Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision
by David F. Wells
Eerdmans, 228 pages, $25
It is almost sixty years since Hans Urs von Balthasar, in a penetrating essay titled “Patristik, Scholastik, und Wir,” observed what he considered to be the “late autumn” of our times. Just as “a tree in autumn drops its leaves without pain or regret,” so too, noted von Balthasar, the tree of culture is now being stripped of its leaves:
We are living in a time when the images of gods and idols are crashing all about us. The spiritual and cultural traditions of vast regions of the West are increasingly being called into question; indeed, we can go even further and say they are being liquidated, quickly and relatively painlessly.
An important addition to this genre of autumnal lament is Losing Our Virtue, written by David Wells, professor of historical and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Wells describes the book as the continuation of an enterprise begun in 1989, which aimed to “explore the reasons for the decay of evangelical thinking, and not least in theology.” Losing represents the third in a series of works dedicated to exploring this decay. The 1993 volume, No Place for Truth—with the subtitle: or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?—sought “to show how the assumptions of modernity had intruded on the evangelical Church.” A year later Wells published the second volume, God in the Wasteland, which continued to sketch the contours of modernity and its implications for doing theology. Losing Our Virtue extends Wells' critique of contemporary culture, with reflections on the meaning of cultural disorientation for evangelical faith. Not the least of the concerns raised by Wells' critique is the conspicuous absence of moral fiber in the Church—notably in the evangelical community.
Wells begins by positing two kinds of spirituality present within evangelicalism, distinguished in his view not so much by different doctrinal starting-points as differing priorities assigned to moral reasoning. Wells wishes to contrast “Reformation or classical spirituality” with what he calls a “postmodern spirituality.” The latter is understood to have open and accessible interactions with the institutions and impulses of contemporary culture. Borrowing from the work of sociologist Donald Miller, Wells sees “postmodern spirituality” at work in emerging, extra-denominational “new paradigm churches” characterized by three modes of thinking—the therapeutic, the individualistic, and the anti-establishmentarian. As conduits for “postmodern spirituality,” argues Wells, these churches “appear to be succeeding, not because they are offering an alternative to our modern culture, rather because they are speaking with its voice, mimicking its moves.”
By “classical spirituality,” Wells is referring to the devotional habits and moral demeanor of the Protestant Reformers which had been “passed on in deepened pastoral form by the Puritans” and now have extended “down through history and into the present through people like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J. I. Packer, John Stott, Francis Schaeffer, and Carl Henry.” This stream is thought by Wells to be less susceptible to “dalliances with culture” than its contemporary cousin: “The simplest way to state this difference is to say that in classical spirituality what is moral is central, and in postmodern spirituality it is not.”
Four of the six chapters in Losing Our Virtue constitute the heart of the book and are devoted to themes liberally treated in Wells' first two volumes—materialistic consumption, image and style over substance, the therapeutic culture, the lack of civic virtue, and, not least, society's aversion to truth, truth-telling, guilt, and moral accountability. Unlike most evangelical theologians, Wells is at home interacting with social criticism ranging from Philip Rieff, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Christopher Lasch to Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and James Q. Wilson. For Wells, the pervasive moral stupor characteristic of late-twentieth-century North American culture, to which much social criticism in recent years has been directed, demands a response from the Church before any thoroughgoing moral reconstruction of civil society can take place.
It is refreshing when theologians—particularly evangelical theologians—take seriously the task of understanding culture, penetrate the assumptions that imbue the contemporary Zeitgeist, and offer a sustained critique of those assumptions. As in his earlier volumes, Wells shows himself to be conversant with various streams of social criticism as he wrestles with the present and future of evangelical faith.
Yet although Wells' social commentary and his critique of evangelicalism are engaging, even invigorating, one has the sense his analysis is incomplete. In light of the volume's subtitle, it is unclear to the reader what in fact the Church's “moral vision” is to be. In the final chapter Wells contends that the evangelical church must 1) courageously identify sin for what it is, and 2) “become more authentic morally.” What precisely constitutes “moral authenticity” is left undefined and vague.
More significant, in this reviewer's opinion, are questions regarding moral formation that remain unaddressed in the volume. Precisely how does the Christian community inculcate virtue and moral vision among its own? Of what does the moral life consist? How is it cultivated? What are the basic building-blocks of moral formation? And to whom do we “postmoderns” look in the history of the Church for guidance in moral matters? The book's relative inattention to the rich history of Christian moral teaching from the Church's very inception is less a reflection of the author as a theologian and writer than it is a telling indication of a fundamental weakness inherent in the evangelical Protestant tradition as a whole. One important clue emerges in Wells' governing paradigm: for him the task of moral rearmament begins with Luther, lessons from the sixteenth century, and the Protestant Reformation.
The moral question as Wells sees it is: “What is going to happen when Reformation faith flows into this modern channel churning with change and experimentation?” That which makes “Reformation faith” paradigmatic for Wells, and hence the necessary starting-point for reconstituting the (evangelical) Church's moral vision, is his conviction that prior to Luther “the Word of God had been taken captive by the Catholic Church, the meaning of sin had been lost, and the death of Christ had been diluted.” “And yet,” Wells notes, “the Reformation still happened. The gospel was recovered, the Church was renewed, Christian life was invigorated, and Europe was changed in deep and profound ways.” Wells' conclusion is inevitable: “If the Church then, which had been all but lost despite its outward wealth and pomp, could be recovered, so can the Church today.”
Notwithstanding this reviewer's Protestant evangelical confessional commitments, there are difficulties with the attempt to ground the thesis of moral decay and reconstruction in lessons from the sixteenth century. To suggest that evangelical Protestantism points the way to “classical spirituality” is to blithely disregard fifteen centuries of authentic “classical Christian spirituality” and obscure the desperately needed benefits of this rich tradition from evangelical view. One wishes for a more substantial treatment of the classical philosophical understanding of virtue and the moral life, to which the book devotes only two paragraphs, one of which contains the following summary:
The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived. In time, this discussion about the cardinal virtues passed into Catholicism, where it was incorporated into a structure of thought in which these virtues were seen to be the basis for, and as becoming finally realized in, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Luther, of course, was quite impatient with this line of thought, because Aristotle, he said, had introduced into the Church a theory of natural virtue that took insufficient account of sin. It allowed its followers to find in their moral accomplishments and character formation a basis for laying claim to God's salvation. On the Protestant side, therefore, matters of moral principle were discussed differently.
Wells sees the Reformation divide as the necessary starting-point for moral theology, given the Reformers' commitment to sola scriptura. It is not with the priority of Scripture that this reviewer takes issue, but rather with evangelicals' understanding and application of the sola scriptura slogan. Scripture is authoritative in every age and cultural context. Yet, in every age and cultural context Scripture must be interpreted, consensually, by the Christian community. Thus, Scripture never exists sola; rather, it is understood and interpreted via the collective wisdom of the Christian church in all ages and communions. For this reason, it is more appropriate to speak of prima scriptura—which more adequately represents historic Christian orthodoxy while preserving Scripture's normative place in doing moral theology.
Without denying the place that Protestant reformers occupy in evangelical faith, it should be said that classic Christian teaching, whether in the realm of doctrine or ethics, is best defined not against the backdrop of the sixteenth century, but rather in the light of the broader apostolic tradition. This living tradition includes the early creeds, the ecumenical councils, and the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Doctrinal as well as ethical reforms are thus best undergirded by historic Christian orthodoxy. Evangelical reform, as Protestant evangelical theologian Timothy George has wisely cautioned, does not come by removing—or ignoring—the landmarks that serve all Christians of all subsequent times and places. The recovery of moral vision, a vision correctly perceived by Wells to be lacking in the evangelical church, requires a vision of the Church and of moral theology that under the consensus fidelium is not limited to the last 450 years. Evangelicals should not lose sight of the fact that Luther and Calvin themselves were molded by and indebted to patristic exegesis. It was, above all else, to the purity of the apostolic tradition that Luther wished to return.
My own experience teaching students from evangelical traditions offers graphic and sober confirmation of the imperative to draw from the wider consensus of historic orthodoxy, especially in the domain of moral theology. Because of the tendency in Luther and the reformers to distinguish between grace and law—understandable relative to late-medieval scholasticism—Protestants ever since have erected a false dichotomy between grace and law that has had debilitating effects in theology, ethics, and public policy. Luther's mistrust of the message of James—i.e., that faith without validating works is dead (James 2)—has been inherited by and continues to hamstring Luther's spiritual offspring, who wrongly juxtapose grace and law, mercy and justice, love and holiness, indeed, the ethical standards of the Old and New Testaments. The Protestant evangelical primacy of justification by faith, coupled with an overemphasis on discontinuity between the covenants, has more often than not resulted in the confusion of soteriological and ethical categories, in the end breeding among evangelicals a moral mindset devoid of both foundations and fiber.
Protestant evangelical failure to appreciate the Church's entire history, moreover, has resulted in the neglect of patristic and medieval writings laden with rich deposits for doing moral theology. In ignoring Augustine's reflections on virtue in On Free Choice of the Will, the contemporary church misses an indispensable resource for reconstituting moral vision. Who better than Augustine, the moral reprobate turned theologian, to point the way through the “postmodern” morass of twisted values and pagan assumptions about life?
Or consider the Church's loss without Thomas Aquinas' magisterial treatment of human acts and habits, virtue and vice, desire and chastity, law and grace, comprising the entire second part of his Summa Theologiae. For Thomas, the towering master of all the doctors of the Church, falling into vice is as easy as falling from a ladder, whereas the acquisition of virtue is a slow and unspectacular process. “The life of sin,” he writes, “is a fall from coherence to chaos”; by contrast, “the life of virtue [is] a climb from the many to the One.” Thomistic reflections on vice, virtue, and the moral life are without parallel; tragically, the insights of the good doctor rarely make their way into evangelical thought and life. Frequently overlooked by most Protestants is the fact that the great scholastics were motivated to clarify the meaning of fides quaerens intellectum.
It is scarcely any wonder then that late-twentieth-century evangelical Protestants are rarely found among ethicists, moral philosophers, or policy analysts. By contrast, it is Roman Catholics, whose outlook is molded by a tradition that values philosophical and theological reflection, to whom we are primarily indebted for contributions in moral theology. (One searches in vain, for example, for a Protestant equivalent of Vatican II's call for the renewal of moral theology, repeated more recently in the Catholic Catechism.) And while part of the evangelical dilemma can be ascribed to the “scandal” of our noninvolvement in intellectual culture, as one historian has argued, this is only part of the story. Not until evangelical Protestants are able—or perhaps willing—to acknowledge their tendency toward ecclesiastical myopia and look past the sixteenth century will we see a renaissance in evangelical thinking.
J. Daryl Charles teaches religion, philosophy, and ethics at Taylor University and is author of Virtue Amidst Vice.