On Sunday, I preached about how morality is the original dogma, and as I was helpfully reminded, when the apostolic decrees were spread after the council, they were described as τα δογματα (“the dogmas”) (Acts 16:4), “and so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily” (16:5), an indication that a flourishing church is one obedient to the dogmas of the Apostles.
Yesterday, I expanded on these themes by analyzing the theological basis for moral revisionism: It is Protestant, but it’s bad Protestantism, being a repackaging of the faith/works false dichotomy/distinction that’s acceptable within a Pietistic world where no one actually cares about dogma, anyway.
Today, I am completing this series of posts by showing how, on its own terms, moral revisionism is simply irrational on multiple grounds, as well as showing how it’s a negation of the gospel itself. In short, it is not just nonsense but anti-Christian nonsense.
The Internal Irrationality
The most obvious irrationality of moral revisionism is that it is internally inconsistent. One would have to search high and low for a Christian moral revisionist who would argue that all morality really is up for negotiation. But once one accepts the idea that codes of behavior are merely conditioned and not from God, then the floodgates are truly opened for all kinds of revisions.
Right now, moral revisionists like the idea of revising sexual morality to approve all kinds of variations in sexual ethics, usually with just consent between adults left as the lone norm. But what if consent became subject to such negotiation? After all, there is nothing in Christian tradition which makes consent the sole norm for sexual expression.
Or why should consent be only for adults? Children may not legally be able to provide consent for such things, but since when are legal barriers the definition for theology? Does theology change the day a child turns 18?
But the sexual slippery slope is not the only problem here. It sounds good to change such things when one sees oneself or one’s friends as being oppressed by the mere existence of moral commands as conditions for life in the Church, but what about other moral commands that some people don’t like?
God commands me to give up my wealth to the poor. I don’t particularly enjoy doing that. Indeed, it actually hurts. I could argue that this is against my consent, that I should enjoy economic autonomy, that not only should the state keep its laws off the body of my wallet, but that the Church should not be expecting me to open it for the poor, for ministry, for the afflicted, etc.
God commands me to refrain from gluttony. But this is against my desires. I am a foodie. It’s what I am way down inside. To deny eating as much and as many things as I desire is to deny who I am. Did God not make me this way for a reason?
God commands me not to bear false witness. But that is not always convenient, and sometimes lying may even make things better. Why should equivocation not be revised into morality if it serves a greater good?
God commands me not to covet what belongs to my neighbor. But how is it hurting anyone if I look longingly over the fence at his various possessions? This one seems entirely pointless to begin with!
God commands me not to murder, but aren’t there some people who could really use it? Okay, this is good as a general rule, but surely there are some exceptions, right?
God commands me to be humble, but what if I prefer vainglory and pride? I mean, again, what does it hurt anyone if I think highly of myself? This is surely a victimless crime!
One could go on about any of the sins that the Lord commands us to refrain from. If you haven’t noticed, how one lives is a major element of the gospel, but if one part of that code of behavior is up for grabs, then there is no logical reason to believe that any other part of it should not be.
The reason why the Christian follows God’s moral commandments is because they are an extension of Who God is. This is why obeying them gives life, because God is life:
Ye shall do my judgments, and keep mine ordinances, to walk therein: I am the Lord your God. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord. (Lev. 18:4-5)
God doesn’t change His commands not because God has made decisions He won’t back down on but because those commands flow from His very character. Changing those commands wouldn’t be a matter of God changing His mind but of God changing Who He is.
Therefore, the Christian doesn’t get to pick which commandments he thinks have become outdated and just set them aside. If he is going to do that, however, he should be prepared to have them all become outdated. And he isn’t going to like what happens to him when people around him start to change the morality that he had taken for granted.
The Ascetical Irrationality
There is a pastoral malpractice involved in teaching moral revisionism, as well. If something was immoral one day but moral the next day, on what basis does a teacher of the faith ever give moral instruction at all? Why should someone strive to be moral in the face of immorality all around him?
It is a deep insult to those who struggle against sinful temptations — which are being thrown at them by demons — to tell them no longer to struggle any more. Why should they struggle for holiness if holiness can change one day to the next? What does it mean to say that God is good if what constitutes “good” can be redefined? Such a morality offers a moving target.
I meant what I said about demons, by the way. We all remember Adam and Eve and their temptation from the devil, but that is not the only demonic temptation that there is. Indeed, all temptations involve the demonic powers. If the moral revisionist acknowledges the place of demons in our temptations (and he has to, unless he’s willing to toss out pretty much everything in Christian tradition), he has to conclude that the demons themselves are changing their minds. Yesterday the demon tempted you to sexual immorality, but today he has left off, and the feelings you have today which were the same yesterday are no longer a temptation to sin but something that is just fine.
The other option is to deny that the demons change their minds, in which case the moral revisionist is encouraging us to give in to demons. What the demon tempted me to yesterday was immoral then, but his temptations today are no problem. I can give in and not be immoral.
The Historical Irrationality
Moral revisionism sounds great if you believe that people are being oppressed by bad moral rules yet you realize that these moral rules were indeed well-established and normal in the Christian past. If you want people not to feel like they have to obey God’s commandments, yet you’ve got those commandments staring out at you from the Scripture, you have to do something about it, and that something in this case is moral revisionism.
By anchoring dogma as non-negotiable, and saying that morality is not dogma, you can (falsely) argue that you are still Christian and even Orthodox, but codes of behavior can change with the times, adapting as necessary over the centuries to make room for new cultural expectations, scientific discovery, etc.
The historical side of all this is to say that the times have changed, and so moral codes need to change with them. But this is just ignorant of the Church’s path through history, which has been profoundly counter-cultural from the beginning.
In the first century in the Roman Empire where the gospel was first proclaimed, all of the following were totally normal, acceptable and even considered moral by Roman society: spousal abuse and murder, child abuse and murder, pederasty, homosexuality, accumulation of wealth at the expense of the poor, military aggression, idolatry, polytheism, adultery, prostitution, etc. One could easily go on.
I am not saying that these things were just common, by the way — they were considered a normal part of society and in most cases even laudable, so long as they supported the societal structure in which the strong dominated the weak. That domination was understood to be divinely ordained. The gods made men strong and women and children weak, and that is how things should be. No one said that all were created equal or of equal worth. Consent was not even a thing except between equals, and inequality was normal.
When Christianity came on the scene, it upended all these norms and made the claim that God’s commands superseded all societal norms. The commandments of God were not subject to social conditioning. God is not socially conditioned, so His commands are not socially conditioned.
One of the things that converted people to Christ was that they saw that Christian morality was radically different from the society around them. Women and children were regarded as persons. The poor and slaves were regarded as persons. Might did not make right and was not divinely ordained.
In other words, Christian morality was the opposite of what was socially conditioned. This radical disparity held so strongly that even when Julian the Apostate tried to turn the Empire away from Christ and back toward idolatry, he complained that Christians cared for both Christian and pagan poor and he wished that pagans would be more, well, Christian in their ethics.
The Gospel Means Keeping the Commandments
When I was a kid growing up, I remember listening to a radio program named Unshackled. I loved it. The basis for each episode was the story of someone who had been mired in sin converting to Christ and being released from that bondage. It is one of the most classic of Christian radio dramas.
One might say that this is just revivalist Protestantism, but the idea of moral conversion is in fact from the Scriptures themselves. Over and over, we see that becoming part of the covenant people of God means laying aside immorality and embracing a new way of living. It means keeping the commandments. One of the classic passages is from St. Paul:
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9-11)
It’s quite clear that Paul regards converts to Christ as having laid aside those sins. The moral revisionist says that he may take them up again because they’re just not sins any more. He may say that this is part of an ongoing process of “discernment,” that he can now discern that these things which Paul thought were sins just aren’t any more.
But here’s the thing: If you’re “discerning” something that is contrary to the commands of God as given by the Apostles and Prophets, then the discernment you’re using is not from God. God does not contradict Himself. What we are called to discern is what God has said, not how we think otherwise.
Just from a quick search, we can see that God expects His commandments to be kept and makes that commandment-keeping a condition for eternal life, for loving Him, for receiving the blessings of the covenant. You will search high and low for any word from God that says that the commandments may be changed. And of course they cannot be changed, because they are an extension of Who God is. God’s commandments are eternal because God is eternal.
The Didache, that ancient Christian catechism, begins by telling us that there are two ways that one can live — the way of life and the way of death, and there is “a great difference between the two ways.” And it goes on to explain what each way looks like. As you can see from reading it, a lot of the elements of these two ways are about morality. If we are to believe the moral revisionists, it’s possible that what brings you death today might instead bring you life tomorrow. This is nonsense, and this is anti-Christian nonsense.
In the end, there is one very clear, simple statement on all this from the Lord Jesus Himself that summarizes everything I have said here:
If ye love me, keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
And from that we may conclude that if someone does not keep Christ’s commandments and, worse yet, teaches others not to keep them, then he does not love Christ.
An excellent series, Father. Many thanks for this.
The more I think about these things, the more it becomes clear, that the competing narratives are all about theosis versus another method of salvation. If Adam was immortal, perfect, in a perfect world, with an unexplainable fall (Arminian or Calvinistic, pelagian or semi-pelagian) and theosis was not a goal but maintaining in perpetuity this state through mere obedience with no movement expected, then restoration is back to this state, maybe more than this state, but much more analogous to it.
This false anthropology when played out will set up happiness as and end for man, forgiveness through punishment of Christ restoring man through union with Christ in His punishment for our sins since we could not endure such a punishment, Satan is left out for the most part and is really a non-necessary actor in the show, or he is necessary for God to ensure the fall which he had foreordained in Reformed theology, on and on you go, the connections to this original false anthropology are clear.
This is why I believe showing this incompatibility between Catholic/Protestant and Orthodox view of anthropology would really help to show the stark contrast between Biblical anthropology, teleology and the heresy endorsed in soteriology by the non-Orthodox. This is not to pick a fight or to demonize others, but for their salvation. And to point out where in history we were on the same page with Catholics as a means to unity. There is some ecumenicism in this though it seems fully polemical at first.
As in Protestantism, their unity is solely in soteriology but it does nothing to unite them – whereas, I truly believe this, Orthodox soteriology would rightly unite anyone who embraced it. Orthodox soteriology is truly through the Church and it is easy to see why when the presuppositions are examined. What I mean is, if someone truly embraced the anthropology, soteriology, of Orthodoxy – they couldn’t really embrace it fully without becoming part of the Church. They could try and live it out in some way but anyone who thinks consistently will eventually realize the contradiction.
You can tie Orthodox soteriology to ecclesiology, to Mariology, to everything in the end. I don’t believe this is true in Catholicism without embracing contradictions, and it’s definitely impossible in Protestantism. Catholics should live in cognitive dissonance all of the time it seems to me, and Protestants have none because they are their own authority. The way we go about correcting those in error, or those in our own fold who embrace their errors, is to point out where they should have cognitive dissonance and stay there until they can break through. This all sounds like fighting words to some I’m sure, but what hope is there for stopping moral revisionism, for unity, for whatever – if we cannot convince people, or do not even try, to convince them of Biblical/Orthodox soteriology – because if they will not agree on theosis, they eventually will not agree on morality, ecclesiology, etc.
God bless you Father,
“The reason why the Christian follows God’s moral commandments is because they are an extension of Who God is. “
Blessings upon you in Christ for these posts. I’m a listener in on the conversation- I hugely enjoy your Amon Sûl podcast, and The Areopagus. I am myself a priest in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia – these are in my denomination live questions but gender poorly addressed for manifold reasons
Reading yesterday’s post on Dogma and Morality, something came to me which ‘explains’ their Unity, something which your words quoted above point towards.
In Protestantism in my experience Salvation is widely understood in one hand as escaping Hell and ‘getting into heaven’ Often a message which is curiously devoid of God except as the Good agent making this happen. Often we find the call to morals here but rarely find a rational beyond ‘the Bible says so!’
On the other it is increasingly taken as a human project deeply tied to the myth of human progress. ‘God’ here is just a marker, and frankly in most of the discussion effectively absent – here especially morals are ‘fluid’ and subject to human ‘discernment’
I digress slightly but now my point
Salvation is Theosis
It is Life, the Life Of God
SO dogma reveals God
And ‘morality’does so for it is as you say an expression of Gods Life
To enter Life is to Live towards union with God in Christ.
By and large Protestantism knows nothing of this. If as you suggest their are those amongst the Orthodox who are questioning the Moral Dogmas, perhaps this is also manifesting itself in Orthodoxy? (I heard recently from someone who has travelled widely amongst many ‘churches’ who said that sexual morality was a place of division everywhere in The Church, from Baptists and Brethren even to Orthodoxy
Lord have Mercy
Blessings on your writings
There are certainly people who formally belong to the Orthodox Church who reject some or all of the Church’s teachings, including on sexual morality. That said, it is not at this point an actual point of contention within the Church. That is not to say that it may never be (after all, we have weathered storms of heresies before), but at this point it’s not like it currently is in the mainline Protestant churches or even has come to be for Roman Catholicism.
Very timely and encouraging read Father. I say timely, because the Pope just told the RC church, that it is time for them to consider the exact thing you just spoke of concerning morals so that the church remains relevant in a post-Christian world. Maybe your next post should analyze their statements in light of our own church, an elements within trying to do exactly what the Catholics have been doing for the last 100 years or more. I can’t help but think of the moral relativism of Mainline Church and how irrelevant they have become within modern society. Thanks for encouraging all of us to stay true to our Pearl of Great Price. Blessed Nativity to you and your parish family!
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