We now continue with our walk through of The Unintended Reformation by Brad Gregory. In this post, I’m going to take a look at chapter 4, “Subjectivizing Morality.”
If chapter 2 was about truth claims, and chapter 3 was about political control, chapter 4 is now about morality itself. The first thing to realize is that in Medieval Europe, one of the main focuses of the Church was to impress upon people the importance of practicing the virtues. To do that, one must first acknowledge “what is good”? And in order to do that, one had to have an understanding of purpose. That’s where Aristotle comes in. In his philosophy, Aristotle emphasized the notion of teleology: i.e. final causes. Everything in creation has a purpose—and therefore, when it comes to morality, “what is good” means whatever most closely gets to that purpose. The problem with humans, though, is that they are naturally ruled by their passions and impulses that distract them from their purpose and from the good. Therefore, it was important to practice the virtues and exercise discipline in order to bring one’s passions under control.
As was true in ancient Greece, so also was true within the Christian worldview: ethics and politics were inseparable from each other: what is “good” for the individual is linked to what is “good” for society. Medieval scholars like Thomas Aquinas essentially took Plato’s and Aristotle’s teleology and “Christianized” it, showing how what they proposed in theory was fulfilled in Christ and the Kingdom of God.
But here’s the thing to remember: the Medieval Church realized that without teleology, there can be no moral human good. “What is good” is that which fulfills one’s human purpose. But if you deny purpose, then there is no way to say what is and what is not moral.
Now, shortly before the Reformation began, there were already forces at work that were challenging this notion of teleology and the belief that ethics and politics were inseparable. Machiavelli’s political theory essentially said that yes, political rulers need to “play along” with the Church, but sometimes, for the sake of gaining political power, it was just going to be necessary to “do what you’ve gotta do.” Simply put, morality should not dictate how a ruler rules. “Ethics” was just something a ruler could manipulate to get and maintain political power.
And Now, How the Reformation Screwed Up Morality!
Let’s get to the point: remember, the Reformers rejected Church Tradition outright, and when they did, they appealed to local political authorities for protection. This led to two things:
- By rejecting Church Tradition, the Reformers rejected the very metaphysical basis for ethics that the Catholic Church had established. This meant that the rival claims of what the Bible meant lead to rival claims as to what constituted “the Christian good.”
- By appealing to political leaders for protection, the Reformers opened the door to the concept that the “highest good” constituted human desires and rights protected by the state. Slowly but surely, the notion that the “highest good” was for a human being to practice the virtues and control his desires for the common good faded away, only to be replaced with the notion that the “highest good” was for the state to protect my right to desiring and pursuing whatever I want.
Gregory finds this problematic. He writes,
“Without the virtues there could be no sustained community, which meant no common good and thus no individual good and no salvation: this was the moral logic of medieval Christianity. Virtuous actions were rational because they simultaneously fostered individual and communal flourishing; they were also actions consonant with God’s natural law, if it were understood to mean that good must always be sought and evil avoided” (192).
Medieval Christianity viewed the purpose of human beings as to imitate the life of Christ and live as a community and as the Body of Christ, thus being “the moral community of the church.” But the Reformation ultimately did away with that notion when it rejected Church Tradition.
Shortly before the Reformation, Catholic theologian Erasmus wrote in the preface to his translation of the New Testament, “If we seek a model for living, why is another pattern more important for us than Christ himself?” For Erasmus the purpose of education and the purpose for exposing people to Scripture was to give them access to “the font of virtues,” so that Christians could, as Gregory puts it, “move from knowledge to practice” (199).
Yet from the very dawn of the Reformation, the Reformers were arguing over what Scripture meant, and were willing to act rather unvirtuous toward each other. Gregory points out that “Luther and Zwingli agreed on fourteen of the fifteen articles of faith at the Marburg Colloquy in early October 1529, but their abiding disagreement on eucharistic doctrine was not therefore a matter of secondary significance” (205).
Translation? Even though Luther and Zwingli agreed on virtually everything, their disagreement over whether or not the bread and wine were the literal body and blood of Christ gave them reason enough to essentially call each other Satan. So much for patterning one’s life after the imitation of Christ.
A Different View of the Virtues
This brings us to the heart of the “faith vs. works” debate actually. Up until the Reformation, Christian Tradition taught that the practice of the virtues had a sanctifying effect on the life of the Christian: God saves you by grace, but then you respond to God by practicing the virtues, imitating Christ, and by doing so, grow up in Christ—and in a sense “take part” in your salvation. This is what Paul meant when he said, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Like in marriage, when you devote yourself to God, you hone your will and desires in the pursuit of growing in that relationship, and by doing so, you grow up (within the Church) into the fullness of Christ. Simply put, human beings were sinful, but they still had the ability to respond to God and choose to direct their will toward the virtues and “the good.”
The Reformers, though, said, “Not so fast!” Why? Because they taught that the human will was completely bad: human beings couldn’t respond to God, and couldn’t be virtuous—they were, as Calvin said, “snow covered dung.” And Gregory points out, “Luther said, the human will was like a beast of burden, ridden either by Satan or by God, and utterly unable itself to choose between them” (208). Simply put, the Reformers completely and utterly rejected the notion of human free will. Therefore, virtuous behavior couldn’t contribute to one’s salvation—it had to be a consequence of salvation.
As Gregory says again, Protestants, “…denied the free, rational exercise of the virtues in pursuit of the good any place in disciplining the passions and redirecting untutored human desires. Twisted human wills retained no orientation toward the good, so there was nothing to tutor” (208).
Do you see the problem? Traditionally, “what is good” was understood whatever was directed toward one’s purpose and end. The Church taught that human beings, though sinful, were still nevertheless free to respond to God and choose to direct their behavior to what God’s purpose for them was. But the Reformers rejected the very notion that it was possible to direct one’s actions toward God’s purpose. By denying free will, they were denying the ability to be moral altogether. “Salvation” come to be seen as solely what God did in the individual—a completely individualized notion of salvation. “Morality” in terms of practicing virtues for the common good, and seeing that as contributing to the salvation of God’s creation was rejected.
We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident (But They Aren’t!)
Let’s now fast forward to Enlightenment-influenced America. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” right? But wait, are truths like liberty, the pursuit of happiness, equal rights, really “self-evident?”
Without the traditional Christian concept of morality being linked to both one’s individual salvation as well as to the salvation of God’s Church, and ultimately His creation—without this notion of morality being linked to God’s purposes for human beings living in community—if salvation is seen as solely as “God saving my individual soul, and I play absolutely no part in anything—then is moral behavior really “self-evident”? The answer is, “No.”
Throughout most of Christian history, morality was seen as acts of “denying yourself” for “the good of others.” By doing so, one contributed to restoring the image of God among His people. Not only were individuals created in God’s image, but the Church as a whole, living as a Christ-imitating community, was made in God’s image. And morality was always seen in light of that. But the Reformers completely individualized salvation, with no concept of the universal Church, and hence any talk of morality as rooted in anything went out the window.
The best one could do was say, as Jefferson did, “Hey, it’s just obvious what is morally true!” But it isn’t, not without some understanding of human teleology. Now, the fact is, for most of American history, even though people just assumed that moral truth was “self-evident,” in reality, their sense of morality was still rooted in the Judeo-Christian worldview. But over time, things have changed, and as Gregory argues, for the past 50 years or so, cracks in the moral foundation of America have become obvious, namely in the area of how we understand reason and freedom. Here’s what I mean…
Natural Rights is Nonsense
By rejecting Church Tradition, and historical Christianity’s teaching on morals, virtues, and human teleology, the Reformers severed morality from the metaphysical bearings Church Tradition provided. Eventually, because the Reformers immediately set about attacking each other for two centuries, Enlightenment thinkers thought it would be best to (1) regulate “faith” to the private sphere, (2) champion reason as the determiner of all truth and morality, and (3) proclaim that everyone had the freedom to do anything they wanted (you know, as long as it didn’t hurt the rights of others to do whatever they wanted). When combined with the growing secularism of our culture, as well as the recurring claims that “science” has disproven God, the result is that any concept of morality has gone out the window.
Gregory writes, “Natural rights is simple nonsense…rhetorical nonsense—nonsense upon stilts” (224). In other words, if we take our moral cues from nature, and it is assumed that nature is all there is, then claiming morality or rights of any kind is absurd—nature provides no metaphysical basis for morality and human rights. Gregory writes,
“Once metaphysical naturalism and scientism are assumed, ‘taking rights seriously’ is beside the point. All the seriousness in the world, cannot conjure them into existence. One cannot have them, because there is simply nothing of the sort to be had. If human beings are no different in principle from any other living organism…then there simply is no basis for any rights, human or otherwise” (225).
If the concept of ethics and morality is to mean anything, it has to be rooted in something other than nature. Ethics and morality must have a teleology to mean anything, and the traditional Christian teaching involving the virtues, how they are inseparable from every area of life, and how they play a part in the salvation of the world, provides that metaphysical soil in which ethics and morality can take root and grow.
Nietzsche was right, if nature is all there is, then it is best we just own up to the fact that “there are no moral facts whatsoever” (228).
At the end of chapter 4, Gregory says the following:
“In medieval Christianity, not only politics but also economics was inseparable from ethics. Just as politics and ethics were radically reconfigured in the makings of modernity, so was economic behavior severed from traditional morality. Avarice in medieval Christendom was one of the seven deadly sins, a vice seen to damage both individuals and the common good. But after the Reformation era, acquisitiveness regarded as virtuous self-interest provided ideological legitimation for the triumph of the industrious and industrial revolutions. Unable to agree about the Christian good, contentious Catholics and Protestants would demonstrate their supra-confessional eagerness to pursue material goods” (234).
That is a sad, but true analysis of modern, so-called “Christian” America. There seems to be no agreement about what “the Christian good” is anymore, so let’s make sure we get the economy back in high gear, so we can have enough money to buy all the stuff we want.
That’s what subjectivizing morality looks like in 21st century America.
Final Note: I don’t want to sound too much “doom and gloom.” I realize that there is plenty self-giving, truly Christ-like morality being practiced every day by millions of people. But that sort of imitation of Christ is going on despite the overall trend we see in our country today.