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Religion Library: Protestantism

Principles of Moral Thought

Written by: Ted Vial

Calvin was also clear that even those who are not saved can and should also have high moral standards. Calvin makes this case as he argues (against those who think that the doctrine of predestination makes God into an unloving tyrant) that God cares for and showers grace on all humans, the saved and the unsaved. On the list of things that God gives even the non-elect are reason and will: reason to discern the good, and will to follow the good. In other words, the fact that there are well-ordered human societies in which it is possible to live and prosper is the direct result of God's endowing humans, whether saved or not, with a moral sense and the will to obey it. (But again, according to Calvin, moral behavior will not get a person into heaven.) Moral standards are clear, Calvin thinks, simply through the observation of nature (which, like the Bible, Calvin compares to a book written by God in which God's nature and will can be discerned). And since sin has blurred the vision of nature, God has in addition given the scripture (which acts in Calvin's metaphor like a pair of spectacles to sharpen vision), to clearly outline what God expects.

Debates in the Protestant tradition about moral principles have often originated in different interpretations of the Bible or in different applications made of the teachings of the Bible. For a long period in American history there was a fair amount of agreement on moral principles found in the Bible, largely derived from the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17) and Jesus' teaching (especially the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 5:1–7:27). These include both moral virtues—such as honesty, marital fidelity, generosity, loving your enemies, business integrity, patience, care for the poor, humility, forgiveness—and Christian practices, such as regular prayer, almsgiving, fasting, community worship, etc. (The obvious exception to this common platform of values was whether the Bible allowed or forbade slavery.) Protestants joined together in the temperance movement, prison reform, labor laws, etc.

This general agreement fell apart in the early decades of the 20th century during the modernism controversies. Churches split over whether or not the Bible was compatible with Darwinism, and over historical criticism (the claim that the Bible is best understood as written by various authors for specific audiences in specific historical contexts, rather than as an inerrant message for all the ages). Liberals (modernists who want to accommodate science and historical criticism in their interpretations of scripture) tended to focus more intently on the biblical passages that emphasized social justice issues rather than those that addressed doctrine or personal piety, and therefore increasingly leaned toward political and cultural activism, such as civil rights, the ordination of women, the approval of same-sex relationships, abortion rights, etc. Conservatives tended to emphasize the biblical passages that addressed individual moral behavior and the salvation of souls, and therefore leaned toward issues of personal holiness, such as sexual chastity, avoidance of alcohol, regular prayer and worship, evangelism, etc.


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