BIBLICAL SITUATION ETHICS
by M. E. G.
NOTE: This article was inspired by an extra-credit assignment for my English class in which I examined the three “biblical absolutism” concepts and how they stood up under logical and Scriptural scrutiny. Accordingly, it was long on rhetoric (and, I hope, substance) and short on organization. I have updated my previous material so as to provide clearer distinctions within the text, as well as to include more biblical examples of moral conflict and subsequent resolution. My thanks goes to Tekton Ministries for agreeing to host this. :smile:
THE BASIC QUESTION
Christians find themselves living in a society that all too often endorses moral relativism and postmodern thought under the pretext of “promoting tolerance.” Moreover, Christians themselves seem divided over why and how they are to be moral. While no one denies the presence of a “Law of Nature” – an inner feeling or impulse by which to judge actions as right or wrong – most people would not be able to tell you why it is rational to build a system of ethics around it. It is not, after all, grounded in anything but ourselves; and if you exclude the possibility of a Moral Law-Giver from the outset, then there is no real justification for following it. Norman L. Geisler, for his part, asks: “Can be a system of ethics be sustained apart from a belief in moral absolutes? And, can a belief in moral absolutes be sustained apart from a biblical world view?” It would appear that the answer to both these questions is no, if we wish to maintain a foundational and not merely pragmatic view of morality.
A belief in moral absolutes is necessary in order to promulgate an intellectually honest system of ethics. Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, has pointed out that “if I give one student a ninety and another an eighty, that presupposes that one hundred is a real standard.” Even atheists believe in an absolute standard, quite apart from any outward professions; for “when Gentiles, who do not have the law [of Moses], do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show the requirements of the law written in their hearts . . . ” (Romans 2:14-15). I think Geisler sums it quite perfectly when he says: “Even if unbelievers do not have the moral law on their minds, they still have it written on their hearts . . . they show it by way of inclination.” While the Law of Nature, by itself, is not enough to substantiate an objective morality, it at least points people in the right direction, which brings me to my next point:
One needs to discover a basis for his moral convictions, which can only be found in God’s Word. It is a revelation, not only of God’s interactions with people, but also of His immutable moral nature. It is written in Malachi that “I the LORD change not,” so His is the ultimate authority (as opposed to authoritarianism, in which a finite creature attempts to force his fluctuating rule on equally finite creatures). Neither is God’s will arbitrary, as the voluntarist holds; the essentialist knows that God wills something because it is good in accordance with His nature, or that “something is good not because God commands it, but God commands something because it is good.” An atheist cannot claim this foundation for his system of ethics because he has nothing to go on except his feelings, which are not objective anyway because (in his worldview) they are the result of godless, natural forces.
So now that we have established that a biblical belief in moral absolutes is essential to maintaining a viable system of ethics, how do we go about defining a “biblical” belief? There are many systems of morality that one could turn to in order to justify behavior, but most of them are rooted neither in absolutes nor the Bible (thereby ruling out antinomianism, generalism, and situationism). What we are left with, then, are three “biblical absolutism” concepts – unqualified absolutism, conflicting absolutism, and graded absolutism.
The first view, unqualified absolutism, holds that all moral laws are absolute and yet non-conflicting. What is seen as a moral conflict is merely an erroneous perception, for God always provides a way out of sin. This viewpoint is to be admired insofar as it trusts in God’s faithfulness and refuses to let the “ends justify the means.” Yet there are theological inconsistencies that must be addressed. Suppose, for example, you are a leader in the Dutch Underground when the Nazis invade your home, demanding to know if you are hiding Jews. How do you respond? Those who subscribe to unqualified absolutism will probably hold off on telling the truth but never actually lie, instead looking toward God to provide “the way of escape” (as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 10:13). Yet, what does Paul really mean when he says that “when you are tempted, [God will] provide a way out so that you can stand up under [temptation]”? Could this specifically apply to the Nazi scenario? I say yes, but for different reasons than unqualified absolutism supposes. From that standpoint, the “temptation” of which Paul speaks refers to the inclination toward lying in a situation that seems to require it. I disagree because the “temptation” could just as easily point to the “sin of omission” that results – namely, that of failing to protect the innocent. Also, unqualified absolutism does not take into account the fact that belief in Christ does not shift all responsibility to God. If the Nazis want to shoot Jews, He will let them; He does not violate free will. But couldn’t it be that He has placed you in that situation in order to prevent that atrocity with your free will, in the only way possible? I think most Christians would agree that “the way out” of a moral conflict is to simply follow God’s commandments, for which He has ordained a hierarchy (we will explore the Scriptural support for that later).
Conflicting absolutism, by contrast, is a very interesting paradigm. While it maintains that God’s commands are absolute and unbreakable, it also concedes that in a fallen world it is impossible not to break one. The conflicting absolutist will therefore “choose the lesser evil” and lie to the Nazis; later he will beg forgiveness for his sin. Unfortunately, this position is morally and logically absurd.
It makes no sense for Jesus to tell us, “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) if such a command is beyond our abilities. It means that God holds us responsible for sin even if there is no choice. Worse, it implies that Jesus Himself could not avoid committing sin, even though the Bible states that “He who was without sin became sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). And if He was not “tempted in every way, just as we are,” (Hebrews 4:15) how can we hold Him up as our moral example? Also, biblical references notwithstanding, the premise contradicts itself by saying we have a moral obligation to do evil. Conflicting absolutism is even less tenable than unqualified absolutism; though, to its credit, it does not deny the reality of moral conflict.
Finally we must examine graded absolutism, also known as biblical situation ethics. This view recognizes that there are higher and lower laws, and that when they conflict the Christian is responsible for following the higher law. Many critics would claim it is a repackaged version of moral relativism, agreeing with Dave Miller that “[graded absolutists] maintain that Jesus permits us to violate His will at times for the sake of convenience. If compliance with His words becomes inconvenient, then those words may be treated as optional . . . For them, right and wrong, truth and error are obscure, blurred, hazy, gray, and complex.” Yet Miller misrepresents graded absolutism, forgetting that what is at stake is not merely a desired end (which may or may not be subjective) but a higher law. These higher laws – among them justice, mercy, love, and faithfulness – are mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew as “the more important matters of the law,” (23:23), and “the greatest commandment” (22:38). A graded absolutist understands that while lying, in and of itself, is always wrong, lying to save innocent lives (namely, those of the Jews) is not.
SCRIPTURAL SUPPORT FOR GRADED ABSOLUTISM
Consider Matthew 12:1-8, the favorite “proof test” for the advocate of graded values:
At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread – which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
What is the primary assumption behind this story? That it is all right to violate the sacred rituals if they happen to inconvenience believers? Hardly. David was trapped in a situation in which he and his men would have died for lack of food; but he understood that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This perfectly coincides with graded absolutism, which states that people are more important than things, and God is more important than people. Since God desires mercy, not
sacrifice, the consumption of the consecrated bread honored Him in a way the ritual alone could not: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). Similarly, it was important to our Lord that people understand “the spirit of the law” rather than blindly obey “the letter of the law;” this is why He could tell the Pharisees: “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:11-12). In other words, to “do good on the Sabbath” at the expense of the Sabbath observations is itself a good and lawful thing.
The same holds true for our moral principles, particularly those of “truth-telling” and “protection of the innocent.” Let’s return to the Nazi example. What moral equivalent of that situation can we find in the Bible? One feels especially drawn toward the stories of Rahab the prostitute (Joshua 2) and the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1), who were caught between telling the truth/obeying the government and allowing cold-blooded murder. As it was, neither of them was condemned for lying. It is written, in fact, that “God was kind to the midwives . . . and because [they] feared God, He gave them families of their own” (Exodus 1:20-21). Rahab, for her part, is immortalized both for her “faith” (Hebrews 11:31) and for “[giving] lodging to the spies and [sending] them off in a different direction” (James 2:25). While these verses seem equivocal as to whether her lie was commendable (thereby providing ammo for the unqualified absolutist’s argument), I am confident that it does not contradict the other passages that support graded absolutism.
A final example occurs in Acts 4:18-19, when the disciples Peter and John are summoned before the Sanhedrin and ordered “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” They answer, quite rightly, to “judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” On the one hand, they broke the absolute command to “submit [themselves] to governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” (Romans 13:1) and on the other they were guiltless because they had done so in obedience to a higher law – submission to God. Therefore, whatever shame the disregard for the lower law may have imputed is automatically nullified. It becomes nothing more than a tool to ensure the fulfillment of a higher law (as in the current circumstances of aborting babies to save their mothers’ lives, leg amputation to prevent gangrene, and killing in self-defense). However, in their own sphere these actions are still considered immoral; the rare exemption does not warrant common exceptions! It is true that with everything there comes the potential for abuse: constant rationalization and self-justification for sin, leading to a desensitized conscience that endorses habitual lying and civil disobedience. We should fervently pray that we never fall into the trap of substituting Utilitarianism for God (which will invariably happen unless we remember that graded absolutism is duty-centered rather than end-centered). With God’s grace we might yet be able to comprehend the import of Ecclesiastes in regard to our ethical dilemmas:
There is a time for everything,
And a season for every activity under heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance,
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
A time to embrace and a time to refrain,
A time to search and a time to give up,
A time to keep and a time to throw away,
A time to tear and a time to mend,
A time to be silent and a time to speak,
A time to love and a time to hate,
A time for war and a time for peace.
Please visit these links if you are interested in learning more!
Norman L. Geisler. “Any Absolutes? Absolutely!” <www.equip.org/free/DE198.htm>
“Biblical Situation Ethics, or Graded Absolutism.” <www.freedominchrist.net>
EPM Resources. “Ethical Philosophies and Systems.” <www.epm.org/articles/ethicsys.html>
“Graded Absolutism.” <www.souldevice.org/ethics_gradedabsolutism.html>
Norman L. Geisler. The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics.