By Andrew J. Spencer
Why do some Christians love theology more than people? After all, from an eternal perspective, people matter more than ideas. It does not matter what you believe as long as you are doing good things in the world. Some people who do not even believe in Jesus are better Jesus-followers than Christians—these people are the real Kingdom of God.
If you read progressive Christian blogs or follow left-leaning Christian pundits on social media, you will have likely heard some of the assertions in the previous paragraph. Some form of them is repeated often enough to be recognizable at a glance.
The basic claim of those who make these claims is that practical Christian ethics is the heart of Christianity, while Christian theology is mere speculation about things that are largely unknown and mostly unknowable. Ethics is reality; theology is speculation. Therefore, ethics is more important than theology.
As a Christian ethicist, I heartily affirm the importance of Christian ethics. However, faithful Christian ethics presupposes a foundation of orthodox Christian doctrine. An authentically Christian ethics is the superstructure on a foundation of an orthodox, biblical theology. We cannot do ethics apart from theology.
In her excellent essay “Creed or Chaos?” Dorothy L. Sayers argues,
It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology.
She goes on to explain that Christian morality without a doctrinal foundation quickly becomes humanism, which eventually fails to motivate right action.
Doctrine is the very heart of ethics. Unless you believe the right things, there is little hope that you will do the right things. If someone does not believe that humans have inherent value, they are unlikely seek to relieve their suffering or may justify doing harm while calling it good. Proper concern for the wellbeing of other humans is not self-generated; it arises from an anthropology that values people as made in the image of God. When anthropology fails, so does true compassion for other humans.
For example, movements that advocate for voluntary euthanasia are often couched in terms of individual autonomy and alleviation of suffering. Assisting in the suicide deaths of the old and the infirm is ethical if your anthropology presumes that humans have a right to self-determination and that human suffering is purposeless. A deep theological sentiment lies behind a pro-euthanasia ethic. Ethics springs from a foundation of those doctrines that are believed.
Jesus is clear about belief being the basis for human action. Luke records him explaining the relationship between the act of speech and the beliefs of the heart: “A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart. An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart” (Luke 6:45, HCSB). Bad beliefs will lead to bad character, which will lead to bad actions.
Those who seek to affirm ethics over theology are wrong to diminish the importance of doctrine. However, a fairer critique could, at times, be that theologically sound Christians sometimes fail to live out the ethics that are demanded by their theology. Such was Carl F. H. Henry’s criticism of early evangelicalism.
The core theme of Henry’s brief volume The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is that doctrinally orthodox evangelicals (i.e., those who held to the fundamentals of the faith) often fell into the trap of repudiating social ethics simply because social activism was associated with modernist, theologically liberal Christians. This led faithful and theologically sound Christians to reject just action to mitigate harms, though those actions would have occurred in ways that were consistent with and even demanded by a doctrine faithful to Scripture. Such failures, Henry argued, caused early evangelicals to have an uneasy conscience.
Henry’s indictment of his own theological tribe should come as no surprise, since Jesus’ words about the overflow of the heart are followed immediately by a sharp rebuke of those who have a proper faith, but fail to act on it (Luke 6:46-49). Or, in perhaps the most misunderstood verse in Scripture, James 2:14-17 reminds Christians that faith that does not lead to ethical application is dead.
The problem in these situations is not that people were concerned about right doctrine, but that they failed to act upon it. Perhaps they understood the theological propositions, but did not have a living faith to drive them to live the ethical implications of those doctrines. These critiques are reasonable. However, the assertion that doctrine is unimportant is untenable.
The assertion “ethics matters but doctrine does not” requires a presumption that theology is abstract while action is concrete. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ethics is abstract to the extent that even our good actions are tainted by sinful motivations and have unknown consequences. Theology—the study of God and his works—is concrete inasmuch as its object is known and knowable. Orthodox doctrines are not arbitrary constructions that satisfy the desire for completeness and intellectual attainment of theologians and exegetes. Most theology is done in the crucible of real-life concerns in an attempt to discern what is right and godly, which is the only possible foundation for a Christian ethics. Again, Sayers is helpful as she describes the formulation of doctrine:
Dogmas are not a set of arbitrary regulations invented a priori by a committee of theologians enjoying a bout of all-in dialectical wrestling. Most of them were hammered out under pressure of urgent practical necessity to provide an answer to heresy.
This is no less true about the doctrines that undergird human sexual ethics than it is about teachings that deal with Christology. The church has often had to specifically codify previously assumed or unconsidered doctrines in the face of innovative challenges that threaten to undermine the doctrinal core of Christianity. This does not represent a failure to love the people who hold faulty doctrine: it is a sign of faithfulness to the one who calls Christians to love people. Paul’s admonishment is to speak truth in love, not to reject truth in the name of love (cf. Eph. 4:15).
Christians would do well to live out their faith. They would also do well to ponder Jude’s words to the church, which include a call to contend for the faith—the sound doctrine—that was given to the saints because those who rejected those teachings led others to practice bad ethics (Jude 3-4). Christianity is not merely about right doctrine, but orthodoxy cannot be rejected without a grave cost to ethics.
Andrew J. Spencer is Associate Vice President for Institutional Effectiveness at Oklahoma Baptist University. He holds a PhD in Theological Studies with a concentration in Christian Ethics from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He regularly blogs at www.EthicsAndCulture.com.
The views expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Academic, LifeWay Christian Resources, or any employee thereof.