Arthur Middleton on the inseparability of doctrine and conduct and why a change in belief always brings about a change in practice
harles Gore, following St Paul, taught that there is a moral consequence to belief. His teaching comes in his Commentaries on St Paul’s Epistle. He is concerned to stress an important Pauline principle – the vital and necessary connection between Christian doctrine and Christian living. Christian belief moulds and fashions human conduct into a characteristic type, urging it along certain lines.
So when Paul expounds some point of Christian doctrine there follows a ‘therefore’ indicating the inevitable moral consequence of such belief where it is intelligently and voluntarily held. The doctrine acts by an appeal to the will. Gore maintains that these ‘therefores’ indicate a fundamental characteristic of Christianity. It is a way of living based upon a disclosure of divine truth about God and his will, about man’s nature and his sin, about God’s redemptive action and its methods and intentions. In other words a Christian cannot separate what he believes from the moral consequences of that belief.
Today people disparage reference to theological doctrine and belief, seeing them as remote from the ordinary concerns of people and associated with the clergy. This is absurd, for if we examined the lives of those shining examples of practical Christianity in all ages, an Augustine or Francis of Assisi, we would find that the overwhelming majority would attribute what was good in their lives to their definite beliefs.
Alterations of belief
Gore claims that an alteration of belief brings an alteration of practice. Hitherto, for example, the social conscience about the obligations of marriage, or about personal purity, or about suicide, has been saturated with Christian sentiment, which is the result of a prolonged impression left by Christian doctrine. But we can see today that as the minds of contemporary people become secularized, and Christian doctrine is eliminated from their minds, after a generation or two we see a weakening or destruction of the Christian doctrine in such people. What is abolished is the obstacle to the permissiveness of sensual or selfish desires.
Furthermore, the moral standard of the ‘average person’ is unconsciously influenced by the morals of the best men and women. Social opinion is with the majority, the force which mainly influences their practice. When the best people cease trying the world sinks back into chaotic morality. Anything that silences the moral effort of the best individuals brings disaster. This is exactly what would be the result if the best men and women were to cease to be Christian believers. It is the highest level of our common life that would be depressed.
A new life
To St Paul all this is self-evident. He sees quite clearly that Christianity is to be a new life, a new social and ethical manifestation in the world, because Christians believe that God has made plain to them in Jesus Christ in his character, nature and redemptive purposes; and has given, by his Spirit, a practical power to their wills to correspond with the truth revealed to their minds and hearts. So he proceeds from his exposition of the Church’s great doctrines of Redemption, to its practical moral consequences. Christianity is a new life. Christian faith is an introduction into Christ. Believing that we are baptized into him means that we are to live as he lived towards the world of sin and towards God. If our believing does not lead to this new living, beyond all question it is a spurious thing, and none of the Christian privileges attach to it.
With a similar purpose St Paul writes here to the Ephesians – newly-made Christians, who lived in the midst of an appallingly corrupt society, and whose inherited traditions of conduct were altogether lacking in self-restraint. He warns them against possible abuses of their Christian privileges and Christian liberty. You cannot be a Christian and live by the values of a secular culture. ND