Creed and deed

Is is possible to separate creedal orthodoxy (whole-hearted assent to the Nicene Creed — or possibly the Apostle’s Creed for those Christian traditions that use it) from particular standards of ethics and morality?

That has been under some discussion among smarter people than me, as I watched and listened. It strikes me as relevant if not crucial to the compass of the umbrella of communion — the question of when it’s necessary to excommunicate someone, for instance, or when one must no longer “agree to disagree” within the same ecclesial body. (Sometimes, it seems to me, it may even require a conscientious believer to leave a body that refuses to draw the proper line, despite the seriousness of schismatic behavior. I’ll leave it at that, because I know good people who remain in denominations that both I and they know have failed in key areas.)

I cannot recall anyone raising the creed/morality relationship earlier than Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith, and he’s been on my “I’m not sure I can trust him” list ever since he did; not because the question is illicit, but because the answer he seemed to give struck me as wrong-headed.

Today, I came across an answer which I think much better, that of Alastair Roberts via the Davenant Institute (if that link does not work, retrieve it from this page, where it’s titled “Does Creedal Orthodoxy Require Traditional Sexual Ethics?,” sexual ethics being the major if not exclusive battle ground today).

Roberts points out how “liberals” formerly emphasized good, ethical deeds over creeds, whereas now “conservatives” may use “orthodoxy” in polemics as synonymous with traditional sexual ethics. He then discusses five possible configurations of the relation between creed and deed, with his preference apparently being the fifth.

I can call it “much better” because, as I read it, that fifth alternative rejects the premise that ethics are outside the creed. The creed incorporates ethics when it professes “I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Belief in the church entails belief in the church’s ethical teaching.

I agree with that, but that lands us on the contested turf of ecclesiology (a word of which, tellingly, the WordPress spell-checker knows nothing; it is the doctrine of the Church).

I believe I’ve found the one holy, catholic and apostolic church, but I’m aware that other bodies (including one prominent and very upper-crusty one that can lay plausible claim to apostolicity), permit things I think absolutely illicit. Getting the “church” question right is crucial.

Even then, shepherds may fail the sheep, fearing or otherwise failing to communicate the whole counsel of God on matters ethical or, as is far too timely in August 2018, making mockery of it in their own lives. I’ve heard horror stories about failures of Christian formation so abysmal that Christians have no idea that, for instance, the Church forbids fornication, or even that it forbids the current version of promiscuously “hooking up.”

You can’t “church shop” on the superficial basis of whether the clergy are hammering home your personal pet subjects, but you probably can’t rely on clergy for 100% of your own Christian formation, either.

Finally, Roberts illustrates how the creedal affirmations of the Church ramify ethically by briefly scrutinizing the Apostle Paul’s condemnation of sexual sin in the Church at Corinth.

So if you’ve wondered about the opening question, check out Roberts’ answer.

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Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.

Greg Coles.

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