Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Choosing the lesser sin

I'm going to comment on an essay by Wayne Grudem: Christians Never Have to Choose the “Lesser Sin”, J. Frame, W. Grudem, & J. Hughes, eds. Redeeming the Life of the Mind: Essays in Honor of Vern Poythress (Crossway 2017), chap. 19.

Some Christian writers claim that people sometimes find themselves in situations so difficult that they are faced with a choice between disobeying one of God's moral commands or another, and in those situations they are forced by circumstances to choose the "lesser sin". 

i) Freewill theism generates moral dilemmas because God must play the hand he's dealt. God can't guarantee that we will always in a position to do the right thing.

ii) But that doesn't necessary imply that we are forced to choose the lesser sin. If no moral options are available, through no fault of our own, it could well be argued that we are blameless if we choose the least evil course of action. 

That's not my own position. But it's coherent, given the framework. 

The position I will defend is that Christians will never be forced to choose to commit a "lesser sin," but that in every situation there will be at least one course of action open that does not involve disobedience to any of God's commands (when rightly understood and applied).

i) Up to a point, that's consistent with Grudem's Calvinism, where God has magisterial control over all the variables.

ii) There's a difference between the claim that there are never any moral dilemmas and the claim that there are never any conflicting commands. A multitude of different laws is apt to come into conflict due to the generality of their scope. If you have enough laws, of sufficient generality, then it seems inevitable that their jurisdiction will overlap at various points. It that event, different commands and prohibitions may sometimes collide. 

iii) Grudem fails to distinguish between ontological moral dilemmas, where there's no morally licit course of action, and epistemic moral dilemmas, where there is a morally licit course of action, but the agent doesn't know the right thing to do at the time. There are many situations where agents are unsure of what they ought to do, so they make a snap decision–for better or worse. 

It is not just a short list of "moral absolutes" that God holds us responsible to obey, but his entire Word, for "all Scripture [not merely a summary list of moral absolutes] is breathed out by God and profitable…"

But Grudem doesn't think the OT purity codes are still in force. 

He also says that "God does not hold a person guilty for not keeping a lower moral law so long as one keeps the higher law," and that God grants "an exemption" that eliminates the individual's culpability for not keeping the lower moral law.

Nowhere does the apostle Paul or Peter or John write to 1C Christians and say, "When you face a difficult situation with an impossible moral conflict, God will give you an exemption from violating one of his moral laws."

There's an equivocation running through his essay because Grudem bundles two different claims. Although there are Christians who think we're sometimes confronted by moral dilemmas, an alternative position is that competing duties are not moral dilemmas; in case of conflict, a higher duty temporarily overrides a lower duty. 

Although Grudem opposes that harmonization, he fails to consistently disambiguate two distinct positions, attacking one as if that's equivalent to the other. Imputing a straw man to the opposing position. 

I agree that some Scripture passages distinguish between greater and lesser commandments. But they never encourage disobedience to the lesser commandments.

Actually, there are prima facie examples to the contrary (see below). 

It would be unjust of God to give us contradictory commands. But if we in fact face situations of impossible moral conflict, and if our ultimate moral obligation is to God, then this would mean that God puts us in situations where he commands us to do contradictory things, which would be inconsistent and unjust of God.

That's another example where Grudem confounds his own position with the opposing position. That would only be inconsistent and unjust if we were blameworthy for our unavoidable failure to comply with contradictory commands. But one version of the opposing position is that we never face a moral dilemma because lower duties are overridden by higher duties. 

The NT points out numerous cases where Jesus broke the restrictive interpretations and rules that had been added to the Sabbath command by Jewish tradition, but there is no instance in which he broke the Sabbath commandment itself when understood correctly, in the way that God intended it in the first place. 

Although there's some truth to that explanation, it's too facile and moves too fast. The Sabbath laws are rather vague.  No doubt some Jewish traditions were ad hoc, but interpretation is necessary to enforce the prohibitions. Let's consider some examples:

Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mk 2:27).

So the Sabbath command is subservient to a more fundamental principle. 

15 Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Lk 13:15-16).

That's an a fortiori argument (a minore ad maius). If it's permissible to water your livestock on the Sabbath, then there's a greater obligation to provide for a human being in distress. 

5 And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Lk 14:5).

Same a fortiori principle. And surely there's more exertion in hoisting an ox out of a well than gathering firewood on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36).

Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man's whole body on the Sabbath? (Jn 7:23).

One the one hand there's the Sabbath command, while on the other hand there's the command to circumcise a newborn boy on the 8th day. Sometimes these calendrical requirements collide. In that event, the circumcision command supersedes the Sabbath command. Once again, there's a general standing exemption in situations like that. 

12 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Mt 12:1-8).

i) In vv3-4, Jesus cites an example in which an OT law was broken, yet exculpatory circumstances exonerate and even justify the violation. 

ii) In v5, Jesus cites an exemption to the Sabbath law. How else would you describe it? So the Sabbath law was not absolute. 

iii) In v7, he invokes a higher principle. So there's an implicit distinction between intrinsic duties and instrumental duties, where the latter are designed to facilitate the former. But instrumental duties are not absolute. Rather, instrumental duties are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. 

iv) There's the insinuation in vv6,8 that Jesus is above the law because he's the divine lawgiver. Not above the law in the sense of theological voluntarism. But not all Mosaic laws are moral laws. In addition, some moral laws are specific to human nature. But God isn't subject to laws specific to human nature inasmuch as God isn't human. 

v) There's the theological question of whether performing miracles is "work". At a divine level, performing a miracle is effortless for an omnipotent being. At a human level, it's fatiguing or even exhausting to heal or exorcise a nonstop flow of desperate people. 

vi) What exactly does the Sabbath command prohibit? Levels of exertion don't seem to be the key. Perhaps the principle is that working seven days a week is distrustful of divine provision. There's a risk in taking a day off. You lose a day. One less day to make ends meet. You can't make up for that. So the Sabbath is an act of faith. God will take up the slack. Like not taking more manna than you need each day, and storing the leftovers (Exod 16). 

In ordinary societal interactions, people understand that a commitment to meet someone at a certain place and time contains the implicit qualification "unless unforeseen circumstances prevent me from doing so"…I would say that the helping person does not sin because his promise contained an implied condition. 

Apparently it doesn't occur to Grudem that the opposing position can invoke the same principle. Not all biblical commands are absolute. Some biblical commands have implied conditions. Making allowance for that implicit qualification is part of what it means to understand it correctly, in the way God intended in the first place. That's applicable to theft or lying, in exigent situations. 

But in actual situations, there are always other options besides lying or divulging where the Jews are hidden. Silence is one option. Inviting the soldiers to come in and look around for themselves is another option. 

i) That only follows on the assumption that lying is always sinful. If, however, lying is not always sinful, then it doesn't follow that there are always other options besides lying or divulging where the Jews are hidden. This reflects Grudem's persistent inability to distinguish his own position from the opposing position. He lacks the critical detachment to separate them out and assess the opposing position on its own grounds. 

ii) There are more recent examples. What about a Christian duty to shelter Muslim converts to Christianity from honor killings? What about Christian sting operations to expose Planned Parenthood? Is there another way to obtain that information? 

iii) The question at issue isn't whether there are other options besides lying or divulging where the Jews are hidden, but whether there are other options that effectively protect the hidden Jews. 

The Bible does not prohibit all actions that are intended to mislead someone (see Josh 8:3-8; 1 Sam 21:13; 2 Sam 5:22-24); in some cases such actions are different from lying–that is, affirming something that is false. Actions such as leaving lights on at home are neither true nor false, but they are just something that happens, and they have ambiguous meanings.

That's a hairsplitting distinction which fails to appreciate the equivalence between verbal and nonverbal communication. Ideas can be conveyed through symbolic actions as well as sentences

The "impossible moral conflict" view becomes a slippery slope…they slide downward toward moral relativism. It happens this way: A college professor challenges students with some puzzling hypothetical situations that he has honed and refined over decades of teaching (such as lying to protect the Jews in your basement from the Nazis, or stealing to feed a starving family, or fending off a drowning man in order to keep everyone else alive in an overcrowded lifeboat). Many students leave the class persuaded that there are really no moral absolutes, because there are times when it is morally necessary to lie, or to steal, or even to kill in order to save lives. 

i) It's true that using hypothetical scenarios in ethics can be morally subversive. Sometimes that's intentional. That depends on how realistic these are. That depends on whether we live in a world where moral dilemmas actually occur. That's a metaphysical and theological issue. Depends on your view of divine providence. 

ii) That said, hypothetical scenarios are indispensable to ethics. They can probe whether something is intrinsically right or wrong, or whether that admits exceptions. 

iii) One can draw a broad distinction between two kinds of action: moral absolutes and actions whose moral status is modified by circumstances. It's not all one or the other. Some of his examples beg the question. 

Sometimes it is permissible or even obligatory to kill in order to save lives. What's impermissible is to commit murder in order to save lives. 

In a Sophie's Choice scenario, I'd say there is no overriding duty to save one child at the expense of the other. In a fallen world one may have to let the worst happen. Only the afterlife can compensate. 

iv) It never occurs to Grudem that his own position is a slippery slope. His position puts Christians in morally untenable situations. Because his position is too inflexible, the inclination is to temporarily chuck morality in an emergency situation because he's taken the best option off the table. 


  1. I think moral dilemmas are more epistemological dilemmas. We often lack information or time to process certain situations. I don't think it is so much just a lack of any moral options. What are your thoughts on that?

  2. One problem against Grudem's argument is that it doesn't take into account the fact that evil people can intentionally create situations specifically designed as no-win scenarios. To piggyback on the Nazis-looking-for-Jews scenario, the "escapes" that Grudem imagines are possible can each be met when you're facing someone who is evil and intentionally trying to FORCE you to sin if you are hiding Jews. Remaining silent or saying, "Feel free to search the house if you'd like" can be met with a simple: "I asked you a yes or no question, and if you do not give me a yes or no as the answer I will assume you are hiding Jews and therefore obliterate this entire house and kill anyone who may be hiding in it."

    In other words, evil agents are *SMART* and they can therefore go out of their way to trap people and compel them down one path of evil or another. Incidentally, I would argue that the very fact that the Nazi is compelling you to sin makes the Nazi, not you, responsible for any sin that would result from that.

    More than that, assuming for argument's sake that it is evil to lie to the Nazi who is seeking to use the truth to murder innocent people, I maintain that the world would be less evil overall if I lied than if innocent people got murdered. Furthermore, I am willing to take upon myself the full consequences of that sin, if it be a sin, in order to save the innocent lives that would otherwise be lost. But as I said, in my view, a Nazi forcing you to lie bears the full responsibility and culpability for that lie, and if anyone is punished it will be that Nazi.

  3. I'm not sure about the soundness of proposing that the Nazi bears full responsibility for my lying. It seems to me that lying is simply excused in some cases. Heb. 11 seems to me to say that the hall of faithers could in fact be charged with sin, but the text doesn't bother to bring it up. I'm just thinking about this now, so I'm still working on it, but I do wonder if God just dismisses the "lie" because we are finite, and we accomplished the right end. I do like what Peter pointed out.