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Chapter 35: The Truth of Christ Lives in His Church

Appendix 4: Moral teaching in the New Testament

Joseph Fuchs, S.J., grants that there is some absolute and universally valid moral content in the New Testament, but he wishes to limit it to the commendation of values and attitudes, and to general principles—such as the requirements of fidelity and obedience to God, of the following of Christ, of life according to faith and baptism (or, in John, faith and love). He recognizes also that specific norms of behavior, which he calls “operative,” are proposed in both the Gospels and the Epistles. These Fuchs admits to be absolute, in the sense of being objectively valid for their time, but he denies they are universally valid. Thus he refuses to accept arguments from the New Testament against justifying exceptions to those moral norms which set definite requirements, such as that excluding adultery.67

With respect to the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Fuchs admits that it contains absolutely—that is, objectively—valid norms. He then goes on: “The question is: absolute validity, as what—as universal norms, or as models for the behavior of the believing and loving citizens of God’s kingdom who will be ready for such modes of conduct, perhaps, under determined conditions not individually specified by the Lord? The latter interpretation seems probable from the context and manner of expression. In recent years there has been renewed and heated discussion of the Lord’s word about the indissolubility of marriage (Mt 19.3–10). Regarding the scope of this word, it is asked: Is it a question of a moral imperative or of something more? Is the moral imperative to be understood as a norm to be followed as universal practice or as ideal? The discussion makes at least this much clear: The acceptance of an absolute in the sense of an objectively valid moral affirmation in Scripture does not necessarily involve recognizing it as an absolute in the sense of a universal norm.”68

Fuchs, of course, is right in saying that the status of the norms in the Sermon on the Mount has been questioned, and that some interpreters regard them as ideals—that is, as counsels which Christians might try to live up to when they feel ready to do so. He also is right in saying that there has been much discussion of the Lord’s word on indissolubility of marriage; such discussion has been going on for several hundred years. The question is: Does such questioning and discussion establish anything against the Church’s teaching?

Rudolf Schnackenburg, a competent Catholic exegete who has written on the moral teaching of the New Testament, discusses the question of the practicability of the moral teaching of Jesus. He points out that the Catholic theological tradition “firmly maintains both the possibility and duty of carrying out the moral commands of Jesus, but has felt bound to draw certain distinctions between them.”69 Precepts in the Sermon on the Mount need to be interpreted and delimited, but the distinction between commandments and counsels does not apply to it. The grace and mercy of God are the solution to the problem of practicability. Schnackenburg draws his own conclusion after criticizing various exegetical theories: “So then we must let the words of Jesus stand in all their severity and ruggedness. Any mitigation, however well intended, is an attack on his moral mission. But how Jesus judges those who fall short of his demands is quite another matter.”70 In other words, the moral teaching of Jesus is not the proposal of an ideal. Correct interpretation will recognize nonabsolute norms and their limits; hyperbolic language will be taken for what it is. But the propositions which are disengaged are to be taken as normative for conscience, not merely as ideals for aspiration.

Schnackenburg also discusses the passage on indissolubility which Fuchs mentions (see Mt 19.3–9) together with its parallels (see Mt 5.31–32; Mk 10.11–12; Lk 16.18; 1 Cor 7.10–11), and concludes that the prohibition of remarriage is a universal norm; he does not even consider the possibility that this norm is an ideal.71 Against the notion that this norm is an ideal stands the weight of Christian tradition, including the views of separated Christians who argued that the prohibition of remarriage admitted exception in cases of adultery. Their argument would have been unnecessary and pointless if anyone had thought the prohibition of remarriage a mere ideal.

Fuchs also discusses St. Paul’s moral teaching. He begins by noting that Paul ascribes some moral norms to the Lord and others to his own insight. Fuchs next claims that Paul presupposes most of the moral norms he teaches, taking them from the moral wisdom of the good people of his time. From this Fuchs concludes: “Paul does not present himself as a teacher of moral living, still less as a teacher of specifically Christian norms of conduct.” He thinks Paul took his moral ideas from Stoic, Judaic and diaspora-Judaic sources. Was this morality not historically and culturally conditioned? Fuchs takes Paul’s teaching on the position of women in marriage, society, and the Church as a self-evident instance of directives conditioned by the times. Perhaps all of the moral teaching was binding only for Paul’s own time? “For the affirmation that certain explicitly mentioned modes of conduct ban one from the kingdom of God, from companionship with Christ and from the life given by the Spirit remains true if these modes were to be judged negatively, in accordance with the moral evaluation proper to the age and accepted by Paul. Paul therefore did not teach such evaluation as thesis, but admitted it as hypothesis in his doctrinal statement on the Christian mystery of salvation.”72 Fuchs admits that these considerations do not show that the norms of behavior found in the New Testament are no longer valid today. Nevertheless, later in his article, he proceeds on the assumption that there are no universal and permanently valid moral norms in Scripture.73

The first thing to be noted about Fuchs’ argument is that it is not valid. The fact that St. Paul adopts some moral norms from the existing wisdom of his time—especially from the Judaic wisdom which itself had developed in the light of faith—does not show that Paul does not present himself as a teacher of moral living. In the passage quoted from Fuchs, the sentence beginning, “Paul therefore did not teach such evaluation as thesis . . .,” does not follow from anything which precedes it. The illicit deduction probably was made because of an assumption that moral norms bearing on properly human goods could not pertain directly to the message of salvation.

The second point to be noted is that Paul does propose some norms as counsels, others as prudential guides in particular situations, and others in other ways. There are several specific moral norms which appear to be presented as universal and categorically binding for Christians: “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6.9–10). This passage is used by the Council of Trent when it makes the point that the grace of justification is lost not only by unbelief, but by every mortal sin (see DS 1544/808).

Like Jesus himself, Paul was careful to discriminate what Christians had to accept from the earlier tradition of Israel. The diligence he shows in liberating his converts from unnecessary requirements of the law argues strongly that any demands Paul assumes from the Judaic tradition are believed by him to be essential for the salvation of Christians. Paul believes that the greatest possible transformation of human nature has occurred in Jesus; anything which survives this transformation can hardly be in his eyes a mere expression of the Jewish ethos.

The thesis that Paul borrowed heavily from Stoic and other popular morality of the time needs to be proved, and Fuchs offers no proof for it. Against it stand very substantial exegetical studies, which minimize the borrowings of the authors of the New Testament Epistles, including Paul, from Greek sources, and find in the Epistles a pattern of moral teaching which suggests that underlying them is a primitive Christian catechism, probably developed for the instruction of the catechumens and the recently baptized.74

Finally, it seems impossible to reconcile Fuchs’ position with the use which the Church always has made and continues to make of the New Testament. The Epistles are read for the purpose of instructing the faithful. When the Epistle has been read, the lector affirms: “This is the word of the Lord.” If Fuchs were correct, the Church should have the lector say: “These are words of Paul the Apostle, adopted from the Stoic, Judaic, and Diaspora-Judaic ethos, valid in his day absolutely, and perhaps, but not necessarily, relevant to you today. It all depends on whether these ideas correspond to the moral convictions of upstanding members of our present secular humanist, post-Christian society.”75

67. Joseph Fuchs, S.J., “The Absoluteness of Moral Terms,” in Readings in Moral Theology: No. 1: Moral Norms and Catholic Tradition, ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 97–98.

68. Ibid., 98.

69. Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Moral Teaching of the New Testament (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965), 82.

70. Ibid., 88.

71. Ibid., 132–43.

72. Fuchs, op. cit., 99–100.

73. Ibid., 100–106.

74. See Philip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Catechism: A Study in the Epistles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940), 88–89 (summary); Edward Gordon Selwyn, The First Epistle of Peter: The Greek Text, with Introduction, Notes, and Essays (London: Macmillan, 1958), 437–39 (summary); David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London: Athlone Press, 1956), 90–105, esp. 102–3: “Everything points to the existence of early Christian codes of duties in Hebrew, from which the participles of correct practice crept into the Greek of the epistles. Freedom in the spirit did not relieve the Church of the necessity of insisting on a definite moral order.” Forcefully opposing pagan corruption and carefully prescinding from elements of the Judaic law not essential to Christian life, the apostolic Church appropriated the revelation in Jesus of what persons should be; the result was moral formation in the way of Christ which is valid always for anyone prepared to help transform human nature from its fallen condition into perfect conformity with his renewed image of God (see GS 22, 38, 41, and 45).

75. Some might challenge the Church’s liturgical use of Scripture on the basis of Scripture scholarship. But modern Scripture studies developed under the influence of rationalism and suffered, just as did moral theology, from the influence of rationalist conceptions of method. See Dennis J. McCarthy, S.J., “God as Prisoner of Our Own Choosing: Critical-Historical Study of the Bible, Why and Whither,” Proceedings of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, 1979 Convention: Historicism and Faith, ed. Paul L. Williams (Scranton, Pa.: Northeast Books, 1980), 17–47. Until the methodology is reconstructed from the ground up, a genuinely critical attitude requires a certain reserve. Moreover, such scholarship in the very nature of the case cannot be an exact science, and competent people are divided on fundamental issues. For example, there have been many changes since 1800 on the important question of the dating of the books of the New Testament, and the correct resolution is still argued: John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1976), 1–7 and passim; E. E. Ellis, “Dating the New Testament,” New Testament Studies, 26 (1980), 487–502.