Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve

[tab:Doing Justly]

Doing Justly

Entrapment is a nasty business. As much as we might want to put bad people away, law enforcement officials are not allowed to force someone’s hands through subterfuge or enticement. As we read in sixth chapter of Daniel, this is what the officials of Darius’ court were trying to do. They conspired to craft a law Daniel could not keep. Daniel knew exactly what was going on. He saw the trap, and walked straight in. The king was tricked into signing a law aimed squarely at his favorite minister.

The issue at stake is one of justice. Yes, Daniel could have stopped praying; Darius could have reneged on the law. It was at least physically possible for them to have done otherwise, but only at the cost of compromising their moral integrity. For Daniel, as a man of God, there was really only one possible course of action: he was bound by duty to serve his Lord in heaven. It was much the same for Darius as king: he was bound by duty to uphold the law of the land. The officials’ dastardly scheme introduced a conflict of duty that could not be resolved by any reasonable means. Daniel and Darius  could do what was objectively good, or they could honor the law, but they could not do both at the same time.

The villains of our story tried to solve their problem through the simple expedience of making a law. In the process, they trampled on justice. God’s people had a similar problem. In Micah 6:8 we read these powerful words:

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Micah’s readers were observing the Law of Moses. They were offering rams, and calves, and oil but they had lost sight of justice, merciful kindness, and humility. They had confused keeping the law with being good.

[tab:Freedom and Responsibility]

Freedom and Responsibility

In the broader picture of Biblical teaching, justice comes across both as a personal virtue and a promise that everyone will be treated fairly. Micah was appealing for justice in the first sense, as a personal virtue. Justice in the second sense involves accountability: it is only fair that bad people are punished and good people are rewarded (Psalm 7:8-11). But if moral agents are to be held accountable for their actions, justice expects those actions to be performed freely. This important ethical principle was defended by Pelagius back in the early 400s. It brought him into conflict with Augustine and saw to his condemnation as a heretic.

As Pelagius viewed it, Augustine’s doctrine of original sin let sinners off the hook and made the God of heaven into a cruel, capricious deity. If we were so thoroughly drenched in Adam’s sin that we could never freely choose on our own to do the right thing, then we can never be held accountable for our wrongdoings. Despite our wretched condition, God makes laws we cannot keep and condemns us when we break them. Pelagius mocked contemporaries who quickly latched on to this fatalism as the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.

We contradict the Lord when we say, It is hard; it is difficult; we cannot; we are men; we are encompassed with mortal flesh…. We charge God with a twofold ignorance: that he does not seem to know what he has made, nor what he has commanded; just as if he, forgetting the human weakness of which himself is the author, has imposed laws on man which he cannot endure.[1]

The same idea was reaffirmed in entirely secular terms by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1788).[2] Ethicists today put the principle in the form of a simple, logical statement: “ought” implies “can.” When we are judging the merits of a particular rule, and indeed of an entire ethical system, justice demands reasonable expectations of what we, as human beings, can and cannot do. As we learn from the story of Daniel and Darius, making rules that cannot be followed is a work of evil. It need not be the case, by the way, that I personally like or approve the rule. What matters is that I am capable of following the rule and, by so doing, goodness is made a reality for me as a rational moral agent created in God’s image. We can see this at work in the Biblical text.

First, a moral “ought” needs to recognize our meager human capacities. The apostle Paul promised that God would never allow us to be tempted beyond our ability to resist (1 Corinthians 10:13). Different people are challenged by different temptations, but for each of us there is a way of escape. We cannot help ourselves to the excuse attacked so deftly by Pelagius, namely, that God has rendered me incapable of making the right choice. Although as a matter of fact we are sinners (Romans 10:13; 1 John 1:10), it is possible in principle to shun the wrong and do the right (Colossians 1:21-23; 1 John 2:1).

Second, a moral “ought” needs to recognize the good for which human beings were created. Consider, for example, the Biblical injunction against the taking of innocent human life. The benefits of this law seem clear enough. Even skeptics are willing to sign on to a social contract that says, “I won’t try to kill you if you won’t try to kill me.” Other rules are less obvious. Why did Naaman have to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River, and not six or eight (2 Kings 5:10)? The Bible does not say, but we know that it was good for Naaman to follow God’s command.

[tab:A Debased Mind]

A Debased Mind

As one might expect, militant atheists are loathe to embrace the very idea of oughtness that underlies the Biblical ethics of duty and virtue. In his scathing attack on religious belief, philosopher Daniel Dennett makes the following pronouncement: “Thanks to technology, what almost anybody can do has been multiplied a thousandfold, and our moral understanding about what we ought to do hasn’t kept pace.”[3] So, all the moral absolutes that might have worked just fine in a simpler, slower time no longer apply in a world of stem cell therapies and microloans to Third World shopkeepers. According to Dennett, morality is relative to technology. That we should love God and keep His commandments is quaint and all, but fails to keep up with the times. Perhaps if Dennett were in Naaman’s place, he would rather remain a leper than follow Elisha’s baffling but low-tech instructions.

Dennett’s argument rests on a huge and highly contestable assumption: he assumes that technology can leapfrog morality. Somehow, by inventing a powerful suction device that can reach into a mother’s womb, the act of killing a preborn child becomes morally ambiguous. Somehow, by a feat of organizational and engineering sophistication, a resident of David’s Jerusalem, transported in time to the Auschwitz concentration camp of 1944, would fail to recognize the horror being perpetrated on his fellow Hebrews. If so, Dennett’s position seems both puzzling and horrifying. Surely they are the product of what Paul called “a debased mind” (Romans 1:28). While it may be true that technology will always challenge the application of certain ethical values, the values themselves remain unchanged.

Further, Dennett cannot help but stumble on his own relativism. He begins his discussion of “sacred values” by issuing the following prescription for the moderate members of various religious groups: “you have to loosen your grip on the absolutes.”[4] Oh, really? This statement is itself an absolute, and the resulting logical implosion is unavoidable. Moral relativists, like Dennett, want us to believe that absolutes are a Bad Thing, but also want to insist absolutely that absolutes are a Bad Thing.

Dennett goes on to chide believers for not explicitly condemning the radical elements of their respective groups. Curiously, nowhere in the same book does Dennett condemn Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, or the other purveyors of genocide and mass murder who marched under the banner of radical secularism. So not only are his ethics logically incoherent, they are hypocritical. And Dennett would still have leprosy.

Cut loose from any recognition of a Creator God, Dennett’s materialism turns the rules of ethics upside down. “Can” does indeed imply “ought.” If we can create an entire human being out of a single skin cell, then why wouldn’t we? Even worse, if we can clone a human being, then we should clone a human being. Scientism morphs our curiosity of the natural world into a monstrous disregard for human life. Scientists should be allowed to wander down the dark alleys of human experimentation, and in so doing they should receive a pat on the back and a share of our tax dollars. To stand in the way of such “progress” is shortsighted, irrational (especially if you happen to entertain religious objections), evil, and even worse, bad for business.

In the push for embryonic stem cell research, one politician put it this way: “It is wrong to tell scientists that they can’t cross the frontiers of new knowledge.”[5] The tragedy is that those new-found lands must be won by further debasing human life.

[tab:Rubber, Meet Road/Endnotes]

Rubber, Meet Road

The Biblical principle of ought implies can reveals God’s justice at work. As our Creator God, He knows us completely (Luke 12:6-7), and surely knows what we can and cannot do. As an all-loving God, He has our best interests in mind. “Blessed is the man,” the psalmist tells us, whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:1-2). The ultimate good for man is an eternity spent with God in heaven.

God’s example serves as an important lesson to parents, employers, and church leaders. The rules we impose on our children and employees must take into account their individual capabilities and must be good for them. Likewise, elders and preachers should not impose unreasonable demands on the local church so that new converts, like the proselytes of Jesus’ day (Matthew 23:15), must meet impossibly high expectations in order to be counted as faithful children of God.

Most importantly, the principle reminds us that God’s plan of salvation is within everyone’s grasp. The Presbyterian commentator, Joseph Alexander, dismissed baptism as full immersion on Pentecost because “Jerusalem has always been remarkably destitute of water.”[6] Even Alexander’s contemporaries knew better.[7] Besides, the experience of countless missionaries from Bible times (Acts 8:26,36) to the present shows that the quantity of water is rarely the problem. Whether baptism, or just faithful living, the real question is not whether we can, but will we do what a just and loving God requires of us?


[1] Pelagius, Letter to Demetrias, 3:19. As quoted in G.F. Wiggers, An Historical Presentation of Augustinism and Pelagianism from the Original Sources, tr. Ralph Emerson. New York: Gould, Newman & Saxton, 1840, p. 106.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy, tr. M.J. Gregor. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 162-164.

[3] Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Penguin Books, 2006, p. 293, italics in original.

[4] Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 293.

[5] John Kerry, “Science and Technology,” [Broken link]

[6] Joseph Addison Alexander, The Acts of the Apostles. New York, Charles Scribner & Co., 1866, 3rd edition, 1:89.

[7] E.g., J.W. McGarvey, Lands of the Bible. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1881, pp. 185-201.


© 2008 – 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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