Christian Ethics (Geisler)

Geisler, Norman. Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Geisler’s work is divided into two parts: a survey of the different positions (including a defense of his own, graded absolutism) and a treatment of different issues in ethical reasoning. While one can quibble with some of his exegesis, his larger arguments are compelling. His treatment of defective ethical positions, such as Joseph Fletcher’s Situationism, is masterful.


The situationist has the one law of love, the many general principles of wisdom, and the moment of decision (Geisler 45). Fletcher repeatedly asserts that the rule of Christian ethics is “love.” So what do I do in a specific situation? The “what and why” are absolute and the how is relative.

Geisler does note a number of legitimate strengths of situationism, but nonetheless there are gaping inadequacies.
*One norm is too general (57).
*Unless there is advanced cognitive content to what “love” is, then one doesn’t really know what I am commanded to do!
*There can be many universal norms.
*Fletcher hasn’t given any substantial reason on why axioms deduced from other axioms can’t be universal.
*A different universal norm is possible.
*Why do we privilege Christian love and not Buddhist compassion?
*On what basis do we choose one single norm as binding?


Greatest good for greatest number.

Problems and ambiguities:
(1) who gets to determine what “good” means?
(2) Offers no protection to minority viewpoint, since by definition they will never been in the “greater” number.
(3) The definition of “end” is unclear. Do we mean a few years? Lifetime? Eternity? In that case, only God could be a utilitarian and he is not (77).

Unqualified Absolutism

premise: all moral conflicts are only apparent; they are not real (79). Held by Augustine, Kant, Charles Hodge, John Murray, and Puritanboard.

hypothetical problem: Lie to the Nazis at the door?

Augustine: cannot gain eternal life by temporal evil.

John Murray: Sanctity of Truth and Truth is the essence of God. However, he does not believe every intentional deception is a lie (e.g., a general’s movements in war).

Negative Aspects

Disputed premises:
(1) Are sins of the soul necessarily worse? Perhaps, but the Platonic premise here should at least by acknowledged. On this view, a “white lie” is worse than rape.
(2) Can the lie to save lives be separated from mercy? “God blessed the mercy but not the lie.” But is this really coherent?
(3) Will God always save us from moral dilemmas? 1 Cor. 10:13 only promises victory from temptation, not deliverance from moral dilemmas.

Fatal qualifications

Even one exception to this rule kills Unqualified Absolutism–and Augustine allows for exceptions in the case of Abraham and Isaac/Jepthath and his daughter.

*John Murray doesn’t believe we should be truthful in all circumstances (Murray 145).

“Punting to Providence”

God does not always spare his children from moral dilemmas. In fact, obedience often puts the believer in dilemmas!

“Third Alternatives are not always available.”
e.g., Tubal pregnancies

Conflicting Absolutism

Premise: (1) Real moral conflicts do occur in this fallen world.

(1.1) Yet when faced with this conflict, man is morally accountable to both principles. In other words, sucks to be you.
(1.2) Yet, sin is conquerable through the cross.

Popularized as “Lesser-evil” approach. Best seen in Lutheran Two-Kingdoms. Also, Lutherans will (correctly) praise Bonhoeffer’s attempt to kill Hitler but also say it did violate a norm.


As Geisler notes, this position is basically saying “we have moral duty to sin,” which is absurd (Geisler 103). Another problem, whatever God commands is ipso facto good, so it can’t be a “lesser evil.”

Here is Geisler’s own position, Graded Absolutism:
(1) There are higher and lower moral laws.
(2) There are unavoidable moral conflicts
(3) No guilt is imputed for the unavoidable.

(4) Love for God is more important than love for man.
(5) Obey God over Government
(6) Mercy over veracity (Nazis at the door).

Options and Applications:


The second section of the book deals with problems in Ethics.

BioMedical Issues.
(1) Nothing groundbreaking here.
(2) Most of the criticisms against utilitarianism can be employed against secular humanism on this point.
(3) Nota Bene: Geisler doesn’t come out and affirm birth control. However, he does note that birth control methods that kill a fertilized ovum are murder. Condoms, however, do not kill fertilized ova. And whatever the merits of NFP, the couple is still in the “controlling” aspect, so it is a form of birth control.
(4) He is against cloning.

He defends capital punishment by asking the question: Is punishment supposed to be “retributive” or “rehabilitative?” The Bible clearly supports the former. Punishment is to punish the offender. Nothing more, nothing less. And common sense shows how tyrannical the latter can be. If the offender is just a patient, then when he is “cured?” (Hint: whenever (if at all) the state says he is).

Geisler gives good responses to the opponents of capital punishment. In fact, if “rehabilitative” models of justice are necessarily suspect, then capital punishment wins by default.

Geisler defends the possibility of just war, including tactical nuclear strikes. A tactical nuclear strike against a larger army is not the same thing as launching thousands of ICBMs and will not destroy planet earth.

Civil Disobedience

Makes a helpful distinction between “Antipromulgation” and “Anticompulsion” (241-242). The former advocates rebelling against the government when it passes a law that permits evil or limits freedom. Schaeffer took this position in A Christian Manifesto. Not only is it unworkable, it is negated by much of Christian history. The latter position means disobeying the government when it commands you to do evil. Geisler categorically condemns armed revolution.

Marriage and Divorce:

As marriage is more than sex, so sex is more than procreation. Its purpose is threefold: (1) propagation (Gen. 1:28), unification (Gen. 2:24), (3) recreation (Prov. 5.18-19).

His take on divorce is a bit complicated.
(1)It is always wrong
(2)That does not mean remarriage is not permissible under certain circumstances.
(3) There can be situations where it is allowed (abuse, desertion)

Unfortunately, Geisler’s “Graded Absolutism” doesn’t save his position. (1) and (3) are contradictory, unless you add another premise:

(3*) Where the necessary situations obtain, divorce is not wrong.

Except Geisler doesn’t actually say that. That’s my position and I think if you pressed him, he would agree, too.


This is a fine intro to Christian Ethics and will serve nicely in a college or seminary classroom


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