Christian Creationist Ethics

Written by Roy W. Butler Reviewed By Norman L. Geisler

This brief work on ethics in the tradition of Gordon Clark is based on the presupposition that ‘good’ means ‘willed by God’. God is envisioned as ‘the creator of the moral order, … absolute legislator’. In the first of four chapters Butler discusses the need for ‘ethical objectivity’. Here he contends against Hume and followers that ethical statements are cognitively meaningful. The objectivity of ethical statements, however, is based on the sovereign choice of God. ‘It is conceivable’, he claims, ‘that God could have created the world with entirely different laws, both physical and moral’ (p. 14). In this sense Butler’s work stands in the voluntaristic stream of ethics emanating from Scotus and Ockham and in contrast to those who believe that many ethical principles, such as love, are based on the unchanging nature of God.

In the second chapter entitled ‘The Nature of Moral Statements’, Butler concludes that ‘there is no common ground of metaphysical belief between theist and naturalist and, consequently, no agreement in ethical meaning’ (p. 16). If this were so, one wonders how any communication or translatability could occur between systems, as seems to be the case. Nonetheless, Butler proceeds to claim that the only adequate ethic is a creationist ethic which claims ‘the will of God, given in the context of Scripture …, is the mind of God itself’ (p. 26).

In the third chapter (‘Christian Creationism’) Butler rejects Kierkegaardian ‘superrational theistic ethics’ (a misunderstanding on Butler’s part, since Kierkegaard believed that only religion, not ethics, was superrational). He also rejects any form of ‘natural law’ ethic including modern modifications such as those of John Carnell and Arthur Holmes (pp. 29, 30). The fundamental weakness of this view, says Butler, is that its ‘proponents fail to ascertain the full extent of the noetic effects of original sin’ (p. 33). In contrast to these views, ‘God’s will propositionally revealed in the Scriptures is the condition sine qua non of the knowledge of eternal truth’ (p. 33). How does one justify taking this revelatory stance? Butler answers that it is ‘an assumption one must make to render consistent his moral life’ (p. 40). Every system must have a first postulate and for creationists it is this: ‘the good is indefinable in terms other than itself, the will of God’ (p. 40). For ‘ “what God wills is good” is the ultimacy and consistency of the total system of propositional truth, the Scriptures’ (p. 42).

The final chapter deals with ‘The Problem of Moral Justification’. For Butler ‘a value-neutral metaphysical system is inconceivable’ (p. 47). Even a seemingly neutral tool such as logic is not capable of itself to ajudicate between conflicting ethical systems. ‘Philosophical systems with their ethical theories are chosen’ (p. 48). There is no way to challenge the creationists’ metaphysic and ethic ‘except in terms of its coherence or self-consistency as a propositional whole’ (p. 48). Further, ‘man’s will is unable to choose that which is good and right—the will of God revealed in the Scriptures’ (pp. 54, 55).

Those looking for a clear and concise statement of a Calvinistic presuppositionalism (à la Gordon Clark) will rejoice in Butler’s analysis. Others of us who believe there are some absolute ethical norms traceable to God’s unchanging nature (not merely a changing will) and revealed in the hearts of all men (Rom. 2:12–14) will want to look elsewhere.

Norman L. Geisler

Professor of Philosophy of Religion, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois