Essays, Politics-Government, Reviews.

Absolutely relative

Book Book Review Part III, Title How Should We Then Live?, Author Francis A. Schaeffer, Rating 2.5, Part 3 of 4, Absolutely relative

The third part of this four-part review of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live examines the author’s claims that Christian ethics are the only absolute standard for society.

The humility of mystery and doubt

How does one make the claim of absolute morality, when one at the same time doubts the reality of the underpinnings of one’s belief system? Christian apologists from antiquity to today have candidly addressed the inevitable doubt that arises as a natural consequence of sola fide, beliefs resting on faith alone. Doubt is an honest response to uncertainty, and the claim of absolute morality carries a great deal of uncertainty.

To invoke God as something more powerful than ourselves to explain the inexplicable is understandable, but paradoxically is also a limited and relative explanation: Mystery cannot be completely fathomed or understood by those invoking it, so necessarily introduces relative and competing interpretations.

This problem can be highlighted in another way: If the Bible is the word of an omniscient and omnipotent God, then why isn’t the Bible clear to anyone who reads it? From whence the textual inconsistencies and conflicts within the Bible itself? Whence the claims of absolute morality, which have been blurred to the point where there is disagreement among the faithful as to what constitutes the absolute rules?

Even if divinely inspired, God’s absolute standards have not been written so that they are perfectly clear to any who reads them. The complexities of human language limit precision: Many words and phrases don’t translate clearly from one language into another, or have multiple or vague meanings, or have been copied incorrectly, or have been deliberately mis-translated, or change meaning over time, and so on. The many variant creeds of Christianity are built upon such vagaries.

This is not to say that an all-powerful God cannot construct and insist on absolute moral standards, it is to say that nobody can agree about what these standards are because nobody can fully understand the mystery of an all-powerful God.

Schaeffer’s theological construct of an all-powerful God creating absolute standards for a flawed and limited humankind appears to be an unsurprisingly limited concept. Doubt is a natural response to uncertainty, and uncertainty is the mother of alternate explanations. The persistence of doubt in all faith-driven belief systems argues against an absolute system, and underscores the nature of human understanding, which is necessarily relative, constrained by the limits of logic, the senses, and human intelligence.

This begs for a more humble representation of the standards of Christian morality, and a less harsh representation of moral systems that appear to differ from that world view.

Do absolute standards shift historically?

Fundamentally, the Christian Bible is humanistic: It is the work of men of letters, both the original authors and the priests and scribes who followed. Most of the authorship of the various parts of the Bible is uncertain, and there is strong textual evidence of multiple versions and revisions even in the earliest extant writings. These men have historically disagreed widely about the content, interpretation and emphasis of the Bible, the book Schaeffer described as the absolute word of God, as the only source of God’s absolute ethical standards for humanity.

-Oregon Scribbler,

Thomas Aquinas would be proud. Oregon Scribbler.

The ideas of Biblically-based Christianity have, like any other ideas, wandered and evolved over their history.  Chistianity grew:

  • from a Jewish tradition of theology and laws which evolved for over a half of a millenium into the Old Testament, itself which slowly developed from a set of polytheistic beliefs into a monotheistic belief system;
  • from a flurry of early Gospels and letters winnowed over a few hundred years into a mostly agreed-upon New Testament canon, chosen by various committees and dominant churches;
  • to the Nicene Creed, created by a committee of bishops convened by the Roman emperor Constantine, who, from the contemporary wealth of competing and contentious Biblical interpretations, wanted a single orthodox interpretation upon which to build a state religion;
  • via inclusions and removals of various pagan ideas, notably Arianism, Platonism and Aristotelianism;
  • to the many schisms between factions, the largest being the Great and Western Schisms, and the emergence of Protestantism, each split driven in large part by differing Biblical interpretations;
  • up to modern times, where there are many thousands of Christian denominations, sub-denominations and sects, all differing regarding various aspects of Biblical interpretation and emphases, with varied versions and translations of the Bible, all contending over the moving and disputed target of orthodoxy.

This is a large problem for Schaeffer’s thesis:  All of his assertions of the Bible as an absolute moral standard are hard to reconcile with the very human limitations exposed by the contentious history of shifting Jewish and Christian theology and hermeneutics. That is, how does one adopt the correct interpretation, that “straight opinion” that is orthodoxy, if there are many interpretations?

There is only moral relativism

These problems, particularly the historically shifting and conflicting moral interpretations, are clear evidence of a changing and relative system of Christian ethics, which are as plastic as the non-Christian ethical systems Schaeffer rejects.  Introducing the idea of progress does not restore the absolute: Progress is transient.   (note 1)

Not surprisingly, the author’s many examples of the moral relativity of secular ethics were not balanced by similar examples from Christian ethics:

  • -Oregon Scribbler,

    Oregon Scribbler.

    Christians differ markedly about which among the many moral prescriptions and proscriptions of the Old Testament must be followed. Many claim that Jesus took all the Old Testament laws off of the books; most pick and choose, ignoring those they feel do not apply to the modern world (some of the sexual laws, dietary laws, laws around disease, laws around sacrifice, etc.), and the picking and choosing is contentious, particularly on subjects like homosexuality.
  • A large number of today’s professed Christians believe that homosexuality is a sin, and a large number believe it is not; this is a modern shift, as even fifty years ago, the great majority of Christians believed it was a sin, one punishable as a crime against society.
  • Christians divorce for just about any reason today, but for most of Christian history it was considered immoral for all but a few reasons, according to Biblical interpretation, adultery the chief reason.  There is still serious differences among Christians on this topic.
  • Christians no longer destroy others for being heretics, but did so for most of their history; today it is immoral. Why wasn’t it immoral then?

Schaeffer argued that England finally abolished slavery in the 18th century due to men like Wilberforce acting on the basis of Christian morals. He acknowledged that Christians generally treated slavery as a morally acceptable institution for the previous 1,700 years, which he found regrettable, but typically did not let this taint his system of absolute morality.  It can be noted further that when examining the Bible, it seems at best neutral on the direct subject of slavery, at worst to support it.

While Christians were at the forefront of modern abolitionism, they were also at the forefront of the modern use of slaves, particularly in the United States, and the biblical justification for such illiberal behavior.  And this should be no surprise:  Moral and immoral behavior in the U.S. was and is mostly Christian because  the U.S. was and is mostly Christian.  It can be argued that if the Christian lens was removed from the view of U.S. history, one would find similar behaviors, both bad and good, behaviors rationalized by appeals to an ethical system, behaviors ultimately and simply human.

The ethic of strength over weakness

Schaeffer argued that all ethical systems save his own Biblically-based system lead to an ethic of strength over weakness.  Rome, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, with their history of great brutality and cruelty are correctly described by the author as clear examples of such an ethic.  But history suggests that such an ethic has always been present, in all secular or religious societies, applied individually and up to the largest scale.

-Oregon Scribbler,

Oregon Scribbler.

The Bible unequivocably describes an ethic of strength over weakness.  Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; slaves, obey your master.  The Old Testament is rife with examples of such an ethic, either with the Israelites sallying forth to take land, killing and taking property, slaves and concubines from the vanquished, or with Israelites being vanquished, and crying out to their God to give them the power to once again become dominant and slay their captors. The Hebrew God was worshiped because he promised that he would destroy the enemies of anyone who worshiped him and eschewed other gods, and anyone who didn’t would themselves be destroyed.

The New Testament version is no different in essence:  Those who don’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God are consigned by the all-powerful God to eternal damnation in Hell.  Christendom codified this on the earth by socially and legally marginalizing, exiling or destroying those who were not part of the Faith; it would seem that the Christians of pre-modern Europe and Asia Minor preferred to carry out what was supposed to be God’s final judgment themselves; there are still strains of this today echoing in Christian politics.

More generally, if the ethic of strength over weakness is not tempered by societal rules, proscribing the worst behaviors of the strong over the weak, then a society cannot grow and flourish.  Even the strong recognize this, as circumstances can change, and the strong can quickly become the weak, or vice versa.  But the strong have always dominated societies and controlled the interpretation and codification of ethics, laws and customs. The strong do not willingly give up their power, so laws and their administration generally reflect what favors the powerful.  At best the strong attempt to reign in their worst self-tendencies so as to allow the society they dominate to flourish, thus allowing themselves to grow in power.  At worst, they form authoritarian political structures that enforce their hold on power at the expense of the weak.

The long history of authoritarianism and coercion in Christendom clearly demonstrates that the practical political outcome of Christian society has been predominantly one of strength over weakness, the best precepts of Christ notwithstanding.  Christian societies are no different in that regard than non-Christian societies, despite repeated assertions by the author to the contrary.

The relative interpretation and piece-meal application of ethics

Galbraith suggested that "one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy . . . is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."(J.K. Galbraith, from 'Stop the Madness,' Interview with Rupert Cornwell, Toronto Globe and Mail (6 July 2002)) 

Laws can be written or unwritten, enforced or ignored, obeyed or disregarded, fair or unfair, and administered fairly or unfairly, in any combination; these choices are heavily affected by those in power. Laws are derived in part from ethical standards, and in part from the impulse of the powerful to remain in power.

For example, the totalitarian USSR was a self-described federal republic:  the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  It had a parliament, elections, and a Constitution that was more liberal in some ways than that of the U.S. Individual citizens had input in local government (soviets). Officially, the Orthodox Church was allowed to continue operating.  It had many of the outward trappings of a liberal democracy.  Yet it was in fact a cruel authoritarian oligarchy, a monstrous lie unless one were part of the Communist Party elite.

Even in societies which protect individual freedoms, such as the United States, where laws rather than monarchs rule, laws and ethics are much more plastic than often represented.  On the large scale, they are usually applied more fairly in a liberal democracy than in an authoritarian regime, but unfair laws or unfair application of the law hurts however many citizens to whom it is applied.  The history of U.S. treatment of native Americans is one such example.  For another, the history of African Americans in the U.S. on the whole reads more like a totalitarian history than that of a liberal democracy, with first outright legal enslavement explicitly codified in the antebellum Constitution, followed by 150 years of distorted laws and law enforcement that continued to deny black citizens their postbellum Constitutionally-amended rights.  These are difficulties common to the application of all ethical systems; the Christian ethical system is not an exception.

Universal ethics

The practical plasticity of all ethical systems does not mean that they are random or completely inconsistent.  There may exist no absolute standard, but historically there has persisted a basic universal sub-set of ethics, found in most if not all societies.


Code of Hammurabi, le Louvre. PD-US.

Every human is born with a conscience; they just don’t always act in accord with it. When two or more people get together, their needs and desires can conflict, and agreed upon ethical rules become necessary to allow them to live together; these rules have proved remarkably similar from the dawn of history:  proscribing murder, stealing, bearing false witness, and calling for some form of the Golden Rule.  They have been recorded throughout history, from the Code of Hammurabi to Mozi to the Torah to the Bible to the Koran to the tenets of Existentialism.  They are neither unique to the Bible, nor was the Bible the first to codify them; certainly these basic ethical rules well pre-dated their first historical appearances.

The best of religion is the call for the protection of the weak, and relatedly, the insistence on caring for others, for following the Golden Rule.  Many people on this earth, past and present, have made concerted efforts to behave this way, following their religious creeds.  Many people not part of a major religion have also behaved in such manner, even avowed atheists.

In any event, all systems of ethics have proven to be easily corrupted, under Christendom and under non-Christian societies. Both Christian and secular institutions and culture have produced extended examples of illiberal authoritarianism, repression and great violence; terrible things have been done in the name of secular ideologies, and terrible things have been done in the name of God. No worldview can be demonstrated to have a superior approach to moral standards.

End of part 3 of 4.

(The fourth and final part of this review of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live suggests an alternative answer to the question regarding how we should then live, and attempts to answer the original question posed in part I: How did this book influence U.S. Evangelical Christians to become more politically active? Part 1 of this review can be found here and part 2 here.)



1. All ethical systems are relative.  The Christian philosopher Steve Wilkens, in his survey of ethical systems, points out that all ethical systems, including the Christian one, are less than absolute.

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