Lutheran Ethics

Hey Folks,

Thanks to the good folks over at Themelios journal for the opportunity to engage with and review Joel Biermann’s fantastic book “A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethic.” If you are interested in virtue ethics, Aristotle, historical theology, and particularly the problem of antinomianism in Protestant/evangelical, and even more particularly within Lutheran theology, be sure to give this book a careful and critical read. It is my opinion that Biermann has written an extremely useful work here which deserves your engagement if you are writing, teaching, or researching in these areas.

You can find the review here:

My one disappointment with the editing of the piece for publication in the journal was the removal of one really crucial element of critique that was part of the originally submitted draft. It was no doubt removed because (once again) I submitted the review slightly exceeding the word limit. Thus this is not a complaint against the editorial team whose expertise I value and very much appreciate. I wanted to post the original wording here, though, because I think it is a theologically important point of critique of Luther:

Lastly, those in other evangelical traditions outside of Lutheranism may take issue with the rather truncated view of the gospel as basically referring to the forgiveness of sins and justification by faith alone. In this understanding, transformation is viewed as a result of the gospel, but not as a part of the gospel (see e.g., pp. 2, 6, 14, 26, 50–52, 85, 167, and especially p. 71: “There is no doubt that the moral life of common Christians was critically important to the reformer. It might be wiser and more faithful to Luther’s teaching, however, not to include works within the gospel”).

My desire in seeking to include this was to critique the impulse of some within Lutheran, Reformed, and evangelical circles to truncate the totality of the gospel by using ‘justification by faith alone’ and the ‘forgiveness of sins’ as synonyms or explications of ‘the gospel.’ In my view, the gospel certainly includes the doctrine of justification, but shouldn’t be equated with it. After all, the doctrine isn’t even mentioned in any of the earliest creeds of the church, and doesn’t become the defining theological topic of conversation, really, until the middle ages.

Rather, the Gospel includes both elements of a declaration of right relationship with God based on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for those who entrust themselves to God (i.e. justification), as well as a host of other elements related to the transformation and renovation of character.

I understand in many Lutheran or Reformed circles the word ‘works’ has to be placed within the theological crises and arguments of the 16th century. However, I think that impulse itself is problematic

Also, the conflating of ‘works’ and ‘the moral life’ by Biermann in his parsing out of Luther’s approach to not including the concept of transformation in ‘the gospel’ is, I propose, theologically problematic. This conflation of ‘works’ (which serves a generally negative function in Lutheran theology) with ‘moral transformation’ automatically gives transformation a subsidiary place in theology, below and after the essential core truth of justification by faith alone, a doctrine which, according to Bierman’s reading of Luther, is the Gospel. I’m simply writing this to register that I think such a truncation of the word Gospel and the doctrine of justification needs rethinking, especially in the light of the New Perspective on Paul. In my view, the Gospel is, dare I say, far more than Luther’s forensic understanding of justification. Reading with the Church through the ages including the Early Church Fathers and Augustine, the Gospel also incorporates the transformative, renovating work of God, which, in agreement with Luther, I believe is best defined by other terms besides justification (contra Augustine here who included the idea of becoming righteous within the motif of justification).

In case you are wondering, here is how I define the Gospel:

The Gospel is the good news that through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Messiah—through Him—the Powers of Evil, Sin and Death have been defeated by God and a New Creation, that is, a new, abundant, and eternal way of being human, is available through faithfully trusting the work of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We who have been reconciled to God in Christ are now called to be reconcilers, agents of God’s Kingdom of peace, righteousness, and love in the world. It is through faith which is alive through love that we, in enacting, receiving, and embodying that love, become like the God who is love. Love is sacrificial, and the greatest example of love is Christ’s own self-giving unto death on the cross for the sin of the world, and his resurrection and defeat of death for the life of the world. Love is sacrificial, but the mystery of the Christian life is that through the pouring out of oneself for the sake of the other, we find ourselves paradoxically built up by love rather than exhausted by it. We become more human by loving like God loves, and we become like God through love, because God is love, and himself defines what it means to live lovingly through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Christianity is not just a religion about how to “get saved” but it is also a way of life that transforms us into the image of God in Christ Jesus.


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