Review: Joel D. Biermann. A Case for Character: Toward a Lutheran Virtue Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014, 192 pages, $29.00.

[1] Joel Biermann, Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis, argues that a focus on justification by faith in contemporary Lutheranism has led Lutherans to a neglect the practices of moral formation of individuals and the development of authoritative teachings about the shape of the Christian life. He acknowledges that focusing on “standards,” “formation,” and “virtue” will seem to some to constitute “works righteousness” but counters that a careful reading of Lutheran confessional documents shows a profound concern for formation, virtue, and commandment.

[2]The book begins with an overview of virtue ethics in the work of Duke theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, who is largely responsible for the resurgence of thinking about the concept, and the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who’s book After Virtue rekindled interest in virtue. Bierman also explores contemporary Lutheran writing on ethics including work by David Yaego, Robert Benne, Reinhard Huetter (now a Roman Catholic) and Gilbert Mielander, who share his concern for the lack of moral formation and authoritative teaching in contemporary Lutheranism. Curiously, Bierman omits the work of Lutheran ethicists such as Christian Scharen, Larry Rasmussen, and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda who use Luther’s teachings on Christian freedom and neighbor love to advocate for specific “progressive” positions. Bierman asserts that the ELCA’s acceptance of same-sex marriage is a sign of its moral failure. However, he refuses to engage in a discussion of the theological and confessional grounding that drove the ELCA’s decisions. This and several other passing commentaries on current social issues tarnish the book’s otherwise careful scholarship.

[3] Bierman argues that Lutherans do not naturally do “virtue ethics” despite his view that the Book of Concord is concerned with “forming Christians”. Luther himself is often vague or changes his mind about several topics of theology and anthropology necessary to argue for a robust confessional account of what philosophical and theological ethics would call “virtue”. These omissions result in a lack of a metaphysical account of the relationships between grace, faith, will and intellect. Luther’s lack of a specific theory of action, (beyond responding to the neighbors’ needs) makes a virtue ethic problematic. When he does speak, Luther is clear that agency enabling grace never becomes the believer’s permanent “property” as it does for Aristotle. Hauerwas argues that ongoing participation in the church community forms and sustains individuals in ways that may be amenable to Bierman’s account in some respect. Even if one accepts the account of the indwelling Christ given by the “Finnish School” it is not clear what the relationship between Christ’s agency and the believer’s agency really are. It is the stability of action formed by habituation over time that constitutes virtue in an Aristotelian account, even virtue “coram hominibus”.

[4] Luther’s concern in the “Freedom of the Christian” was that the virtuous action could not be spelled out in advance; it was always done under the influence of grace in response to the needs of one’s neighbor and those for whom one had responsibility.

[5] For Bierman, that Luther’s emphasis on catechesis shows a concern for moral formation is a tenuous argument. The Catechism is a hermeneutic on Christian practices such as worship, the reading of Scripture, and the treatment of church order, which Luther hoped would free one to serve the neighbor in love if understood rightly. For Aristotle, MacIntyre and Hauerwas practices, not simply knowledge creates virtuous dispositions that, over time become integral fixtures of one’s subjectivity. Many Lutheran confirmation teachers can attest that learning that Catechism does not make one an instant saint. Luther encouraged individuals to hear the word preached, again and again, and receive Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, because the Gospel’s promises, the declaration of forgiveness, and grace that gives freedom are never permanent parts of an individual’s subjectivity, they remain gifts of the Holy Spirit.

[6] For Luther, the fear, doubt, and uncertainty of the “old Adam” always lurk. We may be able to appear virtuous “coram hominibus” but never “coram Deo”. The tenuous nature of faith, and the belief that freedom came not from the believer’s subjectivity but from the Holy Spirit means that at least one important part of the capacity for action always remains external to an agent, which is not in accord with other accounts of virtue that stress the need to form and own one’s self. Biermann to his credit quotes Melanchthon who says that good works “exercise faith”. But does the good work come from faith or from virtue? Bierman’s account needs to be a clearer account, but the confessions don’t give him the materials to make the case as clearly as he would like.

[7] The book is also not as careful as it should be about what “Virtue” consists of. One can do good works from time to time out of a free response to the neighbor’s need and not be “virtuous” in the Hauerwasian sense. He again turns to Robert Benne who notes that a focus on freedom and justification ignores the possibility for a third use of the law in moral formation. The existence of the “third use” remains the subject of much debate among Lutheran scholars and has for years.

[8] Bierman’s attentiveness to the problems surrounding “Lutheran ethics” is commendable. But his suspicion of an ethics of Gospel freedom that serves the neighbor in love should give reader pause. That line of thought ignores tenets of Luther’s anthropology that problematize the notion of a “Lutheran virtue ethic”. Despite occasional quotes otherwise, Luther doubted the human ability to consistently possess “virtuous subjectivity” noting that we are fully sanctified only after death. I share Bierman’s concern that Lutherans need to be more attentive to the shape of our moral lives. But it is not clear to me that virtue ethics is the confessional answer. We might undertake practices and prayers to learn to see our neighbor as they are and serve them in freedom in a more holy way. We should educate ourselves about how to respond as Christians, coram mundo, but such instruction does not constitute “habituation”. Luther’s deathbed cry was not “We are to become Saints, this is true.” He said, “We are beggars, this is true.”

[9] The other problem with this book is methodological. It is true that one must selectively examine Luther’s vast corpus. But Bierman is selective about his use of non-confessional documents. Lutheran ethicists have long acknowledged Luther’s treatise, “On the Freedom of a Christian,” as one of the most foundational documents of Lutheran ethical teaching. Bierman is clearly familiar with Luther’s works, and this reviewer suspects that he knows that treatise severely undercuts the case he hopes to make. This is especially odd given his willingness to quote works by Melanchthon from outside the Confessions that approve of Aristotle, or statements in Luther (few though they may be) about “habituation” show that Bierman picks and chooses his quotes carefully. Sure, all Luther scholars must be selective, but there are plenty of Luther quotes that doubt notions of permanence and affirm the continuation of doubt and struggle. The lack of a consistent method of treating sources mars his case. Bierman is concerned with the state of moral teaching in the church. But this work fails to show that virtue ethics is a confessional answer.

The author wishes to thank Stanley Hauerwas for commenting on this review.

Aaron Klink

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.  He received his MAR is Systematic Theology from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, his M.Div. from Yale and a ThM with a concentration in Ethics from Duke Divinity School.