Dr. Joel Biermann, a professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, asks some very interesting questions in his book, A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics.
• What’s the place of moral teaching in our churches?
• Does Lutheran theology, with its emphasis on justification by grace through faith, create a barrier against intentional efforts to form Christian character?
• Do Lutherans suffer, as some have contended, from an “ethical disability?”
• What does it mean to live a Christian life? Are Lutheran churches providing a satisfactory answer?
• What would an orthodox and pragmatically useful approach to ethical life in the Lutheran church look like?
The last question on the list is a key motivator for Biermann’s book. He begins with the premise that the task of moral formation and guidance needs to be revitalized in the church, and he points to parish pastors and laypeople as his intended audience.
“Understood scripturally,” says Biermann, “the goal [of the book] is quite simply to provide a way for congregations faithfully to practice the Lord’s parting instruction to make disciples—baptizing them, yes,—but also ‘teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’” (p. 9, original emphasis).
Fantastic. I love practical insights, especially when they deal with important matters like the Christian faith. I don’t know about you, but despite hearing about justification and sanctification, the two kingdoms, and the three uses of the law umpteen times in my life, I’m still not always 100% clear about them (and that is an understatement).
Now that I’ve finished the book, I can say that it prompted a lot of thinking, reflection, and questions, but it also left me with a pretty fuzzy idea of what to do with all the information.
Biermann does a solid job of identifying problems with Lutheran ethics, particularly as noted by figures such as Stanley Hauerwas. Summarizing one of the charges, Biermann writes: “Handicapped by what might be called justification-induced myopia, Lutheran doctrine, it is asserted, suffers from an inherent incapacity for ethical concerns, which leaves Lutheran believers poorly equipped to address practical concerns of Christian living” (p. 65).
To investigate this claim, Biermann turns to Reformation-era writings, specifically the work of Melanchthon. Based on his research, Biermann concludes that intentional moral formation is not, in fact, incompatible with Lutheran theology, at least as it was articulated in the Confessions.
With these findings established, Biermann offers a “creedal framework” for thinking about ethics in a manner that conforms to Lutheran doctrine (e.g., justification) while enabling intentional character formation.
|Biermann's Creedal Framework|
The model, which includes three types of righteousness (governing, justifying, and conforming) grounded in the articles of the Creed, is a bit too complicated to get into here. Suffice it to say that if you agree with the old saying that “nothing is as practical as a good theory,” the model itself may satisfy your search for the practical “news” of the study.
As for me, I was hoping for more concrete ideas like those mentioned in the final 10 pages of the book. There, Biermann mentions careful catechesis (especially for young people, but for older parishioners, as well), cultivation of community (which involves, among other things, emulation of examples), daily prayer, regular use of the liturgy, and emphasis on the church year.
I’m sure Biermann has other ideas (as do you, I’m guessing). And I’m sure that any of these ideas could be spun into a book chapter of its own.
In the meantime, how about kicking off a conversation here?
What do you think about the place of moral formation in our churches? Are we missing the boat, or are we on course?