Analytical Outline Geisler’s Ethics, pt 1

Begins with a survey of different ethical options, briefly noting their shortcomings (Geisler 17-22).

Christian View of Ethics

  1. Based on God’s Will
  2. Is absolute
  3. Based on God’s revelation
  4. Is prescriptive
  5. Is Deontological

Antinomianism

Not simply that there are no norms.  Also includes that norms aren’t real, but just in the mind.

Nominalism is a form of antinomianism.  If applied to ethics, it’s hard to see how there can be a concept of justice independent of the human knower.

Situationism

The situationist has the one law of love, the many general principles of wisdom, and the moment of decision (Geisler 45).  Fletcher repeatedly asserts that the rule of Christian ethics is “love.”  So what do I do in a specific situation?  The “what and why” are absolute and the how is relative.

Geisler does note a number of legitimate strengths of situationism, but nonetheless there are gaping inadequacies.  

  1. One norm is too general (57).  
    1. Unless there is advanced cognitive content to what “love” is, then one doesn’t really know what I am commanded to do!
  2. There can be many universal norms.
    1. Fletcher hasn’t given any substantial reason on why axioms deduced from other axioms can’t be universal.
  3. A different universal norm is possible.  
    1. Why do we privilege Christian love and not Buddhist compassion?
    2. On what basis do we choose one single norm as binding?

Generalism

Utilitarianism

Greatest good for greatest number.

Problems and ambiguities:

  1. who gets to determine what “good” means?
  2. Offers no protection to minority viewpoint, since by definition they will never been in the “greater” number.
  3. The definition of “end” is unclear.  Do we mean a few years? Lifetime? Eternity?  In that case, only God could be a utilitarian and he is not (77).

Unqualified Absolutism

premise:  all moral conflicts are only apparent; they are not real (79).  Held by Augustine, Kant, Charles Hodge, John Murray, and Puritanboard.

hypothetical problem:  Lie to the Nazis at the door?

Augustine: cannot gain eternal life by temporal evil.

John Murray: Sanctity of Truth and Truth is the essence of God. However, he does not believe every intentional deception is a lie (e.g., a general’s movements in war).  

Negative Aspects

Disputed premises:

  1. Are sins of the soul necessarily worse? Perhaps, but the Platonic premise here should at least by acknowledged.  On this view, a “white lie” is worse than rape.
  2. Can the lie to save lives be separated from mercy?  “God blessed the mercy but not the lie.”  But is this really coherent?
  3. Will God always save us from moral dilemmas?   1 Cor. 10:13 only promises victory from temptation, not deliverance from moral dilemmas.  In fact, the very fact of martyrdom means the martyr isn’t delivered from at least one bad consequence.

Fatal qualifications

  1. Even one exception to this rule kills Unqualified Absolutism–and Augustine allows for exceptions in the case of Abraham and Isaac/Jepthath and his daughter.
  2. John Murray doesn’t believe we should be truthful in all circumstances (Murray 145).

“Punting to Providence”

  1. God does not always spare his children from moral dilemmas.  In fact, obedience often puts the believer in dilemmas!

“Third Alternatives are not always available.”

  1. Tubal pregnancies

Inconsistencies

  1. We leave our lights on when we aren’t home to trick robbers.
  2. The unqualified absolutist often commits unmerciful acts.
  3. Tendency to legalism (e.g., Puritanboard).

Conflicting Absolutism

Premise: (1) Real moral conflicts do occur in this fallen world.

(1.1) Yet when faced with this conflict, man is morally accountable to both principles. In other words, sucks to be you.

(1.2) Yet, sin is conquerable through the cross.

Popularized as “Lesser-evil” approach.  Best seen in Lutheran Two-Kingdoms.  Also, Lutherans will (correctly) praise Bonhoeffer’s attempt to kill Hitler but also say it did violate a norm.  

Criticisms

As Geisler notes, this position is basically saying “we have moral duty to sin,” which is absurd (Geisler 103).  Another problem, whatever God commands is ipso facto good, so it can’t be a “lesser evil.”

Graded Absolutism (This is Geisler’s and my view)

Explained:  

  1. There are higher and lower moral laws.  
  2. There are unavoidable moral conflicts
  3. No guilt is imputed for the unavoidable.

Illustrated:

  1. Love for God is more important than love for man.
  2. Obey God over Government
  3. Mercy over veracity (Nazis at the door).
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A Tale of Two Metaphysics

To wax hippie and postmodern for a moment, this is a “journey” of a post, more than a philosophical one.  Every year I go back and forth between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy.  This seems to correlate with my reading of Barth.

Ultimately, I don’t care which school is right.  They are tools, not goals.  Which one advances the kingdom better?  Which one gives a better picture of God (oops, Wittgensteinian slip)?

And I don’t have a good answer. But maybe I can point out strengths and weaknesses and show where the church can be spiritually bettered.

Continental Philosophy

To navigate modern discussions, you have to deal with Hegel.  Plain and simple.  This doesn’t mean you are a “liberal” or a “pantheist.”  It just means you are doing responsible scholarship. And it means you have to engage a certain vocabulary (the “Other,” “positing,” etc).  Nothing wrong with that but not necessarily easy.

One of the advantages is that Continental Philosophy seems to merge easily with other disciplines, like literature.  This gives it an immediate relevance that analytic philosophy seems to lack.  On the other hand, I am not always sure I know what they are saying.30665548

Analytic Philosophy

Analytic philosophy is clear, precise, and similar to doing mental exercise. I just feel sharper when I am done reading guys like Plantinga.  And I didn’t always know that analytic philosophy of today is not the same thing as of earlier generations.  Earlier analytic models thought reality (or clarity or meaning) was obtainable simply by asking the question, “Well what do you mean by that?”  Ask it enough and you arrive at meaning (or get punched in the face).

The more dangerous implication is that things are truly knowable only in the abstract and not in systems of relations.  This is deleterious for Christian theism.

But even guys like Ayer realized that was a dead-end.

After the Plantinga revolution, Christian philosophers started using many of the tools of analytic philosophy, without necessarily committing themselves to earlier conclusions–and the results are often amazing.  See especially Plantinga’s Nature of Necessity and God, Freedom, and Evil.

One of the problems, though, is that analytic guys are perceived (whether this is fair or not) as having a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach to the history of doctrine.  I will come back to that point.

Biola and Calvin College:  Can They Meet?

I single out Biola and Calvin as two respective representatives of the above tradition.  Biola boasts of luminaries like JP Moreland and William L. Craig.  The “Calvin tradition” is represented by James K. A. Smith.  And both streams have done outstanding work. Even more, analytic guys like Moreland are able to tie philosophical analysis in with the “spiritual disciplines” movement, Renovare.  Here is great promise but also great danger.

Renovare

This is the brainchild of Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline.  On a practical level, much of it is quite good.  The idea that bodily disciplines break bad habits is just good, practical psychology (I got accused by a powerful Gnostic Magus on Puritanboard of denying the gospel for that sentence).

But…there is almost zero discernment in these guys.  They will take handfuls of Pentecostal, Quaker, Catholic, and Reformed spirituality and just mix ’em together.

Nevertheless…My prayer life improved from following Moreland’s advice.

Calvin Cultural Liturgies

James K. A. Smith has found himself the sparring partner of what is known as the “Biola School.”  Smith’s thesis–which I think is fundamentally correct–is that we aren’t simply “brains on a stick.”  We are embodied and liturgies, to be effective, must engage the whole person.  (I also got accused of denying the gospel on Puritanboard for that statement.  )

We will come back to that statement.

Smith, however, takes his apologetic in a different realm.  While I agree with Smith that “postmodernism” doesn’t just mean “Denying absolute truth” (what does that statement even mean?), I fear that Smith’s cultural applications do not escape the worst of postmodern, low-brow culture. Further, Smith is weak on the doctrine of the soul (in some of his cultural liturgies books he uses “brain” when he should be saying “mind”).

Is that evident at Calvin College?  Rumors abound that Calvin is gutting some of its biblical language programs, and Calvin has invited homosexual speakers in the past.  Make fun of Vineyard and Biola all you want, but I don’t think that has happened.

It is not that Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project is wrong.  I think much of it is quite insightful and I eagerly await his volume on Augustine, but I am nervous where the applications are going.

To be fair to Smith, though, and to Continental Philosophy, they have been more attentive to the history of philosophy (and perhaps, history of doctrine)

Possible Overlap

I do see some areas of overlap with Smith and Moreland

  1. Both believe in Jesus’s Kingdom Power for today
  2. Both believe in the body’s importance in spiritual disciplines

What should we do?

In the end, I side with Moreland.  We need analytic philosophy’s discipline and precision.  While both Smith and Moreland believe in Kingdom Power and bodily disciplines, the latter’s “cultural” applications are far more responsible.

You better do more than just agree

I told some on Puritanboard that I was not necessarily committed to premillennialism and I was ready to deal with other systems.  In short, I was going to give amillennialism (nota bene: that may be the ugliest term in all of systematic theology) a chance.

So, if amillennialism were true, the following conditions had to obtain:

a) Revelation still had to be anchored in history.  A denial of history is gnosticism and must be violently hated and resisted by Christians at all times.

b) Antichrist is real.  Frankly, I don’t think this is up for debate.  In any case, it doesn’t make any sense to speak of a darkening of culture (which the NT does) without an antichrist figure.  Yes, I know it doesn’t actually say that, but you get the idea. Further, I am not committed to whether it is an individual or a system.

c) There must be a flooding of history and creation with God’s glory.  On earth.  Doesn’t have to be a millennial reign. But it must happen on earth.  If you disagree, you are closer to Valentinius.

And I was told I was closer to Left Behind.  I said “No, the church fathers.”  You see, for the past seven years I have been steeped in the church fathers. Particularly the Eastern ones.  Mainly Irenaeus (yeah, he ministered in France but he was still Eastern).  TRs just don’t know anything about the church fathers beyond a few snippets from Augustine, so they really can’t contribute to this discussion (which is probably a summary of TRs in general).

And then to top it off, a magus then told me that “carnal views of the millennium” are not acceptable.  Whenever this guy comments the discussion always reaches Monte Python levels.

So what did we learn on the internet today? You can’t just agree in general with TRs. You need to line up on the specifics.  It’s a hyper-overreaction to Roman Catholicism.  Medieval Catholicism said you had to have an “implicit faith” to be saved.  That was because Rome had a million small doctrines that no one could keep count of, so they covered it by saying “just implicitly believe that.”  I’m not attacking Rome at the moment, but hyper-Reformed have a microscopic doctrines that you better line up on.

Embracing our stunted limitations

Plato was right about the cave.  We really don’t want to face the truth.  We don’t want to get out of our comfort zones.  If we need an opponent, we create “The Other.”  The Other exists for our own self-definition.

Perish the thought that one day we find out that the Other might be correct on some points.  What does that do to our identity?  Is this why we get so angry?

Differance is violence. Anyone who differs with our projected reality threatens our very identity.  Thus, any difference is an act of violence.

Thus, Puritanboard.

Thus, TR Vanilla Reformed.