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Christian Morality

1935 to 1936
University of St. Andrews

In the introduction to Christian Morality, the author points out that Tertullian and Bishop Butler agree in affirming the naturalness of Christianity; and General Smuts, in his rectorial address, makes the same assumption, identifying human with Christian. Henson then argues that the moral presuppositions of Western civilization are historically Christian; however, the affinities of morality are with religion, and only with theology in so far as it expresses religion. For the author, Christianity is confessedly that version of natural religion which is the most highly developed. Overall, Henson means to propose a new method. Instead of arguing from philosophy to theology and from theology to morality, he suggests that the process may serviceably be reversed, and we may argue back from morality to the theology which inspires and determines it and from the theology to the philosophy which properly it supposes.

Having stated his method, the author then turns to the authority of the New Testament and suggests that a student of Christian morality is bound first to satisfy him- or herself as to the quality of the material, in part because critical questions can no longer be decided by ecclesiastical authority. He further discusses form-criticism, the historical character of the Gospels, Lightfoot’s Bampton lectures, John Stuart Mill’s Three Essays and Klausner’s testimony to the historicity of the Synoptics.

In chapter 3, ‘The Jewish Legacy’, Henson argues that the dominant factor in the development of Christian morality has been the bequest of Judaism. The author explores how the teaching of morality by parable was a familiar Jewish method which Jesus perfected, and he posits that Jesus stood at the parting of the ways between rabbinical teaching and Christian morality. According to Henson, then, Christian morality was originally a synthesis of Judaism and the teaching of Jesus. While the author finds the Synoptic Gospels unintelligible apart from their Jewish background, he points out that Jesus broke away from the established ethical tradition in three points: 1) its national limitations; 2) its mechanical conception of duty; and 3) its treatment of women: apart from marriage and maternity, women had no place in Judaism.

Regarding Christian morality in history, Henson suggests that although Christianity took over the vocabulary of the Greek philosophers, it did not take over their ideas. Thus, it is an exaggeration to say that Christian ethics are mainly Stoic. Nevertheless, according to the author, there has always been reciprocity of influence between the church and the world. More specifically, Henson asserts that the union of pagan tradition and Christian principle effected a gradual transformation of the whole concept of power. Eventually, Christianity and de-Christianized civilization grow apart as the latter loses contact with nature and sets itself on a course of moral deterioration. Henson next argues that Christian morality is now, in some respects, higher than in the past. He finds this moral advance explicable by the conditions of Christian development, which exhibit both progress and deterioration.

In chapter 8 and following, Henson addresses specific issues of morality such as sex, race, the State and industrialism, respectively. Regarding sexual morality, the author believes that the Christian view is often misconceived as irrationally ascetic. According to Henson, Jesus, though non-ascetic, suggested ascetic ways of life. Thus, the situation of the early Christians stimulated this ascetic tendency. More importantly for the author, however, Christianity exists in sharpest collision with non-Christian society, ancient and modern, in sexual morality, because of its views on the equality of the sexes, marriage, the family and parenthood.

As for race, the author finds racial problems complicated by connection with economic and political interests, e.g., slavery. Henson further discusses the influences of vast industry, such as mines and factories, on ‘savage’ and ‘semi-civilized peoples’ who possessed most of what were considered ‘indispensable raw materials’. In such instances as well as in urbanization, monopoly and war, the author posits that Christian morality, although possessing redeeming features, is not without a black record.

Next, in an evaluation of the State, the author argues that Christianity affected a revolution in the concept of civic duty, for a single allegiance to the State proves impossible for Christians. He further considers the case of military service and concludes that it is the obligation of every Christian citizen to decide for himself the justice of war and national policy. As for himself, Henson finds few wars really just, and he further suggests that Christians should be wary of nationalism, which he understands as the principle root of war.

Regarding industrialism, the author posits that its development within Christendom has wrongly led to the assumption that it has an affinity with Christianity. Henson does concede that industrialism proves an inevitable parasite of historic Christianity and that its roots are deep in medieval life. He compares industrialism with slavery and feudalism, and argues that its mischiefs flow from certain monstrous exaggerations that often demoralize both workers and their employers. Overall, Henson suggests that Christian morality influences and is influenced by the economic system and therefore proves fundamental to the ‘franchises of humanity’.

Finally, Henson asks: In what sense can Christian morality be said to be not only natural and developing, but also final? He answers this question by positing Jesus as the norm of personal morality. Henson finds the morality of Jesus marked by three characteristics: 1) personal goodness, 2) social service, and, 3) self-sacrifice. According to the author, these characteristics prove integral to the moral ideal which civilized persons are coming to acknowledge. Although these characteristics are acknowledged, the natural religiousness of humankind is not without challenge.

  • Kelly Van Andel, University of Glasgow