A Review of Ordinary Saints: An Introduction to the Christian Life by Dr. Robert Benne

[1] In The Christian Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan describes a fascinating scene at the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, on Holy Thursday, 1833. Unknown to either, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Henry Newman both were in attendance at this sacred Mass and both were deeply moved by its high drama and powerful evocation of feeling. The irony of this scene consists in the relation each man has to modernity’s conflict between faith and unbelief.

[2] Here was Emerson, a Unitarian who rejected the divinity of Christ while conceding to human reason the role of supreme arbiter in all matters of religion and morality, finding himself surprisingly struck by the forms of religion that he despised. Over there was Newman, the Anglican who later would go over to Rome; a man who was learning to appreciate God’s role in shaping history and tradition; who was developing a sense of the churchly character of doctrine, and was holding fast to Christ as the “middle point” between God and man in the drama of salvation; he, also, was touched by the ritual, yet made aware of the tension between his faith and the doubting culture around him.

[3] Lurking beneath the surface of the current culture wars are the adversarial ideas of these two men. Hidden behind the contemporary squabbles over just war, human sexuality, and the role of the Church in political debate is a three hundred year old question of the Church’s proper stance toward the radical claims of the Enlightenment. In essence, it is the issue of whether only “unbaptized” reason and the empirical method are to be allowed a hearing before the bar of public truth; or, whether faith is to be allowed a voice in deciding questions of universal human significance. There is no neutral middle ground.

[4] In this second edition of Ordinary Saints, Robert Benne does not shrink from openly declaring his commitments. Taking his stand with Luther, St. Augustine, and the Church’s broad catholic tradition, Benne has crafted a primer on the Christian life that reflects the fundamental truths taught, sometimes lived, but always affirmed by the Church catholic through the ages – and now under assault from forces both within and without the Church. From his starting-point of a “confessional method,” he addresses what he sees as the ‘spiritual neuralgia’ of our age. In this time of ever increasing technological power and equally accelerating erosion of spiritual intelligence, Benne’s book is meant to be a catechism for living out on the contemporary stage “the Faith once delivered to the saints.”

[5] From his location on a college campus, Benne targets this book for college students who have left home and are questioning the relevance of Christianity to the larger world they are facing. But his message, his conversational style, and his clarity of thought are also just right for others: for beginners in the Christian Faith who are trying on the ‘Christian way’ for the first time; for “old-timers” in the Faith who want to refresh their understandings and enliven their commitments; and for other “ordinary saints” who are struggling with the perils of living believingly in a secular society, and are looking for a holistic vision of life based upon a vital faith that keeps integrity in its encounter with the real world.

An Overview

[6] The book falls neatly into three divisions. After an engaging Introduction that delineates the main intellectual causes of the pervasive moral chaos of our age, and that explains the effect that confusion has had upon the republican and biblical traditions in American culture, Benne then turns to the question of Christian identity and the behaviors that nurture that reality [Part I: “The Call of God”.]

[7] From the vantage-point of a pastor who has spent most of a lifetime looking for Christian apologetic material fit for prospective Christians, senior high and college students, and retreat settings, this section is dynamite. Its discussion of God as the “unrecognized Presence” and its notion of a natural law built into the fabric of creation reminds one of the freshness and allure of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Benne is able to recapture in a few words the lost “Catholic” vision of life as sacramental and rich with mystery. Here, also, he makes understandable the connection between the ancient human tendency toward polytheism and superstition, and the modern preoccupation with sex, alcohol, security and power. His description of a believer’s “post-critical” re-appropriation of faith is moving and powerful.

[8] For those who assert that Lutheran theology must lead to a passive ethos and an antinomian ethic, Ordinary Saints is a sharp rebuttal. The “Christian Nurture” chapter dispels any notion that faith could ever embrace “cheap grace” and remain authentic. It makes clear that ‘being’ cannot be separated from ‘doing’; and that the Lutheran concept of “living out grace” is not too dissimilar from the Eastern Orthodox idea of ‘theosis’ or the Roman Catholic concept of ‘faith formed by love’. To those radical individualists who tout the extreme “inwardness” of faith, Benne makes clear that there is no genuine, living, vital faith apart from the Church.

[9] Part Two shows how God’s call leads to our sense of ‘calling’ in life. A caveat is needed here. Professor Benne has packed Chapter Four so densely with essential Lutheran insight – with a wisdom that this spiritually sapped culture desperately needs – that it can be easily glossed over. In one stroke he explains the doctrine of the two realms of God’s sustaining sway: “God’s energies call all forms of human life into being and direct them toward ‘covenantal’ existence.” [p.63] This one statement should silence all post-modern attempts to reduce human nature, political life, or family to a human construct. And his analogy of God’s law ‘writ within nature’ to a magnetic field reveals the peril of trying to defy our finitude: “If we live in opposition to (God’s commandments) we are caught up in conflict and chaos.” [p.64] That we are created in the image of God results in the realization that our lives are not ‘our own’ to do with just any old way, but are sacred obligations which we owe to Him who authored our being.

[10] Chapter Six deals with the dynamics of the Christian life of faith: the way in which the believer moves – albeit hesitantly, haltingly, haplessly, at times – from egoism toward theonomy. This is a gold mine for the preacher and a source of on-going insight for the Christian pilgrim. Here is a powerful reminder of the way faith reinterprets the world and re-focuses awareness of one’s call.

[11] The final section (Part III: The Callings of the Christian”) examines how the Christian life is expressed in marriage and family (chapter 7), work (chapter 8), public life (9), and Church (10). Even the seasoned student of ethics will find fresh insights into the uniquely Christian view of these divinely sanctioned “orders” of life. No one will want to miss the section on marriage: sadly, many of us clergy could have been better armed for the cultural ravages upon family life if we had read Benne’s view of marriage as a Christian calling thirty-five years ago. Similarly, the political debate in our Church could be significantly enriched by his understanding of public life as an arena where citizens owe duties as well as claim rights, and that “…Christian faith denies any salvific power in the policies of government.” His comments on America as the major bearer of the democratic experiment in the world should be required reading for any who serve on the jurisdictional level of a denomination. The section on the Church? Priceless.

An Assessment

[12] Professor Benne’s purpose in writing this book was to give a clear, forthright account of the Christian life for his students. He seeks to provide an adequate picture of the theological vision that has informed the thought and behavior of Christians through the ages. Even more, he wants to commend the Christian life to those honestly weighing its possibility for their own lives.

[13] While I would have appreciated a fuller discussion of some issues (i.e., abortion; the issue of freedom underlying that of government programs; the question of whether there comes a time to demonize an opponent), still, this work meets all my criteria for the highest rating possible: it is thoroughly Trinitarian, consistently Christo-centric, and genuinely orthodox throughout. It presents the Christian Way in a winsome and compelling manner, without compromising or finessing its harder elements. And it sparkles with fresh insights.

[14] Lastly, it is an example of how the Church can elucidate an ethic that transcends the Enlightenment paradigm of man at the center, God at the periphery. It understands that the center of religion is not the soul, or the conscience, or man the reasoner, but God. “Take away the idea of such a God, declare the soul sufficient for itself, forbid it ever to go out of itself, to look up to a power above it, and religion is out of the question.” [p.199, Orestes Brownson, Selected Writings; ed. Patrick W. Carey] Benne has brought ethics back to religion.

Michael Shahan

Michael Shahan is Book Review Editor of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. A retired ELCA clergyman, Shahan does freelance writing from his Nashville home.