Principles and Situations
by R.C. Sproul
Every so often, I run across a news story that’s emblematic of our times. Recently, I read of a case wherein a woman contracted with a man to be a surrogate mother. The man agreed to pay her to bear the children, who were conceived by in vitro fertilization using the man’s sperm and eggs donated from another woman. Triplets were conceived, but the man wants to abort one of them, and the contract he signed gives him the legal right to do so. The woman does not want to abort the child, so she has sued to prevent it and has offered to raise the unwanted child herself. But the man does not want that, and now thinks it would be better to put the child up for adoption himself.
The commodification of children, the nonchalant manner in which the man wants to get rid of one of the babies, and other issues raised by this case send chills down one’s spine. Here we see the logical results of what happens when human beings have no fixed, objective standard of right and wrong.
Modern science and technology have introduced questions that the church has never had to deal with before. When it comes to many biomedical issues, we don’t have the advantage of two thousand years of careful research, debate, and insight into complex and weighty problems. The availability of life-support systems, cloning, in vitro fertilization, and other technologies have introduced new dilemmas and pose new ethical questions.
It’s not that we don’t have basic principles to apply to these issues, for Scripture does provide them. The difficulty lies in applying these principles to new situations we’ve never faced before. And we aren’t facing abstract theoretical questions but life-or-death questions that must be answered in concrete instances. Pastors, for example, are often called to help determine when to extend and when to end life support for a patient.
Without clear, normative principles, we’re left rudderless in these situations. Our decisions apply principles in specific situations, but the situations cannot dictate the decisions. And we can’t decide to make no decision. To make no decision is to make a decision.
We need principles that are absolute and normative; otherwise, the decisions we make will be arbitrary, and we’ll have no basis for distinguishing right decisions from wrong decisions. Our human-enacted laws can be helpful, but they can never provide absolute norms. This is particularly clear in societies where the laws are enacted according to popular will. We will find conflict and contradiction between the laws of one society wherein laws are made by an elected body and the laws of another society that makes laws in a similar way. In the United States, abortion is legal. In Chile, abortion is illegal. Does this mean that it is ethically right to abort American babies but wrong to abort Chilean babies? Was it ethically wrong to have an abortion before Roe v. Wade but ethically proper after Roe v. Wade? The answer is yes if popularly enacted laws and court decisions are the absolute norm.
Only the character of God as revealed in His law provides us with absolute norms for ethical issues. It gives us fixed principles to apply in specific situations. God’s law is both situational and non-situational. It’s situational because it must always be applied in specific situations, but it’s non-situational because the situation itself never dictates the good. The unchanging principle from the law determines the good.
In popular culture, we see a definition of right and wrong that says we must do what love requires in any situation. Why not let two men or two women get married? we are asked. After all, they love each other. How is it loving to bring a child into a situation of poverty? we are often asked in the abortion debate.
On the one hand, it’s correct that we must always do what love requires. Love is the linchpin of God’s law, the very fulfillment of the commandments (Rom. 13:10). But love isn’t a vacuous feeling; it’s something objective. Love is defined by God Himself, for Scripture tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And the God who is love has given us a law that defines and applies what love looks like in concrete situations. For instance, Paul lays out the principle that we must “walk in love,” but then he immediately tells us that “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Eph. 5:2–3). God defines love as being the rejection of sexual immorality, impurity, and covetousness. Anything that includes such things cannot be love even if the designation of love is claimed.
In most ethical decisions, we must apply more than one principle. This requires wisdom, but we won’t be prepared to balance these principles unless we know them. That’s why we must continue to study the law and the principles revealed therein, principles that are not subject to the shifting sands of relativism. At the final judgment, we will have to answer for what we have done with this law, for we are the creatures and God is the Creator. He has the absolute right to demand from His creatures what He defines as right. The will of the creature must submit itself to the will of the Creator, and if we don’t bow to His lordship, we will be judged accordingly.
God’s law is the absolute, objective norm that is to govern the behavior of all people. It’s not a norm hidden from us, but it has been revealed. So, we have the responsibility to know and do what righteousness requires.
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