I have long been in the habit of solving the problems of the world and plumbing the mysteries of God while at the gym, and some time ago a friend and I hit upon a simple yet brilliant classification scheme for every sermon we’d ever heard. There are, so we decided, only three types of sermons.
Sermon #1 points the congregation straight to the unmerited grace of God in Christ, to the mighty acts of God for our salvation, to the one who died for us while we were yet ungodly (Rom. 5:8), and so to “this grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:2). Its fitting hymn is:
How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
And make a wretch His treasure.
Sermon #2 invites the congregation to respond with faith and love to the grace of God in Christ, which they have received as a sheer gift. Secure in the blessed assurance that they have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever,” they are spurred on to “daily increase in [the] Holy Spirit more and more,” until their journey brings them safely home at last to God’s “everlasting kingdom” (BCP, 308, 418). Its fitting hymns are a rousing “Come labor on, who dares stand idle,” paired with a hopeful yearning cry for our Lord to:
Finish then thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee:
Changed from glory into glory,
‘Till in heaven we take our place.
Sermon #3 leaves out God altogether or may as well have. It holds up some lofty moral, social, or religious ideal, and urges the congregation to try harder and do better, to make a decision, and to live their best life now. It comes in both conservative and liberal varieties. In one form, it urges the congregation to choose this day whom they will serve and make a decision for Jesus, or to follow somewhere between three to seven practical truths from the Bible to get right with God and achieve peace and happiness in everyday life. In the other form, it says that God has a dream of “a more just, verdant, and peaceful world” (just like the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation), and it’s up to us to go forth and make God’s dream come true. This sermon’s fitting hymn, though it pains me to admit it, is the very Anglican:
I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and wise and true…
And there’s not any reason,
No not the least,
Why I shouldn’t be one too.
After coming up with this brilliant little typology (as it happens, we sometimes are better at coming up with such things than actually doing our workout), my friend and I agreed that all too often, what one hears from Episcopal pulpits is some version of Sermon #3. In these sermons, God is reduced to a sort of cosmic cheerleader, and the focus is placed not on God’s liberating acts of salvation from bondage and pardoning grace for our manifold sins and weaknesses, but rather on what we could do if only we thought more positively, or tried harder, or followed some kind of spiritual workout regimen. Reflecting upon the less than impressive results of our physical workout regimen, this did not appeal very much to us.
But at the same time, the time we had spent in evangelical churches of various stripes reminded us of how problematic it is to preach nothing but Sermon #1. The operative concern in such preachers seems to be that Sermon #2 can only ever be, in fact, Sermon #3 — in other words, that by urging the congregation to make a decision for Jesus or to go forth and live the Christian life, you can’t help but lapse into a prideful Pelagian confidence in your own willpower or into a legalistic moralism. You wind up either laying more burdens on people than they can bear or encouraging a deceptive self-confidence, when the truth is that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” (BCP, 167).
The trouble with this, however, is that it does not seem to be entirely biblical. Countless lectionary texts that sound very much like exhortations to live the Christian life have to be glossed as, in fact, designed to fill us with the terror of the Law, to hold up a mirror to our manifold sins and weaknesses, to expose our prideful self-reliance, and so to send us running into the arms of the pure sweet Gospel of grace. But after the (not-so) New Perspective on Paul, such claims have become difficult to maintain. Paul actually seemed to expect his churches to “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us,” since “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation!” (Eph. 5:2, 2 Cor. 5:17).
Moreover, such a view often leads to a suspicion that “Christian ethics” is an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” or “Tarheel championships.” For some conservatives, Christian ethics sounds too much like works-righteousness, like substituting the pure Gospel of grace for the suspect “social gospel.” But if John Howard Yoder was anywhere close to on target in The Politics of Jesus (along with Michael Ramsey in The Gospel and the Catholic Church), the Gospel of Christ can’t be separated from the communal shape it takes in the world. So too, there’s a real danger of setting up a competition between God and humanity, such that the more we do the less God does, and all we can “do” is bewail our many inadequacies and failures (which itself becomes an task we can never do enough of). “Well done, good and faithful servant” becomes something we can’t imagine Jesus could ever say to us as if he really meant it (Matt. 25:21).
Some liberals have their own concerns with Sermon #2. For them, it can sound like normative Christian ethics amounts to shoehorning the freedom and conscience of unique individuals into rigid forms and legal formulas. Or it can sound prideful, in its assumption that Christians are somehow “better” than everyone else, and that Jesus and/or the Church makes a decisive difference that people of other faiths (and none) fall short of. It can also sound like gloomy guilt-mongering pessimism about human potential and worth. One thinks, for instance, of the recurrent movement in various Episcopal circles to reconsider the positive theological contributions of our dear brother in Christ, Pelagius.
My mind also turns to a story I was once told of a prominent Episcopal clergyman, who was asked by a more conservative Anglican if, despite their many differences, they could find some common ground in the belief that everyone stands in need of the redeeming love of Jesus. “I don’t believe that at all,” the Episcopal cleric replied. “I think that people are just fine the way they are.”
Gilbert Meilaender describes the underlying problem well in his fine essay on divine grace and ethics in the Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics. It is, so he writes, very difficult to be both anti-Manichean and anti-Pelagian at the same time, even though ever since Augustine it has been clear that that is the narrow path the church must tread. On the one hand, we cannot so elevate divine grace and emphasize human sin that there is nothing left to say about created goodness and human moral responsibility. On the other hand, we cannot so extol the wonders of creation and human potential that we forget that we are always dependent on God’s grace for our renovation.
If Sermon #1 is the only sermon we preach, we have become Manicheans whose canon within a canon is reduced to Revelation and the bits of Paul that we like (certainly not the “early-Catholicism” of the pastoral letters or of James). If Sermon #3 is the only sermon we preach, we have become Pelagians whose canon within a canon is Proverbs and the bits of Jesus’s preaching that we like (certainly not the apocalyptic stuff, which is just plain crazy, or Paul, who was too focused on the cross and the blood of Jesus).
The trick, so the reader will by now have intuited, is getting Sermon #2 right. And that means getting right the relationship between God’s agency and human agency, between the Church and the world, and between what Meilaender elsewhere calls the “cross and resurrection” and the “incarnation” models of the Christian life. Otherwise put, the issue is that of discontinuity and continuity between Christian and non-Christian, Church and world, nature and grace.
All of this was sparked for me by reading a book by Yale theological ethicist Jennifer Herdt: Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices (2008). Let me say first that it is itself a truly splendid book and well worth careful attention. Puzzling through the issues it raises is, so I suggest, a helpful way of untangling some of the quandaries that I’ve spelled out so far. But I cannot help but conclude that it is the wrong way forward.
Without presuming to summarize the book, it seems fair to say that Herdt is seeking a way forward for Christian ethics that avoids what she sees as the mistakes of Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank, who are so anxious to show forth the difference that Christ and the Church make for Christian ethics that they fall prey to a long tradition of suspicion of pagan virtue and the ordinary processes of moral growth that Aristotle described in his Nichomachean Ethics.
Herdt traces this “anxiety” back to Augustine, whose view that the virtues of the Romans were nothing more than “splendid vices” set the Christian tradition on the wrong path. The Church went even more off course when Luther and those “hyper-Augustinians” who followed in his footsteps drew a sharp line between righteousness coram mundo (before the world) and coram Deo (before God), insisting that true Christian righteousness is the passive reception in faith of the alien righteousness of Christ. Aristotle’s Ethics, Luther said, was the “worst of all books,” inasmuch as its emphasis on moral habituation and imitation of moral exemplars amounted to no more than a program for works-righteousness. What this left us with, according to Herdt, was the destruction of human agency in favor of God’s agency, since all attempts to grow in virtue could only be seen as inadequate and tainted by sin. All we can do is have faith and beg for mercy. So too, it encouraged a fundamental suspicion of the supposed goodness of all “pagans,” for how could they be otherwise than wicked sinners without a saving faith in Christ?
A better way forward, according to Herdt, is shown us by the very Aristotelian and humanist Erasmus, who held up the imitation of Christ as the gradual path to virtue, and who understood God’s grace as strength for our journey home. Such a pathway can also be discerned, Herdt reasons, in those non-believers who pursue the good for its own sake as they understand it, and who humbly acknowledge their dependence along their life’s journey on the many gifts they have received.
Though I described Herdt’s book a bit earlier as “the wrong way forward,” let me rephrase that. There is much that is right in the corrections she makes to a faulty strand of the tradition. That is because the prominent Episcopal clergyman I mentioned, who was loathe to say we all need the redeeming love of Jesus since everyone is just fine the way they are, in fact has some measure of the truth. And all of the clergy that preach nothing but some version of Sermon #3 have some measure of the truth as well.
Though Herdt would never go so far as they do (she is quite careful to avoid Pelagianism), the very Pelagian Sermon #3 is enduringly popular because it is exceedingly difficult to avoid it while avoiding Manicheanism at the same time. How can we be generous enough in our orthodoxy to recognize what do manifestly seem like the virtues of our non-Christian neighbors? How can we proclaim the absolute priority of the grace of God and the redeeming work of Jesus, as well as the primary place of the Church, the Word, and the sacraments in God’s plan of redemption, without denying the possibility of salvation for those who don’t believe in all of that? Or without denying genuine human agency and moral merit? These questions press hard upon us in our time and place, and there is no avoiding them.
But as John Perry points out in his review of Herdt’s book, there is a rather large problem with her account: in her detailed and careful treatment of a vast swath of Christian and non-Christian thinkers, she has left out the Bible. And it is the Bible that Luther understood himself to be responding to when he spoke of our bondage to the powers of sin, death, and the devil, of the “alien righteousness” of Christ, and when he spoke of the challenge the Cross poses to the gradualist and humanist ethics of Aristotle. As good teachers of the Bible know, the little words “But now!” and “Therefore!” are the hinges upon which the Scriptures turn, for they point to the radically “new creation” that rose up on Easter Sunday from the ash-heap of Good Friday.
Herdt, following the lead of her Yale colleague Kathryn Tanner, places a great deal of emphasis in her book upon the “non-competitive” model of divine and human agency. As we see in the Joseph narrative, it is not necessary for human agency to decrease that God’s may increase; God is not simply one among many actors in the world jostling for space, but precisely as transcendent Creator, he is able to act in and through our own actions. If Luther and those “hyper-Augustinians” who follow in his footsteps would have only recognized this, Herdt contends, then much mischief and error could have been avoided. Grace does not need to be disruptive or localized only to the church, but can work in unseen and mysterious ways as “Christ plays in ten thousand places.”
In this she is quite right, so far as it goes. But again, Herdt here has not taken adequate account of the Bible, which may have helped her see what Luther was up to in his insistence that “man is a beast ridden by God or the devil.” As Michael Root points out, the Bible in fact gives us a twofold depiction of the relationship between divine and human agency, both non-competitive and competitive, as we see when Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden and when Abraham and Jacob struggle with God. As John Donne daringly and memorably prayed: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you/ As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.”
I’ve said enough here, so I hope, to give you something to puzzle over the next time you head to the gym and are in search of avoidance tactics, as I so often am. Sermon #3 is fine so far as it goes, and so is Aristotle. But such sermons do not go nearly far enough to proclaim the new Word of the disruptive God whose grace grabs us by the scruff of the neck and sets us back on course toward our true home. In a church where Sermon #1 is preached in all its radicality, there is no room for Sermon #3, but only for sermons #1 and #2. In the midst of Holy Week, may those of us called to preach remember that whatever continuity there may be in the Christian life, it is a continuity that must first pass through the crucible of death and resurrection.
The featured image of St Paul preaching in Athens is a stained glass window in the Cathedral Church of St Giles, Edinburgh. The photo (2011) was taken by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. It is licensed under Creative Commons
For further reading
- Biermann, Joel D. A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2014. (See also his website, with a number of helpful online lectures.)
- Herdt, Jennifer. Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
- Meilaender, Gilbert. “Book Review: Putting on Virtue, by Jennifer Herdt.” Studies in Christian Ethics 23:1, 97-102.
- Meilaender, Gilbert. “Divine Grace and Ethics.” The Oxford Handbook of Theological
- Ethics, ed. Gilbert Meilaender and William Werpehowski. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.
- Meilaender, Gilbert. The Theory and Practice of Virtue. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.
- Perry, John. “The Essential Theatricality of Virtue: A Review of Jennifer Herdt’s Putting on Virtue.” Scottish Journal of Theology 65:2, 212-221.
- Root, Michael. “Book Review: Christ the Key by Kathryn Tanner.” First Things,Dec. 2010.
- Rutledge, Fleming. Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Sermons from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Eeerdmans, 2007.
- Yaego, David. “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology: Reflections on the Costs of a Construal.” Pro Ecclesia 2:1, 37-49.