The advocates of the new morality mistakenly think modern man has outgrown moral injunctions

Between the old and the new morality the most striking difference is the novel teaching that no act, whether murder, incest, adultery, denial of the faith, or any other, is always wrong. In his Christian Morals Today, Bishop John A. T. Robinson says, “There is not a whole list of things which are ‘sins’ per se” (p. 16). Any action can be an expression of agape (love) in the right situation.

Bishop Robinson admits, however, that he cannot conceive of situations in which rape and cruelty to children would be expressions of love. This is clearly a serious defect in a morality built on the principle that no act is always wrong. Yet Robinson clings to his new morality and papers over the defect by saying that Christians are persistently unable to conceive of situations in which rape and cruelty to children would be right and that “they [rape and cruelty] are so persistently wrong for that reason” (p. 16; italics his). If Christians could conceive of situations in which such acts would be right, then—and there—they would be right. This is the novel and distinguishing characteristic of the new morality: any conceivable act is morally right if the situation is “right.” It is also the most shocking and, as we shall see, the most deceptive characteristic of the new morality.

This is the version of Christian ethics currently caught by Bishop Robinson, Douglas Rhymes, Joseph Fletcher, and others. In a recent youth conference at Elmhurst College, Professor Fletcher told a group of young people, most of high school age, that neither rape, nor incest, nor any other sexual act, nor indeed the denial of one’s Lord or the violation of the First Commandment by having another god, is necessarily and always wrong. He urged that when the situation is right, any of these is morally right.

This new view of Christian morality rests on the denial of the existence of any permanently binding biblical moral laws and ethical principles. There are, it is insisted, no Christian moral standards that are always valid and of continuing moral force. Robinson says bluntly, “There are no unbreakable rules,” and therefore no “list of things which are ‘sins’ per se” (p. 16). In the words of Fletcher, Christian morality is not a “prescriptive ethic” whose binding moral standards prescribe in advance that certain actions are right and others wrong. Only in the existential situation can the moral quality of any act be determined.

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The new moralists contend that permanently binding moral laws lead to legalism. Why? Because, it is argued, an ethical principle that is always binding places the law first and the person second. When law is given this priority, the keeping of the law is said to be more important than the loving of the person. Love then loses its freedom to love the person as the situation demands. A universally binding moral law is legalistically blind to the concrete, peculiar needs of a particular person in a particular situation. A prescriptive ethic that calls for conformity to a code of binding ethical regulations deprives love of its spontaneity, its freedom to be only itself. Love then becomes blind obedience to a moral code. In thus becoming other than itself, it becomes legalistic. The exponents of the new morality reject the possibility that the divine giver of moral law might not be blind at all and might even know better what is good than an overheated couple in the back seat of a car.

This last statement, however, is not quite fair, for it is misleading. The new moralists do not believe that the biblical moral laws were really given by God. Moral laws are not regarded as the products of revelation. The moral laws and regulations found in the Bible, including the Decalogue, are only expressions of the accumulated human ethical wisdom of the past. As the deposit in the bank of man’s moral experience, biblical moral laws are said to have pedagogical, illustrative value, but no binding moral force. They are to be reckoned with and learned from, but they are not to be obeyed. If we regard them as having such character as calls for obedient compliance, we fall into legalism. Robinson says forthrightly that what Jesus taught about divorce and remarriage is not binding on us and, in fact, was not binding on the people to whom Jesus addressed his teaching. And Fletcher was equally forthright when he informed the youth conference at Elmhurst that we through our moral progress have outgrown biblical moral injunctions.

How do the old and the new morality differ? Both agree that agape demands that a man love his neighbor with a self-giving, self-sacrificial love. The new moralists claim to derive this understanding of the nature of love directly from the event of the Cross and not from such biblical statements as both define the nature of love and express its demands. But the Cross, without such definitive statements, is left undefined. Hence the new moralist’s contention that he obtains the nature of love from the bare event of the Cross is a theological sleight-of-hand. The old morality, on the contrary, insists that the nature and demands of the agape of the Cross are defined in moral and ethical biblical principles and laws that are morally binding. These moral laws and principles are God’s own definition of agape (of what he is!) and not the provisional accumulation of man’s moral wisdom acquired through experience, devoid of the quality of a moral imperative, and subject to the modification of further moral wisdom acquired through additional moral experience. Because they are revelatory definitions of the nature of agape, they possess binding moral force, require our compliance, prescribe in advance that some things are always wrong and some always right, and therefore do present a list of things that are always morally wrong. God has not left the nature and demands of agape so wholly undefined that no person can know what is right or wrong until, in the changing situations of life, he himself decides.

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Further, the old morality differs from the new in that it recognizes that an ethic in which love is not authoritatively defined but is left to be defined by each person within the situations of life is only one step from tyranny. Though charged with a blinding legalism, the old morality sees what the new morality does not see. When the individual is left wholly to himself to decide what legitimate forms his love for another may take, he soon and often becomes a tyrant and his neighbor the victim. When love has not been codified in binding law, the lover himself becomes the law. The new moralists naïvely fail to recognize that in a world in which there is no list of sins and every man is left to himself to decide whether incest, murder, adultery, or any other act is right or wrong, his neighbor has no defense and no protection against any form of evil. If nothing is inherently wrong and any act right if only the situation is right, then everything Hitler did would in the right situation be morally commendable and proper. In the attempt to avoid legalism, the new morality deprives every man of all protection against his neighbor’s exercise of love without law. For all the vaunted claim of the new moralists to show respect to persons and give persons priority over law, the new morality exposes every man to any unbridled evil that another may claim is an act of love.

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Before Christians—or for that matter non-Christians—adopt the new morality, they should take a hard look at the nature of this morality as it reveals itself in practice.

If the new morality were widely adopted, civil law would lose its moral basis and its moral right to bring any man to trial for his deeds. If no conceivable human action is per se immoral and sinful, if there is no prescriptive ethics, if no one but the person himself can decide in his own situation whether any act is right or wrong, there is no moral basis for prosecuting any man at law for any act he might commit. If agape, if the manner in which a man ought to treat his neighbor, cannot be defined and codified into a valid and binding law, then love not only has escaped an unwarranted legalism but also has lost all its obligatory force and sense of ought.

Consider too how the new morality comes to expression in the practice of those who advocate it. In Douglas Rhymes’s book No New Morality, in which he contends that the new morality is as old as Jesus, he illustrates the nature of the new morality. He tells of a boy who came to him for pastoral counsel wanting to know why he could not “have sex” with his girl friend, who “was willing.” Rhymes tells his readers that he asked the boy many questions to increase his moral sensitivity so that the boy himself could arrive at the right answer. Paganism would have had a ready answer to the boy’s problem. But as an advocate of the new morality, Rhymes had to do what he did. And he could do no more. Since the boy was in the situation, he alone could discover whether he ought to “have sex.” Not being in the situation himself, Rhymes the Christian pastor and counselor did not know the answer. As Rhymes himself says, “At the end I told him that no one could really answer this question but himself.”

Suppose the boy had sought counsel about murder, incest, homosexual relations, or any other act the reader can think of; Rhymes’s answer, dictated by the new morality, would have been the same. Surely the children of darkness are sometimes wiser than the children of light. The civil courts or a pagan in darkest heathendom would have an answer, but a Christian advocate of the new morality has none.

If this then is the new morality, what accounts for the attraction it holds for some clergymen and even for some seminary professors who assumedly give considerable thought to such matters? How can any Christian minister or professor of Christian ethics seriously espouse it?

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By way of explanation it must be said first that after one surrenders the binding character of every biblical definitive assertion of agape in moral law and ethical principles, one is left to himself to define the nature and demands of agape. And what other place is there to do this than in the situations of life? It is the boast of a “situational ethic” that the demands of love can be discovered only in the time and place of a concrete life situation.

Yet it is precisely here that we discover the great delusion and deception that lie just beneath the surface of the new morality. The advocate of the new morality contends that any conceivable act can be an expression of love, in the right situation. But this is a statement without content. The “right situation” is left by the new moralist wholly undefined; it has no context by which it could be defined. The “right situation” is a pure abstraction. It is wholly imaginative, having reference to nothing concrete, to nothing we know or have experienced. The “right situation” exists only in the imagination, which, as Kierkegaard saw so well, is the realm of the aesthetic where an authentically ethical problem never arises. One can, for example, imagine a world where only rotten apples are good apples. But such a world no more exists than does the “right situation” in which rape or incest would be an expression of agape.

Thus the new morality with its deceptively plausible contention that any act is right when it befits the “right situation” floats in an abstract void. This is the consequence of its refusal to accept any binding definitions of the nature and demands of agape. The old morality escapes this deluding fascination with abstractionism by its recognition that the Cross and its expression of agape must, if it is to be meaningful to us, be interpreted for us. This has been done in and through the biblical moral laws and ethical principles. These are, therefore, of permanently binding moral force. As definitive of the nature and demands of agape, they prescribe some actions as always right, and some as never right and always wrong.

Science And Man’S Future

The pronouncements of distinguished scientists are often startling. An example is a proposal of Dr. Charles C. Price, president of the Americal Chemical Society, to set “the synthesis of life as a national goal” under “a separate national program” similar to those of agencies like the Atomic Energy Commission or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Speaking at the national meeting of the society in September, Dr. Price said, “We have been making fantastic strides in uncovering the basic chemistry of the life process and the key components of living systems. It seems to me that we may be no farther today from at least partial synthesis of living systems than we were … in the 1940s from a man in space.… Success could lead to modified plants and algae for synthesis of foods, fibers, and antibiotics, to improved growth or properties of plants and animals, or even improved characteristics of man himself.” According to the news service of the American Chemical Society, Dr. Price asserted that the laboratory creation of life is a timely question of great public importance to which the scientific community and the government should be giving serious consideration. “The job, he said, “can be done—it is merely a matter of time and money.”

Granted that Dr. Price’s remarks have a valid scientific basis, they bring to mind the irony of modern man. Beset with national and international problems of unprecedented complexity, living as it were on the edge of a seething volcanic crater, unable to master his own fears, frustrations, and hatreds, he contemplates the synthesizing and controlling of life itself. Dr. Price himself is rightly concerned about who would control these new processes having to do with life and for what purpose they would be controlled. And surely there is the further question: Does any man or group of men (not excluding our own nation) have the wisdom to exercise this control? One part of the world or one race shudders at the prospect of another part of the world or another race’s having such power.

To stay the progress of science is neither possible nor right. But the prospects being opened up for man, who has failed so utterly in controlling himself and who by and large remains in rebellion against the living God, are profoundly disturbing. The terrible schizophrenia of modern man lies in his accelerated scientific achievement and rapid moral deterioration. The question has long since moved from how much man can discover to whether he is capable of using his discoveries responsibly and constructively.

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Yet the sovereign God who summons men to the scientific task of discovering the mysteries of nature has not yet closed the door of hope or consummated his strange work of judgment. The living God is the Redeemer of all who turn to him. Scripture offers no guarantee that God will let man go on indefinitely; on the contrary, it has clearly in view the end of all things in judgment and the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth. Meanwhile, through Christ it offers man, scientists included, rectification of the terrible imbalance in which knowledge has so tragically outrun morality. Like every other man, the man of science needs humility.

Evangelicals And Their Critics

Some ecumenists are vexed because evangelical clergymen and laymen in many denominations are increasingly interested in transdenominational cooperation in evangelism, education, and other mutual concerns. As they see it, evangelicals who are unenthusiastic about theologically inclusive ecumenism—embracing Roman, Orthodox, and Protestant (modernist, dialectical, existential) views—ought to retreat into silent isolation.

Evangelical spokesmen are caricatured as mouthpieces of fallen angels, while the ecumenists assertedly dispense the oracles of eternity. These ecumenical leaders would deny to churchmen and laymen even as individuals any conscientious expression of points of view contrary to left-wing ecclesiastical commitments. Their tactics ought not to obscure the growing political intervention of the institutional church through ecclesiastical approval of specific legislative items. CHRISTIANITY TODAY firmly insists that the institutional church has neither a divine mandate, nor competence, nor jurisdiction in such matters as these.

The fundamental flaw of contemporary ecumenism is transparently clear. A movement of Christian unity that began in evangelical transdenominational zeal to evangelize the world has resulted in a theological conglomerate in which evangelism is muffled and the evangel confused. No one alert to biblical priorities should be surprised that evangelicals will get on with this neglected task. In fact, the World Congress on Evangelism holds promise for the widespread recovery of this transdenominational mission.

Protesting Anti-Semitism In The Soviet Union

Throughout history the Jews have been persecuted as no other people. In present-day Spain there are only 3,000 Jews, whereas some centuries ago the city of Córdoba alone had 100 times that many. Today almost 43 per cent of the world’s 13 million Jews reside in the United States, where they enjoy equal rights, equal opportunity, and religious, political, and economic freedom.

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Russia has the second largest Jewish contingent, numbering almost 2.5 million. It is for these Jews that deep concern is mounting among men of good will here and in other countries. Anti-Semitism is one of the darkest elements in Russian history, both Czarist and Communist, and now its cruel face is again unmasked as the Jews in Russia are denied elementary human rights and their very existence is threatened.

To speak of the Russian treatment of Jewry is not to imply that other religious groups have full religious freedom. Yet the catalogue of Jewish grievances is impressive. In 1956 there were 450 synagogues in Russia; today there are 60. For a quarter of a century, Jewish children have been denied the right of learning something of their unique literary and historical heritage. Russian anti-religious efforts seem specially directed against Jews.

The Jews and their sympathizers in the United States are calling attention to the plight of Judaism and its adherents in Russia. They have secured one million signatures on a petition they wish to present to the Soviet government—a petition calling for the right to enjoy Jewish education in all forms, the reopening of Jewish cultural institutions and the use of Yiddish and Hebrew, the free establishment of religious and cultural bonds with Jews outside the Soviet Union, and permission for Jews to emigrate from the U.S.S.R., in addition to an educational campaign directed against anti-Semitism.

The struggle to secure these rights for Jews in Russia found recent expression in a movement in Washington. Newspaper advertisements appeared to enlist support, and a mass meeting was held. Men of many faiths endorsed the project, although few if any names of leading evangelicals appeared in the advertisements, not necessarily because they are lacking in sympathy but perhaps because they were not asked to help.

Evangelicals everywhere should be united in opposition to anti-Semitism wherever and in whatever form it may be found. The Bible wholly condemns it. Indeed, any movement designed to perpetuate or tolerate anti-Semitism bears the mark, not of the Christ of Scripture, but of the antichrist of the Book of the Revelation. The Abrahamic covenant still stands: “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” Let Russia face this biblical word and realize that history has time and again demonstrated its truth.

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Collegiate Shoplifters

The “Back to College Issue” of Esquire is as unpleasant to read as its cover, portraying a man’s face composed of four faces, is to look at. Christians may dismiss this issue of the magazine as mere sensationalism. It is more than that. Behind the shocking façade are clinical details of the rebels on the American campus that should be heeded not just by beleaguered college administrators but also by Christians whose business it is to know what is going on.

The most disturbing article is not the one about the morally and intellectually disorganized life of non-students on the fringes of the multi-university. It is the feature story entitled, “Stealing Their Way Through College.” Taking as a point of departure the meeting of the 1,400-member National Association of College Stores in New York last May, it explores their problem with what is euphemistically called “shrinkage.” Not only the college store but also the neighborhood supermarket, bookstore, drugstore, and other smaller establishments know all too well that students steal and that they steal persistently and in large numbers. Few institutions are exempt; in great and small universities, private and public, religious and non-religious, Ivy League and non-prestige schools, the pilfering goes on. Those who shoplift are not simply campus hangers-on but students in good standing, holders of scholarships, members of fraternities, graduate as well as undergraduate students. If even a fraction of the report is true, stealing is fully as serious a campus problem as cheating.

Simply to deplore the situation is useless. It is necessary to go deeper. For this the magazine itself provides a clue on the cover and in an inside full-page illustration composed of faces of “twenty-eight people who count.” They are a strange assortment, ranging from Malcolm X, Paul Tillich, Bishop Pike, and Caryl Chessman to the comic-strip characters, “The Hulk” and “Spider Man.” The picture is one of confusion, of reality mixed with fantasy, and it points to a pathetic and moving search for truth and reality. On the campus today there is the paradox of students arguing fiercely for what they conceive to be intellectual honesty and going all out for some cause they may not fully understand, yet having set before them no ordered system of values but only a kind of moral and intellectual cafeteria.

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The tragedy is that hosts of students never have had the chance to learn that integrity is indivisible. Stealing students reflect stealing fathers and mothers: witness the problems of supermarkets with thieving housewives, the prevalence of income-tax dodgers, petty smuggling by travelers, and inflated expense accounts. But students themselves must also bear their personal guilt.

Too few American youths have ever faced authentic Christian reality. Yet it is there for them to see, in some homes and communities and on the campus, as in Inter-Varsity, Campus Crusade, and some denominational campus ministries. The student world is no different from the world at large; in it God still has his minority, and out of that minority must come moral leadership for the future.

From Crisis To Crisis

The world squeezed by another major crisis last month, only to await the next one. We seem to be living in a time when crisis follows crisis with distressing regularity.

The swift succession of dramatic events relating to the Indian subcontinent was reminiscent of the Cuban missile crisis. At stake in the war between Pakistan and India was the political future of Jammu and Kashmir; China entered the turmoil on another frontier in the Indian protectorate of Sikkim. Yet out of it all emerged a ceasefire agreement engineered at United Nations headquarters and culminating in a pre-dawn appearance of Pakistani Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The truce, coupled with Red China’s assertion that the conditions of her ultimatum to India had been met, brought at least a temporary relaxation of tension.

Both Kashmir and Sikkim are economic liabilities, but their geographic locations and political inclinations make them desirable pieces of territory for the contending powers. Behind this consideration lies the implicit ideological conflict. India is largely committed to Hinduism, Pakistan to aggressive Islam, and China to dynamic Communism.

We must commend the governments involved for coming to their senses in time to prevent the spread of the conflict and for preserving, at least momentarily, the peace of the world. The faltering United Nations gained much-needed prestige for its role in peacemaking, in good part through the efforts of its Buddhist Secretary General U Thant.

The crisis raises important questions about the future role of the Soviet Union in East-West tensions. To what extent will Soviet fear of the Chinese result in realignments? How strong would the pressures be for the Soviets to side with the West in the event of military confrontation between the free world and the Communist East? Is Communism as a viable ideological force losing momentum as a result of the growing Sino-Soviet estrangement?

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One could hope for some present-day prophet with the ear of the world to utter a clear “Thus saith the Lord.” Yet Christians retain their confidence that God is sovereign over the affairs of men and of nations. Theirs is still the obligation to work for world peace. To agencies like the United Nations belongs the responsibility for initiating emergency peace measures. To Christians belongs the unchanging task of pressing the claims of Christ in every corner of the globe regardless of outward circumstances of peace or of conflict.

Rome And Religious Liberty

After living for centuries by the half-truth that error has no rights, the Roman Catholic Church took a forward step through the Vatican Council’s preliminary vote on the Declaration on Religious Liberty. The church now appears ready to add to its conviction that error has no rights before God, the recognition that man and every institution, including the Church, must recognize the right of error to exist between man and man.

Does a person have the right to believe and practice a non-Christian religion? Before God the answer is No; but on the horizontal line the answer is Yes, for on this level every man must allow his fellow man the right to be wrong. If one wonders why it took the Roman Catholic Church until 1965 to become what the secular press is designating as “modernized,” the answer lies in the way the Roman Catholic Church has viewed itself. Believing itself to be the true representative of God on earth, the vicegerent of Christ, and the power to which all other temporal powers are subject, it too often functioned as God and denied the right of error to exist in its presence. Since nothing is a greater terror to freedom than something that thinks itself divine, the history of the Roman church has been muddied by its use of coercion and even persecution to further its aims.

The text, approved by a 1997-224 vote as the basis for the final declaration, acknowledges that both the dignity of man and the free character of the act of faith in God are the grounds for the recognition of religious freedom; and that such freedom belongs to both individuals and groups and includes the right of the practice of religion in both private and public life and the right of its propagation. This year’s statement, which is still subject to amendments by conservatives as well as liberals, and is finally subject to promulgation by Pope Paul, declares: “It is the desire of this Vatican Council that the right of the human person to religious liberty be universally recognized by all states and be surrounded by proper safeguards.…” While the document warns that society is entitled to protection against abuses committed under the guise of religious liberty, it includes the significant provision that nothing may be done in the maintenance of public order against such abuses “for religious considerations.” Unless further “refinements” of the document take the heart out of it, the council is to be commended for taking this stand for which many Catholics and Protestants alike have long waited.

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In relation to Pope Paul’s scheduled United Nations address (see News, p. 56), the Vatican Council’s preliminary vote on a religious liberty statement came at the right time. For his church still to be debating religious liberty could be embarrassing to a pope speaking before the United Nations in a world where many wars have religious backgrounds. One wonders also whether a precedent has been set for the United Nations to invite other religious leaders to make speeches before its assemblies.

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