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by Al Maxey

Issue #795 -- April 20, 2020
Every time I hear a man pound a table with
his fist and loudly endorse common sense,
I permit myself a large and long-range spit.

H. L. Mencken {1880-1956}

Casuistry in Christianity
Reflecting on a Methodology Often
Used and Abused in Applied Ethics

James Reston (1909-1995), the Scottish-born journalist and former editor of The New York Times, hailed by many as one of the most influential of all American journalists, observed, "In any war, the first casualty is common sense, and the second is free and open discussion." When we think of "war," our minds typically turn to armed conflict between nations, or perhaps factions within a nation (such as our own nation's "War Between the States"). War is not always fought with guns and canons, or swords and spears, however. Far more often we find ourselves in a conflict over philosophical, sociological or theological ideas. These too have often turned deadly as emotions are inflamed, causing cherished convictions to motivate mankind to conflict. Reston's observation about some of the "casualties" of such conflict is very astute. He looks beyond a physical "body count," seeing instead the inevitable demise of "common sense" and "free and open discussion."

Another noted American journalist, Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956), well-known for his reporting of the Scopes Trial, which he dubbed the "Monkey Trial," expressed his disdain for those who professed to possess common sense, yet by their boisterous bravado and behavior invalidated that claim (see his quote above). "A large and long-range spit" may well be an apt response to those who seek to silence all opposition to their own convictions, even when those convictions are clearly shown to be inconsistent with sound reason and objective reality. Becoming increasingly loud in one's arguments does not equate to legitimacy for one's views. I couldn't help but be amused at the "note to self" found in a pastor's sermon notes: at a particular point in the lesson he had written in the margin of his text, "Weak point: pound pulpit and raise voice." It is certainly not uncommon among religionists, regardless of which schism or faction of Christianity they may embrace, to find those who have seemingly lost all sense of reason and common sense in their effort to promote some personal or party dogma, and who seek to silence (with force, if need be) all those who differ with them. Yes, "the first casualty" of warfare is "common sense, and the second is free and open discussion."

Perhaps the most personally disturbing of all such conflicts is our own individual "warfare" within our own hearts and minds. Paul spoke a number of times of this inner turmoil as he struggled with himself to align his thinking and behavior to ultimate/eternal Truth (doing so most notably in Romans 7). As Paul sought to align himself to God's will, and to better grasp the Lord's expectations for his life, he found himself being torn and pulled both spiritually and emotionally. Good and evil, right and wrong, the holiness of deity and the obvious lack thereof of his own humanity, all competing for dominance. Like most of us, Paul was repulsed by his own "wretchedness," yet rejoiced in the growing awareness that God, through Christ, loved and accepted him anyway. The depth of God's love and grace is truly difficult for us to fully grasp. In one ear is the whispered charge, "You're not worthy," yet in the other ear is the whispered affirmation, "God loves you." How do we reconcile this in our own hearts and minds? How do we reconcile this in our religious associations, especially when we find ourselves in debate and conflict with those of differing traditions? How do we justify our actions and attitudes, both individually and collectively (in our various faith-heritages)? By what means of rationalization do we find peace within ourselves for our life-choices? These are questions that are especially compelling when we are faced with choices pertaining to personal morality and applied holiness in daily living. These are choices with consequences, yet are we left with no guidance from above? Are we somehow left to stumble and fumble our way through this "morality minefield" with only a favored few reaching the other side without self-destructing?

It is precisely here, faced with the enormity of the challenge to make morally, spiritually and socially acceptable choices, complicated by the painful awareness of the inadequacy of our own mortal, fleshly natures, that mankind has sought to discover and/or formulate guiding principles and practical methodologies to help in the determination of divinely acceptable behaviors and practices. There are a great many such principles and methods we could examine, but in this issue of my Reflections I want to narrow the focus to just one: Casuistry. This is a word that many may have never heard before, but it simply refers to "a theory of ethical reasoning" that is largely, if not entirely, "case-based" with respect to making moral determinations. This methodology is especially well known and oft used in the legal profession, and it is represented by such terms as "case law" and "precedence." The problem many have with this approach to determining spiritual, moral, societal or legal acceptability is that it tends to view LAW (whether given by man, society or God) as flexible, with exceptions being permitted. We could perhaps refer to this as "situation ethics," where "good and bad, right and wrong, innocence or guilt" are determined "case by case, situation by situation." For example, God made it clear that only the priests were allowed to consume the shewbread, yet could there be exceptions to law in this matter? Could there be situations where law could be set aside? Is there precedent for such? Are there cases to which one may appeal to determine future moral and ethical choices in certain situations?

Notice the words of our Lord Jesus Christ on this particular matter: "Haven't you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread - which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. ... If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent" (Matthew 12:3-4, 7; cf. Mark 2:25-26). They had broken/violated the law of God, yet Jesus declares them "innocent." This is a good example of "casuistry," for it is "a case-based system of flexible moral reasoning." It is a "case by case approach where the active case is compared against an earlier similar case in which moral consensus was achieved." Such cases, then, establish "precedence" to which one may appeal when seeking clarity to some moral, spiritual or legal dilemma, with the result being that in some situational circumstances LAW (whether established by men or God) may be acceptably set aside or transgressed. We often refer to this as following "the spirit of the law," rather than "the letter of the law." I would refer you to my study: "The Spirit of the Law: Accepting a Legalist's Challenge" (Reflections #722).

In an article written by a Roman Catholic theologian named Ronald L. Conte, Jr. titled "Pope Francis on Casuistry and Thomism" on November 14, 2017, the author defined casuistry as "an approach to ethics which decides each ethical question on a case by case basis, with no overriding moral rules or principles." In essence, casuistry is an approach to making moral choices in our lives that allows for each person or group to allow for the possible overriding of "moral rules or principles" if a particular situation seems to warrant such. For example, we know God disapproves of someone knowingly telling a lie. God frowns upon us when we practice deceit. We are told that "all liars" will be cast into "the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (Revelation 21:8). Yet, are there situations ("situation ethics") where one may acceptably lie and practice deceit, and do so with God's approval? Based on biblical "case precedent" we have to acknowledge that the answer is "Yes." Rahab lied, for example (Joshua 2), yet in doing so she helped accomplish God's will for His people. Nowhere is Rahab condemned for her lies; indeed, she is listed in Hebrews 11:31 as a giant of faith, and a woman who gained the approval of God by virtue of her faith (vs. 39). Employing casuistry, I could appeal to this precedent (this "case law") as justification for telling a lie if the situation warranted such an act on my part. For example, a man breaks into my house and puts a gun to my head. He says, "I am going to kill everyone in this house! Is anyone else here?" If my wife and children were hiding in a safe place in the house, would I be forced to answer truthfully? "Yes, my wife and children are in a safe room in the basement." Or, would the situation allow for me to lie? "No, there is nobody else here. Just me." Based on prior "case law" (Rahab), I have a precedent for acceptably transgressing God's law about telling a lie. Like David, I can break the law of God, and yet be declared "innocent."

The legalistic, patternistic disciples of Christ absolutely abhor such "ethical reasoning," for it indicates that rules and regulations (whether of God or man) are not as inflexible as some would like to think. The spirit of the law trumps (overrides) the letter of the law every time. LOVE trumps LAW. The application of LOVE in our daily lives calls for each disciple to approach each situation (case by case) in love, and to use good common sense and reason to determine how best to respond so that others are benefitted and God is glorified. At times, in some situations, this may transcend law; law may be too inflexible, rules and regulations may be far too rigid, thus requiring attitudes and actions more in keeping with the spirit of law. The Bible is filled with examples of men and women going beyond the limitations of law, and doing so with divine approval. In 2 Chronicles 30 we find King Hezekiah and the people of Israel "eating the Passover otherwise than prescribed ... and contrary to the rules of the sanctuary" (vs. 18-19). Was God upset? Not in the least. Quite the opposite, in fact. There is also very good reason to believe Jesus Himself, as well as His apostles, ate the Passover meal "otherwise than prescribed" (in other words, not according to the rules and regulations). Please read: "Otherwise Than Prescribed: Did Jesus Violate the Passover Pattern?" (Reflections #138).

God does not expect us to be mindless puppets on a string manipulated by Him against our will. We are given choice. The hope is that we will use good judgment and common sense in every situation and circumstance, always seeking to exemplify LOVE in our every attitude and action, and always seeking to do all things to the benefit of others and to the glory of God. We were not created to be "law abiders," but rather "love providers." There are plenty of "cases" and attendant "precedents" throughout the Scriptures and in the history, both biblical and extra-biblical, of His people doing this, and these all make up that body of "case-based" guidance that enlightens and motivates us as we seek to be practitioners of the spirit of God's law. The letter of the law is limiting; the spirit of the law frees us to manifest His nature in times and seasons and situations relevant to our own time and place. There is flexibility in love; there is only stifling rigidity in law. Under the umbrella of the former we may be creative in our expressions and actions; in the latter we may not.

In the ten volume Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, co-authored by Drs. James Strong and John McClintock, under the heading of "Casuistry," we read, "In true Christian ethics, principles of life are set forth, not rules for individual cases. ... 'The law of love, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is a solvent of all subordinate moral questions in the practice of life. For the application of this law our reason must be constantly and carefully used'" [e-Sword]. That last phrase was from the pen of John Wesley. I think Wesley has nailed it! When one lives under a rigid system of rules and regulations, there is little need to use reason. "Do as you are told or die" is the nature of life under inflexible law. Under the "royal law," however, one is free to use his/her common sense and reason. We can utilize principles and precedents to assist us in choosing our attitudes and actions in our daily walk with the Father. We don't consult a rule book when faced with challenging scenarios and events; rather, we simply respond in LOVE, no matter the circumstance. At times this love will be firm, at times it will be affirming; at times it will call for discipline in love. When we love, we will weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. Love not only trumps law, it makes it unnecessary, and there are cases and precedents galore to validate this view. William H. H. Murray (1840-1904), an American pastor and author, observed, "All questions of casuistry, such as the scribes and lawyers were continually tempting Jesus to discuss, He brushed aside as incompatible with the object of His mission. He came simply to establish divine connections with men, to teach the race virtues, and implant in their souls the germ of simple piety" [The Biblical Illustrator, e-Sword].

Yes, in the hands of those looking for legal loopholes to affirm their own desires, the concept of casuistry can indeed be abused and abusive. One can generally find "case law" and "precedent" to validate almost any personal or party preference, and these can further be twisted and manipulated to make them mean what these persons want them to mean. It is this that has led some biblical scholars and theologians to denounce casuistry. They believed, and in many cases rightly so, that men were using it as a tool to throw out God's eternal purpose for man, and to replace it with their own. That is wrong, and such should be denounced. Yet, living under GRACE, as we do in this present dispensation, it makes perfect sense for His children to shake off the confining shackles of rigid LAW and learn to enjoy the freedom we have been given to simply live in such a manner that we manifest daily LOVE for our Father and LOVE for our fellow man. Rules and regulations? Nope! Not needed. Just go and do it. Be creative. Use common sense, and if you need a bit of guidance in a situation you may not have encountered before, then there is a wealth of instructive case studies provided in Scripture to aid one in how to display that love most effectively. Brethren, let's lay aside the "rule book" mentality. Let's simply learn to LOVE. There is an abundance of precedence for that, and it's not that difficult to discern if we're willing to use a bit of common sense in our reading of Scripture.


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

In my daily studies I have been reading your Reflections, and today I have been focusing on just how confusing the idea of "my church only" can be. As I thought about this, I recalled Frank McCourt's memories of life in Ireland: all the fighting between Catholics and Protestants over the years, and how it messed up his mind until he thought his soul was a hopeless case. So sad! I think this may be the reason so many young people are now leaving the church (i.e. the battles waged over this "my church only" thinking). Al, I want to thank you for all your years of service and diligence to Truth in spite of so much opposition from those of this mindset. Never give up!

From a Reader in Australia:

Al, at this blessed time of the year when we remember the death of our Savior and (thankfully for us) His resurrection, I was sitting here pondering on my many blessings. One of the first ones that came to my mind is my time spent together with you and your wife Shelly at several Tulsa Workshops where you were one of the speakers. I also want you to know what a blessing it is to continue to receive teaching from you through your Reflections. Al, may you and Shelly and all your family stay safe during these unprecedented times of Covid19. For my wife and I, this virus has given us a time not only of self-isolation, but a quiet time to stop and think. This time of reflecting makes us realize not only how blessed we are in so many ways, but also how blessed we are to have access to resources such as your Reflections. Thank you, brother, for your ongoing friendship and love, and for the work you put into producing your Reflections. Al, please stay safe, and may your work continue to be blessed by our Lord. Your Reflections continue to be both a challenge and an inspiration. With all my love, Mate and Brother!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, your Reflections stay in my inbox until I get time to sit and dwell on them. I just had a chance to read and reflect on your article titled "To Fulfill All Righteousness: Solidarity & Substitution Theology: A Reflective Study of Matthew 3:15" (Reflections #793). I love the quote you gave by Charles Spurgeon at the beginning of your article: "A man who knows that he is saved by believing in Christ does not, when he is baptized, lift his baptism into a saving ordinance. In fact, he is the very best protester against that mistake, because he holds that he has no right to be baptized until he is saved." I have been in the "ballpark" of this thinking for some time now, even though I have used different words to express it. I was raised with the idea that the baptism of Jesus had to be different than our baptism because He didn't have sins to be forgiven. When I started reading and thinking for myself, however, I threw that thought out the window and started from the point of believing we, even today, were "fulfilling all righteousness" in the same way as Jesus did. What I came up with was that Jesus was declaring His acceptance of His role in God's plan. I believe His statement (i.e. His baptism in water), just like our own, is a declaration to God and to all who witness that act that we accept God's plan for our lives and are "all in." Love ya, Al. While there may be a handful of people attacking you for the things you teach, I would suggest to you that there are thousands more for every single attacker: thousands who truly appreciate you! The ONE who has you in His corner proclaiming the gift of GRACE that He has offered so that all may claim their role in His Kingdom is far greater than any of your attackers. I am praying that this current situation (the global pandemic) comes to a conclusion very soon so that I can enjoy looking forward to coming to New Mexico in mid-July for some good fellowship with you in person!

From a Reader in Canada:

Al, I really appreciate all you do for me, and I am sure all of your readers feel the same way. Your work causes me to meditate and rejoice; and to reflect, which puts me on my knees in prayer, and makes me think on what more I ought to be doing in allowing the Lord Jesus to live in me and through me. Man, I really get a great deal of uplift spiritually reading what God's Spirit has inspired you to write. Thank you for this! Also, Jesus died with a kingdom psalm (Psalm 22) on His lips. That psalm starts with the cry of dereliction ("My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?") and ends with a triumphant faith-declaration ("The kingdom is the Lord's ... all the earth will serve Him ... He has performed it"). Jesus had faith in God's word to the very end. Because Jesus' faith did not fail, we are justified by His faithfulness. This shows how important the kingdom message was to Jesus!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Brother Al, I just read your latest Reflections titled "Saint-Sifting Strategy of Satan: A Reflective Examination of Luke 22:31" (Reflections #794). This article is very well done and, as I expected, contains a lot of interesting and hearty material. Your statement: "The Savior is ever seeking to lift those whom Satan is ever seeking to sift" is superb and captures the global message of the Lord's fascinating revelation to Peter in an easy to remember form. I shall most definitely be repeating that statement of yours! Thanks for the work you have done on this topic, and I am sure your many readers around the world feel the same way. Job well done!! May God richly bless you and provide protection for you and yours during these difficult days.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Al, in your article "Saint-Sifting Strategy of Satan" you wrote, "Satan was coming after the apostles; he was coming after Peter; he is coming after us. His goal in sifting them/us is to find the 'rubbish,' and there is plenty of that in each of our lives! Yet, while Satan sifts, God's Son lifts -- He lifts us up in prayer, that is, as He intercedes for us before the Father's throne!" Powerful words, brother! I needed to read this today. Much love for you and your family during these crazy "sifting" times!

From a Reader in Florida:

Dear friend, thank you for showing the relevancy of the Scriptures to our troubled times. It is so good to read commentary that is useful right now (today), without all the bumper-sticker rhetoric with its shallow sentimentalities and thawed out, ready-made answers. I was wondering this morning, as chaplain of a large residential facility, what I could say today to calm the anxiety, frustration and fear that seek to grind away one's faith and hope during this time of uncharted waters. You have raised the bar for me today with your latest study. Thank you!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Thanks, Al, for your Reflections. I look forward to reading them. Also, I like how you are now sending out a brief email (instead of the entire article itself) introducing your weekly article with a brief snippet and a link to the new study. I hope your family is well.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Al, you are such an encouragement to me! Hang tight and don't let those brethren who refuse to see Truth get you down.

From a Reader in Colorado:

Al, I'm so grateful for your work and how it has helped me study and walk closer to the Lord. I go to your web site and read your Reflections every day!

From a New Reader in Mississippi:

Please subscribe me to your Reflections. Thank you! I was on your web page and read one of your studies today, and I was taught by it and want to read more! God bless you!

From a New Reader in Texas:

Please add me to your Reflections mailing list. I have just "discovered" you, and I find your work challenging and refreshing!

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, I havenít told you this in a while, but I feed on your Reflections almost daily; sometimes more than one per day. They continue to open my eyes, strengthen me, refresh me, and bless me in so many ways. Some of your articles I read multiple times because there is so much to drink in. I have tried to share your writings many times, but most people in these parts refuse to have their comfortable world shaken. I, on the other hand, love to be challenged! Thatís the only way to stretch and grow. Thank you so much for sharing these studies with us, and please continue!

From a Reader in Georgia:

I find myself, more often than not, identifying with Peter. Some of us have to learn the hard way, I suppose. But it gives me great hope that Jesus never gave up on Peter, and thus Peter never gave up on himself (although he did need to go fishing and collect his thoughts, but that's my kind of guy). Regarding the story in Job (to which you alluded in your article), I don't recall Satan approaching God about Job. It seems to me, as I read it, that it was God who brought Job to Satan's attention (not vice-versa) ... and He did so twice. It seems pretty clear to me that God was in some way using Satan to do some work in Job.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, I have noticed that not all of your Reflections are listed under a topic in your Topical Index. At times, there are Reflections mentioned in other articles, with the issue number provided, but when I look under your topics on the index page that number isnít there. I was looking for one today that was mentioned in your notes, but no number was given. It is: "Ever Seeing, Never Perceiving." I would appreciate it if you could provide me with that lesson number. Also, I want to read your Reflections article numbered 640 again, but I donít know how to go back to it. The only way I originally found it is because it was mentioned in another Reflections article (and I donít remember which one). It was great! I have a couple of ministers I am going to share your Reflections with, so I also want to make sure that all of your studies are available under a topical heading. Otherwise, there is no way to find them. Sorry this is so long, but your labor of love through your Reflections has changed my life, and I know it has and will continue to do so for others as well. Al, I am in awe over your detailed studies. You don't miss anything. Your coverage and research of a topic is exhaustive. The manner in which you methodically lay out your material makes everything so clear. You have shown a light on Truth that has forever changed my life. I just want everyone else to be so blessed. Thank you so much. Blessings!

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