Book Review – A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics

A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics.
Joel D. Bierman. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.


In this volume, Joel D. Biermann, associate professor of systematic theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, makes available the research and argumentation of his doctoral dissertation. Agreeing with Alasdair MacIntyre and many others, Biermann is responding to the crisis in public morality in America. Presumably, the Christian church in its life, preaching and teaching should be a primary solution in combating this moral challenge. However, following the critique of Stanley Hauerwas, Biermann contends that the average churchgoer is not receiving enough encouragement, concrete direction, and guidance for character formation. Biermann argues that this may be particularly the case in the Lutheran tradition with its rightful accent on the doctrine of justification by grace. This accent, although a theological strength, has too often been abused in practice to assist a neglect of sanctification or living the daily Christian life. Biermann correctly identifies antinomianism as an ever-present temptation for Christians with a strong focus on justification. Practically speaking, the challenge is: how can the preacher/pastor/church effectively steer the flock through the dangerous shoals of legalism and antinomianism? As a solution worthy of examination, Biermann proposes a version of virtue ethics that is compatible with Lutheran accents in theology.

As implied in the term, virtue ethics, while recognizing the need for and authority of a source of absolutes (for Christians, Scripture), places significant attention on virtues—that is, “the skills, habits and ways of being that enable one to conform more nearly to an accepted standard or goal” (p. 11). The habituation of identified virtues leads to the desired outcome of character, which, in turn, shapes the believer’s everyday actions. Crucial to the practice of virtue ethics is significant, intentional, ongoing formation—“the process by which an individual is shaped or nurtured into the adoption and espousal of a particular community’s telos and attendant virtues. … [It] includes a community’s unique teaching, conversations, observation of rituals, and practices extending from infancy to death” (pp. 12–13). Such formation is the model Biermann offers, including, but not limited to traditional focus on teaching/preaching/diagnosing with biblical ethical standards (e.g., the Ten Commandments) and appeal to the Gospel as motivation.

For many Lutherans, virtue ethics will be unfamiliar territory. Thus, A Case for Character carefully and systematically leads the reader from an introduction to virtue ethics to Biermann’s proposal with its Lutheran accent. Biermann lays the foundation of necessary definitions and description, especially demonstrated in the work of Stanley Hauerwas, professor emeritus at Duke Divinity School.

The next two chapters are of special interest to Lutherans. In chapter 2, Biermann offers the critique by four contemporary Lutheran theologians regarding the state and challenge of Lutheran ethics: David Yeago (who taught systematic theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary of the South, a seminary of the ELCA); Robert Benne (another representative of the ELCA and professor emeritus at Roanoke College in Virginia); Reinhard Hutter (former Lutheran and now writing and teaching at Duke Divinity School as a Roman Catholic theologian); and Gilbert Meilander (professor of ethics at Valparaiso University and clergyman of the LCMS). Each offers not only a critique, but makes a valuable contribution to recovering “a viable place within Lutheranism for talk of ethics, cultivation of virtue, and formation of character” (p. 63). Specifically, Yeago emphasizes the importance of habituation; Benne urges Trinitarian thinking; Hutter highlights the results of justification and the role of the Commandments; and Meilander introduces an emphasis on the narrative shape of the Christian life (a major accent in virtue ethics).

Chapter 3 is devoted to answering the charge that the theological presuppositions and emphases of Lutheran doctrine make a virtue ethics articulation inherently impossible. In this chapter Biermann focuses especially on the Augsburg Confession, Apology of the Augsburg Confession, and Luther’s catechisms as the premier representative Lutheran documents. Extended attention is given to Philipp Melanchthon’s appreciation of Aristotle’s ethics, including his accent on virtues, and approving references within the Augustana and Apology. Significantly, Biermann concludes: “The Confessions furnish the possibility and the justification for developing a theological frame wide enough to accommodate the concerns of faithful Christian people—even faithful Lutheran people—who, like Melanchthon, strive to retain the pure gospel while at the same time endeavor to advocate a Christian life that actively pursues the virtues and intentionally cultivates Christian character” (p. 103).

In chapter 4, Biermann gets to the core of his critique of traditional Lutheran ethics: “The extraordinary message of the gospel, does spark remarkable transformations—justification does motivate a zeal for increasing holiness. The problem comes when the whole of ethics is reduced to the question of motivation—good works as the intuitive, inevitable, and automatic outcome of gospel proclamation” (emphasis added; p. 112). On the basis of Article VI of the Formula of Concord, Lutherans historically have insisted on the legitimacy of the so-called “third use of the Law” or function of the Law after the believer’s conversion/justification as a guide for how to live out the motivation of the Gospel.

However, more needs to be done. An emphasis needs to be developed for character formation, not just ethical information. Biermann finds theological grounding for this in the Lutheran distinction between two kinds of righteousness—passive righteousness before God (imputed to the believer through faith in the Gospel) and active righteousness before other creatures (expressed in the believer’s concrete character). The former is the believer’s justification/basis for salvation before God; the latter is the believer’s responsibility and obligation as a creature in relationship to all of God’s other creatures. Righteousness before other creatures does not save the sinner (only forgiveness does), but it carries out God the Creator’s intentions for all his creatures, including those who are saved by faith in Christ’s grace. Biermann proposes identifying a third kind of righteousness which is the active righteousness before other creatures done by Christian believers. This righteousness is motivated by the passive righteousness before God, but is actively lived out in the relationships with all other creatures of the world. In Biermann’s proposal, this third righteousness is pursued actively, intentionally, and conscientiously by the believer with the power of the Holy Spirit.

The remainder of the book emphasizes the benefits (if not necessity) of paying attention to character and virtue within the framework of the three articles of the Apostles’/Nicene creeds. Within such a comprehensive framework, the pursuit of virtue/character is not characterized as a polarization, but as the continuation and eschatological consummation of the Creator’s/Redeemer’s/Sanctifier’s eternal plan for humans and the rest of creation.

As the book is primarily intended to set forth the case or argument/rationale for a return of emphasis on the development of character, few concrete suggestions are given for what this might look like in practice. However, Biermann suggests it would include such elements as substantial catechesis (for both young and old), directive preaching, modeling within the home and church, personal/daily Bible study and prayer, regular worship attendance, and use of liturgical forms in worship. Above all, such practices would need to be intentional and sustained. Under the blessings of the triune God, Biermann is hopeful that the average congregation implementing such practices in conjunction with faithful administration of the means of grace can make significant progress in restoring Christian character in the daily lives of believers and have a much needed impact on the morality of society. His case would be profitably considered by all pastors and teachers of the church who value and put their faith in the ongoing work of the triune God and who have a concern for public morality.

Terrence R. Groth
Assistant Professor of Theology
Concordia University, Nebraska

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