"For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile . . . ." (Rom. 1:21, NIV)
I. Futility in non-Christian ethics.
Paul informs us in these crucial words of biblical teaching that all the thinking of fallen men is futile. The NIV translates accurately here for the word is mataioo not kenos. The distinctive meaning of mataioo is significant here and is well articulated by Trench.
But if kenos thus expresses the emptiness of all which is not filled with God, mataioo, as observed already, will express the aimlessness, the leading to no object or end, the vanity, of all which has not him . . . .
In the first is characterized the hollowness, in the second the aimlessness, or, if we may use the word, the resultlessness . . . (Synonyms of the New Testament, p. 181, 180).
Perhaps no place is the futility--the resultlessness--of fallen thinking so evident as it is in ethics. Here where man returns to the scene of the crime, his intellect is least able to construct a rational explanation for ethical reality which will give him refuge--a refuge of lies--from the gaze of the living God. Here human existence is most fractured, man is most alienated from himself, and reality is most inexplicable apart from the living God.
One feature of non-Christian ethics which clearly displays its futility is its continuing inability to overcome and reconcile what Carl Henry calls "the moral tensions" or "antagonisms" its apostasy creates. Henry asserts:
Rationalistic ethics, as is obvious even from our sweeping survey, fails to overcome antagonisms between the religious and the ethical, freedom and necessity, between duty and happiness, between egoism and altruism, and between ethical form and content. It is frustrated in the effort to do justice to both elements of these antitheses. Each successive viewpoint issues in an unsatisfactory adjustment of one to the other. The attempt to treat satisfactorily one side of the antinomy tends to work a corresponding injustice upon the other. (Christian Personal Ethics, p. 162).In the succeeding pages he attempts to demonstrate how Christianity transcends these dilemmas.
This paper will focus its attention, however, on problems even more basic; problems which even more immediately and glaringly demonstrate the "resultlessness" of fallen ethical thinking; problems which show that non-Christian ethics cannot meet the most basic needs with which reality confronts fallen man.
A. The Problem of Authority.
Reality confronts mankind with "the majesty of moral law" as a part of common experience. There is the universal sense of oughtness in human existence: of being obliged to an external claim. No one has stated this more clearly than Kant. He asserts: "For it is only law that involves the concept of an unconditional necessity which is objective and hence universally valid. Commands are laws that must be obeyed; that is, must be adhered to even when inclination is opposed (The Philosophy of Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, p. 165).
It is this unavoidable sense, experience, feeling of absolute obligation to an external, objective authority that profoundly characterizes fallen human existence. Gross defiance of this moral authority may dramatically derange the human mind through its psychological residue, guilt. Many of those who fill our mental hospitals could trace their "illness" to guilt. Other fundamental human experiences beside guilt manifest this reality--the experiences, for instance, of fear, moral indignation and injustice.
All of this relates to the problem of authority which confronts ethical thought. What is it that so absolutely obligates mankind? Where does this objective oughtness come from? What is its nature? From another point of view, what is that absolute value that so constrains our race? Failure to answer such questions as these frustrates ethical thinking at its most fundamental level. The contention here is that fallen ethical thought has not and indeed cannot satisfactorily answer them.
1. Frankena and ethics without metaphysics.
One waits expectantly when Frankena (who wants to build an ethics without metaphysics) seems to raise this precise question at the end of his little book, Ethics. He asks, "Why should we be moral? Why should we take part in the moral institution of life? Why should we adopt the moral point of view?" (p. 96). One's dissatisfaction grows as one listens through six paragraphs of irrelevancies. The ultimate question--what right has anyone to make any demands on me--is not addressed.
Or perhaps it is. Frankena's last words are: "Morality is made for man, not man for morality" (p. 98). Then surely, we may reply, it is strange that experience confronts us with "a morality made for man" in the form of an absolute, external claim upon us? The logical implication of this, Frankena's closing assertion, is that man's last obligation is to himself. Of course, Frankena cannot say this for it defies the fundamental character of ethical experience.
2. Nielsen and ethics without God.
Frankena illustrates one who takes an approach to ethics which hopes to avoid metaphysics (a popular but hopeless method in this writer's opinion). Kai Nielsen is a man with a well-defined naturalistic and atheistic view of the universe. He fares, however, no better in grappling with the problem of authority. He is only more honest in facing his predicament and stating his solution.
Intent on developing an "Ethics Without God", Nielsen must face the problem of authority, i.e., he must justify the oughtness of the values he adopts. Nielsen is smart enough to know that (at least in a naturalistic universe) one cannot derive the ought from the is. He says:
That men do seek happiness as an end is one thing; that they ought to seek it as an end is another. As G. E. Moore has in effect shown, we cannot derive "X is good" from "people desire X" or from "X makes people happy," for it is always meaningful to ask whether or not happiness is good and whether or not we ought to seek it for its own sake" (p. 55).
Nielsen is smart enough to see that (as a naturalist) this leaves him without proof of any sort for his ethical values. "I cannot prove", he says, "that happiness is good" (p. 56). Now Nielsen stands face to face with the problem of authority.
Suppose some Dostoyevskian underground man does not care a fig about happiness. Suppose he does not even care about the suffering of others. How, then, can you show him to be wrong? But suppose a man does not care about God or about doing what He commands either. How can you show that such an indifference to God is wrong? If we ask such abstract questions, we can see a crucial feature about the nature of morality. Sometimes a moral agent may reach a point at which he can give no further justification for his claims but must simply, by his own deliberate decision, resolve to take a certain position. Here the claims of the existentialists have a genuine relevance. We come to recognize that, in the last analysis, nothing can take the place of a decision or resolution. In the end we must simply decide (p. 56f).
Several comments are now relevant:
Nielsen's contention that Theists also must simply postulate their ethical value, as he does his, will be examined when we present the Christian approach to the problem of authority.
Nielsen's adoption of Existentialism's emphasis on mere decision destroys the empirical foundation of his Naturalism.
Most importantly, Nielsen's admission that ethical claims can only be justified by one's "own deliberate decision" is again a denial of and a defiance of the most basic fact of human ethical experience: the unavoidable sense that one is obliged absolutely to an external, objective authority. The barrage of verbiage Nielsen spouts only covers his retreat from reality.
Utilitarianism provides a third illustration of the inability of fallen thinking to cope with ethical reality. There are two relevant considerations.
G. E. Moore's name has already been cited above in connection with his criticism of the so-called naturalistic fallacy of the Utilitarians and in particular Bentham and Mill. They identified ethical value with pleasure and happiness respectively. They argued that since mankind does in fact seek and desire pleasure or happiness, these must be the ethical values which ground ethical thought. Moore in his Principia Ethica insisted at length that such arguments are fallacious. The "Is" of nature never logically gives birth to the "Ought" of ethics. Thus, Moore, himself a Utilitarian, shows that Bentham and Mill cannot justify conferring the throne of ethical oughtness upon either pleasure or happiness.
Since he insists on its being undefinable, it is difficult to address any cogent criticism against Moore's enthronement of the "Good" as the sovereign principle of Utilitarianism. One cannot in the nature of the case, either accept or reject an undefined god.
Another and more important observation concerning either hedonistic or eudaemonistic Utilitarianism brings us back to reality, ethical reality. Utilitarians, however inconsistently, have striven to transcend an egoistic understanding of their system. Even granting a measure of legitimacy to their attempts, their own principles forbid any actions which they know would result in personal displeasure or unhappiness. This would be not only wrong, but impossible given Bentham's dictum that all mankind serves two sovereign masters, pleasure and pain.
A sufficient exposure of this system might be a general appeal to mankind asking, "Is averseness to pain and desire of pleasure the sum or center of your ethical experience?" Our confidence in such an appeal arises from the statement of the character of fallen human ethical experience stated initially. It is the sense of being claimed by an objective authority. No amount of verbal trickery can reconcile this reality with an ethical system which has for its constitutive principle mere personal pleasure or happiness.
4. Kant and idealism.
Our criticism of fallen ethical thinking leads us finally back to Kant and Idealism. Is it here that we are to meet a speculative ethicist who does not defy ethical reality? It is not easy in a paper this size to evade the danger of a simplistic treatment of Kant. Certainly he is keenly aware of the sense of subjection to authority which characterizes human ethical experience. Certainly he seems to postulate a supreme being as the transcendental validation (? ground ?) of ethical reality. Yet the idea of autonomy, of the will as law-maker and law-giver pervades his thought. The fact is that whatever place the supreme being may occupy in Kant's system, he only comes into contact with human ethical reality through the free and autonomous activity of the human reason-will. However much this may sound at times like the Christian idea of natural revelation--"the work of the law written on the heart"--it is radically other. Divine revelation of whatever kind always stands over against man. Kant's autonomous will is just man himself. Ultimately Kant's deep respect for moral law is no other than respect for the dignity of mankind.
It is easy to see, from what has just been said, why we ascribe a certain quality and sublime dignity to the person who fulfills all his duties, although we think of the concept of duty as implying subjection to law. There is no sublime quality in him as far as he is subject to the moral law, but there is as far as he is at the same time a maker of that very law and on that account subject to it. . . . Our own will, as far as it acts under the condition that its maxims may constitute possible general laws--and such a will is possible as an idea--is the real object of respect. The dignity of mankind consists just in this capacity of making general laws . . . . (p. 187).
Kant's authority external to himself never gets beyond treating other rational beings as ends in themselves since they also are sovereign law-makers. "All rational beings are governed by the law that each must treat itself and all other such beings, never merely as means, but also always as ends in themselves (p. 182).
Thus, again the futility of fallen thought becomes evident. Its experience of the hard God-created ethical reality ruptures the fragile tissue of its speculations.
What is the secret of this futility? Man begins his ethical speculations with the idea of his own centrality in the universe. He will be as God. Ever and again, this principle is manifested in his thinking. Notwithstanding his best efforts it can never be reconciled to an ethical experience which presents man with an absolute, external claim upon himself. Thus, neither modern teleological ethics with its man-centered values; nor classical idealism with its practical deification of human reason can break from the futility to which the words of Paul doom them.
5. The Christian approach to the problem of authority.
Kai Nielsen's claim that Atheists and Christians both find it necessary merely to postulate without proof their ultimate ethical values confronts us as we begin this Christian approach to the problem of authority. Several rebuttals suggest themselves:
Nielsen's postulate is inconsistent with his naturalistic view abandoning as it does his empirical methodology for Existentialism. Christianity's postulate is on the other hand consistent with its world-view.
Nielsen's postulation of the ethical values of happiness, self-identity etc. are man-centered. Thus, they fail to cohere with the objective, authoritative character of ethical reality.
It is just here that the problem of authority asserts itself for the Christian. It may be that Nielsen cannot answer the man who asks, Why should I seek the happiness of society? Can, however, the Christian reply to the man who says, Why should I adopt the will of God as my rule of life? What right does God have to tell me what to do?
One may feel like responding to such questions by saying, "Because God will smash you if you don't!" None the less the logical answer to such questions points the unbeliever to the nature of the relationship in which creatures stand to their Creator. Certainly the divine power to judge the unbeliever is integral to this relationship, but it is not the central thing which grounds the divine claim upon human obedience. What is the fundamental category which most accurately describes the divine claim on human behavior?
When we think about such basic issues as this, it is well to remind ourselves that our answers will necessarily be analogical. Whatever category best describes the deepest ground of the divine claim that category will be a created analog of the thing in itself.
An attractive alternative is to think of this claim in terms of debt, gratitude, or thankfulness. This alternative traces human obligation to the divine goodness as it has blessed His creatures and obliged them to gratitude or put them in debt.
One might amass an impressive array of evidence to show that the fundamental ethical obligation is gratitude, the human indebtedness to the divine goodness.
The emphasis on the divine goodness in creation, the centrality of gratitude in the gospel way of salvation, and sundry other biblical statements would lend support to this thesis. "I am debtor," says Paul. He adds, "Owe no man anything except to love one another."
As close as this may be to the heart of the matter and it is certainly inextricably related, in my opinion we are not yet at the bottom of the matter with the idea of gratitude. Someone might say, albeit wickedly, "I see nothing in myself or in my life for which to be grateful. I didn't ask to be created. In fact I wish I hadn't been."
Approaching the matter from another point of view, we may ask, "Doesn't this approach make human blessedness an essential aspect of ethical value?" If so, does not this jeopardize the assumedly axiomatic truth that God alone possesses absolute value and is, therefore, the sole ground of ethical obligation? If this be true, then does not making gratitude the ultimate ground of ethical obligation tend toward a man-centered, hedonistic or eudaemonistic ethic?
Paul in the text that heads this paper suggests that there is a divine claim that is both more basic to man's being and also more directly terminates on God Himself. In what is certainly a crucial text on the ultimate nature of human ethical obligation, Paul mentions thankfulness, but he gives it only a secondary and subordinate position. He says, "They neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks." The surrounding context clearly supports the thesis that glorifying God is glorifying Him as Creator and Proprietor of all things (Rom. 1:20, 25).
It is the divine ownership of man which grounds ethical obligation. Call it divine lordship or divine sovereignty, the fact being pointed to is that God has made man and therefore owns man. Man is God's creature. It is this idea of divine possession which is the deepest meaning of the Creator/creature relationship. Neither divine power, nor divine goodness may be divorced from it, but ethical obligation for man arises first and most essentially from the fact that he is God's possession.
It needs no proof that the idea of God as Creator and Proprietor of all things is the starting-point of biblical revelation. Redemption, however, redoubles both divine ownership and human obligation. We recall that redemption is a new creation. Exod. 19:4-6 makes this thought central: "You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." The ceremonies relating to the firstborn repeatedly make the point that though all the earth is the Lord's by creation, Israel is especially the LORD'S by the new creation of redemption. 1 Cor. 6:19 and 20 forms the New Testament counterpart to such texts asserting: "You are not your own, you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God, (doxasate qeon) with your body." The Bible reverberates with this theme. "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own?" (Matt. 20:15). Rom. 9:20 and 21 is the capstone of a long-developing biblical theme when it asserts: "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?" Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?"
This then is the unanswerable reply to the fallen man when he asks, "Why should I obey you?" It is just this. All the earth is mine. You are mine. I brought you into existence. I made you. It is lawful for me to do what I will with my own. This is the destruction of fallen man's claim to autonomy or infinite worth or being an end in himself. He is another's possession. He possesses value only as God values him. A possession finds its end and its law and its happiness only in its owner.
This, finally, is the explanation for ethical reality as man knows it. Divine ownership grounds man's sense of an objective, external, and absolute claim upon his obedience.
B. The Problem of Knowledge.
Ethical reality confronts men with unending and diverse ethical situations. It is surely fair to require that any ethical system if it is to maintain its viability and credibility fundamentally provide the requisite knowledge to guide us in our ethical decisions. A "layman" will be surprised to discover that none of the three major divisions of non-Christian philosophies satisfies this criterion.
1. Epistemological Futility in Non-Christian Ethics.
Carl Henry classifies non-Christian ethics in three great divisions. They are in the order he treats them Naturalism, Idealism, and Existentialism. Both these divisions and this order are convenient for our purposes.
We take as typical of Naturalism Utilitarianism. This ethical system encourages us to identify some goal or goals as intrinsically valuable and judge the morality of all actions in terms of their ability to produce these goals. Such a method universally entails the necessity of knowledge of the results of our actions in order that we may calculate their morality. This, however, Utilitarianism cannot supply. The mere mention of Bentham's felicific calculus with its often ridiculed attempt to calculate scientifically the intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent of the pleasure produced by any act is sufficient to remind us of the abysmal failure of Utilitarianism to supply the crucial knowledge. Mill's attempt to distinguish qualitatively different pleasures has smashed repeatedly on the reefs of subjectivity. Moore's honesty is both stunning and damning: "It will be apparent that it has never yet been justified--the time sufficient reason has ever been found for considering one action more right or wrong than another" (p.152).
Moore does go on to say that the ordinary moral rules of human life derived from centuries of accumulated human experience provide a probability in most cases of producing the best results. This probability exists in every individual case. Therefore such rules ought always to be followed. Moore can even assert that should one violate a general rule and the results be good and thus on Moore's principle the act be a good act, yet notwithstanding such an act should be punished for violating the probability's of the situation. Such vagaries surely justify the charge of epistemological bankruptcy against Utilitarians, but let Kant make the charge. "In short, a human being is unable with certainty to determine by any principle what would make him truly happy, because to do so he would have to be omniscient" (p. 167). The Christian may agree. Only the God who knows the end from the beginning can accurately foresee the consequences of our actions. One would have to be God to live with certainty as a Utilitarian.
Astounding as it may sound, it is just such a deification of man which Idealism utilizes in its own approach to ethics. We have noted evidences of such deification in Kant, but Plato the grandfather of Idealism illustrates the thesis even more clearly. It is well-known that Plato taught that the human soul was preexistent existing before its incarnation in the ideal world. As a part of this world of forms, it was eternal and omniscient. For via its vision of this eternal world of forms--the substance of all knowledge--it is in possession of all knowledge. Learning is simply the soul's recollection of these ideas which through the shock of its incarnation have been forgotten. The shadows of the ideal world in the material world merely serve to remind the soul of what it already knows.
This is not the place to enter upon a critique of the Platonic system. It is sufficient to note that such ideas do not carry conviction today. The important thing to note is that it is accurate to say that both Utilitarianism and Idealism require man to be omniscient if he is to make any confident ethical decision.
Existentialism is the logical response to the joint conclusion of the above philosophies. That logical response is simply to despair of a rational solution to ethical decisions. Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, and Sartre have at lease this in common. All agree that ethical questions ultimately transcend the bounds of the rational in their resolution. Bonhoeffer asserts that morality is penultimate, not ultimate. Reason also is natural merely and not divine (Ethics, pp. 97, 103). Kierkegaard's fixation on Abraham's call to kill Isaac in supposed violation of the moral law in fear and trembling illustrates this denial and despair of ethical rationality. Abraham believed, Kierkegaard repeatedly affirms, by virtue of the absurd (p. 46). "Faith begins where thinking leaves off" (p. 64).
2. Epistemological Viability in Christian Ethics
It is not difficult to see how Christian epistemology both harmonized with and transcends the conclusions of non-Christian ethics. Certainly it would agree that omniscience is necessary if any ethical thinking is to be confident. It would also surely agree that man is not and cannot be omniscient and that if this were necessary, despair would be in order.
The fact of divine revelation, however, provides the Christian with the necessary omniscience without the necessity of locating that omniscience in man. Since God is omniscient he can provide man with the necessary knowledge to make ethical decisions without making man omniscient. Confidence rather than despair may thus mark the Christian approach to ethical decision.
The above assertions assume something about the nature of reality which must be made explicit. The question is, How is it possible in a finite revelation to adequately address all the various kinds of ethical decisions that confront men. The answer is that reality is a coherent whole in which unity and diversity are co-ultimate and complementary. This is simply to say that reality is intelligible because it is subject to certain unifying laws.
If reality were merely an unending succession of discrete particulars--pure diversity--then indeed rules would have to be multiplied endlessly in Pharisaic fashion to confront reality successfully.
On the other hand, if reality were in the end reducible or dissolve-able into singularity--pure unity--then indeed a single, formal, ethical principle like that of Fletcher's "Always do what is loving" (Situation Ethics, p. 26) would be adequate.
Contrary to either of these alternatives finite reality is patterned after the infinite reality of the Godhead. Divine revelation tells us that unity and diversity are co-ultimate and complementary in the Trinity. God is both one and three. The three is not reducible to one contrary to the Unitarian heresy. The one is not divisible into three after the manner of Tritheism. Just so, unity and diversity are co-ultimate and complementary in finite reality.
It is therefore possible to address ethical reality without a revelation coterminous in length with reality. Biblical revelation provides a body of ethical knowledge that is applicable to all reality and patterned after reality with its own unity and diversity. Its unity resides in the first and great commandment that we should love the Lord out God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Its diversity is exhibited in successive stages. The first stage is reached in Matt. 22:37-39 when the second commandment which is like unto it is added. A more comprehensive summary yet is given in the Ten Commandments. Finally, we realize that the whole of the self-interpreting Scriptures expound the irreducible diversity of the law of God. The complementary character of the unity and diversity of this ethical revelation is seen in the way that the unity and diversity mutually define and expound the other. Love for God is the goal of every directive and thus the hermeneutical principle by which each must be defined. On the other hand the nature of love for God in its concrete requirements is expounded in the individuality of the diverse directives. Law is love's eyes and without it love is blind. Love is law's heart and without it law is heartless.
The peculiar character of ethical thought in the Christian tradition today is its hostility toward the diversity of the ethic of divine revelation. With the above sketch of the situation before us, it is not difficult to see the fundamental fallacies of both Fletcher's Situationism and Geisler's Hierarchalism. Both are guilty of dissolving the diversity of the biblical ethic into a contentless unity. Geisler is the less extreme advocate of this tendency. One could liken Fletcher to the moral counterpart of the outright Unitarian. Geisler similarly could be likened to the more subtle moral counterpart of the Economic Trinitarian.
Ethical dilemmas, situations that seem to pit two recognized moral principles against one another, occupy a prominent place in contemporary ethical literature. Geisler, Fletcher, and Nielsen contain particularly extensive examples of such problematic situations. Very much could be written on this peculiarity of the contemporary ethical literature. We will limit our comments to one aspect of them.
Such dilemmas often seem to imply that the diversity of the biblical ethic is in conflict with itself and needs resolution into a "higher" unity. This seeming implication must be resisted if one is to prevent the destruction of the biblical ethic and of ethical endeavor in general. Without the unity and diversity of the knowledge given us in revelation, we simply do not have the knowledge crucial to ethical endeavor. We need the specificity of the Law. For the Law is Torah: instruction, direction, guidance intended to supply our ethical ignorance and give us specific guidance for our specific lives.
How then do we respond to the apparent dilemmas pressed upon us? One of two fallacies are committed by each of these dilemmas. These fallacies may be entitled respectively the Hypothetical and the Hermeneutical Fallacy.
The Hypothetical Fallacy consists in the creation of a hypothetical dilemma which does not exist in reality. The dilemma may neglect a third option which violates neither of the moral laws at stake. The dilemma may be based in a hypothetical world or situation which is not true to God-created reality, the only reality. This solution to ethical dilemma would in the case of Rahab maintain that a third option was present which would have involved neither lying nor betrayal.
The Hermeneutical Fallacy consists in the assumption that God's law requires an action which properly interpreted in light of the totality of biblical revelation it does not require. This solution to ethical dilemma would in the case of Rahab maintain, for example, that God's law never in fact required anyone to tell the truth and not to lie in a situation like that faced by Rahab.
The futility of fallen ethical thinking demonstrates itself at the most fundamental stages of ethical thought. Neither the problem of authority nor the problem of knowledge finds a viable answer in fallen thought. Ethics and indeed fallen ethical thought itself is a living witness to the existence of the living God and the futility of a life that denies him.
II. Choices in Christian Ethical Systems
Norman Geisler is one of the best known and influential Christian ethicists today. In two of the books he has written on the subject he has taken the time to lay out the different approaches which have been tried by recent ethicists both Christian and non-Christian. His attempt to do this is helpful. It enables us to survey the field of choices discerningly and to make a scriptural choice from among them.
A. Summary of Christian ethical choices.
Three of these choices are of special interest to and have been advocated by evangelical Christians. They are what Geisler calls (in Ethics: Options and Issues--Grand Rapids, Baker, 1989) unqualified absolutism, conflicting absolutism, and graded absolutism. The significance of these names is as follows.
1. Unqualified absolutism.
Unqualified absolutism is the view that there are many non-conflicting absolutes or moral laws. Among the advocates of this view Geisler cites Augustine and his successors in the Reformed tradition Charles Hodge and John Murray (p. 79).
2. Conflicting absolutism.
Conflicting absolutism is the view that there are many moral absolutes which sometimes conflict with one another. The result is that in some situations it is impossible to avoid violating one of these absolutes. Hence, this is also called the lesser-of-two-evils view because its advice in such situations of conflict is to choose the lesser of two evils.
3. Graded absolutism.
Graded absolutism is Geisler's own view. He had previously described it as hierarchalism. It is the view that there are many moral absolutes arranged in a kind of grade or hierarchy. In situations where the moral absolutes conflict it is necessary to understand which absolute to choose. In contrast to conflicting absolutism graded absolutism does not believe that it is necessary to sin in some situations. It teaches that if we choose the higher absolute in such situations we are guiltless.
B. A critique of graded absolutism.
The following discussion will focus on graded absolutism and critique it from the standpoint of unqualified absolutism. This leaves conflicting absolutism. Here it will be sufficient to state and explain two simple but devastating criticisms of that view. First, conflicting absolutism leads to the absurdity that we have a moral duty to sin. To put this even more bluntly, since for Christians all moral duty is rooted in God's commands, this view leads to the idea that God has commanded us to sin. Second, since this view emphasizes that in a fallen world moral conflicts are inevitable, it leads unavoidably to the conclusion that Jesus must have sinned. Not only is this conclusion morally repugnant and doctrinally heretical, it is specifically contradicted by the Bible (Heb. 4:15; 2 Cor. 5:21)
Geisler has defended his ethical system (graded absolutism previously known as hierarchalism) in several publications, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973); Options in Contemporary Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1981); "Biblical Absolutes and Moral Conflicts," BSac 131 (1974) 219-28; and Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1989). His system appears to be having increasing influence among evangelicals. William Luck in the Grace Theological Journal (8.1, 1987, pp. 19-34) remarks:
In the early 1970s several evangelical scholars concluded that Fletcher's torpedoes of moral conflict had indeed severely damaged the usual (if not traditional) evangelical ethical ship. These Evangelicals reiterated their acceptance of a system of plural universal rules and agreed with Fletcher that in this sinful and fallen world those rules sometimes come into conflict. These scholars began to reconstruct the ethical ship, and from their salvaging operations two distinct methodologies soon appeared in print. The first way to salvage evangelical ethics is known as hierarchalism or the greater of goods alternative. Its major exponent has been Norman L Geisler who set forth his position in three books ... The second system is called ideal absolutism or the lesser of evils alternative. Although this second view was set forth and rejected by Geisler, it was adopted by Erwin Lutzer Morality Gap: An Evangelical Response to Situation Ethics and John Warwick Montgomery Situation Ethics, True or False.
Geisler's system is the more defensible, appealing, and popular of these two alternatives. It is my conviction, however, that his system is no safe replacement for the old ethical ship. He is calling us to a premature abandonment of that ship for a raft of rather shoddy construction. It is my purpose, therefore, to succinctly critique his system. By doing this I hope to insulate you against it and commend to you the old ethical ship which Geisler calls unqualified absolutism. Quite honestly, there is far too much to criticize even in Geisler's chapter on graded absolutism to do anything approaching a systematic critique of it. Since seven is the perfect number, I will satisfy myself with that perfect number of criticisms. Unless noted otherwise the page numbers are from Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1989).
1. Its ambiguity disguises a serious intellectual dilemma.
Luck has charged Geisler with defending his system by means of "linguistic mirrors" ("Moral Conflicts ...", p. 22). It is certainly true that there is not a little ambiguity or opacity in Geisler's use of language. For instance, Geisler describes the biblical prohibition against lying as a universal command and an absolute (p. 123) and yet clearly teaches in numerous instances that mercy takes precedence over truth-telling and sometimes makes it necessary to lie (pp. 121, 122).
The passage on p. 123 is quite significant for this first criticism because in it Geisler is attempting to distance himself from Fletcher's situationism. Here is what Geisler says:
First, Joseph Fletcher's situationism ... does not hold that there are any absolutes with substantive content; graded absolutism does. According to graded absolutism, the universal commands of Scripture such as prohibitions against blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, murder, lying, and so forth are absolute, and these are binding on all men at all times and places. Second, graded absolutism holds that there are more absolutes than one. Fletcher believes in one and only one absolute, and that absolute is formal and empty.
Geisler's attempt to distance himself from Fletcher is not convincing. It is not convincing for the simple reason that he has tinkered with the meaning of absolute. If the prohibition against lying is a biblical absolute and yet it is "justifiable" on some occasions to lie (p. 122), the term, absolute, is no longer adequate to discuss the problem. I will, therefore, coin the phrase supreme absolute (by which I mean an `absolute' absolute) and ask this question of Geisler, Is there more than one supreme (or `absolute') absolute?
This query displays Geisler's problem. If he has more than one supreme absolute, then he is despite himself an unqualified absolutist who differs only from John Murray (the quintessential unqualified absolutist) in the identity of those multiple supreme absolutes. Geisler, that is to say, has multiple supreme absolutes even though the prohibition against lying is not one of them.
On the other hand, if Geisler has only one supreme absolute, then he is no different than Fletcher and will be ultimately liable to the same criticism he levels against Fletcher, "Fletcher believes in one and only one absolute, and that absolute is formal and empty."
It is important to inquire as to which system Geisler really inclines. This is no easy question, because Geisler himself has altered his position significantly between his book entitled, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, and his book, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues. In the first book he sets forth seven principles by which to determine the highest good in every situation of moral conflict. There he names his system, hierarchalism. In the second book, he drops these seven principles and the name hierarchalism in favor of the name, graded absolutism, and the enunciating of three principles by which moral conflicts are to be resolved. Those three principles are enunciated on pp. 120-123. They are: (1) Love for God over Love for Man (2) Obey God over Government (3) Mercy over Veracity.
This looks as though Geisler holds several supreme absolutes and is really an unqualified absolutist like Murray, but upon closer examination this impression begins to dissolve. Surely his second supreme absolute is simply an application or re-statement of his first one. Further, mercy over veracity seems to demand some sort of hierarchical order within the attributes of God. Geisler himself concedes this possibility (p. 125).
A number of things conspire to require the conclusion that in reality Geisler's logic leads him to a one-norm unqualified absolutism like that of Fletcher. In the first place, Geisler never clearly renounces his earlier description of his system as hierarchalism. In Alternatives and Issues he even admits that such hierarchalism was usually rooted in a Platonic form of philosophy (p. 115). It is difficult to avoid the idea that Geisler's graded absolutism is simply hierarchalism by another name. The very terms, hierarchy and graded, suggest a thought-structure which leads to a single supreme absolute. This was certainly the case in the Plotinian structures to which Geisler refers in his earlier book (p. 115).
Further, Geisler's final paragraph in his chapter on graded absolutism (p. 132) illustrates the inevitable tendency of his system to a single supreme absolute.
The essential principles of graded absolutism are: There are many moral principles rooted in the absolute moral character of God; there are higher and lower moral duties--for example, love for God is a greater duty than love for people; These moral laws sometimes come into unavoidable moral conflict; In such conflicts we are obligated to follow the higher moral law; When we follow the higher moral law we are not held responsible for not keeping the lower one.
This view of things with its admission of moral conflicts leads inevitably to the idea that even if there were only two supreme absolutes, there could be conflict. Unless even these two highest absolutes were hierarchically ordered, there would be irresolvable moral conflict. This requires the thought on the premises of Geisler's system that there be only one supreme absolute. It seems clear to me, therefore, that Geisler's system leads inevitably to a one-norm unqualified absolutism or what amounts to a system very similar to situationism (p.54).
This observation leads directly to the second criticism of Geisler which I would set before you.
2. Its hierarchalism resembles Platonism and destroys the only possible basis for ethical knowledge, a Christian and Trinitarian epistemology.
If the observation is correct that Geisler's system is basically hierarchical and tends to dissolve all ethical obligations into one final obligation in the interest of which all other obligations may be discounted, then it is, indeed, only a form of ethical Platonism. It is, therefore, liable to the criticisms which may be leveled against any such system.
In Neo-Platonism the ideal world was identified with the "Mind". Out of the "mind" emanates the demiurge=the "soul." The higher soul transcends the world. The lower soul animates it. Matter out of which the world is formed really doesn't exist. The material world is only a mirror reflecting being. It itself is non-being and evil. Being is light. Non-being is darkness. "The Mind," however, is not the highest reality, or being. Mind itself emanates from "the one" = God. Since the one is above the mind it is beyond reason, ineffable, incomprehensible, and above being. In contrast the mind is the principle of rationality, containing the ideas, and is, thus, knowable. Thus ultimate reality can only be attained by mystical experience, not by reason or the intellect.Reality in Neo-Platonism is conceived as a scale of being.
Note how Neo-Platonism has reduced the plurality of ultimate principles to the one from which all emanates.
Geisler recognizes the ethical fate of such a system. It leaves one with a universal law which is so general that it is formal, empty, contentless, and, therefore, useless (pp. 57, 123). Thus, Geisler pronounces the verdict against his own system.
Though a world-view which reduces all of reality to one ultimate principle has proved attractive in all eras, and though such a system may appear amenable to Christianity suggesting as it does a supreme being, in reality such a system destroys the basis for ethical knowledge and departs from a Christian and Trinitarian epistemology. Ethics demands an adequate epistemology in order to provide it with the knowledge it requires for the multiple challenges of the ethical task. Any adequate epistemology must solve the problem of the one and the many. In other words, it must provide a basis for discovering the universal principles which give consistency to reality without dissolving reality into the universal principles. The tendency of hierarchalism is to dissolve reality into the universals, thus leaving the ethicist with a useless universal. Rationalism is left holding a meaningless "one" (or, in other words, universal). On the other hand, a system which chooses to regard particulars as ultimate and looks at universals as mere names or conventions also loses knowledge. This is because it has no assurance that there are universals, any consistent principles, which govern reality.
It is to just this dilemma that Trinitarian Christianity provides the resolution. The Trinitarian view of God provides the Christian with a perspective on ultimate reality which provides a basis for an adequate epistemology. It asserts that in infinite being (God) both the one (the divine essence) and the many (the three divine persons) are equally ultimate. The distinctive of Trinitarianism as opposed to all the heresies over against which it was historically set was that it refused to regard either the single divine essence or the three divine persons as more ultimate than the other. Modalists and Monarchians of all stripes decided that the one-ness of God was more ultimate than the three-ness. Tritheists of all stripes decided that the three-ness of God must divide the one divide essence in some way. The remarkable thing about Trinitarianism was its refusal to make this choice. Thus, it teaches that the universal and the particulars are co-ultimate in infinite being. Thus, they are consistent with each other and coordinate with one another.
Similarly, in created reality God has created a world in which all particulars reflect certain universal principles, while not being absorbed by or dissolved into those universal principles. Created universals and particulars do not contradict one another. The application of this system and epistemology to ethics provides this important insight. The moral law of God is composed of both universals (Matt. 22:37-40) and particulars (Exodus 20). The universals never negate or over-ride the particulars. The particulars always reflect the universals. Hence, all the particular laws of God always reflect love for God and man. There is never any conflict between universals and particulars in God's law properly understood. Thus, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Christian epistemology it suggests immediately suggests the inadequacy of situationism, any other form of one-norm absolutism, conflicting absolutism, and graded absolutism. This is so because each of these systems posit conflict between universals and particulars within God's law or subordinate the particulars to the universals in some way.
This presentation of the epistemology suggested by Trinitarian Christianity leads directly to three observations about the relations of the one and the many in any Christian ethical system. First, the integrity of the particulars (the individual laws) in Christian ethics is preserved. The universals are not more ultimate than these particulars and do not over-ride them or negate their obligation in any situation. Second, the integrity of the universals of Christian ethics is also preserved because no particular law ever requires us to violate the principle of love for God and man as His image. Third, the meaning of both universals and particulars in the Christian ethical system is preserved. The universals are not formal and empty, because their significance is elucidated by the multitude of particulars which reflect them. The particulars are preserved from hard-hearted legalism because they are always seen as concrete manifestations of love for God and neighbor. We may articulate the harmony of this system by saying that law is love's eyes and without it love is blind; and love is law's heart and without law is heartless.
This leads directly to our next observation and criticism.
3. Its assertion that there are moral conflicts which may be resolved in the framework of moral absolutism is logically self-contradictory.
William Luck offers this explanation of the premises of Geisler's ethics ("Moral Conflicts ..., p. 22):
At first blush this system seems splendid. It is not so naive that it refuses to accept alleged moral conflicts that Scripture and experience "amply manifest". It is not so unscriptural as to deny the plurality of commandments. And it offers its followers a way to act in conflict so as not to be guilty of breaking a commandment. In short, Geisler seems to accept both of Fletcher's premises (multiple commandments and conflicts) and yet deny his conclusion (normative incoherence).
Luck's problem with this system is that he sees it as logically impossible to accept Fletcher's premises without accepting his conclusion. Here's what he says ("Moral Conflicts" ..., p. 123):
Thus, it is evident that the hierarchical system cannot get where it wants to go. If it alters the obligation, it resolves the irresolvable conflict by denying the conflict. If it does not alter the obligation, it retains normative incoherence. Hierarchalism is indeed caught between a rock and a hard place. The system has to move one way or the other. Either it has to deny the reality of moral conflict or it has to accept the charge of being an incoherent system. Insofar as the theory pretends normatively to resolve the irresolvable, it is analytically absurd.
No place does the internally contradictory character of Geisler's system become more evident than in his discussion of the difference between exceptions and exemptions (p. 127):
Graded absolutism does not believe there are any exceptions to absolute laws, only exemptions (see chap. 1). but is not this merely a semantical difference, not a real one? No, the difference is more than verbal. First of all, an exception would violate the universality and absoluteness of a moral law, whereas an exemption does not. If there is an exception, then the law is not absolute and, hence, does not reflect the nature of God, but at best describes only what is generally the right course of action. Absolute norms, on the contrary, are based on God's unchanging nature and have no exceptions. If they did, it would be much like saying that God is truthful or loving only at certain times but not at others.
Second, an exception means that the lying as such is sometimes right, under certain circumstances. Not so with an exemption. Lying as such is always wrong; it is only the life-saving activity of which the false hood may be a necessary concomitant that is good--not the lie as such. Third, in an exception, the general rule is not binding on that particular case, and so there is no real conflict. However, where an exemption is made to following a universal law, the law is still binding; that is what makes the conflict real. For instance, the law of filial piety is still binding on the child when he refuses to obey his parents' command to worship an idol; that is precisely what makes the conflict so real.
Finally, an exemption only eliminates the individual's culpability in not performing the demands of that lower law; it in no way changes either the basis or the nature of the law as an absolute in its domain....
In this amazing statement Geisler himself shows us the impossibility of accepting Fletcher's premises and rejecting his conclusions. He asserts that "Lying as such is always wrong..." Patently, this involves him in the nonsense assertion that it is sometimes right to do wrong. What makes matters worse is that in chapter one of this book (p. 27) Geisler has informed us that Graded Absolutism teaches that "Lying is sometimes right: There are higher laws" (italics his).
He further asserts that, though lying is always wrong, it is sometimes the necessary concomitant of the good. This assertion has massive implications for the nature of reality. Geisler is teaching that it is sometimes necessary to do wrong in order to do good. He does not explain how this is consistent with the apostle's statement that condemnation of those who say, "Let us do evil that good may come," is just!
Geisler has slipped in his terminology in this statement. How can he in the same breath speak of absolutes and universal laws and then describe the very same things as "general rules"? This sounds much like the generalism which he rejects in chapter four and summarizes in chapter one (p. 26) as follows: "Lying is generally wrong: There are no universal laws. Generalism claims that lying is generally wrong. As a rule, lying is wrong, but in specific cases this general rule can be broken." Geisler will have to pardon us if we cannot discover the difference between a general rule in generalism and a general rule in graded absolutism.
Geisler also asks us in this statement to hold together ideas which seem to repel each other. He tells us that it is always wrong to lie. He tells us that the universal law against lying is always binding. Then he tells us that despite this we are sometimes not culpable for lying. Thus, we have a binding obligation which, if we violate, involves us in wrong, but nevertheless does not bring upon us blame, culpability, or guilt. A strange concoction of ethical ideas indeed!
All of this means that Geisler's crucial distinction between exemptions and exceptions is utterly opaque. He has not theoretically vindicated any clear distinction between the two things. The fact is that Geisler is here writhing on the horns of the dilemma he has created for himself. He must have real moral conflict, and he must with his system resolve real moral conflict. All his squirming simply impales him further on the horns of his dilemma.
What further confirms this conclusion is that the instances of moral conflict which Geisler provides lack sufficient cogency to make his case. This is the substance of our next criticism.
4. Its examples of ethical conflict lack sufficiency cogency to vindicate its assertion of moral conflict.
We may begin by noting the instance Geisler gives within the key quotation provided above. He says, "For instance, the law of filial piety is still binding on the child when he refuses to obey his parents' command to worship an idol; that is precisely what makes the conflict so real." Here Geisler asserts that the law of filial piety is in some conflict with the law against idolatry. The fallacy in this is simply that Geisler assumes what must be proven. This assumption must emphatically be denied. God never gave any law of filial piety (including "Honor your father and your mother.") which did not have as its assumed hermeneutical context the rest of divine revelation. Geisler is, in fact, positing moral conflict between the second and the fifth commandments. It is equally feasible to assume that the hermeneutical principle of context requires us to posit certain limits on the obedience to be given to our parents. Geisler assumes that honor in every instance requires obedience. It may be that the Bible does not share his assumption. Unless we are to shelve one of the key principles of biblical hermeneutics, the kind of exegesis necessary to support Geisler's ethics must be rejected.
Similar instances of the misinterpretation of biblical laws abound in Geisler's chapters on ethical choices. He assumes repeatedly that the proper interpretation of the sixth commandment is, "Do not kill" (pp. 94, 118). In fact, a better interpretation of this commandment is, "Do not murder." It is not always a violation of the sixth commandment to kill another human being--a fact suggested that in the context of this command in Exodus 20, the death penalty is mandated (Exodus 21:29). Geisler also misrepresents what the Scriptures require with regard to the honoring of civil authority. Repeatedly, he asserts that there was a moral conflict between the law against idolatry (and other laws) and the law requiring subjection to civil authority (pp. 117, 121).
Geisler's mistakes here are various. He assumes that the duty of subordination to civil authority is equivalent to the duty of obedience. This assumption is quite problematic. The Greek word for subordination used in Rom. 13:1 means to place oneself under another's general authority. While such a posture generally requires obedience, it does not always require such. A wife may disobey her husband, a subject may disobey his king, without deserving the epithet, insubordinate.
Geisler also assumes that the command to obey civil rulers is unqualified. Again, this assumption ignores basic principles of biblical hermeneutics. It may certainly be maintained with much greater plausibility that the authors of Scripture always assumed that we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29) whenever they required obedience to human authority.
Again and again Geisler assumes far-fetched and legalistic interpretations of biblical commands in order to give his premise of moral conflict the color of probability. To the discerning eye he only succeeds in raising serious questions about his understanding of Scripture. When he insists that the Scriptures approved of Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter in fulfillment of his vow, he goes so far in this direction that he even raises questions about his own graded absolutism. In endeavoring to show a conflict between the duty to keep one's oaths and the duty not to kill. He asserts, "But the Scripture appears to approve of Jephthah's keeping the oath to kill" (p. 118). The implications of this are incredible. If the Scriptures do approve of Jephthah's keeping his oath to kill his daughter, then this contradicts Geisler's own graded absolutism. This is so because we assume that Geisler does not approve of Jephthah's keeping his oath. If the Scriptures only appear to approve of his keeping the oath, but do not really approve of it, then of what relevance is this instance to Geisler's case?
But the disastrous implications of Geisler's system pierce even closer to the heart of biblical Christianity.
5. Its view of the work of Christ on the cross erases the crucial distinction between grace and debt.
In a number of places Geisler claims that the central event of the Christian gospel, the work of Christ on the cross, embodies a moral conflict which can only be resolved on the basis of graded absolutism (pp. 119, 131). This claim is astounding enough that Geisler should be allowed to explain it himself (p. 131).
Apart from graded absolutism, it is difficult to make moral sense of the cross. From the standpoint of nonconflicting absolutism, the cross is a moral injustice, for on the cross the just was punished for the unjust (1 Pet. 3:18; 2 Cor. 5:21). There is no moral justification for this, unless there are higher and lower moral laws. In this way, mercy can take precedence over justice. The one (Christ) can suffer for the many that they may be saved (Rom. 5:6-18). But if mercy and love are not higher moral values than justice, then what God did to Christ, when it pleased him to "bruise" his son (Isa. 53:5), was a great injustice. But God cannot be unjust. Therefore, the cross makes sense only if the demands of justice are subordinated to the desires of mercy.
This exposition of the cross of Christ manifests the same kind of doublespeak noticed earlier in Geisler's statement about exceptions and exemptions. How can the statement, "God cannot be unjust," cohere with the statement that "the demands of justice are subordinated to the desires of mercy"?
This exposition also reflects the superficial view of biblical ethics associated with the deficient hermeneutic noted earlier. Geisler asserts that it is moral injustice for the just to punished in the place of the unjust even if the substitute is willing. This assertion cannot be sustained. It is certainly unjust on the part of a judge to punish an unwilling, innocent person for crimes he did not commit. But if the innocent person is willing and the motives of the innocent person are good, upon what ground can Geisler's assertion be sustained? There are only two possibilities. One has to do with God and the other with the Lord Jesus. This assertion may be sustained on the ground that it is unjust for God to accept a substitute. Does Geisler really want to teach this? It may be also be sustained on the ground that it is absolutely and universally unlawful for an innocent person to voluntarily endure suffering. I, at least, am not aware of any law absolutely forbidding the voluntary endurance of suffering. It is not sinful to suffer.
These difficulties with Geisler's exposition of the cross pale beside the last one which will be pointed out. Simply put, Geisler vitiates the very concept of grace by positing an ethical hierarchy which places mercy above justice. If this is so, then the implication is that by the demands of his own nature God must show mercy wherever justice and mercy come into conflict. This means that, if it is true (as Geisler asserts) that "God cannot be unjust", it is even more true that God cannot fail to show mercy. This means that God is under an ethical obligation imposed by his own nature to show mercy wherever mercy and conflict. Upon this view hell must be emptied because in the damnation of every inhabitant of hell the demands of mercy and justice conflict. Only Geisler's semi-Pelagianism saves him here from universalism. We suppose he believes that God's mercy is thwarted by the impenitence of men. For one who believes in the sovereignty of grace this option is, of course, not available.
Another dimension of this problem is that it makes God's sending His Son to die on the cross ethically mandatory. Since mercy is a higher ethical imperative than justice, God's own nature required him to give His Son to die for the sins of men. Upon this construction of the gospel, sinful men had a right to demand that God send His Son to save them, and they have a right to claim salvation not as a mater of grace, but of debt. How this contradicts the assertions of Scripture everywhere that grace and debt, mercy and obligation are two distinct and contrasting things (Rom. 4:4, 5; 11:5, 6)!
The semi-Pelagianism implicit in Geisler's view of the cross becomes even more clear and explicit by means of the next criticism.
6. Its theory of responsibility is not distinct from that of Semi-Pelagianism.
On page 130 Geisler responds to the objection that graded absolutism denies total depravity. His response again manifest confusion and contradiction. First, he gives a statement consistent with the orthodox doctrine of total depravity when he says, "That is, what we ought to do, we can do, by God's grace." Here he makes the ability upon which responsibility an ability supplied by the grace of God. Here it appears that Geisler is by implication acknowledging the doctrine of moral inability. A sentence or two later, however, Geisler appears to withdraw this acknowledgment by saying, "... responsibility implies the ability to respond." This bald and unqualified assertion of what amounts to a Pelagian theory of responsibility cannot be sustained on a biblical basis. The Scriptures everywhere deny that men by nature possess the moral ability to avoid sin and respond to the gospel (Rom. 8:7; 1 Cor. 2:14; John 6:44). At the very least such Scriptures require of us a distinction between moral and natural ability, if we dare to assert that"... responsibility implies the ability to respond."
7. Its implications contradict numerous, important biblical assertions.
Again, this heading cannot exhaustively deal with Geisler. Several points do require our attention. First, Geisler cites Matt 22:34, 35 as supporting graded absolutism (pp. 116, 117). A superficial and isolated reading of these verses might suggest a similarity between them and graded absolutism. When Jesus asserts that there is a "great and foremost commandment" and also a "second", this sounds like some form of incipient hierarchy. When the context is read, this interpretation is immediately assaulted with difficulties. Verse 39 says, for instance, "On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." Jesus here posits coherence and harmony between all the parts of the ethical system revealed in the Old Testament. He asserts that the rest of the ethical system of the Old Testament flows from and depends upon for its correct interpretation the two great commandments. How is this consistent with positing of moral conflict by graded absolutism?
It is better, therefore, to regard the preeminence of the two great commandments as consisting in the fact that they are commandments which have a foundational, hermeneutical significance for the meaning of the rest of the commandments of the Old Testament. Loving God is the most basic hermeneutical principle through which to understand the commands of the Old Testament. Loving your neighbor is the second most basic principle. Alternatively, one could regard these commandments as stating the most basic values which are reflected in the rest of Old Testament ethics. Either way, there is no need to see in this passage a hierarchically structured ethic. The two great commandments are simply two nonconflicting universals which exist in harmony and equal ultimacy with the particulars of biblical ethics.
Many other statements of Scripture challenge the premises of graded absolutism. Speaking of one of the Ten Commandments Rom. 7:12 asserts that "the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy, just, and good." It appears to be of the essence of graded absolutism to assert that in some cases obedience to the precepts of Scripture will not be productive of "good". they will not, in other words, be beneficial and advantageous. Rather, according to graded absolutism, the ignoring and violating of these commands is sometimes the "necessary concomitant" of achieving the good (p. 127). In this vein it seems appropriate to remind ourselves that God on Mount Sinai did not give the ten ascending priorities, but the Ten Commandments. Similarly, we may certainly ask, if we may lie to save life, whether we may also murder, commit adultery, blaspheme, and steal?
Geisler fails to note one text which has the appearance of explicitly teaching moral conflict. It is (Matt. 12:5). "Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in temple break the Sabbath, and are innocent?" Though Geisler does not cite it, here at least appears something like the moral conflict which he posits in his graded absolutism. The priests break (or profane) the Sabbath, and yet they are innocent. There is the sound here of moral conflict.
All that we have seen in this critique leads us to look for an interpretation of this text which does not involve itself in the absurdities of moral conflict. Again, context suggests the solution. Jesus is addressing the Pharisees. Their interpretation of the laws of God did, indeed, introduce conflict into biblical ethics at point after point. They did not understand that every commandment of the Law and the Prophets depends on the two great commandments. Thus, they interpreted the Sabbath in ways which created moral conflicts with the universals of biblical ethics. It is, then, with irony that Jesus tells the Pharisees that (upon their interpretation of the Sabbath) the priests profane the Sabbath. Calvin has seen Jesus' irony long ago and answered the Geislers of his day.
When Christ says, that the priests profane the Sabbath, the expression is not strictly accurate, and is accommodated to his hearers; for when the Law enjoins men to abstain from their employments, it does not forbid them to perform the services of religion. But Christ admits that to be true which might appear to be so in the eye of ignorant persons, and rests satisfied with proving, that the labours performed in the temple are not offensive to God (Calvin's Commentaries, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1981, vol. 16, p. 48 of the second volume bound in vol. 16).