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Great Truths, Great Division

Editors’ Note: One necessary condition for doing moral apologetics as Christians is having a clear understanding of the requirements of Christian morality. We are thankful for Dr. Thomas’ piece clarifying for Christians the importance of the objectivity and authority of the biblical teaching on sexual ethics. The recognition of these features of Christian morality are critical both for apologetics and the life of the church, at least as critical as the issues that divided the Christian church in the the time of Martin Luther, as Thomas reminds us in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. 

By H. O. ‘Tom’ Thomas

Some call it ‘The Great Schism’.  At issue are articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclesiae (articles, biblical truths, ‘by which the church stands or falls’).    Are there such biblical truths for which you will risk everything, even schism of the church, even your life?  I have been reconsidering the Protestant Reformation on its 500th anniversary.  On October 31, 1517, Halloween, an unknown monk-pastor-professor Martin Luther posted ninety- five points, ‘The Ninety- Five Theses’, for university debate.  It set off a chain reaction of church reform and renewal resulting in the Roman Catholic Church split.  Some refer to it as ‘The Great Schism’.

Namely, by 1532 Europe was divided in two:  territories and churches which were Protestant; and territories and churches who were Roman Catholic.  Both sides were readied for armed warfare.   They stood down when the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 allowed each other to exist as Protestant churches and Roman Catholic churches.

‘The Great Schism’ began with a presenting issue: the sale of ‘indulgences’.  The presenting issue was serious enough in itself.  However, it would not be called an ‘articulus stantis et (vel) cadentis ecclessia’.  Over this alone the Church might not have split.  Nonetheless, lurking underneath and supporting the practice of selling indulgences were biblical truths upon which the Christian faith stands or falls.  These truths constitute Christianity.  They could not be compromised!  They could not be conceded short of subverting salvation itself.

As I have reflected on the Reformation, fascinating parallels with our own Church situation light up.   Acceptance of the practice of homosexuality is the presenting issue today.  It’s a serious issue in and of itself.  However, some on both sides argue it’s not an article over which to split the church.  I submit to you underneath, supporting, and entangled in the argument for allowing the practice of homosexuality are matters involving deep, biblical truths, ‘essentials’, as John Wesley called them, upon which the very essence of the Christian faith depends.  Under no circumstances can they be compromised!  If they are, the foundation of Christian experience falls.  I ask myself, I ask you:  Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’!

The presenting issue arousing Martin Luther’s ire was the church’s sale of ‘indulgences’.  An ‘indulgence’ was a paper certificate church officials offered parishioners for a fee that granted forgiveness of their sin.  Usually after committing a sin a parishioner confessed and did acts of ‘good works’ (penance).  These acts merited good credit and paid the penalty for their sin. The good works restored them to favor with God.  Buying an ‘indulgence’ itself was considered a good work and qualified as penance which restored one to favor with God.  The money from the indulgences went to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

‘Indulgences’ were the manifesting issue for Martin Luther.  Just the same, the extending roots under the surface were the most foundational biblical truths. They were at the root of biblical Christianity.  What is the nature of repentance? How does one gain acceptance with God?  How can I be forgiven my sin?   What is required of a guilty sinner to be justified by a holy and just God?  What is the nature of heart religion and holy living? What is the Word of God? By whose authority am I forgiven?  The Church? The Pope?  Or Jesus Christ alone?

The acceptance of homosexual practice with marriage and ordination has been the presenting issue in mainline churches.  This alone is serious enough.  Bound up inextricably with it lurking deeper underneath are the most profound biblical and theological essentials.  I can only briefly touch on three/four of the most fundamental.

(1) As it was with indulgences, the question of how can I be acceptable to God is primary.  Martin Luther and classic Protestants answered this as the apostle Paul did:  ‘He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3: 26); ‘we are justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1); ‘for by grace you have been saved through faith’ (Ephesians 2: 8).  One repents of one’s sin with a sorrowful conviction for snubbing God and turns away from the sin. One receives by faith, with a confidence in the heart, Jesus the Son of God who by his atoning death pardons the guilt and sin.  One is then declared acceptable and righteous before God.

You do not see mainline centrists and progressives making room for a definitive moment of salvation where a guilty sinner crosses from a state of sin and death into a state of saving grace.  You will not hear them call persons to repent of their state of revolt from God; you will not hear them call persons to receive saving faith which will make them acceptable and righteous before God; and you will not hear them proclaiming the God-Man Jesus Christ by which faith in His saving blood alone merits our acceptance with God.

No, ‘centrists’ and progressives assume ‘universalism’.  “Universalism’ is the belief all persons are elected to salvation.  ‘Centrists’ and progressives use Scriptural verses like Hebrews 2: 9 to say Jesus ‘tasted death for everyone.’ In every religious speech for homosexuality advocates say God’s grace extends to all persons.  All are included.  No one is excluded.  Magisterial twentieth century theologian Karl Barth argued saving grace applies to everyone.  He declared through the Son the whole of creation is elected to salvation.  Everyone is elected. Election is not to shut but to open; not to exclude but to include; not to say ‘no’ but to say ‘yes’.   Like indulgences to Martin Luther, homosexuality is to the mainline church today.  The offshoot takes us to the root.  We are not at the periphery.  We are at the heart.  Without this, there is no Christianity!

(2)  The presenting issue of the acceptance of homosexual practice is inextricably bound up with another essential biblical truth:  the sufficiency of Holy Scripture alone for eternal salvation.  What is the supreme authority for the way to eternal salvation?  Everything necessary for your and my eternal salvation is in Holy Scripture.   The Roman Catholic Church held two authorities:  Holy Scripture and the Catholic Councils’ decision over the centuries.  These great ecumenical Councils’ teaching was deemed as authoritative as Holy Scripture.

The watchword for Martin Luther and the Protestants was sola Scriptura, ‘Scripture alone’.  Mainline centrists and progressives say they believe the authority of Scripture.  Do they believe Holy Scripture is supreme above all authorities? For them, something outside and in addition to Scripture comes into play.  They say Scripture is to be submitted to the judgment of ‘the sum total of human experience.’ Scripture is one authority among other authorities of human experience, emotivist sentiment, and scientific consensus.  That means, the Word of God is subjected to an authority higher than itself:  human beings.  On the contrary, we declare ‘the sum of human experience’ must be submitted to the criterion of Holy Scripture.  We reaffirm the slogan of the Reformation, ‘sola Scriptura’, ‘Scripture alone’!

(3) The acceptance of homosexual practice is also bound up inextricably with another foundational issue:  does biblical teaching refer to objective realities which exist outside of human thought and experience? In contrast, is biblical teaching relative and dependent on the subjective person who creates it out of his or her mind and experience?  This latter view of relativism is the assumption of those in the mainline calling themselves ‘centrist’ and progressive.  On the surface, ‘centrists’ argue in God’s church both views (a) homosexuality is blessed by God and (b) homosexuality is forbidden by God belong together in Christ’s church.  They assume a God who wills two mutually exclusive things: (a) God wills homosexuality is a pleasing practice in His church (b) God condemns homosexual practice as having no place in His church.  The same act is both good and evil.  This makes God arbitrary and irrational like the pagan god Zeus.

We Scriptural Christians say homosexuality is sinful.  God can do no other than will against it because it is intrinsically contrary to God’s objective nature of goodness and love.  God wills what He wills because it agrees with His character and the objective nature of His created order.  Present underneath the ‘centrist’ and progressive claim is moral relativism.  Moral relativism says ‘no one moral claim is true for everybody’.  Morality is different for different people, in different times, and in different places.

This is wrongheaded.  This view is in total opposition to Scriptural Christianity.  If conceded, the demise of Christian salvation follows.  ‘Absolutists’, those who accept morality is true always, everywhere ,and at all times, believe the ‘centrists’ view is false.  ‘Centrists’ believe their view to be true.  By their own view, ‘centrists’ have to believe our view to be true which says God condemns homosexual practice always, in every place, and for all people.   The wrinkle is, by their own view, therefore, ‘centrists’ must believe their own view to be false.  If ‘centrists’ are true to their relativist view, they must accept the rejection of their own view.  They have to allow that our view is right which says their view is wrong!  In making their case for relativism, they undermine and refute their own assumption.  They have to allow our view is true which says God wills only one thing:  homosexual practice is sin and wrong.

Can we be united with ‘centrists’ and progressives in Christ’s Church?  Only if we concede conceptual and moral relativism; only if we allow Holy Scripture must be subjected to a higher authority; only if we give up ‘justification by grace through faith’; and, only if, we are ready to forfeit Christianity.  Are great truths worth a ‘great schism’?

 

Image: By Anton von Werner – https://www.staatsgalerie.de/en/g/collection/digital-collection/einzelansicht/sgs/werk/einzelansicht/0B0D3C944C3810077954978B36F59919.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62481320

Detective Morse and Post-Modern Relativism

By Tom Thomas

In the mid 1960’s, Detective Constable Morse ponders the death of a young bricklayer Barry Fink at Mapplewick Hall estate north of Oxford, England.  Detective Constable Morse is the central character in Masterpiece Theater’s ‘Endeavour’ series based on ground-breaking crime writer Colin Dexter’s novels.  Detective Morse is an Oxford University dropout.  When his love affair failed so did his academic performance.  He then joined the army and after his discharge the police force.

The years have not tarnished the scholarly mind which entered Oxford with a scholarship.  Viewed in the police force as a bit of a fish out of water, he relishes poetry, classical music, and a pint of ale.  Fellow officers begrudgingly admit he has a brilliant nose for making abstruse connections in erudite Oxford crimes. While studying bricklayer Barry Fink’s suspicious death at Mapplewick Hall, Morse is also assigned to guard a controversial activist Mrs. Joy Pettybon.  Mrs. Pettybon is an outspoken conservative crusader against smutty language on TV.  She is bringing her national campaign ‘National Clean Up TV’ to Oxford.

Her ‘Clean Up TV’ crusade targets a nationally popular rock group ‘Wildwood’ (think Pink Floyd) who locates, of all places, at Mapplewick Hall estate. Mrs. Pettybon is to dialogue with ‘Wildwood’ on the weekly current affairs TV show Almanac.  As Detective Morse accompanies Mrs. Pettybon to her TV appearance, he wonders about the connection of Mapplewick Hall to the dead bricklayer and ‘Wildwood’.

The faceoff between Mrs. Pettybon and ‘Wildwood’ is broadcast.  Caricatured as an old fashioned ‘party pooper’, Mrs. Pettybon accuses ‘Wildwood’ of ramming down the throats of people in their homes sexually explicit and drug referent lyrics.  Viewers should not be subjected to ‘dirty’ lyrics in their home.   Rock group leader, Nick Wilding, is amused.  He smugly asks her, ‘What is dirty?’  This is the edgy, post-modern, ‘gotcha’ question relished by the ‘Endeavour’ writers. ‘Dirty’ is dirty’ she responds.  Nick retorts, ‘What’s dirty to you might be quite acceptable to someone else…quite normal in fact’.  Snigger, snigger.

Here the show ‘Endeavour’ revealed its post-modern penchant for pressing the philosophy of moral relativism.  Moral relativism holds actions are moral only for those who think them so.  They are not moral for everyone, let alone objectively or absolutely true.  Others may hold different behaviors are moral.  One cannot expect what one believes to be moral or true for anybody else who does not believe it.[i]

We watched ‘Endeavour’ to enjoy a good crime mystery; however, ‘Endeavour’ was interested in peddling moral relativism.  I was provoked with its ‘air’ of self-assurance that the argument is unassailable.  I wondered if they knew ethicists consider it a difficult ethical position to maintain.  It has been readily observed relativism’s own assertion is its logical contradiction.  If it is believed there is no moral claim true for everybody, then one is making a moral claim one applies to everybody!  The very claim ‘No moral claim is true for everybody’ denies the possibility of this absolutist statement.

Though Plato’s refutation of Protagoras’s promulgation of relativism is slick and not irrefutable, it exposes relativism’s vulnerability:

Most people believe that Protagoras’s doctrine is false.

Protagoras, on the other hand, believes his doctrine to be true.

By his own doctrine, Protagoras must believe that his opponents’ view is true.

Therefore, Protagoras must believe that his own doctrine is false (see Theaetetus: 171a) c).[ii]

That is, if Protagoras and relativists are true to their relativistic belief, they must accept their opponent’s rejection of their view.  They have to allow their opponents who say they are wrong are right!  Oddly, in making the case for relativism one argues for its own refutation!

Back to ‘Endeavour’ and Detective Morse.  If ‘Endeavour’ premises crime is not good, then the consequences ‘Endeavour’ portrays of a relativistic philosophy are telling arguments against moral relativism.  Just as the claim of relativism boomerangs back upon itself, so do its consequences.  Detective Morse finds out the bricklayer Barry Fink died at Mapplewick Hall while in bed with ‘Wildwood’ rock band lead singer Nick (who was found comatose from an overdose) and Pippa, a girl groupie – a bisexual threesome.  A fourth person, Emma, was stalking the bedroom that night and found no place in bed next to Nick.  She was jealous of Barry Fink for stealing Nick’s affections from her.  So, she strangled him.  Her intense jealousy led her to murder.  ‘Polyamory’ creates jealousy between ‘lovers’ which in turn incites murder which leads to criminal charges. One overdosed, one dead, and one charged with murder!  A pretty good night for moral relativism!  Unintentionally, ‘Endeavour’s’ moral of the story is, the moral consequences of a relativistic philosophy are its own telling argument against it!

 

 

 

[i] Trigg, Roger, Philosophy Matters: An Introduction to Philosophy(Madlen, Mass:  Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002), pp. 59-60

[ii] Swoyer, Chris, “Relativism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/relativism/

Image: “The World’s Greatest Dective.” by Kit. CC license. 

The Obfuscations of Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish has written:

“In the period between the attack on the World Trade Center towers and the American response, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times called to ask me if the events of the past weeks meant ‘the end of relativism.’ (I had an immediate vision of a headline—RELATIVISM ENDS: MILLIONS CHEER—and of a photograph with the caption, ‘At last, I can say what I believe and mean it.’) Well, if by relativism one means a condition of mind in which you are unable to prefer your own convictions and causes to the convictions and causes of your adversary, then relativism could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions are by definition preferred; that’s what makes them our convictions, and relativizing them is neither an option nor a danger. (In the strong sense of the term, no one has ever been or could be a relativist for no one has the ability to hold at arm’s length the beliefs that are the very foundation of his thought and action.) But if by relativism one means the practice of putting yourself in your adversary’s shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else—in your view, a deluded someone—might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end because it is simply another name for serious thought.”

  So the first way Fish envisions someone defining moral relativism is like this: “a condition of mind in which you are unable to prefer your own convictions and causes to the convictions and causes of your adversary, then relativism could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions are by definition preferred; that’s what makes them our convictions, and relativizing them is neither an option nor a danger.” Let’s call this the “preference” account of relativism. Fish rejects the idea that such relativism can or should go away because, after all, people holding beliefs means they take them seriously.

  And the second formulation of relativism goes like this: “the practice of putting yourself in your adversary’s shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else—in your view, a deluded someone—might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end because it is simply another name for serious thought.” Let’s call this the “empathy” variant of relativism. And again, Fish says this variant of relativism shouldn’t and can’t go away either.

  The problem here, as I see it, is that Fish has offered two highly idiosyncratic definitions of relativism. Ethical relativism is the view that says morality is relative—usually to culture, though some relativize it to subcultures or even individuals. It’s a subjective understanding of morality in the sense that there aren’t objectively true moral answers—instead the content of morality is a function of individual, subcultural, or cultural choice. The problems confronting ethical relativism are legion and well-rehearsed. What’s interesting to me about Fish is that he simply tries sidestepping all of that by offering two accounts of relativism that have nothing essentially to do with it.

  Consider the preference variant. Fish is of course entirely right to say people prefer their own beliefs. But if so, why would he think that anyone means by relativism the denial of such a thing? If a student did such a thing in a paper, I’d rake him over the coals. So why on earth is Fish, an established academic, doing such a thing?

  Take the empathy variant. There’s nothing indigenous to relativism that involves putting yourself into your enemy’s shoes to see things from his perspective. That may be a cultural or subcultural approach, but it equally well may not be, in which it would be, by relativistic lights, the wrong thing to do. If someone wants a principled reason to embrace judicious tolerance and a cultivated sense of empathy, he needs to look in direction other than relativism. In other words, any good reasons there are to cultivate such attitudes most assuredly don’t come from relativism. So why treat such a thing as relativism’s distinguishing or defining feature except to answer the easy question and avoid the hard ones?

  Fish is an academic who works with words. Remarkable to me how willing he is to bastardize them with such shameless and reckless abandon, and that an outfit like the New York Times accords space to such obfuscation while turning down so many pieces far more worthy but written by folks less well known. For he employed the same procedure in an October, 2001 NYT commentary on 9/11 when he reduced “postmodernism” to merely this: “The only thing postmodern thought argues against is the hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies.”

  Postmodernism means lots of things, but surely what it doesn’t mean is the mere suggestion that we can’t persuade terrorists that their tactics are wrong—a recognition anyone has who’s spent more than an hour engaged in substantive debate. Postmodernism isn’t without its insights—the need to see other perspectives, recognize our own shortcomings, demonize opponents, etc. (though I hardly think we need postmodernism to grasp such truths). But I simply don’t see how discussion is advanced when, confronted with the flaws and fallacies of one’s approach, one simply reduces the view in question to an isolated, incidental, innocuous thread and argue it’s harmless, while overlooking the plethora of troublesome and profoundly counterintuitive implications of its more robust (and honest) versions. Serious academics should do a whole lot better.