Understanding Moral Dilemmas 3: Graded Absolutism

We have been looking at how moral absolutists understand moral dilemmas. So far, we have covered an introduction to moral absolutism, non-conflicting absolutism, and conflicting absolutism. We will now, in this final post on this topic, look at a graded absolutism

Graded Absolutism (GA)

The last way to address moral dilemmas is to argue that there is a hierarchy built into God’s moral law, and at times, some laws supersede other laws which is meant to handle these conflicts. This view is called graded absolutism. It is held by theologians such as Norman Geisler, Stephen Mott, and Millard Erickson.

The graded absolutist starts out with the explanation that some laws are weightier than others (Matt 5:19), and some commands are greater than others (Matt. 23:23). This position can be explained quite simply when we think of civil disobedience. According to scripture, we are to obey the civil government, but what if that civil government commands us to worship a false god. Built into God’s absolute moral law of obeying government is the idea that we should do it only if it does not contradict God’s law. This is because obeying God is much greater command than obeying the government.

In the case of the midwives who lied in Egypt or Rahab who lied to hide the spies, the proponent of GA says that God actually deals well with them for their lying (Exodus 1:20). In these situations the greater command, to which lying must yield, is the protection of human life. GA differs from the conflicting absolutist in two ways. First, the conflicting absolutist says you must choose between the lesser of two evils, and second, when you do it you have sinned. The graded absolutist says you must choose between the greater of two goods, and when you do it, even if it involves violating a lesser good, you have done something commendable. The proponent of GA does not merely say that in a situation like this that lying is allowed in the sense that to do it is to be held innocent. They go further and say that the lie is virtuous, and to not do it would be wrong.

In the case of the mother with the tumor (see previous two posts), they would say that to try and save the mother is the greatest good because you seek to save both in spite of the minimal percentage of success in protecting the child. To attempt to save both lives even at the cost of losing one is the greater good than letting one die without any effort to save them both.

Strengths of this position

1) It has quite a bit of scriptural support for its graded view. Even the Ten Commandments seem to be listed in order of weight.
2) It sees God’s moral law in its entirety as absolute without waiver or conflict. The conflict only happens between specific commands.
3) It can answer many difficult passages in the Bible with ease, such as David eating the “bread of the presence” (see Mark 2:26)

Weaknesses

1) It wavers on the absolute nature of specific commands.
2) It can appear to be a lesser version of situational ethics.

I realize these short posts cannot answer all the questions, but I hope you have found them helpful in priming the pump when it comes to understanding moral dilemmas as a moral absolutist.

D. Eaton

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The Inspirational Life of David Brainerd

I recently had the privilege of teaching a class on the life of David Brainerd at Bethel Grace Baptist Church. His life has been an inspiration to many Christians, and I hope this lesson will be for you as well. The audio for the class can be heard by clicking the link below. The MP3 can also be downloaded by right-clicking the link.

The Life of David Brainerd

D. Eaton

On Soul Winning – Charles Spurgeon

“We do not regard it to be soul-winning to steal members out of churches already established, and train them to utter our peculiar Shibboleth: we aim rather at bringing souls to Christ than at making converts to our synagogue.”

“In the next place, we do not consider soul-winning to be accomplished by hurriedly inscribing more names upon our church-roll, in order to show a good increase at the end of the year. This is easily done, and there are brethren who use great pains, not to say arts, to effect it; but if it be regarded as the Alpha and Omega of a minister’s efforts, the result will be deplorable.”

“Teach gospel doctrines clearly, affectionately, simply, and plainly, and especially those truths which have a present and practical bearing upon man’s condition and God’s grace. Some enthusiasts would seem to have imbibed the notion that, as soon as a minister addresses the unconverted, he should deliberately contradict his usual doctrinal discourses, because it is supposed that there will be no conversions if he preaches the whole counsel of God. It just comes to this, brethren, it is supposed that we are to conceal truth, and utter a half-falsehood, in order to save souls. We are to speak the truth to God’s people because they will not hear anything else; but we are to wheedle sinners into faith by exaggerating one part of truth, and hiding the rest until a more convenient season. This is a strange theory, and yet many endorse it.”

“To try to win a soul for Christ by keeping that soul in ignorance of any truth, is contrary to the mind of the Spirit; and to endeavour to save men by mere claptrap, or excitement, or oratorical display, is as foolish as to hope to hold an angel with bird-lime, or lure a star with music. The best attraction is the gospel in its purity. The weapon with which the Lord conquers men is the truth as it is in Jesus. The gospel will be found equal to every emergency; an arrow which can pierce the hardest heart, a balm which will heal the deadliest wound. Preach it, and preach nothing else.”

C.H. Spurgeon- The Soul Winner

Our Quiet Times Are Rarely As They Appear

 

quiet-times

If someone were to walk by, they would see a man at rest on the Lord’s day. He is sitting on the front porch soaking up the sun on a beautiful spring day. The birds are singing, and a pleasant breeze is blowing. His posture is relaxed, and in his lap sits his Bible. In his hands are a highlighter and a pen. The pages of the black leather-bound book are open to 2 Corinthians; pages he has evidently read before because some of the highlights are of a different color than the highlighter he is holding. He is pouring over the words, frequently stopping to highlight and reread relevant phrases as he comes to them, and then jotting a few notes in his journal.

To many, it is a picture of serenity and peace: a moment of rest. There is, however, something deeper going on below the surface. There is an internal struggle raging. First, there is bodily fatigue. The body that appears relaxed is doing everything he can to stay on task and stay focused on the word. There is a physical distress that keeps his body from finding the peace it desires.

Also inside, there is a sinful nature warring against the spirit he is attempting to nourish. It is calling him away to other activities. Activities of idleness, ones that turn his eyes from things above and diverts his attention to the pleasures of this world. He hears the sirens calling, and he is striving to resist them as he sits in what appears to be perfect peace.

Lastly, there are the doubts and fears, along with worries and pains he is looking to address. This time in the word is not a laid-back time of reflection. He is in a battle, searching for fuel for his faith. Worries at work, cares at home, financial burdens, and concerns for others weigh him down.

The outside world cannot see it, but this internal war is raging. Yet, there is something deeper still going on. Something even the man himself cannot see. At this very moment, the eyes of the Lord are looking to and fro throughout the earth to be strong on behalf of those who put their trust in him, and the Father has locked his eyes on his eyes on his child and will not turn away.

At the same time, the Son is interceding on the man’s behalf. Jesus is not praying that the man be taken out of the world, but that he be kept from the evil one. The Savior is praying that the man will be set apart from the world and that he will be sanctified in the truth: the very word of God he is holding in his hands.

As he sits and reads, engage in this battle of the ages, the Holy Spirit surrounds him and begins speaking to his heart. There is an invisible light emanating from the pages and entering through the windows of his soul. The Spirit draws his eyes to the following words.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” – 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

The Spirit uses this to illuminate two truths, showing him that the battle has a purpose. First, this fight makes him rely not on himself but on God, who raises the dead. Second, he learns that it is by being comforted by God in times of difficulty that we are taught to comfort others. Something he longs to do.

It is here that the Spirit reminds him that he has a treasure in this jar of clay, and like Gideon breaking the clay pots to show forth the light hidden within, it is not until our weakness is exposed that the treasure begins to shine forth. Though the man may be afflicted in every way, he is not crushed. He may be perplexed, but he is not drawn to despair. He may be struck down, but he will not be destroyed. The Lord has heard him in his distress and bowed the heavens and came down. He sent out his arrows and scattered the enemy, and is drawing the man out of many waters.

The man still feeling the effects of a distressed body, breathes a sigh of relief and finds himself sweetly resigned to the Lord’s will. His heart is moved to spend the evening in prayer, praising God and interceding on behalf of those he loves. There is an intimacy with his Savior that reminds him that the weight of his troubles cannot compare to the weight of glory that lies ahead. That night, he sets his a Bible by his bed and closes his eyes to pray, and once again the heavens begin to move. Our quiet times are rarely as they appear.

D. Eaton

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Understanding Moral Dilemmas 2: Conflicting Absolutism

So far we have covered a basic introduction to moral absolutism, and we have looked at how non-conflicting absolutism handles moral dilemmas. Today we will consider conflicting absolutism.

Conflicting Absolutism (CA)

Another way to deal with moral dilemmas is to admit that they do exist and try to deal with them head-on. This is the position of the conflicting absolutist. This position is held by theologians such as Helmut Thielicke, John Warwick Montgomery, J.I. Packer, and E.J. Carnell. This position is also known as ideal absolutism, as it believes that ideally God’s laws do not conflict, but in this fallen world there are times when they do. They also conclude that part of the conflict is due to a lack of understanding on our part. This fallen world creates ambiguity.

This position is probably the easiest to explain. When confronted with a moral dilemma, such as the midwives lying to protect the children or Rahab lying to protect the spies (see Joshua 2:1), what we must do is choose the lesser of two evils. In these two instances lying is the lesser sin than failing to protect the life of your neighbor. In these situations what we must do is admit that we had done wrong, repent, and ask God for forgiveness. In both of these situations, God praised the women, not for their lying, but for their faith and doing the best they could in such a terrible situation.

In the case of the mother with a tumor (see previous posts), it would be a greater sin to let the mother die without any attempt to save them both since we never know for certain if the child will die. Though the chance of losing the child may be 99.9%, to not attempt to save the mother would be the greater sin. If the child dies, we must then ask for forgiveness.

Strengths of this position,

1) This view makes another strong attempt to stick to absolutes.
2) It’s not afraid to face moral dilemmas head-on.

Weaknesses

1) It begins to weaken those absolutes by stating that they can be ambiguous in this fallen world.
2) What do we do with the scripture that says Jesus was tempted in every way as we are? Does this mean that Jesus was tempted in a way that He had to choose between two sins, thus making him a sinner? Or was he not tempted in this way thus making the “tempted” verse untrue.
3) This verse also seems to go against the idea of repentance. To repent is to ask God for forgiveness with the notion that we will do our best not to do it again. But in this case, we would have every intention of doing it again if faced with the same situation because it’s the best decision we can make.

It seems this is the weakest of all three positions, but I do not consider J.I. Packer a lightweight, in fact, I enjoy most of what he has to say. I have not read him on this particular issue which makes me wonder if I’ve missed something in my studies. But after reading Thielicke, this is the understanding of this position as he presents it.

In the next post on this topic, we will deal with the most controversial but probably the most logically consistent position: graded absolutism.

D. Eaton

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Are You Judging My Judging?

Do not Judge. – Matt 7:1

It is difficult to think of a verse more misused than this one. The number of times it has been used to censor Godly reproof would be impossible to count. If you are in the habit of reading the Word of God and upholding Godly standards, then you have most likely had this verse thrown your way while commenting on some behavior or trend of which God does not approve.

This verse, to many people, means that no one is ever allowed reprove or correct someone’s behavior or beliefs. If you speak, even in love, against things like sexual deviancy, drunkenness or false religious beliefs, then according to these people, you are a judgmental Pharisee. Of course, this is a judgment they are making about you, which means if their interpretation of this verse is correct, then they are also judgemental in their reproof. After all, if they believe that telling people they are wrong is intolerant, they should stop telling judgmental people it is wrong to judge.

With only a small amount of exegesis, we will see that Christ is not saying that it is always inappropriate to reprove someone with the word of God. In fact, this is something we are commanded to do, and it is something for which the Word of God is intended. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” So what then is Christ telling us? He is telling us of a difference between those who think they are above the law and those who see themselves as under the same standard as the person they are correcting. We are all under the same requirements, and we should not act as if we are exempt from the rules we apply to others. This understanding of judging is seen in the following verses when Christ tells us to remove the plank in our eye before looking at someone else’s speck.

There are a few different ways we can approach someone who is in sin. First, we could act as if all standards of conduct are relative, and not correct anyone except those who try to correct others. This self-refuting judgment, of course, is hypocrisy at its finest. Second, we could act as if the moral law does not apply to us and condemn anyone who violates it, but his type of condemnation is the actual definition of judging. Or finally, we could look at our own shortcomings under the moral law and approach the one who is erring by saying, there is a standard which God wants us to follow because of His love for us, and neither of us is above that standard. Along with both of us being under this standard together, we both fall short so let’s work on our shortcomings together. After all, His standards are an expression of His love.

When we think of a judgmental person, we also tend to think of their attitude as much as we think of their actions. This judgmental attitude is often seen in the first two approaches as well. The first person, the one who thinks that it is always wrong to reprove, usually ends up with a judgmental attitude, because as they criticize, they are acting as if they are allowed to rebuke when the person they are reproving is not. Hence, they are proudly unaware that there is a plank in their eye. The second person also tends to succumb to a judgmental attitude because they too fail to see their own guilt in these matters. Both will have tendencies toward harshness. Only the third person, the one who believes God’s moral standards can be known, that they themselves are not above the struggles with sin, and believes that a reproof is an act of love, will be able to avoid the judging that Christ is speaking of in this passage.

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. – 2 Tim. 2:24 – 26

D. Eaton

7 Questions to Get to the Heart of Any Worldview

 

Everyone has a worldview. Even the person who says worldview studies are a waste of time says it because of their worldview. A worldview is a person’s perspective of the world, but at its core, it is a set of basic presuppositions that a person believes through which they filter all other non-basic beliefs. There are thousands of religions and ‘ism that people hold, and no one can learn all of them, but there are only a handful of worldviews into which they all fit. If you learn the underlying worldviews, you will be better able to understand where a person is coming from, no matter what they call themselves. Some of the basic worldviews are theism, deism, naturalism, existentialism, postmodernism, and Eastern pantheistic monism.

James Sire, in his book, The Universe Next Door does us a huge favor by cataloging these worldviews and providing us with seven questions to get to the heart of any worldview. By asking these seven questions, we can find out not only where someone else stands, but where we stand as well. They can also reveal where a person may be inconsistent in their beliefs. I was once talking with someone who answered one questions by telling me all roads lead to God, and then when asked “what happens when someone dies,” told me that a person either goes to the light or the dark. When I asked if the dark was God too, she then saw the conflict in her two views and said that she needed to think things through a little better. That moment became a perfect opportunity to share the gospel.

Here are the seven questions to get the to the heart of any worldview, followed by a few possible answers.

1. What is prime reality—the really real?

Christians will say it is God. The atheist may answer matter, the universe, or natural laws.

2. What is the nature of the world or universe around us?

Was it created, did it just pop into being, is it ordered, is it chaos, does it even exist or is something we create in our mind?

3. What is a human being?

Is it created in the image of God, a highly complex machine, a cosmic accident, an evolved ape?

4. What happens when a person dies?

Is it heaven with God, or hell, a higher state, reincarnation, or do we cease to exist altogether?

5. Is it possible to know absolute truth?

Is it, yes, we are made in the image of God. Christ, who was fully God, became flesh and knew all truth. Therefore, we can know truth as well. Or is it, no, consciousness is something that evolved based on the survival of the fittest, and we cannot have confidence that what survives can necessarily know truth. It is all just chemicals firing in the brain. What we call knowledge is just a mental phenomenon, and we cannot know whether it corresponds to reality.

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

Are we made in the image of God and have his law written on our hearts and told to us in His revealed word? Or is morality something we make up to order society, so there is no ultimate right and wrong?

7. What is the meaning of human history? Or who is in charge of history?

Did God create it for a purpose and has a plan that all things are moving toward? Or is no one in charge? All of it is random chance and ultimately meaningless, and though we may place some meaning on it, even our meaning is relative.

All of these questions reveal a person’s worldview, and you will see that at the center is either the true God or something else. Any worldview not based on the God of scripture cannot ultimately hold together. In Jesus, the creator and sustainer of all things, are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Not only is it important to understand where other people stand in order to show them that their foundation is sinking sand, but it is important to make sure Christ is the rock upon which we stand in all matters of truth as well.

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. – Colossians 2:8

D. Eaton

Gehazi’s Leprosy

Some sermons you preach never leave you. They are messages with which you identify for the rest of your life. For me, this is one of those sermons.

It covers three main topics. 1. The danger and lure of sin, 2. The consequences of sin. 3. The grace of God for the child of God even in the consequences of sin.

The MP3 can also be downloaded at the link below.

Gehazi’s Leprosy

D. Eaton

Kobe’s Last Game: A Christian Reflection

Last night Kobe Bryant ended an outstanding 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers. Not that there were not any ups and down with his career, but overall any fan of basketball would have to agree that that he shined as bright, or brighter than some of the greatest players to play the game. Not only was his run one of greatness, but his final game was one of triumph as well, scoring 60 points to close his career.

So what now? Most people only dream of that kind of glory and grandeur and spend their entire lives pursuing it. Rarely do any even come close to what Kobe has experienced, though a few will attain it at a lower level. What we were reminded of last night, however, is that earthly glory always comes to an end. No matter how beautiful the bloom, the flower will start to fade. For those who have placed their hope and confidence in the kingdom of this world, this evaporation of earthly splendor is troubling because eternity has been written on their hearts, yet they acknowledge no higher aim.

It has been said, the greatest tragedies are not those who pursued greatness and failed to reach it. The biggest tragedies are those who achieved it and realized that it could not give them the fulfillment for which they longed. We were made to pursue glory by a glorious God. The problem is we have a natural propensity to exchange the glory of the everlasting God for created things, but the things of earth can never give us what we are seeking. No matter how fast we run, how high we climb, or how many accolades the world gives us, it is ultimately not enough. Even then we will continue the pursuit to see if we can find something else in this world that can lift our heads, and we always seem to find something: temporarily.

There is only One who can give us what we are seeking, and that is the Lord of Glory Himself. Our glory is found in Him, and until our pursuit turns from the things of the world to the eternal God, we have nothing to expect in the end except disillusionment. In Christ, though, it all comes together. Our sins have been forgiven, which causes even death to lose its sting, and no matter how insignificant the world thinks we are, when Christ, who is our life, appears, then we also will appear with Him in glory (Col. 3:4). He is our honor and triumph.

Influence, affluence, legacy; none of these things are wrong in themselves. They can even be used to bring God glory, but when we put them in the place of God, they will all fail to deliver. We must not seek from the world what only God can give. There may be times when the things of this world will cause you to hold your head up high, but only briefly for it is all passing away. Your glory is not found in your attractiveness, your talents, your bank book, your health, or even your legacy. Your glory is found in Christ, and so is your rest.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. – Isaiah 40:8

D. Eaton

Understanding Moral Dilemmas 1: Non-Conflicting Absolutism

In a recent post, I introduced Moral Absolutism in relation to God’s moral law and said that I would be posting three posts on how moral absolutists handle ethical dilemmas, here is the first post in the series.

Non-Conflicting Absolutism (NCA)

One way to deal with moral dilemmas is to argue that the so-called dilemmas only appear to be conflicts of moral laws but are not real conflicts, hence the term Non-Conflicting Absolutism. This theory is one of the most popular positions today. It has been held by many great theologians such as John Murray, Walter Kaiser, and John Frame. This view holds that God has given us absolute moral norms that cannot be altered. Any apparent conflict is due to a lack of knowledge rather than a real conflict in the commands.

Whenever there seems to be a conflict, such as in the case of the midwives in Exodus 1, where a person must choose between loving her neighbor and lying, the reason the conflict seems to exist is because of a lack of knowledge in how to handle the situation. Whatever the person must do to love her neighbor, she must do it without lying. A lie is always a lie and can never be justified by a non-conflicting absolutist. In this case, an NCA proponent would say that God honored the midwives in spite of their lying. What He was commending was their faith even though it may have been misdirected. Had they chose not to lie, they would not have been held responsible for the deaths of the children, because they would not have been the ones that would have killed them. That sin would rest upon the Egyptians soldiers.

The proponent of NCA is not ignorant of the effects of the decisions they make. Like the utilitarian, they consider the results of their actions, even if their actions are ethical. In the case of the Nazi’s at the door, it would not be unethical to tell them where the Jews are hiding if there is no other alternative even though they do not want the Jews to be found our hurt. This is because the ethical dilemma is only apparent, not actual.

What about the scenario of a pregnant mother who has a tumor that will kill her if not removed before the child is born, but removing the tumor would kill the child. In this type of situation, they would bring into play what is called the theory of double effect. What do we do in this situation? Whatever we do will have two effects, one positive and the other negative. In a case like this, an NCA proponent would say it is permissible to try to save the mother because the death of the child is not intended. The action that they are taking is ethical. They seek to save the mother, not kill the child, and since there is no real ethical conflict, the death of the child is a negative result of a positive action.

Strengths of This Position

1) It has a strong understanding of absolutes. There is never a time where lying becomes justified. In holding this position, they seem to be serious about the nature of absolutes.
2) They have a high regard for the nature of God. Since all of God’s moral laws stem from His nature, they argue that to believe in a conflict of moral laws is to believe in the possibility of conflict in God’s nature.
3) This view can also be argued quite forcibly from scripture though many Bible scholars would disagree with this view.

Weaknesses

1) In the case of the mother and the child, they seem to neglect the fact that their actions are causing the death of the child. The argument of “we didn’t intend to” seems a bit of a weak one. It appears to go back on moral absolutes and make “intent” the final arbiter of what is right and wrong.
2) What do we do about David eating the “bread of the presence” which was not lawful, but is justified by Jesus (Mark 2:26)? This is a clear violation of an absolute of the old covenant. Would intent and the theory of double effect have to play into this somehow? Does this mean that David simply avoided the sin by not intending to eat the bread, but intended to feed the starving people and himself? This seems lacking.

In the next post, we will look at Conflicting Absolutism.

D. Eaton

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