Five themes in Christian humanism (III)


“Dante and His Poem,” Domenico di Michelino (1417-1491); wikipedia, public domain

Continued from part II

4. Grace and virtues (the Christian moral life and Christian social ethics)

Other than dissenters such as Tertullian, the early church was happy to absorb and adapt much of the non-Christian knowledge of the time (classical philosophy). This included knowledge in the realm of ethics and politics (e.g. Aristotle’s Ethics – see e.g. Robert Louis Wilken, Spirit of Early Christian Thought). Thus the substance of Aristotelian virtue ethics was absorbed into Christian ethics, culminating in Aquinas’s Summa.

More recently, Protestant as well as Catholic readers of Elizabeth Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, and other modern Christian virtue ethicists have also been willing to consider the older Christianized classical virtue ethics tradition as important and helpful for today. However, there is still a tension between that tradition and the Augustinian understanding of the primacy of grace (given the extreme effects of the Fall) in human moral life. Again Christian humanism has worked to sustain a synthesis in this tension of virtue and grace, to various degrees in various phases of the tradition.

[list of potential subtopics follows]

  1. The Didache shows an early attempt at a Christian social ethic (at least, within the community of believers)
  2. The second-century apologists, it is argued, leaned more heavily to the human moral capacity and competency than Protestants today would be comfortable with.
  3. Patristic humanists, particularly in the East, worked out an understanding of the Christian moral life grounded in theosis: to grow in sanctification required vigilant, disciplined action to hew more and more closely to the likeness of God exemplified in Christ. (I think I got this from Daniel Clendenin, Eastern Orthodox Christianity).
  4. The monastic tradition, as early as Antony of Egypt (4th century) maintained a delicate balance between grace and human moral effort in their prescriptions for the quest for biblical moral and spiritual perfection.
  5. Augustine leaned radically in the other direction, at least in his polemics against the Pelagians (though affirming free will earlier in his career as he pushed back against the fatalism of his youthful Manicheist ties). However, his City of God has been a seminal text for Protestant as well as Catholic social ethics today.
  6. Both the early and the medieval church was willing to absorb and re-interpret elements of classical ethics, and the Christian virtues tradition exemplified in medieval sermons on the “seven virtues” (the classical four plus the Theological three) and “seven vices” (Evagrius’s “eight thoughts” mediated through Gregory the Great and, later, Aquinas) – see e.g. Wilken, Spirit and my chapter on ethics in Medieval Wisdom. And of course DeYoung on the vices tradition.
  7. The great Comedia of Dante was in many ways a Christian morality tale, identified by one of its translators Dorothy L Sayers as “the drama of the soul’s choice” – showing in vivid terms the eternal results of the moral paths taken by humans in their earthly lives.
  8. Renaissance humanists pushed back against what they saw as the intellectual aridity and lack of robust emphasis on moral praxis and social-ethical guidance in late medieval scholasticism, offering a humanistic educational vision for the development of Christian character that took inspiration from classical philosophy even as it attempted to stay true to theological orthodoxy (thus continuing the already ancient virtue-grace synthesis). (See, e.g., O’Malley, Four Cultures of the West, the third culture—exemplified in the Renaissance humanist ideals of “education for character.”)
  9. The theologia moderna of the late medieval period against which Luther and the other Reformers pushed back seemed to them to have overbalanced on the side of human effort and away from the necessity of grace.
  10. This Reformation critique and debate came to a head in the battle between Luther and Erasmus on the will. Erasmus tried to maintain the older synthesis, while Luther upheld the theological Augustinianism of his order, sharpening it in reaction to the theologia moderna.
  11. Calvin was himself a “triple humanist” according to Nick Wolterstorff (see his chapter in Zimmermann, Re-Envisioning Christian Humanism): anthropological, renaissance, and “social.” His Geneva was a Christian humanist attempt to lay out the practical social form of a “Christian commonwealth,” a social blueprint grounded in the Christian tradition.
  12. This Calvinist program was echoed in Puritan England and Massachusetts, and grounded more in Old Testament than New Testament texts. A Christian nationalism arose out of these attempts, and a rigid theo-social vision that (for instance) resulted in the hanging of Quakers, and accidentally in the founding of Rhode Island under the exiled Roger Williams.
  13. In his magisterial essay The Abolition of Man, CS Lewis represented a Christian tradition of affirming natural law – a universal inborn human moral compass no less affirmed in Christianity than in countless other traditions. Lewis denied in the essay that Christianity brought any new ethical teaching (he no doubt would have added: but, new power for the living of the moral life). Along the way, he offered a virtue-ethical educational vision for the inculcation of character through the training of the affections (the “chest”). (See the next unit for reflections on Lewis’s more literary works.)
  14. Meanwhile, in wartime Germany, the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an extensive Ethics that sought to do the same humanist recovery in the mode of constructive theology (see Zimmermann, multiple books on Bonhoeffer, and the late chapters of his Incarnational Humanism).
  15. In the modern period in America, the direction of moral thought (e.g. in the anti-Calvinism of American revivalistic Protestantism) has leaned back toward a radically grace-centered view of the ethical life, so that for example:
    1. Phoebe Palmer, 19th-century Methodist laywoman and progenitor of the “holiness movement” on both sides of the Atlantic, drew on Methodism’s perfectionist teachings to offer a radically grace-centered model of sanctification as instantaneous, complete, and fully graced, which eventually in the holiness and Pentecostal movements resulted in a shift of emphasis from sanctification to Holy Spirit baptism as “power for service.” This had the effect, in modern churches in those traditions, of leaving the older emphasis of John Wesley on the substance of Christian holiness – including social as well as individual holiness – in the rear-view mirror.
    2. Richard Lovelace (in his sprawling account of spiritual formation through Christian history, Dynamics of Spiritual Life) identified the “Great Omission” of moral teaching within evangelicalism (a failure to take sanctification seriously), and
    3. Dallas Willard observed among today’s more Reformed-influenced evangelicals a tendency to be not only saved, but in fact paralyzed (morally), by grace—a tendency he pushed back against in The Divine Conspiracy and, in a more social-ethical mode, The Divine Conspiracy, Continued.
  16. That paralysis – especially in social ethics – is often said to have stemmed from the Fundamentalist-Modernist split of the early to mid 20th century. In contradistinguishing themselves from the heterodox “liberal social gospel movement,” whose heyday in the U.S. was the late 19th century, Protestant fundamentalists left social ethical concerns behind to focus on saving individual souls, in what sociologist David Moberg called “the Great Reversal.” This “reversal” took modern evangelicalism far from the social concerns of its Victorian progenitors on both sides of the Atlantic who, long before modernist pastor Charles Sheldon wrote his hugely possible (and at spots, surprisingly evangelical) social-gospel novel In His Steps, had enlisted themselves in often fervid activism to address every ill of their societies through sanctified social and political action—from slavery to “public morals” to prison reform to orphanages to “urban missions” to temperance and a thousand other causes.
  17. In light of that paralysis and the widespread observable moral failure of American evangelicalism, already identified by such conservative thinkers as Carl F H Henry (Uneasy Conscience of American Evangelicals), more progressive evangelical leaders such as Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, and Jim Wallis looked to solutions more akin to those on offer by the secular left, while trying to find a synthesis with Christian theology.
  18. Contemporary American conservative evangelical leaders such as Tim Keller have felt they now need to push back against the extremes of critical-theory-driven social justice teachings and actions and reclaim a more balanced Christian humanist approach to ethics. It remains to be seen whether such attempts will be well-enough grounded theologically and philosophically to withstand the leftward shift of (especially) young evangelicals disgusted by the moral vacuity of their tradition. They could look to recoveries of the older, virtues-informed Christian ethical tradition by (for example) Reformed authors such as Rebecca DeYoung and Kevin Timpe of Calvin College, alongside such evangelical scholars of virtue formation as Jay Wood and Robert Roberts of Wheaton College.

Continued in part IV

2 responses to “Five themes in Christian humanism (III)

  1. Pingback: Five themes in Christian humanism (IV) | Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: Five themes in Christian humanism (II) | Grateful to the dead

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