It is meet, right, and salutary that the Church remembers and learns from its heroes of the faith who sacrificed much for our Lord Jesus. Then also, it is good to remember and learn from those whose defense of the faith was especially exemplary over against formidable arguments for unbelief. One such mid-twentieth century apologist who offered a multifaceted defense of Christianity throughout a prolific literary career was the Baptist scholar of Fuller Theological Seminary, Edward John Carnell (1919– 1967).

Carnell’s continuing desire was to demonstrate the intellectual vitality and attractiveness of historic Christianity. Central to his apologetic strategy was to affirm and explore aspects of human nature as contact points or “common ground” between the unbeliever and the Christian faith. Human nature and experience involve a functioning rational self that seeks a unified universe, a volitional self or free self, that seeks personal happiness, a moral self that is fulfilled in the attainment of personal rectitude, and a vital self that finds true peace and security in a mutual love relationship with God. With these as contact points within the sinful human condition, Carnell defended the Christian faith by demonstrating that it alone fulfills the ultimate concerns of human existence.

The following is an overview of the moral self and the heart-centered approach Carnell offered in his work, Christian Commitment (1960). Throughout his career, Carnell believed that a major ethical problem was how to unite a sense of duty with personal desire. Self-love grounds our desire to protect our own dignity and the obligation of others to do the same. Instead of surveying the conscience, Carnell sought to clarify the reader’s moral commitments by surveying what is demanded of others to protect our sense of self-dignity when entering our circle of nearness. Whenever others offend our dignity, we judge them guilty by what Carnell called judicial sentiment. Judicially motivated judgments of others who wrong us are indicators of the moral understandings to which we are committed.

Using common everyday events, Carnell sought to clarify that there are three standards of duty that we demand others to respect to protect our dignity.

In Christian Commitment, Carnell offered his inner moral reflection as a sounding board and stimulus for the reader to do the same. He hoped to highlight the gap between what one senses he ought to possess (moral uprightness) and what, in fact, is reflected in his life (sinful pride and pretense). Following the Socratic method, Carnell shows the reader that while he or she already accepts love as the law of life, tension exists between that acceptance and the loveless manner of his or her own life. The law of love is the standard by which we judge others when they violate our sense of dignity. Judicially motivated action most reliably reflects our commitment to the character of moral uprightness in the law of love.

Using common everyday events, Carnell sought to clarify that there are three standards of duty that we demand others to respect to protect our dignity. The first is the law of justice. Justice is the standard of obligations that others have when they enter our circle of nearness simply by recognizing that we are human. The stuff of justice is expressed by universal human rights and the principle of fairness. It answers to aspects of dignity shared by all simply because they are human beings. Obligations to the law of justice are always in force and apply to everyone. Nevertheless, maintained Carnell, justice alone does not define the full core of the moral and spiritual environment that respects the dignity of our person.

There are aspects of our personal dignity that are unique to each of us as individuals. Others must respect both our common rights as well as those aspects of self that are unique to each of us. When elements of our individual selves are revealed to others, they are aspects of our personal dignity that also must be respected. The law of consideration requires a moral obligation based on the revelation of individuality, such as when we humbly ask a favor. Obligation and culpability to this law are morally valid based on elements of our individuality, rather than our shared identity.

Our shared identity with all human beings makes it meaningful to speak of our just rights in society. When the formal side of our life is revealed, the moral sense is satisfied with justice. By recognizing that we are human beings, others are obligated to treat us fairly and not abuse or transgress our bodies, our reputations, our sexuality, or our property. But when our individuality is revealed, moral obligation is passed from the mere standard of justice to consideration.

Still, Carnell recognized that the law of consideration also falls short of a perfect moral response. To fully respect the dignity of our person, even unrevealed individual elements must be respected. Only love embraces and accepts the whole self, revealed and hidden. He who loves fulfills the core of the law of life and moral uprightness. Justice and consideration are valid expressions of law, but without love, they lack moral worth. It is the law of love that reveals both our failures and the failures of others when just and considerate actions do not flow from a loving, joyful regard for the dignity of others. We all need deliverance from the guilt of our transgressions within the moral environment. These transgressions are obvious to each of us based on our own judicial sentiment.

Carnell recognized that the law of consideration also falls short of a perfect moral response. To fully respect the dignity of our person, even unrevealed individual elements must be respected.

Only the righteousness of Christ - in his fulfillment of the moral law and his forgiveness - closes the gap between what we are (the descriptive essence) and what we ought to be (the imperative essence). While love comprises the imperative essence and the law of life, only the love of God in the saving work of Christ Jesus adjudicates our guilt and fulfills the demands of the moral environment to which we are all committed.


The following is drawn from the entry “Edward John Carnell: Finding Common Ground for Apologetics” by Steven A Hein in, The History of Apologetics: A Biographical and Methodological Introduction, B.K. Forrest, J.D. Chatraw, A. McGrath, eds. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2020), 521-39.