Absolute morality


A verbose discourse exhorting myself and possibly the reader to rejoice in God’s law as absolute and unshakeably good

Table of Contents

Heard yesterday: Aren’t there times when a Christian might be allowed to lie? Fail for absolute morality. What about Paul and cultural rules? Score 2. I gave a not-so-good answer; this is hopefully not-so-not-so-good.

Let’s get started. Law expresses, in a given context, the normative expression of God’s will, in such a way as to reveal his character and purposes.

Firstly, law is communicative, not just giving us instructions but coming as part of a covenant relationship. Reading Exodus this week has made that very clear, and the various legal Psalms count as well.

Secondly, law is contextual. The old testament law in particular is directed towards one certain culture, and covers the neighbourly context only. That is a large context, but we should remember that the context of both old and new testament law is rarely so broad as to be entirely universal. Nations at war, legal judges, and so on at the very least, do not fall into the category of neighbourly interactions, and even Paul mingles very general directions with some pointed at a particular culture. For a God whose purposes and decrees encompass every tribe and language, every time and place, never since the gospel going out to the Gentiles has he required that coming into covenant with him demands a Jewish, or worse Western, culture, and the extent to which each direction is shaped by context is part of growing up to spiritual adulthood. Yet, God’s will is expressed, as a normative guide showing us what to do in that situation. In many cases in Deuteronomy, we get extensive guidance on dealing with what happens when the law breaks down and dealing with the exceptions; for as many of these cases as are not listed, the people came to their leaders or Moses to find out what to do.

Thirdly, law shows us God’s character. It is educative, on the learning by doing model, or learning by meditating on it day and night. We are shown his ordering and pattern for the stewardship of land in thanksgiving; for nurturing relationships in safety; for providing for the unprotected; for dealing justly, and more.

Fourthly, law is purposeful. For every case where things go wrong and a penalty is specified, or conditions restrict what can be done, law shows us the ideal. Are not life, marriage, health, and harvest wonderful? Law gives us something to look forward to.

With that out of the way then, what are the over-arching ideas in a presentation of God’s will as the genuinely absolute root and ground of morality?

1. Absolute morals: because God’s trinitarian character is absolute

The key idea is that each of the points above is relational. We do not interact with our friends out of context, but move forward in a relationship as the context shifts slightly each day and our actions are fresh each time we meet. What is absolute is not a prescription of what to do which is the same always, everywhere, but the character and relationship in which those actions originate. The uniqueness and supreme majesty of the Lord drag every action into that God-ward context, so that each cup of coffee drunk or nose blown is framed as a tiny detail in the picture of salvation history and becomes part of the larger relational context.

Now, there is a sneaky argument you might hear: the relationship we have with God cannot be absolute, because taking out the temporal half of it, us, leaves you without a relationship at all. The relationship exists dependant on God, but also on us, so is still local to here and now. Trinitarian theology though does not have this problem: relationality is of God, because Father, Son and Spirit coexist eternally, immutably, in vibrant and dynamic action which is in accord with all law, perfect among themselves in love, in truthfulness, in concord, in holiness, in goodness. How weakly our covenant relationship with God reflects these, but with what grace has the Son lifted up the church, his body, to share in them!

What is right, what is good, the source of these standards, and their end, namely the manifestation of the glory of the Father who purposes these to be displayed in sending his Son, who died and rose with us to bring us to God, and sent his own Spirit to grant us the enjoyment of his law as an inheritance—are indeed absolute. If love is moral, what glory it is that the only way love could be absolute, by being of the character of the trinity, is indeed its source in our lives. However we express this, the incomparable riches of knowing and being known by God are the truest foundation of all goodness, and whatever turns from these could be no more absolutely evil.

2. Absolute morals: because God’s purpose is absolute

Secondly, the key difference between our enjoyment of God’s law and his own is that ours is temporal. Rather than relativising law to things are perishable in history, in fact placing law in the framework of time shows us that it cannot be just a function of the now, but is instead part of the narrative heading inexorably to Christ’s full and visible reign.

When there are no tears, no crying, and no more pain; when no man hates his neighbour, or makes war, or abuses innocents; when each man, seeing Christ face to face and as he truly is, offers untarnished praise and worship all day; only then will it be clear that the good of God’s kingdom is purposed by him alone, won by him alone, and to his glory alone. History has a direction, a purposefulness hurtling towards the excellencies of Christ’s reign. Morality has a dynamic context, not a static absoluteness, but rather than nit-picking what definition of absolute we want, look to the kingdom. The kingdom is coming unchangeably; and so too is every goodness or wickedness we see now foreshadowing the day made absolute by being grounded in the unchangeable perfection of the new heavens and new earth to come.