[2]        Principles (2): Priority of Norms


There has been a decline in moral values among youth. A 2002 US survey reported that 74% of high school students admitted cheating on exams in the past year (13% higher than in 1992); 38% of students admitted to shoplifting in the past year (7% higher than in 1992); 43% agreed that “a person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed.” Another survey reported that 82% of students believe that right and wrong are relative terms and that morality is a ridiculous concept; 78% said they regularly lie to their parents.

7.      What principles can be used to judge the priority of different norms?

a.   Most evangelical theologians accept graded absolutism, e.g. Ex 1:15-21, the midwives violated the norm of obeying the government in order not to violate a higher norm of not to kill.

b.   General principles in judging the hierarchy of norms:

(1)  Persons have priority over things (Mt 16:26).

(2)  God has priority over human beings (Ac 5:29; Da 3:17-18).

(3)  Many persons have priority over few persons (1Co 9:19; 10:33).

(4)  Irreversible actions (e.g. death) are more crucial than actions with long term effects, which are in turn more crucial than actions with short term effects.

(5)  “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12; Lk 6:31).

c.   The most important is to seek the will and guidance of God through fervent prayer.

8.      How can the Pascal’s Wager be extended to serve as an ethical principle?

a.   The argument for the importance of a belief in God is called the “Pascal’s Wager”, formulated by Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). He was one of the most intelligent person in history.

b.   The Argument: Suppose logical reasoning cannot decide for or against the existence of God; then we must “wager” on this important question. If you place your bet with God, you lose nothing, even if it turns out that God does not exist. But if you place it against God, and you are wrong and God does exist, you lose everything: God, eternity, heaven, infinite gain.

c.   Therefore the only wise wager is to believe that God exists. If God exists, he wins the reward of eternal life; if God does not exist, at least he wins the reward of a good present life with joy and peace. In other words, to wager that God does not exist is always a stupid wager.

d.   The application of the principle: choose life not death; fight against the culture of death.

9.      Can we claim that some commands in the Bible are particular to the history and culture of the Biblical times and are therefore not applicable to today?

a.   When we apply the Bible in ethics, it is important to distinguish general principles or commands from specific applications. While general principles are relevant for all times and all cultures, specific rules relating to culture of biblical times may not be applicable today.

b.   Many of the Old Testament laws established for Israel are not applicable now because:

(1)  Ceremonial law was superseded by the death of Christ (Heb 10:10-18).

(2)  New Testament argues for the end of Mosaic law (Ro 10:4; Gal 3:21-25; 5:18).

(3)  We are not under a theocracy.

d.   Some commands specific to the New Testament times may not be applicable today (such as head covering for women in 1Co 11:5). However, it is dangerous to discount parts of the Bible by the claim of cultural relativity. Liberal Christians today use this argument to explain away most of the commandments in the Bible. Therefore, clear guidelines should be developed.

e.   Three questions should be asked:

(1)   Is the command inherently moral?

o        Those that are inherently moral are absolute and applicable to every culture. See sin lists: Mk 7:21-22; Ro 1:29-32; 1Co 5:11; 6:9-10; 2Co 12:20; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 4:31; 5:3; Co 3:5; 2Ti 3:2-4; 1Pe 2:1.

o        Major sins in the lists: greed, slander, sexual immorality, malice, pride, jealousy.

(2)  Is there a uniform position/prohibition in the Bible?

o        If there are different positions, then the command is not absolute, e.g. eating food offered to the idols (Ac 15:29; 1Co 10:25-26).

(3)  Do we share similar specific life situations?

o        The cultural setting of Biblical passages and the intent or reason of the command need to be understood, e.g. prohibitions in Ac 15:20 were a compromise to satisfy Jewish Christians.

10.  Can Christians swear an oath, such as in courts?

a.   Should Christians follow Mt 5:34 and Jas 5:12 and refuse to swear an oath even in courts?

b.   Let us use the 3 questions above to decide.

(1)  Is swearing an oath inherently immoral? No, it is not.

(2)  Is there a uniform position in the Bible on swearing an oath? No, there is not.

o        Moses urged a legitimate oath in Dt 6:13. Lev 19:12 prohibits only false swearing. Jesus accepted the authenticity of oaths in Mt 23:20-22. He spoke under an oath, implicitly accepting the legality of oaths in Mt 26:63-64. Paul, in the form of an oath, says that God is the witness to his truth in Ro 1:9.

(3)  Is the prohibition of oaths related to specific life situations?

o        The prohibition is not about legitimate oaths in court. It is against the common but unnecessary Jewish practice (rash swearing) of using God’s name or a sacred object to guarantee the truth of what is spoken.

c.   Conclusion: Christians can swear an oath when required by law, such as in courts.

11.  What is the proper attitude if there is disagreement among Christians about ethical decisions?

a.   There are different levels of ethical decisions/actions based on the seriousness of consequence.

(1)  Is it a sin or an immoral act?

o        if yes, then it is an “immoral act” [level 1] that is clearly a sin, e.g. theft, greed, lie, slander

(2)  Will it lead to sin for yourself or for others? AND Will it be regarded as objectionable by the majority of Christians?

o        if yes to either one, then it is an “improper act” [level 2] that may lead yourself to sin, or may lead others to sin but the act itself is in the grey area/zone (not white or black), e.g. smoking, wearing sexy clothes

o        How do you know whether your attire is proper? The proper attire of course differs from place to place. A general rule is that the attire is probably proper if you do not feel conscious about it.

(3)  Will it be objected by more than a few Christians?

o        if yes, then it is an “inappropriate act” [level 3] that may be objectionable but does not lead to sin, e.g. using foul language, showing off an expensive car

o        if no, then it is a “morally neutral act” [level 4] that is acceptable behaviour, e.g. wearing jewelry

o        As for foul language, some are more objectionable than others. The use of God’s name (including Jesus’ name) in expressing disgust or exclamation or simply in a careless fashion is a violation of the Third Commandment (“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Ex 20:7).

b.   For questions that do not involve essential matters of faith, positions can be held tentatively. The position may allow revision when there are new information or new arguments. One good example is capital punishment, upon which even evangelical theologians cannot agree. We need to be more tolerant and not legalistic. We should agree to disagree agreeably.

c.   An excellent saying of Charles Simeon, attributed to the Church Fathers, is a good guideline.

In essentials, unity.

In non-essentials, liberty.

In all things, charity.