On Sunday, I preached a sermon in which I addressed the claim by certain writers who are at least formally Orthodox that, while dogma is non-negotiable, morality is not dogma and is therefore subject to revision. I showed how this reveals an ignorance of one of the most famous passages in Scripture, Acts 15, which includes the original and archetypal Christian dogmatic statement, in which the Apostles dogmatically stated that Gentile converts to Christ were to refrain from idolatry and sexual immorality. In other words, dogma includes morality. The Apostles were making an application of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) as it had always applied to Gentiles in Israel’s midst. In other words, they were stating nothing new.
The claim that morality is not a category of dogma (whether one wants to use separate or distinct does not matter too much if the point is to make morality negotiable) is also nothing new, though the vocabulary is of course different from what we may be used to seeing. It is simply a repackaging of a dilemma which arose most potently in the sixteenth century in Western Europe, conditioned by a Protestant movement that arose in seventeenth-century Germany.
We are in fact seeing another iteration of Protestant theology. It is not what I would call the good kind, however, i.e., the kind that still most resembles what is in the Scriptures and their interpretation by the Church. Rather, it is the kind that is all too common now, in which the Scriptures themselves are believed to be superseded by “what we now know,” etc., and of course the usual target of such supersessions is morality, especially sexual morality.
What’s happened here is that two iterations of Protestantism have merged to produce this theology: 1) the Faith and Works dilemma and 2) Pietism. I will discuss both of them here in brief just to make this dynamic clear. I will begin with Pietism, however, because it is what (ironically) sets the stage for the acceptability of moral revisionism.
I should first state at the outset here that no true Pietist would ever accept moral revisionism. Indeed, the opposite is true. Pietism arose as a response to the doctrinal debates of the Reformation era, coming from a feeling that endless arguments about soteriology and so forth were detrimental to the Christian life. What really mattered was trust in God, individual piety, and living a vigorous Christian life. That of course included living a morally upright life.
What’s important about this for our purposes is that this weakens the identity of morality and worship with dogma — the seamless garment of the Church. What happened is that some of the commandments of God (what we would call morality and piety) were insisted on, while some of the other commandments of God (believing what is true about Him and His work) were made, well, not quite optional, but with some acceptable variability to them.
The astute reader will see here nearly the exact same argument as the one being made by morality-is-not-dogma revisionists, though in the other direction. In that case, morality may not be wholly disconnected from dogma, but it’s morality (not dogma) that is subject to variability.
And the reader who knows the Scripture well (which ought to be a basic barrier for entry for anyone teaching theology) will see essentially an iteration of the serpent’s question in Genesis 3:1: “Did God really say…?” So while a Pietist would say, in effect, “Did God really say that we have to believe such-and-such a soteriology?” the modern moral revisionist would say, “Did God really say that marriage is only ever between man and woman?”
The effect of Pietism is to say that what one believes doesn’t really matter so much as what one does. You might think that this would be a direct refutation of moral revisionism, but ironically it’s actually why moral revisionism is possible. How can that be so?
The reason why the moral revisionist feels comfortable saying that dogma is non-negotiable is because no one actually cares about dogma so long as you don’t tell him what to do. It’s easy to be dogmatic about things no one cares about. Dogma has lost its force because no one is enforcing it. And why is no one enforcing it? It’s because we tend to treat it as something that’s just in one’s head.
This is why, for instance, you don’t see newspaper articles about churches’ teachings on soteriology, but you see them when they talk about abortion or gun control. This is the result of Pietism woven directly into the daily fabric of civic life.
So who cares if someone wants to insist on the two natures of Christ so long as he doesn’t say anything about sex? That’s why the moral revisionist is comfortable saying that dogma is non-negotiable but that morality is up for grabs.
So now that we’ve discussed the conditions in which moral revisionism can arise, let’s talk about what it really is — just another iteration of Protestant soteriology.
Faith and Works
One of the problems that has bedeviled the Protestant world ever since Martin Luther emphasized his distinction between faith and works — Sola Fide, that salvation is “by faith alone” — is that that distinction is often driven to separation.
It was almost within moments of this emphasis of his that antinomianism — the teaching that following God’s commandments is not necessary so long as one believes certain things — arose, claiming to be inspired by Luther. He was himself of course rightly horrified at this development.
This teaching of Luther’s was an attempt to deal with a perception that salvation was about earning one’s way to heaven, that good works were a kind of currency with which one could buy the Kingdom of Heaven. So with the Biblical language of salvation being a gift in their mouths, the Reformers insisted that salvation did not in any sense depend on what you do but only on your faith. What was happening was that “faith” was being made distinct from “works” in such a way that one could imagine one without the other — even while most of them would say that you never would actually have the first without the second.
Nevertheless, ever since the Reformation accepted this basic idea, that “faith” is a matter of belief that does not depend on what you do, the debate within Protestantism about what to do with all the commandments of God has raged. There are many ways that this problem has been attempted to be solved.
The most common way is to say that faith produces works. Most Christians would agree with that, of course. So you put faith on the soteriology side of things, and good works flow from salvation but are not necessary for it. But the problem with that solution is that the Bible includes numerous statements that God will judge us based on what we do (2. Cor. 5, Matt. 25, Rev. 20 & 22, etc.).
And let’s not forget that about sexual immorality in particular, God says that such defilement will make the land vomit out those who do such things. And lest anyone think that these commandments might have applied to ancient Israel but not to Gentiles:
And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;) That the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you. (Lev. 18:25-28)
This from the Holiness Code the Apostles reaffirmed in Acts 15. God is saying that this vomiting would apply not just to Israel if she did these things, but also to Gentiles sojourning among them and even to those who were in the land before them. (Some like to abrogate Old Testament commandments by listing things like shrimp (cf. Lev. 11:10,12) alongside sexual immorality, but they’re not reading closely. Not all commandments of the Law were given to all people.)
“Faith produces works” is the most common attempt to solve this problem. Those who would say that true faith produces works would still emphasize that what one does does not make one saved. So, while refraining from sexual immorality doesn’t make you saved, someone who is saved will refrain from sexual immorality. (If you’re a certain kind of Calvinist, you may add in some divine determinism in terms of the “perseverance of the saints.”)
A somewhat reduced version of the faith-produces-works theme makes works rather more optional, and one might say that it could be expressed as faith-tends-to-produce-works. Good works are, in other words, laudable but ultimately optional. These are those who believe in “once saved, always saved” and may even say, “After you’re saved, whatever you do does not really matter. You still go to heaven.” This version is referred to by critics as “Easy Believism.” Just believe the right things, and you’re in. Oh, and try to be good.
I could go on and talk about other iterations of the attempt to solve the faith/works problem, but I hope the above suffices for an introduction to it.
The Scriptural Refutation
In the end, the refutation of moral revisionism is the same as it is for this faith/works dilemma, and it is summarized well in James 2. It is likely that moral revisionists would not want to revise the whole of the moral law of God, i.e., they might say that murder is always bad, but let’s maybe revisit some of this sex stuff. Yet this is addressed directly by St. James:
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10-11)
You don’t get to pick certain commandments of God to be absolute and not others. St. James here gives equal weight to the commandments not to kill and not to commit adultery. There is nowhere in Scripture where the Prophets or Apostles say that one is allowed to transgress certain commandments so long as one keeps others.
But here is the real killer to the false teaching that morality (works) is not a non-negotiable element of dogma (faith):
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:14-26)
To this the moral revisionist might say “faith produces works,” or rather, “dogma produces morality,” but unlike the original Reformers, the works/morality that he has in mind can change from age to age. But James refutes them both, not only describing works/morality as the very “spirit” of the “body” without which faith/dogma is “dead,” but he also reminds his readers that the commandments of God are specific and non-negotiable.
To illustrate this, let’s use St. James’s example of Abraham: The moral revisionist would allow Abraham to believe God but to carry out some other commandment than the one God had given him. But if Abraham had not done exactly what was commanded, he would not have been called righteous and the Friend of God.
I imagine it likely that the moral revisionist would be in favor of the morality that says to feed the hungry which St. James mentions in 2:15-16, but would pass over the vomiting out from God and the land that comes from sexual immorality.
To conclude, let’s use the language of St. James alongside these terms:
Thou believest [in the dogma] that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that [dogma] without [morality] is dead?
Even if one accepts the anti-Biblical idea that morality is not a category of dogma, it is clear that God has judged the demons on their immorality, not on their dogma.
If God has judged the demons on their immorality and is not planning to let them go free on the basis of morality being a negotiable variable over time, how much more should we ourselves tremble if we urge the faithful to the faith of demons?
Make no mistake: God’s commandments are eternal, and those who transgress them without repentance will suffer the same fate as the demons, to be cast into the outer darkness, outside the Kingdom of God.
Excellent article and one that is much needed. The Church is under attack by sophists from both outside and inside who use mental gymnastics and clever word play to try and undermine true Christianity. When people in the Church start pushing for moral relativism, the embrace of modernity or when a Metropolitan demands open communion, it is time to speak out.
Thanks for writing this… something I wrote to some friends and my Priest recently, this gist being:
Selfishness, happiness, fulfillment is the underlying motivation for negotiating with morality. And yet, these are the dialectal opposites of theosis. Sin is the transgression of the Law, but the Law is ascetical in nature with the goal of theosis and life in Sacred Space. So, it is not merely law-breaking, the laws, the Commandments are there as rails, narrow paths, to which we submit ourselves recognizing their place as means to theosis when accompanied by faith and the empowering of the Holy Spirit – and the Law is inherently anti-selfish.
Selfishness, happiness as an end goal is opposed to selflessness because happiness and selfishness are byproducts of the fall whereby we seek to sooth and cope with death through distraction, satisfaction in another besides or in addition to God, and since we are now immortal through the Resurrection, death and selfishness, survival mode living, has been annulled. This is why the opposite of faith is fear and fear and faithlessness, being synonymous, are sinful. Survival mode is faithlessness in the reality that God can truly provide – the power, the bread, the temptations that Satan exacerbates due to the fear of death – Christ faced, opposed, and we do the same. Negotiating with morality, situational ethics and so forth are ways of finding out how to baptize a temptation, a desire that is inherently based on fear and not faith. The fear, which drives the arguments for negotiation, is that of a life which is utterly miserable unless negotiations can be made- and they are the same arguments employed by all negotiators: abortion defenders or abortion “look the other way-ers”, often the justification for divorce, infidelity, and basically every sin when you get down to it. We’re all in the same boat here as self-justifying in the moment of sin. But, we are not sober when we sin. Anyone actively defending or engaging in deliberate sin is not sober and this is usually who we have the pleasure of arguing with and therefore the arguments are often outrageously poor, but then, you get people who are high-functioning sinners, and these make for the most excellent of heretics.
Any relationship which seeks happiness, which is another word for security, as an end in itself, is opposed to theosis because fear is driving the need for said security whether by pleasure, fulfillment, the lie that unless a specific mode of existence is entertained life will be miserable… This does not mean that there is no difference between those who are morally upright and are basically selfish and those who are not and are also basically selfish. The difference being, that one can make correction and be on a narrow path, the other cannot keep both the narrow path and a diversion that is guaranteed by the Scriptures and all Tradition to de-rail you.
All negotiation with morality is negotiation with the telos of man because morality, if you want to call it that, is a trajectory with precise alignment such that any degree of error extends into infinity especially as it relates to the conscience and if it is informed by the Mind of Christ in His Church, Scriptures, and the record of those who have defended the alignment in Tradition. Relationships that are inherently selfish, or are prohibitive to theosis because of either the Commandment, Natural Law (and I realize that we do and don’t have the same emphasis on Natural Law as others), or because they cannot further the vocation of man as Prophet, Priest, and King, or because they are anti-analogical to the intention of God – you need a Bride and a Groom for a host of Biblical analogy – there are many reasons to reject modifications to “morality” or to Biblical teleology, anthropology, eschatology – all of what others see as rejection are truly affirmations of Orthodox Christology, anthropology, teleology, etc. – and the impetus to follow this narrowness (amazing how Christ uses narrow in positive sense while we almost univocally use it negatively), is precisely because it is the cure for the fear of death, the insight into the workings of the Enemy, and necessary preparation for enduring Christ’s gaze into eternity while also enjoying and delighting in the Communion of the Holy Trinity, our Holy Mother, all the Saints, all the hosts and ranks of heaven.
But, I want to say this and I hope you’ll approve the length here – and really I only want to see you address these things with posts of your own – that the deficient, anti-Biblical, anti-Tradition(al) view of Heaven, as eternal bliss instead of the New Jerusalem set up on terra firma where the meek claim their inheritance, is totally based on selfishness and when you retro this back onto teleology you lose the fact that membership, family inclusion in the Divine Council ruling and reigning with Christ is what you’re telos is right now and when the Kingdom is fully present and the earth and the heavenly have no division whereas now they overlap as the Mustard Tree continues to grow, the yeast continues to leaven. Really, I don’t think Orthodox, without having first adopted the Protestant and Catholic imagination of heaven, would ever think of trading a martyr’s crowning and assumption of the ruling vocation with Christ, with the never-ending vacation (that may be harsh and unfair to some, to those I would apologize, but imaginatively this is the picture often painted) of many and much of Protestant and Catholic portrayals of heaven.
God bless you Father,
I’m afraid some of that went over my head! But I wanted to chip in my own two cents worth, I think this is related. Mind you now, I was raised a sort of non-denominational Protestant (more Congregationalist than anything), eventually moved to the Episcopal Church, and ultimately to Orthodoxy (with an intermission in Rome for several years).
One of the fundamental (haha!) problems with Protestantism is simply that what with so many different flavors trying to get along, everyone pretty much has to concede that all the other Protestant denominations are at least “valid” , even if you don’t agree with them: Baptists must baptize by immersion, most others allow that pouring or sprinkling is just fine, some don’t really do it at all (whatever it was I was raised as, babies were christened, and when of age, you could make a statement that you “accepted” your christening as your baptism, or opt for a re-do.)
All to the point — Protestantism can’t really say that ANY of their 57 different varieties are right OR wrong, most of it is just preference. A few sects go pretty far “out there”; there is one, I believe one of the Pentecostal groups, who have reverted to Modalism in their doctrine on the +Holy Trinity+! So immersion or pouring, wine or grape juice, bishops or none, none of them can say anything is really wrong or right, it’s all up to your own understanding.
And isn’t that what the whole New Age Movement is about? Once you pare away the Christian rind, the flesh inside is the same old — very old! — fruit, which says, “It’s all about me.” Every man his own church, every man his own pope.
Martin Luther — Apostle of the New Age.
This variety is essentially the origins of Pietism as well as most Protestant ecclesiology. So you are right to make that connection.
I remember saying to the pastor of my previous Presbyterian church, that if I leave, there is really no danger for me, and if there is no liability, there is no reason you can tell me to stay, and there is an admission at this point that there is no authority – because what to believe in an outrageous number of things is based on conscience – there is a principle more conspicuous in Reformed churches – that they cannot bind the conscience. So, and this is very crucial, as long as I stay in a church that believes in justification by faith alone, I’m okay, heterodox, but okay in terms of salvation.
But, we cannot blame them as if they invented all of this. All they have to work with is their system, and it is more the fault of a system based on Total Depravity because that sets up the need for monergism. If Total Depravity were true, through solidarity with Adam’s sin, then monergism would be the appropriate remedy and while you may be willing to fight a war over other doctrinal disputes, or to force unity (which doesn’t pan out throughout history), ultimately you could not likely tell someone that they will go to hell over what they perceive to be a heterodox view.
I could go on and on, but you will see that for a conservative denomination, being Evangelical first before there denominational distinctives, is usually considered proper. It’s Mere Christianity and distinctives get lost. So, you will likely see little difference between a Presbyterian’s view of the Lord’s Supper and a Baptist’s though they should be quite different. We delayed the baptism of our boys for years as I struggled intensely (and the struggle is due to Total Depravity at heart, same with the struggle to justify baptism for infants in Catholicism) – but no one ever pushed us on the issue. Isn’t that interesting.
Last, the other reason besides the one’s Father has pointed out for what has resulted in moral revisionism, is that denominations due to all of their inherent flaws, lost all of what had been considered authority which was an illusion all along. This is the real reason for separation between Church and State, because, if the denominations had their way, we would have been a Congregationalist/Methodist/Lutheran/Baptist/etc. country – or there would have been states set up with laws restricting who could and couldn’t live or operate freely with those states as was attempted in several colonies. So, the proliferation of denominations is at heart, eventually the cause of secularism – and all issues we face today – growing out of a very Christian non-consensus but each group being protected by law – again the reason for secularism – but also, it makes you realize as it relates to our country and then looking backwards, that atheism, moral revisionism, on and on, are not liberalism but heresy. Really there is only truth or heresy but the conscience, purported authority, authority in terms of Mere Christianity, doesn’t protect anyone from heresy.
So, as Father Damick has said, and I have commented to others, that the Orthodox who are promoting moral revision, are like Sola Scripturists because they’ve got to get behind the text, behind the Tradition, re-examine, ultimately to destroy, and to destroy means to theosis – which is precisely why we have Councils which Protestants can no longer have – the best they can do is agree on justification by faith alone and this is where all of their unanimity lies, and really, it is just a necessary byproduct of taking Original Sin in a particular direction – although, there are groups, and they are small minorities, who do take seriously the role of the church in salvation, but they operate in obscurity and again, you are still the authority as they cannot make demands on your conscience.
What a mess, and it only gets worse in “liberal”, more heretical denominations. Watch the news sometime and realize, assuming one side is not full on board with the devil, two heretics arguing with no one to correct them but another heretic.
My personal take is that when talking to Protestants, we focus on presuppositions, asking them to examine them, not to show our frustration with our past, while highlighting the blessings of Orthodoxy (not as a denomination, but as truth).
God bless you..
You start with stating that Acts 15 includes the original and archetypal Christian dogmatic statement – is it Christian dogma that we are to refrain from eating blood, as Acts 15 mandates? I know that there is also somewhere a canon with the same prohibition, but I have read and heard from Orthodox priests which would not at all be considered “liberal” or “progressive” (like Father Patrick Henry Reardon) something to the effect that this prohibition does not universally/permanently apply. Would you call that “moral revisionism”?
As you wrote that Acts 15 “includes” the original Christian dogmatic statement: Which parts of Acts 15 fall under that “includes”, and which parts do not? And who decides? Based upon what?
I can do no better than to point you to Fr. Stephen De Young’s post on Acts 15 which covers this question. See especially his first response in the comments to Kevin.
In short, the eating of blood is not about diet but rather about idolatry.
As for the “includes,” I mean that the whole of Acts chapter 15 is not all the dogmatic statement. Much of it is narrative and discussion of the question.
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