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Theological Ethics

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Within the 21st century there is a lot of misunderstanding regarding to Theological ethics. Allot has changed since. Every Christian has different beliefs to what the right conduct of living a Christian life means.

Christians are accustomed to theological ethics, but not all to the same degree as it depends on one’s own perception, personality and biblical knowledge.

Most people misunderstand what theological ethics is, as they think to strictly about it, when in fact it’s actually simple. The Ten Commandments is not a complex application but merely a guideline within theological ethics. One should decide yourself what you regard as right and wrong. It all depends on your attitude and how you as a person were morally formed. What you consider as stealing and what the outcome of that action will be,
all depends on you.

Do you consider stealing as taking a cookie from someone’s cookie jar, or maybe when you “forgot” to return someone’s jacket after they borrowed it to you, because you liked wearing it so much, or do you first consider yourself stealing when you intentionally take something from someone with the means of them not knowing ever? It all depends on your personal theological ethics and the way you are morally formed.

The Ten Commandments were regarded as a set of guiding principles (norms & values) rather than an absolute law. (Ethics and Life: 20)

Yes, all Christians follow a normative approach towards what is right and what is wrong, but not all Christians believe at the same level. There’s a scale on which every person believes. For instance: “One ought not to kill” the norm is not to kill. For me as a Christian I would not consider myself killing a human being when it was merely a car accident. Another person would be terrified and consider themselves a killer and punish themselves emotionally for such a thing happening. To me the rule: “Do not kill” simply means not be a cold blooded killer which kills others for the mere excitement of it.

Every person living perceives their actions and attitudes in their own way. In the definition provided by Nürnberger, theological ethics is “a reflection on what ought to be and on how we can be liberated and motivated to bring it about” (Nürnberger 1984:9) Our ethics is mainly a reflection of our moral character, our choices and the consequences of these choices.

To live a theological ethical life is to live your life as a Christian, acting and living your everyday life in ways to administer a Christian influence on behalf of good and in opposition to evil. It’s behaving in ways to encourage others to be theologically ethical. Our daily behaviour should bring out the good in people, good attitudes and actions, resisting discouragement and sinful actions in all facets of life. Christians live towards the following norms: Worship only God, reject idolatry, do not use God’s name loosely, keep the Sabbath, honour your parents, do not commit murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony and do not covet. (Exod 20:1-18)

If every person fully committed themselves to the above mentioned norms, the crisis’s we face today would be minimized greatly.

Christian believers need to have the desire to live an ethical life and the desire to do the right things should be present in their soul. It’s not something that just happens overnight. A Christian’s whole life needs to be honest and well-mannered.

Our attitudes should not only affect the people surrounding us, but should affect the world we now live in and the one we will one day leave for our children to live in.

Ethical Theories & Approaches

Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

Augustine’s ethic was ‘eudaemonistic,’ he saw happiness as the goal of person’s way of life. He said you should first love God before you can achieve true happiness. The basis of ethics is love, and this should be the kind of love for God that directs people towards what is right and good. He also argued that God did not create evil and that evil wasn’t as powerful as goodness.

Augustine emphasized that moral motivation is not simply what you do, but how you do it. A moral action motivated by the good will of love equals a rightful action. Love will seek always to do what is honourable.

Gustavo Gutiérrez (1928)

Gutiérrez’s ethic argued that salvation has both earthly and physical content and that is not just a preparation for life after death. The most wrongful a person can be to himself is by refusing God’s love and opposing God’s kingdom. God’s salvation is to eliminate personal sins, suffering and cruelty.

He used Marxist analyses of society which included that the powerful dominate the thinking and institutions of their societies, which caused the exploitation and suffering of the poor to be accepted as ‘the way things are’. (What is a good life:77)

Gutiérrez challenged Christians to live according to a genuine spirituality – one that loves God and neighbour. He made Christians aware that morality cannot be restricted merely to personal righteousness and that God requires that justice and love also needs to be practised in society.

How moral formation takes place

Moral formation takes place through various building blocks, where the parents and the community where a child is brought up and the education a child receives through his/her school and church, including various other aspects influences how he/she is morally formed.

There are seven modes on how moral formation takes place. The first mode is discipline. Parents should apply non-aggressive discipline in a protective environment of the family so that children can learn habit formation which will inevitably result in self-discipline. Good discipline is linked to moral values.

Secondly, socialisation, parents need to set an example for their children as children observe and remember what their parents and teachers do and say, you become a role model to the child which then motivates the child to live by your actions and the norms and rules you set. Parents should teach their children the difference between what is right and what is wrong, but also leave space for the child to develop a sense of self-identity.

The third mode is transmission. The moral values in schools and churches should take place in an environment where the parents and teachers are supportive towards the child without depriving the child from his/her freedom and to make his/her own choices. Where one of these are absent, a child will be deprived from fully developing a sense of moral transmission. Children learn rules, notice what behaviours are acceptable and unacceptable, from comments made and facial expressions which states approval or vice versa.

Fourthly we have development. Moral development needs to include social, emotional and intellectual development, as you need to have a clearer understanding of morality, you need to know how to make moral judgements and you also need to know how to avoid indoctrination. Moral development can be fostered through debates, critical thinking and reflection.

Clarification follows by guiding people to reach a clearer understanding about their moral choices and to give them a moral basis for their lives. It helps them know their true potential and value and to feel they are accepted for who they are. Moral clarification gives someone the ability to organise and structure their own lives so they can create their own destiny.

Emotional formation is when you learn through your own emotions and learn how to react within the emotions you experience. This can only occur through healthy emotional development, where love and care are present. Neglectance in this area can cause permanent damage to a child, as love is a neurobiological need for every child and human being. A child’s emotional learning can be stimulated through: Observation, experience and understanding. Emotional formation teaches you to be sympathetic towards other people.

Lastly we discuss the last mode of moral formation which is Education for character. Character building means finding a balance between desires, the good and reason (Aristotle). The formation of moral character which leads to this mode is brought together through the six previous modes mentioned. Character formation takes place through telling stories and through the stories we are told. It helps individuals develop moral identity, to make moral evaluations and to act in responsible ways. It allows you to see yourself in a positive & confident way and to turn any situation presented to you into a challenge. A child formed through these seven modes should be able to strive to do that which is morally good.


Kretzschmar, L., Bentley, W., & Van Niekerk, A. (2009). What is a good life? An Introduction to Christian Ethics in 21st Century Africa. Parrow: AcadSA Publishing.

University of South Africa. (2004). Ethics and Life: Theological Ethics. Pretoria: University of South Africa.

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