From ethics to the gospel (04) – via the Fall

8 12 2008

[Catch up on the whole ‘From ethics to the gospel‘ series]


Image via Wikipedia

What’s wrong with the ‘moral universe’ of most Hollywood movies? The trouble is, it’s not true to life. Most films present you with a world that breaks down into goodies and baddies. The goodies are basically good, and the baddies are basically bad. Once you’ve worked who’s in which category, movie-life becomes simple.

But life’s not that simple. So how do you explain the good and bad in our world? There are plenty of options:

  • The Hollywood option. The world is a mix of good and bad. Some things are good, others are bad.
  • The Disney option. The world is basically good (with minor bad bits). All it takes is the right attitude, and everything will be OK.
  • The Pessimist option. The world is basically bad. There’s no hope, so just get used to it.
  • The Buddhist option. There’s no such thing as good or bad. Such categories are an illusion. Learn to move beyond them.

None of these stack up to reality. In the world we know, you find good and bad mixed together in everything. Even the best people can have terrible flaws. Even the worst people can show flashes of goodness. (And even Hollywood reflects this sometimes: Peter Parker desires vengence; Doc Ock shows remorse.)

The Bible explains this in a way nothing else does. It tells us of a good-world-gone-wrong. It tells us about Creation and Fall. God created a good world; that good world has gone wrong. In everything around you, you’ll see evidence of both truths. You’ll see echoes of the original goodness, of what might have been. You’ll see evidence of the corruption, how far short things have fallen. You’ll see both together in same object, the same person. You’ll see them together in every person and every aspect of our world.

That’s a message worth proclaiming. And it’s a message that will be heard. The very cosmos itself is on your side when you proclaim it. This message makes sense of people’s world in a way nothing else does.

The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

From Mythopoeia, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Posted by Rick Creighton

The next item in this series (‘From ethics to the gospel’) will be posted next Monday.

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From Ethics to the Gospel (03b) – ordered creation (follow up)

18 11 2008

Following my earlier post, Phil raised some useful issues. Generously giving me the benefit of the doubt, he commented:

“I’d also be careful to point out that all of these are a result of humanity’s sin and the fall (God giving the people over to shameful lusts because of their sin), which I’m sure you mean to imply in your post.”

Phil’s comment sparked some useful thoughts for me:
Yes, I was meaning to imply that these things are the result of sin and the fall. Although maybe “imply” isn’t the best word. I didn’t intend the post to be talking about something other than, or additional to, sin and the fall. I was intending the post to actually be talking about sin and the fall – but trying to put flesh on the bones for what that means in certain areas.

So it’s true to say that (e.g.) the creation of human-animal hybrids is a result of sin and the fall. That is perfectly true, but highly generic. It wouldn’t help us identify how sin is manifesting itself, so as to produce this result. And without identifying the particular expression of sin, we’ll be handicapped when we try to address and prevent the sin.

Think of the parallel with medicine. Suppose your stomach is sore. It is useful if a doctor can tell you: “Your stomach is sore because you have a disease – it’s not just indigestion.” But it’s far more useful if you doctor can tell you: “Your stomach is sore because you have bowel cancer” (or IBS or Crohn’s disease or tape worms or …) “ – and here’s what we need to do about it.”

Romans 1 contains some brilliant descriptions of the generic way sin works. And because they are generic, they apply to every situation. But Romans also contains some highly particularised discussions of specific instances of sin. Eg. Romans 14 (the ‘weaker brother’ discussion)– it doesn’t explicitly use the word “sin” at all until the very last word of the chapter1 – but it’s all about a particular expression of sin, and how to overcome it.

What I was trying to tease out is one of the ways in which, through sin, we suppress the truth, and exchange God’s truth for a lie. That isn’t an alternative to thinking through how “shameful lusts” operate – it’s integral to thinking it through. Now for any given individual, there will be all sorts of complicated feedback loops at play:

  1. Sin may become obvious through wrong desires. But putting those desires into action predisposes you towards changing you beliefs to match your actions – i.e. accepting a lie, a false view of reality.2
  2. Sin may become obvious when you accept a lie about the way the world really is. But when you build your life on a false view of reality, that opens you up to all sorts of disordered desires too. (And you may be blind to their disorder – you may be sincerely wrong.)
  3. Both of the above at once.

All this is enormously important for preaching. We need to teach about sin generically, to help people see how the same underlying dynamics are at work in every area of life. We also need to teach about sin specifically, so that people can learn to see how the truth is being suppressed in any given situation.

In a sentence:
Thinking wrongly about God’s good order in creation is sin. (Or one expression of sin, anyway.)

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the major, world-shaping sins of our age. But even saying that is still generic. For any given issue (homosexuality, transgender, animal-human hybrids, etc) it needs to be complemented with:

  • the specific ways in which we think wrongly about God’s order
  • the specific ways we distort that order in practice (and what the consequences are)
  • the specifics of how that order is redeemed in Christ
  • the specific responses of faith and repentance to which Christ calls us

We can’t do the specifics for everything – life is too short. That’s why we need to preach the generics. But if we don’t do the specifics for some things – especially the big sins of our own cultures – then people don’t learn how to apply the generics to everyday life.

Think of those evangelicals who had a strong doctrine of sin (in general) but who argued in favour of the slave trade.  They’d got the hang of the generic, but they were blind to the (world-shaping) particular expressions of sin in their age.

1 Or, if you’re following in Greek, the second last word of the chapter. 🙂

2 For a non-theological take on the same issue see ‘Cognitive Dissonance.

From ethics to the gospel (03) – blank slate vs ordered creation

17 11 2008

[Catch up on the whole ‘From ethics to the gospel‘ series]

New Blackboard

Image by drinksmachine via Flickr

What happens if you think the world is a blank slate? To put it another way, does it matter whether God created the world with order built in? Here’s why it matters: If Creation is a blank slate, then we’re free to (re-)order things whatever way we like. If no order is given in creation, then any order we choose with be arbitrary. There’s no objective reason for choosing one way of doing things over another. It’s just a matter of what suits you, of what gives you an advantage, of where your vested interests lie.

If1 that’s true all sorts of things suddenly make sense:

  • Homosexuality. If the pattern for human sexuality isn’t built into creation – if it’s arbitrary – they why not experiment with other forms of sexual expression? Especially if they seem to work better for you?
  • Transgender. If a person’s sex (either male or female) isn’t a fundamental aspect of being human – if it’s arbitrary and/or accidental – then why not change it?
  • Human-animal hybrids. If God hasn’t created a clear distinction between humans and animals (or, indeed, between one kind of animal and another), then why not experiment to see what sort of hybrids we can produce? (Including hybrids far more radical than currently the case; we’re still at the tame end of the spectrum.)

If you’re in a teaching role, and you’re tackling these issues, it’s important to do more than state what’s right and wrong. (Though, of course, you shouldn’t do less.)

It’s better to also help people see that the issue underneath these issues: Do we acknowledge that God is Creator? Are we willing to submit to the order that he has created?

Now, of course there’ll be debates about whether, and how, we rightly discern that order (i.e. epistemology2). But before we get there, we need to ask: In principle, are we willing to admit that God’s order is built in to his creation? And, once we know what it is, are we willing to submit to it? Unless the answer to these questions is “Yes”, there’s no point moving on to the other, more detailed questions (i.e. the epistemology).

If we can’t say “Yes”, we have a more primordial problem. We don’t want God to be God. We want to order the universe ourselves, as we see fit. We still want to claim the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Adam & Eve

Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

Posted by Rick Creighton

The next item in this series (‘From ethics to the gospel’) will be posted next Monday.

1 N.B. I’m not saying this is true. In fact, I’m saying it’s not true. But I’m also exploring where your thinking would go if you thought it were true (as many people do). Cf. My previous post: ‘From ethics to the gospel via creation’

2 Epistemology is the study of how, and whether, we know what we know.

From ethics to the gospel (02) – via Creation

10 11 2008

[Catch up on the whole ‘From ethics to the gospel‘ series]

So how do you get from ethics to the gospel? You get there via theology. You need robust doctrines of Creation, and of the Fall, and of Redemption, and of New Creation.

Adam, Eve, and the (female) serpent at the ent...

Image via Wikipedia

We’ll start with Creation in this post, and look at the others later.

When God created the world, he created it with a God-given ordering (or relationship-pattern). Things don’t just exist; they exist in relationship to each other. They come with God-given kinds and God-given purposes.

(a) Kinds. “Humanity” (i.e. all those created in/as God’s image) is a God-given kind. So we are wrong when we exclude any human being from the respect and dignity that belong to those who are God’s images.

That’s not self-evident.  “Crimes against humanity” occur when some people start telling themselves that other people don’t really count as human.  It might be whole ethnic groups (e.g. Tutsis, Bosnian Muslims, or Jews, Romanies and Poles [hover for more info]) or more ominously, groups who are too weak to protest (“the slave”, “the foetus”, “the terminally ill”, “the comatose”) or groups that we deem unforgivable (“terrorists”, “white-trash”, “paedophiles”).

[By the way, choosing the “right” label is a good step towards dehumanising someone. Once they’re dehumanised enough you no long have to treat them with respect or dignity.]

(b) Purposes. God also created things with purposes; often mulitple purposes. Apples were designed to grow into apple trees. Apples were also designed to be food. Your neighbour was not designed to be food (not even in the most extreme situation). She was designed to love God and enjoy him forever, and to love her neighbour as herself.

The gospel tells us how God has acted in Christ to restore our Fallen world. Built into that message is the good news that in Christ we can be what we were created to be. “Being what we were created to be” is a pretty good summary of what ethics should be all about.

So, contrary to the question that began this post, it’s not a matter of “getting” from ethics to the gospel. Ethics already is contained within the gospel. Our job is to make Christ known, in all his glory. If we’re doing that faithfully, it will include calling people to be what they were created to be.

Posted by Rick Creighton

The next item in this series (‘From ethics to the gospel’) will be posted on Monday, 17th Nov, 2008.

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From ethics to the gospel (01)

3 11 2008
Timeless and Universal?

Image by stephenccwu via Flickr

Is ethics part of the gospel? Is ethics contained within the gospel? (Or is it something extra; perhaps something to raise alongside the gospel, or perhaps something to address only after a person already believes the gospel?)

If you come at that question with the Law vs Gospel1 distinction in mind, you might answer “No!”.

But there are hidden costs to saying no…

If ethics isn’t contained in the gospel, then you’ve got two choices:

  1. Be consistently evangelical, and ignore ethics altogether (antinomianism)
  2. Be half-heartedly evangelical, and include ethics after all (legalism)

Neither of these are good. And the answer isn’t to find some halfway-house between them either. So what is the answer? Well, that’s what my next post will start to tackle.

In the meantime…

You can find a more fulsome exploration of all this in Oliver O’Donovan’s book, Resurrection and Moral Order. Here’s a taster:

The foundations of Christian ethics must be evangelical foundations; or to put it more simply, Christian ethics must arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Otherwise it would not be Christian ethics. … [But if we separate faith and morality,] we become either moralists or antinomians. By ‘moralism’ we mean the holding of moral convictions unevangelically, so that they are no longer part of the Christian good news, and can, therefore, have the effect only of qualifying it … as a ‘ministry of condemnation,’ or as a rule which is supposed to govern an area of life which Christ has not touched or transformed. By ‘antinomianism’ we mean the holding of the Christian faith in a way that expresses disregard, or insufficient regard, for moral questions. Once it is decided that morality is not part of the good news the Christians welcome and proclaim, believers will have to choose between being thoroughly evangelical and ignoring it, and respecting it at the cost of being only half evangelical. A belief in Christian ethics is a belief that certain ethical and moral judgements belong to the gospel itself; a belief, in other words, that the church can be committed to ethics without moderating the tone of its voice as a bearer of glad tidings.

from Resurrection and Moral Order, p11.

Posted by Rick Creighton

The next item in this series (‘From ethics to the gospel’) will be posted on Monday, 10th Nov, 2008.

1 Law and Gospel: i.e. the Lutheran distinction between the doctrines of Law, which demands obedience to God’s ethical will, and Gospel, which promises the forgiveness of sins in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ. For more info: Wikipedia: Law and Gospel article.

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