Is homosexuality normal?
Is polyamory normal?
Is transgenderism normal?
Is left-handedness normal?
Is belief in God normal?
Is death normal?
How one answers such questions will hang on how one understands the term normal. The word ‘normal’ is etymologically related to ‘norm’ and ‘normative’. A norm is a standard or rule by which something is evaluated, by which it is judged to be good or bad, right or wrong. Thus the primary meaning of normal has to do with conformance to some norm. The claim that X is normal presupposes that there are norms for X (or for whatever kind of thing X is) and X conforms to those norms. The antonym of normal is abnormal, which implies some fault or failure to meet a standard: a deviation from the norm.
Accordingly the term normal, used in this primary sense, has a normative aspect to it; it involves some kind of evaluation or value judgment. A simple example of this usage would be if someone were to say, “It’s not normal to have three ears.” Evidently the speaker is taking for granted that there’s a proper form for human anatomy and having three ears is a deviation from that norm. Put simply, human beings shouldn’t have three ears.
There is a secondary sense of the term, however, which needs to be distinguished from the first. Normal can also be used to mean usual or typical. Understood that way, it merely reflects a statistical generalization and therefore doesn’t imply any value judgment. For example, if I were to say, “A high of 70 degrees is normal for Charlotte in April,” I’m only making a claim about the average temperature (or something along those lines). There’s no right or wrong about that temperature. It’s just a statistical fact for that geographical location. My statement was merely descriptive rather than normative or evaluative.
The topic of moral values comes up often in Christian apologetics. For example, Christians will argue that atheists cannot account for moral values or that the moral relativism associated with postmodernism is somehow self-defeating. I’ve noticed that in such discussions there’s often confusion (usually on the part of the non-Christian, but not always) about what we mean when we speak of ‘moral values’. Indeed, the term is often used equivocally, without recognizing that there are at least two meaningful ways in which we can talk about ‘moral values’. My purpose in this post is to explicitly distinguish these two senses and illustrate why it’s so important to keep the distinction clear in apologetic discussions.
There are different ways of drawing the distinction, but here I propose simply to distinguish between Subjective Moral Values (SMVs) and Objective Moral Values (OMVs). Subjective Moral Values are moral values subjectively held by an individual person. For example, we might say that Ben has different moral values than Lisa, if Ben holds to Christian sexual ethics while Lisa does not. Thus Ben values (in a moral sense) certain sexual behaviors differently than Lisa. He makes different moral value judgments about premarital sex, polyamory, etc. Clearly there’s a relativity to this kind of moral value: SMVs are relative to subjects (i.e., the subjects who engage in moral valuation) and thus can vary from person to person.
Now contrast SMVs with OMVs. Objective Moral Values are non-subjective moral norms, i.e., moral norms that are independent of subjective factors (beliefs, convictions, preferences, feelings, etc.). OMVs are moral norms that hold regardless of whether anyone knows, believes, or recognizes them as such. People may disagree about what the OMVs actually are, but the vast majority of people take for granted (at least in practice) that there are OMVs. I think most people would recognize parental care for infants as an objective moral norm. Parents ought to care for their infant children. Even if every human being became infected with a virus which caused a kind of moral insanity, such that everyone became convinced that parents ought to neglect and abuse their children, it would still be objectively the case that parents ought to care for their children. Such a virus would disrupt our SMVs, but OMVs would be unchanged. Indeed, OMVs couldn’t be affected by a mind-altering virus, precisely because OMVs are by nature non-subjective; they’re independent of subjective mental states.
So why is the distinction between SMVs and OMVs important in Christian apologetics? Let me give two illustrations.
I’ve been revisiting the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, particularly the letters of Ignatius. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch at the turn of the second century who wrote seven letters to various churches only a matter of weeks before his martyrdom in Rome.
In those letters, Ignatius comes across as a humble and pious man who is deeply committed to Jesus Christ and the church. A constant theme is his concern not only for sound doctrine, but also for Christian unity in love (cf. Eph. 4:1-6, 14-16). The letters are fascinating in many respects, but one thing in particular has struck me. In the salutation at the beginning of each letter Ignatius refers to himself as ὁ Θεοφόρος—literally, “the God-bearer.” Michael W. Holmes notes:
In Greek inscriptions the term is commonly used as a title, describing those who carry divine images or shrines in religious processions (imagery and terminology that Ignatius applies to the Christian community in [his letter to the Ephesians] 9.2.)
Here’s the text to which Holmes refers:
So you are all participants together in a shared worship, God-bearers and temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holy things, adorned in every respect with the commandments of Jesus Christ.
That’s quite a sobering thought. Every Christian believer is both a ‘God-bearer’ (one made in the image of God, created to worship God) and a ‘Christ-bearer’ (one united with Christ, being conformed to the likeness of Christ). Whether we recognize it or not, in all that we say and do—whether good or bad—we bear the name of God and the name of Christ. That has profound implications for how we conduct ourselves and how we treat other people.
I rarely write letters these days, but I probably write a dozen or so emails every day, and I occasionally post on social media. Sometimes, I regret to say, I do so with a tone or attitude that isn’t befitting of a Christian. No doubt it would look rather bizarre and pretentious to sign off my emails and blog posts as “James the God-bearer,” but surely it wouldn’t hurt to have that appellation in my own mind as I draft my missives. Even more effective perhaps would be to start by writing “James the God-bearer,” as if I were going to sign off in the manner of Ignatius, only to delete it before finally clicking ‘Send’!
“Oxford college bans ‘harmful’ Christian Union from freshers’ fair” is the headline for the following Telegraph report:
An Oxford College has banned the Christian Union from its freshers’ fair on the grounds that it would be “alienating” for students of other religions, and constitute a “micro-aggression”.
The organiser of Balliol’s fair argued Christianity’s historic use as “an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism” meant that students might feel “unwelcome” in their new college if the Christian Union had a stall.
Freddy Potts, vice-president of Balliol’s Junior Common Room (JCR) committee, said that if a representative from the Christian Union (CU) attended the fair, it could cause “potential harm” to freshers.
Mr Potts, writing on behalf of the JCR’s welfare committee, told the CU representative at Balliol, that their “sole concern is that the presence of the CU alone may alienate incoming students”.
“Historically, Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism.”
He said that barring the Christian Union from the fair “may be a way of helping to avoid making any students feel initially unwelcome within Balliol”.
This is appalling and hypocritical on multiple levels; I’ll highlight only one. Note that the Christian Union is being excluded not because of anything specific to that organization, but because of supposed problems with Christianity. The very presence of representatives of the Christian faith at the freshers’ fair is deemed hazardous because it might ‘alienate’ new students and make them feel ‘unwelcome’.
Does it not occur to the JCR committee that some of these incoming students will be Christians, and that the exclusion of the Christian Union for the reasons they give might alienate those Christian students and make them “feel initially unwelcome”?
Just as intolerance is promoted in the name of tolerance, so exclusion is practiced in the name of inclusion. Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of ‘secular spaces’!
Last October I had the great privilege of delivering the Fifth Annual B. B. Warfield Lectures at the invitation of Erskine Seminary and First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, SC. Edited versions of those two lectures have now been published in RTS’s online journal, Reformed Faith & Practice:
- What Are We? Three Views on Human Nature
- Transgenderism: A Christian Perspective
The first lecture is to some degree setup for the second, but each one is self-standing.
The Nashville Statement was published this week, and the (over)reaction to it has been entirely predictable. It’s a fine summary of the biblical Christian position on human sexuality, and (while I might quibble with the wording here and there) I agree with all of its affirmations and denials. What the statement doesn’t do (by design) is answer all of the tricky questions that arise for Christians now living in a culture that by and large repudiates the claims of the Nashville Statement. Truth notwithstanding, the tide is flooding the plain and we’ll soon be up to our necks.
It’s not unfair to say that the Nashville Statement answers easy questions. What does the Bible actually say about natural sexual distinctions and proper sexual relationships? The harder questions concern matters of Christian practice as we engage with the shifting culture around us and grapple with the impact it has on the lives of real people.
I’ve given several presentations on the topic of transgenderism over the last two years, one of which will be published as an article in the forthcoming issue of RTS’s journal, Reformed Faith & Practice. On every occasion, one particular question has been asked during the Q&A session:
How should we deal with people who claim to be transgender and ask us to use different names and pronouns to refer to them, which they claim correctly reflect their true ‘gender identity’?
A short lunchtime presentation to the RTS Charlotte students, followed by Q&A.
If Jack cheats at Scrabble, is that as bad as if he cheats on his wife?
If Elmer pilfers $10 from the offering plate, is that as bad as if he embezzles $10,000 from the church?
If Annie shoots her neighbor’s dog, is that as bad as if she shoots her neighbor?
To most people, the answers to the questions are quite obvious. In each case, the answer is no: both of the actions mentioned are sinful, but the second is worse than the first. All too often, however, I encounter Christians (including some of my students) who seem confused about this issue, or who at least hesitate to give the seemingly obvious answer. I’ve heard Christians say things like, “All sins are equally sinful in God’s eyes,” and therefore they conclude that we shouldn’t discriminate between ‘lesser’ and ‘greater’ sins or make comparative judgments regarding different sins.
Last week a shocking video was released which showed the Senior Director of Medical Services for Planned Parenthood, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, casually discussing how to perform abortions so that the murdered baby’s body parts can be preserved and sold for medical research. A second video was released today by the Center for Medical Progress which features another of Planned Parenthood’s top doctors, Dr. Mary Gatter, apparently negotiating over the price of organs harvested from aborted babies.
This is truly horrific material, even if we should not be surprised given what we already know about how the abortion industry operates. So much could be said about the ethical and political dimensions, and most of it has already been said by others more eloquent than me. (I particularly appreciated Brit Hume’s short but hard-hitting commentary.) However, I do have one observation to add to the discussion, which I haven’t yet come across elsewhere.
[The following article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Tabletalk magazine. It is reproduced here with permission.]
“What is truth?” Pilate’s question reflected a jaded skepticism toward the very idea of truth rather than a serious philosophical inquiry. How tragic that a man entrusted with matters of life and death should express such a cynical attitude. And how very different should be the attitude of Christians, whom Jesus described as those who are “of the truth” (John 18:37).
The supreme value of truth is evidenced by the presence of the ninth commandment in the Decalogue: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). The commandment is most immediately concerned with truthfulness in a judicial context. Deuteronomy 19:15-21 gives instructions about witnesses in a criminal case. A single witness is insufficient to establish a charge; there must be two or three witnesses (Deut. 17:6; see also Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). If there is any question about the integrity of a witness, the judges must “inquire diligently,” and if the witness is found to be a “false witness” (Heb. eid-sheker—the same term used in Ex. 20:16), he must receive the very penalty that would have been applied to the accused. Thus, perjury carried a maximum penalty of death under the Mosaic law.