Problem #2. What is the correct foundation for Christian Ethics?
there are six basic systems of ethics. This is not Deontological versus Teleological, but rather that most all ethical systems can be classified in one of 6 categories. These are:
Non-Absolutist (No God to provide the standard for ethics… or God doesn’t take on that role)
1. -Antinomianism (No law/standards for ethics, beyond perhaps aesthetic)
2. -Situationism (One standard for ethics… generally, love)
3. -Generalism (There are general guidelines, no real laws. Examples: social norms, pragmatism)
Absolutist (God provides the standard for ethics)
4. -Unqualified Absolutism (God makes the rules and there are no conflicts)
5. -Conflicting Absolutism (God makes the rules and conflicts are dealt with by seeking the “lesser evil”)
6. -Graded Absolutism (God makes the rules and conflicts are dealt with by seeking the “greater good”)
Geisler believes that the three absolutist views are possible Christian views, while the non-absolutist are not. I would have to generally agree. Christian Ethics (right and wrong) should have God as the standard. I believe that it is consistent with the understanding that God is our creator and the one who designed us for a purpose. That being said, it is understandable if some come to a different conclusion. Some focus on the NT principle that we are no longer under the “Law” to suggest that there is no standard for our own ethics. Generalism has things that we incorporate. We recognize that social norms have a part in a Christian ethical model. For example, the Bible says not to use vulgar language. Yet, we need to understand societal norms to gain some level of insight in helping us define what is vulgar language. Perhaps a stronger case could be made for situationism. Fletcher’s Situational Ethics is viewed by many as Christian since it utilizes “Love” as its single “absolute.” However, love makes a great motive, but not a great model. Wildly different conclusions can be made as to how to deal with a situation in a “loving manner.”
Absolutism says that God is not only our Creator, but our Guide and Standard. The first one is “Unqualified Absolutism.” This one assumes that the rules God gives us are never in conflict… they only seem to be in conflict at times. I used to believe this, but I have come to the conclusion that this is simply not true. In fact, Jesus appears not to believe it either. Take for example, in the passage Luke 14:5, Jesus speaks of an animal trapped in a hole on the Sabbath. Jesus doesn’t seem to be negating the conflict but rather noting that helping the injured and trapped takes precedence over the law not to work on the Sabbath, but keep it holy. Some cases come up that challenge the Unqualified Absolutism view. Perhaps the best known (although examples come up all the time) comes from World War II.
In an effort to save Jews from the Holocaust, you are hiding a family in your house. Suddenly there is a knock on the door. It is the SS looking for Jews. The lead officer asks you if there are Jews residing in your house. What do you say?
Actually, there are at least TWO conflicts.
Violating civil law vs Protecting the innocent from the evildoer
Lying vs Protecting the innocent from the evildoer
Curiously, most people seem to accept that violating civil law is acceptable in this case… but many are uncomfortable with lying. The thought seems to be that the first is simply disobeying a human law, while the second a divine law. However, the Bible states that we are to honor civil authority, so violating civil law does violate a divine law, at least on some level. While honoring civil authorities is commanded in the Bible, there are many examples of civil disobedience. This suggests that the command to honor civil authority is less important than to honor God. Protecting an animal from injury is of greater importance than honoring the Sabbath.
If one accepts that there are genuine ethical conflicts in life, then one needs to decided how to deal with these conflicts. These are Conflicting Absolutism and Graded Absolutism. The first one says that there are times that we have to sin because we live in a sinful world and thus God’s Law cannot be perfectly applied. Therefore, we are forced during times of conflict to sin, but one should choose “the lesser evil.” Graded Absolutism also recognizes the conflict, but takes a positive view of it. If one chooses the higher law, then one has not sinned, because one has chosen “the greater good.”
Let’s take an example. In the Book of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were ordered by King Nebuchadnezzar to bow down to a giant gold idol (of himself). The three refused. Now consider what ethical options were involved.
-Disobeying the king ruling over them (Jeremiah even said that the Judah should obey the Babylonians).
-Disobeying their employer. The three were not merely subjects of the king, they were officers of the court. They were probably even violating an oath.
-Disobeying God’s mandate not to bow down to any idol.
They chose not to obey Nebuchadnezzar, but to obey God’s mandate regarding idols. From the Conflicting Absolutism viewpoint, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego sinned…. but they sinned less by the choice they made. On the other hand, from the Graded Absolutism view, the three did not sin. They chose to obey the higher law.
I believe in Graded Absolutism. However, for many it may be best to explain ethics from a Conflicting Absolutist standpoint. Some people would not be able to process properly the idea that there are circumstances where it is “okay” to lie (such as with the World War II example above). So for some it may be easier to explain that it is less of a sin to lie than to turn over the innocent to evildoers.
Again, however, simply recognizing that God provides the standard and that we are to make decisions by choosing God’s higher standards over His lower standards is only part of the problem.
What are the higher and lower standards? We will save that one for the third post. However, recognizing that conflicts exist is half of the battle. Living in denial of moral conflict often leads to a great deal of foolish behavior.