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God’s Moral Law

ten commandments

Recently, my friend Ben Berwick got into a discussion with several Christians about [the] moral law. You can read his post on the matter here.

In Christian thought, there is a difference between “moral law” and “the moral law.” Moral law is generally viewed as natural law; the law that is supposedly written on the hearts of all humans. (Jeremiah 31:33, Romans 2:16, and Hebrews 10:16) Most Christians think the law written on our hearts is the Ten Commandments. Which version? Or just the Nine Commandments since keeping the Sabbath is practiced by few Christians today? The Bible never says what the laws that are written on our hearts, so Christians assume what these laws are, much like they assume God exists to start with and that we have a “heart.” If the law is written on the hearts of all humans, why is there such diversity and disagreement on morality — even among Christians? Is the Ten Commandments the only law that is “moral”? If not, why didn’t God write all of his laws on our hearts? Maybe it is a memory problem. We don’t have enough storage space for 635+ laws, so God just gave us a summary list of laws to follow.

Many Christians, especially those of a Calvinistic/Reformed persuasion, take a different view of the moral law. Believing ALL Biblical law is moral, these Christians divide God’s law into three categories: moral, ceremonial, and judicial. Some Calvinists believe the moral law is binding and in force, but the ceremonial law was fulfilled in the atonement of Christ and the judicial law applied only to the nation of Israel. While the judicial and ceremonial laws can still be instructive, only the moral law is binding today. Good luck with deciding exactly what those moral laws are. Other Calvinists believe that only New Testament law is valid and in force. Much metaphorical blood has been spilled defending these positions. As a Calvinistic Baptist, I held to the former view — that of theonomist Rousas Rushdooney — that all the law of God, rightly interpreted, is in force today.

Evangelical apologists would have you believe that the moral law is clear and absolute. Why, then, is there so much debate and confusion among Christians about God’s law? It seems to me that Christians are every bit as subjective on God’s law as they claim unbelievers are. They believe what they want to believe and ignore or interpret away the rest. Ever cafeteria Christians, they pick and choose which laws to believe and, hopefully, practice. I say hopefully since there is no evidence that Christians are meaningfully more moral than unbelievers.

A whole separate argument is whether God himself is moral. I argue that he is not, and that many of his “moral” laws are, in fact, immoral.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    Religious believers think that morality is “written on our hearts” and they’re sort of right, but wrong in its source. Morality, as we understand it now, is the result of thousands of years of cultural development, evolutionary behaviour if you like, whereby we’ve learned behaviours that work and ones we deplore. It certainly cannot be objective in nature: in part no rule works absolutely in all circumstances (including the killing of others), and in part because it is seldom that people agree on what constitutes the moral position in any given situation.

    People who blithely proclaim that abortion is murder are entitled to their opinion, but possibly need to reflect more. I recently had a discussion with such a person elsewhere, and I pointed out that whilst they were entitled to that opinion there were many who placed the rights of the woman, who has been born, over those of the unborn. I didn’t get a response and I wondered if it’s the first time the point has been made to them in this way. There have been many attempts in the past to try and document and dictate morality, the bible being one such (very crude) attempt. Today we have laws and regulations in all sorts of forms. The simplest piece of legislation can take quite literally hundreds of man hours to draft, and then is subject to relentless argument, debate, vote, and judicial scrutiny. Even then we frequently get it wrong. How on earth can anyone think that crude phrases, contained in an ancient book of uncertain provenance, can possibly have relevance in the modern world? It’s because subjectively they want to believe it.

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    Ah morality. Humans evolved with an innate desire to preserve and pass on their DNA to offspring, and to preserve and protect the DNA passing of their close kin and tribe. In general, humans will protect themselves and their closest kin, but they learned to sacrifice themselves sometimes to save other members of the tribe. They also learned that it’s detrimental to the tribe to kill fellow tribe members without provocation, so that behavior was met with death or expulsion (and expulsion was basically a death sentence). Stealing from tribe members instead of sharing was punished because it doesn’t benefit the tribe.

    Sin and guilt were constructs devised by tribes to help moderate behavior. Sociological studies show that groups over 250 require different governmental strategies than smaller groups. Hence, larger government and religious order structures wrose to continue the idea of a tribe while managing the larger group. Laws or “moral” codes were devised to let the group know what behaviors were not tolerated.

    Let’s not forget people who are outliers, those we would refer to as “sociopaths”, the people who don’t have feelings of “conscience” as self regulators of behavior. These are the types of people like serial killers, for example, who don’t have any self-modulating bad feelings about killing someone else, for example.

    I bring all this up to give a brief summary of how humans may have evolved to create laws, moral codes, etc. Some laws are universal, like “don’t kill” or “dint steal” while other laws are particular to a culture (“don’t eat pork” or “don’t drink alcohol”). Just about all cultures have a general “treat others as you would like to be treated” rule. But feelings of guilt about behaviors can be cultural- if you’re Muslim and eat pork, you may feel guilty – if you’re not Muslim and have no cultural prohibition on pork, you think, “yum, bacon”.

    As for religious people claiming that their particular religion’s set of rules are ABSOLUTE MORAL TRUTH, I’d say that they probably do have some evolutionarily learned behavior rules that are common across cultures (don’t kill) mixed in with particular cultural rules (women can’t wear pants). If you’re religious and don’t believe in evolution, then I can’t really have an intellectual conversation with you……

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    At a protest a few years ago, a crazy old woman asked me quite rudely if I was fine with killing unborn babies. I shot back that I was not okay with already born children going hungry, cold, being abused, etc. She walked away speechless, her eyes as wide as dinner plates. I could tell the thought of living, breathing kids suffering was never in her mind, let alone world. People have a tremendous capacity to ignore the injustice to some and hyper focus on what they see as a more sympathetic victim. And, religion never helps avoid this problem.

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      Of course ‘unborn baby’ is an oxymoron. A baby doesn’t define as a baby until it’s born. The forced birther slogan of referring to abortion as ‘killing babies’ is nothing more than a sentimental appeal to emotion. It doesn’t stand scrutiny.

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