The Death of Evangelical Ethics

EDIT: It was brought to my attention by one of the commenters that the tone of this post was unduly flippant, harsh, and caricaturing.  In short, I violated my anti-pontification blogging rule.  I stand by all the concerns articulated here, but they should have been voiced in more measured and moderate tones.  Given that lots of people have already seen the post, I won’t attempt to re-write it accordingly, but read it with this apology in mind.

A strange anomaly afflicts our conservative Reformed institutions of higher education.  No other institutions can be relied on to insist, at every possible opportunity, on the importance of our theology for all of life.  As the leader of one such institution often puts it, “Theology should come out of our fingertips”; another common slogan is “Faith for all of life.”  At such institutions, you will hear, nonstop, the need for Christians to “engage and transform culture,” to bring every square inch of creation under the lordship of Christ, etc., a legacy of the neo-Calvinist triumph of the last century.  The great bogeyman in such circles is “Gnosticism,” which refers to any account of the Christian life that is overly intellectualist, insufficiently “incarnational,” which is more about having the right ideas in your head than concrete Christian living.  Given all of this, you would expect such institutions to be zealous for the recovery of the lost tradition of Christian ethics, eager at every opportunity to flesh out a theological account of the moral life, as it relates to business, to politics, to family, to creation, etc.  Surely, such institutions above all would be interested in answering the question posed by Francis Schaeffer, a giant in these circles, “How shall we then live?”

Apparently not.  A consultation of the course catalogs of four leading Reformed-worldview colleges yielded very slim pickings indeed when it came to ethical subjects.  At one school, only 2 courses out of 37 in the Bible and Theology department dealt with ethics, although in fairness, some courses in the philosophy department did as well.  At another school, it was 1 of 34 (plus, again, a few philosophical ethics courses).  At a third, it was 1 of 31, with 2 other courses incorporating substantial ethics content.  At the bottom of this ranking, one school dedicated only one half of one course, out of a total of 24 Bible and theology courses, to the Christian moral life, and didn’t supplement this with any business ethics, political ethics, or philosophical ethics courses.  Of course, this is a rather rough method for determining the actual teaching at those schools, since ethical issues could be woven into other courses, even when they’re not the subject of a separate course.  However, a little leaven of ethical reasoning in a business course is no substitute for systematic and historical reflection on the Christian ethical tradition.  The dismal picture that emerges from this survey confirms, in any case, what I have found autobiographically, impressionistically and anecdotally.  And while my indictment here is focused particularly on Reformed institutions, the same could probably be said of most of American evangelicalism—we simply don’t know the first thing about the history of Christian ethics or about how to go about the task of moral reasoning.  And it shows when we look at the level of much evangelical discourse in contemporary ethical and political debates. Read More

Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 3

In the first part of my review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, I remarked that this was an oddly schizophrenic book, a bit of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde.  On the one hand, it features a basically sound, thorough, and helpful exposition of the key aspects of Hooker’s moral theology out of the primary sources, and on the other hand, an uneven and confused polemic against Reformed readings of Hooker.  Chapter Four, investigating Hooker’s theological anthropology, is a case in point.

The choice to begin with an account of human nature, rather than of the sources of moral theology—reason and Scripture—might seem an odd one, but Joyce’s instincts are good here.  For Protestantism in particular, we must first start from an account of human nature, and its current fallen state, before we can say much about how the authorities of reason and Scripture function in human life.  Put simply, a very strong doctrine of total depravity would tend to demand a moral theology based almost entirely upon special revelation; a more optimistic doctrine of human nature would create more space for the use of general revelation in constructing an account of the moral life.  The classic stereotype, of course, is that Hooker gives us a remarkably rosy evaluation of human nature, one which differs notably from the Reformed understanding of total depravity, and the grim pessimism of a figure like Calvin, and therefore represents a fundamental departure from an authentically Protestant understanding of the relative authority of reason and Scripture.   Read More

Notes Toward a Doctrine of Christian Liberty: Freedom and Social Identity

From Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, ch. 5, “Freedom and Its Loss”:

“From an objective point of view unsociability can be described as a loss of order, from a subjective point of view as a loss of freedom.

“‘Freedom’ is a term with a range of meanings.  First and most formally, it is simply the power to act, that ownership of one’s behavior which distinguishes the intelligent agent from creatures of instinct.  Stripped bare of all social context, this is a power of individual human nature, which may usually simply be assumed.  The assertion of freedom in this form always belongs with some kind of individualism.  Here is the freedom-as-defiance of the existentialist, and of the teenager who refuses to get out of bed in the morning.  But freedom so conceived is abstract and unproductive.  To give the term a moral significance, we must understand it in terms of the orientation of the individual to social communications.

“And so there arises a second and more substantial sense of freedom: the realization of individual powers within social forms.  This is the sense in which we can say the the objective correlate of freedom is authority.  Authority (in the broadest sense, not political authority alone) attaches to those structures of communication in which we engage in order to realize freedom.  And this is the sense in which freedom may be lost.  Loss of freedom does not mean that the social orientation of human beings can be utterly thwarted.  But we can be deprived of the structures of communication within which we have learned to act, and so we can find ourselves hurled into a vacuum in which we do not know how to realize ourselves effectively. . . . But what we can say of the individual in these circumstances, we can say equally of the society.  It is not free unless it can sustain the forms that make for its members’ freedom.

“Freedom is a term used almost exclusively to focus attention on the possibilities of its loss. . . . That is why it is no easy thing to construct a positive program around the idea of freedom.  Politicians who praise freedom too profusely in flourishing circumstances are viewed with understandable suspicion.  Yet when some concrete threat appears, whatever it may be, ‘freedom’ is the first word on all our lips.

“If freedom is the self-realization of the individual within social forms, the twin guiding lights of sociality and individuality mark the runway along which any discussion of freedom must get airborne, whether its flight path then turns in a socialist direction towards securing individual freedom by way of social structures, or in a liberal direction towards securing social freedom by way of individual liberties. . . . ‘Freedom’ speaks of a certain conformability of society to individuals and of individuals to society.  It is a measure of fit between the communications which the individual hopes for and those which the society sustains.  As such, it is a matter of more or less.  Even in the most oppressive circumstances it is not wholly absent.” (67-69)

. . . 

“Freedom, then, has to do with a society’s particular historical way of existing. Societies cannot be free if they cannot sustain their historical identities.”

“Social identity, then, is an important contributing element in the freedom of an individual.  There can be no ‘freedom’ in having many spheres to participate in, unless one can rationally conceive of a whole that connected those spheres together. . . . However, there is more to personal freedom than simple participation in a tradition. . . . It is an imprisoned self-knowledge that cannot distinguish one’s calling from one’s social identity. . . . There is an eloquent difference between the term ‘identity’, used both of societies and of individuals viewed objectively as members of societies, and the term ‘vocation,’ used only of ourselves as subjects. . . . ‘Vocation’ takes us beyond identity, to a fulfillment in service that is extended to us personally by God.  And this provides us with a third sense of the term ‘freedom,’ as the individual’s discovery and pursuit of his or her vocation from God.  It is to this that Christians have pointed when they have spoken of ‘evangelical liberty,’ the liberty of baptism.” (70-72)

Vermigli on the Task of Politics

In his introduction to his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, Peter Martyr Vermigli has some excellent, pithy remarks about the relationship of politics to ethics.  Vermigli’s schema offers us an attractive articulation of what Jordan Ballor has in a recent post designated “subsidiarity from below,” recognizing that the establishment of virtuous societies must proceed from the individual to the family to the commonwealth.  Yet just because good citizens are a prerequisite for a good commonwealth does not mean that the commonwealth has no role in moral formation; for Vermigli, the order is “circular”:

“I will . . . distinguish practical philosophy by providing the rules that refer to the life and upbringing of one person or man.  If an individual is concerned, it is ethics; if more than one is concerned it is important whether they are many or fewer.  If fewer, the subject is domestic economy; if more, it is politics.”

“Among these moral subjects, the first place is surely held by ethics, then economics, and finally politics.  I see this order as circular.  Through ethics, those who are its students will, one by one, become good.  If they prove upright, they will raise good families; if the families are properly established, they will in turn create good republics.  And in good republics, both law and administration will aim at nothing less than each becoming a good citizen, for they have eyes for the spirit as well as the body, and will take care that citizens live according to virtue.” (In The Peter Martyr Library, vol. 4, Philosophical Works:  On the Relation of Philosophy to Theology, 9, 12)

Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 2

Although delayed substantially since beginning this review more than two weeks ago, I am now recommencing my thorough review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology with an in-depth critique of her third chapter, “Reading Richard Hooker.”  The critique grew so lengthy, however, that I thought it better to adapt it for at The Calvinist International, which has kindly hosted it under the title, “Richard Hooker, Reformed Irenic.”

For the sake of continuity, however, or for those looking for something a bit briefer, I offer here a highly-condensed version.  In chapter three, Joyce proposes to lay the groundwork for a historically sound interpretation of Hooker by teaching us how to discern his rhetorical style and agenda.  Although she purports to be breaking new ground by cutting through the thickets of misunderstanding that have grown up around Hooker’s text and setting the record straight about mild-mannered, “judicious” Hooker, she is in fact simply reciting the fashionable new orthodoxy among Hooker interpreters.  She will argue that, although cultivating a persona of cool objectivity, Hooker is fully engaged in a polemical battle to discredit and defeat his Puritan opponents.  He quotes selectively from them, uses devious little turns of phrase to make them look bad, and imputes bad motives to them, trying to convince his audience that they’re motivated by an emotional agenda, rather than reason.  The irony of all this is that this is in fact precisely what Joyce does to Hooker in this chapter. 

Although she claims to present an objective, historical reading of Hooker in Hooker’s own terms, she in fact shows herself to be motivated throughout by a desire to discredit a particular school of Hooker interpretation, which she fears is trying to align him too closely with the Reformation.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, really.  Of course our desire for truth means that we feel the need to combat error forcefully where we find it; few of us indeed can be moved to write out of a detached love of truth that has not been stirred to action by the perception of error.  So polemicism in the service of truth is no vice, as Hooker himself clearly understood.  So when Joyce thinks she has uncovered a juicy scandal—Richard Hooker was a polemicist—there really is no scandal, for he never pretended to be anything else.

Hooker never makes any attempt to deny is that he is passionately interested in seeing the Puritan position refuted.  On the contrary, he makes clear from the very beginning that he considers it dangerous to the truth, and dangerous to society, and he intends to do his best to expose its flaws.  Joyce attempts to paint him as a hypocrite because, while “presenting himself as a man of unimpeachable Christian charity: an agent of peace and reconciliation who is determined to seek unity and to find common ground with his opponents, however much they might resist such a noble and godly cause . . . if Hooker does indeed seek unity with them, it is abundantly clear that it will be entirely on his own terms” (61).  But Hooker never suggests that he wants unity on any terms other than those of the truth, which is what he intends to be offending.  This, it turns out, is the scandal, from the standpoint of modern academic objectivity—Hooker has the audacity to believe he is right, and his opponents are wrong!

Once we understand that for Hooker, polemics are a tool in the service of truth, we find that there is in fact no contradiction between Hooker’s occasionally polemical style and his overall goal of an “irenical appeal to the hearts and minds of the disciplinarian Puritan opponents of the Elizabethan Settlement,” as Torrance Kirby puts it, to Joyce’s incredulity.  As I have written before here and here, and Steven Wedgeworth has expanded upon with reference to Hooker here, irenicism is the proper end of all good polemics, but it can rarely do without some resort (often very considerable resort) to polemics.  Because it is interested in reconciliation in truth, irenic polemics aims ultimately to persuade the opponent, opposing his errors, but not assassinating his character.  

Does this description accurately characterize Hooker’s polemics?  Joyce would have us believe not, characterizing Hooker’s rhetoric as full of “waspish, acerbic, and irreverent assaults” upon the Puritans, which frequently impugn their motives.  She concedes that he in many places appears to speak positively of his opponents and to declare his goodwill toward them, but insists that we must read all such passages as dripping with sarcasm and irony.  I critique the circular nature of this hermeneutic of suspicion in more detail in the longer version of this review.   In any case, an authentically historical method would seek to evaluate Hooker’s supposed waspishness by comparison to contemporary examples of theological polemic.  And indeed, when we read Hooker alongside writers such as Cartwright, Whitgift, and especially Bancroft, it is no wonder that he has gained a reputation—overstated, certainly, but not entirely unjustified—for saintly serenity.  Of course, we need not imagine that Hooker never stooped to taking cheap shots—misrepresenting his opponents, unfairly attacking their character, using sarcastic put-downs to avoid the real issues at stake, etc.  He is, after all, human, and few polemicists have managed to always resist such temptations, especially in a 1,400-page work.  The question is whether taking cheap shots comprises part of his intentional method, or comprises the exception that proves the irenical rule.

Crucial in answering this question is learning to distinguish what constitutes a “cheap” shot, and what is quite a well-justified shot, and the means that we cannot evaluate the nature of someone’s polemics in abstraction from the question of truth.  Did Hooker’s opponents say the sorts of things he charges them with?  Were these indeed theologically or politically dangerous, as he claims?  If so, his polemic looks decidedly less “waspish.”  In fact, startlingly, Joyce makes no attempt to consider these questions of truth.  This omission is the most glaring in the chief passage she quotes as evidence of Hooker’s “not merely barbed, but quite outrageous” polemics, which she describes as a “merciless parody” of the Puritans (51).  In point of fact, in the passage she quotes, Hooker is in fact closely paraphrasing and even quoting directly from Thomas Cartwright, a fact that he is kind enough to alert us to by an extended footnote, but which Joyce entirely ignores.  Who’s being “outrageous” now?

Also central to Joyce’s re-reading of Hooker against Torrance Kirby is her attempt to show him as “unambiguously contemptuous” of John Calvin.  She achieves this reading by means of the same hermeneutic of suspicion described above, taking anything positive Hooker says about Calvin as sarcastic or a backhanded compliment, and playing up anything negative he has to say.  In point of fact, Hooker makes quite clear to us what he thinks about Calvin—he was a very wise church leader and among the greatest of Protestant theologians, but he is a mere man just the same, who made mistakes, and since “incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation” (II.8.7), Hooker will avoid giving him more credit than he is due.  The Puritan error consists partly in their unhealthy idolization of Calvin as seemingly infallible, to the exclusion of other Protestant theologians, Church Fathers, and even Scripture itself.  So we can hardly pronounce Hooker as un-Reformed merely because he refused to do due obeisance at the altar of Calvin.  Nor can we pronounce him un-Reformed because some of his Puritan readers at the time judged him such.  Joyce considers the negative reaction of A Christian Letter (1599) to be strong proof against Kirby’s theory that Hooker’s overall purpose was irenic, and committed to Reformed fundamentals, for it is “a telling indication of how Hooker’s remarks were received and interpreted by his principal target audience.”  However, anyone familiar with the world of theological controversy ought to know well enough that a that one should never interpret a theological work based on how it is received by its target audience.  Perhaps this suggests that Hooker’s hope of “resolving the conscience” was naïve, but it hardly proves that he never had any such intention.

Kirby’s, of course, is not the final word, and there is much that needs nuancing in his reading of Hooker and Hooker’s relation to the various strands of the Reformed tradition.  But rather than advancing the conversation, Joyce’s a-theological, a-historical “rhetorical criticism” of Hooker leaves us with a text that can be re-shaped according to the interpreter’s whim.  We can only be thankful, then, that for all the drama with which she presents it, the argument and methodology of chapter three ends up playing a relatively minor role in most of the rest of her book, which I will be reviewing further over the next couple weeks.