Christian Morality

by Philip Jones

Hensley Henson, Christian Morality (1936), the Gifford Lectures of 1935-6.  Hensley Henson (1863-1947) was Bishop of Durham during the interwar period.

Jesus and Judaism

The earliest Christian preaching had a simple twofold message:

(1) the Resurrection of Jesus and

(2) a call to repentance (p.39).

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life (miracles, parables etc) came later (p.40).

However, the Gospels provide the mode of repentance: ‘it is … in the life and teaching of Jesus that [we] must find the supremely authoritative version of … duty’ (p.54).  For this reason, the historical character of the Gospels is ‘vital’ to Christian morality.

Christianity, hence Christian morality, ‘is unique in attaching vital importance to the personal character of the Founder’ (p.301).  It has always been part of Christian tradition that Christ was without sin.  Even non-Christians who deny Christ’s divinity, Resurrection and miracles are still prepared to accept His sinlessness (p.302).

Judaism anticipated Jesus’ teaching to some extent.  By the time of Jesus, Judaism was a ‘book’ religion, concerned with rules of behaviour more than with sacrifice: ‘the pharisees controlled the synagogue, the sadducees controlled the Temple’ (p.69).

As the Jewish religion became more personal and ethical, and less communal and sacrificial, it began to reach out to the pagan world (pp.72-3).  ‘Every synagogue became a missionary centre’ (p.74).

Christian morality, inspired by the teaching of Jesus, continued the moral trend of Judaism, but went further.  Jesus ‘stood at the parting of the ways’ of the two Judaisms, the nationalist and the universalist.  He also ‘broke the paralysing bonds of pharisaic legalism’ (p.84).

Specifically, Jesus advanced beyond contemporary Jewish morality in 3 respects:

(1) His message was universal, addressed to all humanity, not just to a particular race

(2) He opposed the ‘mechanical’ concept of duty taught by the pharisees and

(3) He was progressive in His attitude to women (p.99).

Tension and Genius

Christianity teaches that man is born to original sin, and yet contains an essential goodness, being made and loved by God.  Therein lies the tension between

(1) self-discipline (which is necessitated by original sin) and

(2) self-expression (which is demanded by essential goodness) (pp.190-1).

Jesus’ earthly life was partly ascetic (celibacy, fasting in the wilderness) and partly non-ascetic (turning water into wine, dining with worldly companions) (cf.p.192).  Christianity likewise has both an ascetic and a non-ascetic character.  Therein lies another source of tension.  All religions have an ascetic tradition (p.190).

The Sermon on the Mount ‘provides the most complete version of essential Christian morality which the Church possesses’  (p.254). However, it is not simply ‘a manual of conduct to be precisely followed’ (p.253).  Applying the principles of the Sermon to changing practical circumstances involves ‘the painful and repulsive necessity of learning and unlearning [to achieve] sound knowledge’ (p.290).

St. Paul’s letters show how Jesus’ teaching was applied in the earliest Christian communities.  Paul was personally ascetic, but he did not ask his Churches to imitate his lifestyle.  His pastoral advice to them is ‘sober practical admonition’ (p.94).  The early post-Apostolic Church had a rigorous penitential system, but this ‘could hardly ever have been more than theoretical’ (p.133).  Christianity had nothing in common with stoicism (p.147).

Morality consists of unalterable principles, which are, however, applied to ‘ever novel conditions of life’ (p.138).  The soundness of a principle is proved by its applicability to a new situation.  Thus Christian morality must be both unalterable and adaptable at the same time.  If it is not adaptable, morality is reduced to ‘an unnatural and impracticable idealism’ (p.149).

The genius of Christianity was that it ‘purified, stimulated and completed whatever in the world was congruous with itself’ (p.147).  Christianity prevailed because it ‘is alone genuinely natural’ (p.189).  Thus true morality consists in enabling people to become what they truly are.

This ‘unique genius of assimilation … distinguishes Christianity from every other religion’ (p.150).  The influence of Christian morality is shown in the fact that ‘Christian civilization has become in the modern world the norm of civilization itself’ (p.161).

Prevailing social custom and convention may be the chief enemies of true Christian morality (cf.p.44).  However, ‘Christianity ever stoops to conquer … acquiescence is … the weapon by which the Christian religion conquers the hostile forces in its secular environment, and slowly but surely introduces its own transforming spirit’ (p.275).

Sexual Morality

Early Christianity practised a strict sexual morality.  This was partly a reaction against contemporary pagan religion.  Pagan worship ‘was linked so closely with sexual licence that in Christian eyes the two were inseparable’ (p.133).

However, sexual morality remains at the heart of Christianity.  It cannot be dismissed merely as a reaction against pagan practices of 2000 years ago.  Hard though it may seem, Christian morality does demand ‘holding the animal passions … under the control of the higher instincts of man’s nature … at whatever cost of inner conflict’ (p.220).  ‘[T]he true law of [man’s] nature can only be his Creator’s Will.’

Jesus’ teaching on sexual matters was the most original aspect of all His teaching (p.199).  He was celibate, thereby constituting virginity as ‘the specifically Christian virtue’ (p.197, quoting Harnack).  He enjoined purity and condemned divorce (p.199).

The basis of Jesus’ sexual teaching is monogamy.  Its purpose is the protection of women and children, though also to serve ‘the deepening and sweetening of the man’s character which follows the birth of his child’ (cf.p.209).

However, the indissolubility of marriage is, on Henson’s view, a Christian ideal (p.202) rather than the legal characteristic which it became in the middle ages (p.200).  There is ‘no rule with respect to divorce which can properly claim to be … Christian’ (p.201).  The Christian attitude to divorce, above all, may illustrate the tension between unalterable principle and adaptable application.

The Lambeth Conference of 1930, which gave a guarded approval to artificial contraception, marked ‘a decisive breach with ecclesiastical tradition’ (p.217).  Earlier Lambeth Conferences had condemned the practice.  As Henson wrote elsewhere, the term ‘birth control’ is really just a euphemism for birth prevention.

However, the 1930 Lambeth resolution may be consistent with Christian morality, to the extent that it requires that ‘Christian parenthood … must imply a frank recognition of all sound and relevant knowledge’ (p.218).  This may mean that contraception, on Henson’s view, can be justified as an act of responsible parenthood, but not so as to create a new type of sexual relationship not involving parenthood. 

Social Morality

In the 19th century, responsibility for charitable relief (of poverty and sickness) and for education passed from the Church to the secular state, ‘a power plainly superior to the Church in [practical] effectiveness’ (p.251).  This has caused the Church, perhaps for the first time in its history, to support greater power for the secular state.  Historically, the Church has usually been in the position of demanding autonomy from the state, not wishing more power to the state.

The reason for the Church’s conversion to the cause of secular state intervention is, of course, the noble Christian aims of improving social conditions and relieving poverty and distress.  However, giving all responsibility for welfare and education to the secular state carries the danger of totalitarianism.  People will look to the state, not to the Church, for their moral guidance and ‘salvation’.  The Church itself will become secularised as a result.  It will have nothing left to do except to support the state, or indeed to criticise the state for not intervening enough in society.

Henson opposes a socialist emphasis on ‘equality’:  ‘Since men are unquestionably unequal, and the extent of their risks and labours varies indefinitely, equity itself authorises a large inequality of recompense’ (p.276).

Free-market capitalism is also preferable and superior to the slavery and feudalism which it replaced (p.276).  However, Protestant-inspired capitalism and the famous Protestant ‘work-ethic’ are too reliant on the ‘inferior morality’ of the Old Testament, with its dubious ‘association of divine favour and mundane prosperity’ (p.278).

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