Christians who insist upon absolutes do so to stay off the slippery slope. Indeed, downhill of the absolutist stands the antinomian. If absolutism posits many universal norms codified in rules, antinomianism admits of no norms, thus no rules. This Outback philosophy―“no rules, just right”―can’t be right either, and none of us wants to go there. We have been partway down the slope and begun to see what is at bottom.
Unsurprisingly, Christian ethicists have proposed several mediating positions for which there are universal rules, and for which exceptions are made. Accordingly, one should not lie except to save a life, nor should one kill except in self-defense, and so on. Exceptions are thought to be good, not obliging confession. Just-War Theory is based on this system of “hierarchical” values (Geisler). There is a time to kill. Needless to say, these middle-of-the-road positions have their own problems. Once exceptions are admitted in principle, other rules must guide our decisions as to whom it is alright to kill, and when. As a practical matter, it can be difficult to agree upon those other rules, and information required for their application may be impossible to obtain. How was a German conscript to know that his government was unjust, and that to shoot an Allied soldier was to have killed one of the “goodies”?
By now it is reasonable to ask what we are left with. The short answer, it turns out, is that we are left with Jesus. What we overlook in the debate over many rules or no rules is that Jesus never left us to choose between the two. Instead, He gave us exactly one rule, that of love.
An absolutist once asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment. He replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart . . . and love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:34-39). These commands captured the whole law (v. 40) by summing up every bit of its intent. If it may be said that Pharisaical legalism encouraged a love of duty, or law over love, then what Jesus embraced was a duty to love, or love over law. If ever there was one to break a rule to save a life, it was Jesus (Luke 6:9).
On one Sabbath, Jesus’ disciples grew hungry, so they harvested grain and ate; predictably, the Pharisees protested (Matthew 12:2). Jesus might have corrected their rabbinical overreach, but He chose instead to point out several God-fearing men, David included, who had justified similar acts in the past. Jesus’ response derived from something God had said already: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (v. 7). Rather than to set straight their unwarranted legal embellishment, Jesus simply affirmed the primacy of love over law. It was better that David and his men eat than abide the rules, no matter what their source.
In John 5, Jesus heals a man who hadn’t walked for thirty-eight years. The Pharisees object to the man’s having carried his mat on the Sabbath, a behavior proscribed in rabbinical teaching, not law. But rather than to put too fine a point on that distinction, Jesus makes appeal to His Father, whose work does not end when Sabbath begins. Jesus’ apparent indifference toward any distinction between mosaic and rabbinical law reflects what the practicing fundamentalist knows to be true: Supplemental regulations designed to safeguard the moral perimeter are endemic to rule-based systems. The system attracts them to itself so that one set of rules never exists without the other. Minding the difference between primary and supplemental becomes a little unnecessary, if not counterproductive to good morals.
That is why we were told to abstain from drink for the way that it might lead to drunkenness, and to shun card playing for the way it could lead to gambling. Legal systems set up to proscribe the worst behaviors began to map out whole ways of existing, leaving nothing to chance and delineating every acceptable living space by interconnected, behavioral boundaries. Living the good life meant staying well back of them all.
(To be continued…)
Charles J. Colton lectures in Systematic Theology at Davis College in Johnson City, New York, where he also chairs the Organizational Leadership Program. He is a member of the Main Street Baptist Church in Binghamton, New York, and is the author of Core Christianity: The Tie That Binds.