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 Rather, it is the kind that is all too common now, in which the Scriptures themselves are believed to be superseded by “what we now know,” etc., and of course the usual target of such supersessions is morality, especially sexual morality.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.