Tracing the Roots of Modern Morality: Calvinists and Ethical Foundations -- By: Gary S. Smith

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 44:2 (Fall 1982)
Article: Tracing the Roots of Modern Morality: Calvinists and Ethical Foundations
Author: Gary S. Smith


Tracing the Roots of Modern Morality:
Calvinists and Ethical Foundations

Gary S. Smith

America is experiencing a moral crisis. While church attendance and membership today are near all-time-high levels and the number of those claiming to be born again has risen substantially in the past decade, our moral practices have become worse. Abortions, child and wife abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual aberrations and crime have steadily increased in recent years. Fraud, economic exploitation and racism continue to plague social relations. Underlying these manifestations and contributing significantly to them is a deep uncertainty about the nature of morality itself and the basis for law. The traditional foundation for our ethical practice has been seriously questioned, challenged and even denied. Our present confusion over morality is in part a product of earlier historical developments. To understand the nature of our problem today, it is necessary to trace the rise of secular views of morality. By teaching that all moral ideas and principles are relative, that they are socially produced and maintained, these views have weakened commitment to the Judeo-Christian foundation of ethics and law in America. This essay focuses on the response of Reformed Christians to these secular ethical systems during their most formative period of development, the years between 1870 and 1920.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, antagonism between two fundamentally different moral conceptions was clear. Traditional theistic moralities made divinely revealed truths the authority in ethics; such emerging secular moralities as pragmatism, naturalism, positivism, utilitarianism, and idealism did not. All these secular systems substituted various forms of situationalism or relativism for the long-standing belief in the Bible as the foundation for morality. Expressing this antagonism, such titles as “Are We Passing Through a Great Moral Crisis?” “Blasting at the Rock of Ages,” “The Modern Assault on the

Christian Virtues,” and “Can We Have Morality Without Religion?” adorned the pages of the popular American periodical, Current Literature.1 A British writer observed that humanity was currently “passing through one of the most acute crises since the age of Charlemagne.” The clash between the traditional religious moral code and the one slowly evolving from naturalistic conceptions of the world, he asserted, was producing problems in such varied areas as the relationship between the sexes, the attitude of youth toward the older generation, the conflict between individualism and collectivism, and the tension between internationalism and patriotism...

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