Convictions and Moral Discernment 2
Continuing our series begun here and here on moral discernment. The second pair of “critical variables” in the “basic convictions” dimension are Justification and Sanctification, two terms from the Apostle Paul concerning different facets of salvation. (Again, non-Christian moral systems have rough analogues to these variables.) If we think of salvation as primarily Justification (e.g., Martin Luther or Reinhold Niebuhr) we focus on forgiveness for our sins. Grace is then understood primary as “unmerited mercy” for our sinful acts. A theology that plays up justification to the exclusion or marginalization of other dimensions, is not likely to have high moral hopes for people. Specifically, it would not expect a higher morality for Christians than others.
Other theologies focus more on sanctification or Christian discipleship (i.e., moral improvement), whether understood as a slow process or one that may happen instantaneously. Some Christian theologies (e.g, some readings of John Wesley or the Quaker George Fox) stress sanctification in a way that suggests that Christians may achieve some form of moral perfection (although for Wesley, this was simply a “perfection in love.”) If this is our focus, then we see grace not primarily as “unmerited mercy,” but as “empowerment to faithfulness.”
Anabaptists like Menno Simons thought more in terms from the Gospels than in Pauline terms. Menno did not ask with Luther, “Where can I find a gracious God?” but “How may I be a faithful follower of Jesus?” So, he more often talked in terms of the relationship between forgiveness for sin and faithful discipleship. For Menno, salvation was not primarily viewed in legal or forensic terms, but (as also with Eastern Orthodox thinkers) in medical terms–as healing from the sickness of sin–or in terms of liberation from captivity. With that liberation, came the call and grace to follow after. Christians were expected to have much higher moral standards (and, through the Holy Spirit and the help of the gathered church, the power to fulfill those standards) than non-Christians–though never coming close to perfection or leaving behind the need for further forgiveness.
Think back to our last section on the variables God and human nature and it is easy to see some of the many combinations that would lead to differing moral outlooks. I have a relative who is a member of the Church of the Nazarene, a Wesleyan Holiness group. Her version of this theology (which I do not claim is normative for Nazarenes) combined a judgmental view of God, a perfectable view of human nature, and a stress on sanctification/perfection to lead to a constant spiritual temperature taking. You will recall others with other combinations.
The next pair of critical variables are differing convictions about love and justice. Most theologians have stressed Christian love (agape) as the highest Christian moral norm. Many define such love as “sacrificial,” but others as “equal regard for all” (see Gene Outka), “mutual love” (many feminist theologians) or “delivering love” (Glen Stassen).
However defined, it is crucial that love be related to justice. Justice is understood also in various ways and applied to various dimensions of life: economics (distributive justice), racial relations, gender relations, civil rights, war and peace, etc.
Reinhold Niebuhr saw Christian love as sacrificial but almost impossible to live out, even for Christians. Therefore, it functioned only as a criterion that judged how far from Christ’s teachings our best moral efforts lie. So, he focused on justice understood as a rough balance of power and of competing interests. He stressed the difference between love and justice.
By contrast, Dorothy Day saw love and justice as intimately related and both as commanded to be lived out in this world.
Next chapter will finalize the dimension of basic convictions by focusing on the mission of the church in the world.