The Moral Argument for Christian Theism

by Clark H. Pinnock, Bibliotheca Sacra, April/June 1974
(reprinted with permission)

Many excellent arguments have been advanced throughout the years on behalf of Christian theism: the cosmological, the historical, the teleological, and so forth. One of them, the moral argument, by reason of its extreme relevance to the human situation, has a certain advantage over the others. Although like them it supplies grounds for believing in a transcendent, personal God, the moral argument goes further. It addresses itself to a most fundamental question which concerns humanists and Christians alike. Both groups are eager to sustain an ethic or moral obligation to our fellow man. But on what basis does such a noble commitment securely rest? How is it to be sustained, or even explained? The moral dimension of human experience raises very readily the question of God whom Christians believe constitutes the only ground that can support the kind of moral commitment which is needed today.

Naturalistic Ethics

In his convocation address to the Darwin Centennial celebration, Sir Julian Huxley put forward a naturalistic ethic based upon his evolutionary vision of the world. Man's hope depends, he argued, upon his ability to generate human values and guide the course of his own development. How can this be done? Let us observe the direction we are developing, and from that decide in what direction we ought to be moving. In agreement with D.H. Waddington, Huxley defined what is right and ethical as activity which is in conformity to the evolutionary process.

There are three decisive weaknesses which, quite apart from Christian revelation, are immanent within this proposal. First, Huxley has committed the "naturalistic fallacy" as set out by G.E. Moore. Moore held that ethical concepts cannot be reduced to, or derived from, non-ethical concepts. It is not possible to derive an ought from an is. Although Huxley is anxious for us to believe that his ethics arise out of his science, they do not in fact do so. On the contrary, they were derived from elsewhere, and by a process of circular reasoning were read back into it. When we look at evolution, for example, we see the principle of the "survival of the fittest" which, if it were translated into ethical terms, could only justify an ethic of power and selfishness which Huxley could not endorse. Science by itself is incapable of generating values, and just because it is value-free stands in need of an axiology from the outside to direct its own work. Naturalistic ethics are parasitic. They are unconsciously imbibed out of the general heritage of Western civilization, and put forward as if they arose out of a description of the world. These prior commitments are what lead men like Huxley to accept certain aspects of evolution, and ignore others.

Second, once we see that the norms of naturalistic ethics do not spring from the world of nature, we can realize how very arbitrary this approach to ethics is. The only way to sustain a neighbor-oriented ethic on these terms is by arbitrarily positing the value of human personal life by an act of the will. There is no objective reason within a naturalistic framework for placing value on man's life, the starting point of any ethical system. We can illustrate the problem from within the discussion between ethicists who operate in this framework.

Professor A.J. Ayer, a logical positivist, holds ethical statements to be emotive and non-cognitive. They represent a personal preference for a certain kind of behavior, rather than any objective ethical norms. We can no more criticize a person for liking to steal than we could condemn him for preferring coffee to tea. On the American scene, Miss Ayn Rand has attained some notoriety for espousing the virtue of selfishness. If the ego alone has value, as naturalism would seem to imply, self-interest is the final norm for human behavior. Man's sole significant ethical obligation is to himself. Similarly Jean Paul Sartre, though he has given much thought to the subject, has been unable to develop reasons or norms for man's moral responsibility towards his neighbor. We allude to Ayer, Rand, and Sartre, in order to show that there is a crisis of values in the naturalistic world view which deeply threatens the foundations of ethics. Though we are profoundly interested in attempts of humanists to develop an ethic of goodwill towards all men, we cannot see how this will be possible. Humanists can decide to recognize the worthwhileness of human life, but are unable to explain why we are obliged to.

Finally, naturalistic ethics consistently ignores one of the best attested facts about human nature, its moral obtuseness and perversity. At no point is the humanist creed which counts upon the goodness of man less convincing. Man's sense of moral obligation is continually being frustrated because of his self-centeredness. Science has done much for us, but it has not made us good. Naturalistic ethics are deficient because they do not take into account this undoubted fact about human beings. In each of these three respects, naturalistic ethics show itself to be conceptually deficient.

Christian Theistic Ethics

In contrast with naturalistic ethics, the Christian system based upon belief in a personal God of righteousness makes excellent sense of the moral dimension of human experience and provides a firm foundation on which to build a neighbor-oriented ethic.

First of all, the Bible gives a sufficient explanation as to the origins of morality in human life. It is surely a striking thing that out of a universe composed of atoms and molecules there should arise personal, rational, and moral creatures such as men are. What can account for this extraordinary fact? According to naturalism, personality, rationality, and morality have all arisen by chance out of impersonal, nonrational, and amoral being. The evolutionary stream appears to have risen much higher, qualitatively speaking, than its source. But any such theory falls far short of full rationality. A cause does not produce an effect which contains in itself qualities altogether lacking in the cause. If the world contains personal, rational, and moral creatures, as it does, it can only be because the cause of the world is personal, rational, and moral.

Second, the Christian belief in God lays solid foundations for morality. The British language philosopher Stephen Toulmin has written a book which explores the principles which are implicit in our reasoning as moral agents (Stephen Toulmin, An Examination of the Place of Reason in Ethics, [Cambridge, 1950]). In the course of his analysis, Toulmin uncovered a fundamental commitment which, though generally unquestioned and even unrecognized, points beyond morality to something deeper. That commitment amounts to a profound confidence in the final worth of human life. If the confidence were not there, we would lack all motivation to keep faith and act responsibly toward others. Moral actions are existentially possible only because their roots reach down into an underlying confidence in the abiding worth of our lives. But how is such a prereflexive confidence to be accounted for, and on what basis does it securely rest? Certainly, naturalism cannot explain it, or supply any adequate foundation for it. If man is the chance product of an impersonal order, the final worth of his life is drastically undermined, and consequently the foundation of morality is threatened. Friedrich Nietzsche was perceptive when he saw that the death of God would bring about a transvaluation of values. Once man's confidence in the worth of human life is cut away, the basis of the entire ethical enterprise is shaken. Only belief in God can provide the sound basis in reality for that confidence in the final worth of human life which ethics presupposes.

Third, Christian theistic belief accounts better for the nature of morality, in at least two respects. In the first place, in moral experience we find ourselves confronted by an unconditional claim, one that is sovereign over all the calculations of expediency. Various psychological and social factors may provide the occasion for making moral judgments , but they do not at all produce the unconditional dimension of the moral imperative. At Nuremberg not even the ethical relativists said, "The Nazi ethical code based upon the German psychology of the thirties allowed for genocide, but our particular criteria compel us to disapprove of it." On the contrary, the consensus was one of unconditional condemnation. Genocide is objectively wrong, and those who practice it deserve to be punished. Indeed, no mundane penalty seemed adequate for the offense. Moral experience of this kind is familiar to us all, and it is difficult to account for within a nontheistic framework. In the second place, there is reason to believe that this awareness of unconditional moral obligation involves a uniquely personal constraint. We do not feel shame or pollution when we harm things, or transgress such impersonal laws as gravitation. But we do feel that way when we violate the moral law. The proper locus of that law must reside then in a superhuman mind. Even the way in which humanists display loyalty to truth and respect for moral standards only makes sense if there is One to whom they do not wish to be disloyal. In moral experience, we know ourselves to be responsible, not to an impersonal code, but to Him who upholds a moral universe.

Fourth, the Christian message is tailor-made to solve the problem of morality. The sense of moral failure is one of the best attested aspects of human experience. We consistently fall short of attaining the most elementary moral obligations. There seems to be a wide discrepancy between our inward inclinations and the moral law. What man obviously needs is divine redemption in which there is the possibility of a significant degree of righteousness in this world and a promise of perfect righteousness in the world to come. We desperately need a healing power from beyond ourselves. This condition is richly fulfilled in the Christian gospel: "For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men" (Titus 2:11).

Bible and CrossFinally, the Christian faith assures us that morality will attain its final end. Morality may be man's finest endeavor, but it is not difficult to see that it can never be fulfilled in this life. In earthly life there are degrees of goodness that are never attained, and acts of wickedness that are never requited. If this life is the only sphere of moral experience we will know, then the world is a madhouse. The lower forms of life may attain their temporal ends, but man whose moral fulfillment requires divine justice and immortality is denied his nisus of fulfillment. The moral dimension is fated to be frustrated unless it can see fulfillment beyond the mundane realm. The Christian world view and eschatology supply precisely that understanding of reality in which morality will attain its proper ends.


It is our belief that naturalistic ethics can provide neither an exhaustive or satisfying account of all that is involved in moral experience. The more we reflect carefully upon this phenomenon the more we are drawn toward belief in God as the rational and intelligible goal of the moral pilgrimage. Moral experience, like human experience as a whole, is left puzzling and unclear unless rational belief in God is finally adopted.

We are not maintaining, let it be noted, that the moral law possesses no power in men's lives apart from a religious sanction. What we do maintain is that only religious belief renders the existence of the moral dimension understandable. It alone can explain what transpires in that area of human experience. Apart from belief in God, the moral order is an impenetrable mystery.

Our essay began by observing how deeply relevant the moral argument for Christian theism is to the human situation. Almost everyone agrees that we need a greater degree of moral responsibility if mankind is to survive its own folly. But surely it is plain that humane values are not likely to persist if the naturalistic view of the world should become dominant. By leaving God out of the picture, secularism undermines the very foundation on which even its own ethical concerns must rest. It is totally self-stultifying. The Christian faith, on the other hand, supplies a superb basis for a truly ethical concern for other people. By all means let us dedicate ourselves to the good of all mankind. But let us do it within the framework which truly sustains so noble a commitment.

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