Imagining a Conversation between Brother Martin and the Angelic Doctor: A Lutheran Approach to Virtue Ethics

[1] Lutheran ethics remains untouched by the vaunted “return to virtue ethics” in contemporary Christian ethics. The pursuit of virtue smacks of “works righteousness;” it registers as one more attempt to ascend the ladder of spiritual perfection. Martin Luther saved his most savage critique for Aristotle and Aquinas, traditional figures associated with virtue ethics. It seems Lutherans rightly reject any approach to the moral life that runs through virtue or character. Lutherans do it dialectically; we disdain the gentle progress in holiness virtue promises. The simul…et.. pervades even academic debate: we pride ourselves on being impervious to theological cant, even as we despair of any claim to merit — moral, theological, or otherwise. We cling to the righteousness of Christ.

[2] I raise a cautious challenge to such knee-jerk reactions against virtue ethics. To be sure, Lutherans mount formidable arguments against assumptions embedded in traditional virtue ethics. But our arguments treat more the content than the form of virtue ethics. Infused with distinctively Lutheran insights into God, human nature, and human community, virtue ethics might help supply the thick version of discipleship that Lutherans want to endorse.

[3] To argue my point, I proceed by imagining a conversation between Luther and Thomas Aquinas on God, the human person, and human community. I offer resources for further study in the endnotes. Finally, I commend to readers the pieces by Lisa Fullam on virtue ethics and Lisa Dahill on the spirituality and ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for fuller development of the themes raised here. Space constrains me to be provocative rather than exhaustive: I point the way rather than pave it for a critical appropriation of this important complement to Lutheran ethics. Beginning with God: The good faith of God vs. the good for humans

[4] Every teaching theologian walking up and down in the church meets a familiar question that begins: “What does the Bible say about ——?” Fill in the blank with the latest social or political issue of the day – the war in Iraq, stem cell research, homosexuality, divorce, abortion, but the underlying assumption is the same: the bible is all about me me me! Were he around, Luther would have countered this hermeneutics of narcissism christologically. Scripture delineates the ethics of God, the God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:38 ). The identity of this God unfolds throughout the biblical story, but divine character comes to a decisive focus in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, scripture’s center of gravity is Christ (was Christum treibet). Christ is the good faith of God; through him we read God’s basic disposition toward the creation, and it is a disposition of love. Further, in Christ we meet a God who became human to enter the full range of human experience. A theology that “begins with experience” focuses on Christ.

[5] A Lutheran approach to virtue ethics begins with the character of the God incarnate in Christ Jesus. God’s character shapes our own, and we understand who we are by understanding whose we are. As Paul reminds the Corinthians: “…you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor. 3:23 ). As the Christian initiation rite, baptism claims each of us as “Child of God,” adopts us into the same family Jesus belongs to, and marks us with the marks that were on his body. The moral life is then a matter of being the body of Christ in a world of doubting Thomases, people who will not believe until they touch the wounds. Discipleship, or the way of the cross, is the way Lutherans talk about virtue ethics; moreover, virtue ethics challenges Lutherans to give the thick description of discipleship that our theology demands.1

[6] This challenges traditional philosophical and Roman Catholic approaches to virtue ethics, both of which take different starting points. Departing from Plato, Aristotle brings the Good from the world of forms into the world of the polis: the Good is whatever is good for a particular class of things. In the case of humans, that “good” is happiness or human flourishing. Virtues direct humans to what is good for them: human flourishing.2

[7] Deeply influenced by Aristotle’s writings, particularly the newly translated works filtering into the medieval universities through Muslim scholars in the courts of Spain , Thomas Aquinas reconstituted human flourishing as beatitude or friendship with God. He crowned the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, courage, and prudence with the theological virtues faith, hope, and charity.3 Finally, Thomas situated the whole of creation into an exitus-reditus framework: the procession of all creatures from God and the return of all creatures to God.4 The God who emerges in his theology creates, sustaining creation through the working of divine grace. Grace powers both procession and return, complementing innate, created human capacity. Here the person and work of Christ receive less attention. In his magisterial Summa Theologiae, Thomas saved christology until last, locating it in a final sections that he did not finish before he died.

[8] In summary, we see in Luther and Aquinas two very different approaches to virtue ethics. Thomas focuses on God as Creator and traces the Creator’s work throughout the whole of creation. The Creator shows his hand crucially in the complex weave of nature and grace in the human creature. Created nature bears the imprint of the divine; it may be “read” like a text to decipher the Creator’s intentions. Locating his discussion of virtues in the reditus section of the Summa, Thomas puts virtue as part of the return of creatures to God. Though grace both operates on and cooperates with human nature, the movement is one of ascent.

[9] A Lutheran approach differs decisively, focusing on Christ as the human face of God. Accordingly, Lutherans “read” Scripture to learn “what treats Christ.” The two topics Thomas treats at the end of his Summa, Christ and the sacraments, feature at the outset of any Lutheran approach to virtue. Yet, the lens of virtue illumines how much the Christian life is shaped by the character of God – not the Creator God, but the God revealed to us in Christ, active in the work of creation and immanent as the Spirit of the risen Christ. Because Christ came to us as Emanuel, the overall movement of a Lutheran approach is one of descent. The human person: Sin and grace vs. nature and grace

[10] Whether one begins with the character of God or the character of the creature, whether the disciple ascends or descends, an understanding of human nature is foundational to virtue ethics. Here too we find important differences between Luther and Thomas.

[11] The picture of Adam before the incident with the apple clearly delights Luther, and he imagines him “created in such a way that he was, as it were, intoxicated with rejoicing toward God and …delighted also with all the other creatures….”5 Moreover, Luther maintains that righteousness was part of human nature, “so that it was Adam’s nature to love God, to believe God, to know God.” Just as the eye sees things, so humans praise God. Praise is as instinctual to our nature as vision is to the eye. But the Fall altered our fundamental impulse to praise, damaging the original righteousness embedded in human nature. Henceforth, we are “born from unclean seed and …from the very nature of the seed we acquire ignorance of God, smugness, unbelief, hatred against God, disobedience, impatience, and similar grave faults.” The Fall’s effect pervades the whole of human nature. A relationship marked by love and articulated in praise now bears the freight of fear, hatred, and unbelief.6

[12] Justification restores the right relationship between Creator and creatures, and justification has two contexts: the courtroom and the bedroom. The great Reformation treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian,” draws on both. The first context of justification is the courtroom. The impact is forensic: we are declared righteous before God. Luther draws on Paul’s great christological hymn from Philippians 2:5-11 to support his case. But the treatise presents another and less referenced context for justification: the bedroom. The impact is erotic: as “Christ and the soul become one,” he takes our sins into his body, and we take his righteousness into ours. Ephesians 5:31-32 offers the biblical soundtrack for this second setting of justification.7

[13] The erotic subtext offers new insights into the two sacraments central to Lutheran practice: in baptism, we are taken up into the body of Christ; we take the body and blood of Christ into our own. Talk about exchange of bodily fluids – no wonder it was known as the “happy exchange” (Froeliche Wechsel)! Such intercourse works toward the sanctification of believers. Interestingly, Luther draws on the duties of the second table of the Decalogue to describe “Christian holiness.” He speaks lyrically, alluding to the responsibilities of Christian discipleship, but more importantly in terms of the dispositions that mark the sanctified life.

[14] Attend in the following passage both to what Christians do and how they do it: …He also sanctifies Christians in the body and induces them willingly to obey parents and rulers, to conduct themselves peacefully and humbly, to be not wrathful, vindictive, or malicious, but patient, friendly, obliging, brotherly, and loving, not unchaste, not adulterous or lewd, but chaste and pure with wife, child, and servants, or without wife and child. And on and on: they do not steal, are not usurious, avaricious, do not defraud, etc., but work honorably, support themselves honestly, lend willingly, and give and help wherever they can. Thus they do not lie, deceive, and backbite, but are kind, truthful, faithful, and trustworthy, and do whatever else the commandments of God prescribe. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies and also awakens the body to such a new life until it is perfected in the life beyond. That is what is called Christian holiness.8

[15] There is a similar emphasis on dispositions in Luther’s explanation in “The Small Catechism” on the dispositions that mark Christian discipleship, and Luther’s “Treatise on Good Works,” is a veritable “Treatise on the Virtues,” as God works in humans to change the habits of their hearts. Each commandment could be aligned with its attendant virtue: e.g., obedience and considerateness (4th); meekness (5th); self-control (6th); generosity (7th); confidence (8th); etc. The “good works” in question are clearly God’s, and God in Christ goes a long way to restoring the original joy of creation.9 Because sin stays in the picture, however, Luther regards baptism as something the Christian should “practice all his life.”10 We remain both saint and sinner (simul justus et peccator), sainted as we receive the righteousness of Christ and sinning as we bear the weight of our own tainted nature.

[16] Where Luther turns to the person and work of Christ, Thomas stays focused on the human person, and how nature and grace work together in the creature’s return to its Creator. Thomas weds Aristotle’s physics and metaphysics with the biblical conviction that God is love to present a rich description of human desire. There is an erotic element here also, different from Luther’s, less messy and more dynamic. God created in love, and divine love attracts creatures back to where they came from. Because God is both origin and end of every creature, everything in human nature strains for God. That yearning is not damaged by the fall; it needs the assistance of grace to reach its goal. Thus, nature points people in the right direction; grace delivers them to their final destination: beatitude with God. Beatitude is not some state of suspended holiness. It is the highly charged, loving relationship of friendship. To feel the electricity in amicitia, recall that the Latin version of the “Song of Songs,” everyone’s favorite scriptural text in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, translated “lover” and beloved” as amicus and amica. The Summa Theologiae would hardly qualify as a “racy” text, but the eros is there.

[17] Nature reaches out for God; it can be a helpful guide to what is good for human creatures. The apostle observes in the Gentiles a law “written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15 ), and the natural law imprints people with a fundamental precept that enables them to live well: do good and avoid evil (ST I-II, q. 94). For Thomas as for Aristotle before him, living well means living in community. Human beings are social and political animals. Passions – we would call them emotions – are the connective tissue of human community. Virtues are habitual ways of acting and feeling, patterning relationship to God, self, and others. The natural virtues point humans toward their natural end of human flourishing; infused by grace, the supernatural virtues point humans toward friendship with God. Virtue and the natural law work together to connect who we are and what we do to concrete situations. Law tells us what to do, but virtue moves us to act and tells us how to act. We are in the terrain Luther identified earlier, as he exhorts his congregants to “work honorably, support themselves honestly, lend willingly, and give and help wherever they can.” But Thomas has added a moral and theological psychology elaborating how this happens. Aided by grace, both the natural law and virtue participate in the divine design to draw all of creation back to where it came from.

[18] In summary, we see two very different approaches to the human person. For Luther, the human person, justus et peccator, straddles the abyss between sin and grace, while for Thomas the creature follows certain natural inclinations that at least point her in the right direction. Nature leads, while grace pushes from behind. The dialectical relationship between Luther’s notions of sin and grace contrasts with Thomas’ sense of complementarity between nature and grace. Perhaps the difference is best summed up between a heart that longs for God and the cor incurvatus in se, a heart turned in upon itself, which the grace of Christ must quite literally unbend.

[19] Luther’s more pessimistic view of human possibility rings true against the backdrop of genocide, ethnic tension, corporate greed, and a growing divide between rich and poor. Yet Luther’s realism argues all the more for the kind of nuanced attention a Thomistic anthropology affords to how the grace of Christ works on human nature. Might there be some rapprochement? Human community: Marked by the body of Christ vs. Human flourishing

[20] Finally – and more briefly, an imaginary conversation between Brother Martin and The Angelic Doctor yields decisively different understandings of human community.. Not surprisingly, Luther defines human community christologically – or better, christo-morphically. Identity and character, key themes in a virtue ethics, feature prominently in his understanding of life together, and Christ shapes both of them. In baptism Christians are claimed as “children of God,” integrated into the body of Christ: who we are is shaped by whose we are. Not only are we shaped by Christ, we are marked by him, as we receive wounds that were on his crucified and resurrected body.

[21] Remember that St. Francis of Assisi received the wounds of Christ as he prayed on Mount La Verna on September 14, 1224 ; remember too how popular this image was in medieval piety. Is there a Lutheran cult of the stigmata? The answer is a qualified yes, though Luther would never go for something that smacked of such saintly virtuosity. Not a spiritual athlete, but an entire congregatio fidelium bore the marks. And Luther defines them in terms of practices or disciplines: preaching and hearing the Word, baptizing, sharing the Lord’s Supper, forgiving, calling out leaders, praying/praising/catechizing, and following in the way of the cross.11 These actions help us find the body of Christ in the world, and it rolls out like a Lutheran version of the great Taize chant, ubi caritas, ibi deus est: “Where you find people doing these things, there you will find the church!” These practices change us, knitting disciples into the body of the one whom they follow. We belong to Christ, and we bear the habits of heart and mind that he did. Virtue, character, and identity figure prominently in this moral landscape, but they are shaped by Christ.

[22] All of which is well and good if you’re a Christian. What if you’re not? Where is the community large enough to embrace Christians and non-Christians? Here is where Thomas’ understanding of human community could be helpful. Every human creature shares in a grace of creation; reason and the fundamental precept of the natural law endure even after the Fall. Because reason is shared by all humans regardless of whether they are Christian or not, people of many different faith perspectives can engage in lively debate about what capacities and practices promote human flourishing – and which do not. These are, of course, penultimate ends, falling short of that final beatitude and friendship with God. But penultimate ends like justice, dignity, and human rights are important in a global world, and we have to be able to talk about them with people who do not share our theological presuppositions. Thomas offers a notion of human community grounded in reason and dedicated to human flourishing that might begin that conversation.

[23] In summary, we see two very different views of human community, one focused on formation of disciples and another reaching for an understanding of human flourishing that extended beyond the Christian churches. Perhaps historical context says it all; we see in these two proposals a 13th century world broken open by trade, commerce, and new learning and a 16th century world broken apart by disagreements on church and theology. The centri-petal movement in Thomas’ social proposals contrasts strongly with the centri-fugal movement in Luther’s. Perhaps today’s context calls for both movements, as we enter a global village where our ability to survive depends on drawing from a settled identity and welcoming a stranger who comes bearing both gift and challenge. Conclusion

[24] Far from challenging its christological center of Lutheran ethics and sneaking “works righteousness” into its moral deliberation, virtue ethics offers some important possibilities to Lutheran ethics. Imagining a conversation between Brother Martin and The Angelic Doctor, I have tried to show important convergences and divergences on approaches to God, the human person, and human community. It seems to me that our Lutheran non-negotiables are the following: a christo-centric understanding of a God who comes to us in the person of Christ Jesus, a sobering assessment of the human person, and a christo-morphic understanding of the community of disciples, shaped for service by incorporation into the body of Christ. The strength of our moral proposals is kerygmatic: proclamation, not explanation, drives moral deliberation.

[25] A virtue ethics approach challenges us to greater attention to the moral psychology of the formation of disciples and the working of grace and nature.12 It also urges us to understanding discipleship in a way that does not slip into sectarianism, but welcomes conversation with “outsiders.” After all, it was a centurion at the end of Mark’s Gospel who finally figured out who Jesus was. The disciples remained in the dark. Let it not be so among us.

1. …the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. Martin Luther, “On the Councils and the Church,” in Timothy F. Lull (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 561.
2. Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1094a-1098b, transl. Martin Ostwald (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1962), pp. 1-19. Martha Nussbaum uses an Aristotelian framework to delineate human capacities that contribute across cultures to human flourishing in her Women and Development ( New York : Cambridge University Press, 2000).
3. This is a move Augustine makes in The City of God, but which Aquinas integrates into a distinctive composite anthropology that integrates the working of grace and the capacity of nature. Cf. “The Treatise on the Passions,” Summa Theologiae I-II. qq. 22-48; “The Treatise on the Virtues,” ST II-II, qq. 49-67.
4. Cf. Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas , trans. L.K. Shook, C.S.B. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956) is still an excellent introduction. For Thomas’ ethics, see Stephen J. Pope (ed.), The Ethics of Aquinas ( Washington DC : Georgetown University Press, 2002). For a contemporary appropriation of Thomistic ethics, see the work of Jean Porter, particularly her most recent and magisterial Nature as Reason ( Grand Rapids : Wm. B. Eerdmans,2005). For a classic summary of Roman Catholic morality, see Richard M. Gulla, S.S., Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality Gula’s treatment is concise and accessible, but written before the turn to virtue ethics. His later work provides a thicker treatment of virtue than this early work: Call to Holiness ( New York : Paulist Press, 2003) and The Good Life (New York: Paulist Press, 1999). (New York: Paulist Press, 1989).
5. Martin Luther, “Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1-5,” trans. George V. Schick (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), p. 94.
6. Luther argues against unnamed “scholastics,” who argue that Adam’s original righteousness was a gift in the first place and therefore external to a created nature that, even after the Fall, remains whole. As Luther reads them, the scholastics further maintain that sin, also external, takes the place of this original righteousness, leaving created nature in mint condition. Luther finds these arguments christologically deficient. He argues with characteristic bombast: “Then there was no purpose in sending Christ, the Redeemer, if the original righteousness, like something foreign to our nature, has been taken away and the natural endowments remain perfect. What can be said that is more unworthy of a theologian?” Grace works christologically for Luther, unbending “a heart turned in on itself” (cor incurvatus in se).
7. Cf. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (eds.), Union with Christ (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), especially the essays by Simo Peura and Tuomo Mannermaa. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda traces the implications of the Finnish school of Luther research for Lutheran ethics in her Healing a Broken World: Globalization and God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
8. “On the Councils and the Church,” pp. 544-545. Find the same movement in Luther’s explanation of the Decalogue in “The Small Catechism.” Here he turns all “thou shalt not” commandments into “thou shalt commandments,” showing not only what works Christians should avoid but what they should do. He further tells Christians the spirit in which they should do them: e.g., “cheerfully,” “willingly,” etc. Finally, all of this follows from what God has first done to them, i.e., the character of God. Cf. Martha Ellen Stortz and Larry Rasmussen, “A Coast-to-Coast Conversation on Sexuality,” in Charles P. Lutz (ed.), A Reforming Church…Gift and Task: Essays from a Free Conference (Minneapolis: Kirk House Publishers, 1995), pp. 151-172.
9. “Treatise on Good Works, 1520),” trans W.A. Lambert, in Luther’s Works, Vol. 44 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), pp. 21-114.
10. The Large Catechism: Baptism, in Theodore G. Tappert (ed. and trans.), The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), p. 441.
11. Cf., “On the Councils and the Churches,” passim. 12. I commend William C. Spohn ‘s Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics (New York: Continuum, 1999) for further work in this area. In this rich constructive proposal, Spohn combines the New Testament story of Jesus, the practices of Christian spirituality, and virtue ethics to develop an ethics of discipleship. Spohn was a key player in the turn to Scripture in Roman Catholic moral theology, as well as a shift to virtue and character. Spohn’s work could be used to develop some of the suggestions only hinted at here. His work is deeply shaped by the spirituality of Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), a contemporary of Luther (1483-1546). Both Luther and Ignatius share a christo-centric focus, though Ignatius concentrates on the life of Jesus, while Luther focuses on the person and work of Christ. In addition, both share a strong sense of vocation, though Luther shapes through through service to the neighbor, while Ignatius directs his companeros to be “men for others.” Finally, both have a deeply incarnational theology, which Luther develops in terms of an affirmation of everyday life and Ignatius speaks as “finding God in all things.” But an imaginary conversation between Brother Martin and Ignatius Loyola waits for another moment.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).