After the Reformation: Does Protestant Christian Ethics have a Future?

Stanley Hauerwas

Article first appeared in ABC Religion & Ethics.

Stanley Hauerwas, now Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University Divinity School, presented the following paper at a conference on “The Freedom of a Christian Ethicist: The Future of a Reformation Legacy” at the University of Aberdeen, on 25 October 2014.

I should like to say that I care deeply about the future of Protestant Christian ethics. I should like to say that I care deeply about the future of Protestant Christian ethics because I am, after all, a Protestant.

Yet honesty – or at least candour – requires me to confess I am not particularly concerned about the future of Protestant Christian ethics.

That I must make such a confession expresses my existential situation – that is, I have never thought of myself as someone deeply committed to being a Protestant. I was, after all, raised an American Methodist which means no matter how much you study Wesley it is very hard to take your denominational identity seriously.

I have, moreover, described my ecclesial identity as being a high church Mennonite. That description has taken on a life of its own, but at the very least, it indicates that I think of myself as being on the Catholic side of the Reformation. I do so partly because, as I will suggest below, I think the way the Anabaptist understood church put them on the Catholic side of the Reformation. That is not to deny that increasingly Luther is being recovered, particularly by Finnish theologians, as a Catholic thinker.

Of course, that I have little at stake in the future of Protestant ethics or even being a Protestant is a very Protestant position. Only a Protestant theologian or ethicist would think that it makes little difference whether they are or are not Protestant for the work they do.

Yet my lack of passion or commitment to Protestantism, as well as the commitment to do ethics in a manner that can be identified as Protestant, risks making me a representative of that most despised position, at least despised by me – namely, the theologian as a thinker. Yet given the loss of any clear Protestant ecclesial identity it is not apparent to me if a Protestant can avoid that fate in our time.

What it means to be a “thinker” I can illustrate by telling a story about a faculty meeting at Notre Dame when I was a member of the theology faculty. We were discussing yet again what it might mean to be an ecumenical department of theology in a Catholic context. My colleagues contributed to the discussion by indicating what difference they thought being Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, Anglican and even, Jesuit might make for helping us know better what it meant to be Catholic. I was trying as hard as I could to think what special gift Methodism might bring to our endeavours. But then the thought hit me, “Hell! I am not a Methodist I went to Yale.” I think to be so identified is not peculiar to me but applies to most Christian theologians and ethicist at this time – namely, we are people determined more by where we went to graduate school than our ecclesial identity.

My disavowal of the significance of being a Protestant for how I do ethics, however, can be an invitation to self-deception. I am, after all, going to die the death of a Protestant Christian. I know this to be the case because my wife, who is an ordained Methodist appointed to an Episcopal church, and I have bought a niche in the columbarium of the Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Holy Family is an Episcopal Church even if the name is primarily associated with Roman Catholic churches. I can assure you, however, that Holy Family is a Protestant church because we call the basement “the undercroft.” That clearly makes us Episcopalian – that is, people who are determined to let no pretension go unused.

That I will die a Protestant does not mean that Catholicism has not had as well as continues to have a significant role in my life. Fourteen years at the University of Notre Dame cannot help but leave its mark on you. During those years I was drawn into a world I had not known even existed prior to coming to Notre Dame. I had known from graduate school that something called “Catholic theology and ethics” exists, but, at least in America, Catholicism is a material faith that cannot be reduced to what Catholics may or may not think. That does not mean that what Catholic theologians and moralist think is not important, but neither is what they think that which makes Catholicism Catholic.

While teaching at Notre Dame, of course, I became acquainted with theologians about whom I had never heard. They simply were not part of the Protestant canon. For example, soon after arriving at Notre Dame I found myself supervising a dissertation on Catholic modernism. I had never heard of Catholic modernism. Though I had taken a course with Bernard Haring during my graduate work, I was innocent of Catholic moral theology prior to Vatican II. I began to read widely in Catholic moral theology as well as the social encyclicals. I soon began to teach courses in Catholic moral theology because I assumed that was something even a Protestant should do given that most of our students were Catholic. That they were Catholic meant, of course, that they knew very little about Catholicism and even less about the Catholic moral tradition.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I did not teach Catholic moral theology only because the students were Catholic. I taught Catholic moral theology because it is such a rich theological tradition. In particular, that Catholics had the confessional meant they had to think concretely about moral problems in a manner that was largely unknown to Protestants. Accordingly, I simply assumed when I came to Duke Divinity School I should continue to teach Catholic moral theology as well as the social encyclicals. I did so because I thought those going into the Protestant ministry would benefit from such a course, but I also thought graduate students needed to know the Catholic tradition because it was more than likely that a Catholic institution is where they would end up teaching.

It did not occur to me to identify as a Protestant or Catholic ethicist. I simply thought I was doing Christian ethics. What that meant can be illustrated by an exchange during my initial interview for the position at Notre Dame. I was asked what I would like to teach. Among the courses I mentioned I said I would like to teach a course on Thomas Aquinas. In response, I was asked why as a Protestant I wanted to teach Aquinas because Aquinas was a Roman Catholic. I challenged that description pointing out that Aquinas could not have known he was a Roman Catholic because the Reformation had not yet taken place. I then observed I had no reason to think Aquinas was only of use by Roman Catholics. As a Christian ethicist I assumed Aquinas was fair game for anyone committed to doing Christian ethics in a manner that reflected what I thought to be the growing ecumenical commitments by Catholics and Protestants.

Of course, the more pressing question was not whether as a Protestant I could or should use Aquinas, but rather how anyone like me whose way of thinking had been as deeply shaped by Barth could also be influenced by Aquinas. Barth and Aquinas not only came from different ages and contexts, their fundamental presuppositions seemed irreconcilable. The difference is at least suggested by a question I sometimes asked graduate students taking their preliminary exams. I would ask the student to comment on the proposition that Aristotle is to Aquinas as Kant is to Barth. As I will try to suggest, if we are living in a post-Christian world I do not think it is absurd to think that Barth and Aquinas are important allies to help us negotiate that world.

The fact that my identity as a Christian ethicist did not require me to be Protestant or Catholic does not mean, however, that I had a clear idea of what being a Christian ethicist entailed. How could I know what it means to be a Christian ethicist given the fact that Christian ethics is a relative new discipline and lacks any generally agreed upon “method” or clearly defined subject matter? I have tried to provide an account of the development of Christian ethics in America by focusing on figures such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, Paul Ramsey, James Gustafson and John Howard Yoder. These are substantive figures, but it is not clear that their legacy has been sufficient to sustain a discipline called “Protestant Christian ethics.” Thus my suggestion that Christian ethics in America has come to a dead end. It has so because the subject of Christian ethics in America was America. Just to the extent that America became what Christians ethicist wanted, Christian ethics became unintelligible to itself.

The question of the future of Protestant ethics is a question inseparable from the larger question of whether Protestantism itself has as a future. The decline of Protestant churches is a stark reality. Of course, Protestant ethics as an academic subject may be able to continue in some form even though there are few Protestants and, in particular, Protestant ministers, left to read what Protestant ethicists write. But then it must be asked if one of the reasons for the decline of Protestantism was and is due to the failure of Protestant theologians to do theology in a manner that could help Protestant Christians have a reason for being Protestant.

The very description “Protestant” suggests a movement of reform within the church catholic. When Protestantism became an end in itself, when Protestant churches became denominations, Protestantism became unintelligible to itself. No doubt the suggestion that Protestantism has become unintelligible to itself is a generalization that threatens oversimplification given the complex historical development we now call the “Reformation.” But then almost any attempt to say what the Reformation was turns out to be hard to sustain – a fact clearly indicated by the question of whether “reformation” is an accurate or useful description of what is alleged to have happened five hundred years ago. For as odd as it may seem, it is not at all clear we yet know what happened five hundred years ago even though what did happen resulted in some of us now being known as “Protestants.”

Which Reformation?

To this point I have been engaged in what Jeffrey Stout rightly identified as an extended exercise in interminable throat clearing. I have been delaying as long as possible trying to say something about the legacy of the Reformation. Given the agenda of this conference, I assume it is incumbent on those asked to write papers to say something about what or how we understand what the Reformation legacy has had for how we do theological ethics. Of course, that entails some account of what one takes the Reformation legacy to be. The problem with trying to answer that question is there are too many “reformations” – each of which has a different legacy.

It is generally assumed that there are at least four “Reformations” – the Lutheran, the Reformed, the Anabaptist and the Church of England – but those descriptions fail to do justice to the complexity that the name suggests. Those reformations were not isolated from one another, which means they often shared more in common than they differed. It is also true that Catholicism can be thought to have gone through a reformation in response to the Reformation. That said I am sure each of those “Reformations” have played a role in how I have learned to think about theological ethics, though it is not clear to me I would recognize what that role may be or has been.

Moreover any attempt to get a handle on the Reformation is complicated by recent developments that attempt to put the Reformation in a new light. Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society are representatives of this development. Duffy and Gregory deny they are romanticizing the past by arguing that the religious character of church and society prior to the Reformation was not nearly as corrupt as Protestant historiography has implied. They do not deny that the church needed reforming, but they imply that reformation could have been possible without dividing Christendom. It is beyond my competence to assess their arguments, though their work clearly has implications for how Christian ethics should take account of the Reformation legacy.

There is, however, one glaring, undeniable and decisive influence of the Reformation on me that is crucial for how I have worked as a Christian ethicist. That influence bears a name – John Howard Yoder. I think it important to call attention to Yoder’s influence because he represents aspects of the Reformation that are often forgotten by those who think that the primary concern of the Reformers was doctrine. Doctrine was and is extremely important, but equally significant was the question of whether the habits of Constantinian Christianity should be continued. That question has doctrinal implication by making clear that the very isolation of doctrine from ethics and politics was and is a Constantinian strategy.

I do not want to be misunderstood. The magisterial Reformers recovery of the Christological centre of the Christian faith expressed in the language of justification by faith through grace is of singular significance. Yet as Protestantism developed, the emphasis on justification became divorced from Christology and as a result justification by grace through faith became a description of the anthropological conditions necessary to have “faith.” In short, the Lutheran emphasis on justification became the breeding grounds for the development of Protestant liberalism and the subsequent moralization of Christian theology. By “moralization of Christian theology” I simply mean once justification was lost as a way to talk about the priority of God’s grace, Kant’s attempt to “save” Christian convictions by construing them as ethics was inevitable. Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason is the great text in Protestant moral theology.

Kant’s account of Christian ethics served to reinforce the general character of how the Christian life was depicted by Protestant theologians. For example, Kant insisted that the “sacred narrative,” which is appropriately employed on behalf of ecclesiastical faith, “can have and, taken by itself, ought to have absolutely no influence on the adoption of moral maxims.” The adoption of such maxims must be based on reason itself. The Christological implications are clear – that is, what is crucial is not what strikes the senses and can be known through experience by the appearance of the God-Man (on earth), but “rather the archetype, lying in our reason, that we attribute to him (since, so far as his example can be known, he is found to conform thereto), which is really the object of saving faith.”

Kant’s philosophical transformation of Protestant theological ethics assumed as well as reinforced the ecclesial politics of the magisterial Reformers. Ernst Troeltsch put the matter this way: “The Lutheran ethic is summed up in the following characteristic features: confidence in God founded on His grace, and love of one’s neighbour which is exercised in the social duties of one’s calling, combined with an obedient surrender to the order of Society created by the Law of Nature.” Whether Luther’s challenge to the theological and ecclesial presumptions of the day is understood as radical or not, there is no question that the Lutheran Reformation was politically and socially conservative. That it was so, moreover, had the effect over time of making it difficult to maintain the truthful status of fundamental theological claims.

The underwriting of the status quo by the magisterial Reformers is why it is so important that those groups generally described by the not very useful name Anabaptist not be forgotten or ignored. Of course, it is by no means clear who the Anabaptists were. Some seemed to be quite mad. Some rejected the main tenants of the Christian faith while others seemed not to know there were main tenants of the Christian faith. Some would baptize children but others would not. Those who would not baptize children allegedly would not do so because they thought that you could be baptized only if you knew what you were doing. The matter is, however, more complex. For many believers baptism was a norm because the baptized must be ready to be subject to communal discipline.

From my perspective, a perspective shaped by my Methodist commitments, the most interesting way to understand the Anabaptists is to recognize they were rediscovering the congregational practices necessary to sustain the holiness of the church. Arnold Snyder observes in his Anabaptist History and Theology that at the heart of the radical reformers vision was the regenerating activity of the Holy Spirit which made possible the life of discipleship for all Christians. According to Snyder, what set the Anabaptists apart from more radical Reformers as well as the magisterial Reformers was an ecclesiology in which believers pledged themselves to be a community of discipline in solidarity with other members of the body of Christ. A solidarity that meant, at the very least, they could not kill one another.

One of the frustrations that calling attention to the importance of the Anabaptists for how we should be about the work of Christian ethics is there is no decisive figure or document to which one can appeal as defining what makes the Anabaptist Anabaptist. The temptation is to try to make the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, a confession written by Michael Sattler, who not long after drafting the Confession was soon executed in Zurich, the normative statement that defines what it means to be an Anabaptist. That Confession to be sure deals with practices that have defined Anabaptist life – such as the refusal of infant baptism, the use of the ban, the significance of the unity enacted by the Eucharist, the separation from the world, or better put, a refusal to compromise with what is clearly antithetical with being a disciple of Jesus, the authority of those in positions of leadership, the disavowal of the sword and of oaths. Each of these articles are important as markers of Anabaptist life, but to turn them into a check list to decide who is and who is not an Anabaptist is not a very Anabaptist thing to do.

Walter Klaassen observes in his classic book Anabaptism: Neither Catholic or Protestant, what is at the heart of Anabaptist ecclesiology is the conviction that truth will be discovered through a communal process in which theology and ethics are not abstracted from one another. He puts what he takes to be the heart of Anabaptist life this way:

“Life in community is necessary in order not to lose hold on the truth. That the disciple will remain true is not axiomatic since the world is full of deception. The distress of persecution and the strain under which that puts a Christian becomes a convincing reason for not neglecting the close association with others of like commitment. The danger of being deceived and the reality of persecution make it imperative for one to know what is important and basic.”

Klaassen suggests that the Anabaptist concern for the relationship between theology and life can be seen by their understanding of the Lord’s Supper. For Anabaptist, the Supper was not a meal for individuals but was a corporate act signifying the oneness and unity of the church. To participate in the Eucharist was a pledge to be at peace with one’s neighbour and a commitment to the life of the community. That is why Anabaptist insisted that the Lord’s Supper should not take place without the practice of binding and loosing required by Matthew 18. The Supper was a feast of reconciled people.

That Klaassen calls attention to the Anabaptist understanding of the Lord’s Supper, an account that is no doubt in tension with the presumption that most Anabaptist were followers of Zwingli, serves as evidence for his contention that the Anabaptist are neither Protestant or Catholic. Rather they represent a recovery of the radical implications of an eschatological Christology in which the church is understood to be an alternative politics to the world. Klaassen defends his account of the significance of the Anabaptist Reformation by quoting Menno Simons fundamental conviction that:

“The Prince of peace is Christ Jesus. His kingdom is the kingdom of peace. His Word is the word of peace. His body is the body of peace; His children are the seed of peace; and His inheritance and reward are the inheritance and reward of peace. In short with this king and in His kingdom and reign, it is nothing but peace.”

Klaassen argues that this understanding of Christ and the church is why Anabaptists are neither Protestant or Catholic, but in many ways represents the best of both traditions. Though the Anabaptist underwrote the Protestant emphasis on “faith alone” and “Scripture alone,” they did so without excluding the importance of works. They also insisted that Scripture was to be read through “the life and doctrine of Christ and the apostles.” Klaassen argues, therefore, that the Anabaptists were closer to the Catholics just to the extent they maintained that the church, a very concrete and visible church, must be the interpreter of Scripture.

Though the Anabaptists were obviously critical of the Catholic Church, Klaassen suggest that the very seeds of the revolt the Anabaptist represented were present in Catholicism. That is why Anabaptists, Klaassen argues, can never completely dissociate themselves from Catholicism. He observes:

“it is the soil out of which we grew and we have brought with us more from that soil than we remember. We are children of the Catholic church and the sooner we acknowledge it the better for us, for it will help to rid us of our feeling of superiority.”

I have called attention to Klaassen’s argument because I am obviously in sympathy with the main lines of his position. That position – that is, my general agreement with Klaassen’s understanding of the Anabaptist reformation – was ably summed up some years ago by Gerald Schlabach. He observed that:

“Hauerwas has discovered a dirty little secret – Anabaptists who reject historic Christendom may not actually be rejecting the vision of Christendom as a society in which all of life is integrated under the Lordship of Christ. On this reading, Christendom may in fact be a vision of shalom, and our argument with Constantinians is not over the vision so much as the sinful effort to grasp at its fullness through violence, before its eschatological time. Hauerwas is quite consistent once you see that he does want to create a Christian society (polis, societas) – a community and way of life shaped fully by Christian convictions. He rejects Constantinianism because ‘the world’ cannot be this society and we only distract ourselves from building a truly Christian society by trying to make our nation into that society, rather than be content with living as a community in exile. So Hauerwas wants Catholics to be more Anabaptist, and Anabaptist to be more Catholic, and Protestants to be both, and the only way he can put this together in terms of his own ecclesial location is to be a ‘Catholic’ Methodist in roughly the way that some Episcopalians are Anglo-Catholic.”

Schlabach has got it exactly right. That is what I want. That is what I want I take to be a constructive way to go on “after the Reformation.” Klaassen’s understanding of the ecclesial process necessary for living truthfully with one another I take to be the heart of my way of doing Christian ethics. I should like to think that way of doing ethics is neither Catholic nor Protestant, but somehow is both. So as an attempt to make sense of this, let me conclude by trying to suggest why I do not think my use of Barth, who is clearly a Reformation theologian all the way down, and Aquinas, who is not a Reformation theologian in any conceivable way, is not as strange as it may seem.

On Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas

As Christians who are living not only “after the Reformation,” but, at least if the Anabaptists are right, “after Christendom,” we need all the help we can get. In such a situation, we should not be surprised that the differences that seemed so defining in the past simply no longer seem that significant. At least in America denominationalism seems clearly to be coming to an end. Few people are Methodist because they think Methodism represents a holiness movement. Someone may, given the oddity of the difference, be a Freewill Baptist because they are convinced God’s grace does not override a free will, but that seems an odd place to draw a line in the sand to determine what makes a Christian a Christian.

That we find ourselves in such an ambiguous situation is why I think I find it hard to identify as a Protestant ethicist. Of course, everything depends on who you think the “we” is in the sentence preceding this sentence. I assume the “we” is not only the Protestant we, but the we of all Christians in the world in which we find ourselves. The help we need, moreover, is not what is so often identified as “ethics” – that is, some decision procedure. Rather, we need the ability to recover our distinctive way of speaking to and about God and the difference God makes for how our lives are lived.

We will need all the help we can get for such a project. Yet, if we need all the help we can get then I see no reason why Barth and Aquinas, clearly two of the major theologians in the Christian tradition, cannot be used to help form the future of the church in a world Christians no longer control. I think it quite interesting, therefore, that we recently had published Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue , edited by Bruce McCormack and Thomas Joseph White, O.P. In his “Introduction” to the book, White identifies three topics on which Barth and Thomas can be fruitfully compared:

  • How they approach theology considered as a science of divine revelation;
  • Why Christology is the core organizing principle for Barth and Trinitarian monotheism is central for Thomas; and
  • How Thomists and Barthians understand the status of theology in modernity.

White’s elaboration of those topics suggest that, given the differences that Barth and Thomas represent, they nonetheless share in common a commitment to show the difference God makes and how that difference is manifest in the life of the church and the lives of Christians. Barth is clearly a modern thinker, but he is nonetheless a tradition-determined theologian who, like Thomas, is rearticulating truths of patristic and medieval thinkers in a post-Reformation, post-Kantian and Hegelian way. In like manner, White suggest Thomas can be read in a more Barthian fashion if he is rightly seen as a quasi-eclectic thinker who is seeking to widen the scope of theological claims to include all the strands of philosophy in his time. So interpreted, for Thomas like Barth it is “theology all the way down.”

I call attention to White’s suggestion of how Barth and Thomas can be read in a complementary fashion without denying their differences because at the very least his analysis (as well as almost every essay in this extraordinary book) suggests that, given where we are as Christians, Barth and Thomas are resources for helping us learn the skills necessary to sustain our speech in a world that thinks what we say is unintelligible. For it turns out that if we are to learn to live as Christians, how we say what we are and do and do not do is crucial if our lives are to be witnesses to that which has made us possible. Barth and Thomas, to be sure in quite different ways, can be read as offering us essential exercises in Christian speech.

In his book on Thomas Aquinas, Denys Turner makes the observation that Thomas, as well as his teacher, Albert, had the virtue of “allowing words to speak for themselves.” According to Turner, you can only safely let words speak for themselves if it is the work the words effect that you want to make count for students or readers rather than the impression you make on either. Turner attributes Thomas’s ability to let words speak for themselves to Dominic who took the business of words so seriously he “could conceive of a community of preachers whose holiness would be won or lost in the success or failure of their pursuit of the bon mot.” Accordingly, there is an inherent relationship between that community called the church and what is said that cannot be said if the church did not exist as an alternative to the speech of the world.

To so understand the significance of allowing words to speak for themselves is to refuse to force words to do more than they can. Nonviolence is a grammar of truthful speech. That grammar often is in the form of a silence, particularly when the speech is directed to or about God. According to Turner, Thomas exemplified the conviction that all theology emerges from silence, as do the millions of words of theology that Thomas wrote. Those words, the words he wrote, participate in that same silence. The many words Thomas wrote end in silence because:

“it is through the Son who is the Word that we enter into the silence of the Father, the Godhead itself, which is utterly beyond comprehension. For Thomas, silence is not the absence of speech. It is what the fullness of speech demonstrates – namely that, even at its best, speech falls short.”

Speech, particularly, falls short theologically. Speech is at once the glory and humbling of theology. It is so because speech must disclose the name of that silence from which the Word comes and returns. Turner reminds us the name of that Word is God. Turner quotes Aquinas (a quote that could have been written by Barth) that, “in this life we do not know what God is, even by the grace of faith. And so it is that by grace we are made one with God quasi ei ignoto, as to something unknown to us.” It turns out, therefore, that Thomas, like Barth, thinks we are only able to know we are in need of grace through grace. Accordingly the famous Thomistic phrase, “nature is perfected by grace,” does not mean that by nature we know what we want, but rather through grace we have revealed to us the depth of our need for grace.

The stress on the importance of speech for Barth and Thomas may seem quite foreign to questions of the future of “Protestant ethics.” Nor is it clear how this emphasis involves the ecclesial developments I associated with the Anabaptist Reformation and the end of Christendom. However, if our ecclesial future is one that cannot use violence to ensure our safety, nothing is more important than for the church to regain confidence in the words we have been given. For it is through learning the words we have been given that we might be a people capable of prayer.

I think it no accident that Barth identified prayer as a crucial practice to sustain the moral life. Prayer reminds us that, when everything is said and done, this is about God. Barth even suggests that prayer goes “back” to the knowledge of God “as the basic act of human reason. Even as God summons man to pray to Him, He points to the fact that He has created him for Himself and appeals to this determination of his reason.” A claim with which I think Thomas Aquinas could not help but agree.


We live “after the Reformation.” It remains unclear to me, however, if we know where we are or in what time we are living by that description. “After the Reformation” is a description that assumes our history remains the history of Christianity. That assumption reproduces a Constantinian presumption. But if we are in the final stages of Protestantism, it is not clear how we should tell the story of where we have been or what we think the future holds.

Accordingly, I do not think we know what it might mean to be a Protestant ethicist. In the meantime, however, I see no reason we should not make the most of what we have got – that is, we are finally free. It is not the task of the church to ensure a stable world. Our task is to be faithful to the Lord who has taught us to pray. To learn to pray, to learn the language of prayer, may make it possible for us to speak the truth to one another, for on that does the world’s salvation depend.

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