Monday, January 30, 2012

Moral Absolutes—Do They Conflict?

Bob Rakestraw

“The Benediction Project”

After a two-month bypass on “What I Most Love Doing,” I now return to the series on “Books That Have Shaped Me.” As I stated previously these are not necessarily the best books on their respective topics, nor were they at the time they were published. They are however, the books that have had the greatest influence, one way or another, on my life, thinking and ministry.

9. Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, by Norman L. Geisler (Zondervan, 1971), 270 pp.

This was my first book on Christian Ethics. It’s primary value to me is that it gave me a framework to think about approaches to God’s moral absolutes, and how these differing approaches influence one’s whole life in this world.

Geisler’s book consists of two parts: ethical alternatives (part one) and ethical issues (part two) such as war, sex and euthanasia. In the first part, which was the most eye-opening to me, and the focus of my remarks here, Geisler lays out the six basic views on moral norms. Norms are ethical laws, rules, commands, guidelines or (in some cases) absolutes. They are statements that tell us what to do or not do, such as “Do not defraud another person” or “Be kind to others.”

Antinomianism says that there are no moral laws. It is neither right nor wrong to steal something; just do what seems most convenient for you. Situationism (sometimes called situation ethics) says that there is only one moral absolute—the law of love. You may steal if it’s the most “loving” way to help a needy person. Generalism claims that there are some general laws but no absolute ones. It is generally wrong to steal, but in some cases one may make an exception.

Bible-believing Christians rightly reject (in theory) these three options, but the latter two tend to infiltrate the church and corrupt Christian behavior when God’s people do not live in close fellowship with him nor read and meditate in the scriptures regularly.

The following three ethical alternatives are more acceptable to Christ-followers. Non-conflicting absolutism (sometimes called unqualified absolutism or the third-alternative position) believes in many moral absolutes which never conflict. They may appear to conflict at times but in truth do not. There are apparent moral dilemmas but no genuine moral dilemmas. A hungry man should never steal because “Thou shalt not steal” is an absolute moral norm.

Conflicting absolutism (sometimes called ideal absolutism or the lesser-evil view) holds that there are many moral absolutes that truly do conflict at times, and in such cases one is obligated to do the lesser evil. If you have a very hungry family at home, and you work in a silver mine but will not be paid for several days, it is better for you to steal some silver ore to sell for food money than to let your family go hungry.

Hierarchicalism (sometimes called graded absolutism or the greater-good view) affirms that God’s many absolute moral laws actually do conflict at times, and in such cases we are to obey the higher law. In conflicting absolutism, mentioned above, we are to choose the lesser evil, while admitting that it is an evil deed, and confessing it as sin.

With hierarchicalism we choose between two options, each of which is good. We need to determine which is better. In the case of the poor silver miner, if you believe that taking some ore is the greater good, then you are not sinning. You are doing what is morally right, because the absolute to provide food for one’s hungry family is a higher norm than the absolute not to steal.

Most Bible-believing Christians who give thought to the matter prefer non-conflicting absolutism (my view) or hierarchicalism (Geisler’s position). A smaller percentage opt for the lesser-evil approach, although the idea that we are morally obligated to sin in certain situations seems so bizarre that this view will probably never have a large following among Christians.

I hold to my position rather than Geisler’s because, although we both believe that God reveals numerous absolute norms in the Bible, I do not believe (as does Geisler) that these moral absolutes actually conflict. I find it extremely difficult to be convinced that God has given absolutes in such a way that, at times, one of them must (not “may”) be disregarded.

In a conflict situation such as stealing to save lives, I believe that God, who is a wise, compassionate and powerful lawgiver (Psalm 119), and who knows we are weak and ignorant of many things (including possible outcomes), will strengthen the heart, mind and will of those who trust in him to care for their starving loved ones without requiring theft to accomplish that.

Having said all this, I am very grateful for this book. Even though I disagree with the author I hold him in very high esteem as a brilliant and faithful servant of Jesus Christ. Also, Norm, I thank you for treating me to the delicious Vietnamese egg rolls at the busy lunch spot by Dallas Theological Seminary when I visited you there a long time ago.

To conclude, I need to mention that the book under review has been replaced by Geisler’s more recent work, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Baker, 1989). While his basic approach to the apparent conflict of moral absolutes remains the same, he has updated and modified some of his views on specific ethical issues such as abortion. In addition, if you wish to pursue the complexities of this topic further, you may refer to pages 113-176 in Readings in Christian Ethics, Volume 1: Theory and Method, edited by David K. Clark and myself (Baker, 1994). These pages contain selections from Geisler, from me, and from other scholars on the subject matter of this posting.

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