A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics

Written by Joel D. Biermann Reviewed By John Frederick

In A Case for Character, Joel Biermann offers an extremely readable, deeply scholarly, well-researched, and theologically constructive volume concerning the topic of virtue ethics and Lutheran theology. The book seeks to address the pastoral issue of antinomianism in the praxis of many churches, due to a variety of factors that stem from the theological weight given to the doctrine of justification by faith alone and from various paradigms of Lutheran theological ethics. In addition, Biermann seeks to respond to the critiques of theological ethicists such Stanley Hauerwas that find within Lutheran theology itself propositions which he claims not only do not emphasize the development of character and virtue, but which he believes are also incapable of even incorporating virtue into Lutheran theology.

The book’s argument is simple to follow and is packed with primary source quotes from all the necessary contributors to the study of both virtue ethics and Lutheran theology. In Chapter 1 (“Virtue Ethics and the Challenge of Hauerwas”), the arguments of major, non-Lutheran thinkers in the field of virtue ethics (Hauerwas, MacIntyre, etc.) are presented and summarized. Chapter 2 (“Contemporary Lutheran Voices”) introduces the reader to the work and perspectives of the primary contemporary Lutheran ethical/theological thinkers contributing to the discussion today including David Yeago, Robert Benne, Reinhard Hütter, Gilbert Meilaender, and Biermann himself. For those who are not a part, or are only mildly aware, of the work of contemporary Lutheran theologians, this chapter constitutes a superb introduction.

The emphasis switches to the primary sources of the Lutheran Reformers themselves (Luther and Melanchthon) in Chapter 3 (“The Lutheran Confessions”), providing a great overview of the particularly magisterial Lutheran understanding of the place of Aristotelian virtue theory and the distinction between righteousness coram deo (before God) and coram mundo (before the world) in the thought of the Reformers. This chapter provides an abundance of primary source material from Luther and Melanchthon of which most readers will not be familiar. Biermann successfully demonstrates that Luther had some pretty harsh things to say about Aristotle (on p. 79, Biermann cites Luther’s 1520 writing “To the Christian Nobility” in which he refers to Aristotle as “a damned, conceited, rascally heathen”). Nevertheless, the Reformer (and more especially, Melanchthon) can be shown in other texts to hold Aristotle in very high regard (see e.g. pp. 79–85). Building on this historical revelation, Biermann does an excellent job throughout the book in demonstrating how the idea of good works and virtue are not antithetical, and indeed, can be and should be included in the Christian life.

Then chapters 4 (“The Search for a Paradigm”), 5 (“A Creedal Framework”), and 6 (“An Ethic for the Church”) together constitute a new movement in the book in which Biermann offers a detailed response and proposal. This portion of the book integrates a faithful incorporation of the Lutheran Confessional documents, the thought of contemporary Lutheran theologians, and the complexities of the contemporary problem of antinomianism in the Church.

Biermann’s research and writing are commendable, but for me as a non-Lutheran the book suffers from several key weaknesses inherent in Lutheran dogmatic theology itself. This, however, can hardly be imputed to Biermann as a fault associated with his own project, which succeeds in arguing for a Lutheran ethic of character that is faithful to the Bible and to the Lutheran Confessions. Biermann argues for an ethical paradigm which recognizes “three righteousnesses,” namely: (1) a righteousness obtainable coram mundo which is based on God’s will as evidenced through nature; (2) a righteousness that makes the believer “righteous” coram deo which is imputed to the believer by grace alone through faith alone; and (3) a righteousness that is lived out in response to the believers justification and which involves transformative good works coram mundo.

The idea of three kinds of righteousness may seem strange and idiosyncratic to the non-Lutheran.. The use of different theological terms to describe these “righteousnesses” might help to make the muddy theological waters a bit more clear. For example, it would make more sense to me to refer to Biermann’s “conforming righteousness” simply as “holiness” rather than as one of the three types of righteousness, one of which justifies and thus is the formal cause of the application of the gospel, and the others of which do not justify and thus merely precede and/or proceed from the gospel. 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 (see e.g., pp. 2, 6, 14, 26, 50–52, 71, 85, 167).

Yet, in the end, theological differences aside, all streams of orthodox Christianity would find common cause and resonance with the findings and formulations of Biermann’s book when he concludes “Faithful churches cultivate character” (p. 199). The book vindicates the Lutheran Reformers from the charge of antinomianism so commonly leveled by critics of Luther (often issued without a deep knowledge of Luther’s writings), and thereby rescues the Lutheran Confessions from the charge of containing within themselves a theology devoid of concern for moral formation. There should be no more jumping straight from Hauerwas to a critique of Luther without going through Biermann first. To do so would be to willfully neglect the real potential of Lutheranism for faithful Reformation theology and powerful moral transformation.

John Frederick

John Frederick
Grand Canyon University
Phoenix, Arizona, USA

Other Articles in this Issue

In the twenty-first century the pastor is expected to fulfill an incredible amount of ministry responsibilities...

The Elizabethan Puritan, William Perkins, is accused of exclusively pointing people inward to signs of repentance or to their sanctification for assurance of salvation...

When Christian theology fails to adapt to the cultural context in a healthy manner, it can lead to a loss of cultural relevance...

This essay explores the question: Can there really be such a thing as objective morality in an atheistic universe? Most atheists (both old and new) are forced to admit that there can’t be...