Is There Such a Thing as ‘Moral Orthodoxy’?

Heston, bro. 'Nuff said.

Heston, bro. ‘Nuff said.

Note: The following is a somewhat tentative post. It is offered in a spirit of exploration and invitation to conversation, not as a definitive pronouncement or prescription on the issue.

Just yesterday, in a post on the Future of Protestantism (#protfuture), I raised the issue of what we might term “moral orthodoxy.” In the contemporary Evangelical discussion about sexuality, marriage, and the moral permissibility of same-sex romantic or sexual relationships, one of the big issues that’s been toyed around with is whether or not differing sexual ethics is a “gospel issue” and so forth.

The question has become, “Is rejecting the traditional position on same-sex relationships an issue of orthodoxy? Especially since it’s not something explicitly referred to in any of the creeds? Is it appropriate to call an Apostolic-, Nicene-, Chalcedon-affirming Christian, who nonetheless changes their mind on this issue, heterodox? Or is this more in the adiaphora category? Or maybe it’s not something that will brand you a heretic, but certainly not an Evangelical? Are the creeds sufficient to define the faithful, then?” Or something on that order.

Note, the issue isn’t whether someone is saved or not. Rather, it’s about the category of seriousness, or the classification of the sort of error (assuming a revisionist position is in error), this happens to be.

To be honest, I find myself sympathizing in both directions. While I would never say that the issue is adiaphora–a departure of this nature is far more serious than that–I initially have trouble reconciling myself to calling a resurrection-affirming, Trinity-praising, even justification-by-faith confessing believer a heretic because of their position on gay marriage. I tend to think heresy is a heavy word to be used mostly with reference to the classic heresies (Arianism, Pelagianism, Doceticsm, etc)–errors with a council condemning it or something.

That said, I do wonder how much of that tends to reflect a rather modern split between theology and ethics. “As long as you get your Christology right, then most of the rest of it we can discuss.” Being more of a dogmatics guy, I’m probably even more bent in that direction. The problem is, I’m not sure I really see that kind of divide countenanced in Scripture. Indeed, thinking of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he moves seamlessly from correcting doctrinal deviancies to ethical ones and drawing a number of connections in between. Chapter 6 ties a tight knot holding the resurrection of the body together with its sexual uses. It’s a Christological sexual ethic. In which case, a deviance on sex seems to imply a deviance on Christology.

Which, as I begin to think of it, reminds me of Alastair Roberts’ suggestion that such a demarcation of creedal sufficiency isn’t really even how creedalism works.

Affirming the Creeds
In a thoughtful post on what it means to be a creedal Christian, Roberts examines what that actually involves. Does being a creedal Christian simply mean that one happens to affirm the content of, say, the 12 articles of the Apostles’ creed as a summary? A lowest, common-denominator of faith? Or is it more than that? Does affirming the creed actually involve posture of humility and commitment towards believing and living within them as norm (normed under the Word of God, of course)? Possibly accepting it as firm yardstick of orthodoxy and so forth? Is there a depth beyond the surface?

Those are leading questions, of course. Roberts answers them quite clearly and suggests that mere affirmation of the words of the creed isn’t really enough. No, indeed, a certain level of adherence to accepted interpretation is involved:

The creed is given to us as a tool by which to discern error and as a form within which to recognize shared truths. Much is implied within the creed that is not explicitly stated. Various theological stances adopted by people who express the creed may be discovered to be unorthodox as their positions are revealed to be contrary to the creed on account of their hidden implications.

Pelagianism isn’t explicitly contrary to, say, any of the big three symbols I named earlier, and yet the Church later saw that it was in fact deeply destructive to the faith, constituting a fundamental denial of the truth of salvation in Christ. Tied to this point also is the fact that the creeds don’t deal with a number of issues of great importance (creation in the Image of God, etc.).

Finally, and crucially for my point, it must be noted that some can even affirm the creeds verbally while substantially denying them. It’s easily possible to see someone confessing the Apostles Creed while being a Trinity-denying heretic. Actually, in the 4th century there were teachers who held variations of Arianism that still affirmed the first Nicene creed. Their interpretation of the received text is rightly deemed to be a false one, contrary to the content it was designed to protect. So, while affirming Nicaea, they weren’t actually properly Nicene. Therefore, heretics.

The same would hold true today. Someone may come along and claim to affirm Nicaea, and yet reinterpret it–honestly, in good faith–along Arian lines, and we would say, “No, I know you think you’re affirming the creed, but really, you’ve changed it and filled it with new meaning.” It would be a verbal affirmation, but a substantial denial.

So what does this have to do with moral orthodoxy?

The Commandments as a Moral Creed
Well, Roberts goes on to discuss the “sufficiency of the creed”, pointing out that the creeds themselves were never actually designed to function on their own as sufficient to define the faithful apart from the liturgy and the rest of the church’s moral instruction. It’s at this point that the very unremarkable thought occurred to me that, despite the fact that there was no major ecumenical council adopting it as such, Christians have had a basic, unquestioned moral creed we’ve used for 2,000 years–indeed, the Jews for a 1,000 before that–the 10 Commandments.

As far as I can tell from the study of church history, alongside the early baptismal confessions, and the later expanded creeds, the 10 Commandments have functioned as an effective moral creed for the whole of Christendom. Catechism in the early church would have included teaching on the commands (See article links below.) Moving through the Middle Ages on into the catechisms and confessions of the Reformation (Luther’s, Westminster, Heidelberg, etc.) all have large sections devoted to them as they were seen as the basic skeleton of Biblical piety and ethics. As I understand it, they’re similarly central for Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic catechisms. As Roberts pointed out without quite making this point, the Commandments function as the creed does for the doctrinal storyline, standing as the summary of the rest of Torah, and really, Biblical ethics as a whole. Denying any of them, then, along with being a clear denial of Scripture, would be an unthinkable denial of the core of the faith.

If I’m correct, then, it’s just here that Roberts’ comments about the creed become relevant. It’s not that anybody in the revisionist camp actually explicitly denies the 10 Commandments. All but the most extreme liberal fringe would probably be horrified at the suggestion of such a repudiation; there’s no need to impugn motives here. Still, the question is whether or not this constitutes something similar to one of those unintentional, yet ultimately destructive, moves on the order of affirming Nicaea while actually holding beliefs that lean or are Arian. It could very well be that when properly understood there are revisionist positions–not only on same-sex issues, but with respect to premarital sex, divorce, etc.–that constitute a functional denial of the command against adultery as it sums up and embodies the biblical sexual ethic as a whole.

Any revision, then, of the traditional interpretation that has crossed confessional boundaries of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox thought for 20 centuries, if wrong, is not likely to be a mere adiaphora.

This seems like a plausible line of thought to pursue. In fact, I’m quite sure someone already has.

Is There a Middle Category?
All the same, while I’ve floated this suggestion out there for discussion, I still find myself uneasy calling someone a heretic while they still hold the basic theology of the creeds in a fairly conservative form. Perhaps I’m too slow to call a spade a spade. It’s precisely here where I wonder, though, if there is possibly some third category between heresy and adiaphora. I don’t have a fancy name for it, but possibly something along lines of  “really, really, serious theological error.” As in, excommunication maybe isn’t fitting for the person who holds this, but then again, neither should you be signing them up to teach Sunday School for the kids.

I’m not sure where this leaves us. I guess I’m floating the idea that, no, bare-bones creedal affirmation is not enough. But then again, it doesn’t seem to have ever been–the Christian tradition has always said there was a bit more, especially in regards to biblical morality. Nor has that standard been an arbitrary one, but an ethic at the heart of biblical revelation.

As I said, this is all somewhat tentative. I think it makes sense, which is I why I wrote it, but I welcome your gracious corrections, thoughts, and comments. Please do be respectful of each other, though, and pleased don’t be offended if I don’t respond.

Soli Deo Gloria


1. Interesting post on the possible (non)-use the 10 commandments in early church catechesis. I don’t think it changes the usefulness of the proposal, but still a thing.
2. Post by Brad Littlejohn on Hooker’s distinctions when it comes to adiaphora. Longish, but helpful read.
3. Andrew Fulford has an especially instructive discussion on the difference between essential beliefs and beliefs that one is culpable or not culpable for holding.