Saturday, August 04, 2018

Grudem on ethics

Wayne Grudem has published a new book on Christian ethics. I haven't read it, and I don't intend to, although I've read two of the entries which were originally written for festschrifts. Grudem is an exemplary Christian gentleman and helpful popularizer of Reformed theology. I'm sure his new book on ethics has a lot of fine material, but I don't think he's qualified to write a book on ethics. He should leave that to Christians with keener minds and greater subtlety–like Bill Davis and John Frame. 

I'm going to comment on some of the annotated entries in his new book (see below). I agree with him that Christians aren't confronted with absolute moral dilemmas, although he and I sometimes disagree on what's sinful. Case in point: his position on lying. I've posted responses to him on both topics, so I won't recycle that.

What I wish to note in this post is points of tension in his overall position. For his position on some topics comes into conflict with his position on some other topics. Take his absolutist prohibition on lying compared to his position on war. But military deception is an essential stratagem in warfare. And self-defense sometimes involves the same principle. So his absolutist position on lying has unwittingly pacifistic implications.  

And this spills over into abortion and euthanasia. Consider the sting videos exposing Planned Parenthood. Likewise, once doctors are required to practice euthanasia, it's hazardous to be too forthcoming about your symptoms if those point to a medical condition which makes you a candidate for involuntary euthanasia. Or a patient you represent, if they lack the competence to speak for themselves. 

So Grudem's position is shortsighted and incoherent. His misplaced scruples impose conditions that sabotage some of his other positions. 


Chapter 7 Christians Will Never Have to Choose the “Lesser Sin”
Although several evangelical ethics books claim that, from time to
time, we face situations of “impossible moral conflict” where all our
choices are sinful and we must simply choose to commit the “lesser
sin,” this idea is not taught in Scripture. It is contradicted both by
the life of Christ, “who in every respect has been tempted as we are,
yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15), and by the promise of 1 Corinthians
10:13, which says that God will always provide a “way of escape.”
An analysis of the arguments by Norman Geisler and by John and
Paul Feinberg on this topic concludes that their arguments and
their alternative interpretations of key Scripture passages are not
persuasive. The “impossible moral conflict” view easily becomes a
slippery slope that encourages Christians to sin more and more.

Chapter 12 Lying and Telling the Truth
The ninth commandment (against bearing false witness) is
considered here out of the normal sequence because the topic is
closely connected to purity of speech (the previous chapter), and
because the issues involved in considering lying and truth telling are
relevant for many other topics that follow in the book.
The following definition of lying is used: Lying is affirming in speech
or writing something you believe to be false. Augustine, Calvin, and
others have defined lying in a similar way. This specific definition
means that “lying” (as discussed in this chapter) does not include
silence, nonverbal actions, ironic statements, hyperbole, or
unintentional falsehoods, and these are all topics which require
separate discussions.

Numerous biblical statements condemn lying in the sense of
verbally affirming a falsehood. Imitating the character of God is the
basis for not lying. Jesus never told a lie. The narrative examples
of lying in Scripture (such as Rahab in Jericho) do not overturn
this conclusion. Lying accompanies most other sins. It is morally
acceptable for Christians to engage in spying and undercover police
work, with certain limitations. In most cases, it is right to respond
quickly and truthfully to slander rather than remaining silent.
Plagiarism is another form of lying. Punctuality is a virtue

Chapter 19 War
The commandment against murder (Ex. 20:13) does not
prohibit all participation in war because the Hebrew verb used
in this commandment is never used to speak of killing in war.

Governments have a responsibility to defend their nations against
attacks by other nations with military forces if necessary. There
are eight commonly used criteria for deciding if a war should be
considered a “just war,” and four commonly recognized moral
restrictions on how a just war should be fought.

A Christian soldier who participates in fighting a just war is not
doing something morally wrong or morally neutral, but something
that is morally good in God’s sight. But it is morally wrong to serve
in a war that is clearly unjust. The pacifist arguments promoted
by Jim Wallis, Greg Boyd, and others are not persuasive. Now
that nuclear weapons exist in the world, it is necessary for some
peace-loving nations to have them in order to defend against
potential aggressors. In addition, antimissile defense systems should
continue to be developed and strengthened. Nations should not
send women into combat situations.

Chapter 20 Self-Defense
Jesus’s teaching about turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:38–39) tells
us not to hit back when someone slaps us as an insult, but does not
prohibit us from escaping or defending ourselves against a violent
attack that would do us bodily harm or even kill us. Other passages
in Scripture encourage escaping from danger or even using force in 
self-defense if necessary, and other passages encourage us to defend
other people against wrongful attacks. Jesus’s disciples carried
swords, which were used for self-defense.

However, Christians should not retaliate when persecuted
specifically for their Christian faith. Children should be taught to
be “peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9), but if a bully continues to escalate
his attacks, and if no parent or teacher will intervene, children
should be taught to fight back and defend themselves with courage
and determination, and also to pray for and forgive those who
attack them.

If using physical force in self-defense is morally right, then use of
a legally permitted weapon in self-defense is also morally right,
since a weapon can overcome great inequalities in size or strength.
Individual Christians will come to different conclusions about
whether it is wise to own a gun for self-defense.

Chapter 21 Abortion
Several passages in the Bible indicate that an unborn child should
be thought of and protected as a person from the moment of
conception. There is increasing scientific evidence supporting the
distinct identity of the unborn child. Objections to this viewpoint
are not persuasive. Therefore abortion is the wrongful taking of
an innocent human life. However, abortion to save the life of the
mother is morally justified because it involves making a choice
between one person dying and two persons dying.

Governments should give legal protections to the lives of people
within their countries, including unborn children. Objections to this
position are considered and found to be unpersuasive.

Chapter 22 Euthanasia
The commandment “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13) prohibits
intentionally taking the life of another human being, even a very
elderly or terminally ill person, or a person in great pain. However,
there is a clear distinction between killing someone and letting
someone die. We can enumerate some circumstances in which it is
right to allow a person to die.

The experience of other countries shows that there can be a slippery
slope from allowing euthanasia to promoting an “obligation”
to die, and then even to practicing involuntary euthanasia on
elderly people.


  1. Can you recommend good books on Christian ethics?

    1. Best overall work:

    2. Cool - thanks - both of you.

    3. Just a word of thanks in return here! (Sorry I've been behind in reading weblogs, etc., and I've been catching up, so I only recently saw your comment.)

  2. great examples of points of tension in Grudem's views.