Are There Moral Absolutes?
By Pastor George Van Alstine
Christianity has generally held that moral rights and wrongs are absolute, clearly and uncompromisingly revealed by God. Some other religions consider moral decisions to be relative, that is, dependent on the circumstances of each particular case. This has been a major dividing line that helps define true Christianity,
In the middle of the twentieth century, some liberal Protestant scholars began talking about “Situational Ethics” as the way modern Christians should approach moral issues. Predictably, that created a backlash among traditional “Bible-believers” prompting them to reaffirm strongly that true Christianity must stand for absolutes in morality.
Actually, there has always been a recognition among serious Christian thinkers that, while some moral questions seem to be clearly portrayed in the Bible as having absolute answers, others are either not addressed or are answered in a way that seems to apply only to a particular culture. Murder, stealing and adultery are presented as absolutely wrong. Eating pork is forbidden, but modern Christians think of this Old Testament taboo as not binding on them. And even though many conservative Christians treat it as a Biblical absolute, the morality of abortion is not directly discussed in the Bible at all.
A recent conversation with the Rabbi of our local synagogue forced me to think about things in a new way. While eating in a restaurant, we began talking about Jewish Kosher foods and, particularly, how careful observant Jews are to make sure foods are prepared and served in just the right way. I mentioned that I felt uncomfortable eating forbidden foods in his presence. He said: “That’s something Christians don’t understand; we don’t think eating pork is wrong for you, we just think it’s wrong for us. It’s part of God’s covenant with the Jewish people; for others it’s not a moral issue at all.” It’s the next part of the Rabbi’s statement that had never occurred to me at all: “Even the Ten Commandments are part of God’s special covenant with Israel ; they weren’t given to the whole human race at the time of Creation; they were given to the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt.”
Whoa! I guess I was brought up to think that there’s nothing more absolute than the Ten Commandments. Certainly this list of Thou-shalt-nots applies to the whole human race. As I thought about it, I had to admit to myself that Christians had already decided that a good many of the laws God gave to the Israelites did not apply to us. Among these “outdated” religious rules was even one of the revered Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath (seventh) day, and keep it holy.” The early Christian community decided to discard seventh-day observance in favor of the first day of the week, “The Lord’s Day,” the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Were they messing with an absolute?
The One who founded Christianity reaffirmed the authority of the Old Testament law in the strongest terms:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law . . . I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. . . Not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)
So what’s absolute, and what’s relative?
Alice won’t let me write an article any longer than this, so I’ll have to finish next week.