Teaching Format Outline of “Christian Ethics”, by Norman L. Geisler
Chapter 1 – All the Options
Definitions of Ethics:
Ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong.
Christian Ethics deals with what is morally right and wrong for
Central problem in ethics: How can we know or determine
what is meant by a morally good action?
Might is right: “justice is the interest
of the stronger party”.
What is morally right is defined in terms of who has the power.
– What of the difference between power and goodness?
– Are tyrants like Hitler and Stalin somehow good because they had
Morals are mores “community demands are ethical
What is morally right is determined by what the community says is right
– The “is-ought” fallacy
Just because something is happening a lot, does that mean it
ought to be happening?
– rape, theft, murder all happen – does that make
– How do we arbitrate between two different communities with different
sets of values, mores, demands or expectations?
– Can lead to the same thing being right in one community and wrong
in another – denies an absolute morality.
Man is the measure “If its right for me, its right”
Geisler says this means that each person’s will is the standard for
what is right and wrong.
– Implies that something can be right for someone, even if it is cruel,
hateful, or tyrranical.
– If practised, society would break down. Chaos, lawlessness and hurt
would result. Nothing would be dependable.
– Which aspect of human nature should be taken as the measure of all
things? How do we know which of these aspects are good?
The situation might look a bit different, though, if we substituted
“individual’s conscience” for “will”. But then we still have problems.
– a person’s conscience can change over time through the influence of
– a person may be sincere but ignorant of the effects of their actions.
– society will still break down. One person may coerce a person to
violate their conscience. Who is right?
The Human Race is the Basis of Right “what the group decides
The human race as a whole is seen as the standard for good.
Even whole communities have done things that are wrong. The majority
of people could do something wrong, too.
The ethical standards of humanity are changing. If we judge one standard
to be better or worse then it implies we are measuring against another
more absolute standard. But this means the human race itself is not the
basis of “rightness”.
We cannot know that the human race is better or worse unless there is
a perfect standard outside it by which it can be measured.
Right is Moderation “the golden mean”
The basis for right is that it is neither one extreme nor the other.
Examples: courage rather than fear or aggression. Temperance as the
mean between indulgence and insensibility.
Philippians 4:5 “Let your moderation be known to all men”.
The right thing to do is sometimes the extreme thing.
Is moderation the best in self-defense, wars against aggression?
Should we be only moderately loving, grateful or wise?
Who defines what “moderate” means?
Moderation is a general guide, not a universal ethical law.
Right is What Brings Pleasure
“What brings pleasure is right and what brings pain is wrong.”
The idea here is that what brings the most pleasure and the least pain
to the greatest number of people is the best definition of “goodness”.
What kind of pleasures are the most good, and how do you evaluate it?
Is sadism good, if it gives pleasure to some?
Pain tells us there is a problem. Is that bad? Is the pain you get
when putting your hand in boiling water “bad”?
Do we use immediate pleasure or ultimate pleasure as the test? How
do we know the ultimate results of our actions as far as how much long-term
pleasure or pain they will yield?
Would it be good to have the whole society drugged out to maximise
Right is the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number
Utilitarianism defines moral rightness in terms of what brings the greatest
good for the greatest number of persons in the long run.
Quantitative or qualitative good?
Who defines what we mean by “good” or “greatest good”?
How can we predict what will happen in the long run?
Right is What is Desirable for its Own Sake
Aristotle and others define what is right as what is desirable in and
of itself as an “end”.
Which “ends” are good?
Is what is desired always desirable? Says who?
Is what people desire always what they ought to desire?
e.g. suicide may seem desirable to some.
Right is Indefinable
Despairs of defining “right” and just says “right” and “goodness” just
Who can tell what goodness means, or what actions are good?
Refuses to consider defining goodness in terms of God’s nature and
Good is What God Wills
The Christian view of “goodness”. Whatever God wills is good, not only
because He says it, but also because God’s will has a foundation in God’s
own nature, which is good.
It is both ultimate (provides a reference point for us), and specifiable
(you can tell what it is through God’s revelation).
It is objected to by some on the grounds that this view is a form of
authoritarianism. Authoritarianism occurs only when a finite being
sets themselves up as the source of authority and says “It is right because
I say so”. But if there truly is a God who is perfect and good, then He
truly is the ultimate authority or standard. And as Geisler says,
“There is nothing wrong with considering the ultimate authority to be the
Some object that this definition of goodness is arbitrary. That is not
true however if God wills something because it is good in accordance with
his own nature.
A Christian View of Ethics
Christian Ethics is based on God’s Will
God tells us what we should and should not do [prescriptive]. He gives
These commands are in accordance with God’s unchangeable moral character.
God never wills anything contrary to his unchanging moral character.
God tells us to be like him e.g. perfect (Matt. 5:48), loving (Matt.
22:39), truthful, holy – because these things are good in themselves and
are part of God’s nature.
Christian Ethics is Absolute
Because of God’s unchanging character (Mal. 3:6), the moral obligations
flowing from his character are absolute. Some things are always wrong,
others are always right because of the way God is.
Some commands apply only to certain individuals in a certain situation.
(e.g. don’t eat the fruit of that tree, don’t talk to anyone on your journey
(1 Kings 13)).
Many commands form part of God’s unchanging moral law e.g. do not murder,
love your neighbour as yourself.
Some moral duties apply to believers but not to all men, because God
has prescribed them for believers and they do not flow directly out of
the consideration of God’s eternal moral nature.e.g. Mark 16:15.
Christian Ethics is based on God’s revelation
God has revealed his standards through nature (Romans 1:19-20; 2:12-15)
He has also revealed his standards and law through special revelation,
especially the Scriptures (Rom. 2:18; 3:2).
Atheists are not free from moral duty, because God has still written
on their hearts and consciences what is right and wrong in any cases, though
their minds may not accept what their hearts and consciences are saying
Christian Ethics is Prescriptive
It deals with what ought to be, not what is. It is not derived by looking
at what people do, but by considering what God said people should do.
Christian Ethics is Deontological
This means it is based on duty, not on results. It is right to attempt
to rescue a drowning man, even if the attempt fails.
This is in contrast to the teleological ethic, where results determine
the rules, the basis of the act and may sometimes be used to break rules.
Christian ethics still considers the results of a proposed course of
In Christian ethics, you cannot justify breaking a rule because it is
imagined that this will have a good result.
The end may justify the use of good means, but not necessarily any means,
certainly not evil ones.
Various Views on Ethics
There are no moral laws.
There is only one absolute moral law – the law of love. All other principles
are only guides which may be discarded in some situations depending on
what seems to be a loving thing to do.
There are general laws but no absolute ones.
There are many absolute laws that never conflict.
There are many absolute laws that sometimes conflict, we are obligated
to do the lesser evil.
There are many absolute laws that sometimes conflict – we are responsible
for obeying the higher law.