Video: Is Ethics Part of Orthodoxy?

My latest Davenant Institute discussion with Brad Belschner has just gone online. On this one, we discuss whether ethics is a part of orthodoxy.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Sex and Sexuality, The Church, Theological, Video. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Video: Is Ethics Part of Orthodoxy?

  1. Geoff says:

    Amen and amen.
    Imperatives flow from indicatives, from the nature and character of our Triune God and the gospel, as revealed from Genesis to Revelation.
    Didn’t you address this issue in an earlier post in response to???.

  2. cal says:

    This discussion draws a question mark over many later creeds. Confessional apologists point to complex and long-form creeds and statements as the necessary means and bulwark to protect orthodoxy. Over elaboration seems to be akin to explaining a joke. Might there be a different methodological concern between, say, the 39 Articles and the Westminster Confession of Faith? As in the witch-hunt for Leithart in the PCA, sometimes it seems confessionalists become lawyers in regard to the hedge around Scripture, mimicking the Pharisees.

    • I think there are important differences between the sort of thing that a creed does and the sort of thing that something like the Westminster Confession of Faith is doing.

      The WCF is a rather different sort of document from the Nicene Creed. It is considerably longer. It is not a narratively structured document to the degree that the Nicene Creed is. It is not a brief summary statement of creation, redemption, and the Triune God as the chief actor in both. Nor is it a narrowly focused surgical statement on Christology as the Chalcedon definitions, establishing crucial philosophical distinctions and performing a corrective function. It has a far more comprehensive aim and advances something closer to a systematic vision (although I don’t believe that it actually amounts to a systematic vision), a vision that makes far more extensive claims upon our reading of Scripture and which also depends in large measure upon the aptness of certain non-biblical categories and frameworks that it employs. It is not as immediately related to Scripture as the Nicene Creed. Nor is it as closely related to the actual worship of the people of God.

      The role that such a document plays in the life of the Church is rather different. The Chalcedon definition was a second order theological corrective statement, on one very specific yet crucially important point. The Nicene Creed is part of the first order speech of the Church. The WCF often has a presence within the first order speech of the Church, but functions primarily as second order corrective and directive discourse. Although it articulates the truths that the church holds, it does not directly confess them in the manner of the Creed (‘We believe in one God…’). For the most part, it is a declaration or enumeration of the truths that are held in a manner more characteristic of speculative reason, while the Nicene Creed is an important part of historic Christian practice.

      It is in a document such as the WCF that the Church’s second order discourse is at most danger of constraining or supplanting its first order discourse (to be clear, it is quite possible to use the WCF without this happening). Beyond simply outlining the fundamental shape of the story, it defines key terms for us, often in a manner that may be in a measure of tension with their less stipulated biblical senses (words like election, justification, calling, sanctification, glorification, regeneration, etc. tend to have slightly different senses in Scripture from their stipulated senses in confessions). When mishandled, such a document is in considerable danger of eclipsing the first order discourse of Scripture. Rather than just keeping our first order discourse from particular errors at key points, it presents a fairly comprehensive presentation of what the truth looks like, perhaps tempting no few people to preach the doctrine of the WCF from Scripture, rather than to preach Scripture within the safety of a few protective boundaries erected at odd points where there are dangerous falls away from orthodoxy.

      • cal says:

        Absolutely. I can appreciate that the late 16th and 17th century created a mood when the reigning Puritans, given the chance, could once and for all answer all the questions and produce the final word for the English Church. The project reminds me of material tensile strength, where too much risks the form snapping, rather than hitting a curve. Or it’s like one of those old style vertical integration monopolies, which became so encumbered as technology advanced, economic patterns changed, and material costs adjusted, that they fell apart because of their size.

        Sadly, Confessional churches are no less prone to fail because they grasp at universalized statements of faith. As you say, people become trained up in the confession and not Scripture, with the two becoming more or less confused for one another.

  3. Geoff says:

    it comes to mind, If I remember correctly, you responded in similar terms to a blog entry by James K A Smith.
    As someone who came to faith as an older adult, I can see the significant benefit of Catechisms, such as that put out by the Gospel Coalition. In the Church of England liturgy, I appreciated collecting around confessions of the creeds, on the surface, shared common beliefs, of Christianity’s succinct theology. The context of the formation of the creeds bears witness to their content and purpose. They were not meant to be a statement of detailed systematic or historic, redemptive theology, nor of Christian behaviour.
    To quote Andrew Wilson, he described DeYong’s book on the Heidelberg Catechism
    “The Heidelberg Catechism, for those of us who (not having any confessional standards of our own) treat the Protestant confessions as a glorious pick-and-mix buffet, is probably the warmest, most devotionally uplifting and most pastorally helpful confessional document there is. And in many ways its best parts are the first and last questions.
    The first one is fairly well-known, and deservedly so, since it represents the very best of Reformed theology…..
    “Like the catechism itself, it is warm, readable, pastoral and rich, and it illuminates the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer like few other texts do. I highly recommend it.
    The main strength of the book is that, like a gilded frame around a master’s painting, it allows its subject to shine, repeatedly drawing attention to the thoughtfulness of the catechism’s questions and the clarity of its answers. By summarising the structure clearly – guilt, grace (Creed, sacraments) and gratitude (Law, prayer) – and giving an average of three pages of commentary for every two questions, DeYoung forces us to think slowly and deeply about the apparently simple rat-a-tat-tat of query and response. I had read the catechism before, but had just not noticed the pithy brilliance of much of it:” http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/tags/tag/heidelberg_catechism#topic-tags
    Knowing next to nothing about the WCF, I do not know whether it would draw me in to worship.
    I’ve heard two sorts of thoroughgoing Calvinists: those like scholars on ice, or those like scholars on fire (as Lloyd- Jones said -logic on fire) with a preached rather than liturgical doxology.

  4. quinnjones2 says:

    Hi Alastair,
    You won’t be surprised when I say that one thing that I regard as significant in the Nicene Creed is that it opens with the pronoun ‘We’. You also mentioned the Lord’s prayer, which opens with ‘Our’. It seems to me that so many ethical problems arise from the priority given by many to ‘I’ and ‘My’ , and that maybe this can be an indicator of what is holy and what is not (I appreciated Brad’s reference to holiness at the end of the video, and your response to that)
    I just saw this on my twitter feed:
    ‘Twitter is full of people absolutely furious that someone suggests that we could refer to God as someone other than male. Why? Is it really the biggest issue right now? Surely the best way for us to refer to God is the way that allows each of us personally to connect.’ Of course, this is about referring to God rather than addressing God, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer, but given that Jesus taught us to address God as ‘Our Father’, and that we say both the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer as part of corporate worship, and not as a ‘way that allows each of us personally to connect’, it seems to me that the attitude expressed in the tweet I quoted above may be unorthodox, and that it may also be at the root of unethical attitudes to, for instance, abortion (and claims such as ‘I can do what I want with my own body.’)
    The person who wrote the tweet I quoted above is a priest in the Church of England. We have eternal hope in God in Christ Jesus, but at times such as this I despair of some leaders in the church.

    • People’s responses to these sorts of questions can be really revealing of the form of their Christianity more generally. The language that we use to refer to God is such a fundamental theological question.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Thank you, Alastair. And thank you for all your videos, which I find particularly helpful at this time as we have been without a rector at our church for eighteen months, and I become increasingly aware of the importance of church leadership – no matter what individuals have to say, the leader sets the tone and I think that is so important. Our deaconess left last week after 32 years of service and our team vicar is leaving in February.
        I thought briefly that we will be like sheep without a shepherd, but then I became more keenly and thankfully aware that the Lord is our Shepherd.
        Thank you again.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        An afterthought – as one who is not well-versed theologically I find the use of pronouns and possessive adjectives a good ‘litmus test’ in everyday life. I just thought of the following statement I heard recently: ‘I am going to be a grandfather….oh, and of course that means that my wife is going to be a grandmother. ‘ ( How about ‘Our daughter and her husband are expecting their first child ….’ ? )

  5. Geoff says:

    At the risk of slightly diverging, Qj2, the Swedish Church is seeking to remove any gender pronouns and Lord when referring to God. Does your twitter pal, ever say the prayer Jesus taught us?
    To me, at the simplest level, it removes the incarnation and the person of Jesus and His enunciation of God. It is also a renunciation of the Trinity. And it separates the Jesus of faith, from the Jesus of history. This is not new. Albert Schweitzer, for one, was a proponent.
    It is also not new on another level: I recall reading a short piece (this year, I think) by NT Wright – identifying trans and gender fluidity as present-day Gnosticism.
    Shortly, on Gnosticism:
    “Millions of people today unknowingly hold Gnostic beliefs that are central to the transgender debate.

    “Gnosticism presents a radically self-centred alternative gospel. Instead of pointing to Christ, Gnosticism proclaims that salvation comes from inside, finding your true identity within. It denies the goodness of the Creator and the glory of his creation. It denies the Incarnation, the resurrection and the need for redemption.

    “Gnosticism sets itself against true Christianity at every point. It has been described as the ultimate heresy. This false teaching was faced by the Church in the second and third centuries AD.

    “But far from being ancient history, Gnostic beliefs are rife today. Of course, not many people call themselves Gnostics. But their approach to issues such as transsexualism is clearly rooted in Gnostic thought. Understanding Gnosticism and the Christian response to it will encourage and equip believers to stand firm.
    “…distinction between male and female should be rejected as it’s part of a useless created order. The ideal is androgyny – a synthesis of male and female, and so neither one or the other.

    “The outworking of this ranges from godess worship to saying women need to become men to be saved. But the common theme is seeing the male/female distinction as defective, part of the fallen world of death; we must escape it if we are to find true life.

    “The gospel of Thomas: When you make male and female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female…then you will enter the kingdom.”
    Cited from the fold-out pamphlet “Gnosticism” which traces Gnosticism to the present time, produced by the Christian Institute- viewable online: http://www.christian.org.uk/resource/gnosticism/
    It was unknown to me that Abaraxas is the Gnostic deity. In my complete ignorance, as a student, I loved the music of Santana on a disc of the same name.

    I don’t know if Alastair has any thoughts on present day Gnosticism and it’s influence, within and without the church. For a number of years, one alternative communion service the Methodist Church in England addresses God as Mother, and ministers, particularly female, start prayers with “Loving God…” rarely as “Father”. The creeds are being jettisoned, directly and indirectly, let alone any idea of a holy God, whose love is only ever Holy-Love, as He is only ever Holy- Love.

  6. quinnjones2 says:

    Thank you, Geoff. I read the news about Swedish Christians and the priest who wrote the tweet also quoted it in defence of her position. I don’t actually follow her by the way (someone I do follow re-tweeted her tweet) so I don’t know whether or not she says the Lord’s Prayer. I had quite a long twitter conversation with her and she seemed to be well-intentioned and to want everyone to be at ease, but one of my questions to her was this: ‘How can we say “Your will be done” and also refuse to say “Our Father..”, as Jesus taught us?’
    Thank you for your excerpt from N.T Wright – that is very interesting and informative. On the subject of God as mother, I have on my bookcase a copy of ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ by Julian of Norwich. This was recommended to me many years ago by the wife of a former curate at our church. She said it was well worth reading, but she warned me that I might find Julian’s ideas about God as mother ‘strange’. I did find them strange, but I think it was an aspect of Julian’s reflections, and not the main thrust.
    On the subject of gender, the more I think and read about it the less I understand it. For instance when Bruce Jenner decided to’ become’ a woman I wondered how on earth anyone who was born male, married, and fathered six children, could think he was born in the wrong body and was really meant to be a woman!
    Thank you again.

  7. Geoff says:

    I’m not on twitter, so I don’t know about twitter feeds, though I’ve come across echoes of twitter from other blogs and from newspapers. Seems to be a bit like feeding off the twitter platform like birds from a table.
    This isn’t being pedantic, but to give credit where it’s due. My poor keyboard skills wording may have given the impression that everything quoted was from NT Wright. It wasn’t. It was from the Christian Institute’s pamphlet, Gnosticism. NT Wright wrote a short piece some while ago (this year, I think, linking the current gender kerfuffle to Gnosticism.
    Much has been said about good intentions. Sincerity is not always the point. We can be sincerely wrong, mistaken.
    We can talk about God ’till the cows come home in some generalised, spiritualised way but mentioning Jesus as God the Son made flesh frequently reveals where people stand spiritually. “True Spirituality” by Francis Schaeffer is a good book to carry, in hand, into a cafe, or even into Christian circles. Yes, God is Spirit, but we must worship Him in Spirit and truth. I am unable to go beyond scripture, particularly Jesus, to see who God has revealed Himself to be – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.
    These can be unsettling times in the church. Our minister has retired after 39 years and there is no guarantee of a replacement.
    In business, it is said that if you want to change an organisation, change its head. Is the headship of Jesus being usurped in our lives, and in some parts of His body, the church? Are some of the branches being cut from the vine? The detached blossom of a hydrangea may outwardly look fresh, but it is cut off from the source of its life and is dying, as it dries up.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Thank you Geoff. I will have a think about this and reply later this evening or tomorrow.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Hi Geoff.
      I think the mistake was probably because of me and not down to your keyboard skills.
      It must be an unsettling time in your church, especially given the long tenure of your former minister.
      Your final questions are interesting. Yes, I think many things are usurping the headship of our lives and in parts of the church and I think it is good when we give each other reminders of God’s sovereignty. You asked if some branches are being cut from the vine – there could indeed be some pruning taking place. I have also been thinking again about Romans 1 and God giving people over to their idolatrous desires and I wonder if God is leaving some people to their own devices. I have a great fear of the Lord and I don’t want to be left to my own devices, so I welcome some of the prods I get from others!

  8. Geoff says:

    Another expression from business is this: “the culture of an organisation, eats strategy for breakfast.” It may seem off topic but isn’t really as it relates to the culture of the church, foundations and superstructure. Is the church today at risk of being totally superstructure? Like Durham Cathedral, perhaps? Like humanity without biology, chemistry, physiology, reproduction without mother or father.
    The church, without her founder, she will founder; a bride without her groom, she will lose her bloom.

  9. Geoff says:

    Qj2,
    While the cat’s away, or while the cat has his tongue, I think this from you is excellent – “I have also been thinking again about Romans 1 and God giving people over to their idolatrous desires and I wonder if God is leaving some people to their own devices. I have a great fear of the Lord and I don’t want to be left to my own devices,” Amen to that. And amen again.
    I recall asking Mike Ovey in a Q&A session, after a public lecture, about how Romans 1 shows that it is part of God’s present day judgment to give us over to to our own desires. He responded that it was, but is little taken account of in Christian circles, or in discussions over sexuality and gender. The scripture is not, however, limitted in it’s application to gender and sexual activity.
    Tim Keller in his very readable ,”Romans For You”, makes the same point you have, and is the source of my understanding of it.
    In a wide ranging chat yesterday with a church brother, he pointed out that Chalke and others have very cleverly, with some smatterings of truth, used Romans 1 to argue that it SSM is not covered by it.

    • Hi Geoff,
      Thank you for your interesting comment.
      When I first read Romans 1 I thought it was pretty straight-forward, but evidently Chalke and others thin differently, as though the Holy Bible were some sort of kaleidoscope which can be shaken around until a formation appears which is pleasing to the viewer!

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