Moral theology is the study of ethics and morals. It is also called Natural law by some scholars. These scholars make a distinction between Moral theology and Natural law. Natural law would be the consideration of ethical and moral issues without reference to sacred scripture. Whereas, Moral theology often makes reference to both natural law and holy scripture to arrive at its moral and ethical conclusions. For this article, Moral theology will be established without reference to scripture. After the moral principles are established, there will be reference made to scripture.
Moral theology (Natural law) recognizes that human beings have an inborn natural sense of good and evil. Human beings know that they would like to be treated in a good manner rather than an evil manner. For example, human beings preferred to be treated with kindness and respect. Hence, they naturally know that kindness and respect are positive virtues for them. Furthermore, human beings fear being murdered. Hence, human beings consider, universally and naturally, that murder is an evil moral act.
At a very fundamental level, Moral theology is a study of human nature. By contrast, Natural theology looks without and studies the universe that surrounds us to obtain a true knowledge of Allah (see Natural theology). Whereas, Moral theology looks within and studies human nature itself to discover moral principles. There is an underlying assumption that Allah is the Author of human nature and the cause of the moral sense that exists within human nature. Let’s develop this point further.
When we observe the created order around us, we find that animals lack a moral sense. They don’t appear to comprehend truth, justice, fairness, ethics, worship, or good and evil, etc. Their behavior is hormonal, instinctive, and part of their pre-programmed animal natures. Their apparent acts of kindness are not the result of rational thought and free-willed choice, instead their acts are determined by their animal nature with which they were created.
Human beings are creatures that are distinctly different from brute animals, because humans have a mind that can think rationally and make free-willed choices. Humans understand naturally the concepts of truth, justice, and equity. Since brute animals lack a nature that understands moral principles, they cannot be morally accountable creatures. Since human beings are rational animals that make free-willed choices, they are morally responsible beings. Now, it is important to notice that the distinctive difference between brute animals and human beings resides in the nature of the human mind. It is the fact that human beings have a intellectual mind that is capable of rational thought and making free-willed choices that causes human beings to be morally accountable creatures.
The behavior of human beings ought to be governed by their rational minds and not their animal appetites.
The rational human mind is the basis for the radical difference between animal behavior and human behavior. Animal behavior is genetically programmed by their nature. Whereas, human behavior ought to be rationally governed by the person’s intellect, such that good acts are chosen and evil acts avoided.
For example, both animals and human beings have basic bodily functions that create appetites. Both humans and animals get hungry. When hunger occurs, a brute animal seeks the best way to secure food without any moral or ethical qualms. Likewise, humans seek to secure food, but their animalistic appetite for food should be under the control and supervision of their intellect and moral sense. So, human beings have a standard of behavior that rises higher than merely satisfying their animal appetites. They must satisfy the higher demands of their rational and moral natures too.
When a person acts in accord with Natural law, they are praiseworthy. But, when a person violates the demands of Natural law, the person sins. Each person has a intellect and moral conscience that evaluates his/her actions. This means that each person has a inner moral sense and a rational intellect that tells him when he obeys or disobeys the natural law. When a person does evil, he has a sense of guiltiness. This is common to all of humankind. It applies to persons in South America as well as in Tibet. It reaches to the northern parts of Siberia as well as to the cities of North America.
Since the human moral sense is part of human nature, it is not something that can be arbitrarily selected. Moral values are not just personal preferences. They are not values that we can accept or reject at will. They are inescapable because they are part and parcel of our human nature. However, this does not mean that humans always act in a good and moral manner. But it does mean that they ought to act rationally and morally. And, when they simply serve their lower animal desires, they violate good morals.
The idea that human beings have a natural moral sense of good and evil has important consequence. First of all, human beings are morally accountable creatures before Allah. Secondly, all of humanity are morally responsible before Allah, because all of humanity have this moral sense and the duty to do good and to shun evil.
Thirdly, they have this knowledge independent of the teaching of a prophet, because Allah has endowed all humans with this moral sense within human nature. Thus, the knowledge of good and evil does not depend upon the prophetic office. Hence, the claims of an alleged prophet can be evaluated rationally and morally independent of the prophet’s assertions. Indeed, it is a moral imperative for each person to test the claims of an alleged prophet. It is a moral imperative because each person owes his first allegiance to Allah before he owes an allegiance to someone who claims to be a prophet. There have been many false prophets through out human history. So, there is every reason to be careful. As much as a prophet would like us to believe that all knowledge comes through his utterances, our first responsibility is to Allah who would have us use our rational intellect and moral sense to test the individual’s prophetic claims.
Fourthly, moral principles are discovered and not invented nor created by human convention. Since humans have a natural moral sense of good and evil, it is there to be discovered, investigated, and brought into clear focus. So, how are moral principles discovered? We can’t go merely go by what people do. The ‘fact’ is that people steal, murder, lie, and cheat, but these acts aren’t what people ‘value.’ In other words, there is a difference between ‘fact’ (what people may do at times) and ‘value’ (what we wished people would do). We value behavior that is kind, generous, fair, just, and friendly, and this is what people ‘ought’ to do. Morality and ethics is the study of the behavior that is ‘valued’ and what people ‘ought’ to do.
So, rather than observing the ‘actions’ of people, it is best to see their ‘reactions’ to acts done to them. In other words, how does a person react when a robber steals something from him? How does a person respond when a would-be murderer approaches him with a weapon? In both cases, the natural response is negative and fearful, because stealing and murder are both moral evils. Further, we observe that people value kindness and love shown to them. Hence, kindness and love are positive moral behaviors when they are consistent with reason. So, in practical and simple terms, moral value can be seen by observing how a person responds to acts done to them. So, the fundamental moral rule is to do unto others what you would like them to do to you.
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Matt 7:12 (NIV)
Please notice the underlying assumption. It is found in the expression “what you would have them do to you.” Would you like to be treated with respect and kindness? If this is the case, then you are morally obligated to treat other people with kindness and respect. If you or I violate this moral principle, we are guilty of violating the nature that Allah has implanted in us, and we are guilty of sinfulness before the morally perfect Allah. Jesus noted clearly that this was the message of all prophets.
Again, Jesus affirmed the natural moral law in its most positive form. He stated that the highest principle of ethics is love.
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matt 22:37-40 (NIV)
Love is a higher principle than kindness, toleration, and respect which are all good moral virtues. Again, we should notice that the appeal to love’s standard is not something outside of the person. Love’s standard is a standard that is within the person. It is a standard that the person naturally understands. We are to love our neighbors by the same standard that we love ourselves. To do less, is to deny our rational human nature, to be sinful, and to deserve the judgment of Allah.
The Apostle Paul bore witness to the moral sense that every human beings has. He called it the “the law written on the heart.” Even though the Gentiles did not have the Law of Moses, they had the moral law that was written on their hearts.
(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the [Mosaic] law, do by nature things required by the [Mosaic] law, they are a [Moral] law for themselves, even though they do not have the [Mosaic] law, since they show that the requirements of the [Moral] law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) Rom 2:14-15 (NIV)
The following is a quotation from the writings of a pagan Gentile who shows the truth of the Apostle Paul’s claim. Marcus Cicero (106-43 B.C.), the famous Roman stateman, wrote in his work entitled, “The Republic” these words,
“True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. And it does not lay its commands or prohibitions upon good men in vain, though neither have any effect on the wicked. It is a sin to try to alter this law, not is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, this is God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator, and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst penalties, even if he escapes what is commonly considered punishment.” The Republic III, Loeb Classical Library, p. 211
The first part of this article developed the concept that human beings are rational creatures who have an internal moral sense. It showed that, fundamentally, human beings understand how they would like to be treated; and, as a consequence, they ought to treat others as they would like others to treat them. Next, the sayings of Jesus were noticed that teach this same moral principle. The Apostle Paul and Marcus Cicero were quoted to show the universality of these rational and moral principles.
Before this article is concluded, let’s see how Jesus Christ taught that these principles should be applied to our daily lives.
Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:31-36 (NIV)
Notice that Jesus begins by stating the basic principle, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Our sin is that we limit the word, others, to those who love us. So, the measure of our moral state has nothing to do with how we respond to those who love us. The true measure of our moral state before Allah is how we love those who hate us. No matter who the others might be, our moral duty is to “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Allah sends the sunshine and rain upon all of humanity. Allah makes the crops to grow for the just and the unjust. Therefore, we should be merciful to all. If we do less than this, we act contrary to the true nature of Allah; and, therefore, we deserve the punishment and judgment of Allah for our behavior.
It is morally instructive to notice the answer that Jesus gave to an expert in the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic law states “…love your neighbor as yourself…” Lev 19:18 (NIV) This legal expert wanted to legally and religiously justify himself, so he inquired, who is my neighbor?
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:29-37 (NIV)
If the word, ‘neighbor,’ meant only our friend who lived next door, we could feel quite comfortable, thinking we had been fulfilling the commands of the Mosaic law. But, notice the four people involved in this story.
1. The person who was robbed and beaten. This person illustrates a totally helpless person who lacks money (robbed), health (beaten), decency (stripped of clothes), and strength (helplessly lying in the road). This person illustrates the true condition of sinners before Allah.
2. The priest. The priest was a very religious person who was respected and honored in the community of the Jewish faith. Sadly, the priest, when he saw the man half-dead, passed by on the other side of the road. For us, the behavior of the priest teaches us that religious self-righteousness is hated by Allah. We might be praised in our religious community for reciting prayers, loudly proclaiming our faith in Allah, paying our religious tax, fasting, and making many pilgrimages. But, before Allah, our religious behavior is utterly self-condemning, unless our love is able to flow to all others in healing and blessing.
3. The Levite. The Levite was a person of the tribe of Levi. This tribe had a number of religious and temple duties. Again, Jesus showed that religious rituals can be unproductive and sterile.
4. The Samaritan. The Samaritan was a person who lived in the city of Samaria. They were a people whose origins were both Jewish and Gentile (2 Kings 17:24). Hence, the city inhabitants were not respected by the Jews.
However, as Jesus noted, the Samaritan was a true neighbor to the person who was robbed, beaten and left on the road to Jericho. The priest may have taught thousands of persons the religious law and ritual, but he did not obey the law himself by loving his neighbor as himself. He did not know the first principle of the moral law. He did not know that ‘our neighbor’ reached out and included the destitute and the sinner. But, the Samaritan who was despised by the priest was the one who graciously and kindly obeyed Allah.
The Apostle James called the moral law, the royal law, in his writings.
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. James 2:8-10 (NIV)
If we show favoritism in the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we show that we are guilty and condemned sinner before the Holy and Just Allah. When we violate the basic and fundamental Law of Allah, we deserve the judgment of Allah for our sins.
Lepers were despised during the time of Jesus because leprosy was a feared and evil disease. It is instructive to note that the first miracle recorded in Matthew’s gospel was the healing of a leper. Jesus reached out to a class of people who were avoided by Jews and Gentiles alike. Jesus touched the leper.
A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cured of his leprosy. Matt 8:2-3 (NIV)
May Allah strength and guide us in love toward those whom we most despise. May we realize our sinfulness before His holiness. At our religious best, we are no better than sick lepers.
For books on the subject of Moral Theology, see Moral Theology references.
Last edited 01/10/2000