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The Problem with Consequentialism

August 15th, 2018 | 20 min read

By Derek Rishmawy

Beware 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.

Univocity and Distinguishing Consequences from Consequences

Let’s think about the way this plays with Dun Scotus’s doctrine of “univocity,” an initially unprovocative and abstruse bit of theology that only nerds, or people trying to sound like nerds, care about. In a nutshell, it’s a doctrine about the way language for God works. Essentially, though God and creation are radically ontologically distinct, “there are concepts under whose extension both God and creatures fall”, so when use certain words of God and creatures, we are picking out the same semantic notion.

According to some theologians and historians, adopting this theory had a sort of butterfly effect in culture, unleashing a hurricane of consequences ranging from modern individualism, skepticism, secularism, and so forth. In fact, Thomas Williams contends it’s gotten to the point that critics, “rarely if ever argue that univocity is false,” instead they simply point to its “various disastrous consequences for theology” (“The Doctrine of Univocity is True and Salutary,” Modern Theology 21:4, October 2005, 575-585). But Williams says that shouldn’t be enough to refute it. He avers, “even if the doctrine has unwelcome consequences, we ought to affirm it anyway; it is not the job of the theologian or philosopher to shrink from uncomfortable truths.”

To my mind, this is an eminently important point. Much of the truth we must believe about the world (whether in health science, geography, chemistry, economics, psychology, or history) is uncomfortable, unpleasant, and unfortunate. That does not make it any less true. In which case, simply pointing out an historical link between an idea and an unpleasant or negative consequence is not strong enough on its own to disprove it.

Williams continues his defense and argues positively for univocity and makes two important, simple, but often-overlooked distinctions:

…it does not have the deplorable consequences that have been attributed to it. It should be noted that by “consequences” I mean logical consequences. What historical consequences the doctrine may have had are beside the point: if people have been led astray by false inferences from the doctrine of univocity, the proper remedy is to correct their inferences, not to reject univocity.

First, there is a difference between a negative logical consequence, a necessary entailment of a doctrine, and its historical consequences. The latter may be completely independent of the former. Second, is the all-important point about “inferences”: people draw bad conclusions from their observations or stated premises all the time. In which case, not all accidental historical consequences are logical consequences.

I suggest this should be unsurprising in a world wracked with sin and finitude.

Sin as Poor Inference

In fact, according to Scripture, one could say that sin is fundamentally a matter of drawing false inferences from revelation. Consider Romans 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Paul says sin is matter of looking at the world, looking at God’s eternal power and glory made manifest, and concluding that we ought to worship idols we’ve made with our own two hands. We look at creatures and treat them like the Creator. We become “futile in our thinking”, and in our unrighteousness we “suppress the truth.” Sin is more than, but not less than, cognitive in nature—and that includes our powers of inference.

And this is born out all over the New Testament, is it not? Yes, much of the Gospels and the Epistles is straightforward teaching and application of new truths. But much, if not more, is a matter of correcting misunderstandings and improper inferences about the gospel already held, which was leading to sin.

Think of Paul in Romans answering the charge, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:1-2) Here he is ruling out licentious misinterpretations of his gospel of grace–misinterpretations we still deal with today. Or again, in 1 Corinthians, Paul is constantly connecting the dots between doctrines believers should already hold (resurrection) and moral conclusions they had not grasped (don’t visit prostitutes; 6:12-20). A quick scan of just about any other letter will reveal the same corrective logic at work. People have been drawing the wrong conclusions about Christian truth since there was Christian truth.

Saving the Monarchical God From Bad Inference

We need to recognize that this sort of error is not only a matter of 1st Century, ex-pagans unable to kick their old ways of thinking, or even of willful sin. We see all sorts of errors of theological inference even in brilliant, well-meaning, modern theologians. Take the work of Sallie McFague, who manages to give us an example of both bad theological inference paired to theological consequentialism.

In her classic book, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, McFague argues we need new metaphors and models of God that will help us respond in responsible and life-giving ways in postmodern, nuclear times. The basic premise is a skeptical, Feuerbachian one: we can’t really know God, or can so only dimly, so we can only think of God in terms of metaphors and models of our own making, all of which evidence greater or lesser social utility. Since even Scripture’s portraits are not normative, but exemplary (and outdated), we need to craft new ones better suited for our times.

There are numerous problems with the work, but I want to focus on her argument that we need to replace the dominant, Western, “Monarchical Model”—that of God as transcendent, sovereign, omnipotent King, Lord, and ruler of the Universe—with models which view the world as God’s body, or God as mother, friend, and lover. For McFague, the Monarchical model simply cannot function imaginatively, “for an understanding of the gospel as destabilizing, inclusive, nonhierarchical vision for all of creation.” Why? Because on this model, “God is distant from the world, relates only to the human world, and controls that world through domination and benevolence.”

Leave aside for a moment the question of whether or not we agree with all of what McFague thinks a model of God should do for our understanding of the gospel. Despite the initial plausibility of the portrait she draws, it becomes clear that most of her complaints only have force if the model of God as king is divorced from the way the normative way the metaphor of kingship is deployed in Scripture itself. In other words, McFague is operating with bad inferences about the way the model is supposed to work.

For instance, yes, part of the metaphor of kingship implies distance, inviolability, loftiness, transcendence, and absence from the world. But in Scripture, we also encounter a portrait of kingship simultaneously involving immanence, care, concern, and presence. Isaiah’s vision of the King of holiness, high and exalted, seated on his heavenly throne includes the Seraphim’s cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3). A far cry from the idea that the world in which God is king is one that is left bereft of divine presence and “Godless.”

Or again, “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Isa. 57:15). This is the king who, precisely because of his transcendence, is able to be near the brokenhearted, the weak, the cast down, and an ever-present source of comfort.

Further, as most OT scholars of the last 40 years will tell you, the metaphor of Kingship in Israel is intimately connected with the theology of the Tabernacle and Temple, God’s dwelling place among his people. Indeed, Genesis 1 describes the creation of the whole world as the creation of a Temple within which God can be encountered by his creatures. This is a complete contrast to much of what McFague says are “the direct implications of its imagery,” such as “a view of God as distant from and basically uninvolved with the world.”  

Which brings me to the next point: McFague claims this image implies the Lord’s benevolence “extends only to human subjects”, leaving the creation (both flora and fauna) out to dry. And divine ambivalence encourages human ambivalence. Again, this idea by no means follows in light of the broader, implicit Temple theology; both Tabernacle and Temple are redolent with Edenic suggesting a microcosmic logic is at work. If the world, the creation, is God’s house, his Temple, his royal palace made to display his glory, how will he not take its abuse, as a degradation and offense against his own person?

Explicit texts connecting kingship and creation reinforce this. Isaiah pictures creation joining in worship of the King, for the salvation of Israel involves the salvation of creation:

“For you shall go out in joy

and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and the hills before you

shall break forth into singing,

and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;

instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;

and it shall make a name for the LORD,

an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isa. 55:12-13)

Or again, the Psalmist invites all of the heavens and the earth to praise God, the LORD, for his coming, Royal judgment:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

let the field exult, and everything in it!

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

before the LORD, for he comes,

for he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness,

and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Ps. 96:11-13)

We could keep going here. Thinking about hierarchy, yes, that is implied in kingship. At the same time, the doctrine of the universal Image of God is a doctrine derivative from the image of God as king that serves as a leveling and uplifting one for women, minorities, and other marginalized groups.  Furthermore, the kingship of God and Christ, especially in Scripture, serves as a threat and warning against entrenched power and Empire (consult Psalm 2, Isaiah 40-55, Revelation): there is a King of all kings who will hold you to account for your oppression. Which, incidentally, serves as a motivator for responsible action, not indifference and apathy.

All of which is to say, while the model of God as kings may have had negative, historical consequences (that is certainly an open, historical question), by no means does it necessarily have the “direct implications” McFague worries it does. It can only have them when we fail to consider as normative the full sweep of image’s use in the text from which Christian theology derived it. Or, when we forget the way Scripture consistently blends and redefines a variety of models and images to suit the particular needs of divine revelation. Which is to say, only when we adopt McFague’s own method.

A Few Principles For Fruit-Pickers

I could work through a half-dozen other, recent examples of consequentialist rejections of doctrine on the basis of bad inferences, or the confusion between necessary consequences and contingent, historical consequences. I should clarify here, that I don’t think any of this is a total condemnation of considering “fruits.”

So what role can the examination of consequences or fruits play? Well, I’ve suggested before, that they are possibly best seen as a diagnostic tool, a warning light on the dash, indicating that something has gone wrong. Something needs our care and attention. With that truth in view, I’ll simply raise a few points to consider whenever we’re thinking of making a consequentialist argument against a doctrine. Think of them principles for learning how to examine fruit.

First, quite simply, we must ask whether the doctrine taught in Scripture. If it is, the principle of “accepting unwelcome consequences” comes into play. At least, if our Christianity is to be anything more than our druthers. Relatedly, it is here where we should be asking ourselves if these unwelcome consequences are objectively bad, or subjectively unpleasant, or uncomfortable (ie. admitting something I really enjoy is a sin and that I must repent, or that my church may be wrong, or that some widely enjoyed social phenomena is illicit). But repentance is not described as a loss of life because it’s painless, nor is the Word called a sword because it’s aesthetically pleasing and quaint to hang on your wall.

To return to our metaphor of fruit, some of our complaints may stem from the fact that our palates are twisted; to someone used to saccharine sweet candy, even the sweetest orange will taste dull. it Or, from another angle, it is somewhat besides the point to complain that lemons are sour—they’re supposed to be.

Second, when looking at truly bad consequences, we might need to retrace ourselves and ask, “is this relevant doctrine I should be rethinking?” For instance, I’ve seen cases where someone will argue that penal substitution, or the image of God as judge concerned with personal sin, contributed to an individualistic view of salvation, which subsequently contributed to their indifference to racial injustice in the church and society more broadly. Mark me here: such indifference did and does exist, and this is a legitimately bad, historical consequence. But are we sure that atonement doctrine is the main culprit? It seems more intuitive see the problem going further back to a weak or corrupted doctrine of humanity, the Image of God, or the social and covenantal nature of the Church. Failures in those areas are just as (if not more likely), to produce those effects regardless of our atonement theology.

Third, this is a fairly obvious point that I’ve brought up before, but doctrines can be abused. And this is true of just about any doctrine you can imagine. God’s free forgiveness of sins, a crown jewel of our gospel and ethics, is regularly abused by manipulative and foolish leaders and abusers to absolve themselves of responsibility or give up power. The liberating and dignifying doctrine human as a unique, Image-bearer has been used to absolve ourselves of any environmental concern. And yet it would be perverse to throw out either doctrine, or downplay them instead of seeking to clarify them, or set them in their proper relation to the rest of Christian truth. Absusus non tollit usum.

Fourth, besides the warning against bad fruit, we ought to heed the simple yet devastating problem of hypocrisy and inconsistency. Jesus hammers the Pharisees for their lovelessness, their heavy burdens, their empty shell of a faith, even while saying, “so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” There are times when bad teachers will teach good doctrine, but live inconsistently with it. We all know of abusive pastors who preach the wrath of God, but live without any fear that God might apply it to their own gross, abusive, and unrepentant sins.

Thinking of the recent #churchtoo abuse crises, I’ve been hit with just how universal they are. You find it in “unaccountable” Baptist churches, as well as extensively in authoritarian Roman Catholic hierarchies designed precisely to maintain discipline and order. Within the Catholic Church you find it among priests both “orthodox” and liberalizing. Among Evangelicals, you find it in complementarian churches where men are supposed to be faithfully and sacrificially serving the women in their care, as well as in egalitarian churches where women are allegedly given an equal voice and authority. I think that some polities and some theologies are better designed to cope with human sin, but there’s something to Chuck DeGroat’s diagnosis that, “It was never about becoming more progressive or more conservative, I don’t think – it was about us, our character, our health, our willingness to give ourselves over to the dying-and-rising necessary for growing up.”

Fifth,  we might consider whether the bad fruits we’re experiencing are a regional variation. Does this doctrine have universally bad historical consequences? Not just in space, but in time? For instance, thinking about Christian teaching on sexual purity. Many have called for a re-evaluation for various planks of the Christian sex ethic, citing the negative consequences of Christian “purity culture” in the psychological experiences of many believers. And I won’t deny for a moment that some re-calibration is required there—especially when I hear of particular youth group horror stories.

At the same time, though, I’m reading Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity and it’s instructive here. The impact of Christian sexual morality on the ancient world is astonishing. The same basic package of sexual doctrines (no fornication, sex only within marriage, no same-sex relations) at which many today chafe at, was experienced by many as a liberating doctrine as it helped put a legal end to the all-pervasive system of prostitution and sex-slavery in the Roman Empire. In which case, we need to be careful about being cultural imperialists and existential imperialists about ‘consequences’ in these matters.

Relatedly, we have to think about the way Christian truth is mediated to and through diverse cultures, interacting with local cultures and historical phenomena in unique ways, presenting distinct challenges. Some cultures will have a harder time accepting certain truths and so downplay them (the accommodationist). Others will accept them gladly, but may overemphasize an aspect in a way that’s culturally-appealing (the correlationist). Or, you might see others take up and hammer doctrine precisely because it seems a useful to counter their local culture (the culture-warrior). Each are different temptations to distort the balance of Christian truth, which can end up giving a false total picture, even if the individual component parts are true enough.

Harper notes that the way Christians rightly held up the doctrine of free will in the first few centuries was a powerful polemic against pagan notions of fate and the power of sex over the individual. At the same time, it caused writers like Clement or Origen to struggle with texts of providence, or Pauline statements about the priority of grace and the bondage of the will. When Christianity expanded and had to deal with the pastoral reality of the failures and foibles of everyday folks, the corruption of the masses entering the Church, the neglect of these themes began to show itself.

Sixth, whenever someone suggests abandoning a doctrine, or seriously revising it, it’s also worth interrogating the possible consequences of whatever is being proposed in its place. So, say we concede the Monarchical model of God might be ripe for abuse, it is not at all clear that the sort of panentheist-ecological model of God that McFague has proffered to replace it has done any wonders for the spiritual health and vitality of the mainline churches that adopted it. It certainly hasn’t done anything for their numbers.

Similarly, we might ask questions about whether shifting our atonement doctrines to better fit our cultural intuitions about models of punishment might not carry their own negative consequences. C.S. Lewis notes the inhumane logic of more “humanitarian” theories which kick retribution to the curb. What’s more, Michel Foucault has similarly raised problems with the “rehabilitative” paradigm which gave birth to the prison system that, in some ways, is no more “civilized” than earlier, more violent orders of criminal justice. This ought to give us pause. While over-emphasizing the retributive dimension of God’s justice can certainly be twisted, might not removing it distort our doctrine of God in a way that cuts the moral nerve of our efforts for justice?

Questions and principles like this could be multiplied, but these are enough to help us appreciate the difficulty in applying a consequentialist criterion for the truth of doctrine. It cannot be undertaken in isolation, or as a short-cut, side-stepping the hard work of wrestling and submitting to Scripture, studying the tradition, or looking to the global church beyond the narrow reaches of our own context.

It is possible to examine fruits, as Calvin says, because believers, “are never deprived of the Spirit of wisdom, where his assistance is needful,” but only so long as they “distrust themselves, renounce their own judgment, and give themselves up wholly to his direction” and “remember…that all doctrines must be brought to the Word of God as the standard, and that, in judging of false prophets, the rule of faith holds the chief place.”

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Derek Rishmawy

Derek Rishmawy is the RUF campus minister at the University of California-Irvine, and is a systematic theology PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He contributes to Christ and Pop Culture, Christianity Today, and writes at his own blog, Reformedish. He also co-hosts Mere Fidelity. You can follow him on Twitter @dzrishmawy.