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.
Since I’ve posted a few pieces on the holiness movement lately, here’s one that goes right to the movement’s root–and thus also to the deep origins of the 20th and 21st centuries’ “Pentecostal explosion.” What follows is my “editor’s note” from Christian History and Biography‘s issue #82, dedicated to Phoebe Palmer and the American Holiness movement:
Phoebe Palmer: From the Editor Phoebe Who?
Thursday, April 1, 2004
When we floated some topic ideas for future issues of Christian History & Biography to our readers at www.christianhistory.net last year, our suggestion of “Phoebe Palmer and the American Holiness Revival” elicited a resounding “Huh?”
This was all the excuse we needed. This was one of those cases of someone almost unknown today, who actually left a Rushmore-sized impression on America’s religious landscape.
Phoebe Palmer was the most influential woman in the largest, fastest-growing religious group in mid-19th-century America—Methodism. By her initiative, missions were begun, camp-meetings instituted, and many thousands attested to the transforming power of divine grace. She mothered a nationwide movement that birthed such denominations as the Church of the Nazarene and the Salvation Army, bridged 18th-century Methodist revivalism to 20th-century Pentecostalism, and pioneered in social reform and female ministry. Continue reading →
This brief article of mine from the vaults of Christian History online deals, as did my previous post on new monasticism, with the question of how to live “Christianly” in middle-class America. Though the holiness movement didn’t look much like today’s new monasticism, early holiness folks and “postmodern” new monastics share a concern for social justice and good stewardship of our resources in the service of the gospel, as well as an impulse for communal accountability–inherited from John Wesley.
Said the original subtitle of the article posted below, “It swept across church lines, transforming America’s urban landscape with its rescue missions and storefront churches. Yet today, the “holiness movement” and its charismatic woman leader are all but forgotten.”
America’s modernized, industrialized, consumerized, urbanized, television-ized culture doesn’t make it easy for its Christian believers to live consistently holy lives. Today we will meet a group of people who took up this challenge and changed America forever. We will also meet the extraordinary woman who led their movement: a middle-class matron named Phoebe Palmer.
Even in the whirl of a swiftly secularizing society, Americans have always found ways to pursue holiness. Some—like the Old Order Amish and Benedictine monastics—have entered enclaves and taken countercultural vows of abstinence and obedience. They would tell you that America is simply too easy to love, and that the only way to lead a God-honoring life surrounded by the secularized masses is to “come out from among them” (2 Corinthians 6:17). Continue reading →
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