1. Scriptural Principles:
The general teaching of Scripture on this subject is summarized in Ro 14:12: "So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God." But this implies, on the one hand, the existence of a Moral Ruler of the universe, whose will is revealed, and, on the other the possession by the creature of knowledge and free will In Ro 4:15 it is expressly laid down that, `where no law is, neither is there transgression'; but, lest this might seem to exclude from accountability those to whom the law of Moses was not given, it is shown that even heathen had the law to some extent revealed in conscience; so that they are "without excuse" (Ro 1:20). "For as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law" (Ro 2:12). So says Paul in a passage which is one of the profoundest discussions on the subject of accountability, and with his sentiment agrees exactly the word of our Lord on the same subject, in Lu 12:47-48: "And that servant, who knew his lord's will, and made not ready, nor did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more." There is a gradual development of accountability accompanying the growth of a human being from infancy to maturity; and there is a similar development in the race, as knowledge grows from less to more. In the full light of the gospel human beings are far more responsible than they were in earlier stages of intellectual and spiritual development, and the doom to which they will be exposed on the day of account will be heavy in proportion to their privileges. This may seem to put too great a premium on ignorance; and a real difficulty arises when we say that, the more of moral sensitiveness there is, the greater is the guilt; because as is well known, moral sensitiveness can be lost through persistent disregard of conscience; from which it might seem to follow that the way to diminish guilt was to silence the voice of conscience. There must, however, be a difference between the responsibility of a conscience that has never been enlightened and that of one which, having once been enlightened, has lost, through neglect or recklessness, the goodness once possessed. In the practice of the law, for example, it is often claimed that a crime committed under the influence of intoxication should be condoned; yet everyone must feel how different this is from innocence, and that, before a higher tribunal, the culprit will be held to be twice guilty--first, of the sin of drunkenness and then of the crime.
2. Connection with Immortality:
Wherever civilization is so advanced that there exists a code of public law, with punishments attached to transgression, there goes on a constant education in the sense of accountability; and even the heathen mind, in classical times, had advanced so far as to believe in a judgment beyond the veil, when the shades had to appear before the tribunal of Rhadamanthus, Minos and AEacus, to have their station and degree in the underworld decided according to the deeds done in the body. How early the Hebrews had made as much progress has to be discussed in connection with the doctrine of immortality; but it is certain that, before the Old Testament canon closed, they believed not only in a judgment after death but in resurrection, by which the sense of accountability was fastened far more firmly on the popular mind. Long before, however, there was awakened by the sacred literature the sense of a judgment of God going on during the present life and expressing itself in everyone's condition. The history of the world was the Judgment of the world; prosperity attended the steps of the good man, but retribution sooner or later struck down the wicked. It was from the difficulty of reconciling with this belief the facts of life that the skepticism of Hebrew thought arose; but by the same constraint the pious mind was pushed forward in the direction of the full doctrine of immortality. This came with the advent of Him who brought life and immortality to light by His gospel (2Ti 1:10). In the mind of Jesus not only were resurrection, judgment and immortality unquestionable postulates; but He was brought into a special connection with accountability through His consciousness of being the Judge of mankind, and, in His numerous references to the Last Judgment, He developed the principles upon which the conscience will then be tried, and by which accordingly it ought now to try itself. In this connection the Parable of the Talents is of special significance; but it is by the grandiose picture of the scene itself, which follows in the same chapter of the First Gospel, that the mind of Christendom has been most powerfully influenced. Reference has already been made to the discussions at the commencement of the Epistle to the Romans in which our subject finds a place. By some the apostle John has been supposed to revert to the Old Testament notion of a judgment proceeding now in place of coming at the Last Day; but Weiss (Der johanneische Lehrbegriff, II, 9) has proved that this is a mistake.
3. Joint and Corporate Responsibility:
Up to this point we have spoken of individual accountability, but the subject becomes more complicated when we think of the joint responsibility of several or many persons. From the first the human mind has been haunted by what is called the guilt of Adam's first sin. There is a solidarity in the human race, and the inheritance of evil is too obvious to be denied even by the most optimistic. There is far, however, from being agreement of opinion as to the relation of the individual to this evil legacy; some contending fiercely against the idea that the individual can have any personal responsibility for a sin hidden in a past so distant and shadowy, while others maintain that the misery which has certainly been inherited by all can only be justified in a world governed by a God of justice if the guilt of all precedes the misery. The question enters deeply into the Pauline scheme, although at the most critical point it is much disputed what the Apostle's real position is. While joint responsibility burdens the individual conscience, it may, at the same time, be said to lighten it. Thus, in Eze 18:1-32 one of the most weighty ethical discussions to be found in Holy Writ is introduced with the popular proverb, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge," which proves to be a way of saying that the responsibility of children is lightened, if not abolished, through their connection with their parents. In the same way, at the present time, the sense of responsibility is enfeebled in many minds through the control over character and destroy ascribed to heredity and environment. Even criminality is excused on the ground that many have never had a chance of virtue, and it is contended that to know everything is to forgive everything. There can be no doubt that, as the agents of trusts and partnerships, men will allow themselves to do what they would never have thought of in private business; and in a crowd the individual sustains psychological modifications by which he is made to act very differently from his ordinary self. In the actions of nations, such as war, there is a vast and solemn responsibility somewhere; but it is often extremely difficult to locate whether in the ruler, the ministry or the people. So interesting and perplexing are such problems often that a morality for bodies of people, as distinguished from individuals, is felt by many to be the great desideratum of ethics at the present time.
On this subject something will be found in most of the works on either philosophical or Christian ethics; see especially Lemme's Christliche Ethik, 242 ff.