‘If the foundations are destroyed …’ – The undermining of the foundations

Peter Barnes Rev Dr Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at
01 March, 2011 5 min read

Continued from What we owe to the Christian faith

There is an ever present danger that the church will capitulate to the world, usually because of its desire to be considered relevant in its own day.

In his poem Expostulation, William Cowper writes: ‘When nations are to perish in their sins, ’tis in the church the leprosy begins’. The foundational world view of a society is destroyed before the ethical and political superstructures come crashing down.

The problem today is to be located first in the church rather than the world. To cite A. A. Hodge: ‘If the church languishes, the state cannot be in health; and if the state rebels against its Lord and King, the church cannot enjoy his favour.

‘If the Holy Ghost is withdrawn from the church, he is not present in the state; and if he, the only “Lord, the giver of life”, be absent, then all order is impossible, and the elements of society lapse backward to primeval night and chaos’ (A. A. Hodge, Evangelical theology,Banner of Truth, p.247).

It is the condition of the church that explains the condition of society, and not vice-versa. If the salt loses its saltiness, we ought not to be surprised that the world becomes increasingly corrupt (Matthew 5:13-16).

Lost faith

In the year 1875, an Anglican clergyman, Leslie Stephen, a relative by marriage to the great evangelical leader William Wilberforce, decided that he had lost his faith completely, so he solemnly renounced his Anglican orders in the presence of Thomas Hardy, the novelist.

Ten years previously Stephen had written in his journal, ‘I now believe in nothing, to put it shortly; but I do not the less believe in morality, &c. &cc. … I mean to live and die like a gentleman if possible’.

Later that year, Stephen’s wife Harriet (‘Minny’) died at 37, and the heartbroken widower never fully recovered, although he was to remarry and father four more children, including Virginia who became a novelist and married Leonard Woolf (see A. N. Wilson, God’s funeral,Abacus, pp.8-12; Life and letters of Leslie Stephen,University Press of the Pacific, pp.144-5).

Ten years later, in 1885, Thomas Hardy wrote, ‘I have sometimes had a dream that the church, instead of being disendowed, could be made to modulate by degrees … into an undogmatic, non-theological establishment for the promotion of that virtuous living on which all honest men are agreed’ (Ralph Pite, Thomas Hardy: The guarded life, Picador, p.299).

This was positivism’s religion of humanity. Yet Hardy remained a man attracted to loving kindness as an ideal, but was unable to fulfil it in his own life (Pite, pp.474-475).

A most important issue is being raised here. If we do not believe in a God who has made known his will, how can we believe in a morality that is beyond mere opinion? And what does it mean to live and die like a gentleman? In short, can faith be replaced by moralism, and people still live and die morally?


It is Tarrou’s dilemma in Albert Camus’ The plague: ‘Can one be a saint without God? – that’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against to-day’ (A. Camus, The plague, Penguin, p.208).

In his Twilight of the gods, the fiercely anti-Christian philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, dismissed those ‘English flatheads’ – the novelist George Eliot being one of them – who thought that they could have morality without faith.

Nietzsche went insane before his death in 1900, but was sometimes full of insight, as when he wrote, ‘When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality … Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things.

‘If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands’ (cited in Colin Chapman, The case for Christianity, Lion, p.188).

Leslie Stephen was seeking to live his life as though that were not true. He thought that one could discard all notions of revelation and absolute morality, and still be a gentleman. Of course, that can be true in some cases in a limited sense. But at the more fundamental level, Nietzsche was correct – if one abandons the Christian faith, one abandons the right to Christian ethics.


If one rejects the Christian view of God, one logically rejects the Christian view of man, and there is no necessary reason why anyone should try to love his neighbour as himself.

If there is no absolute platform on which to stand, then all is relative. If all is relative, then it is offensive to say that there are absolutes. The one absolute left is that there are no absolutes!

The one offence left to relativism is discrimination – saying that another group is wrong and should be deprived of some rights for being wrong. If everything is relative, only discrimination is wrong.

Those who believe that there is no immovable platform in ethics tend to become rather lame at times when they come to evaluating right and wrong.

For generations now, Western society generally has mocked the notion that there is a God who has made his will known in his Word.

The result is, as C. S. Lewis said in the midst of the Second World War, ‘We make men without chests and we expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful’ (C. S. Lewis, The abolition of man, Collins, p.20).

Can we live easily on a movable platform? John Gray of the London School of Economics declares that the teaching that human beings are different from the animals is ‘Christianity’s cardinal error’ (John Gray, Straw dogs: Thoughts on humans and other animals, Farrar Straus Giroux, p.12).

This is the philosophy of Peter Singer, who has so greatly influenced Green Parties in the Western world. To favour your dog over your child is to be guilty of ‘species-ism’ in Singer’s view.


Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer consider that infanticide ought to be allowed at the discretion of the parents, until the infant is 28 days old (Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, Should the baby live? Oxford University Press, pp.195-196). Indeed, ‘Infanticide threatens none of us, for once we are aware of it we are not infants’ (Kuhse and Singer, p.138).

On this logic, it would be quite moral to commit murder provided the victim is not aware that he is being murdered. The point is, once we get off the platform, where we end up is anybody’s guess, and the result is inconsistency, and/or inhumanity of some kind or another.

To return to the story of Leslie Stephen, his daughter was the novelist Virginia Woolf. She records that, after his renunciation of faith, Stephen’s friends feared that, such was his deep depression, he would commit suicide.

The outcome was more tragically ironic than that. It was, of course, Virginia Woolf herself, who, after a lifetime of instability, sexual infidelity, and mood swings, drowned herself in 1941. We have embraced a culture of relativity which ends in death.

Peter Barnes

To be continued

Rev Dr Peter Barnes is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Sydney, Australia. He has served on the mission field in Vanuatu, ministered on the Nambucca River in northern NSW, and is currently pastor at
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