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.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

That distinction that Vilmar makes between Moral Theology on the one hand and "ethics" on the other is one that I have been quite familiar with -- it was my working definition (and also why I have traditionally said that I don't like talking about ethics). There can be social custom, there can be outward righteousness that the world recognizes apart from faith - but there can be no... theological rightness apart from faith.

Consider the first commandment (from whence all other commandments flow) - Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. To the world of ethics, this is completely foreign, or perhaps at best ground work of a social contract for a people agreeing to a specific cultus. From the point of theology, there is immediately a different twist - we are the people whom God has redeemed -- and as such we see all commands in this new light -- they are the fruit of redemption which we see in part now, and in completion in the life of the world to come.

Is this barking along the right tree, Professor?

And it is a joy and honor to use that title with you my friend!

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

I think it is. I know you and I have had this discussion before, and perhaps I was misunderstanding you previously. I have maintained that, generally speaking, the disciplines of morality and ethics are the same, or at least cover the same material, because both are concerned with right action. But as Vilmar and you explain, moral theology is different from secular ethics in that the former is concerned with the inner man and the fruits of faith, while secular ethics is concerned with outward conformity. So, yes, in that sense, there is a great difference.

I have tended to see the distinction in the modifier "Christian" or "theology" or "secular," so that one could speak of Christian ethics in the same was as moral theology, and differently from secular ethics. But, Vilmar also traces the semantic difference back to the original Greek and Latin. I believe he says that the Greek ethos was associated with social conformity, while the Latin mos was associated with inner character.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

You know, that's a fascinating point with the Greek and the Latin words -- Greek ethos is more outward focused... even though Greek culture and heroism tended to be more individualistic grabs for glory, while the Latin word is more inward focus, even though Latin glory was focused more on building the state, on building and determined by your service to Rome.

It's almost like they are both corrective approaches to the way the culture works. Fascinating.

Shawn Barnett said...

I've been attempting to translate this work, but after 10 pages I don't have anything that I would want published. However, I'm going to try to translate Vilmar's Pastoraltheologie and then afterwards return to the text of his Theologische Moral.

It needs to be remembered that Vilmar is one of the preeminent philologists of the 19th century. It's no surprise then that he spends so much time with etymological issues. Ultimately, he considers the words "Moral," "Ethik," and "Sittlichkeit" inadequate for the task. Nevertheless, he proceeds by focusing on the theological content.