Can You Truly Tell Right from Wrong?

In reading again through Francis Schaeffer’s great book “The God Who Is There”, I’ve been struck afresh with this thought: 

Atheists have no true and consistent basis upon which to distinguish between right and wrong.  Though they might argue tooth-and-nail to the contrary,  the reality is that they cannot make truly reasonable decisions concerning that which is ethical or non-ethical. At best, a basis is found by mutual agreement for the betterment of society. But as soon as one society disagrees with another about what is ethical, an unavoidable contradiction emerges. Moreover, history has shown that a ‘survival of the species’ approach does not give society a sufficient base for determining that which is ethical and that which is not.

This in contrast to the reality of a theistic worldview: Ethics flow from the basis of God’s revealed law. God’s law, in turn flows from His unchanging, constituent being–the very bedrock of reality, truth and holiness.

Seeking God: A Quick Look at Paul’s Rhetoric to the Athenians.

Can we feel our way toward the unknown God? Paul’s rhetoric to the Athenians at Areopagus (Acts 17:15-34) is very interesting.

The logic of his argument is clear. During his time among the Athenians, he observed the many objects of their worship. The reality of the religious nature of the people was undeniable. And yet, along with the many objects of worship in the city, there was also an altar to ‘the unknown God’ (Acts 17:23).

This is where it gets interesting. Paul explained that this limit to their knowledge was by God’s own design. God had sovereignly placed them within the “boundaries of their dwelling place” so that “they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27). What is interesting, then, is that the language that Paul uses here. It seems to convey that there is indeed some ability for men to feel their way toward God. But, is that really what he is saying?

Though the Athenians might well  “perhaps feel their way” (Acts 17:27, emphasis added), the point he is making is that that they would never actually be able to arrive at any degree of certainly (as attested by the ‘mystery’ alter), unless God came to them and further revealed himself. Paul’s words are not intended to theologise man’s ability to seek God. Quite the opposite. They are part of his rhetoric, powerfully highlighting the relevance of his message. God had indeed revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and had proven so by the reality of the resurrection. This was the very reason that his message had implications for all men (not Jews only). God now commanded “all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).

The realities that are evidenced in the religious activity of the Athenians, serve as a microcosm for humanity at large. Certainly Paul believed that humanity does have an innate sense spirituality. And indeed this spirituality does allow him, in some way, to seek for God. This seeking, however, is part of man’s dilemma, not his hope.  He can seek only as a blind man seeks. He gropes in the darkness while looking for something that he cannot see, feel or touch. The reality of this kind of seeking does not show man’s ability to get to God, but rather his total dependence on God’s revelation in and through the Christ.

Learning to Open One Hand

In the last post, we took note of Jeremiah’s role in helping the covenant community to transition from their state of theocracy to that of the Babylonian exile. Like the patriarchs of old, once again they would need to learn to engage with the world around them. Once again, they would become a pilgrim people. 

In this regard, Daniel could not have served as a better example to those in Babylonian exile. He stood as a role model, both as one who remained uncompromised in religious distinctiveness, and yet also as one who (in obedience to Jeremiah’s word) acted out a profound level of engagement with Babylonian culture (he essentially became the prime minister!).

This is significant, because as one who cared deeply for the the instructions that God had given through Jeremiah, Daniel knew and understood what needed to be done. He knew that he needed to live as the people of God had lived before their entrance into the land.  Or to put it another way, Daniel understood that they needed to learn to open one of their hands. Rather than have a “closed hand-closed hand” approach to cultural engagement, they now needed to be a people with a closed hand on theology, and an open hand on culture.