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Ethics is the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition. Ethics as a separate discipline cannot be distinguished in the tradition of the Church. In recent times, however, the dialogue between Orthodoxy and the modern world has led to several works on ethics by Orthodox theologians such as Fr. Stanley Harakas, Georgios Mantzarides, Christos Yannaras, and Vigen Guroian. They approach Orthodox ethics from the perspective that ethical issues are addressed throughout the life of the Church. Scripture, worship, patristic writings, and canon law are examples of loci of ethical teaching in the life of the Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox approach to ethics is soteriological, i.e., ethics is understood from the perspective that salvation is the ultimate goal of man. Since in the Orthodox understanding salvation is intrinsically connected with Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity, the starting point of an Orthodox approach to ethics is the Trinitarian God. It is in God and in the relationships among the persons of the Holy Trinity that we find our goals as human beings, as individual human beings and members of a community, e.g., family, church, society.

Just as Orthodox anthropology defines man in terms of relationships (with God, with other human beings, with the rest of creation), Orthodox ethics takes place in the context of relationships within a community. Since the 'model community' is that of the Holy Trinity and relationships within the Trinity are determined by the divine Love, the ultimate ethical norm in Orthodoxy is love. Love as an ethical norm finds satisfactory rationale only within the framework of the Christian faith and the experience of the Holy Trinity. The love that we express in our relationships and which forms the basis of our ethical judgment is a limited expression, due to our limitations as created beings, of Trinitarian love.

The expression of love in our daily lives forms the moral life and the ethics of the Orthodox faithful. Once again, this moral life is based on anthropology and soteriology: for the Orthodox, moral life is growth in the likeness of God; the transfiguration of our life known as theosis. Part of this transfiguration is, according to Fr. Stanley Harakas, the doing of good, being moral and developing a stable character. Thus, moral life is at the same time a struggle against evil, sin, and fallenness, and an active effort towards the good.

Ethics in Scripture

A representative example of Scriptural ethical teaching is Matthew 5:38-39: "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, 'Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.'" The evaluation of this statement in the context of Orthodox ethics is once again done from a soteriological perspective. The truth of Christ's statement can be seen in the popular experience that violence begets more violence. Therefore, the statement constitutes a ground rule for our behavior. However, if turning the other cheek is detrimental to the other's salvation (e.g., by reinforcing a pattern of violence) then it may not be the appropriate course of action. Other common scriptural sources of ethical teaching include the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount.

Ethics in the Sacraments

The primary locus of transfiguration in the Orthodox Church is the Liturgy. It is in the Liturgy that we come to the fullest experience of God. St. Gregory Palamas affirmed that knowledge of God is intrinsically moral and transformational. One "cannot experience God in purity, unless one purify oneself through virtue" (St. Gregory Palamas, Triads). We also see in the content of the liturgical petitions and priestly prayers certain ethical precepts, such as peace, charity, and forgiveness. The anaphora of St. Basil also shows us a number of ethical precepts which should guide our lives: "Remember, Lord, those living in chastity and godliness, in asceticism and holiness of life. [...] preserve their marriages in peace and harmony; nurture the infants; instruct the youth; strengthen the aged; give courage to the faint hearted; reunite those separated. [...] defend the widows; protect the orphans; liberate the captives; heal the sick."

The Liturgy, however, is not the only locus of ethical instruction among the services. In baptism we reject Satan and place ourselves on God's side. The prayers indicate that a life in Christ is expected to have an ethical dimension ("that s/he may walk in the paths of your commandments"). In the marriage service, the prayers mention giving to those in need mutual obedience. Similar examples can be drawn from other sacraments and services.

Ethics in Patristic Writings

Patristic examples of ethical exhortations abound. St. John Chrysostom concludes most of his homilies with such considerations. For example, Homily 22 on the Gospel of St. John says, "it is impossible, though we perform ten thousand other good deeds, to enter the portals of the Kingdom without alms-doing." In Homily 60 he concludes, "Considering all these things, and how much good we shall work both to those within the prison, and to ourselves, by being continually mixed up with them, let us there spend the time we used to spend in the market-place." St. Basil, in his Letter 42, to Chilo, his disciple, gives this advice: "Among all, with whom you come in contact, be in all things a giver of no offence, cheerful, 'loving as a brother,' pleasant, humble-minded, never missing the mark of hospitality through extravagance of meats, but always content with what is at hand." These are only examples of the teachings which can be found in the writings of the saints, both in the early years of the Church and in our times.

Ethics in Canon Law

Canon law also shows a number of examples for clergy and laity alike. The apostolic canon number 27 says, "If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon shall strike any of the faithful who have sinned, or of the unbelievers who have done wrong, with the intention of frightening them, we command that he be deposed. For our Lord has by no means taught us to do so, but, on the contrary, when he was smitten he smote not again, when he was reviled he reviled not again, when he suffered he threatened not." Canons 42 and 43 show that the expectations made of the clergy are not different from those of the laity. Thus, canon 42 reads: "If a bishop or presbyter, or deacon, is addicted to dice or drinking, let him either give it over, or be deposed." This is followed immediately by, "If a subdeacon, reader, or singer commits the same things, let him either give over, or be excommunicated. So also laymen." Many other indications about the Christian way of life can be found in the canons of the Church.

Other Sources of Ethics

There are several other considerations in the development of ethics from an Orthodox perspective. The first such consideration is the person of Christ. As our hymnology indicates, Jesus Christ is perfect God and perfect man. As we believe that the perfection of man is reached only in communion with God, we strive towards that union. This is imitating Christ in the fullest understanding of the term. It is not an outward mimicry of Christ's actions, but a life of union with Christ in Spirit, prayer and the Eucharist. Only in striving for such a union can we begin to trust our ethical decisions.

It should be noted that union with Christ is achieved in and through the Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit Who guides the Church into the fullness of truth and it is, therefore, the Holy Spirit Who should guide our ethical decisions. That, however, can only take place if the focus of our lives is, as St. Seraphim of Sarov stated, the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. In practical terms, we can take our inspiration from those who have acquired the Holy Spirit: the saints of the Church. Their lives, teachings, and sayings can be valuable ethical guidelines for today's world. In doing so, we must remember that each saint had a particular path to holiness and that the life, teachings, and sayings of each saint fit the particularities of the saint's time and place. Therefore, not every teaching of a saint may hold universal validity. However, the principles embodied in the lives of the saints (e.g., dedication to Christ and love of neighbor) are the same principles that we need to embody in our own lives in order to live a life in Christ and acquire the Holy Spirit.

In the Orthodox Church, life is viewed as a continuous process of becoming closer to God. There is, therefore, a process of growth in the ethical aspect of life, as well. The importance of defining ethics/moral life in relation to life in Christ and the likeness of God is shown in those instances where the moral tradition does not provide clear responses. In particular, bioethics and medical technology, which brought about beginning- and end-of-life issues do not have ready-made responses in the Orthodox tradition. However, a life in Christ and knowledge of the tradition can direct us to genuine solutions which reflect the Orthodox understanding of creation and its relationship to the Creator.

Fr. Harakas points out that achieving a moral life requires will, self-determination, and commitment and that there are many means which work together towards the achievement of a moral life. They include at least the following: prayer, study, having a father confessor, knowledge of Scripture and Holy Tradition, theology, love, worship, obedience, sacraments, mission outreach, philanthropy, and social concern. Each one of these elements cannot be taken individually. Rather, each relates to the other elements in the list. In the end, the realm of ethics from an Orthodox perspective cannot be separated from the general life in Christ which we are called to live.

Articles on ethical issues

Books on Orthodox Ethics

  • John Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics (1999) ISBN 978-0881411836
  • John Breck, Stages on Life's Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics, with Lynn Breck (2006). ISBN 978-0881412994
  • Vigen Guroian, Notes Toward an Eastern Orthodox Ethic. The Journal of Religious Ethics. Vol. 9, No. 2 (Fall, 1981), pp. 228-244.
  • Vigen Guroian, Seeing Worship as Ethics: An Orthodox Perspective. The Journal of Religious Ethics. Vol. 13, No. 2 (Fall, 1985), pp. 332-359.
  • Vigen Guroian, Life's Living Toward Dying: A Theological and Medical-Ethical Study (1996). ISBN 978-0802841902
  • Vigen Guroian, Incarnate Love: Essays in Orthodox Ethics, 2nd revised and expanded edition (2002). ISBN 978-0268031695
  • Vigen Guroian, Ethics after Christendom: Toward an Ecclesial Christian Ethics (2006). ISBN 978-1592447671
  • Stanley Harakas, Contemporary Moral Issues Facing the Orthodox Christian (1982). ISBN 978-0937032244
  • Stanley Harakas, For the Health of Body and Soul: An Eastern Orthodox Introduction to Bioethics (1983). ISBN 978-0916586423
  • Stanley Harakas, Let Mercy Abound: Social Concern in the Greek Orthodox Church (1994). ISBN 978-0916586614
  • Stanley Harakas, Living the Faith: The Praxis of Eastern Orthodox Ethics (1993). ISBN 978-0937032923
  • Stanley Harakas, Toward Transfigured Life: The Theoria of Eastern Orthodox Ethics (1983). ISBN 978-0937032282
  • Stanley Harakas, Wholeness of Faith and Life: Eastern Orthodox Ethics. Vol. 1: Patristic Ethics ISBN 978-1885652263. Vol. 2: Church Life Ethics (2004) ISBN 978-1885652294. Vol. 3: Orthodox Social Ethics (2004) ISBN 978-1885652300
  • Christos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality (1984). ISBN 0881410284

See also