“Ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong. Christian Ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong for a Christian.” Norman Geisler. Christian Ethics: Options and Issues. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Academic, 1989. Pg. 17. (All quotations and paraphrases in this post are from this source.)
Let’s step carefully through Dr. Geisler’s statements.
“Ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong.”
To state that ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong is rather straightforward. If any objections to Geisler’s statements are to be raised they must be raised with respect to the latter of the two sentences quoted or with respect to the latter of the two sentences quoted understood in light of the preceding sentence.
“Christian Ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong…”
To state that Christian ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong likewise appears to be unproblematic.
“…for a Christian.”
Briefly, if only one Christian is meant by the use of “a” then there is at least one problem at this point. Assuming that the use of “a” is closer to the use of “any” allows us to move on. Christian ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong not just for “a” Christian, but for “any” Christian or “all Christians;” the assumption here is that the use of “a” is not intended to exclude other Christians.
To state that Christian ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong for a Christian is also problem free since the statement does not necessarily exclude that Christian ethics also deals with what is morally right and wrong for a non-Christian.
There is still a problem with Geisler’s statements to be found in the latter part of the second sentence. If the first portion of the second sentence is affirmed along with the first sentence then ethics and Christian ethics may be understood to be the same thing since they both deal with what is morally right and wrong. However, it is clear from his adjectival use of “Christian” that Geisler wishes to differentiate one from the other.
Geisler distinguishes ethics from Christian ethics; this much is plain. While this is cause for concern in and of itself, the way in which Dr. Geisler distinguishes ethics from Christian ethics is even more worrisome. He does so by relativizing Christian ethics. Christian ethics – according to Geisler – deals with what is right and wrong for a Christian while ethics just deals with what is right and wrong for…apparently everyone else.
Now all of this seems rather odd coming from a Christian ethicist who generally rails against relativism and subjectivism, but if Geisler’s statements are not to be understood in this fashion then how are they to be understood?
Geisler goes on to explain that his book is about Christian ethics and that Christians “base their beliefs on God’s revelation in Scripture.” Of course he notes that God reveals Himself both in Scripture and in nature and that there are “similarities and overlaps between God’s natural and supernatural revelations.” Frankly, this is worded in such a way that one is left thinking that – coincidentally – God’s revelation matches God’s revelation to some extent. The implication of the use of “similarities” is that the revelation of God is similar to but not the same as the revelation of God, which is false. The implication of the use of “overlaps” is that while the revelation of God overlaps the revelation of God there are nevertheless differences between the revelation of God and the revelation of God. These implications are quite clear in light of Geisler’s aforementioned statements concerning the allegedly relative morality of Christianity.
The reason Geisler provides for the “similarities and overlaps” just discussed is that “God’s moral character does not change.” Indeed, he provides this truth as a reason to expect that there will be “similarities and overlaps.” Note that the observation concerning the unchanging moral character of God – while significant and true – has little to do with alleged “similarities and overlaps between God’s natural and supernatural revelations.” What Geisler needs to appeal to here is not the immutability of God, but the rationality, internal consistency, coherence, goodness, etc. of God as our standard. Unfortunately he is in the precarious position of having to justify his statements by appealing to the very attributes of God precluded by the would-be truth of the statements he seeks to justify.
Geisler explains that, “the focus of this book is not God’s natural law for all men, but his divine law for believers.” Again, note the implied presence of dissimilarities between the “natural law” and the “divine law”. More to the point note the distinction between ethics and Christian ethics. According to Geisler, what is right and wrong for a non-Christian and what is right and wrong for a Christian are not necessarily the same. There is apparently no need to bring the law of God as revealed in Scripture to bear upon the sins of that unbeliever you are witnessing to. Norm Geisler is endorsing a form of moral relativism.
Christopher G. Weaver argues (I think correctly):
(1): It is morally impermissible to install, as an overseer of a Church-body (proper), a recent convert.
Cognizers who affirm (1) [which follows ampliatively from 1 Timothy 3:6], are at least justified in their affirmation by the following moral principle:
(2): The appropriate governing individuals of a Church-body (proper) ought not appoint as an overseer of a Church-body (proper), a recent convert.
Assuming (2) is true, the moral principle that is (2) constitutes a moral duty for some set of moral agents. However, it is not true that (2) comprises a duty for all moral agents. This follows just from the fact that the moral principle itself specifies who is under the relevant ought. Likewise, a non-Christian who is not a member of an appropriate governing body of a Church-body (proper), will not be obligated to behave in the way recommended by (2). Quite obviously then, there are moral principles which constitute duties for Christians, and not for non-Christians; a fortiori, there are moral duties peculiar to some Christians, and not all Christians…
Consider a second example.
(3): On the assumption that eating meat makes my brother or sister (in the Lord) stumble, it is morally impermissible for me to eat meat in their presence.
Cognizers who affirm (3) [which follows ampliatively from Paul’s writings], are at least justified in their affirmation by the following moral principle:
(4): A moral agent’s x being such that he is appropriately related to another moral agent y by means of Christian brotherhood, or sisterhood, materially implies (on the assumption that y is caused to stumble by action phi) that x ought not phi in the presence of y.
Assuming (4) is true, the moral principle that is (4) [or the consequent of (4)] constitutes a moral duty for some set of moral agents. However, it is not true that (4) comprises a duty for all moral agents. For example, it isn’t true that a non-Christian ought to not eat meat in the presence of y, by virtue of the fact that the moral principle posits that the individual for whom (4) comprises a duty must be appropriately related to y. The relation in question does not obtain re a non-Christian and y.
To (perhaps over-) simplify by way of another example; a wife is not morally obligated to obey the command given to husbands in Ephesians 5.25-27. All of this is, so far as I know, relatively non-controversial. So we can agree with what Mr. Weaver has presented thus far.
What bearing does this concession have upon my understanding of the quote from Geisler? So far as I can tell, little to none. Mr. Weaver writes, “Christian Ethics (as Geisler seems to understand it), would be that enterprise which shows concern for, among other things, discovering what true moral principles constitute duties for Christians (e.g. (2) above), and not for non-Christians (e.g. (2) above).” Mr. Weaver continues, “Geisler can now say that Christian Ethics is concerned with discovering principles like (4), whereas Ethics simpliciter is concerned with discovering principles which comprise duties for both Christians and non-Christians.” As already mentioned, Geisler explains that, “the focus of this book is not God’s natural law for all men, but his divine law for believers.” (17) How would Mr. Weaver’s theory apply in the cases of abortion, euthanasia, biomedical issues, capital punishment, war, civil disobedience, homosexuality, marriage, divorce, and ecology? These are all topics discussed in Geisler’s book. Are we to believe that “divine law” does not have anything to say to unbelievers on these topics? In some places Geisler appears to answer in the negative, but in other places (like the introduction I quoted) he answers in the affirmative. Thus while it may be the case that Geisler is inconsistent, I do not agree with Mr. Weaver that Geisler’s introduction is referring to the nuances Mr. Weaver explains.
Mr. Weaver believes I am confused with respect to my understanding of moral relativism. Of course it could be the case that I am confused (I often am!), but I am sure he would agree that thinking this is so does not make it so and that we need to look more closely at what he believes I am confused about. He quotes from Russ Shafer-Landau; Moral Realism: A Defense (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003):
“Meta-ethicists think of moral relativism as the thesis that: moral principles are not objectively true, whereby ‘objectively’ I mean, never true in some mind-independent way (i.e., true irrespective of what any one cognizer thinks).”
Having already set aside the worry of Geisler’s endorsement of (4) as an explanation of the original quote from him it may be conceded that this is one way of understanding moral relativism which does not pose any problems for my understanding of moral relativism. There are of course other definitions and descriptions of moral relativism where it is explained in a positive sense. For example:
“Relativism is not a single doctrine but a family of views whose common theme is that some central aspect of experience, thought, evaluation, or even reality is somehow relative to something else. For example standards of justification, moral principles or truth are sometimes said to be relative to language, culture, or biological makeup.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/relativism/; emphasis mine)
“First, cultural ethical relativism makes right and wrong relative to one’s culture…Second, individual ethical relativism says that right and wrong are relative to the individual’s opinion, what she thinks is right and wrong.” Shaw, William H. Ethical Relativism. In Contemporary Moral Problems: Eighth Edition. ed. James E. White. USA: Wadsworth, 2006. (34)
Given what was explained concerning the quote from Geisler and the definitions above there is no reason to think that I am confused about what moral relativism is. The claim was also qualified; “a form of moral relativism.” That is, moral principles which are relative to the Christian or the non-Christian. This fits just fine with the definitions provided above. While Geisler is inconsistent in later portions of his book, there is no reason to take his inconsistency to warrant reading Mr. Weaver’s theory into the portion quoted from Geisler in his introduction. Not only is the quote introductory and hence ill-suited to merit the meaning that Mr. Weaver suggests ascribing to it; that’s just simply not what the book is about.]