December 2023
Morality over Doctrine?

It's common to hear claims that "doing" matters more than "believing." But the truth is a bit more complicated.

It's fascinating how much you can learn about secular culture when it's not trying to express its beliefs. This comes out in films, TV series, and popular fiction, among other places. I guess that's another piece of support for the argument that we're most ourselves when no one's looking.

One theme that comes up repeatedly is very popular, so popular it's assumed to be a core doctrine: what you do matters more than what you believe. Morality should trump religion. Doing is always worth more than believing.

You can see both the appeal and the danger of the mantra. On the one side, it's appealing because it seems easier to show goodwill and moral character through actions, especially actions that appear detached from a system of belief (I say "appear" intentionally). In fact, it's almost as if such acts (e.g., donating to a local food drive, affirming someone's worth with verbal encouragement, being environmentally conscious, making meals for someone in the hospital) build up credibility for people so that they can (if they dare) someday hint at their personal beliefs. We'd never lead with personal beliefs. In the words of Captain Hook, that would just be "bad form." On the other side, the morality-over-religion mantra is dangerous because it ignores the truth that all actions are tied to underlying beliefs. There's no such thing as an action detached from a belief system. There are only actors ignorant of their belief systems.

There's no such thing as an action detached from a belief system. There are only actors ignorant of their belief systems.

The greater problem for Christians is that all of this is diametrically opposed to the teaching of Scripture.

In the Beginning There Was Doctrine

I love how J. Gresham Machen could cut cleanly to the heart of an issue simply because he knew his Bible so well. In Things Unseen, he has a chapter that I think is worth the price of the whole book. It's called "Life Founded upon Truth." Here's some of its wisdom.

Do not be deceived, my friends. This notion that it does not make much difference what a man believes, this notion that doctrine is unimportant and that life comes first, is one of the most devilish errors that is to be found in the whole of Satan’s arsenal. How many human lives it has wrecked, how many mothers’ hearts it has broken! That French novelist is entirely right. Out of the Pandora box of highly respectable philosophy come murders, adulteries, lies, and every evil thing. . . . What does the Bible say about the question whether doctrine is merely the changing expression of life or whether—the other way around—life is founded upon doctrine? You do not have to read very far in the Bible in order to get the answer. The answer is given to you in the first verse. Does the Bible begin with exhortation; does it begin with a program of life? No, it begins with a doctrine. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). That is the foundational doctrine upon which everything else that the Bible says is based. The Bible does present a way of life; it tells men the way in which they ought to live, but always when it does so it grounds that way of life in truth (Machen, Things Unseen, p. 63).

In the beginning was a doctrine, a teaching, a truth claim. That's how Scripture starts. Our first response to revelation is not doing; it's believing. In the beginning, there was doctrine.

Why? There's mystery that I can't unravel here, but maybe it's because at the center of life is a relationship, an I-thou connection between God and his creatures. And that relationship is founded on trust, on belief in the truth, not on an external act that can be performed in relative ignorance of that relationship. The opening of Scripture calls us not to do something for someone but to believe in someone before doing anything.

The opening of Scripture calls us not to do something for someone but to believe in someone before doing anything.

Whatever we do is meant to follow after and build upon a relationship. That relationship revolves around the gravitational center of our hearts. It was Jesus who said that our words flow out of the abundance of our hearts (Luke 6:45). Our actions, too, flow from our hearts. Indeed, everything flows from our hearts (Prov. 4:23).

In the Beginning Was a Person

Another way of getting at this is to say not just "In the beginning was a doctrine," but "In the beginning was a person." In the beginning, was the tri-personal God, addressing his people and calling for a response of faithful trust in his goodness, in his speech. If in the beginning there was a Person, then it would make perfect sense for that Person (or three persons) to call for trust, for belief, as the foundation for an ongoing relationship. 

What does all this have to do with morality? Well, it shows that morals always have roots. Actions might be the pretty flowers culture is calling for, but they're always rooted in soil. And we can't ignore the soil. The soil is what provides the nutrients for the flowers; it sustains them. In this case, it provides the motive for burgeoning growth and beauty. Our contemporary culture wants us to cast aside the motive for actions and instead just focus on actions themselves. But that's the equivalent of putting flowers in a vase and then claiming that they've always been there. They haven't. They grew somewhere. Does it matter where they grew? Yes, because the motive colors and directs the act.

Here's an example. Affirming someone's worth with verbal encouragement might be one of the most underappreciated moral acts in the world today. We need more encouragers. Now, take two people, one a doctrine-believing Christian and the other a religious "none" without a designated belief system. What if they both utter the same words to me? "You have a calming presence." (I've been told this on many occasions, which is ironic, since I struggle with anxiety so much.) Is there a difference? Aren't both people performing the same act of encouragement?

Motive matters. It colors the actions people take and directs them in a certain way.

I answer that with a question: what's the motive beneath the words? I know, I know—on the surface, both people are just "trying to be nice." But don't stop there. Roots of morality run beneath the surface, remember? They go to a heart. The doctrine-believing Christian should be speaking those words not to build up my ego but to point me to the Spirit's work in me, the grace of God that he's seen fit to express through my personality. God gets the glory, not me. I need to be reminded of that constantly. In contrast, the nonbeliever may not have a problem with me building up my ego. In fact, it might even be a cause worth celebrating. "Affirm your self-worth! Admit to yourself that you're pretty great. Own it." I don't want that. It's not just uncomfortable for me; it's antithetical to my own beliefs, and it encourages rebellious self-affirmation and independence from God (and independence from God is an illusion anyway). I look at the heart of the first person and say "amen." I look at the heart of the second person and say "no thank you." Motive matters. It colors the actions people take and directs them in a certain way. I want the direction of praising God for his grace. I don't want the direction of affirming my identity in supposed isolation from God.  

Doctrine and Morality

My point is that, just as Machen wrote, truth comes before action, doctrine before morality, heart before hands (and words). Belief always precedes morality. There are always roots beneath the surface. Let's not pretend that flowers in a vase came from nowhere. To switch metaphors, our actions travel from a heart-country. What happens in that country is primary. Our belief in the three-personed God who is always addressing us matters. In the beginning there was doctrine, because in the beginning there was a Person calling for relationship, for belief, for trust. The posture of our heart reveals more about who we are than what we do. That doesn't mean action is superficial. It just means that actions have heart roots, and it doesn't help anyone to ignore them. 

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