image courtesy of reverendmom
[This post is the fourth in a series. Others are: “rahab’s exchange: the lie,” “rahab’s exchange: ethical theories,” and “rahab’s exchange: moral absolutism” Rahab lied in order to save the lives of two Israelite spies. Was she right to do so? Is it ever right to lie?]
I’ve argued that the most sensible system of ethics is deontological ethics, in which there exist moral laws to which all humanity are obligated to obey. I believe those moral laws originate in the person and nature of God. I’ve also offered graded absolutism as the most logical (and useful) subset within the deontological framework. The graded absolutist (that’s me) holds that God’s laws do, at times, conflict with one another. The duty of the believer, then, is to be obedient to the weightier of those two laws. In doing so, the Christian does not sin.
But there are some obvious questions to be asked. And because I’m not popular enough to be interviewed by anyone else, I’ve volunteered myself to do the job:
Brett, are there any actual scripture references that support your arguments for graded absolutism? Or is this all just an exercise in logic and imagination?
There are several verses, I believe, that attest to the existence of weightier commands. Here are a few:
- Matthew 22:36 – Jesus demonstrates that there is a “greatest commandment,” and even a “second” that is like it. So there certainly is present some hierarchy of moral commands — of which the chiefest is to love God with all of our being.
- Matthew 10:37 – Loving Jesus is more important than loving our fathers, mothers, and family.
- Matthew 23:23 – The scribes and Pharisees tithe even their spices, but they’ve neglected “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
- Matthew 5:19 – Jesus states that there do exist lesser commandments.
- 1 Corinthians 6:18 – Sexual sins (committed inside the body) are somehow worse than other sins.
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – God punished and killed an innocent human being in order to save us. This was an injustice — as we ourselves are incredibly deserving of punishment and death, and Jesus was not. God’s plan of salvation itself is immoral if there is no graded absolutism.
You made the outrageous claim yesterday that graded absolutism is “demonstrated in scripture a number of times.” Can you cite a few of those instances for us? And don’t use the Apocrypha — very few of us are Catholics.
Sure. I’d be happy to:
- Acts 5:29 – Peter and the apostles have broken the commands of the authorities in order to teach the gospel. There was a clear conflict between obedience to God (proclaiming the gospel) and obedience to civil authorities. Their answer: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” [The commands to obey civil authorities can be found in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.]
- Acts 4:18-19 – Peter and John in nearly the exact same scenario.
- Daniel 3 – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship the golden statue even though they were commanded to do so by the king himself.
- Daniel 6 – Daniel continues to pray to God three times a day, despite the fact that this was illegal.
- Luke 2:41-52 – Boy Jesus chooses submission to God over submission to his parents.
- Matthew 12:1-8 – Jesus and the disciples pick and eat grain on the sabbath. He then relates the story of David having eaten the bread of the Presence (1 Samuel 21) when to do so was unlawful.
- Matthew 12:9-14 – Jesus heals on the sabbath.
And these are more circumstantial — and may not fit our context exactly, but they’re at least worth looking at:
- Joshua 2, 6; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:24-25 – This is where the series all began. Rahab lies to save the lives of two Israelite spies. Her faith is commended in the Hebrews text, and her actions (of receiving the spies) are endorsed in James. Nowhere is it stated explicitly that Rahab’s lie was approved by God or good.
- Exodus 1:15-22 – The king of Egypt commanded the Hebrew midwives to immediately kill every Hebrew-born male. The midwives, though, “feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.” Instead they lied and said that the Hebrew women were strong and healthy and always deliver before the midwife can even arrive. “So God dealt well with the midwives… and because [they] feared God, he gave them families.” This story doesn’t come out and say, “God approved of these lies.” But it very nearly does.
- 1 Samuel 16 – Samuel was commanded to go and anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king. In order to be allowed to enter without being killed by Saul, though, he is told by God to tell what we might consider a “little white lie” — that he has come peacably, to sacrifice to the Lord. This isn’t a straight out-and-out lie, but surely we’d agree there is some dishonesty and deceit present.
- Let’s don’t even start the conversation about all the instances in which killing another human being was approved of — or even commanded — by God. [No, seriously, let’s don’t start that conversation…]
Aren’t you afraid that, if we adopt graded absolutism as our theory of ethics, people will only use it to justify sin? A fellow could argue that he lied to his wife, because he didn’t want to hurt her. Or that he only stole food in order to feed his hungry family.
I suppose I’m not very afraid of that. Any system of ethics is going to be abused; that’s what people do. They sin, they break rules, and they act selfishly (and foolishly). Are we seriously considering throwing out a valid understanding of scripture and morality because we’re afraid people will abuse it? Why not throw out mercy and grace while we’re at it — people abuse those?! [Actually, some of us have attempted to throw these out…]
So you’re telling us you believe God is so imperfect that he was forced to create laws that would conflict with one another? If God’s perfect laws are in conflict with one another, then his nature itself is necessarily in conflict.
This argument doesn’t make any sense. If conflict within laws created by God necessitates conflict in the nature of God, then sin in a world created by God necessitates sin in the nature of God. We live in a fallen world; things happen. In a perfect world, these laws wouldn’t be in conflict. If my parents didn’t sin in commanding me not to worship God, I wouldn’t be forced to choose between obedience to God or my parents. But sin breeds conflict. And Christians are not exempt from conflict. We are not immune to hard choices.
Are there any examples of Jesus having faced any of these moral dilemmas in his life?
Honestly, I’m not sure; but I think so. I mentioned above the story of boy Jesus remaining in the temple when he was supposed to be with his parents in the caravan to Nazareth. He caused them great concern and anxiety, and his only answer was, “Didn’t you know I had to be about my Father’s business.” I’m not sure that story is itself a great argument. But it leans that direction.
It would probably be more productive to look at any of the number of times Jesus argued for mercy in the place of justice. We know that mercy and justice were both considered by Christ to be “weightier matters of the law.” But when the two conflicted with one another (the woman caught in adultery or Jesus’ own crucifixion despite his innocence), Jesus forewent justice in favor of mercy. He spared the adulterous woman, and he chose to die to save the world. Mercy over justice.
Do you really believe dinosaurs roamed the face of the earth in Old Testament times?
Uhm… yes? But I don’t see how this is pertinent to our discussion.
Yeah, I was just wondering…