The Problem with Consequentialism in Thelogy (for Mere-O)

mdoesl of godBeware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15-20)

Thus our Lord Christ on how to spot false prophets. Apple trees bear apples, and orange trees bear oranges. And rotten trees bear rotten fruits of any kind. The same is true of teachers—their lives bear out their character. Perennial wisdom for the Church in any age.

Of late, though, this dictum has been transformed into a criterion for judging not only teachers, but teachings. Or perhaps I’m only noticing it now. In either case, it’s become quite common for people to argue that we need to abandon doctrines (whether it’s our sex ethic or our soteriology) upon the judgment that it “bears bad fruit”; it leads to negative consequences of varied sorts whether historical, social, or psychological. Does a doctrine lead to positive, human flourishing (however that’s defined)? Then it’s good. If not, chuck it. In other words, it’s been transformed into consequentialist criterion for evaluating the truth of doctrine.

As with most forms of consequentialism, there’s something intuitive, straightforward, and simple about this. Sound doctrine, truth, is life-giving in Scripture. In the long run, doctrine matters for how we live. As Eugene Peterson noted a while back, “A lie about God is a lie about life,” that leads to visibly deformed ways of living.

I think this simplicity forms some of the appeal of the consequentialist move–at least on the popular level. For those who have become skeptical either of clarity of Scripture (progressive circles), or impatient with the typical modes of theological argumentation (the blogosphere), looking to “fruits” can cut through red-tape, the obfuscation, the “ivory tower speculation” of traditional doctrinal and ethical reflection. “You poindexters can trade verses and quotes from the Fathers all day, but I can see the fallout of bad doctrine with my own two eyes in the pain of my fellow parishioners, or in the godless, racist, militaristic culture of the church I grew up in.”

On the seemingly opposite end, you can find sophisticated forms of the same argument in books filled with historical footnotes, tracing theological idea A to bad consequence B. The charm of these accounts is that you get the comparative clarity of a the fruits test, with the intellectual satisfaction of being able to tell a plausible “just-so” story that isn’t easily challenged, since most folks don’t have the historical training to spot any flaws.

You can see I think there’s something problematic about the “fruits” test–at least as a primary criterion of truth and the truth of theology. The main reason is that measuring the “fruits” or consequences of a doctrine in history can be a quite ambiguous affair.

You can read the rest of my article here at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria