Last week I attended the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Francisco. I attended many interesting sessions and my own session for the Evangelical Philosophical Society (entitled “Belief, Behavior, and the Necessary Conditions for Salvation”) went well, prompting much helpful feedback from the audience.
In my paper I note that the willingness on the part of some people to label themselves or others as “Christian” despite their chronic and extreme flouting of biblical moral standards is symptomatic of the view that the sole criterion for being a Christian is cognitive in nature—specifically, an intellectual affirmation of key doctrines. I note that this view ignores the fact that certain behavioral standards are essential to being a Christian. Consider these words of Jesus: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him… If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching…. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:21-24). Here Jesus defines love of himself not in terms of orthodox belief nor even, as our culture would prefer, passionate feelings, but in terms of obedience.
Some biblical passages even appear to make a strong connection between chronic disobedience and one’s eternal destiny, such as these assertions by the Apostle Paul:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21).
Given the eternal ramifications of chronic, extreme wayward behavior, it would seem that false views about essential biblical moral teachings are likewise significant. Therefore, I introduce the concept of “moral heresy” as a potentially useful conceptual tool in approaching this issue. The ancient creeds tend to focus on historical issues (e.g., the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ) and metaphysical issues (e.g. the Trinity and the divine incarnation of Christ). The moral issues mentioned by Paul above are not addressed in any of the major church creeds or confessions, because they have never the source of significant debate in church history—that is, until the last few decades with regard to homosexual practice.
Next I note that since all expression of moral beliefs is a tacit endorsement of certain behaviors, publicizing one’s morally heretical views, whether or not one engages in the immoral practice oneself, might crucially undermine the faith commitment of others. This fact appears to blur the line between beliefs and conduct in such a way as to significantly raise the stakes regarding contemporary ethical debates in the church, particularly regarding homosexuality.
Due to the current moral crisis in the American church, there is a high premium on moral discernment as well as personal virtue and integrity. As the Apostle Paul warned the early church, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).
I seem to be commenting on your blog a lot these days — you keep putting out very interesting posts!
I wanted to say thank you for this post and for your continual commitment to the necessary consequence of the Holy Spirit making our objective reality in Jesus Christ (election) a subjective reality within our lives (sanctification). It was genuinely convicting especially as one who seeks to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in my speech as an aspiring theologian.
Hey Dr. Spiegel,
Thank you for the insightful post. Are you suggesting then that moral obedience–say, the contraries of the vices mentioned in the above verses–constitute necessary conditions for salvation?
I realize this is the age-old question of (cognitive) faith vs. works. But I am curious to hear your take on it. It seems to me that Paul’s charges in Gal 5:19-21–e.g. selfish ambition–strike me as something that will always, even if only minutely, be present in a Christian’s life. How then can they count as necessary conditions? (Maybe I just need to read your paper.)
Your proposal about moral heresy is very interesting and, as you suggested, conceptually important. A virtue of the proposal is that it helps Christians appreciate a perhaps relatively unrecognized disposition they probably have: basically, they would be more inclined to be appalled at one’s committing an egregious sin than at one’s accepting and defending a substantial distortion of an essential Christian doctrine. In a recent comment, I made mention of a conversation on Alexander Pruss’s blog, so I hope you don’t mind my doing so again, as it seems relevant to your thesis. Pruss writes: “I suspect that many philosophers would rather have their work be criticized as being morally perverse than as being stupid or merely tritely repeating unoriginal claims from the literature.” Someone responded with the following suggestion: “if your philosophical work is stupid or trite, you have failed qua professional philosopher, which is the genre the work is in. Whereas if it is immoral, then you have failed as a person, but not as a philosopher.” (Found here: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com/2011/11/stupidity-trite-and-immorality.html) Accepting and defending a substantial distortion, say, of the doctrine of the Trinity would be exceedingly regrettable, but it would likely indicate one’s failure (to some extent) as a Christian thinker. But committing some egregious sin would likely indicate a failure (to some extent) as a Christian, which is even more regrettable. Your proposal, at the very least, seems to help us recognize this intuition.
I do have a couple of worries. The first one is more philosophical theological, the second exegetical.
I’ve recently become increasingly attracted to the view that, with respect to the necessary conditions for salvation, there may only be one absolutely necessary condition. By an absolutely necessary condition, I mean a condition which isn’t context-sensitive or circumstance-sensitive. Most, if not all, other candidates for necessary conditions appear to be context-sensitive. Take, for example, the necessary conditions for the salvation of a fetus as opposed to those for a cognitively functional and properly informed adult male. I think it’s plausible to say that the conditions are quite different in these significantly different circumstances. But if it’s true to say that all but one of the necessary conditions for salvation are context-sensitive, then this would apply to the conditions which take moral conduct into account. Some people die very soon after obtaining salvation, but some people live much longer. In the former case, there may be hardly any opportunities to display biblically sanctioned moral conduct, and so it would seem unfair to withhold salvation to such people. In the latter case, there are numerous opportunities to display the relevant type of conduct. But how much is necessary, and how much is sufficient? It seems to me that there might not be any plausible, objective parameters by which to assess the moral quality of one’s life, parameters within which one must remain in order to be saved (provided that one is in an appropriate context). Could there ever be a situation in which God might say, “Sorry, but you’ve crossed the line”?
The second worry concerns the interpretation that, in 1 Cor. 6:9-10 and Gal. 5:19-21, inheriting the kingdom of God is essentially a salvific notion or is inextricably associated with salvation. (I acknowledge that these are but two of the passages found in your paper.) Even if the kingdom of God has salvific significance and implications in Scripture, it seems possible that Paul may not be referring to inheriting salvation, but rather to something conceptually broader. The Gospels appear to suggest that the kingdom of God (or heaven) isn’t a rigid concept with an invariant meaning, for it’s spoken of and referred to in diverse ways. So maybe Paul intends to designate something broader than (though perhaps inclusive of) the issue of salvation.
Sincere apologies for the length. I envisioned this comment being much shorter and more concise.
Sorry about the second comment, but it looks like part of the URL (corresponding to Pruss’s blog) didn’t survive the posting process. Here’s the complete URL, I think: