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

[1] Robert Benne, Professor of Religion and Director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College, is our leading interpreter of the practical theology of the Lutheran tradition as he has shown over the years in such works as The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism: A Moral Reassessment (1981) and what remains essential reading for anyone interested in Lutheranism and politics, The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century (1995). In this new edition of Ordinary Saints: An Introduction to the Christian Life, first published in 1988, Benne clarifies and updates his earlier attempt to sketch the shape and the content of the Christian life.

[2] It is important to note that this is not an introduction to Lutheran theological ethics, even though, inevitably, much of the book deals with moral issues. The scope of the book is broader, the moral life being an aspect, but only one aspect, of the Christian life. Benne correctly insists that the life of the Christian is of one piece and that it is important not to sever the moral identity and response of Christians from Christian identity and response to God.

[3] The book, first, presents an analysis of our cultural and social context. Part one introduces God’s work in the life of the Christian-God’s call to us and the Spirit’s work in our responding appropriately to that call. Part two introduces the social institutions and settings in which the Christian response to God occurs. The final section of the book develops a general Christian understanding of moral issues of marriage and family, work, public life, and the church.

[4] One of the most valuable contributions of this new edition comes in Benne’s assessment of our cultural context. Here the key term is fragmentation. Following Robert Bellah’s analysis in Habits of the Heart, he exposes the ills of American individualism, the cost to us in terms of our understandings of ourselves and what our lives are about, and contrasts this fragmentation of identity with identities formed by traditions. As in his important, Quality with Soul, Benne unpacks the Christian tradition in Paul J. Griffith’s language of comprehensiveness, centrality, and unsurpassability. The Christian tradition offers a full account of the purpose and meaning of our lives, addressing all we need to know in order to live well. The Christian account is central insofar as it presents an understanding of and orientation to living in which we recognize appropriate guidance for our life decisions. The Christian account is unsurpassable insofar as Christians believe that the Christian account, however flawed our understanding of it, cannot be replaced or subsumed under some better account of the purpose and meaning of our lives. Ordinary Saints is an exploration of the implications of this understanding of Christian truth for our life projects and activities.

[5] Benne presents the Christian account of God’s merciful and unmerited call to us clearly and winsomely, weaving the biblical story with the church’s story and his own personal story. Following this explication, he discusses the Spirit’s work in nurturing us through the Christian practices of worship and church-life, personal devotion, Christian friendship, and re-creation. Benne is typically Lutheran-perhaps too Lutheran-in his reluctance to embrace this nurture as having a goal that matters. Instead, “Christian nurture is practice at being a trusting son or daughter of our God who already loves us unconditionally as sons and daughters…. As a response to that love, however, we must practice what it means to be beloved of God. We are summoned to live up to our destinies.” (47) One can say this, I believe, and, without diluting the impact of the insistence that God has done what really matters for us, add that God is even now at work re-creating us, forming us into beings who can stand his presence. The Christian life is a journey towards holiness, and we are making more or less progress towards fitness for the presence of God. Benne is aware of this concern and takes it up again in chapter six, though still not to my satisfaction.

[6] God calls, we respond to the gracious call. In part two, Benne examines the “spilling over of the cup” of God’s grace in our service to God and others. Importantly, Benne discusses what he calls “places of responsibility,” or, in earlier generations, the “orders of creation.” To be human is to live with an identity formed, in part, by one’s involvement with family, state, economy, church, and education. These institutions were created by God to preserve and form orderly human existence. They are empowered by God to reward and punish behavior that runs counter to their roles. They are dynamic, changing to meet the needs of historical and technological developments. They are ambiguous, in that these structures created by God for good purposes can become agents of evil. The final chapter of this part looks at faith, hope, and love expressing themselves in these places of responsibility. Christian faith enables us to see divine intentionality in these structures, to see them as a means God uses to bless human existence. Christian faith also enables us to discern what our distinctive individual work may be in light of these structures. Christian love gives moral content to our callings to live and serve in and through these structures. Here Benne’s discussion of distorted readings of Lutheran “two kingdoms” theology is extremely salutary. Lutherans recognize the temptations to abandon the tension between the agape love to which we are called and the places of responsibility in which that love cannot always be expressed. Our calling is to live in that tension, recognizing in the here and now what is possible and what the world requires, but also hearing the call and stretching ourselves to what agape demands. Christian hope in the redemptive and preservative activity of God equips us to act confidently, despite the odds.

[7] One may wonder just how much work is actually being done by Benne’s “places of responsibility,” especially given their dynamic and ambiguous natures. It is important to acknowledge, as Benne does, that creation has a structure, that to confess God as Creator and Sustainer is to admit that the world has a form. The Anglican moral theologian Michael Banner notes that Karl Barth in discussing ‘special ethics’ begins his discussion with a reflection upon the sabbath. Banner unpacks this in language that should be welcome to Lutheran ears:


Barth begins here [with the Sabbath] for the simple reason that the Christian moral life is to be understood, in virtue of the facts of creation, reconciliation and redemption, as first of all a life of freedom, signified by the rest of the sabbath day. The freedom of this day comes, in part, from knowing that nature, our own and nature as such, confronts us not as a raw material on which we must impose our purposes or which we must submit to our projects if it is to have form or meaning, but that it is, in contrast, a nature which, in virtue of its being created, possesses a form and meaning.
(Christian Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 223)

[9] Talk of the ‘orders of creation’ reminds us-a reminder much needed in a day when Lutheran theologians and ethicists are tempted to think of everything as “socially constructed”-that creation has been in-formed by God. It has a nature and purpose and we are better off for the acknowledgment of that nature and purpose.

[10] It is at this point that one may have second thoughts about the adequacy of “places of responsibility” as a replacement for “orders of creation,” true as it may be to Luther’s own language. Talk of “places of responsibility,” and “orders of creation” while serving to affirm the goodness of ordinary life, may also distract us from more important and telling reflections upon nature and the creation in which these places are grounded. To see this, one need only reflect upon an issue Benne discusses in several places-homosexual relations. The common cultural assumption, an assumption that church-folk seem, by and large, to have adopted, is that nature forms some folks for a same-sex orientation and forms others for an other-sex orientation. Now if we were to discover this to be the case-and my own view is that the cards are not yet completely in-what difference would it make? Would it have different implications for bisexual or trans-gendered individuals? And, of course, this is an important matter not only for Christian morality, but for the Christian life broadly considered. Some may be genetically predisposed towards surliness, or sadness. Is nature there for whatever re-making we at the moment may think desirable? If human institutions like the family, the church, and the state are themselves formed out of nature, then the emphasis upon roles or “places or responsibility” may distract us from this more foundational concern.

[11] Benne’s discussion closes with a closer look at issues of marriage and the family, including homosexual relations, work, justice and public life, and the church. In each case his writing is clear, judicious, and compassionate. Benne is irenic, but he is not unwilling to take a stand. And the gospel promise of forgiveness is never far from his sight. If we fail in our marriages and families, we have missed the mark, but God forgives and offers new life.

[12] One may wonder whether, in this final section, Benne should have been a little less irenic and a little more prophetic (though that wonder will no doubt dissipate as soon as I hear the next prophetic utterance from a theologian) and more responsive to the cultural context of American Lutheranism. Given his reading of American culture in his introduction and his understanding of American individualism, why not a discussion of acquisitiveness and greed, perhaps the besetting sins of American Christianity? Given the mixed messages of our church and culture on war and violence, why not a chapter on Lutheran understandings of the legitimate involvement in force? Given the comparative coherence and clarity of Catholic moral teaching, why not a discussion of Lutheran moral diffidence?

[13] But these concerns are, admittedly, social concerns, and Benne’s book is for individuals, ordinary saints. And when it comes to guidance in thinking about ordinary sainthood and understanding and appreciating one’s call to ordinary sainthood, one is hard-pressed to think of a better starting point than this fine introduction.