Jewish and Christian Ethics/Chapter III

Jewish and Christian Ethics by Elijah Benamozegh, translator not mentioned

Scandals in the Church—Embarrassment of the Apostles—The Nicolites The Prophecy of Thyadira—The Simonians—Other Gnostic Sects—Sects of the Middle Ages—Principles of Gnostic Immorality; Inferential Theory—Judaism Knows Nothing Similar—Solitary Exception Confirmatory of our System—Protestantism and its Ethical Systems—Quietism.

We have hitherto studied but the speculative side of Christian ethics, its roots in dogma, and the influence that the latter can and must exert upon morals. We have strictly confined ourselves to the circle of ideas, avoiding all proof a posteriori, only that we may proceed orderly in our exposition. In confining ourselves to the region of abstractions, perhaps we may have appeared desirous of avoiding realities that could falsify our conclusions, and of giving ourselves free rein in endless reasoning, without ever appealing to the test of experience. But this would be a great mistake. Far from avoiding reality and experience, or rejecting all proof a posteriori, we have deferred them only to give them a larger and more suitable place. The principles already mentioned, the defects already discovered, the germs of weakness, degeneracy and corruption, we are about to see in the external world, exerting their influence, developing their inherent baneful powers, and spreading their deadly branches and leaves over a section of mankind. We are about to view hideous displays, to see repulsive theories, distorted doctrines and unparalleled views, shelter themselves under the principles of Christianity, and cover its trunk with a rank vegetation,—quickly lopped down, it is true, by the authority of the Church, but which does not fail to prove, on the one hand, that we were right in our perception of this fatal germ in Christian doctrine, and to show, on the other, the veritable historical evil it produced in the world.

We have indicated several causes of degeneracy in the Christian ethics: the abolition of the Law, the fiction of the death and resurrection of the faithful with Jesus, the state of innocence to which we are restored by the virtue of Jesus, the theory of the Law begetting sin, and the externality of the redemption and atonement. We are about to see these causes successively beget some one of those monstrous doctrines that stain the history of Christianity, and have no possible parallel in the history of the Synagogue, just because they were unknown in Judaism. And the very language of the sects themselves will show unequivocally the logical connection of effect with cause, which we have assigned. No more precipitate blossoming can be imagined. As early as the Apostolic times even, the seeds sown in Christian soil puts forth its foul, dark-hued buds. Though it produced at that time excessive vices, crimes and disorders, this, still, would not be so bad, nor prove, withal, the truth of our deductions, if those vices and excesses were not, thenceforth systematized and did not get a scientific precision, a theory, a justification, I was about to say, a formal consecration. What constitutes their importance and what unfortunately makes us right on all points is, that those vices did not hide themselves, were not ashamed, that they boldly established themselves in the Church, that they shamelessly displayed their deformity in open day, and that they deemed themselves justified by Christian dogma and ethics. This is what cannot be disputed and what constitutes for us the vital point of the question. We are hardly surprised, much less scandalized, to hear from the mouth of the Apostle that there were in the Church fornicators, idolaters, adulteresses, effeminate persons, sinners against nature, thieves, covetous people, drunkards, extortioners;[1] that there were among the Christians impurities unknown to the Gentiles; that a Christian cohabited with his father's wife: all this, unhappily, is in so much accord with human nature that Christianity cannot, without flagrant injustice, be held responsible. But the motive, pretext and occasion of this revolting picture are exclusively its own. Is it not manifest from the words of the Apostle that Christian liberty created those libertines and criminals? Did they not entrench themselves behind the abolition of the Law? Did they not avail themselves of Paul's allowing every enjoyment forbidden by Judaism? And see the Apostle surprised, disconcerted, fighting painfully in this unexpected embarrassment created by himself! He defends and protects himself as well as he can; he tries to deaden the blow about to be given him with his own weapons: "All things," says he, "are lawful for me,"—here, then, are the words with which this rabble wallowed in the mire of every sin—but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me—repeating this infelicitous and immoral phrase to abate its force—"but I will not be brought under the power of any. Meats for the belly and the belly for meats, but God shall destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body."[2] Vain efforts! Impotent dialectics! Miserable subterfuges, too late opposed to the cry of liberty raised against the Law—the law that sanctioned and protected its ceremonials, no less than its ethics! Useless protestation against the vices and passions that, chained up before by the Law in the depths of the human heart, rise in their turn, break their fetters-and shout liberty! A glance suffices to detect all that is false, embarrassing and illogical in this desperate defence of Paul's. He dares not retract the false words, "All things are lawful for me." He has repeated them too often, and they are too deeply sunk in the hearts of the faithful for any human power to uproot: so he does not attempt it even; he can apply only palliatives. And what palliatives! "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient. What an avowal! what a degradation! what a fall! He dares not speak of virtue, duty, morality in the abstract, to these deluded, brutalized multitudes, he speaks to them of expediency; he does not dispute that all is lawful, he denies only that all is convenient, and that man, henceforth master of his actions, should make full use of a boundless liberty.

If this expediency were, at least, dictated by reasonable motives! Paul tries to assign them. He imagines a plausible distinction between the dietary laws and the moral. Meats are for the stomach, and the stomach for meats, but God shall destroy both. But the body in not for fornication, but for the Lord. Not one, I dare say, of those great sinners who could not demolish, with one stroke, Paul's reasoning, by telling him that if meats are made for the stomach, pleasures are likewise for the body; that if God must destroy stomach and meats, so must He the hand extended for theft, the arm for homicide, the senses clogged from gluttony, drunkeness, and licentiousness; that if the body is made for the Lord, it is worth something probably—the care of God for instance;—that He is not indifferent to its concerns, and that it is not true that whatever goes into the mouth does not defile it, as do theft and adultery. Is it desirable to look further still into the meaning of this expediency, that is, henceforth, to constitute Paul's sole safety-plank from the general wreck? Or to see if we have calumniated the Apostle? Speaking of meats sacrificed to idols and eaten by many of the faithful,—from which Paul exhorts abstinence in order to avoid scandal,—he uses again his grand phrase, "All is lawful for me, but all is not expedient; all things are allowed me, but all things do not edify" (1 Cor. x., 23). This additional light upon the value of the term, expediency, shows how exactly correct is -our explanation. It is not as yet a heresy that has a name, a standard, a history, though it is truly the germ of a heresy. The first historical one that truly bears this name, the oldest example of human reason left to itself in the heart-centre of Christianity, is a grand outburst against morality. No older sect is known than the Nicolaites of whom the Apocalypse speaks (ii., 15) as a heresy whose doctrines were already notorious and wide spread. No obscure person was this Nicolas, the founder of a sect, one of the seven deacons of the Church. A spectacle not a little instructive is that of the Nicolaites, who, at the cradle almost of Christianity, made every sort of licentiousness and immorality their rule of life ,' who, the better to escape the slavery of the senses, and not waste the freedom of the soul in constant tiresome struggles, desired to exhaust the flesh by complying with all its desires. Is not this Paul's principle, pushed to the furthest limits? Is not this the natural fruit of a contempt and degradation of the flesh?

Without leaving the evangelical era and sphere, we meet, furthermore, prophetesses who rivaled in immorality the deacon Nicolas. That old Jew, that noble and pure spirit John, the well-beloved disciple of Jesus, is stirred with a holy zeal against the town that welcomed him and against the bishop who allowed the predictions of the prophetess: "Angel of the Church at Thyatira, writes he, ... I have something against thee; it is that thou sufferest that Jezabel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce my servants to commit fornication and to eat things sacrificed to idols." Here appears the same licentiousness against which Paul contended.

Do we need to review here the long list of Gnostic sects? The oldest is that of the Simonians, the direct brood of Simon, called the magician, a contemporary of the Apostles, who did not affirm that good works were needless for salvation. After him came a crowd of imitators. Without mentioning the Nicolaites to whom we have alluded, there were the Valentinians who denied the necessity of good works, and deemed their salvation sure by being only spiritual or pneumatic. There were the Basilideans, the Cainites, and the Carpocratians who pushed their spirituality still further, by making the most flagrant violation of all morality and incumbent duty: the Actians or Eunomians, who likewise denied the necessity of good works. In the fourth century came the Messalians, who gave the faithful a dispensation from every virtue, provided they prayed incessantly, and who, having become as they thought incapable of sin, abandoned themselves without scruple to all kinds of licentiousness. Prior to these, in the second century, were the Adamites, who pretended that they had been restored by Jesus to the original innocence of Adam, and who consequently went naked, rejected marriage, and deemed the community of women a privilege of this return middle ages was a swarm of monstrous sects. The one last mentioned begot in the twelfth century the sect of Teudemus, who declared fornication and adultery holy and meritorious; in the fourteenth, the Turlupins who maintained that when man had arrived at a certain point of perfection, he was freed from all law, and that the liberty of the sage consisted, not in ruling his passions, but on the contrary, in shaking off the yoke of the divine laws. We need not relate what abominable practices followed such theories. Finally, at the commencement of the fifteenth century the Picards or Begghaws renewed all the errors of the old Adamites. The middle ages produced also the Brothers of the Free Soul, who maintained the unimportance of external works.

We cannot leave the middle ages without making two remarks which the intelligent reader will appreciate. One has particular reference to the Gnostics. We see in their systemized depravity, a confirmation, from point to point, of our assertion—that this sort of error and licentiousness originates in the contempt of the body preached by Christianity. We said before that this could be exhibited in two ways; either by mortifying one's body by subjecting it to the most severe privations, or in refusing it everything, even rule itself. We have also said that this fiction, the dream of the new-birth era, of a perfection unexampled in this life, was calculated to craze people on the subject of morals, and to authorize acts, criminal, doubtless, under existing physical and moral conditions, but not so under the imaginary ones of that unreal kingdom to which they believed themselves admitted.

Is it not this that we see among the Gnostics? Are not these the exact causes we see in play? Was it not this contempt of the body that produced among them the two at once opposite effects in the one case, a rule of life excessively rigid, unheard of mortifications; in the other, a boundless disorder and unparalleled enormities?

The other remark is no less important, and we have had elsewhere occasion to make a similar one, respecting the protestations renewed from age to age in Christendom, against the distinction of persons in the Deity.

We should say then: Since Monotheism,—in spite of the double influence of ancient Paganism (eminently polytheistic), in spite of the influence of authorative Christianity, in spite of the tendency and general character of the age,—yet penetrated through all obstacles, its germ must indeed have originally lain in Christianity, though stifled afterwards by those parasitical Gnostics that usurped its place and hindered its expansion. We make the same assertion of the present time, and doubtless with more reason still. If, in spite of the moral instincts of all rational creatures, and of their innate notions of right and wrong; in spite of Pagan morals which, though corrupt indeed as well, yet never dared raise that corruption to the dignity of a principle, or systematize and consecrate immorality; if in spite of the example, the authority, and the condemnations of official Christianity these errors made way; if there is no period in the history of the Church when the eye is not saddened by some revolting spectacle, by some monstrous theory; if these sects, in the fifteenth century even, made full display of their hideous nudity; and lastly, if Judaism, in the numerous phases of its history immovably secular, never astonished the world by similar spectacles,—we must indeed say that Christianity contained some latent force, some powerful germ, that strove irresistibly to grow, to expand, and to bear plenteous fruit. And what is this germ, if not the very causes we have named?

We have just said that Judaism is free from such stains. We hasten to add that there is a single exception, which also goes to prove, not only the nature of the errors that produced such effects, but even the Cabalistic origin of Christianity,—an origin that through the corruption of doctrine, contributed powerfully to the birth and growth of this abominable morality. This exception is another pretended Messiah, another Cabalist. His name was Schabbatai Zevi. Instructive sight! With him the same sequence, the same connection of doctrines ends in the same abominations. He, too, is the incarnate righteousness of God; he, too, is the God-Messiah, the introducer of a new era, who opens, in his own person, the Messianic age, the world to come. He, too, distinguishes the Spiritual from the Psychics and the Hylics, because the Zohar seemed to authorize it; only he does not interpret this spirituality according to the Zohar, but truly after Paul's fashion; he, too, lives in this world of spirituality and perfect liberty which is the Bina, the superior mother, the world to come, where evil is not perceptible even, where no distinction separates the pure from the impure, good from evil, because there all is good, pure and beautiful; he, too, living in this fantastic world, thinks all is lawful for him, and Messiah, Saint, God though he styles himself, he astonishes the world by his unspeakable impurities, his open licentiousness, shameless, I was about to say religious, since it was in the name of religion, duty and virtue that he transgressed. Is it not, as we have elsewhere said, a history in miniature (better known as it is nearer us) of the birth and vicissitudes of Christianity?

Another consideration already touched on, throws still more light on the importance of these examples. It is that whenever Christianity thought found itself uncontrolled, whenever this great tree, instead of vegetating in official enclosures, under the artificial heat its guardians meted out to it, could freely expand to the free air and sunlight, it failed not to produce, close to its finest shoots, most agreeable fruits, and healthiest shades, a branch, a fruit, a shade of death, as say the Scriptures: as witness two great epochs of Christian history. The first, its virgin liberty, unbroken as yet to ecclesiastical authority, namely Gnosticism, of which we have spoken; the other, its reconquered liberty, the yoke of the exterior Church for the first time shaken off, namely Protestantism, about which we shall say a few words. Will Protestantism confirm our predictions? What will this reassertion of the right of free inquiry, this return to strict reason, this appeal to good sense, logic, and the free interpretation of Scripture produce? Beyond doubt, if the same phenomenon show itself, if the same immorality come to crown efforts so great, aspirations so noble, and independence so proud; if this is the final result of all free investigation, we must say that the germs arid causes I have pointed out, lie absolutely at the root of Christianity. And remember that Protestantism, sounding the reveille for our paralyzed or dormant faculties, naturally allies itself with all the noble and generous instincts of the heart; it makes its appearance in history at a time comparatively advanced, when morals began to throw off that gross mould, acquired during the middle ages, and when classic studies aided the parallel development of our better faculties. What better omens could be desired of the advent of a pure and high morality? And yet, what a harrowing picture does the religion of a free enquiry present! .Far from reproaching Protestantism, we say that it has completely fulfilled its mission, that it has unhesitatingly and courageously laid bare the defects in Christian ethics and the evil it may produce when the sacredotal eye no longer keeps watch over the threatening hydra. But, however, our assertions are only better proved, and the history of Protestant doctrine is our strongest support.

Facts speak for themselves. We shall but mention John Huss, who obeying his personal inspiration alone, teaches the same doctrine. But Luther comes; he frees himself from the ruling church, and does not recoil from the most audacious revolt. What will he decide as to ethics. What will be his judgment on good works? One, I dare say, that will cause a shudder. He pronounces them mortal sins. Reason, the heart, good morals, oppose this doctrine through Melancthon. Vain resistance! In 1567 the Diet of Worms condemns him and approves of Luther's ethics. Can we expect anything better of Calvin? He has, nevertheless, no connexion with any one, neither with Luther, nor the church. What will he teach regarding Christian ethics? "We believe," say the Calvinists in chorus, "that by faith alone we share the righteousness of Jesus Christ; God has no regard for good works." Protestantism passes from hand to hand, changes its schools, its masters, its country, its church—its morality is always the same. The Anglicans, who are the most moderate, announce in 1562: That good works, the products of faith even, cannot expiate our sins and satisfy the strict justice of God. ... As to those done without the grace of Jesus, they are but mortal sins."

Years glide away, and we pass to another form of Protestantism, to another country: and the ethics? Moral works, says the Calvinistic synod of 1618, do not count for our justification. We are almost on the threshold of modern times, and the Christian ethics, with free speech, free teaching, has not budged a step.

Let us, however, imitate the sick man who shifts his position to ease his pain: let us pass to another church, let us ask from another period information about the Catholic morality. Remarkable fact! While the priesthood, ever on the alert, half religious, half secular, watches over Catholic morality lest it should stray to paths, where society might be lost with it, the breath of liberty, the spirit of philosophy, logic and its claims, penetrate through those gratings, those iron walls that a compact hierarchy oppose to their entrance; and one fine day, in this enclosure so guarded, ruled and watched, a strange exotic plant shoots forth, the germs of which doubtless lay in the lowest strata of the soil, but which a more penetrating sun-ray, a breath of spring quite fresh, has caused to blossom, to the astonishment of the guardians. We need hardly say we allude to Quietism. Molinos who has given it for ever his name, bold as he was, is not isolated in the history of Catholicism. He belongs to the school that claims Origen as father, and that survived in Evager, deacon of Constantinople, in the Hesychastes of the 14th century, in the Begghards (who carried doctrinal consequences further), and to a greater or less degree in most of the Mystics, the most celebrated of whom, in this respect, was the archbishop of Cambray. Now the most characteristic doctrine of Quietism, that upon which, far or near, were based all the forementioned schools, and which awoke the alarm of the church was: That, in the contemplative state, the use of sacraments and the practice of good works, are unimportant matters, and that the most criminal pictures and impressions that are formed on the sensitive part of the soul are not sins. Fenelon himself, archbishop and moderatist as he was, this candid, noble soul and loyal Catholic, did not deem that he was erring from the truth by teaching that the soul may, without guilt, push its disinterestedness to the point that it is no longer solicitous about its salvation or damnation; and the Society of the Holy-Office had need of thirty-seven conferences to censure Fenelon.

Thus every blow aimed by Christianity against ancient Jewish orthodoxy recoiled against the most sacred interests of morality and shook its most natural supports.

Christianity, placing its kingdom out of this world, not taking in political society, condemning the secularly of the Mosaic system, was forced from the nature of things, to mount itself the empty throne, to choose servitude or dominion, to put the spiritual in the place of the temporal, and, with the same stroke, to establish religious intolerance. By the abolition of the law, it sapped the foundations of morality; it prepared and authorized, unwittingly no doubt, licentiousness of morals. By its fictions about death and resurrection, forced suppositions for a reality negatived by fact, it sanctioned the huge humbug of giving to the living the liberty of the dead, to existing humanity the laws that shall rule it when it leaves the tomb. By the Redemption, it exerted a triple influence upon the fate of morality: by the restoration of man to Adam's primitive state, it consecrated a retrospective fiction, just as by the fiction of the resurrection it forestalled the rights of the most distant future—an illusion as great in the one case as in the other! By its very idea of sin, it overturned the most natural notions of right and wrong, teaching that it is through the Law alone we are made acquainted with sin. By the very act of redemption it detached man from the work of salvation, by throwing upon the God-Messiah all the weight of expiation, and transferring the sphere of his regeneration from within to without. In a word, the pernicious fruits of these speculative errors were not slow to appear—what do I say—did not cease to manifest themselves from age to age in numberless and learned heresies, strange apparitions doubtless, often frightful and detestable, but which the logical sequence of ideas brought from time to time upon the stage of history, the subjects at once of terror, indignation and mournful thought, for generations to come.


  1. Cor. v. 10, 11, and vi. 10.
  2. Cor. vi. 12, 13.