseeable, universal promise becomes clear (for “all peoples” but brought together in one individual:  “semini tuo”, Gal 3:16). The name of the obedient one is the same as the name of his mission (Gen 17:1—8); since the promise and its fulfillment stem from God, Abraham is given a supernatural fertility.

2. Obedience is faith in God and thereby a valid response (Gen 15:6), which takes possession not only of the mind but also of the body (Gen 17:13). Obedience, therefore, requires that one must be prepared to return the freely given gift (Gen 22).

3. Abraham lives in a spirit of obedience, which, in view of the unreachable stars above, waits for the promise.

Concerning 1: All biblical ethics is based on the call of a personal God and on man’s answer to it in faith. God shows himself in his call as the One who is faithful, truthful, just, merciful, etc. From the name of God the name of the one who answers (i.e., his unique personality) is derived and fixed. The divine call sets the human subject apart for the encounter with God (Abraham must leave his tribe and land). By answering the call (“Here I am”, Gen 22:1) he receives his mission, which then becomes for him an obligatory norm of behavior. In his dialogues with God Abraham becomes, as a result of his mission, the founder of a community. In the perspective of the Bible all relations within this community depend on the vertical relationship of the founder or mediator with God, or on Gods intervention, which establishes the community (Ex 22:20; 23:9; Deut 5:14ff.; 15:12-18; 16:1 Iff.; 27:17ff.). This divine intervention is the grace that God offers and over which man has no power but which is the norm of all his actions (cf. the parable of the Unforgiving Debtor in Mt 18:21ff). In the Old Testament the actual open-endedness of Abrahams blessing is gradually and more clearly understood as having a messianic fulfillment. Thus the “opening up” to “the Gentiles” (Gal 3:14) is effected in the gathering together of Jesus’ followers and the bestowing on them of the Holy Spirit (through faith in him).

Concerning 2: The moral subject is affected in all his dimensions by the “Covenant” (Gen 15:18ff.), which is based on Gods call and mans response: it concerns the challenge of faith and also his body and possessions (“my Covenant shall be in your flesh an everlasting Covenant”, Gen 17:13). In order that Isaac, who was conceived and born by Gods power, might be protected against all subsequent human self-will, Abraham is ordered to give him back to God. If the faith of the childless Abraham was already faith in God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17), then the faith of the father, who returns the son God promised to him, is indeed a firm faith in the resurrection. “He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead” (Heb 11:19).

Concerning 3: Abrahams life (and with it the period of the whole Old Covenant, including the period of the law) can only be a clinging to God in faith, without the possibility of changing God’s promise into his fulfillment. The people of the Old Testament could only “look forward” (Heb 11:10) in a type of “seeking” (ibid., 14) that cannot be more than a “having seen it and greeted it from afar” and a recognition of the fact that they remain “strangers and exiles” in this world (ibid., 13—14). Precisely because the Fathers of old were not able to attain the goal—but still persevered—were they worthy of praise (Heb 11:39). This point is important for what follows.

6. The Law


The law proclaimed at Sinai goes beyond the promise made to Abraham to the extent that it explicitly reveals—even if provisionally from outside and from above—the mind of God. The purpose of this new revelation is to make possible a more intense response from those living under the Covenant: “I am holy; therefore you also must be holy.” This “must”, which has its foundation in God}s innermost being, is directed at man’s inner attitude. That man can respond to this “must” follows from the absolute truthfulness of God, who offers man the Covenant (Rom 7:12). However, this truthfulness of God does not yet find its counterpart in a similar absolute truthfulness of man. Such truthfulness resides only in the promise made to Abraham, which is later repeated in a new and more precise way in the sayings of the prophets.

1. The law is given in addition to the promise and does not abrogate the promise (Rom 7; Gal 3). For this reason it is intended to be only a more precise determination of a faith that waits. From different directions it throws light on the conduct of the man who is “just in the eyes of God”. Of course, this conduct agrees with the fundamental structures of man’s existence (natural law) because God the author of grace is also the Creator. However, the motive of this correct conduct is not man but the more profound revelation of God’s holiness as found in his fidelity to his Covenant. Hence, there is no question here of an imitation of Gods essence in the Greek sense, but of a response to his conduct as manifested in his “mighty deeds” toward Israel. But since the one perfect response (Jesus) remains the object of the promise, the law retains its dialectical character in the way Saint Paul understands it: in itself good, it still increases transgressions. To that extent it is both a positive and a negative “taskmaster” that eventually leads to Christ.

2. Looked at from God’s point of view, the “must” of the law is an offer to live a holy life before God in the security of the Covenant. Yet this gracious offer is only the first act of God’s saving activity that will be perfected only in Christ. For the time being this activity reveals not only the positive attitude of man but also his (negative) incapacity to respond fully—a perfect response remaining as before the object of the promise. The discrepancy between mans response as demanded by the law and the insufficiency of his actual response is felt by man to be unbearable. One can sustain it only with the patience that faith and hope give. In two ways man seeks to get around this problem:

a. He tries to make the law (Torah) an absolute that takes the place of the living God. By trying to fulfill literally the letter of the law, the Pharisee thinks that he can give a perfect response (something that is actually impossible). Many different ethical systems have been derived from this attitude, which makes an abstract and formal “must” the fundamental norm. For example, one may point to neo-Kantian ethics, which postulates a realm of “absolute values”, to structuralistic and to phenomenological ethics (Scheler). All of these systems tend to establish the human subject as his own legislator, as an idealized, autonomous subject who imposes limitations on himself in order to reach perfection. The germs of these types of ethical systems lie in the ethical formalism of Kant.

b. A second way to overcome this tension is to consider the law a foreign element and then replace it with promise and hope. It is argued that a law that is imposed from outside and declares us guilty in our hearts (e.g., Kafka) cannot proceed from a faithful and merciful God but only from a tyrannical demiurge (this point of view explains E. Bloch’s alliance with gnosticism; compare also Freud’s superego). As an illusion of former generations this “demiurge” must be overcome by hope in the future—a hope that proceeds from man’s own autonomous resources.

c. Both escapes come together in dialectical materialism, which identifies the law with the dialectical movement of history and in this way eliminates the law. Marx knows that it is not the negative abolition of the law (namely, communism) that will bring about the desired reconciliation, but only a positive humanism that allows the law to be absorbed into the spontaneity of freedom. We are dealing here with an atheistic counterpart to Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 34. Corresponding to the provisional character of Old Testament ethics, transcendental reconciliation in the Old Testament (as in its modern imitations) remains primarily a political “liberation”. Its subject is primarily the people as a whole and not the person whose unique worth comes to light only in Christ.

3. When Christian faith in the fulfilled promise of Christ dies out, it is not the extrabiblical ethical systems that dominate the history of mankind; rather, it is the Old Testament forms, which are related to the Christian ones. Because an awareness of the fulfillment brought by Christ lingers on, Old Testament ethics returns as a most grotesque absolutism: absolute law and absolute prophecy


7. Conscience


1. Extrabiblical man is awakened to theoretico-practical self-awareness as the result of a free, loving call from his fellowmen. When answering this call he experiences (in his “cogito ergo sum”,) both the intelligibility of reality as such (as true and good), which reveals itself and thereby constitutes man in freedom, and the fact that his freedom is marked by a relationship to other human beings.

2. Man’s entire being has a natural inclination (“necessitate naturalis inclinationis”, De veritate, q. 22, 5) to the transcendental good. This inclination to the known good takes the form of first moral principles (synderesis or basic conscience). There also exist tendencies to the good in the sensible part of man’s being since the whole is permeated by his spirit.

Neither the self-discovery involved in the first insight, nor the strong attraction of particular temporal goods, nor the fact that sin often obscures man’s awareness that the good is a gift—none of these can destroy the innate orientation of man to the good. Thus Saint Paul could say that the pagans are judged “by Jesus Christ according to my Gospel” (Rom 2:16).

3. Abstract formulas that state man’s inclination to the good as the result of natural law—for example, the statement that human fellowship is a “categorical imperative”—have been derived from this basic conscience and actually refer back to it.

Concerning 1: In the act of being called or loved by his fellowman, man awakens in his “cogito ergo sum” to an awareness of the identity between intelligibility and reality. He also experiences this identity, which is a created reality, as not absolute, simply because it appears to him as a gift. In this transcendental disclosure of reality three things are given simultaneously:

a. Man is confronted with the absolute identity of spirit and being, and thus with a most perfect self-possession in full freedom. This Absolute lets things share in itself (we call this Absolute God, “qui interius docet inquantum huiusmodi lumen animae infundit”, St. Thomas, De anima 5 ad 6).

b. When man is awakened to God who gives himself, he becomes aware of the difference between absolute freedom and given freedom. In seeing this difference he becomes aware of the invitation to respond in freedom to this absolute gift.

c. At first there is not sharp distinction between the call from the Absolute and that coming from one’s fellowmen. Experience will show that the other is “merely” one who has also been awakened. However, this experience shows that the original unity of both invitations (i.e., from men and God) cannot be dissolved.

Concerning 2: Just as, in the original identity of being and intelligibility (as true, good, and beautiful), freedom as autonomy and grace as gift (“diffusivum sui”) are together, so also in the created being freedom and inclination toward the good are inseparable. The active drawing power of the absolute good confers on the act of the free response an element of “passivity” that does not violate its freedom (STh I, q. 80, a. 2; q. 105, a. 4; De veritate 25, 1; 22, 13, 4).

This tendency to let oneself be determined and conducted by what is good in itself is present in man’s entire being. Of course, if one abstracts from man’s totality, then it is clear that man’s sensible nature by itself cannot attain a knowledge of the absolute good but must stop at the level of particular goods. Man’s true moral task is to render his entire bodily and spiritual life ethical (ethizesthai). The result of this process is called “virtue”. This is also necessary because the call of his fellowmen obliges him to let his freedom be determined by other free, bodily persons. It also obliges him to determine the freedom of others. This must take place under the influence of the good, but each time it requires the intellectual illumination of the matter that mediates the process.

The insight into the good itself, once attained in the “cogito ergo sum” (in other words, the transparency of the “imago Dei”, which enables man to see its source in God), does not remain actualized. Nevertheless, it perdures in the memory “tamquam nota artificis operi suo impressa” (Descartes, Med. 3, Adam-Tannery, 7:51). Since this insight has codetermined the first awakening of the mind, it cannot be totally forgotten, even when one turns away—either consciously or habitually—from the light of the good in order to pursue particular goods that are either pleasurable or useful. Moreover, the insight is at least a transcendental preknowledge of revelation; it constitutes, as it were, the place from which the “positive” revelation of the Old and New Testaments has always been addressed to all men. However, when this revelation proceeds from concrete historical events, then we should not forget that the call of our fellowmen (which is both transcendental and dialectical) is just as original as the call of the good itself (bonum in communi).

Only the Magister Interior can measure the intensity and clarity that such a “positive” revelation might have outside of the Old and New Testaments. But according to Saint Paul, the Magister Interior judges the hearts even of the pagans according to the norm, which is now sufficiently explicit, of God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ.

Concerning 3: The original radiancy of the good as grace and love expects a free answer of loving gratitude. When this light of the good itself has grown dim, a warning sign appears. Its purpose is not to take the place of one’s better self or to represent it, but only to call it back into mind. Insofar as the warning sign concerns the main situations of an incarnate and socially constituted mind, it reveals itself as the “natural law”. This natural law should not be divinized; rather, it must retain its essentially relative character of referring to the good. In this way natural law will not become stifled but will be able to point to the liveliness and self-giving nature of the good. Kant s categorical imperative has not escaped the danger of unbending harshness, for his formalism made him place abstract “duty” over against the natural “inclination” of the sensible part of our being. What true ethics should do, however, is to give to the persons inclination to the Absolute Good priority and dominion over contrary particular inclinations. Thus the inclinations man fully accepts and makes his own in view of the absolute norm coincide with surrendering himself to the divine good and with giving himself to his fellowmen.

8. Prebiblical Natural Order


Wherever a self-revelation of the sovereignly free and personal God is absent, man tries to find the bearings for his moral life in the order of the world around him. Since man owes his existence to a multiplicity of cosmic laws, it is quite natural that he both fuse and confuse his origin from God with his origin from nature. However, such a theocosmological ethics disintegrates wherever biblical revelation comes in contact with a particular culture.

1. Prebiblical ethics, which finds its norms in nature, can ask about the good that is proper to human nature (bonum honestum) by setting up an analogy with the good that is proper to infrahuman existing things. This human good, however, will be contained within the limits of the surrounding natural order. Insofar as this natural order has an absolute (i.e., divine) aspect, it opens up a certain area for orderly moral behavior; but insofar as it contains a this-worldly, finite aspect, it does not allow man’s personal freedom to reach its full perfection. The result is that the goals of human activity remain partly political (within a micropolis or a macropolis), partly individualistic, and partly intellectualistic, since pure knowledge of the constant laws of the universe appears to be the most noble thing man can strive for.

2. When biblical revelation enters on the scene, the supremely free God, who is radically different from created nature, invites man to share in a type of freedom that is not modeled on anything found in infrahuman nature. But wherever man refuses to acknowledge, in a Christian way, that this freedom is really a gift from God, logically he can locate the source of his freedom only in himself and so understand moral behavior as a type of legislation for himself. In its first stages this may take the form of a return to the prebiblical mythical understanding of the universe (cf. Spinoza, Goethe, Hegel), but later even this will be abandoned (cf. Feuerbach, Nietzsche).

3. Once this development has begun, it is irreversible. It is true that there exists a tendency (cf. above, 6, 3) to reduce Christian ethics to what was, in the Old Testament, a stage of preparation. Yet we can also notice a certain influence of the light of Christianity on non-Christian religious and ethical thought (e.g., the Christian influence on Indian social thinking: Tagore, Gandhi). Besides an explicitly dogmatic knowledge of God there is also an existential knowledge; this reminds us of the warning “do not judge”.

9. Post-Christian Anthropological Ethics


A possible basis for a post- but non-Christian ethics can now be sought only in a dialogue relationship with other men (eg., I—thou; I—we). Since gratitude to God for one’s life, expressed in divine worship, is now no longer the permanent, fundamental act of the free human person, mutual gratitude between human subjects can have no more than secondary, purely relative value. The limitations placed on one another by free persons who experience their own unlimited transcendence appear to be imposed on them from outside.

1. In a post-Christian age, what remains of the “nature” or “structure” of human existence is the reciprocity of two finite freedoms. Only by means of a call from another person do both of them become aware of themselves and of their ability to respond and to call others. In this way it seems that the “Golden Rule” is attained once again. However, since the one who is addressed by another does not simply receive his freedom from that other (if he did, he would necessarily be “heteronomous”), and since God’s call—which is the real foundation of both freedoms—is excluded, the mutual self-surrender of both persons remains limited and calculating. Intersubjectivity will either be understood as a secondary and basically unintelligible quality of the subject, or the two human subjects remain monads with no influence on one another.

2. The so-called human sciences can contribute valuable knowledge about particular aspects of the phenomenon of man, but they cannot offer a solution to this fundamental problem of interhuman relations.

3. The anthropological problem reaches its climax at the point where the death of the individual person renders the synthesis between his personal perfection and his social integration simply impossible. The meaningful elements in both of these aspects remain disconnected. Therefore, they even make the development of an obvious this-worldly ethics impossible. However, in face of the meaninglessness of death—and thus of his life, which is always moving toward death—man can refuse to acknowledge any ethical norms.

Personal and social fulfillment are harmonized only in the Resurrection of Christ, who is the guarantee not only for the fulfillment of the individual but also for the Church community and through her for the whole world so that God, without eliminating the reality of the world, can be “all in all”.


by Heinz Schürmann

This document was approved by the Commission “in forma generica”.


1. Vatican II affirmed, “The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word” (SC 51; see also DV 22). Consequently, it was the wish of the Council that, in their homilies, priests use the Sacred Scriptures to elucidate “the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life” (SC 52; DV 24). However, one difficulty appeared: does one not find, here and there, in the Old Testament (cf. DV 15), and even in the New Testament, moral judgments conditioned and determined by the era in which these books were written? Does this authorize us to assert, as a general rule, as one so often hears today, that the obligatory character of all the value judgments and directives in the Scriptures should be questioned because they are all conditioned by the times? Or at least should one admit that the moral teachings regarding certain questions cannot claim a permanent value precisely because of their dependence on one epoch? Is human reason then to be the final criterion for evaluating biblical value judgments and directives? Can the value judgments and the directives of Holy Scripture not assert, in and of themselves, any permanent value, or at least a normative value? Are Christians of other eras obliged to consider them only as paradigms or models of conduct?

2. Although the books of the Old Testament, “written under divine inspiration, remain permanently valuable” (DV 14; cf. Rom 15:4) and God in his wisdom has willed that “the New Covenant be hidden in the Old and that the Old be explained by the New” (Augustine, Quaest. In Hept. 2, 73; PL 34, 623), in the pages that follow we will not limit our examination to the writings of the New Testament. In effect, “the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning in the new Testament” (DV 16). Consequently, the question of the obligatory character of biblical value judgments and directives must be addressed especially with regard to the writings of the New Testament.

The issue of knowing what is the nature of the obligation attached to the New Testament value judgments and prescriptions is a hermeneutic matter in moral theology. It includes, however, an exegetic question regarding the type and degree of obligation that these New Testament assessments and directives claim for themselves. We are especially committed to studying this problem with regard to the Pauline value judgments and directives, because this moral problematic is reflected in a special way in the Corpus Paulinum. Moreover, in spite of a surprising diversity (for example in the writings of Paul, John, Matthew, James, etc.) the New Testament writings present a remarkable convergence in the domain of morality.

3. In the case of value judgments and directives in matters of morality, the New Testament writings can claim a particular value, given that the moral judgment of the Church from her beginnings is crystalized in them. As “nascent Church” she is indeed already present at the sources of revelation and she is marked in an exceptional manner by the Spirit of the Glorified Lord. Consequently the deeds and words of Jesus, as final criterion of moral obligation, may be seen revealed in a particularly valid manner in the value judgments and directives set out in the Spirit and with authority by the apostle, as by the other Spiritual writers of the Church from the beginning and in the paradosis and the parathêkê of the first Christian communities as proximate norms of action.

The nature and the modality of the obligatory character—doubtless analogical—of these two criteria on which the moral prescriptions of the New Testament are based (compare 1 Cor 7:10—25 and 7:12-40), like the various value judgments and directives based on these two criteria (that is to say the various moral prescriptions and exhortations), will be briefly set forth in concise theses in the following propositions. However, it should be noted that New Testament proofs cannot be given here except in an allusive and succinct manner and that a certain oversimplification in the classification is inevitable.


4. For the authors of the New Testament, the words and deeds of Jesus are held to be the normative criterion for judgment and as the supreme moral norm, as the “law of Christ” (ennomos) “written” in the hearts of the faithful (Gal 6:2; cf. 1 Cor 9:21). Moreover, for the New Testament writers, Jesus’ directives, given during the prepaschal period, have a decisive and obligatory value in the context of imitation of the example given by the earthly Jesus and even more so by the pre-existent Son of God.


The conduct of Jesus is the example and the criterion of a love which serves and gives of itself

5. Already, in the synoptics, the “coming” of Jesus, his life, and his actions are understood as a service (Lk 22:27) which attains its ultimate accomplishment in death (Mk 10:25). At the pre-Pauline and Pauline stage this love is depicted in terms of kenosis as a love which is fulfilled in the Incarnation and in the Son’s death on the Cross (Phil 2:6£; 2 Cor 8:9). According to the Johannine perspective, this love attains its “fulfillment” (Jn 19:28—30) in the “descent” of the Son of Man by his Incarnation and death (Jn 6:41f., 48—51, etc.) in his purifying gift of himself on the Cross (Jn 13:1—11); thus Jesus’ love is depicted as his “life work” (Jn 17:4; cf. 4:34). In conclusion then, the conduct of Jesus is distinguished as the love that serves and gives itself up “for us” and renders visible the love of God (Rom 5:8; 8:31; Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 4:9). The moral behavior of the faithful is fundamentally summed up in the acceptance and the imitation of this divine love; it is life with Christ and in Christ.

a. In the New Testament writings—especially in those of Paul and John—the obligation of love draws its motivation and, at the same time, its own peculiar characteristic, that radicalism of going beyond its own limits, and perhaps also a special content, from the way in which the Son empties himself (Paul), or, in other words, “descends” (John). This love, which gives itself up to human existence and to death, represents and brings to light the love of God. This trait is even more characteristic of New Testament morality than its eschatological orientation.

b. The “Sequela Jesu” and imitation of him, the association with the Incarnate and crucified Son, and the life of the baptized in Christ, also determine in a specific manner the concrete moral attitude of the believer toward the world.


The word of Jesus is the ultimate moral norm

6. The words of the Lord explain the attitude of love shown by Jesus, he who came and who was crucified. They must be interpreted in light of his own person. Thus, seen in the light of the paschal mystery and “remembered” in the Spirit (Jn 14:26), these words constitute the ultimate norm for the moral conduct of believers (cf. 1 Cor 7:10—25).

a. Certain of Jesus’ words, even in their literary style, do not present themselves, strictly speaking, as laws; they must be understood as models of conduct and should be considered as paradigms.

b. For Paul the words of the Lord have a definitive and permanent obligatory force. However, in two passages where he expressly quotes the directives of Jesus (cf. Lk 17:7b and par.; Mk 10:11 and par.), he can counsel to observe them in their deepest intention and as closely as possible in situations that have become different or more difficult (1 Cor 9:14, 7:12—16). Thus he departs from the legalist interpretation, in the manner of late Judaism.


7. The obligatory character of these directives recorded in the New Testament have several foundations: the attitudes and the utterances of Jesus, the conduct and the teaching of the apostles and of the other spiritual writers of early Christianity, the way of life and the traditions of the primitive communities inasmuch as the nascent Church was still marked in a special manner by the Spirit of the Risen Lord. In this context it must not be forgotten that the Spirit of truth, especially with regard to moral conscience, “will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:13).

8. It will also be observed that about the various value judgments and directives of primitive Christianity, considered either in their form or for their content, the claim of an obligatory authority was very different according to the case, and that these directives, in widely varied areas, were marked by a practical-pastoral finality.


Certain value judgments and certain directives are permanent by reason of their theological and eschatological foundations

9. In the writings of the New Testament the principal parenetic interest, and, in consequence, the importance as related to the intensity and the frequency of affirmations, is directed toward the value judgments and the directives (essentially formal ones) which require, as a response to the love of God in Christ, total abandonment, in love, to Christ, actually to the Father, and a conduct in keeping with the reality of eschatalogical time, that is to say, with the salvific action of Christ as well as the state of the baptized.

10. To these value judgments and directives, so defined, inasmuch as they are unconditionally founded on the eschatalogical reality of salvation and motivated by the Gospel, one should attribute a character of permanent obligation.

a. The main commandment of the New Testament writings is made up of a call to the total gift of self in Christ to the Father. As a precept “going to the extreme” it possesses the form of absolute obligation.

b. A value of unconditional obligation is also claimed on the basis of the number of eschatalogical opinions and imperatives in the New Testament writings which, for the most part, remain on the level of formal morality. These call the believer, on one hand, to conduct himself in faith and love, in line with reality and the situation, in view of the eschatalogical coming of salvation, to place himself in the redemptive work of Christ, that is to say, in the state of the baptized. On the other hand, they warn that he must let himself be conditioned in hope by the nearness of the reign of God, that is to say the parousia, in continual vigilance and readiness.


Particular value judgments and directives imply a diversity of obligations

11. Beside the value judgments and directives already mentioned, the New Testament writings also enunciate value judgments and directives having a bearing on particular spheres of existence, that is to say, on specific conduct, and, although in different manners, also having a permanent obligatory force.

a. One frequently encounters—and in a particularly accentuated manner in the New Testament writings—directives and obligations relating to fraternal love and love of one’s neighbor which often refer to the conduct of the Son of God (e.g., Phil 2:6£; 2 Cor 8:2-9) alluding to the words of the Lord. These demands, inasmuch as they remain general, take on an unconditional value as “the law of Christ’’ (Gal 6:2) and as “new commandment” (Jn 13:14; 15:12; 1 Jn 2:7f). In them the law of the Old Testament is “accomplished” (Gal 5:14; cf. Rom 13:8f.; also Mt 7:12; 22:40); that is to say, they are concentrated in the commandment of love and finalized by it. However, where the commandment of love is “incarnated” in these special concrete directives, one must verify if, and in what manner, judgments conditioned by the epoch and the particular historical circumstances color the fundamental requirement to the point where, in different circumstances, one would require only an application that was analogous, similar, modified, or motivated by the same intention.

b. Next to the commandment of love—but very often in the context of the requirement of love—the New Testament writings present other value judgments and moral directives which relate to particular spheres of existence. The “accomplishment” of the law by love (Gal 5:14; cf. Rom 13:8f.) places itself on the level of intentionality But love does not deprive other virtues or ways of behaving of their own consistency. It expresses itself through different ways of acting and virtues not fully identified with itself. One sees, for example (1 Cor 13:4—7; Rom 12:9f.), the moral teachings of the pastoral letters and the Epistle of James, especially the lists of virtues and vices and the domestic depictions of the New Testament writings.

aa. One must not forget that a large part of these particular value judgments and special directives present a very marked spiritual character and thus determine in that perspective the life of the community. The exhortations to joy (Phil 3:1; 12:15), to prayer without ceasing (cf. 1 Thess 5:17), to “divine folly” as opposed to the wisdom of the world (1 Cor 3:18f.), to indifference (1 Cor 7:29f.) are certainly permanent Christian precepts which go to the limit, which result in the “fruits of the Spirit” (cf. Gal 5:22). Others are “counsels” (1 Cor 7:17-27f.). A number of these spiritual directives are formulated in very concrete terms and cannot be followed today, as they stand, in the context of contemporary community relations (see only 1 Cor 11:5—14; Col 3:16; Eph 5:19). They retain, however, something of their original normative authority and demand to be “carried out” in a modified or analogous manner.

bb. As for particular value judgments and norms of moral conduct—in a special concrete sense—one would establish their obligatory moral character by considering in what way they are motivated by the fundamental theological-eschatalogical requirements or by the universal moral obligatory force or what Sitz im Leben they have in the communities. For example, this holds for the baptismal exhortations (cf. Eph 4:17-21), where the catechumens are confronted with the principal pagan vices such as impurity (1 Thess 4:9f.) and dishonesty (1 Thess 4:6). Such demands, just as the warning against idolatry (Gal 6:20f), are strongly thrown into relief by their own nature.

One cannot, however, ignore the fact that, in the case of several concrete moral value judgments referring to particular spheres of life, value judgments and real judgments conditioned by the epoch can condition morality and put it into perspective. If, for example, the writers of the New Testament considered woman as subordinate to man (cf. 1 Cor 11:2— 16; 14:33—36f.)—which is understandable for the epoch—it seems to us that on this question, the Holy Spirit has led contemporary Christianity, together with the modern world, to a greater intelligence about the moral requirements of the person. Even if one cannot indicate more than this one example in the writings of the New Testament, this should suffice to show that with regard to value judgments and directives about particular precepts therein, the question of hermeneutic interpretation cannot be sidestepped.


12. The majority of New Testament value judgments and directives call the believer to concrete forms of behavior toward the Father as he reveals himself in Christ and thus open out on a theological-eschatological horizon. This holds particularly true for the requirements laid down by Christ (I), but also for most of the apostolic directives (III, 3): the demands and the admonitions of this type would bind without condition and transcend the historic diversities. Even the value judgments and directives concerning particular areas of life participate to a great extent in this perspective, at least when they postulate in the most general manner the love of one’s neighbor as perceived in its connection with love of God and of Christ (III, 4a). Furthermore, the vast domain of the “spiritual” exhortations of the New Testament (III, 4, b, aa) is imbued with this theological-eschatalogical horizon and is defined by it. It is only in the domain—the relatively narrow one—of concrete and particular directives and operative norms (III, 3, b, bb) that the moral judgments and the exhortations of the New Testament should be rethought.

Our exposition thus in no way encourages the opinion according to which all the value judgments and directives of the New Testament would be conditioned by time. This “relativization” does not hold even in a general manner for the particular judgments which, in the great majority, can in no way be understood hermeneutically as pure “models” or as “paradigms” of behavior. Only a small portion of them can be considered as being subject to conditions of time and situation. But even so there are some. This means that in the face of these value judgments and directives, human experience, the judgment of reason and also the theological-moral hermeneutic have a role to play.

If this hermeneutic takes the moral force of the Scripture seriously, it cannot proceed either in a simply “biblicist” manner or according to a purely rationalist perspective in the search for criteria for a moral theology, for example, in the establishment of the moral character of acts. It would obtain positive results only in a spirit of “encounter”, that is to say, in the ever renewed confrontation of today s critical consciousness with the moral givens of the Scripture. It is only in listening to the word of God—Verbum Dei audiens (cf. DV 1)—that one can, without danger, interpret the signs of the times. This work of discernment should be done within the community of the people of God, in the unity of the sensus fidelium and of the Magisterium with the aid of theology.