RECOVERING CHRISTIAN ETHICAL ABSOLUTES1
Garry D. Nation
Oxford Society of Scholars
November 1998, Revised February 2008
In Watterson’s late and still lamented comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, child genius Calvin’s favorite game was “Calvinball,” a sport played (at least at the start) with a football, but played without any established or even constant rules. Calvin and his stuffed tiger/imaginary friend Hobbes made up the game as they went along, and winner tended to be the one who was most ingenious at creating ad hoc rules to his own advantage. Of course the play usually turned into total war, and the outcome was invariably utter devastation of the household—but it was fun while it lasted.
The Great Ethical Disaster
Comic strip children and their stuffed tigers may survive the mayhem of the loss of absolutes, but real people and their societies cannot. It is not the purpose here to argue that modern civilization has lost any claim to moral absolutes; this fact is assumed. A brief review of how it happened should suffice.2
With the Enlightenment, the intellectual kings of the earth proceeded to set themselves and the cultural rulers took counsel together against the Lord and his Anointed, saying, “Let us break their bands asunder; let us cast away their cords from us.” Their revolt against the alleged tyranny of the God of the Bible did not immediately succeed, and for more than a century there ensued a vicious tug of war between rival worldviews competing for the mind and soul of Western civilization. Sometimes it seemed that the non-theistic worldview was about to win, when suddenly there would sweep through the land a reviving breath of vital, biblical religion to save the day.
With each round, however, the footing of Christian civilization continued to erode, and with each cycle of ebb and flow, Trinitarian Theism gave up ground to its foes.3 The ground for faith gradually shifted, imperceptibly at first but ever steadily, from objective propositions to subjective experiences. In the mid-nineteenth century Christian culture was hit by a series of jackhammer blows which sent it reeling, and from which it has not still recovered. Darwin ejected God from the natural world, followed by Marx who ejected him from history. Wellhausen’s ingenious theory rendered God superfluous to explain even the Bible, and Freud persuaded many that the heavenly Father was in fact a detriment to human mental health.
Throughout the 20th century the new captains of our culture, having jettisoned biblical authority and along with it the theistic foundation of Western social order, failed to find a substantial replacement for its demolished moral foundations. To fill the vacuum there have been spawned a wide variety of ethical “relativisms,” which may be categorized into two broad types: naturalistic and pantheistic.
Naturalistic ethical systems in turn may be subdivided into three main approaches. Some have attempted to arrive at a cogent moral consensus based on reason. These would range from utilitarianism, to pragmatism, to situationalism. Others have sought to base ethics directly upon science. Products of this endeavor include behaviorism and biochemical determinism, which take opposite routes to the mutual conclusion that the very concept of morality is ultimately meaningless.. The true end of all naturalistic ethical systems has been seen among existentialists, hedonists, and nihilists who, having rejected any rational basis for ethics and morality, have finally rejected morality itself.
More recently there has arisen out of the ashes of naturalistic moral despair a new, non-rational attempt to assert moral absolutes. It falls under the name “political correctness.” Political correctness in its rawest, crudest form looks very much like a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ethic—i.e., whatever advances the Revolution is right—that has lost faith in its revolution. Perhaps this movement is best understood as an effort to replace lost moral absolutes with the assertion of a socio-political agenda of power for special interest groups.
For example, social rules against sexual abuses used to modeled on the biblical/traditional ban on adultery. Conveniently for the advance of certain liberation programmes, these rules were effectively swept away by waves of sexual revolution—from the first waves in the 1920s, to the tidal waves of the 1960s, to the high water marks of the 1990s. Predatory sex did not go away, however, but in fact exploded in the 1970s. Rather than a repentant return to the old absolutes, the 1980s saw the rise of political correctness applied to sexual ethics, which supplanted the old morality with new and arbitrary shibboleths such as “sexual harassment,” nebulously defined and enforced by litigation and political pressure. Even children in elementary school may now find themselves under discipline for offenses judged to be sexual harassment.4
Along with the collapse of naturalistic ethics, there has come a new rise of pantheistic ethical systems in the Western world. Many, disillusioned with naturalism, have sought solace in the ancient “wisdom” of the East, and have discovered three intertwined principles significant to making moral choices: the inner connection of all things, individual illumination, and karma.
First there is the inner connection of all things, the Tao, the “circle of life.” The yin and yang has become as ubiquitous a symbol in the West as the cross. Moviegoers the world over know and understand the invocation, “May the Force be with you.” They know they should “beware the dark side”—but it is impossible for anyone to define why. Light and darkness are equal and opposite and perpetually seek a balance, but there is no ultimate difference between good and evil. They are one. As Francis Schaeffer pointed out, Kali—a vicious feminine Hindu deity depicted with fangs and a necklace of skulls—is as much a manifestation of God as kindly Krishna. In this worldview there is no moral distinction between cruelty and non-cruelty, and no inherent reason why one should be preferred over another.5
The principle that is supposed to control the selfishness to which we seem inexplicably prone is he law of karma, popularly expressed in the phrase, “What goes around comes around.” The first problem with karma as a moral principle, though, is that it does not come around soon enough. According to the original doctrine (which is generally ignored by Western people who subscribe to the concept), one must wait until the next life before it takes effect, whether for punishment or reward; and by the time one gets there one has usually forgotten what the karma was all about in the first place. The more fundamental problem with karma is that it is absolutely useless as a moral imperative because it is not a dynamic principle that encourages moral action, but rather a determinism that encourages moral passivity.
Thus throughout this century, despite its turbulent idealism and two world wars fought to quench tyranny, every quest for an enduring moral standard, or even a viable ethical consensus, has ended in cacophonous failure. Neither has the Christian church been immune from the depredations of moral relativism. Those, for example, who suggested thirty or even twenty years ago that mainline churches would soon seriously debate whether to ordain those who practiced the sin of sodomy, or to join them in marriage, were called hysterical Cassandras. Today those who resist this very movement are called homophobic bigots and subject to hectoring and harassment by activist groups.
One of the most devastating consequences of the loss of Christian moral absolutes is that society has been robbed of the standard it needs to check itself, to navigate safely the straight between tyranny and anarchy. Any number of contemporary examples could be adduced here but the decades-old Stanley Milgram studies will suffice to demonstrate the point.6
In Milgram’s classic (and infamous) experiment, volunteers were led to believe they were part of an educational study in which they would torture other volunteers with electric shocks of voltage progressing from mild to lethal. It was all an elaborate and structured charade but the volunteer participants did not know that. Some inflicted pain even unto death easily, while others were emotionally conflicted about the suffering of their victims. It did not matter. Under direction and pressure from authoritative persons in lab coats, upwards of 65 percent of the volunteer “teachers” in a number of varied study groups administered the full range of electrical shocks on the “learners.” The ethics of empathy failed dismally.
Not surprisingly, secular interpreters (including Milgram himself) have focused on the dangers of teaching people to obey authority. Theists, however, point out that subjects who held firm belief in a transcendent moral authority possessed an immunity to the urging by human authorities to commit evil. Lacking such faith, subjects were reduced to private feelings and individual reasonings that were impotent when confronted by someone with a stronger purpose. Thus the Milgram study provides a vivid illustration of the greath ethical disaster that has occurred. The loss of ethical absolutes has robbed our society of the ability to combat forces that would enslave it.
The Universality of Ethics
The question is whether there is a path of return from what Christina Hoff Sommers has called “a moral stone age” in which “the notion of objective moral truths is is disrepute."7 The logical approach, arguing that a system of “absolute relativism” is a contradiction in terms and cannot be the source for our values, is probably a dead end. The problem is not that the argument is not valid, but that the contemporary milieu seems comfortable with the contradiction. Todd Kappelman notes that “the new trend in postmodern thought is to embrace, affirm, and live with philosophical, theological, and even scientific chaos."8 What that means to a culture can be illustrated by the shift away from fact-based advertising.
If biblical moral absolutes are to be restored, a more personal and relational argument will have to be advanced, without losing its basis in truth and reason.
Perhaps the entrance to that pathway might be found at the lamppost erected by the most trusted Christian apologist of the 20th century, C. S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis updates to modern times the moral argument for the existence of God. It is perhaps apropos that the premises of his argument be reestablished for a postmodern generation, which has little problem believing in God but cannot quite bring itself to believe in morality.
Lewis’s fundamental proposition is that everyone experiences ethics and everyone has a moral sense. Moral relativism is contradicted by human experience.
He goes on to refute forcefully the idea that ethical systems and moral standards are relative. Certainly there have been differences between the moral sensitivities of different eras and different civilizations, but in the general outline they have remained steady and remarkably constant.
Ironically it may be easier to establish this point in our own day than it was for Lewis in the postwar world. In his generation a relativistic, Margaret Mead-style of social anthropology was on the rise that denied the universality of ethics. The socio-biologists of the present, however, actually stipulate the commonality of human ethical experience. Empirical data confirm the thesis.11
Lewis goes on to argue that people in all cultures at all time experience morality in three dimensions. In the social dimension morality is something that is worked out in order for people to coexist and cooperate with one another. This is the arena of law, contract, and convention. The personal dimension is internal, individual, and intuitive. This is the arena of conscience in which a person must live at peace with himself. Most of the public discussion of morality never gets beyond this point, if it even does get to it. The third dimension, the purposive one, has to do with ultimate realities. At this point morality becomes a question not merely of what one believes about ultimate realities, but of what those realities actually are. Simply put, if Christianity is true then the individual and his moral choices are of infinitely greater significance than if any other system is true—or if not are true. With characteristic understatement Lewis writes, “We are now getting the point at which different beliefs about the universe lead to different behavior."12
Addressing the modern “just-the-facts” mentality, Lewis picks up at this point a discussion of the seven classical virtues, demonstrating the rationality of Christian ethics. Postmodernism, with its urge to find its virtues in feelings rather than facts, present Christians with both the challenge and the opportunity to direct people back to the true Source of ethics and morality.
Lewis drives home his conclusion about the universality of ethics with two points:
If the experience of ethics is universal, yet there is no successful way for autonomous man to derive ethics from himself, there must be another source for ethical standards outside of man. At this point a review of the Christian answer to the question is in order.
Divine Revelation: The Source of Moral Absolutes
The first principle of ethics is the Theistic Principle: that all ethics derive from the nature of a living, person, rational God who is the Creator of the universe and all things that exist in it, and has placed humankind in a peculiar preeminence on earth. This race he has created in his own spiritual and moral image as rational beings.14 These human beings are both physical and spiritual in nature, and are therefore capable of relating to the physical world, to one another, and to God in rational and moral ways.15 Human beings therefore possess moral responsibility for their actions, thoughts, and choices, and will account to their Creator for the same.16 The Creator in turn has given ample opportunity for his image-bearers to know what he requires of them.
There is first of all an adequate general revelation of God’s moral absolutes. The Creator God has revealed himself, his moral standards, and the necessity of human responsibility, both in and through his creation.17 He has provided also an internal witness to man through his capacity for moral reasoning in the mind, and for moral sensitivity in the conscience.18
God has also given a special—specific and expanded—revelation of his absolutes. He has revealed himself throughout history to be not only the Creator but also the covenant-making Redeemer. This revelation was given to the nation of Israel throughout generations of dealings with them, and through the person of Jesus Christ. God’s dealings with mankind were written into the Scriptures by prophets and apostles. Their writings bring us not merely a record of the revelation, but by divine inspiration the very revelation itself.19 This special revelation concerns the perfection of God’s character, the specific moral demands he makes upon his creatures, and the nature of the judgment to come.20 It also concerns the nature of salvation from our collective and individual moral failure. This salvation, bestowed by God in grace and experienced through faith in Jesus Christ, comprises forgiveness of sins, redemption from loss, and reconciliation of relationships.21
The doctrine of divine revelation is the touchstone for moral absolutes. It must be recovered to the common language of the church before the church can offer a coherent moral message to the world. Christian apologists in every discipline who hope to reach a generation sinking rapidly into solipsism must assert the transcendent Source for all value judgments. We must never surrender our confidence that, as Francis Schaeffer put it, He is there, and He is not silent. There is no inward illumination and no social agenda that can supply a universal ethical criterion. It must come from above, and “no one has ascended to heaven but he who came down from heaven, the Son of Man who is in heaven."22
The Central Ethical Imperative
To affirm all this is still not yet to offer a positive statement of what that universal ethical criterion might be. The singular “criterion” is appropriate here rather than the plural “criteria,” because there is one God with one moral nature. If there are multiple criteria by which God will judge all human motives, thoughts and deeds, then either God is conflicted within himself, or else he is afflicted with a divine multiple personality disorder. (This observation is not made with irreverent flippancy; the religious scene at the end of the 20th century gives ample evidence of theological schizophrenia.)
Someone may question the effort to put forth a single ethical imperative, considering the multiplicity of commandments throughout the Bible. Are there not at least ten, one may ask? No, there is but one commandment. This is affirmed by both Moses and Jesus, and the apostles and prophets offer commentary on the fact.23 All other commandments are but the working out of the one—but we get ahead of ourselves. It has been proposed above that all ethics derive from the character of the one true and living God who has revealed himself in the Bible.
The God of the Bible is not easy to pin down, however. When Moses asked God for his name—essentially the question, “Who are you exactly?”—God allowed only, “I am that I am.” Even this seemingly minimal revelation was experientially overpowering to Moses.24 Throughout the entire Bible there are only four substantive statements regarding the nature and character of God. There are a multitude of adjectivally descriptive statements, but only four times is the phrase “God is” followed by an appositive noun that specifically identifies who God is. All of them occur in the writings of John.
The first is a saying of Jesus, both refining and encapsulating the theology of Moses and of Isaiah that “God is Spirit."25 The second is likewise an extension of the self-revelation of God through his covenant with Israel: “God is light."26 Here the themes of holiness, purity, and truth are conjoined in one powerful metaphor.
The third, however, is so astonishing that it is repeated for emphasis. It is an astounding theological statement that has no parallel in the scriptures of any other religious faith. Pietism has sentimentalized it. Modernism has homogenized it, and Western ears have become dull to it. A recovery of Christian ethical absolutes requires an awakening to the truth that “God is love."27 Here is the key to the universal moral principle defined in the Bible that applies to every person and every society in every place at every time. God is love, and the central ethical imperative from which all others flow is the command to love.
Evangelicals have tended to shy away from the love command as a moral imperative because of the way in which it has been appropriated—and diluted if not distorted—by liberals and modernists. Joseph Fletcher in particular ruined the theme for many with his “situation ethics” interpretation of love that becomes the pretext for abandoning moral absolutes when it becomes necessary (i.e., convenient) to do so. Those evangelicals who do seek to promote love as the centerpiece of their ethic often spoil it through an excessively subjective sentimentality. The love command is neither sentimental nor situational, but is rooted in the nature and character of God.28
The urgent need of both the church and our society for the restoration of moral absolutes cries out for a cogent definition of the Absolute, and a consistent living out of that Absolute as a pattern of life by those who claim to believe in it. Clearly the latter need is outside the scope of this essay, but perhaps a step may be made toward meeting the former one. Others have ably dissected the biblical concept of love as an ethical imperative.29 Unfortunately biblical theology is a discipline that has suffered the same kind of splintering that has afflicted the rest of our culture. One of its by-products in the past few decades has been to leave a general impression that the Scriptures are a miscellany, a hodgepodge of disparate elements in divergent contexts.
Surely it is time to begin again to see the Bible as a whole, and to experience afresh the full force of its witness to the objective nature of truth, or good, and of right. To that end I offer a comprehensive definition of love, synthesized from the New Testament and supported by the Old: Love is the drive (motivating and constraining force) to give, which produces in the lover the character of humility and the attitude of submission to the beloved, in order that the lover may serve the beloved.
Space does not permit an exhaustive discussion of this definition through supporting word study, exegesis, and contextual analysis. That must wait for another essay on another day. A brief and summarized discussion of its ramifications must suffice here.
First, the essence of love is the urgent desire to give. “God so loved that he gave."30 Love’s drive to give immediately produces a spirit of humility or lowliness—a voluntary self-lowering—that is inseparably tied to an attitude of submission toward the object of love.31 How much of the inflammatory discussion of marital submission could be defused if this concept were widely grasped! Instead the church has ignored or sentimentalized the vast amount of ethical teaching in the Bible related to humility as a necessary element of love in favor of a gospel of self-esteem (self-love) lifted from the pages of humanistic psychology.
The goal of humility is not self-abasement, but service. The point of submission is not servitude, but service. Love always produces behavior that serves and fills the needs of the one who is loved.32 If this definition were laid out in a chart, the arrows would only run in one direction. There are many motivations one might have for serving the needs of another, ranging from profit to fear. One may serve without loving, but there can be no love without serving. Likewise there are many other reasons besides love that might lead one to submit to another, whether forcibly or voluntarily (although it is doubtful that any motivation other than love can produce sincere humility). Love, however, will always lead the lover into willing subjection to the beloved in order to serve the beloved.
It has already been noted that God is love. Love is the central characteristic of God’s essence. It is the foundation of all his attributes, the crown jewel of all his perfections. There are two points in the definition of love offered above that may trouble some if this definition is applied to God. Someone may object that it would attribute to God a “drive,” implying need and a detriment to Self-sufficiency in the Godhead. Not so. The Scriptures do not teach merely that God possesses love or has the capacity to love, but that God is love. That is, God does not merely experience or own a drive to give, he is himself the constraining power that gives.
The doctrine of the Trinity is also crucial here, because it demonstrates how love is completely fulfilled within and between the Persons of the Trinity. God needs no one outside himself with whom to share his love, and thus is absolutely free and gracious to love his creation. Thus it was love that motivated creation, not (as in James Weldon Johnson’s poem “God’s Trombones”) loneliness, or any other need or lack.
Another objection is that it is inappropriate to apply the epithet “humility” to God. On the contrary, this is precisely what the gospel is about, and it is not a novel doctrine. Classic orthodoxy has always recognized it. The theological term is “condescension.” In humility God created man in his own image. In humility he called out in the garden, “Where are you?” (As if God could not gauge Adam’s location!) In humility he continued to seek out sinners, choosing a people for himself, accompanying them through wilderness wanderings, tolerating iniquity until it became intolerable, sending prophets, and at last sending his own Son.
The Son most clearly reveals the humility of the Father, laying aside his glory and taking on the form of a servant, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Love is the antithesis of pride.33 John 1:14 and 3:16 speak eloquently of a God who has humbled himself in love.
Because God is love, sin must be defined as a rebellion against love. In fact, all sin is ultimately a perversion of love, the twisting of love so that the lover is his own beloved. Sin is the drive to give to oneself, causing the sinner to humble and submit himself to his own passions and desires in order to serve himself. Sin is selfishness, and hell, in the eloquent words of 19th century evangelist Sam P. Jones, is the quintessence of selfishness.
This generation has a short attention span, and it is doubtful that it can understand the commandments of God as being anything other than a smorgasbord of moral options from which one may choose according to personal preference. If Christian ethical absolutes are to be restored to a culture in desperate need of them, Christian apologists must be able to say it in one comprehensive word. Even if the love ethic could first be rescued from the dual clutches of situationalism and sentimentality, can it truly suffice to summarize all that morality requires of us? The apostle Paul believed so.
In saying this he is going no further than our Lord, who has taught us,
1.Copyright 2008. All rights reserved. Revised from the paper originally delivered to the Oxford Society of Scholars in November, 1998.
2.It may be helpful to specify how the key terms in this paper are to be understood. Morality, I take it, has to do with the relationship between truth and goodness, and the assertion of what is good versus what is evil. Ethics specifically pertains to the question of right and wrong, involving also “an explanation of why one should act or not act (think or not think) in certain ways.” (L. Russ Bush, A Handbook for Christian Philosophy [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991], 252.)
3.This theme is fully developed and richly demonstrated in Nancy R. Pearcy, Total Truth (Crossway: 2004).
4.For example, a first grade boy in Brockton, MA, 6 years old, was suspended from school for sexual harassment. School officials said he put two fingers inside the waistband of a female classmate. USA Today, 2/9/2006.
5.Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1976), 177.
6.See Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority (NY: Harper and Row, 1974).
7.Christina Hoff Sommers, “Are We Living in a Moral Stone Age?” (Imprimus, March 1988), 2.
8.Todd Kappelman, “The Breakdown of Religious Knowledge,” Probe Ministries, 1998.
10.C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book One, “The Law of Human Nature.”
11.The thesis of socio-biological ethics is that what we cll moralityh is part of the genetic code, imprinted there by eons of evolution as a complex mechanism of species survival. See for example Edward O. Wilson, “The Biological Basis of Morality,” The Atlantic Monthly (April 1998), 53-70.
12.Lewis, Book Three, “The Three Parts of Morality.”
13.Ibid, “The Law of Human Nature.”
14.Genesis 1:26-27. The citation of this scripture here and others throughout the paper is not intended to be an exhaustive listing of relevant texts, but a reference to the source of the language used in the discussion.
15.Cf. Psalm 8.
17.Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:18-20
18.Romans 1:21-25,32; 2:1,13-15
19.2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20,21
20.Psalm 19:7-14; Romans 2:11-12,16-23; 3:9-20
21.Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 1:1-4
23.Deuteronomy 6:4,5; Matthew 22:34-40; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8-13; 1 John 4:7,8
24.Exodus 3:13-14; 33:17-23; 34:5-8
26.1 John 1:5
27.1 John 4:8,16
28.1 John 3:1-15; 4:7-21
29.One of the ablest and most comprehensive of these dissections is Victor Paul Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972).
31.Philippians 2:1-8; Ephesians 5:21-23
33.1 Corinthians 13:4
All ethics derive from the nature of a living, personal, rational God who is the Creator of the universe and all things that exist in it.
The Loss of moral absolutes has robbed society of the ability to withstand forces that would enslave it.
Love is the drive to give, which produces in the lover the character of humility and the attitude of submission to the beloved, in order that the lover may serve the beloved.
[Previously] products were marketed based on their claims to be superior to what a competitor might offer…. Postmodern methodology appeals more to a person’s feelings than to his or her sense of factual truth. Cars, tennis shoes, and other products are marketed based on image. The best car is not necessarily the one that has been made to the highest standard; rather the best car is the one that can bolster the image of the driver.9
Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining “It’s not fair” before you can say Jack Robinson.10
First, that human beings all over the earth have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.13
For the commandments…are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.34
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.35
Moses with the Ten Commandments
Rembrandt van Rijn