Early Christian Ethics

In Sacha Golob & Jens Timmermann (eds.), The Cambridge History of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 112-124 (2017)
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G.E.M. Anscombe famously claimed that ‘the Hebrew-Christian ethic’ differs from consequentialist theories in its ability to ground the claim that killing the innocent is intrinsically wrong. According to Anscombe, this is owing to its legal character, rooted in the divine decrees of the Torah. Divine decrees confer a particular moral sense of ‘ought’ by which this and other act-types can be ‘wrong’ regardless of their consequences, she maintained. There is, of course, a potentially devastating counter-example. Within the Torah, Abraham is apparently commanded by God to slaughter and set fire to his innocent son, Isaac. For attempting to do so, he is praised in the Biblical passage and by later Jewish and Christian commentators. This paper examines rabbinic and early Christian analyses of the story and finds that it was not unambiguously held by these interpreters that God absolutely prohibits killing the innocent, until the time of Augustine, whose position on the story evolved over time.
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