Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Law, Lesson 1: Absolute Truth

In John 18:38 Pilate, interrogating Jesus, asks “What is truth?”

Interestingly there is no agreement as to whether this question was asked in earnest or was asked dismissively. Was Pilate asking a deep question, hoping to connect with Jesus, perhaps to understand him better? Or was he dismissing the concept of truth (“Bleh. What’s this truth thing anyway?”) in a well-meaning attempt to advise Jesus to say anything to save himself? Nobody knows.

The great biblical commentator Andrew Lloyd Webber believed Pilate was asking a serious question. To drive home the point he took poetic license in his opera Jesus Christ Superstar and put these words in Pilate’s mouth:
 And what is 'truth'? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?” 
Here Pilate, insightful at least in Webber’s mind, connects truth with unchanging law. We shall ponder that connection as well. Is God’s law a representation of the truth? Of absolute truth? If the truth is unchanging, does that mean the law is also unchanging? Can the law ever change?

Lest you think this is unimportant, this entire course can be summarized by the question: can the law ever change, and if so which laws?

We have to, in fact, get past the trivial

Absolute Truth → Unchanging Law

or this will be a very short course indeed.

We begin in everyone’s favorite book, Leviticus:

 3 “‘If the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, he must bring to the LORD a young bull without defect as a sin offering for the sin he has committed. 4 He is to present the bull at the entrance to the tent of meeting before the LORD. He is to lay his hand on its head and slaughter it there before the LORD. (Lev 4:3-4).

We could use many other verses to make the same point. But the bottom line is that in the Old Testament God commanded:

If the people/priests sin, there must be an animal sacrificed.

Today, of course, Christians sacrificing an animal as an attempt to deal with sin would be considered an abomination. What was moral has become immoral. What was right has become wrong. So in this case, at least, the law has surely changed—setting the precedent that laws do change. The question of law-changing, it appears, will not be the of the trivial yes/no end-of-the-story variety but the more complicated: which laws change?

But our concern at the moment is for "absolute truth". In agreeing that the law (at least some) can and has changed, we are left with the question: Have we then  sacrificed absolute truth?

The answer is a resounding “no”. However, to appreciate that answer we may have to revise what we think of as absolute truth.
Moral Absolutes and Situational Ethics

Most Christians take the view: 

Moral Absolutes: good
Situational Ethics: bad

But this is due, I believe, to a kind of false dichotomy. That is, it is perceived that Moral Absolutes and Situational Ethics are in conflict.

Now, contrary to this popular Christian belief, not all moral decisions are absolute. There most certainly are situational ethics in Christianity. Jesus tells us that the Sabbath was made for man, not vice versa. Even the most fundamentalist Christian denominations that take the position that you should not work on a Sunday1 will say: "No working on Sunday unless, um, you have to." Much of the Mosaic law reads like precedent setting, situational specific, case law: "You may not, willy-nilly, kill your neighbors ox! Unless your neighbor's ox was a serial offender of the goring variety, then you may kill him. The ox, that is." 

So the bible is chock-full of situational ethics, not the most pleasant of which is: killing people is wrong, unless God commands you. I am thinking here, of course, of the conquest of Canaan. Now, I believe you can make a more than compelling case that the conquest of the Holy Land was a one-time event in God's redemptive plan and we have reason to expect that God will never command us to annihilate anyone, and we are certainly under no standing orders to take anyone's life or property, but nevertheless the point remains: it is absolutely wrong to commit murder, and yet Joshua was not sinning when he engaged in genocide.

There is no way for a Christian who holds to the simpleminded relationship: moral absolutes are the opposite of situational ethics to reconcile this tension. That is because in my opinion they misunderstand moral absolutes.

They're not in tension. We just need proper definitions:

Wrong Definition of Moral Absolute: If God and any point says it is wrong to commit act A, then it is always wrong to commit act A. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Correct Definition of Moral Absolute: if it is wrong for one person to commit act A in situation S, then it is wrong for any person to commit act A in the same situation S.

The latter definition preserves the proper Christian aversion to moral relativism. In the same situation, it cannot be morally wrong for one person to behave in a certain manner while, for whatever reason, it is morally acceptable for another. Moral absolutism is preserved over moral relativism. At the same time, situational ethics may and indeed must be considered. 

Suppose, for the sake of argument, we return to the common (but not necessarily correct) church teaching that is situational ethics par excellence: it is not permissible to work on Sunday, unless it is a work of necessity. (Again, I'm not arguing whether or not this is the correct view of the day of rest. That's a separate topic. I'm just using it here as an example.) In these terms it would mean:
  • Working on Sunday is, to first order, wrong.
  • Working on Sunday, if is not a work of necessity, is absolutely wrong.
  • Working on Sunday, if it is a work of necessity, is acceptable—and it is an example of situational ethics.
  • Working on Sunday, even if it is not a work of necessity, is permissible for some as long as they don't feel guilty about it is an example of moral relativism, and is wrong.

Of course, some of the ethics are not situational, but absolute. These are the apodictic laws. Apodictic laws are universally binding principles that tend to use the familiar "you shall" and "you shall not" form:
3"You shall have no other gods before Me. 4"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. (Ex. 20:3-4)

Clearly these are not conditional laws, but rather universal absolutes. There is no condition that, if it is met (or if it fails to be met) would allow a person to have another god before God. Under all circumstances, we shall have no other gods before God.

Yet even then, when there is no possibility of dispute, we will find dispute. In particular we will face a tricky question: although apodictic laws are absolutes, can they be nullified in the sense that they are replaced by a fuller revelation of the law? In the same sense that the absolute truths of the proto-gospel and the absolute truths of the messianic prophecies are replaced by the fuller revelation of the finished work of Christ, is it possible that the apodictic laws, though absolute, can be replaced by something better? Are they types of the true law. 

A secular example would be, suppose this law:

was replaced by this law:

Was the first absolute, and yet nullified and replaced by the second?

We shall ask such vexing questions.

1 We make no comment at this point about whether it is proper for Christians to work on Sunday. It is just an example of where situational ethics can be found even in those denominations that would be most violently opposed to the idea.


  1. This is a fine beginning (I think there is more available, but I haven't gotten around to it yet). Thanks.

  2. Weren't the animal sacrifices either sold to support the Temple or given to the poor? Most Christians wouldn't object to making donations to the local church or food pantry (although Protestants aren't always big on specific acts of penance).

  3. I just wanted to let you know that this was very helpful! I had a friend ask me this almost exact hypothetical during a lunchtime, and I googled the question only to find this blog! Thanks so much