Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Moral Absolutism 4: Graded Absolutism

Graded Absolutism (GA)

The final way to address moral dilemmas is to argue that there is a hierarchy built into God’s law, and at times some laws supersede other laws which is meant to handle these conflicts. This is graded absolutism. This view is held by such theologians as Norman Geisler, Stephen Mott, and Millard Erickson.

The graded absolutist starts out with the explanation that some laws are weightier than others (Matt 5:19) and some commands are greater than others (Matt. 22:36). This position can be explained quite simply when we think of civil disobedience. According to scripture, we are to obey the civil government, but what if that civil government commands us to worship a false god. Built into God’s absolute moral law of obeying government is the idea that we should do it only if it does not contradict God’s law. This is because obeying God is much greater command than obeying government.

In the case of the Midwives that lied in Egypt or Rahab who lied to hide the spies. The proponent of GA actually says that God commends them for their lying. Because in this situation the greater command to which lying must yield, is the protection of human life. GA differs from the conflicting absolutist in two ways. First, the conflicting absolutist says you must choose between the lesser of two evils, and second, when you do it you have actually sinned. The graded absolutist says, you must choose between the greater of two goods and when you do it you have done something good. The proponent of GA does not say that lying has been justified in the sense that to do it is to be held innocent. They actually go further and say that the lie is actually virtuous in this situation and to not do it would be wrong.

In the case of the mother with the tumor (see previous two posts), they would say that to try and save the mother is the greatest good, because you are actually trying to save both in spite of the minimal percentage of success in saving the child. To attempt to save both lives even at the cost of losing one is the greater good than letting one die without any attempt to save them both.

Strengths of this position

1) It has quite a bit of scriptural support for its graded view.
2) It sees God’s moral law in its entirety as absolute without waiver or conflict. The conflict only happens between specific commands.
3) It can answer many difficult passages in the Bible with ease, such as David eating the “bread of the presence” (see Mark 2:26)


1) It wavers on the absolute nature of specific commands.
2) It can appear to be a lesser version of situational ethics.

God Bless,


P.S. These have been simple presentations of these three positions and all of them deserve deeper consideration to really work out the details. So where do you fit? Do you lean more heavily to a certain view, or do you reject them all and have a different theory?

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At Wednesday, February 15, 2006 5:39:00 PM, Blogger missmellifluous said...

I'd have to identify most strongly with this view: graded absolutism. But I would take it further and say that motives and intentions would have to be considered too. However, I am aware that God alone looks to the heart of wo/man and judges deed and motives. This leads me to wonder if there is a kind of virtue based Christian ethic? I ask because so much of the Law points us to God and his pure holiness, therfore our morality and ethics are based on an attempt to be holy as He is holy. It seems that as the Law is based on God's character, and obeying the Law is an attempt to be like God, perhaps the absolute is God's character. In that case wouldn't we be adhering to a virtue based Christian ethic? Does such a thing exist?
I hope this makes sense...It's tricky stuff.

At Wednesday, February 15, 2006 6:16:00 PM, Blogger Doug E. said...


There are many views of virtue ethics even in these views. Christian Absolutism does concern itself the hearts of the person. Especially since God's Moral Law goes much further than just judging action. It actually judges the heart. For example, Thou shalt not covet, and Jesus explained that we can break the six and seventh commandment in our hearts. This actually applies to all of them.

There have been many people who deal with virtue ethics but without the grounding in God's moral law they tend to become relativistic.


At Wednesday, February 15, 2006 6:25:00 PM, Blogger BugBlaster said...

interesting stuff, thanks very much.

At Wednesday, February 15, 2006 6:34:00 PM, Blogger Josh Eaton said...

The graded positions seems to be the way the ten commandments are presented. The first four being more weightier than the last. So that it is not sin for someone to disobey their parents if they parents tell them not to believe in God.
Also each consecutive command seems to be less weighter. The first is obviously first for a reason. Murders seems heavier than adultery; adultery than stealing; stealing than lying; lying than coveting.
Thanks for the series. It was good and will continue to make me think.

At Wednesday, February 15, 2006 7:09:00 PM, Blogger Doug E. said...


I agree, the Commandments do seem to be listed in order. The one you mentioned "honoring your parents" is the one that gives most people the trouble, but it is much deeper than it appears at first glance. If we look at each commandment as a summary or table of contents under which a multitude of related sins could be listed under. This one is an intermediate between the commands that deal with loving God (1-4) and those that deal with loving our neighbor (6-10). One of the ways we are to love God is by understanding the authority structures He as set up. Family, Church, State etc. If we do not honor God by honoring His ordained institutions then commandments 6-10 will really not mean much to us. So to break this one is much more serious than we think.

I'm not really sure if that is the best way to word it because I think this is first time I've ever written it out, but hopefully you get my point. But you probably understand it better than I do.

I think in the case of these three options of absolutism, the best was saved for last. It is the one I lean toward the most.


At Wednesday, February 15, 2006 11:54:00 PM, Blogger edwardseanist said...

I'd have to say that this view is attractive because it makes it easy to choose in any given situation. But it does not set right with me. I think that the first one makes the most sense, but maybe that's the Presbyterian in me. Thanks for the posts, it is an area I would like to look into more some day, and now i know where to start.


At Thursday, February 16, 2006 1:38:00 AM, Blogger edwardseanist said...

Let me clarify...NCA seems like the most biblical one to me. :)

At Thursday, February 16, 2006 7:30:00 AM, Blogger Gordon Cloud said...

Doug, this whole series has been very stimulating. I would have to say that I identify more with this last approach.

As you said though, the downside is its similarity to situational ethics. I think we can avoid that pitfall by realizing that the "grading" is subjective to God's point of view and not our own.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this series. Maybe you can do some more on this topic sometime?

At Thursday, February 16, 2006 7:37:00 AM, Blogger Doug E. said...


NCA is a strong possibility for me too. I'm sure someone other than myself could overcome what I see as the weaknesses.

But I must add. I have some OP friends and GA is the position they hold. :-)

God Bless,


At Thursday, February 16, 2006 7:39:00 AM, Blogger Doug E. said...


Thanks for the encouragement. There are a lot of other areas to expore in this topic. So I'm sure we could get to some of them eventually.

God Bless,


At Thursday, February 16, 2006 10:58:00 AM, Blogger Jada's Gigi said...

This view point certainly appeals to my "Christian" mentality. :) But in so saying, are we agreeing that various commandments have varying degrees of sin? I believe that sin is sin in Gods eyes and only has degrees in our eyes. The sins that seem the greater to us are determined by their outcome or the penalites imposed ...when in reality the actual penality for sin is death...which Christ has already paid for in full....
As missmell has stated morality and obeying the law is the outworking of our attempt to be holy as God is holy ...but again in reality Christ is the only One who ever has or ever will fill that bill. Therefore my only choice is to hide in Him.

At Thursday, February 16, 2006 12:21:00 PM, Blogger Dyspraxic Fundamentalist said...

I would like to read Norman Geisler's book on ethics one day.

Thanks for this great post.

I think of the views you have discussed, I am least keen on the Non-Conflicting Absolutist view. I am a bit torn between the other two.

Every Blessing in Christ


At Thursday, February 16, 2006 2:46:00 PM, Blogger Joshua Ritchie said...

If anything, we get a glimpse of just how fallen our world is when we are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.

At Thursday, February 16, 2006 7:48:00 PM, Blogger Doug E. said...


In one sense, sin is sin in God's eyes. It only takes one breaking of the law and we are guilty of the whole of it. But in another sense even God see's the degrees. That is why He demanded greater punishment for greater sins in the old testament. But I'm sure we agree on that too.

One of these days, I'll have to try my hand at explaining the idea of virtues. I agree with you that it all stems from our desire to be holy.

God bless,


At Thursday, February 16, 2006 7:49:00 PM, Blogger Doug E. said...


Geisler is a good read. Thanks for the kind words too.


At Friday, February 17, 2006 9:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When it comes down to it all we can do in a tough situation, as those mentioned is pray we are in touch with the Lord enough to believe we are doing the faith thing, and know, and be glad we are not the one's making the final judgment.

At Wednesday, February 06, 2008 3:33:00 PM, Blogger ...blogage... said...

thanks for this blog -- i've been struggling to understand all these different schools of ethics, and you made it so much clearer than the text...


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