The Indistinguishability of Theology and Ethics – Amos 8:14

Those swearing by the guilt of Samaria, those saying, “As your God lives, Dan” and “As your beloved lives, Beer-Sheba”, they will fall and they will not rise up again.

Amos 8:14

This last verse of chapter 8 makes an interesting conclusion to this chapter which, in its first half, was concerned with dishonest commercial practices, something we might consider more of a “practical” sin. But in this last verse, the prophet describes the people who are going to be judged in terms of their religious apostasy. This isn’t the first time Amos has moved suddenly from the theme of social justice to the theme of religious infidelity or vice versa. In fact, the entire book seems a little bipolar. First he’s talking about mistreating the poor, then he’s talking about participating in the worship of foreign deities, then he’s talking about living in wasteful luxury, then he’s talking about worshiping at Bethel and Gilgal … and he keeps going back and forth throughout the entire book of Amos. This has left many commentators scratching their heads and asking, “So which is it, Amos? Is God angry because of social injustice, or is he angry because of religious infidelity? Which is the real reason, or which is the more important reason for God’s coming judgment?”

Now we might answer them, “God is angry at both”. But while that answer is heading in the right direction it is not quite the best answer, because there’s an important point that it skips over, namely that these are not really two different categories or realms of sinfulness at all, but one sickness with two symptoms. It is interesting how easily we can assume with these commentators that there is a distinction between religious apostasy (or sinning against God) on the one hand and immorality against society (or sinning against our neighbor) on the other, that there isn’t any inherent connection between them. We divide theology from ethics, thinking we can talk about the one without necessarily talking about the other. Our seminaries have professors of “Practical Theology”, which implies – unintentionally and humorously – that everything else that isn’t dealt with under this subject heading is “impractical theology.” When we work under this assumption, that “sins against God” and “sins against our neighbors” are two distinct categories, we can be tempted to think that it is possible to commit one and not the other, to have a religiously faithful but unjust society or (more insidiously) to have a just society without religious fidelity. And then we come to Amos and we wonder which one of these two categories is actually more important to Amos, since he seems to be going back and forth quite freely.

But the question is this: does Amos consider this “going back and forth”, or are what we see as two distinct and essentially unrelated categories more like two sides of the same coin, as far as the prophet is concerned? In what we perceive as “going back and forth”, what Amos is revealing to us is that we have capitulated to the Enlightenment view that our faith is a private matter, while ethics is a public matter, and these two have no inherent relationship to one another. “Theology” becomes something really only eggheads do. It becomes possible, according to the popular but unbiblical saying, to be so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly good. The lesson we are to draw from this, according to our Enlightenment heritage, is don’t become too involved in theology, don’t study theology too much, because it has only limited practical value and it can twist your mind. I’ve heard pastors feel compelled to apologize for themselves by saying, “I don’t want to get too theological, but …”. Why should being theological be a problem for a pastor? In part because there are congregations that start complaining if they don’t perceive immediate practical application in every single sermon according to their own limited understanding of practical application. Don’t bother me with all that theological nonsense. What I want to know is what are we going to do about those jokers in Washington?

But the biblical view is not divided like this. According to the Bible, your theology determines your ethics, and your ethics acts out your theology. Ethics is inherently more public, but it doesn’t exist independent of theology. Because what is theology? This is a question that academics and average Christians in the pews both get wrong. We can say, “Theology is the study of God,” but it isn’t a science where we place God under the microscope and, in some kind of neutral scientific posture, study God. The only way we can study God is by studying his acts in reference to humanity. Theology is talking about God and what he has done for us. Theology is the proclamation of the Word of God. It is something we do every time we talk about God together, every time we study the Bible, especially together. And when we talk about what God has done for us, it becomes impossible not to talk about our sinfulness, about right and wrong, about following Jesus and being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. When we talk about loving God and being loved by him, we necessarily talk about loving our neighbors, because, as it says in 1 John 4:20, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but he hates his brother, he is a liar. For the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen is not able to love God whom he has not seen.” Love of God necessarily produces love of one’s neighbor, while hating one’s neighbor incontrovertibly indicates that one hates God, as well. Why is this? According to John, it is because all our capacity to love is drawn directly from God. God is love, and when we belong to him, his spirit of love and of truth dwells within us, reshaping us, who were formerly in darkness, according to the light.

Other parts of the Bible say things in slightly different ways, but the message is the same. Genesis, in particular, is an important source for understanding the effects of our relationship with God on our psychology and on our sociology. According to Genesis 3, the source of all of our sin is our rejection of God. When we reject him by distrusting him, we begin to distrust each other. We begin concealing ourselves from one another, being jealous of one another, accusing one another, attacking one another, trying to gain power over one another. Romans 1 makes essentially the same point. The fundamental sin of humanity is rejection of God as God, the violation of the first commandment, which is immediately followed by idolatry, the violation of the second commandment. This primal sin leads inevitably to all the other sins that are much more public and that are directed towards other humans, but all of this sinning against our neighbors flows from the fountainhead of our rejection of God. Sin against God and sin against our neighbor cannot be regarded as two separate phenomena.

On the flip side, we can also say that the only foundation for a truly just society is worshiping God as God. It is only when we humans joyfully submit to God and accept our secondary place in the universe that we have the freedom to treat each other lovingly. We can stop worrying about attacking others in order to protect ourselves, cheating others in order to provide for ourselves, and demeaning others in order to glorify ourselves. God is the one who protects us, provides for us, and ultimately glorifies us. Ethics without theology at its center is merely another human attempt to solve the humanly unsolvable problem of human depravity. The only way we can ever see a just society is insofar as human society worships God as God, or we could also say, insofar as human society is obedient to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord.

But this doesn’t mean that we should enforce the worship of God or the confession that Jesus is Lord through legislation. That would be trying to solve a spiritual problem with a worldly solution. What we need to realize is that all our worldly solutions are actually part of the spiritual problem. Law becomes irrelevant in the Kingdom of God, and what we are wanting to do is invite people to live in the Kingdom of God. When we say that theology and ethics are, properly understood, not two but one subject, we are also saying that the only thing that is worth talking about is theology, because that is the only method for creating a just society. We cannot create a just society, but we can plant the seed of the Kingdom of God, we can water that seed, and we can rejoice as God gives the increase. This is why I encourage you to not expend too much of your energy in political debate. Because even if you are really good at political debate, and somehow you actually manage to start convincing people of the rightness of your views, and even if you manage to get your views publicly implemented, there’s no real guarantee that things are going to work out the way you think they will. There will be unintended consequences, and for every problem you appear to solve, two more will rise up in its place. Instead, let’s talk about the goodness of God. Let’s tell people that Jesus is Lord, and because he is Lord we can stop fighting one another, we can stop dividing ourselves into tribes and waging war on one another, we can stop having to fret about whether or not we are going to have enough to eat or whether or not our way of life is going to survive. If your way of life is the Kingdom of God, then it will definitely survive. If your way of life is anything else, nothing you can do will make it last.

I admit, this is a lot of reflection on a single verse, sort of. But this identical relationship between religious fidelity and social immorality is one of the really important ways that the book of Amos confronts us in modern Western Civilization, and I actually feel that it is important at this stage, as we begin wrapping up the book of Amos and as chapter nine starts to recapitulate the preceding eight chapters, that we take some time to reflect on the fact that love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand, as do sin against God and sin against our neighbors.

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