Theology and Morality
by Fr. Michael Azkoul
Theology (the knowledge of God and His purposes) and morality (the art of right conduct) should be in theory and practice kept together. The faith and spirit of Orthodoxy has never considered it right to act in a manner not in strict harmony with the revealed principles of religion. The Church has always taught that a good deed was meaningful for our salvation only when performed in the Name of Jesus. However, the lives of most people in the world display the invalid separation of theology and morality. In this article we want to analyze the reasons for the divorce of revealed knowledge (theology) and deeds of righteousness (morality). We believe they are three: (1) the failure of most people to understand the meaning and purpose of the Christian Revelation, (2) “Christian liberalism” resident in Western culture to which we are heirs: and (3) the social, economic, and political pressures which compel the individual to put his morality in one pocket and theology in the other.
If it were known that “Revelation” meant the manifestation of God Himself in human history, the making known what was before, that is, the severe alteration in the very meaning of life, then, there would never be a separation of morality and theology. If it were understood that God the Son, Jesus Christ, is that Revelation, that it was He who has lent profound significance to human existence by His presence in it; that it was He that made known the Will of the Father, the Character of the Father, the Love of the Father, there would be no separation of morality and theology. By the Revelation God places Himself in the center of our lives and every dimension of the human spirit is necessarily effected. It means, therefore, that whatever we believe about God will certainly determine the nature of our conduct. For example, if I do not believe that God established the Sacrament of Penance (prayer, fasting, confession to a Priest), then, I will not practice it; or if I believe that God permits hatred then I will practice it. We are supposed to act according to what we believe, and what we are to believe has been given once and for all by Jesus Christ. There can be no separation of theology and morality.
The “Christian liberalism” inherent to Western culture which is another reason for the divorce between faith and action (theology and morality) has a long and complicated history, too long and complicated to discuss here, but Reinhold Niebuhr (Literalism, Individualism and Billy Graham) describes it as “the idea of historical inertia’’ substituted for ‘‘the concept of original sin’’ therefore obscuring “the fact that the sin of man was a corruption of his freedom” and it “tended to place the seat of virtue in the mind of man.” Having “made reason and history the means of redemption,* it had no real place for the biblical doctrine of redemption. And having interpreted history in Helegian** terms, it had no place for revelation, that is, for the invasion of by the absolute will of God”. Thus, “Christian liberalism” is nothing more than a dose of impartial morality, a pinch of philosophy with a few pinches of non-Christian ideology, stirred well and decorated with high-sounding phrases and acceptable sentiments. Now, according to the “liberals”, we are all pretty nice fellows and it is not required that we have a deep sense of sin nor look for supernatural redemption. We have our shortcomings, of course, but there is nothing really defective in human nature. We just need to correct our environment, follow physical science, become respectable members of society and as things about us improve we will also. There is no need for spiritual justification, or union with God, and certainly there is no need for creed or dogma or theology or even the Church which sponsors all these theological superfluities. However, the Orthodox point of view and the traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic points of view deny that man by himself can save himself without theology (revealed knowledge). Morality must be given a definite theological context because good deeds without right belief in Jesus Christ cannot deliver us from spiritual death.
Lastly, morality and theology have been separated by economic, social and political circumstances. The “world”, says Saint John the Evangelist, “knew him (Christ) not” because it dwells in darkness. But it was never enough to know that it needed standards of behavior in order to preserve peace and order. Due to woeful ignorance, the desire to succeed, and sin, men could not tell the difference between Christian morality and the world’s. It was believed that since everybody thought a certain way, or behaved in a certain way, that everybody must be right. Very quietly, little by little, Christian theology left the picture and the main concern of people was living up to the dictates of society upon matters which rightly belong to the Church. The contemporary picture shows us that we are no creed just custom; no doctrine just convention; no dogma just fashion, in a word, morality without a heavenly importance. The power of the “world” is compelling us to conform to its ways (thus insisting that we forget our peculiar and exclusive Orthodox theology ) or be burned at the stake of public fire.
The Orthodox position with regard to the relationship between theology and morality as expressed in Her Bible, Tradition, art forms, symbols, liturgical services, music, etc, is: Christian morality depends upon the theology which it presupposes. Our Lord insists upon just this though when He said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John xiv, 6). Jesus identifies Himself with truth. He is truth. He identifies Himself with the good life. Jesus is holy. Jesus is the way to heaven. In other terms, He identifies His teachings on every subject with His own Person and He is the only religious leader in the history of the world to do so. He is not just a moral example, but a teacher of theological truth. Notice, then, that morality (behavior) and theology (divine knowledge) are tied together in a single place, in the Person of Christ, or both theology and morality and inseparable. Having a common source it could not be otherwise. They can not he kept in different compartments. A man must act upon what he believes and to believe wrongly means to act wrongly.
* “Redemption" in the Christian sense of the word means being rescued from sin by the life and death of Jesus Christ.
** A theory of history by George Hegel (1770—1831), the German philosopher, who considered that it developed by steps and counter-steps which eventually were joined and the series began over again, going on infinitely.
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America