24 September 2012

A Presentation of God's Redemption

I met Dr. Kleinig for the first time just over a week ago. He is a kind, gracious, and engaging person. He is also widely read and has great command over this material. As a testament to both his kindness and his intellectual acumen, I relate this brief story: He actually sought me out in the student commons after a chapel service. As I was drinking my coffee, he approached me and said, “Are you Gifford Grobien?” After brief introductions, he told me he was reading my dissertation, which he appreciated. (My dissertation investigated the relationship between the divine liturgy and moral formation.) He then queried, “Who wrote the first Lutheran ethics?” After I wrongly guessed Melanchthon (who wrote about ethics, but not theologically), I quickly gave up, sensing that he was getting at something, which he was. He announced that the honor actually goes to August Vilmar (1800-1868), professor at the University of Marburg. His Moral was published posthumously in 1871, based on summer lectures he gave from 1856-1867. Dr. Kleinig then proceeded to educate me on the importance of great orthodox Lutheran writings, including in the area of ethics, and that I ought to give some attention to them. He did this in the kindest possible way. (My dissertation does, admittedly, overlook the orthodox period, focusing instead on Luther, the Confessions and contemporary problems.)

To remedy this void in my knowledge I immediately obtained a copy of Vilmar’s Theologische Moral (available in the public domain on Google Books), and have purposed to read through it in the next year or two, in the midst of everything else, even if I only get to a few pages a day.

I am delighted already with what I’m reading. Two points in particular are worth reflecting on here: 1) moral theology should not be confused with philosophical or secular ethics, which is concerned with customs or agreements about social behavior, but has little to do with the character or inner nature of a person; 2) moral theology covers as its scope the teaching about how God’s redemptive activity is carried out in men.

These points, of course, correspond. A moral person, from a theological perspective, must be the recipient of God’s redemptive activity, activity which regenerates the person and gives life to the new man who desires and pursues the things of the Spirit. True morality cannot be coerced through law. Outward behavior may appear to be orderly and lawful, but only the one who is converted truly lives the moral life in the Spirit. This gives moral theology its particularly theological character, and helps deal with the question of what morality has to do with theology.

Also interesting is that Vilmar goes so far as to say that moral theology is a “narrative of the fulfillment of the redemption of man” (6). He calls it a “Darstellung von Thatsachen” of God, a phrase which has the tone of an official report or presentation. It is almost as though moral theology, for Vilmar, is the documentary evidence of God’s saving work in people. Such a perspective not only argues for an important place for moral theology, but grounds it properly in God’s work. This helps to keep clear the movement from redemption to sanctification to good works, and not to confuse the relationship.