The Moral Dimension of Theology

If you came here earlier today expecting my scheduled Wednesday post, I apologize that it was not there for you. Today a member of my church passed away, so my schedule has been irregular. I hope you don’t mind that I am posting this a few hours late.

My thesis is this:

Human beings are morally obligated to believe what is true and disbelieve what is false. Therefore, one who believes something that is false, no matter how sincere he may be or how ethical a person he may be otherwise, is guilty of an ethical failure.

I believe this thesis explains a lot. Christians have traditionally believed that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ (I think it is unfortunate that I have to use the adverb “traditionally” in that sentence, but that is the way things are going these days). But this leads to an empirical problem. How can so-called “virtuous pagans”–moral people who do not accept Jesus Christ as Savior–be justly excluded from salvation? It does not sound right for us to think that people who are good by human standards are judged guilty before God. And yet, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone requires us to believe that many “good” people will spend eternity in Hell. This is an existential problem that has led many to deny one or more of the following truths: (1) The uniqueness of Jesus Christ, (2) The necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, (3) Salvation by grace alone, and not by works (4) The reality of God’s wrath, (5) The reality of Hell. I don’t pretend that my thesis offered above solves all of the questions related to these issues, but I do think it sheds light on them.

If my thesis is correct, then the incorrect theology of moral non-Christians is itself a moral failure. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say there are two men who live identical lives, with the only difference being that Man A believes in the Trinity and Man B does not (this is a highly artificial example, I admit, because of course one’s belief or disbelief in the Trinity would have further ramifications on the way one lives; but let’s just use it for argument’s sake). Man B has more guilt before God because he has failed to accept what is true about God. The intellect is a profoundly moral aspect of our being.

What does this mean for moral people who do not accept biblical Christian doctrine? It means that they are rebelling against God. Their failure to accept the truth and their corresponding acceptance of falsehood puts them under God’s wrath no matter how kind they are to their neighbors.

What does this mean for someone like me, who does accept biblical Christian doctrine as true? It means that I must continually seek to bring every part of my theology under the authority of Scripture. And given the fact that I am in a position to influence others through teaching and preaching, I must be extra diligent about making sure I am biblical in all things. James 3:1 says that teachers will be held to a higher standard of judgment. Again, my thesis explains why this is so: what we believe about God (and what we influence others to believe about him) is more than just an intellectual game; it is a profoundly ethical issue. In a sense, what I am saying is that from one perspective, theology is a subset of ethics (although the converse is also true; from another angle, ethics is a subset of theology). Theological questions are not just about curiosity; they are about knowing truth about God and his world, and what one knows or does not know is a matter of moral accountability.

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9 Responses to “The Moral Dimension of Theology”

  1. Cogito Says:

    Aaron,

    I must say that I am a bit startled after having read your last post. As long as I have known you I have been amazed at the soundness and consistency of your theology as well as your utter disregard to reason and practicality to maintain this cohesion.

    However, the thesis and comments that you have presented runs affront of many of your own declared beliefs.

    You know I can not resist an intellectual argument like this, so let me be the first take a crack at your thesis.

    First of all, your thesis leaves no “outs” through which anyone can squeeze–you likely have done this intentionally. Yet I am almost certain that you would make an exception for children. If so then you have already become tremendously inconsistent with your application of the thesis.

    Another problem I see is that your arguments seem to do little service for your belief in perseverance of the saints.

    How does Man B have more guilt? Does God see various levels of guilt? How much guilt is required to be damned to hellfire? A smidge? A bushel basket? By having this “increased guilt” has he therefore lost his salvation?

    Your argument seems to strike a considerable blow to security of the believer! Based on this argument, anyone who is a believer is at risk of having fooled themselves into possible damnation (Let me quote, “What does this mean for moral people who do not accept biblical Christian doctrine? It means that they are rebelling against God.” (I am lumping Man B into this category).

    The key question here is, what in the world is true, Biblical Christian Doctrine? Is this the doctrine that you have decided? The way that you interpret the Word of God? Or possibly the Presbyterians have it better? Or even–gasp–the Catholics?

    If your arguments were taken literally there is a very good chance that few of us would ever make it past those pearly gates.

  2. Ali Says:

    I’m not sure that Aaron is equating failing to believe all truth with failing to enter “those pearly gates”. My guess is that Aaron would say that everyone fails in this area and it is only through regeneration that people are able to escape the consequences of not believing all truth by believing the particular truths about Jesus’ death and ressurection. Once those core things are believed, God involves you in a sanctification process where your beliefs are changed by Him and where you strive to bring your beliefs under Scripture. Like every type of moral failure, we are not perfect until we get to heaven, but this does not excuse us from working toward improvement and being accountable.

    I guess I would want to balance this out by taking the focus off the mind alone and suggest that whether we know truth or not depends on the state of our heart, i.e, if we believe a lie, it indicates that we ourselves are evil. As to whether believing the wrong thing is in and of itself a moral failure…I need to think about that more. Wrong belief is definitely the fruit, but are we morally culpable for that wrong belief or just for the heart that leads to that wrong belief?

    Could you outline more of the why of your thesis as opposed to its ramifications?

    Good thoughts.

  3. Aaron Says:

    With regard to infants, I do believe there is an “age of accountability,” although I make no claims to know when it is or what minimum level of knowledge would be required to establish it. Take my son, for instance: does he harbor false beliefs about God? No; he doesn’t have any beliefs, and at his current level of development he is unable to process God’s general revelation.

    I don’t think my thesis has any bearing on the question of the perseverance of the saints. I should have made this more clear: EVERYONE has guilt before God (Rom 3:9-20, 23; 5:12-20). All of humanity could be justly condemned to Hell.

    The problem that I was seeking to address was this: from our human perspective, we run into an existential dilemma when we (“we” meaning traditional Christians) affirm that moral non-Christians like, say, Gahndi (I never know where to put the “h” in his name) are not saved. I have already established the theological point that all people are sinners and justly deserve condemnation, but it is still hard for us to accept that someone like Gahndi is really a guilty sinner before God. My thesis merely establishes the fact that because he is not a Christian (and therefore he harbors false beliefs about God), this is one of the sins for which he is guilty.

    But what about the fact that Christians have widely divergent theologies among themselves? Obviously, not everyone is right. Furthermore, I doubt that anyone has everything totally right. Like any other sin, the sin of bad theology must be laid upon Jesus. But here’s the catch: you have to have at least a minimum of good theology to lay all of your sins on Jesus by faith. You asked the question about what that minimum is. Again, I don’t think I can spell it out with precision, but taking my cues from the New Testament, I think it would include at least these elements:

    (1) The existence of one supreme, holy God who is creator of all;
    (2) Human failure and accountability to God;
    (3) The deity and humanity of Jesus Christ (with corollaries of his lordship, authority, etc.)
    (4) The atoning work of Christ on the cross for sinners;
    (5) The necessity of personal faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

    It seems to me that unless one believes these things, one is incapable of exercising saving faith in Christ.

  4. Cogito Says:

    Aaron,

    Sorry, I misunderstood your example in Man B. I thought here you were speaking of a “misguided” Christian.

    I do find your you comment refreshing as I would agree with most portions, especially your list of “requirements”, if you will, for being a Christian.

    You know me well and know that, while I think debating theology is fun and interesting, these are the only points that I feel really matter.

    Now, that being said, let’s go back to your exception for infants.

    “Take my son, for instance: does he harbor false beliefs about God? No; he doesn’t have any beliefs, and at his current level of development he is unable to process God’s general revelation.”

    Why must this exception be only physical, and not sociological? And what does this exception mean for original sin?

    I’ll tell you that I do not have an answer for the question. I typically hide and say, “who am I to assess their salvatin? Only God knows, but I do know that God asks me to preach to them in the Great Comission!” (Thank you Mrs. Trumble for making me read A Man for All Seasons!)

  5. Aaron Says:

    These are all good questions, Luke, many of which I have wrestled with myself. Here is how I approach the issue:

    1. Infants are in a different category from adults who have not heard the gospel. Adults who have not heard the gospel still have access to God’s general revelation in creation, but the testimony of Scripture is that all people who receive this testimony suppress it through sin and are, therefore, guilty before God (Romans 1:18-32). Because infants cannot receive general revelation due to physical and mental limitations, I believe they are not held guilty for the suppression of it. This is also why I believe Scripture speaks of judgment according to works, of which infants have none. (See also Jonathan Edwards’ discussion of natural (in)ability and moral (in)ability in “The Freedom of the Will”).

    2. But are infants sinners? I am actually going to address this question sometime soon in another post about human nature. But the short answer is yes. The solidarity of the human race implicates us all in sin. Whether one prefers to argue that Adam’s sin is actually imputed to everyone or that the sin nature that stems from Adam entails guilt (or both), the conclusion is still the same: even infants are guilty, in this sense, before God.

    3. However, I previously mentioned Scripture’s repeated references to judgment according to works. I believe (tentatively) that because those who die in infancy have no sinful works of their own, the guilt of original sin is forgiven by the grace of God in Christ and they are regenerated postmortem. There are biblical arguments to make here (and Dr. Mohler has made some), but I won’t go in to them now.

    4. Why doesn’t Scripture just come out and say that those who die in infancy are saved? Why has God only given us tentative conclusions on this? I think it is because there would be some who would justify infanticide on the basis of Scripture if Scripture did indeed teach this clearly. Andrea Yates killed her five children so they would go to Heaven and be saved from the Devil. I think God wisely refrained from giving anyone even a hint of plausibility to that kind of action.

    But if God did not intend for us to have complete clarity on this, we must be content with not having it and not hold our conclusions too strongly.

  6. Ali Says:

    Hmm, perhaps if I try to rephrase my question…

    Why do you think “human beings are morally obligated to believe what is true and disbelieve what is false.”

    Does this extend to believing the TV remote is on the coffee table when in fact it is on the arm of the couch? If this is a result of a lie told or faulty memory, the false belief is a result of sin, but is it sin itself?

    On the other hand, if the remote was moved from the coffee table to the couch and the “believer” was not aware of that fact, I can’t see how his false belief can be said to be sin or the result of sin.

    Are you then limiting morally culpable false belief to certain topics, and if so, which ones? The only way I can see moral culpability for the act of not believing or believing falsely in and of itself is if there is enough evidence for the person to have come to the right conclusion. This, I would argue, is the situation described in Romans 1:18-23. I cannot see how it can be extended further as you seem to be doing.

  7. Aaron Says:

    I do intend to post a part 2 to this discussion. I will probably get to it on Wednesday.

  8. Ali Says:

    Ok. Look forward to it.

  9. Luke Says:

    Dear Aaron,
    I find your argument that belief is a moral act…to be wholly inadequate. What does one mean by belief….is it the assent to a proposition…or the trusting in a promise….or something else. Certainly false beliefs are the result of sin. If one wants to call people culpable for that….I do not see what good or help that provides for the believer. Especially when one considers the errors that could come from such a description…It clearly makes faith a work. Faith is a response to the grace of God. It does not entail any moral effort on the part of the believer. Certainly writing a sermon or a dissertation requires work…and so there are aspects to the mind and reflection that involve our moral sense…but faith is not a work.

    Luke S

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