What Lutheran Ethics Can Learn from Other Christian Ethical Traditions

[1] In 1972, as a freshly minted M.Div., I went off to begin graduate work in ethics in the Department of Religion of Princeton University. On a quiet summer Saturday, just days after my arrival, I went to explore 1879 Hall, where the department’s offices were located. It was silent and empty on that Saturday afternoon, except for one man whom I ran into near the lounge. He was Paul Ramsey, the very person with whom I had come to study, though we had never met. (In those halcyon days I naively didn’t think it necessary to make a visit – which I could not in any case have afforded – as part of my application process.)

[2] Introductions having been made, Ramsey ushered me into his office, where he drew me into a several-hour conversation in which he learned pretty much everything I had not read in the field of Christian ethics. It was a category all too ample, since my seminary education in ethics had revolved largely around Elert’s Christian Ethos, which is cramped even as an approach to Lutheran ethics. I had, fortunately, read a few other things, among them Thielicke’s Theological Ethics. Within the limits of my knowledge, it still remains the best twentieth-century work in Lutheran ethics; yet, even Thielicke had difficulty regarding ethics as anything other than a propaedeutic to preaching, a method of laying bare our “Babylonian heart” in preparation for proclamation of the gospel.

[3] I soon learned what I had already sensed to be the case, that an attempt to work seriously in Christian ethics would compel me to seek help from those who did not think that the language of justification, or the distinction between law and gospel, or the “paradoxical” relation between the two kingdoms pretty much exhausted Christian angles on the moral life. In coming to see this I was only discovering for myself what Ramsey, my teacher, had learned. His first book, Basic Christian Ethics, developed an ethic of agape deeply influenced by Kierkegaard and Nygren. But when, soon thereafter, Ramsey spent a decade of his life trying to think as a Christian about warfare, seeking to give shape and form to love, he had to immerse himself in a tradition that went back to Augustine and that had been intricately developed in Catholic moral theology.

[4] To mention Augustine is to call to mind perhaps the very first thing we should say when asking ourselves what we Lutherans can learn from “other” Christian ethical traditions – namely, that they are in large part not “other.” Augustine, the Didache, Athanasius, Benedict, and Aquinas all belong to our tradition – or, probably better, we to theirs. They thought and wrote before the church was divided, and we have, therefore, especially strong reason to think of ourselves as indebted to them.

[5] Among the central themes of that undivided tradition – echoing through the centuries from the Didache to Evangelium Vitae – is the testimony that there are “two ways,” one of life and one of death. Christians who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection are called now to take up the way of life – to distinguish those actions that follow Christ from those that turn against him. This means, as Catholics can teach us, not separating faith from life. It means, as Calvin can teach us, that knowledge of God and knowledge of self are mutually connected. A characteristically Lutheran fear – the worry that talking this way will somehow establish conditions for belonging to Christ – can be overcome as we learn from Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Calvinists that this need not inevitably follow. Giving shape and form to the Christian life is a description of what it means to follow Christ, not a condition for being in Christ.

[6] “Give what you command, and command what you will,” Augustine writes, in what becomes almost a refrain in Book 10 of the Confessions. That refrain also echoes through the tradition all the way down to Veritatis Splendor, in which John Paul II acknowledges that, while keeping God’s law may be very difficult, it is “never impossible.”[i] Lutherans will want to be careful with such a formulation, but it does not mean that sin no longer clings to believers, nor that the sin which clings lacks power to distort what we do and who we are. It means, rather, that we are not to acquiesce in our weakness, saluting the grace of God while supposing that grace to be powerless. It means that we need not think temptations to sin are more powerful than the grace God gives to follow Christ. For Lutherans, who have become accustomed to inviting the baptized people of God to confess that they are in bondage to sin, there is here a lesson to be learned.[ii] We can learn that something happens in baptism, that there is a history of redemption which, through the power of the Holy Spirit, makes a difference in the lives of Christians. There is more to say about following Christ than that every deed is tainted by sin.

[7] Once we acknowledge this, we will want some guidance in thinking through what actions do or do not follow Christ. We will not be able to spin that guidance out of the language of faith or love alone; rather we need to (re)assert the moral authority of the natural order and find in it a form or shape that comes from the hand of God. Instructed by the sad history of Lutheranism in Nazi Germany, we Lutherans will be understandably cautious here, and this is just where we can be helped by other Christians, both Catholics and Calvinists.

[8] Nature is creation. It comes from the hand of God, and the God from whose hand it comes is the Triune God revealed as gracious in the face of Jesus. In him, as St. Paul says, “it is always Yes.” Catholics have been able through natural law to find moral authority in the natural order without cutting that order free from the God who creates and sustains it; for grace, in Catholic teaching, is not simply opposed to nature. How could it be if nature comes from the hand of a God revealed as gracious? In the last analysis, grace perfects rather than destroys nature.

[9] In his own characteristically different way, Karl Barth also overcomes duality, holding that creation is the external basis of covenant, and covenant the internal basis of creation. Thus, the God whose ordering activity we encounter in the spheres of life must finally be the God in whom it is always Yes. We can seek to ascertain that order and to discern the law inscribed in the human heart without fearing that to do so is to betray the gospel.

[10] A strength of Lutherans, though also a temptation for Lutherans, is our tendency to emphasize strongly that every form of order is also disordered. If that is all we have to say, however, we leave to other Christians the hard work of thinking about what it means to follow Christ, and not even Lutherans have been able to say it without qualification. Even when confronting a “borderline situation,” a concept that played perhaps too prominent a role in his ethics, Helmut Thielicke observed that we should “never reach the state of indifference” which would lead us to say “that in the blackness of this world’s night . . . all cats are gray.”[iii]

[11] We gain moral insight not only from the created order but also from the gospel of God’s love and faithfulness, which provides a pattern for our own. Thus, for example, St. Augustine defines the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance as forms of Christian love. To be just is to love every beloved thing or person ordinately in relation to our love for God. To be courageous is to bear all difficulties and risk all dangers for the sake of faithfulness to God. As the virtues are drawn into our life in Christ they are necessarily reshaped and transformed to become Christian virtues. Lutherans have seldom written searching examinations of such habits of behavior or traits of character. The natural virtues we leave to the philosophers. Of the theological virtues we are wary, fearing (not without some reason) that they may too easily be thought of as our possession. But then, again, we leave the task of thinking through the manner in which Christian character is shaped by the gospel to others, and we can only be grateful that a Thomist such as Josef Pieper has written so insightfully not only about the cardinal virtues, but also about faith, hope, and love.

[12] The gospel of reconciliation not only provides a pattern that transforms our love and faithfulness, it also provides the power for faithful living. We Lutherans more characteristically have spoken of the gospel as pardon, which it surely is, but it is also power – that is, power to grow in holiness. Reinhold Niebuhr – whom we might well regard as a kind of honorary Lutheran – saw clearly that “forgiveness is as necessary at the end as at the beginning of life.”[iv] But, as one who had also drunk deeply from other Christian wells, he knew that grace was not only pardon but also power – not only mercy and forgiveness, but also “an accession of resources” which enables us to begin to become what we ought to be.[v]

[13] So, then, we seek guidance from the moral order of God’s creation, and we find in the gospel of reconciliation both a pattern that transforms our understanding of righteousness and a power that enables growth in holiness. And in both of these we learn from themes that other Christian traditions characteristically emphasize more than our own does. We can add yet a third angle of vision. Our life is claimed not only by the Triune God as our Creator and Reconciler, but also as our Redeemer – One who calls us beyond all worldly joys or satisfactions to himself. From the Augustinian, eudaimonistic tradition, in particular, articulated in varying ways within the long history of Catholic theology, we are reminded that the blessedness granted to the pure in heart is that they will see God.

[14] Lutherans tend to think of the Christian life in terms of continual return to the word of forgiveness. Always sinners, always penitent, always forgiven – that is our leitmotif. It is a necessary and, sometimes, very important emphasis, but we should not think of the moral life always and only as if it were going nowhere. The desire of the restless heart draws us toward the God who alone can satisfy our deepest longings; hence, the faith that is active in love in the world must also be formed by the love that will make of us people who truly want to see God.

[15] We live in an age that seems, in many respects, all too oriented toward the future. We seek a better world, and, indeed, we sometimes seem willing to do here and now what is evil if we are promised that doing so will relieve future suffering or enhance human life. Yet, the truth is that our vision of the future is too foreshortened – too limited by a kind of settled worldliness. Can we learn to love the future God has promised – a future in which the Holy Spirit intends to make of us not just reconciled creatures of God, but redeemed (elevated and transformed) children of God? This is, of course, to hope for something more than a word of pardon – for a new creation. It is, as C.S. Lewis once put it, less like “teaching a horse to jump better” and more like “turning a horse into a winged creature.”[vi]

[16] To learn from that Augustinian tradition to take seriously the needy longing of the human heart is, finally, to be helped to see that what we need and want is to be drawn into the life of the Triune God. From eternity the Father gives all that he is and has to the Son; from eternity the Son offers his begotten life back to the begetting Father; from eternity the Spirit forges and witnesses to the bond of love between Father and Son. Self-giving is the shape of the inner life of God, and love is the deepest rhythm of the universe – a rhythm into which we must be drawn if our faults are to be not only forgiven but also healed. To draw on and learn from such Augustinian resources will enrich our vision and enable us to help each other love the future God has promised.

[17] Finally, it should be apparent that the basic outline I have followed here – structuring my sense of what we may fruitfully learn from other Christian visions of the moral life in terms of creation, reconciliation, and redemption – is by no means original with me. It is the basic structure of Barth’s (unfinished) Church Dogmatics, from which there is always more to be learned.

[i] Pope John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1993) par. 102.

[ii] See the “Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness” used in Settings One, Two, and Three of the Holy Communion in the Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1978).

[iii] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, Volume I: Foundations (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966) 607.

[iv] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Volume II. Human Destiny (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964) 105.

[v] Ibid., p. 99.

[vi] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960) 167.

Gilbert Meilaender

Gilbert Meilaender is Professor of Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana.