Moral Absolutes, the Law of God, and the Imago Dei | Dewey Dovel

by | Aug 23, 2022 | Apologetics, Systematic Theology


If there ever was a time in human history to believe in the existence of an unchanging and absolute standard of human morality (“moral absolutes”), the twenty first century is arguably the most ideal. Within the past three years, the results of “the largest and most comprehensive cross-cultural study of [human] morals ever conducted” were released by prominent anthropologists at the University of Oxford.[1] Upon engaging with over 600 ethnographic resources across the span of 60 civilized societies in the world, this research enterprise found seven “moral rules” pervading each of the groups that were surveyed.[2] As disclosed in this investigation’s published report, the “moral rules” that are deemed universal across ethnic and societal lines are recorded below:[3]

  1. Allocation of Resources to Kin (Family Values)
  2. Coordination to Mutual Advantage (Group Loyalty)
  3. Social Exchange (Reciprocity)
  4. Bravery
  5. Respect
  6. Division (Fairness)
  7. Possession (Property Rights)

The acknowledgement of ubiquitous moral absolutes testify to their identification as a precondition for intelligibility.[4] That is to say, the recognition and enforcement of moral absolutes are not only pragmatic for human flourishing, but they are essential to human existence. Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, Senior Researcher at the University of Oxford’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, concurs with these sentiments based on the revelations unveiled by the aforementioned study.

The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers. People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them. As predicted, these seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures. Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code. All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do.[5]

When viewed from a purely sociological perspective, the presence of any continuity of moral convictions entail a host of follow up questions. Arguably one of the most pressing inquiries stemming from the discovery of moral absolutes shared across the globe is the issue of how? Namely, given the vast diversity that exists across the plethora of human civilizations found throughout the world, how can we make sense of the existence of any shared beliefs about morality? How can the existence of moral absolutes be objectively explained? As has been argued throughout the totality of this series, it is the conviction of the author that the best explanation for moral absolutes—like any other precondition for intelligible experience in reality—is grounded in biblical Christianity. Stated differently, only the Christian worldview can objectively account for the prevalence of shared moral convictions across multi-cultural lines.

So, how does Christianity make sense of the moral absolutes that exist throughout the world? From the earliest pages of the biblical record, human beings are said to be created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). To be created in the image of God is to be visual (bodily), analogical representations of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), utilizing the will and intellect to love God and love neighbor perfectly (Matt. 22:36-40).[6] As such, from the first moment of man’s existence, he relished in flawless communion with neighbor (Gen. 2:18-25), and he enjoyed natural religious fellowship with the One who brought him into being from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7-15).[7] When speaking in reference to the primeval Creator-creature relation, Scripture indicates that man’s natural religious fellowship with the triune God was concurrent with his intrinsic possession of original righteousness, holiness, and knowledge of the Most High (Eph. 4:24Col. 3:10).[8]

While there has been ample debate amongst Christians as to what comprises the substance of man’s original knowledge of God,[9] the comprehensive teaching of Scripture indicates that at the very least, man would have inherently known the 10 Commandments (Rom. 2:14-16).[10] The 10 Commandments, otherwise known as the Decalogue or the Moral Law, are a reflection of God’s character (Ex. 32:15-16); they direct man in how he is to be holy, as God is holy (Lev. 11:44-471 Pet. 1:15-16).[11] Thus, for man to possess concreated knowledge of God—which certainly included concreated knowledge of God’s character—man likewise possessed an original knowledge of God’s universal and unchanging expectations for how to live in this world.[12] Even after man’s fall into sin (Gen. 3:6-24), the moral absolutes contained in the Decalogue did not change, because the changelessness of the 10 Commandments is inextricably bound to the immutability of God’s being (Num. 23:19Mal. 3:62 Tim. 2:13James 1:17).[13]

Although the Bible recognizes sinful man’s tendency to suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-32), it is fascinating to observe man’s inability to eradicate God’s moral law from their purview; indeed, the moral law has been integral to human civilization for millennia.[14] In comparison to the “seven [universal] moral rules” cited from the University of Oxford’s study, the content of the 10 Commandments enjoys significant overlap (Ex. 20:1-17). Consider the following explicit examples from five of the seven moral rules referenced in the study:

  • While the principle of family values is consistent with the totality of the Decalogue, the final six commandments specifically pertain to how man should interact with his neighbor (Ex. 20:12-17). As summarized by the Lord Jesus Christ, what greater family value could there be than to love one’s neighbor as themselves (Matt. 22:39)?
  • The principle of group loyalty is rooted in loving one’s neighbor as themselves, which is the essence of the final six commandments of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:12-17Matt. 22:39).
  • The principle of reciprocity—doing to others as you would have them do unto you—is not only consistent with the final six commandments of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:12-17) but is also encapsulated in the Golden Rule given by Christ during His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:12).
  • The principle of fairness is at the heart of the final six commandments found in the Decalogue, (Ex. 20:13-17) and encompasses the Golden Rule that Christ provided during His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:12).
  • The principle of recognizing property rights is applicable to the eighth and tenth commandments found in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:1517), although an argument could likewise be made to apply this principle to the commandments against murder, lying, and adultery (Ex. 20:13-1416).

In the final analysis, could there be a more compelling or objective basis for moral absolutes in reality than rooting them in the character of God, as innately known by—and as expressly revealed to—His image bearers? According to the reasoning employed by John M. Frame in his volume, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction, the answer is a resounding “NO!”

Moral standards…presuppose absolute moral standards, which in turn presuppose the existence of an absolute personality. In other words, they presuppose the existence of God. But what God?… Of all the major religious traditions, it is only biblical religion that affirms a God who is both personal and absolute. [Only biblical religion sees] that the idea of absolute personality is closely linked to the ideas of a Creator-creature distinction [as reflected in the imago Dei], divine sovereignty, and the Trinity. Compromise these and you compromise the personality of God. This precise pattern of thought is found only in the Bible and in traditions which are heavily influenced by the Bible. Is it then too much to say that morality presupposes the God of the Bible? I think not.[15]

It is the author’s deepest prayer that every reader will embody the mindset reflected by Frame: to recognize the unmistakable intersection between moral absolutes and biblical Christianity. Like every other precondition for intelligibility, moral absolutes affirm the veracity of the Christian worldview and leave all human beings without any excuse for refusing to submit to the lordship of the triune God (Job 12:7-9Rom. 1:18-23). Therefore, may God raise up a multitude of believers to champion and proclaim these truths throughout all the earth (Matt. 5:13-15).

Soli Deo Gloria!

[1] “Seven Moral Rules Found All Around the World,” University of Oxford, February 11, 2019,

[2] “Seven Moral Rules Found All Around the World,” University of Oxford, February 11, 2019,

[3] Oliver Scott Curry, Daniel Austin Mullins, and Harvey Whitehouse, “Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies,” Current Anthropology 60, no. 1 (February 2019): pp. 47-69,

[4] To review a treatment of the architectonic preconditions for intelligible experience in reality, the reader is encouraged to visit the preceding articles in this series. As chronologically expounded within the preceding installments, the reader will examine a treatment of the laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, and the reliability of human sense perception.

[5] “Seven Moral Rules Found All Around the World,” University of Oxford, February 11, 2019,

[6] Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 379-406.

[7] Lane G. Tipton, Foundations of Covenant Theology: A Biblical-Theological Study of Genesis 1-3 (Philadelphia, PA: Reformed Forum, 2021), 70.

[8] This reality is further encapsulated in Question and Answer 10 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Question: How did God create man? Answer: God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.”

[9] Cornelius Van Til contrasts competing understandings of man’s inherent knowledge of God—and of how man comes to know God—at numerous points in, An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God, ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007). However, pages 56-116 and 260-318 are especially useful to the issues discussed in this article.

[10] Richard Barcellos, “How the ‘Uses of the Law . . . Sweetly Comply with . . . the Grace of the Gospel’ (2LCF 19.7),” 1689 Federalism, September 5, 2016,

[11] Historically, Old Testament commentators have noted a “three-fold division” of the Mosaic Law: moral laws, ceremonial laws, and civil laws. Although each commandment within the three observable categories of the Mosaic Law ultimately points to the holiness of God and to the creaturely commission to be holy as God is holy, it is the moral law that explicitly underscores the unchanging character of God that is to be emulated by His image bearers.

[12] Francis Turretin uses volume 3 of Institutes of Elenctic Theology to delineate how the embedding of the Decalogue on man’s conscience is rooted in the imago Dei: “There is implanted in each one from his birth a sense of deity which does not allow itself to be concealed and which spontaneously exerts itself in all adults of sound mind” (3.1.18).

[13] Philip Ross, From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2010), 308-350.

[14] In the appendix section of The Abolition of Man, (New York, NY: Harper One, 1974), C.S. Lewis documents dozens of moral absolutes that have been observed in ancient human civilizations. Many of these precepts are consistent with the statutes contained in the 10 Commandments (83-101).

[15] John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1994), 100.

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