Essentials of Christian Ethics - Lesson 2

Augustine and Aquinas

In this lesson, you will gain insights into the ethical theories of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Augustine's ethical theory emphasizes a Christian view of God, human nature, and the grounding of moral laws in God. He discusses the interplay between law, love, character, virtue, and well-being, as well as his take on the four cardinal virtues. Aquinas' ethical theory focuses on human well-being, the moral order of the universe, and happiness (eudaimonia) with its imperfections. He explores the significance of good or bad actions and the importance of both cardinal virtues (borrowed from Plato) and theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) drawn from the New Testament.

Ronald Nash
Essentials of Christian Ethics
Lesson 2
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Augustine and Aquinas

I. Saint Augustine's Ethical Theory

A. Christian View of God and Human Nature

B. God as the Ground of Moral Laws

C. Law, Love, Character, Virtue, and Well-being

D. Augustine's View on the Four Cardinal Virtues

II. Thomas Aquinas' Ethical Theory

A. Human Well-being and Moral Order

B. Happiness (Eudaimonia) and its Imperfections

C. Good or Bad Actions

D. Cardinal and Theological Virtues

  • This lesson delves into the ethical thought of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, highlighting the similarities and differences in their perspectives on right and wrong conduct, the relationship between goodness and God, and the importance of virtues in shaping human behavior.
  • This lesson provides an in-depth analysis of the ethical theories of Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, exploring their perspectives on the Christian view of God, human nature, moral laws, happiness, and virtues, and how these concepts impact human well-being and moral behavior.
  • This lesson equips you to identify and avoid the pitfalls of five mistaken ethical approaches: legalism, antinomianism, situationism, generalism, and particularism, ultimately strengthening your ethical decision-making process.

Christian ethics is that branch of philosophy that deals with issues of right and wrong, true and false, and the reasons why certain behavior is right or wrong.

Dr. Ronald Nash
Essentials of Christian Ethics
Augustine and Aquinas
Lesson Transcript

[00:00:02] The following lecture is provided by biblical training. The speaker is Dr. Ronald Nash. More information is available at WW w dot Biblical training dot OIG. The next philosopher whose ethical theory we're going to examine will be the great Saint Augustine, the Christian philosopher who died in 430 A.D.. We make a major jump from Plato and Aristotle to Saint Augustine because all of a sudden now we're going to have a decidedly Christian view of God. Something missing from both Plato and Aristotle. The fact that all human beings carry the image of God, which is an important part of the Christian worldview, belief about human nature, the fact that all human beings carry the image of God, explains Wine for Augustine. We are capable of reasoning, we're capable of love, and we're capable of God consciousness. It also explains why we are moral creatures. Of course, sin yet another of Christianity's important presuppositions about human beings. So we heard nothing about sin with Plato and Aristotle. Now we hear a lot about sin with Saint Augustine. Sin has distorted the image of God and explains why humans turn away from God and why they turn away from the moral law. If we sometimes go wrong with regard to our emotions, conduct, and thinking because of the image of God, we should expect to find that the ethical principles of the Christian worldview reflect what all of us at the deepest level of our moral being know to be true. Augustine believe that God is the ground of the laws. I see. All of a sudden now we're in the realm of commandments. We're in the realm of laws. Something missing from Plato and Aristotle Augustine believe that God is the ground of the laws that govern the physical universe and that make possible the order of the cosmos.

[00:02:14] But God, for Augustine, is also the ground of the moral laws that ought to govern human behavior and that make possible order between humans. Christian Theism insists on the existence of universal more laws. The laws of morality must apply to all humans, regardless of when or where they have lived. Such laws must also be objective in the sense that their truth is independent of human preference and desire. People are attracted by the ethical relativism of our day, will have great difficulty understanding and appreciating Augustine's view of the moral life. Augustine argues for the importance of seeing that ethics has its ground in the perfect, unchanging character of God. The moral principles revealed in the Bible reflect the eternal character of God because He is wholly and without moral blemish. God commands us to obey commandments that reflect His character. In such a context, there is no room for ethical relativism, for concepts provide the foundation of Augustine's ethical theory. They are law, love, character, or virtue and well-being. Let's think first about the relationship between law and love. Augustine rejects any suggestion that law and love can be antithetical. No, Christian should ignore the place of law in the moral order. The Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20 are divine commands that provide indispensable guidance for human life. Another essential ethical passage in the Bible includes Jesus words in Matthew 22 words that summarize the first four Commandments our duties to God under the Single commandment Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. The last Six Commandments. Our duties to other humans are summarized by Jesus under the commandment Love your neighbor as yourself. Later in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul then throws additional light on the relationship between law and love.

[00:04:36] When he teaches in Romans 13 that love is the fulfillment of the law. God's law identifies sinful actions and tells humans how love ought to be manifested. Thomas Bigham summarizes a central dimension of Augustine's understanding of the relationship between love and the good life. Here's a quote A man is not happy if he does not have what he loves or if he has what he loves and it is hurtful, or if he does not love what he has, even though it is perfectly good. The happy life is quote when that. Which is man's chief. Good is both loved and possessed. Now, what did Augustine hold about character and virtue? A major function of the Christian ethic is the development of character and virtue. An evil person could on occasion appear to obey God's moral law while inwardly surrendering to evil motives. It is important that believers attain the appropriate virtues that is a disposition to behave in a moral way, a loving way. The New Testament emphasis upon character and virtue shows up in Paul's words in Galatians Chapter five versus 22 and 23. Why does God issue the commands that He does? Those commands reflect, as we noted earlier, when we talked about Plato. Those commandments reflect God's eternal and holy nature. They also point to the kind of conduct that people with the proper Christian virtues or dispositions will exhibit in their lives. And finally, as we develop in a fixed way the appropriate Christian virtues, we place ourselves in a position to experience the greatest joys of life according to a gust in the best and quickest way to miss out on the best that God and His world have to offer is to abuse God's law. Earlier, we talked about Plato's account of the four Cardinal virtues that becomes a staple of ethical think in many circles.

[00:06:55] In the centuries following Plato, Augustine offers his own interesting insights on those four cardinal virtues. Let me review what they were. There was temperance, There was courage, there was wisdom, and there was justice. While Augustine is well aware of the prominence of the four cardinal virtues in Greek ethical thinking, he offers a corrective from his perspective as a Christian thinker. Unless the cardinal virtues of unbelievers result from their desire to love and honor God, the best of pagan virtues, Augustine says, will be nothing more than splendid vices. Augustine's reason for saying this is his belief that unbelievers search for such virtues will be motivated by their selfish pride. Augustine offers an insight on the relationship between the four Cardinal Virtues and Christian love. Listen to what he says. Quote, Temperance is love keeping itself whole and uncorrupt for God. Fortitude is love bearing everything readily for the sake of God. Justice is love serving God only and therefore ruling well all else as subject to man. And prudence is love. Making a right distinction between what helps it toward God and what might hinder it has become. And Mulligan to authors I quoted earlier explain quote The for pagan virtues are transformed into Christian virtues. Only one faith that by which we love God. Not yet seen and hope that by which we love what we have not yet reached and love, which remains when faith has become sight and hope has been realized, undergird them. Augustine's commitment to the transcendent and objective moral law revealed in Scripture appears in his conviction that acts such as lying are always wrong. Clearly, then other acts prohibited in the Ten Commandments, such as murder, stealing and sexual immorality are also wrong, always and everywhere. My brief discussion of Augustine's ethical theory must close with an observation about another of his famous statements.

[00:09:24] He wrote, quote, Love God and do as thou wilt. Let the root of love be within of this root. Can nothing spring but what is good? End of quote. Some might say think how rapidly churches might grow if they would announce that if Christians act in love, they can do anything they please. But what Augustine meant when he said Love God and do what you please is this he meant. If we truly love God, what we will then desire to do and choose to do will be what will please the just and Holy God. Well, we're moving right along. We have one more stop to make in our journey of the ethical theories of the ancient and medieval great philosophers. And now we come to the ethical views of Thomas Aquinas. Both Agustin and Aquinas believe that human beings live in a universe governed both by physical and moral laws. One necessary condition for human well-being is the adjustment of our conduct to the physical and moral order of the universe. If someone exits a ten story window without a parachute, his well-being will be in jeopardy. Whenever we ignore the physical order of the universe, we place ourselves at risk. So our universe has a physical order and we had better obey it. But our universe also exhibits a moral order. The moral disregard for the moral orders of the universe may appear at times inconsequential. The dire consequences will become apparent eventually. Human behavior that violates the moral order of the world will negatively affect our well-being. The consequences of sin include afflictions of the human spirit, heart and soul. Earlier, when we looked at Aristotle's account of ethics, we paid attention to the prominence that the notion of happiness or eudaimonia played in Aristotle's system.

[00:11:36] Because Aquinas is indebted to Aristotle for many of his ideas, the notion of eudaimonia makes an appearance in acquaintances ethic as well. One common approach to the ethics of acquaintance is to see it as a form of eudaimonia. One common approach to the ethics of Aquinas is to see it as a form of you demon ism. Thomas agrees with Aristotle that all humans act with the aim of achieving happiness or eudaimonia. Nonetheless, Aquinas makes some significant modifications. In Aristotle's You Day Monism, one of which is the claim that true happiness is not attainable in this life, but only in heaven. The best that is available to us in this life is an imperfect version of happiness. What makes a human action, good or bad, is the extent to which it advances that person toward the good. All intentional acts may be judged good or bad, to the degree that they perfect us as rational beings. We notice the cardinal virtues. In Plato, we noticed Augustine's comments about the cardinal virtues. Well, Aquinas also has things to say about the cardinal virtue. Thomas teaches that God has given humans to guides to morally good acts. Virtues guide us from within and laws guide us externally. Thomas follows Aristotle in defining virtue as a disposition that results from our performing good acts. When we practice the moral virtues, both our works and our character are perfected. Virtue has a positive effect on our mind and will. Thomas also agrees that moral virtue is a mean between vices. Furthermore, Thomas draws a distinction between the four cardinal virtues, borrowed this time from Plato and the three theological virtues faith, hope and love that are drawn from the New Testament. The cardinal virtues for Aquinas are prudence, courage, temperance and justice.

[00:13:53] Same as for Plato. Thomas says cardinal virtues are natural in the sense that they are known not by special revelation such as Scripture, but they are known from general revelation in the created nature of things. The cardinal virtues are relevant to all humans, not just Christians. Temperance means moderation. Temperate people keep their sensual desires under control by means of reason. Intemperate people are childish. Courage is steadfastness in the face of danger. Prudence is wisdom applied to behavior. Prudence seeks the best means to a chosen end. However, Thomas adds, Prudence does not give us a moral end. Rather, it presupposes it just as means giving other people their due. Corresponding to these four cardinal virtues are the theological virtues. The three theological virtues Faith, hope and love are known by special revelation and are attainable only by believers. The theological virtues prepare us for the most perfect kind of happiness that which results from our knowledge of God. Faith, hope and love are theological virtues for three reasons God is their object, and their proper orientation is toward God. Only God can infuse them in us. The only way we can come to know these virtues, the theological virtues, is through the divine revelation God has given us in Scripture. Faith leads our minds to see truth and guides our wills to assent, to truth. Hope is the disposition that leads us to seek God's assistance in the attainment of eternal happiness. It inclines us toward our final end. Love is a gift of the Holy Spirit that inclines us toward fellowship with God. In turn, our love of God is the ground for our love of neighbor. As Jesus taught in Matthew 22. All of the Ten Commandments are related to our loving God and loving our neighbor.

[00:16:11] Love is the foundation of the virtues. It is also what moves us toward the other virtues. We're still not through with acquaintances ethics, but we now move in a slightly different direction. Thomas Aquinas is justly famous for his distinction among four kinds of law eternal law, natural law, human law, and the divine law. Now, if you happen to have a copy of my book, Life's Ultimate Questions on page 185, there's a very helpful diagram. It looks like an alien, a space alien or something. But I think it's the best way I know to indicate the relationships between eternal law, natural law, divine law, and positive law. If you don't own the book, then I cannot. Those of you who can look at that picture on page 25, you know why it's impossible to describe it to someone who does not have that picture. But we'll do what we can to explain this to you. The first kind of law is eternal law. Eternal law is the law of God that applies to all of creation. The eternal law includes both moral laws and the physical laws that govern all of nature. Eternal law is God's mind conceiving and determining everything that exists. Every other form of law flows from the eternal law. The second kind of law for Aquinas is natural law. Natural law is the part of eternal law that applies exclusively to human beings. Natural law is one of the ways by which humans participate in the eternal law. The natural law is written on the human heart. It is grounded in human nature. The content of the natural law corresponds to humankind's basic inclinations when they are not corrupted or impeded by sin. Since Thomas believed our natural human tendency inclines toward the good, the most general statement of the natural law is to do good and avoid evil.

[00:18:35] The central message of natural law is that humans should do good and avoid evil while evil acts are incompatible with human reason, good acts accord with our rational nature. Obviously, human reason can be wrong. Our human reason functions only as the basis for natural law, as it participates in God's eternal reason. Obeying the natural law consists of following freely our natural human striving for good. The natural law expresses what human beings would naturally strive for, provided they are not impeded by sin. The third kind of law goes by two names. It is sometimes called human law. It is sometimes called positive law. What Aquinas has in mind here is the result of human efforts to govern themselves. It is the attempt of human reason to formulate practical laws based on natural law. And then finally, we have the Divine law. Aquinas taught us God's moral law has two sides. On the one side, we find the supernatural law that is revealed in Scripture. On the other side, we find the natural law as it is sometimes discovered by human reason. Since both laws have their source in God, they can never conflict. Divine law is God's eternal law communicated to humans through special revelation. It is the revelation of God's moral law through the Bible to believers. While Aquinas suggests that natural law is for unbelievers, and God's divine law is for believers, this is too simple. Life is full of circumstances when believers for one reason or another, can be aided by their knowledge of the natural law. And one unbelievers can be instructed in the content of revealed morality. I want to close my discussion of Aquinas by stressing the significance of his theory of natural law. We live in a day when many politicians criticize and attack religiously oriented people because of their commitment to a doctrine of natural law.

[00:21:01] This does not speak well for many of our nation's leaders or for many who operate in the realm of the court systems in this country. One of Aquinas more important contributions was his linking ancient non-Christian theories of natural law to the biblical understanding of the moral life. One way to approach the subject of natural law is to consider how often humans criticize human laws as wrong. Examples that come easily to mind are the policies of Nazi Germany that led to the Holocaust or the barbarous acts perpetrated by leaders of the Soviet Union against millions of their own people. Whenever people resist a human law because of its perceived wrongness, those condemning the law appeal, whether they know it or not, to a higher moral law. Most law schools choose to remain silent or hostile toward the notion of natural law. Advocates of a position known as legal positivism insist that no such higher laws exist. Legal positivism leaves us with little recourse in the face of immoral or unjust laws. Aquinas rejected the move to reduce all law to positive or human law. He believed that human law ought to be dependent on natural law, which provides legitimacy to human positive law. The protection of human rights is impossible unless those rights are protected by positive laws that reflect the content of natural law. Natural law applies to all human beings, not only Christians. This makes it possible for natural law to function as the ground for positive law in societies composed of people representing diverse religions and religious convictions. Because natural law is transcendent, it can function as a set of rules governing not only individual behavior, but also relations between nations. Unless there is a natural law common to all humans, regardless of their location in history or geography.

[00:23:21] There is no objective ground for judging the immoral behavior of evil tyrants because natural law applies to all human persons and societies and nations. It provides a basis to distinguish between our duty as human beings, as opposed to our Christian duties. The message of the natural law is practice justice. The message of the Divine Law is practice, justice, love and personal righteousness. Human beings. Access to natural law immediately via reason. The reason natural law is the same for all human beings is because human nature is similar. Therefore, neither the ultimate transcendent foundation of the natural Moore's Law nor its promulgation by the practical reason means that natural law is arbitrary or could be otherwise than it is human reason Promulgates the law through reflection on human nature. Human reason imposes the obligations of the natural law. But these duties are grounded on our human nature. The moral law is both natural and rational. It is impossible for natural law to change since its foundation is unchanging human nature. The source of the natural law is the eternal law that exists in God. The eternal law is not an arbitrary law resting only in a changeable, divine will. It is grounded instead in the reason of God. Some Christians object to the concept of natural law on the grounds that it compromises the purity of Scripture by synthesizing it with ideas of pagans like Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. While these ancient philosophers acknowledged natural laws that hardly involved Christians in any compromise of their faith. Plato and Aristotle also believed that two times two equals four. I don't know many Christians rushing to abandon the multiplication tables because that knowledge is shared with unbelievers. Moreover, natural law ethics would hardly appear plausible if no unbeliever had ever taught it.

[00:25:44] Such thinking in important philosophers outside of the sphere of biblical influence is what we should expect to find if the theory of natural law is true.