Faith in Focus

THE POST-MODERN MORAL CRISIS

The Need for Biblical Authority in Ethics


 

Raymond O Zorn

Professor & Principal Emeritus

Reformed Theological College, Vic, Australia

 

            It was the German philosopher, Friederich Nietzsche, who said, "If God is dead, anything goes."  His philosophy of nihilism, the will to power, and the might makes right principle of the übermensch (superman), amply demonstrates this in the excesses of Nazism.  Hitler was an admirer of Nietzsche, and his Germany of the Jewish holocaust (6,000,000 Jews and undesirables gassed and incinerated), eugenics experiments to create an Aryan super-race, together with invasion of other countries, takeovers, and a war (W.W.II) that left more than 30 million dead, is exhibit A in this regard.  Here we saw a leader and nation which ran amok under the philosophy that, if God isn't dead, He doesn't really matter anymore over against autonomous man who has made his will and his amoral actions supreme.

            People may be worse than their beliefs (usually the case), but it is just as certain that they will be no better than their beliefs.  Nothing is more apparent than this in our society today.

            Why do we have self-indulgence masquerading as self-fulfilment; sexual permissiveness where, if it feels good, anything goes; fickleness in relationships that results in the break-up of over a third of our marriages; TV and video violence that expose impressionable children to all manner of social abnormalities that they are thereby taught to regard as normal; New Age religion that is warmed over pantheism and paganism; and an idolatrous consumerism that makes materialism and the almighty dollar supreme?

            Why is it?  Because our society has lost its way spiritually, as its lack of proper ethical discernment, relativistic lack of regard for what is right and wrong, and convenient practice of pragmatism so abundant­ly make clear.

            A few years ago, Maurice Roberts, in an editorial in the magazine, The Banner of Truth, which was entitled, "A Plea for More Holy Indignation", wrote, among other things, the following: our society has lost the concept of the holiness of God and His wrath against and judgment upon sin.  "It is, we believe, the sickly 'love' of modern theology which has for so long been the dynamo to drive on the liberal ethics and the man-centred philosophy of our permissive societies.  God has been represented as 'loving' man irrespective of how man behaves.  Secular man has been all too ready to embrace this lowered view of God and the ultimate tragedy is that modern man is lost and perishing under the illusion of a God who is 'love only'.  In both church and state the half-truth, that 'God is love', is taken as if it were the whole truth.

            "The consequence is all too clear for all who have eyes to see: flabby ethics, spineless preaching, undisci­plined living, ill-ordered worship, shabby life-styles, warped judgments, drowsy consciences - in a word, a sorry religious and moral spectacle.  It is the just judgment of God on a church and society which have willingly rejected the Bible's clear testimony to a God of holi­ness.  To Him, if we are to have our spots removed, we must penitently return" (June 1991, pp.3-4).

            As Roberts points out, it is our society's (and church's!) deficient view of God that has brought us to our moral and ethical lawless improprieties.  The plumb-line for a proper morality and ethics can only be based upon a proper recognition of God and His revealed law.

            But where do we find a proper knowledge of both?  The traditional answer of orthodox Chris­tianity has been: in the Bible as God's revelation to us of who He is and what He requires of us.

            But can we still hold to the supreme authority of the Bible as God's Word?  Never before has the Bible been under attack as it is today.  Has God spoken?  Is His Word reliable and authoritative?  Can we still trust it for answers to our moral and ethical dilemmas?  It is obvious that, if we hope to get answers to the malaise of our post-modern society, we must give serious attention to post-modern scepticism about the Bible as the Word of God.

 

Is The Bible Really The Word Of God?

            The historic position of God's people through the ages has been that the Bible is God's infallible and inerrant Word to man.  They have seen (and believed) that this is indeed the Bible's claim for itself (cf. 2 Tim.3:16-17, 2 Pet.1:21, Matt.5:18, John 10:35, etc.).

            Their faith in the Bible as God's Word has been classi­cally expressed by C.H. Spurgeon, regarded as the "prince of preachers" in the nineteenth century.  When confronted with the possibility that the Bible might need to be defended, he said, "Defend the Bible?  Why, sooner defend a lion!  Just let it loose and give it freedom to do its own work.  The Bible is its own best defense."

            While we agree with this statement, it is also true that it express­es a position of faith that the sophisticated post-modern person is not prepared to accept.  He or she has become so sceptical of the Bible and its message, that they are no longer even prepared to give the Bible a hearing.  What are some of these so-called problems the post-modern has with the Bible?  Let us look at some of them and see if there are adequate answers.

 

Isn't The Bible Hopelessly Out-Of-Date?

            Many today are willing to make this charge against both the message and the ethics of the Bible.  In time past, the latter, as summarized by the Ten Commandments and the ethical teaching of the Lord Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, were regarded even by theological liberals as holding forth lofty ideals to live by.  But no more.

            Already a generation ago an article in the Hamilton, New Zealand, newspaper appeared under the headline, "Youth Consider Commandments Old-fashioned."  The attitude that emerged from their group discussion, which was led by an Anglican clergyman was, "How can we live by a set of rules drawn up over 4,000 years ago for a society very different from our own?"  This assumption of course is fallacious, for human nature today is no different than what it was then.  But the point these young people were making reveals an attitude which regards the Decalogue as largely irrelevant for today.  A telling admission, however, that could also be detected in their position was that there is something wrong with most morals and standards today, though these young people couldn't (or weren't prepared to) pin-point the reason for the present state of affairs.

            Advocates of "the new morality" would also agree with the viewpoint expressed by these young people.  Their solution is "situation ethics" dictated by the demands of love alone.  As Prof. Fletcher, already a generation ago, put it in his book, Situation Ethics, "No law or principle or value is good as such - not life or truth or chastity or property or marriage or anything but love.  Only one thing is intrinsically good, namely, love: nothing else at all" (p.68).  So much for objective standards of changeless right and wrong as such are given in the Ten Commandments!

            The glaring weakness of this view should be obvious.  Love does not exist on its own but must be defined within the framework of a standard, that standard being God's law (cf. Matt. 22:37-40, Rom.13:8-10).  When love is removed from this context, as is increasingly the case today, one is left with his own subjective and fallible judgment in deciding just what particular way the circumstance in question will prescribe how "love" is to be expressed.  It is not hard to see how "love" can soon become a synonym for lust, greed, selfishness - old fashioned sin all over again!

            The Bible may be considered as hopelessly out-of-date by those who advocate a new morality, but as the inadequacy of their view makes clear, it in fact is not.  Quite the con­trary.

 

Hasn't Science Discredited The Bible?

            For all too many today, the answer to this question is an obvious "yes".  Or they will maintain that the views of science and the Bible (if its creation account, etc., is taken literally) are incompatible.  For the Bible speaks of the creation of the world and man within a specified period of time - six days to be exact; whereas science says that man gradually evolved as the highest product of the evolutionary process which has spanned aeons of time.  The Bible speaks of the occurrence of miracles and of a God who can as easily work supernaturally as naturally; whereas science's prescribed limits are natural law and the phenomena of nature.  Even so-called Christian scientists such as Howard J. Van Till, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the Christian Reformed Church's Calvin College, U.S.A., are busily dislocating the Bible and science by saying that each has its own sphere of competence; the Bible for matters of religion and science for the world of nature.

            According to Van Till, the two cannot be harmonized as the creation scientists, for example, seek to do with their belief in supernatural divine activity at creation, a mature earth whose age is thousands rather than billions of years old, stars that have been created rather than slowly evolving from hydrogen atoms, fossils which date from a world-wide flood rather than from millions of years, etc.

            And why does Van Till reject a position like this which sees divine activity as both super­natural (creation) and natural (providence)?  Because it militates against the uniformitarian laws of science which he and other scientists like him have come to accept as the authoritative explanation for the nature of present reality rather than what the Bible says about it.  Views similar to Van Till's are shared by other scientists and colleagues of like mind in the book, Portraits of Creation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), in which Davis A. Young, Professor of Geology at Calvin College, writes to justify uniformitarian geology, and John H. Stek, Emeritus Professor of Old Testament at Calvin Seminary, seeks to persuade readers that the Old Testament has much about it that was current in the thinking of the pagan environment at the time of its writing, with the Old Testament writers borrowing (and sanitizing) much that they found useful for their purposes.  Van Till is the editorial coordinator of this book and has also contributed chapters to it.

            As Van Till puts it in his own volume, The Fourth Day (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), in order to justify his position and that of the other scientists who agree with him: "If the cosmos is only a few thousand years old, and if the light we are now receiving was created en route to appear as if it were coming from a distant source, then most of the visible universe and nearly all of cosmic history is reduced from reality to illusion" (p.238).  How, then, maintains Van Till, can the scientist do his work and come up with reliable answers?  Hence, the regularity and non-supernaturalness of nature must be presupposed - even if it contradicts the Bi­ble.  Or, as Van Till puts it once again: "The biblical concept of creation as a dynamic covenan­tal relation­ship to a faithful Creator (Van Till's description of theistic evolution for the past and present) ought never to be replaced by the notion of a magical act of instantaneous inception performed by an unspecified magician [i.e. God]"(p.241).

            Van Till and his colleagues may think that they have saved the day for Christianity with their arbitrary dislocation of biblical truth from science's changing theories.  But, then, so too did the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, with his description of reality as consisting of noumenal and phenomenal realms, which put God and religion in the former (the conclusions of the mind of autonomous man) and scientific demonstrations of reality in the latter, even though such demonstrations were involved with speculative and ever-changing theories.  Far from saving religion, such a concept of reality (epistemology) only makes it irrelevant, as the post-modern hard-headed realist is quick (and consistent) in pointing out.

            The end result of Van Till's efforts logically lead to the same conclusion (even though he and his colleagues may illogically deny this).  For an evolutionistic understanding of reality destroys the biblical description of reality that is based upon a creation-fall-redemption-consummation panorama of history.  This is a crucial factor which seems to be consis­tently overlooked by these scientists and promoters of theistic evolution.  For, with their (scientific) scheme of things, they conclude that there was no originally good creation, no fall (unless it was upward from an animal ancestry to the status of man), and no paradise regained (though possibly a utopia of some sort is allowed for as the ultimate development of evolutionistic divine procedures which will be realized with man's cooperation and help).

            With this set-up of theirs, redemption, of course, must be completely re-interpreted, possibly in Neo-Orthdox terms of man's being a sinner, not having become a sinner.  The former view regards man's moral imperfection as his natural condition, and for which he is not culpable, as is true when the Bible's testimony about man's fall from a state of sinlessness is accepted.  Moreover, Neo-Orthodoxy has room in its theology for the false optimism of man's ultimate perfectibility by his continued evolutionary develop­ment.

            The biblical picture, however, points out man's histori­cal fall in the first man, Adam, his lostness and inability to save himself, his need of divine saving grace, and his salvation in the divine work of redemption on his behalf in the person of God's Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the second Adam of a restored humanity united to Him in saving faith.

            We acknowledge that Van Till is not to be put into the same category as unbelieving science which must frankly admit that, since it only deals with this world's phenomena, it has no answers to the ultimate questions of life such as, why am I here?  Where am I going?  What is the purpose of life?  For Van Till would say that the Christian religion, even though he has dislocated it from its historical roots as a result of his evolutionistic re-interpretations, still gives us answers to the above questions.  But does it when it is put into Van Till's position where it must conform to science's final say?  If it no longer speaks authoritatively on the historical matters which are the basis for its message, how can one yet pick and choose what may still be the actual historical "great deeds of God" (Acts 2:11) for man's salvation?  Has it any more authori­ty than myth or the teaching of other religions?  Who is to say?

            In the end, Van Till's position discredits the Bible.  This is tragic, especially since his position is actually no more true than any other of science's disputable and changing hypotheses, whether they be evolution, uniformi­tarianism, the "big bang" theory, etc.  Moreover, his position is no more than one of unworkable compromise and accommodation that not only undermines the Bible's ethical teaching but even worse, its very message of salvation.

 

What About Other Religions?

            An increasing phenomenon of our post-modern society is its indifference to or consideration of all religions as being of equal worth.  This is only logical where it is considered that all truth claims at best are only relative.  And since other religions also have holy books, why should they not be as good as the Bible as revelations from God?  After all, Islam has its Koran, the Hindus have their sacred writings - even the Mormons have their own book!  Are Christians not therefore being presumptuous in claiming the Bible as an exclusive source of special divine revelation?

            The answer to this question must be seen in the light of the very nature of Christianity as a revelation about God, man, and the world as the divinely created environment for man.  Other religions offer a way of salvation (if they even see man as lost) by the efforts of his own works.  Only Christianity tells it like it really is - man is lost, he cannot save himself, he needs both the grace of God and a revelation from God about a divine Saviour, if he is to be saved from his sins and in redemption become a child of God once more.  Hence, the uniqueness of Christianity and its exclusive claim to being the only true religion.  For it alone has an all-sufficient Savior who as the Redeemer and God-man is Himself the exclusive way to the Father (John 14:6, Acts 4:12).

 

(To be Continued)

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@xtra.co.nz / revised May 2000 / Copyright 2000