Monthly Archives: August 2016

Theology of right/wrong better/worse – basis in Gen 3

In my intro post I quoted a piece in which Syd Hielema suggests a particular posture toward difficult questions and issues. He calls it “Holy Uncertainty.” Syd goes on to suggest the “better/worse” moral compass supercedes the “right/wrong” one in most cases.

I stated that behind this problem is the false belief that it is our job to identify right and wrong, white and black. That is my current “operating theory” and I want to test it out publicly.

My theory began to take form when I was in a time of personal reflection and healing, and was further shaped when I worked as a chaplain/spiritual director in an addiction treatment center. It is centered on the question of what “knowing good and evil” is.

I was introduced to the concept and behaviour of “black and white” or “all or nothing” thinking in addicts. Addiction to a substance or activity changes the way the addict sees the world, and the way they think. They move to extremes in their thinking. They cannot understand shades and nuances. I saw that at my work there.

But I also have seen it in the church. I vividly remember the time in the early 80’s when an elder interrupted a council meeting by standing, throwing the King James Bible on the table, and as he marched out saying “If ve can’t all aggrree dat dit is de one en only trrue vord of Godt, den I can’t be wit you anymore!” Looking back with my new knowledge, I can see that this man saw only one version of the Bible as “white” or “good” and felt strongly and fearfully that the newly introduced NIV was moving toward “black” or “evil.” One illustration will have to suffice to illustrate this point. More are possible.

So where do we as humans and as Christians get this idea that we are to be arbiters and declarers of what is actually and ultimately good and what is ultimately evil?

Some years ago I did a quick study of the combination of the words “good and evil” in scripture. The first place you end up is in Genesis 2 verses 9 and 17 where the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil is mentioned. The next mention is this one, with the serpent speaking into Eve’s ear:

“God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:5 NIV

To know good and evil, to eat the forbidden fruit, is to be reaching for something that is to be God’s alone: the knowing of what is ultimately good and what is actually evil. Mankind were exiled from God’s presence for doing this! They, to use 12 step language, made themselves their own highest power, thereby breaking relationship with the Creator.

To me now, whenever I displace God as my highest power, I am again partaking in fruit that is forbidden, and repeating what Eve and Adam did. All that works ok for me in my mind, but the next step is the challenge. Maybe we have no business at all trying to decide and discern what true good is. Maybe we are called to do our best with the Spirit’s help to keep moving toward the gate that Jesus opened, the path back to walking in the garden in the cool of the day in full fellowship with a God who we leave that kind of knowledge to. Meanwhile, on our journeys, we let better/worse be our compass, because ultimate right/wrong is not an area we were given dominion in. Nor should we. We are to acknowledge how veiled our certainty really is, and we are to hold sacred the space where our certainty ends and God’s knowledge begins.

Thats my operating theory at this time.

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Posted by on August 10, 2016 in Uncategorized


The theology of right/wrong better/worse – introduction

On June 28, Syd Hielema posted a reflection in the faith nurture section of the CRC Network in which he introduced, as his second point, the idea and practice of two different moral compasses. He was speaking into the context of a particular struggle, but I want to examine the theology and possible biblical source of this apart from that issue.

Here is the link to the original posting:

The comment thread is worth reading. For me what stood out is the absence of neutrality in the responses. As some imply in the comments, there are clearly deeper previous suppositions at play when we discuss moral compass in association with a hot potato topic. What I want to do is think “out loud” about a deeper (confessional?) aspect of that one idea.

Here is the key excerpt I am speaking of:

2. Every Christian I know uses two different moral compasses, both rooted in Scripture: the “right/wrong” moral compass and the “better/worse” moral compass.

Most moral decisions are guided by biblical teachings on right and wrong. But a number of times in Scripture we see a “better/worse” moral compass superseding the right/wrong one. It’s wrong to be a prostitute, but it was better for Tamar to become a prostitute than to allow her father-in-law Judah’s unjust behavior to continue (Gen. 38). Slavery is wrong, but it was so systemically entrenched in the Roman Empire that any community that tried to abolish it would be massacred. Thus, it was better strategically for Paul’s mission work that he not seek its abolition but instead encourage born-again masters and slaves to act as godly as they could within an evil societal institution while he focused on other social justice issues (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-4:1).

I could give many more examples from Scripture where the “better/worse” compass supersedes the “right/wrong” one. Might the 1829 elders of Third Presbyterian Charleston have confused a better/worse biblical teaching with a right/wrong one?

First, the way Syd makes uncertainty “Holy” does not sit well with me and feels dangerous. I am more comfortable with a posture I would call “Veiled Certainty” or “Sacred Uncertainty.” I have gone from “sure doctrines” more toward “operating theories.”

My current posture has grown in me as I have experienced life. It is largely a result of the dissolution of “certainties” I was taught. Pentecostals, I was taught, were severely misguided, yet I met one that was more serious about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit than I was. Me, in all my youthful certainty of his being misguided and “forced to fake” speaking in tongues to get respect in their churches. Catholics were certainly doomed to the place below the purgatory they had made up, yet I met some that were active in the Kingdom of God and body of Christ in ways that humbled me in all my sureness of their doom. And so on. It’s quite a list. Just so no one gets freaked out, some things have become more sure over time. I am more certain than ever about the theology of “calling” we used to articulate, for example. So, stay calm, not everything has crumbled. In fact, if you need to hear it to keep my words credible to you, I believe more than ever that Jesus lived and died and rose again. But I do believe it in a different way than the way I was taught.

Second, what Syd describes regarding a better/worse compass resonates with me, and I find myself baffled and unfortunately angry often with those who, to me, rigidly advocate for a strict right/wrong with nothing in between.

So, in my next post, I will share why I have come to think that at the core of the moral compass issue is the false belief that it is our job to identify right and wrong, white and black, and why I think we are mainly left with living on a towards better and towards worse continuum instead.

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Posted by on August 10, 2016 in Uncategorized