Virtue Ethics and its Application within Lutheran Congregations

Virtue Ethics and its Application within Lutheran Congregations

Jeff Mallinson, D. Phil., Professor of Theology and Philosophy,
Concordia University, Irvine,

Virtue ethics was an important component of sixteenth-century Lutheran educational reform, and several contemporary Lutheran scholars have revived interest in this approach to ethics.[1] Though the reclamation of virtue theory in Lutheran circles is encouraging, it remains unclear, or at least there is not yet consensus regarding the best way to teach virtue to the next generation of church members. Providing a remedy for this problem is urgent, given recent debates within Lutheranism concerning the place of the law within the life, preaching, and teaching of congregations.[2] One party accuses the other of thinly veiled antinomianism; the opposing party responds by accusing the other of pietistic moralism. Fortunately, virtue ethics— properly understood and applied—offers the best perspective from which to reconcile these parties and cultivate rich ethical thinking and practices within congregations. I contend that instead of focusing on ethical discussions within homilies, we will do well to recover the traditional virtue ethicists’ emphasis on habituation of virtue within a community ethos that supports, models, and rewards virtue. For this reason, it is best to shift the focus of the discussion about moral exhortation from the pulpit to congregational catechesis, Lutheran primary, secondary, and higher education, and service projects that affect a Christian’s neighbors. These are the primary areas where churches can instill virtues in the next generation of disciples.

What is Virtue Ethics and Why Should Lutherans Care?

Philosophers divide moral reasoning into three basic categories: (1) meta-ethics, which seeks to understand the nature and foundation of goodness in the abstract, (2) normative ethics, which seeks to develop methods for determining good behavior and decision making, and (3) applied ethics, which focuses on specific controversial issues in concrete contexts, such as the issue of abortion within medical practice. Sometimes called “personalism,” virtue ethics is a species of normative ethics. It is usually included with two other normative approaches: deontology, which emphasizes universal moral duties, and consequentialism, which emphasizes the outcomes of an action. Put differently, virtue ethics focuses on the character of the person who acts, deontology on the morality of the actions themselves, and consequentialism on the outcomes of particular acts.

One need not, and arguably cannot, operate exclusively within one normative approach. Indeed, Robin Gill provides ample textual evidence that great Christian thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther often employed one or more normative approaches—character, moral reasoning, and outcomes—even when discussing a single topic.[3] Why focus on virtue theory, then? Because virtue is, I contend, the pinnacle of Christian moral formation and fits especially well with the Lutheran doctrine of Christian liberty.[4] It is an ethic for the free. It strives not for the appearance of purity, ritual blamelessness, or perfection for the sake of spiritual merit; instead, since all has been perfectly accomplished by Christ in the spiritual realm, it strives for increased goodness for the sake of earthly neighbors. Virtue, despite its emphasis on the individual, focuses less on maintaining the appearance of personal righteousness and more on personal character for the sake of the outside world. Mark Mattes eloquently describes Luther’s approach to discipleship as follows:

… the Christian life is no perpetually reoccurring oscillation between law and Gospel, accusation and liberation. Not oscillation but simultaneity—simul iustus et peccator— characterizes Christians, even when they flee from God as wrath to God as mercy. Nevertheless, it is precisely God’s Word defining this simul that opens another dimension—the horizon of living outside oneself, first of all in honoring God, the source of goodness, and second, in serving the neighbor. As new beings, we are not trapped in the oscillation because the Gospel’s goal is to effectuate trust in God’s promise which allows us to live outside ourselves in God and the neighbor.[5]

In other words, a believer’s newly created reality, begun by the proclaimed Gospel promise, changes the entire point of ethical reflection and behavior. “Discipleship,” Mattes continues, “answers not the question, ‘how am I saved?’ but instead, ‘what is my life about?’”[6]  The question of what one’s life is to be about is a virtue ethicist’s prime concern.

Personal virtue ought to be the goal of moral discourse and development, even when we employ other normative approaches. Deontology, a duty-based ethic, serves as a helpful initial guide for most day-to-day cases, especially when it reflects both the revealed and the natural law. This is especially important when the values come directly from special revelation. Likewise, when there are no explicit biblical teachings about a given question, a Christian can turn profitably to consequentialism, calculating the best course of action for the greatest good of the greatest possible number of neighbors. At the pinnacle of ethical formation, however, is an individual who has internalized the virtue of faithfulness because he or she has tasted and seen that the Lord is good and is faithful to us (Psalm 34). Such a person thirsts for virtue because of their new identity in Christ. Such a person acts neither out of fear of punishment, nor in hope of reward. He or she strives to be the humane human they were designed by God to be.

Luther’s early understanding of the connection between the life-altering encounter with the Gospel and the life of sanctification often resembles the relation between passive and active righteousness in the anonymous mystical text, Theologia Germanica, which Luther published and extolled and John Calvin later vilified:

This life is not chosen in order to serve any end, or to get anything by it, but for love of its nobleness, and because God loves and esteems it so greatly. And whoever says that he has had enough of it, and may now lay it aside, has never tasted nor known it; for he who has truly felt or tasted it can never give it up again. And he who has put on the life of Christ with the intent to win or deserve anything by it has taken it up as a hireling and not for love, and is altogether without it. For he who does not take it up for love has none of it at all; he may dream indeed that he has put it on, but he is deceived. Christ did not lead such a life as His for the sake of reward, but out of love; and love makes such a life light and takes away all its hardships, so that it becomes sweet and is gladly endured. But to him who has not put it on from love, but has done so, as he dreams, for the sake of reward, it is utterly bitter and a weariness, and he would rather be done with it. And it is a sure token of a hireling that he wishes his work were at an end. But he who truly loves it, is not offended at its toil or suffering, nor the length of time it lasts. Therefore it is written, “To serve God and live to Him is easy to him who does it.” Truly it is so to him who doth it for love, but it is hard and wearisome to him who does it for hire. It is the same with all virtue and good works, and likewise with order, laws, obedience to precepts, and the like. But God rejoices more over one man who truly loves than over a thousand hirelings.[7]

This text may have reinforced Luther’s distinction between passive righteousness coram Dea (before God), and active righteousness coram mundo (before the world). From this perspective, legalism might possibly produce diligent hirelings within a congregation, but it cannot promise to produce true disciples. Disciples internalize the teaching because of their love for the Teacher, and the beautiful truth of His teaching. Such thinking makes little sense to a person who has failed to drink deeply from the Gospel well. Virtue ethics makes sense only for people who have been freed from worry about how to perform acts that produce maximal merit, or about the relative gravity of ethical land mines before them.

Beyond these practical and contextual reasons, Lutherans should care about virtue ethics because it fits the most noteworthy teachings and acts of Jesus Himself. His words in Matthew 23 are perhaps the best explicit indication of this:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean (vv. 23–26, ESV).

Here, Jesus does not deny the relative value of duties, like charitable giving, but He identifies key virtues as weightier. He does not expect His followers to ignore the positive and negative consequences of behaviors, nor to ignore the basic precepts found in revelation. Nonetheless, He points disciples to a higher calling by identifying three virtues: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. By attending to these, other daily behaviors flow naturally. He also juxtaposes legalism, associated with ritual cleanliness, and the vices (the opposite of virtues) of greed and self-indulgence. His remedy is to develop character (“clean the inside of the cup and plate”) in order to experience lives of service (whereby “the outside also may be clean”).

Luther is on the same page; his On Christian Liberty nicely captures the spirit of Jesus’ virtue ethic, especially with his two paradoxical theses:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.[8]

The rest of Luther’s treatise teases out the implications of these theses, insisting that our primary concern should be to cultivate good trees that produce good fruit. He never rejects the reality of sanctification in the life of a Christian; nonetheless, he refuses to endorse legalism, and denies that the law has the power to accomplish what it promises. Only the Gospel delivers both power and promise. The Christian is therefore free to serve.

This language sometimes falls flat when taught to students. It sounds to some as if Christianity is a game of bait-and-switch. We hear in the first “pitch” that we are absolutely free in Christ, but once we sign up for the “program” we learn there are a whole bunch of rules that aren’t exactly mandatory, but expected of us by others in the group in order to demonstrate that we belong. It sounds to some as it was in fact taught by John Wesley: freedom isn’t freedom to live without fear in God’s new kingdom; it is freedom to pursue Christian perfection.[9]

Such moralistic thinking misses Luther’s profound insight, drawn from Jesus and Paul. Christ­ centered theology reminds us that we are free from worrying whether this or that ritual or deed will merit God’s favor. We are thus freed from rosaries, flagellation, pilgrimages, and all other artificial attempts to score points with the Almighty. Indeed, to think of sanctification in such a transactional manner demonstrates a fundamentally distorted theology of justification. For Luther, we are free from trying to calculate all the results of an action, as if to get the moral math wrong would be to incur God’s judgment. We are free to serve this or that person. We are free to give to this or that charitable cause. We are free to choose between volunteering at the soup kitchen, attending a Bible study, or going to a movie with our children. We are free to fast or not fast, and free either to participate in a service project or take the kids to a ballgame on Saturday. Thus liberated from servile fear, we no longer need to worry about our ritual purity, and turn instead toward being of actual value to our neighbors. This service ordinarily takes place within our vocations, since our vocations are the aspects of our lives in which we serve others. Serving our neighbors as the larvae Dei, or masks of God, is the primary way we are to serve the Lord (Matthew 25:40; Galatians 5:13–14).[10]

The Problem of Identifying the Virtues

A common objection to virtue ethics is that it is difficult to establish the virtues precisely. According to Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, one can discover a virtue by finding an equidistant point between excess and defect. For instance, courage is the mid-point between the excess of recklessness and the defect of cowardice. Perhaps we can find a way to describe and think about a particular virtue, but which other virtues should we seek, and which are most important? For Christians, this very unease misses the value virtue ethics brings in the first place. Christian virtue theory isn’t for people who worry about making a petty mistake and incurring divine wrath. It is for people who trust the words of promise that accompanied their baptism, for people freed from fretting about questions of technical precision and perfectionism. The problem of identifying the virtues is urgent only for those who do not adhere to the authority of Scripture, since establishing the virtues through natural law or community consensus seems possible but rather complicated. Nonetheless, Lutherans who affirm sola Scriptura and solus Christus point to Jesus Himself. We emulate Jesus in order to habituate virtue and need not fret about technical precision.

If we must make lists of virtues, we can point to the three great theological virtues: faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13), and the virtues that represent a human reflection of God’s law and Gospel: justice and mercy, e.g., Matthew 23:23 and Micah 6:8. (See “Learning Mercy and Sacrifice: Homework from Jesus for Lutheran Higher Education” by Charles Blanco in this edition of Issues in Christian Education.) Paul describes the Christian virtues as the “fruit of the Spirit,” and adds joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), after which he boldly claims, “Against such things, there is no law.” This habituation of biblical virtues does not entail a rejection of morality as such (consider Luther’s Table of Duties), nor does it lead to an Anabaptist rejection of God’s moral law in favor of a nebulous call to simply love (this would be antinomianism proper); rather, it constitutes a rejection of works-righteousness and unnecessary attention to artificial rules.

The Resurgence of Virtue Theory in Modern Ethics

Several recent thinkers have turned to virtue theory as the primary way to survive the current Western crisis about the sources and norms of goodness, truth, and beauty. Two of these are steeped in the Roman Catholic tradition and a respect for Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: Mortimer Adler, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Another is an LCMS Lutheran: Gilbert Meilaender. Adler sought to reclaim the virtues through training in the liberal arts, great books, and great conversation. Lutherans should affirm this, since it was at the heart of the educational reform of Luther and Melanchthon.[11] Likewise, the LCMS has a long and noble legacy of founding and supporting church-related learning, from kindergarten to graduate school. The pressures of the modem educational marketplace must not be allowed to distract us from inculcating virtue through quality liberal arts education, even as it is increasingly blended with pre-professional and technical training.[12]

While Adler’s advocacy of virtue theory focused on classroom education, MacIntyre has been influential in the realm of philosophical ethics proper. He famously started his seminal work, After Virtue, with a discussion of our culture’s current ethical quagmire.[13] We speak about right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust; nonetheless, he laments that we’ve lost a sense of what these terms actually mean, since we have been cut adrift from the intellectual framework in which these words originally made sense. Most importantly, we’ve lost touch with our divinely ordained telos (purpose, goal, or end). Since we don’t, as a culture, agree on what we are supposed to be doing here in this world, we don’t know how to act rightly. Instead, we cling to the external language and rituals of bygone generations, but retain only the outward form. He compares our situation to a world in which we have inherited many nice technological devices, but no one is left who remembers how to make these gadgets nor is there anyone who understands their inner workings.

Despite the valuable contributions of contemporary Roman Catholic virtue theorists, Lutherans who wish to reclaim virtue will do well to attend to the work of Gilbert Meilaender. His approach to the subject consistently bears the mark of a person who has been catechized in the Lutheran tradition, and he develops an organically Lutheran ethic. He suggests that slavish attention to either deontology or consequentialism is the mark of a person who has not taken Christian liberty seriously, since rigorous application of either is an attempt to claim a God’s-eye view.[14] For him, mere rules “…do not tell the whole story, nor can commitment to them as a structured form of love be sustained apart from the virtues of faith and hope.”[15] Instead, Meilaender consistently describes grace as both power and promise. When Christ sets believers free, they begin a new existence: “ … in the perfected life of love that is God, there is spontaneous self-giving, affirmation of the other, and glad receptivity.”[16] This spontaneous response to grace is not the sum total of Christian reflection on ethics, but neither does he encourage pastors to preach more moralism. Rather, Meilaender calls Lutheran Christians to take the academic discipline of ethics seriously and apply it to the totality of the Christian experience.

A robust argument for the organic relationship between virtue ethics and Lutheran theology requires a survey of the core Lutheran theologians and the texts themselves. To recapitulate that entire endeavor here would make our examination too lengthy, and would needlessly recreate the exemplary research compiled by Joel Biermann in A Case for Character: Toward a Lutheran Virtue Ethics,[17] in which he helpfully assembles supporting passages from Luther, Melanchthon, the confessions, and contemporary Lutheran scholars. From Biermann’s survey alone, we can see that virtue theory is and should be the preeminent ethical approach for Lutherans today. After establishing the historical and theological points, he argues that the framework for Lutheran virtue theory should not be one that merely emphasizes the motivation for sanctification provided by sola gratia, sola fide justification. Instead, he asserts as preferable and more robust the framework of Luther’s and Melanchthon’ s concept of passive righteousness coram deo and active Christian righteousness coram mundo, along with civil righteousness in a left-hand-kingdom-only context. Biermann contends that the optimal framework is one that incorporates Luther’s multiple kinds of righteousness within a creedal framework. Such a framework is Trinitarian in that it affirms a place for civil righteousness in the world that the Father has ordained, passive righteousness accomplished and gifted through the redemptive work of the Son, and active righteousness in the life of the Church, empowered by the Spirit. In providing this diligent exposition and synthesis, Biermann’s work is invaluable, productive, and commendable.

Nonetheless, the precise objective of Biermann’s work is sometimes unclear and occasionally seems to attack straw men. Throughout his work, he asserts that the centrality of justification need not eliminate robust ethical teaching and reflection. This is true. He also worries about overemphasis on the doctrine of justification, detached from law and the cross, as something that might overshadow or distract congregations from consideration of sanctification. This is also legitimate. Nonetheless, the primary debate today is not whether people should be good, or whether the Law should be preached from pulpits. Rather, the primary debate typically addresses whether we should include or augment the third use of the Law—the Law as a guide for Christian living—in ordinary preaching. This is primarily a homiletic debate, and not precisely about whether Christians should care about philosophical ethics per se. It is likely true that some congregations and pastors shirk their duties to practice lives of service to neighbors by too quickly retreating to the doctrine of justification, but this failure to fulfill one’s vocation can only be attributed to a duplicitous theological emphasis on justification.

Biermann indicates that proclaiming the Gospel, and then expecting this to be all that is necessary to motivate the laity to good works, is not sufficient. But not sufficient, we must ask, for what? It is conceivable that a pastor might refrain from ending a sermon with third-use exhortation, concluding with the Law as a guide to Christian living rather than the promise of the Gospel. He may deem such a Gospel-finish sermon appropriate to his calling and audience, but then spend much of his time in informal or educational settings, reminding believers of their new identity and the virtues to which this identity points. Or, could not one be a deontologist or consequentialist and advocate just as forcefully that ethical exhortations should be included in a sermon? Surely this, too, is possible. It seems, then, that the chief value of virtue theory for congregations is that it helps us properly understand the ways in which we might teach virtue in congregations. Those ways, I recommend, usually best occur separately from sermons, as we shall see below.

The Challenge of Applying Virtue Theory

The optimal venues for teaching virtue are the home and the church. This is because virtue is acquired through habituation within a community ethos that encourages and reinforces good character. Again, Aristotle famously taught in his Nicomachean Ethics that to become virtuous, one must practice virtuous behaviors until they become so integral to one’s identity that he or she eventually develops a natural ability to respond virtuously to complex and urgent situations.[18]

The ethos of a community is vital for habituation, since young people and new members of Christian community are best able to habituate virtues when an ethos includes praise for noble habits and mature exemplars of those habits.

Virtue theory tends to support an approach that emphasizes training in ethics outside the context of a homily. Granted, a sermon can reflect the Trinitarian and creedal framework of the Christian ethical life. Moreover, no Lutheran I know denies the value and obligation of a preacher to present the Law as it occurs in the lectionary. They all at least affirm that it should be declared, though some want to focus exclusively on the second function of the law: to accuse the individual and drive them to the redemptive work of Christ. Would it not be more suitable for congregations to teach virtue in the context of catechesis, robust Christian education during a church’s education hour, mid-week Bible studies, and church-related schools and universities? Surely it is not a sign of antinomianism to suggest that these—rather than the “main course” of the Divine Service—are the appropriate venues for moral education. If an ethos fosters virtue, would it not be best to focus on the gracious character of our communities as we converse together over coffee, interact at church picnics, participate in missions, and delight in the general camaraderie of our alternative kingdom on earth?

In both scholarly and colloquial contexts, there has been an unfortunate tendency to blame an over-emphasis on the Gospel for progressive Lutherans’ acceptance of progressive social values such as an openness to and affirmation of LGBT clergy and same-sex marriage. This allegation could not be further from the truth. In the first place, progressives would bristle at the idea that the embrace of LGBT individuals is a matter of excessive forgiveness or grace. On the contrary, they hold that same­sex orientation ought no longer be considered sinful. To forgive is (first) to condemn, so their stance is based on a particular conception of justice, not licentiousness. It is precisely their understanding of ethics that motivates their policies, not the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. They may hold such a doctrine, but that doctrine is not the source. Moreover, I would wager that the average ELCA congregation spends far more time talking about ethics than the average LCMS congregation. Granted, an LCMS congregation is more likely to affirm traditional rules of behavior, but this has little to do with the question of whether a congregation teaches ethics.[19] In other words, progressive and conservative Lutherans differ with respect to the nature of ethical behavior and not whether we should strive to be good people.

If there is a debate about sexual ethics within the Christian family, the center of this debate is hermeneutic. Do we defer to the authority of Scripture on such matters, and how should we apply Scripture to our contemporary contexts? In other words, if Paul thought in a particular way about homosexuality, must we think the same way? The cause of the differences, therefore, between progressives and conservatives is that they differ concerning biblical authority and hermeneutics.

If we limit our examination exclusively within conservative Lutheranism, it seems to center on the Lutheran “bad boys” (and girls) who drink, smoke, cuss, gamble and/or watch R-rated movies.[20] There, too, we are likely not involved in a debate about how much Gospel we can tolerate, but rather another hermeneutic issue. Does biblical Christianity entail a rejection of such “worldly” practices? Again, for those who care what the Bible has to say, this will be determined by biblical scholars and theologians. Moral exhortation would only avail itself here if we were all on the same page regarding the morality or immortality of these behaviors. In any case, it seems that Biermann may be especially worried about some of these behaviors, when he describes the process of sanctification in a hypothetical truck driver’s life, post-conversion:

Part of this conformation to a new way of living will be the sometimes difficult task of forsaking old habits antithetical to his new identity (such as a penchant for off-color jokes and conversation), while simultaneously striving to acquire new habits of holiness (such as daily Scripture reading and prayer).[21]

But we must always keep in mind that these habits themselves are not the primary goal. Rather, they reflect a particular kind of character, informed by a particular kind of narrative and language. This is what J.K.A. Smith broadly calls a “liturgy,” and suggests that one of the most important functions of a church is to provide counter-formation in the larger non-Christian world, whose values filter into even Christian homes in subtle ways.d[22]

Potential Sources of Confusion Regarding Virtue Ethics

If we grant that virtue ethics is appropriate for Lutheranism, and that it needs to involve the whole life of the church, particularly catechesis and service, a remaining task is to remove two potential sources of confusion that cause Lutherans to avoid attention to cultivating virtue: fear of the Social Gospel and situational ethics.

The context and nuances of the Social Gospel require a separate essay, but the basic narrative is as follows: as belief in the literal truth of the biblical texts became eroded within Protestant liberalism, their focus often became social justice, lives of service, and the Gospel of liberation for the poor and marginalized communities. As progressive church bodies became disinterested in focusing on saving souls through overt evangelism, they turned to social action as their chief raison d’etre. Conservatives used to care a lot about social justice too, but to differentiate themselves, they began to spend more of their time defending and articulating conservative theology and biblical exegesis and less time advocating for and serving the needy. Ethics in the pubic square, as an academic or theological enterprise became a suspicious and potentially liberal endeavor as these conservative Protestants maintained strict rules for individual behavior. This reality serves to remind us that the perception of churches in conservative Lutheranism is often that we care too much about fighting taboo behaviors and not enough about Christian virtues (as we discussed earlier) for the sake of our neighbors.

Another potential obstacle to embracing virtue theory arises when we mistakenly conflate virtue ethics with situational ethics. Joseph Fletcher, who contends that we must focus on the complex contexts of each ethical question, and that we must respond not with absolute laws, but rather a vague law of agape love, is the chief representative of situational ethics.[23] There are resemblances to virtue ethics here, especially to the extent that love is indeed the chief Christian virtue. Fletcher’s ethic is sometimes associated with that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who fits within a broad spectrum of Lutheran virtue ethics. Bonhoeffer, however, emphasized the virtuous call of a disciple to faithfulness in the midst of circumstances in which, because of sin, we find ourselves caught between multiple ethical obligations. Jennifer Moberly has demonstrated that Bonhoeffer’s thought resonates with divine command and virtue ethics, neither of which is identical with Fletcher’s program.[24] Bonhoeffer argued that we might suspend our attention to one obligation (such as obedience to a governing authority) in order to heroically respond to a higher duty. This might be done with respect to natural law, consequentialism, virtue theory, or a combination of all three. But it is not a suspension of ethical principles altogether. Thus, whatever one thinks about Fletcher’s situational ethics, or the viability of Bonhoeffer’s particular articulation of virtue ethics, it ought not deter a Lutheran from advancing virtue theory in principle.


Virtue ethics is the preeminent ethic for Lutherans, and should inform the teaching and practices of Lutheran congregations. As we proceed with this task, however, we do well to heed Jesus’ teaching regarding the Pharisees: “For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:3). Here, the emphasis is on habituated action, not the place of the Law within sermons. Such preaching didn’t seem to do the trick in Jesus’ day. Thus, we might alter a familiar quotation, attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” The problem with this sentiment is that it betrays a lack of trust in the power of the Word and its promises. A better maxim might be: “Attend to the third use of the Law at all times. Use words when necessary.” In other words, the Gospel is primarily spoken and heard. Having heard this Word, disciples can spend less time talking about or preaching sanctification, and more time practicing it.

Regardless of one’s particular intra-Lutheran allegiances, I trust that members of all parties hope that each individual within our congregations will be able to fulfill his or her calling and divine telos, which leads to true happiness. In other words, all seem interested in actually doing good, even when some don’t like to talk about it theoretically or preach it legalistically.

Fortunately, that theoretical, preaching question was never central to virtue theory in the first place. Therefore, recognizing this may de-escalate the rhetoric about the preaching of morality from the pulpit, and augment our attention to and funding of Christian education and outreach projects. This Christian formation through ethical habituation is urgent, given the rapid cultural changes of our day.

Virtue is suited to complex and dynamic times because it doesn’t rely on rigid protocols, but rather on courageous, nimble disciples with internalized moral values. Through the power of Gospel proclamation, will a Christian break free from thinking about ethics in terms of merit and work toward this internalization of virtue for the sake of the world? We hope so, for this is an hour to cultivate Christian moral heroes—for such a time such as this.

End Notes

[1] See Philip Melanchthon, “Summary of Ethics,” in A Melanchthon Reader, American University Studies 7, Theology and Religion 41, translated by Ralph Keeri (New York: Peter Lang, 1988), and Gilbert Meilaender, Faith and Faithfulness: Basic Themes in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992). Joel Biermann, A Case for Character: Toward a Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
[2] For a survey of these debates, see Scott Murray, Law, Life, and the Living God: The Third Use of Law in Modern American Lutheranism (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2001).
[3] Robin Gill, A Textbook of Christian Ethics, 4th ed. (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014). This is a superb resource in the field of ethics overall, and I highly recommend it for upper-division undergraduate or standard graduate courses in the field. For each topic, Gill uses extended selections from Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther. Then he includes shorter extracts by contemporary writers, from which instructors can pick and choose.
[4] The classic text on this topic is Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).
[5] Mark Mattes, “Discipleship in Lutheran Perspective,” Lutheran Quarterly 26 (2012), 149.
[6] lbid., 150.
[7] Theologia Germanica, trans. Susanna Winkworth (1874), chapter xxviii. This text can be found in the public domain, in various formats. I have updated the English translation for readability.
[8] Luther, On Christian Liberty, 2.
[9] John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (London: Epworth Press, 1952).
[10] For an accessible exploration of service in this way, see Gene Veith, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).
[11] On Melanchthon’s educational reform, see Sachiko Kusukawa, Philip Melanchthon: Orations on Philosophy and Education (Cambridge: University Press, 1999), and Andrew Genszler, “Philip Melauchthon’s Contribution to Ethics: Faith, Virtue, aud Education,” Seminary Ridge Review 5 no. 2 (2003).
[12] On the nature of Lutheran higher education, see Scott Ashmon, ed., The Idea and Practice of A Christian University: A Lutheran Approach (Concordia Publishing House, 2015).
[13] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).
[14] Faith and Faithfulness, 94-100.
[15] Ibid., 114.
[16] Ibid.,, 57.
[17] Joel Biermann, A Case for Character: Toward a Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Fortress Press, 2014).
[18] See Nathan Bowditch, Aristotle on Habituation: The Key To Unlocking the Nicornachean Ethics, Ethical Perspectives 15, no. 3 (2008): 309-342.
[19] Biermann seems to recognize that the real issue is a difference of opinion on the correct ethic, not whether ethics matters, when he writes: ” … the use of inclusive language, the ordination of women, or the freedom of sexual expression become issues deemed worthy of impassioned defense and even church discipline, while concerns about chastity or doctrinal fidelity are considered passe and peripheral to “genuine” Christianity.” (A Case for Character, 47).
[20] See Nathan Rinne’s “Diagnosing Lutheran Bad Boy Syndrome” on the Just and Sinner blog: Accessed November 20, 2015.
[21] A Case for Character, 159.
[22] J.K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies) (Baker Academic, 2009).
[23] Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics: The New Morality, 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).
[24] Jennifer Moberly, The Virtue of Bonhoeffer ‘s Ethics: A Study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer ‘s Ethics in Relation to Virtue Ethics, Princeton Theological Monographs (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2013).


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