The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical
By Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
Kierkegaard has stated, “The story of Abraham contains a teleological suspension of the ethical.” The Almighty had given a peculiar directive to the Patriarch. It is a directive which contains a number of investigative avenues. But the directive itself is quite puzzling. Some believe that God, the Holy One, would violate the very nature of His being by commanding Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him as a burnt offering because God was commanding Abraham to murder his son. This is an ethical puzzle. Would God tell Abraham to violate the Decalogue? It is readily acquiesced the formal law had not been given yet. But God’s holy character never changes. And since we know that God’s character is the direct mediation to the Law’s nature, we seemingly have a problem. How can God tell Abraham to premeditate a murder, when God has forbid this? Is there some kind of suspension of God’s ethics for a time? Kierkegaard has “wrestled” with this and has come to a conclusion that there must have been a suspension of the ethical law in order to fulfill the divine purpose in a way in which Abraham was not aware; to fulfill the telos – the purpose of the divine counsel. Kierkegaard maintains that true faith in God may be called upon to set aside normal canons of ethics and humanity before the command of religion. Abraham must be ready to sacrifice his beloved son at God’s command, though the act is clearly immoral.
It is first important to look at Kierkegaard’s different stages of a human’s life. Kierkegaard has stated that there are three stages to life: Aesthetic, Ethical and Religious. The Aesthetic life is characterized by the withdrawal of a person from others and only seeks pleasure for him in whatever form his interest lays. Now after the Aesthetical man enters into what Kierkegaard states as dread and despair, he leaps into next level, which is the ethical. Ethical men are nothing more than the false professors of the Galatian church of old–the law keepers, those who strive to do well. Here we find the universal law at work which keeps men and women in check, aligning them with the guides to proper conduct and duty. But they find that the law cannot fulfill their desires and finally the leap into the Religious stage. But the Religious stage is something only God can do. God must cause the “leap” of the Ethical man to the Religious Man. It is not that someone is religious as one would be in going to every Red Sox game “religiously.” This kind of religious man is the converted and repentant sinner who has been granted grace and has been dipped under the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Abraham is this religious man.
God’s dilemma, placed upon Abraham, is this, “Is there a higher “law” above that which the ethical stage may procure?” Kierkegaard states “yes”. “For the genuinely religious person there is a higher and quite different source and form of obligation.” Yet how is it that the ethical stage differs in respect to laws and commands with the religious stage? It is impossible to say that just because a law states “do not kill” as an ethical guideline, that becoming religious gives us a license to kill. Yet it is not that simple either. If God is holy and good, and all that which is good and holy derives from him, no matter what stage it is, how is it possible that just because Abraham knew God, i.e. was religious and converted, that God himself could break a command which would violate his own nature? This seems to be a “glitch”. This would then compel us to fall into a false system of belief called “situational ethics” and that system cannot stand.
Let us move to a simpler example before attempting to justify what seems to be unjustifiable and a real problem in the nature of God. Let us imagine that a man named Bob walks into a bank to make a deposit. While he is at the counter five robbers rush into the bank and overtake all the people. As this hustle and bustle goes on, Bob spies that a young girl has ducked into a broom closet for safety. The robbers, unfortunately, have killed everyone in the bank except Bob and the small girl. The head robber approaches Bob and puts this question to him, “Is there anyone else alive in the bank, because if there is we are going to kill them?” Bob answers swiftly with an “ethical” “No.” The robbers loot the vault and escape. Now we ask, was Bob’s statement breaking any commands of God? Norman Geisler answers this in his “Christian Ethics” with a profound “No”. He directs us to say that the situation, Bob having to answer a murderer, does not oblige us to tell the truth. Thus, Bob did the right thing and saved a life, and the lie “did not count.” James M. Boice, in his small pamphlet “Christian Ethics” says that the answer given was the right one, but, Bob now needs to go into the back room and repent of his lie to God for he did break the commandment “Do not lie.” (Ex 20:16) The violation of the law is sin even if it saves a life.
How does the above example apply to Abraham if at all? Should he repent of his sin, which was of course was in his mind since he was determined to kill his son on the command of God, or is it that just because God said it then that makes it okay to break the law of God–the exception to the rule? Joseph Magno states, “If God is the author of life and death…it follows that God may give and take life sans injustice.” Does this mean that God can violate His own law when he sees fit? Magno goes on to say that anyone who acts to take human life with accord to God’s command acts justly. In the case of Abraham it seems that he was doing right. He was following a direct revelatory act of God’s will which God had communicated to him personally.
Since Abraham is in the “religious stage” when we read the Genesis narrative, we should define what type of obligations there are to such a man under this stage. It seems that morality and religion are perceived as separate realms in order to accomplish the teleological suspension. The central mandate of religion seems to be absolute obedience to God no matter what. So is it that the ethical can be redefined by the will of God, or is it that the ethical becomes more defined by the will of God?
I tend to lean towards the ideas set for by R. M. Green on the matter of Abraham’s conduct. Many assume the episode to involve a religious suspension of moral duty. But if God’s ways here are morally justifiable, then the tension between His command and our sense of moral obligation towards Him vanishes. This adheres to what Jewish thought seeks to capture out of this, not a suspension of the ethical, but “a supreme moment of responsibility on the part of both God and man.” There is no ethical suspension but only a ethical revelation on the part of God towards man. Abraham knows that the command had come from God. And in knowing this he obeyed God rather than disobey on the grounds of his own ethics, for he knew the ethics of God are much higher than his own–he knew God was God. Green states, “There is nothing either irrational or immoral, then, in a belief in a religious moral authority, so long as that authority ultimately supports the independent dictates of conscience.” This does not apply to any religious conviction but that of the Bible and matters dealing directly with the true God. Sagi redefines the meaning between what many feel Abraham was doing on Mt. Moriah. Many feel the act was an act of murder, or rather the intended act of murder. Sagi states that the divine command, in and by itself, suffices to establish the moral duty of Abraham, the knight of faith. We must separate the difference here, the moral duty is toward God, the ethical toward himself, though there are perfect ethics in God. So the ethical expression of what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice him. And these are worlds apart. Here now, since we see that Abraham must obey the divine command, we find it is the moral duty of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
But does this sufficiently answer the question? I think is partly does. It is Abraham’s religious duty to sacrifice Isaac by killing him. But the side-stepped question is this – is it really murder? Is it justifiable for Abraham, upon God’s directive to kill Isaac? We are not told the reason God desires Abraham to do this act. But we do see God’s pleasure in Abraham’s action knowing he did not withhold his only son from Him. Here there seems to be obedient love by Abraham to God. Here the question must be restated, “Since Isaac deserves eternal damnation under God’s hand from Adam’s imputed sin, is it wrong to require Abraham to carry out the means by which Isaac will enter into eternal misery?” This answers the question. The deserving sinner is just that—deserving hell. Abraham was carrying out the means by which God would use to damn Isaac. (This does not mean that later Isaac is not saved; he is saved, but not at this point in his life.) Since we are all “children of wrath” by nature, Abraham has every moral justifiable means to use to carry out the final sentence upon Isaac as God commands him.
The scope of teleology in God and understanding what God intended destroys the arguments which Kierkegaard and others have set forth in a “teleological suspension.” Teleology is seen as that philosophical series of questions which aim at a specific end. So the question is posed, “why did God contradict himself in commanding the death of Isaac?” We know He did not, but Kierkegaard must answer this in terms of a suspension of the ethical since the universal norms of morality have been “overruled by God himself (at least in his own mind).” For the intended end purpose of God he must “cheat” a little and bend the rules in order for the telos to come out right. But this presents problems when faced with the attributes of God; God cannot contradict himself by overriding the law. That would mean that he would have to override Himself which is impossible. The question is still aimed at the intended end, but a suspension of morality does not constitute a likely explanation. There are a variety of reasons for which we can concluded there is not a suspension of ethics in the case of Abraham and Isaac. First, God never intended for Isaac to be killed, thus, there was not a reason for a suspension of ethics. There must be a notation between a decree and a declaration. If God had decreed that Isaac should die in the same manner set forth in Genesis 22, then there would be a great problem with the text and the whole incident, for God would truly be violating Himself within His being and externally to His own law. A Decree is binding and complete from beginning to end and cannot be foiled by the efforts of humans. So if God decrees the death of Isaac, or anyone, then the decree should stand and thus be fulfilled–this was not the case though. By “testing” Abraham God had not violated anything in himself or by the external law he knows to be true. Secondly, though God knew Isaac would not die, and he told Abraham to kill Isaac, this does not mean He has been deceitful. God had not entered into malicious motives in order to damage Abraham in any way, but his intentions were to test him in order to prove his faithfulness. This can only be seen from the human level since we know God is aware of all things, even the outcome. Thirdly, keeping in step with what Scriptures state on this issue, we find Kierkegaard’s allusion to scripture unsatisfying. There are other texts which must be looked at before anyone could reach a logical explanation to this situation.
First we must look at the Genesis account of God’s promise to Abraham. God told Abram “This man [Ishmael] will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir [Isaac].” It is clear that Abraham knew what God was telling him here. The son he shall bear from his own body, between his true wife and himself, will be his heir. At the time of the sacrifice, how is it that Abraham could disregard so great a blessing which had been spoken to him before? He must have known that Isaac would not remain in the grave, or that he would not be killed. Isaac had to remain alive for his heir to become a blessing to all the nations. Secondly, the account of Genesis 22:5 shows us that Abraham knew without a shadow of a doubt he would return back to the caravan with his son. “And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return to you.” How would Abraham bring back Isaac if he had killed him and burnt him up as an offering to the Lord. It would be an entirely different schematic if Abraham had killed Isaac and that God’s intention was so. Yet this is not the case. Thirdly, if Abraham was to kill Isaac he would still have to account for the word in Genesis 22:5 and thus must have felt Isaac would be restored to him through the previous promise of God back in chapter 15. The Apostle tells us in the book of Hebrews that, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “In Isaac your descendents shall be called.” He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type.” He we find the motivation which lied behind Abraham’s commitment to God. For even if there was to be a sacrifice, which was definitely in the mind of Abraham as obedience to God, he would still receive back from the dead his own son. For even if there seemed to be a conflict of interest between what was said in chapter 15, Abraham knew that God knew better. How then can we find justification to this whole matter on God’s end? We see through the passage in James 2:21-22 that the purpose which God had intended was accomplished, “…and as a result of the works, faith was perfected.” The whole purpose of the narrative was to strengthen the faith of Abraham to bring him into the relationship which God had intended to share with him. His radical obedience had forever been stated in such passages as Romans 4 and James 2.
So how does all this fit into the teleological suspension of the ethical? It must be seen in a number of factors that the account of Genesis had no intention of any type of ethical suspension for the teleological end. First, the Divine telos was accomplished when the knife was raised rather than when the knife fell. There was no intention that God wanted to sacrifice his chosen offspring. If that intention had gone through, the true promise of the redeeming seed would not have been accomplished as the divine plan has previously ordained and determined. Second, even though Abraham had thought God would raise Isaac from the dead, this firstborn right was only to be accomplished in the redeeming Son of God; he is the first fruits of creation from the dead. Thirdly, to suspend the ethical in a way in which there leaves leeway to allow for this passage to remain in scripture is nothing more than cheating and ultimately robbing God of his attributes making him less than he truly is. God cannot change his being, nor can he change decisions which are part of his being. God’s nature remains the same and thus, if the ethical is “lifted” to allow for the assumption that God wants Abraham to kill Isaac, then the holy nature of God is violated because he would have gone against what his perfection could not allow. Fourthly, God cannot deceive men, but only test them. As Scripture explicitly states in a variety of texts, God tests and does not “tempt”. He did not deceive Abraham in telling him to sacrifice Isaac. The deception would have occurred if he would have allowed Abraham to kill Isaac making his former promise of covenant blessing a deception. Kierkegaard has overlooked these important points and has not considered them but has fragrantly violated hermenuetical principles to write off Abraham as the knight of faith. Finally, it is imperative to remember that Isaac was not the redeemer but the whole demonstration on Moriah was two fold: 1) to test Abraham bringing his faith to a pinnacle, and 2) to set forth another prophetic type of Christ in some respects.
The ultimate “teleological suspension of the ethical” would have to be argued on behalf of Christ’s work. God sends an innocent man, free from blame, to died for others who deserve death and yet they live while Jesus is crucified. Is this ethical? By all means. We could not say that God “sent his only begotten son” in the sense as Abraham was sent to Moriah to sacrifice Isaac against the true will of God. We must say that God sacrificed himself thus bringing the ethical to a new level of “mystery” which human beings have yet to fully comprehend. Ethics in this situation cannot be violated for God would never do anything contrary to his own nature, and Christ was God. His sacrifice brought knew meaning to us and our way of thinking about ethics. Did not Christ tell us that the greatest thing any man could do would be to lay his life down on behalf of his friends? This is ultimate ethics, ultimate sacrifice to bring us close to God.
The notion that anyone could suspend the true law of God for the sake of their own faulty hermeneutics is irrational and incredulous to say the least. Geisler is incorrect when he states that we are free to lie to a murderer to save our son or daughter. If that lie should spew forth from our lips, God must hate that sin with all of his being for his being requires nothing less. We save the life of a child, that is true, well and good. But now we must go back to our prayer closet and repent. If we do not, then we allow for liberty to overrun us, and because we are fallible human beings, our mind set would be to say that all situations are for some intended end, thus let us sin so grace may abound. But this is all contrary to Scripture, “May it never be!” To say that there is any type of suspension of the ethical is to deny the true God and his holy law.
1. Bretall, Robert. A Kierkegaard Anthology. Princeton; Princeton University press, 1973, page 134.
2. Gordis, Robert. Judaism. The Faith of Abraham: A Note on Kierkegaard’s Teleological Suspension of the Ethical. Volume 25. Fall, 1976, page 414.
3. Becker, Lawrence C. Encyclopedia of Ethics. New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1992, page 520.
4. Magno, Joseph A. Faith and Philosophy. How Ethical is Abraham’s Suspension of the Ethical? Volume 2, Jan. 1985, page 59.
5. Ibid. page 59.
6. Sagi, Avi. International Journal for Philosophy and Religion. The Suspension of the Ethical and the Religious Meaning of Ethics in Kierkegaard’s Thought. Vol. 32. Oct., 1992, page 83.
7. Green, Ronald M. Journal of Religious Ethics. Abraham, Isaac and the Jewish Tradition: An Ethical Appraisal. Volume 10, Spring, 1982, page 2.
8. Ibid, page 18.
9. Edwards, Paul. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Volume 7. New York: Collier MacMillian Publishers, 1967, page 88.
10. Lowerie, Walter. Kierkegaard. Volume 1. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1962, 264.
11. Genesis 15:4b
12. Genesis 22:5
13. Hebrews 11:17-19