On Christian Formation and Lutheran Theology

Is There an Entry for “Formation” in the Lutheran Lexicon?

A. On Formation

In those branches of Christian tradition where the term itself is most at home, “formation” is viewed as a deliberate undertaking in which those who are spiritually more mature direct and assist the less mature, and “forming” is seen as an apt term for this process: there are various disciplines and exercises aimed at shaping the Christian life, helping one acquire the proper habits (or virtues) and shed inappropriate ones, and so forth. But in other Christian communities, the very idea of “forming” is suspect, as running counter to the way human personhood ought to be described as well as to the way the Holy Spirit works with and in human beings. … Sanctification is God’s work – not the product of human programs; further, “forming” is not as accurate a term for what the Spirit does as, say, “regeneration.” Most of those who take this alternative to the language of “formation” still find appropriate ways of nurturing and guiding persons in the life of faith, and ways of describing the spiritual state of the life of the unregenerate and the regenerate, the immature and the mature Christian – but with some characteristic differences in both conception and procedure. There are similar ranges of variation among Christian groups as to, for example, the role involvement in Christian practice plays in spiritual formation – and as to what sort of Christian practice is most crucial.

from Charles Wood, An Invitation to Theological Study (Trinity Press Intl, 1994), 27.

B. Standing Questions for Lutherans

Would they [the 16th c Reformers]…have endorsed the sort of intentional training in virtuous works and deliberate cultivation of Christian character that is advocated by the supporters of virtue ethics? Is the exhortation to good works the same thing as the inculcation of virtue? Did the reformers approve the idea that individual Christian character could and should be formed through human effort as virtue ethics holds, or did they rely solely on the gospel’s power of transformation? Was there a place within the Christian faith and specifically within Lutheranism for the teaching of virtue, or were Christian virtues the essentially automatic fruit of the gospel and justification?

from Joel Biermann, A Case for Character: Toward A Lutheran Virtue Ethics (Fortress Press, 2014), 73.

C. One Strand of the Received Wisdom

41. Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace.

from Martin Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, 1517.

The quest to be a virtuous or pious person is not a Christian quest.

from Gerhard Forde, “The Christian Life,” in Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2. Eds. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, (Fortress Press, 1984), 438. [italics original]

Virtue is not the goal of life; virtue is our problem.

from Steven Paulson, Lutheran Theology (T&T Clark, 2011), 2.

D. A counter vision

I want to be part of a community with the habits and practices [i.e. virtues] that will make me do what I would otherwise not choose to do and then to learn to like what I have been forced to do [i.e. formation by habituation].

from Stanley Hauerwas, In Good Company (Univ Notre Dame Pr, 1995), 75.

Is Lutheran theology adequately capacious to assimilate Hauerwas’ admission? Or does this topic expose a structural blind spot for Lutherans? Or is it Hauerwas who’s missing the bigger picture? However we come down on these questions, I’m glad folks like Biermann are at least continuing the conversation.

2 thoughts on “On Christian Formation and Lutheran Theology

  1. Stanley is too much taken with catholic neo-aristotelianism but his writings on us being “sinsick”
    offer some food for thought:
    ..For most people the language of being sick seems more intelligible than the language of being a sinner. I think the answer is very simple – we are atheists. Even if we say we believe in God, most of our lives are constituted by practices that assume that God does not exist.

    This set of assumptions, of course, has resulted in giving extraordinary power to the medical profession. The hospitals at Duke, Duke North and Duke South, are like the cathedrals of the past – our Chartres and Notre Dames that testify not as those cathedrals did to what we love but rather to what we fear. As I often point out to seminarians, if you want some idea of what medieval Christianity felt like, hang around any modern research medical center. The term byzantine fails to do justice to the complex forms of power exercised in such a context. Nowhere is such power more manifest than in the ability of those in medicine to redescribe our lives through the language of illness.

    Patients have forgotten what every doctor knows, namely, that the final description for every patient for whom a physician cares is “dead.”

    We desire to be free from illness, and illness is now understood as any condition that limits my choices. Sickness names those aspects of my life I have not chosen. This creates the desire of modern people to find the “cause” of their illness in some “lifestyle” choice.

    Put bluntly, we are unable to make sense of our being sick because we no longer understand what it means for our lives to be captured by sin.

    The practice of medicine by Christians is not an attempt to deny death but a way to be of service to one another as people who understand that the death we die in this life is not our destiny.

    The reason that Christian and non-Christian find ourselves dominated by our “concern for health” is that in the absence of the church, medicine cannot help but dominate our lives. For medicine has become a powerful practice without end, without context, without any wider community to give it purpose. Accordingly, nothing could be more important today than for Christians to recover a Christian practice of medicine shaped by the practices of the church….

    For lives determined by that reality – that is, the reality of life with God – how sickness is understood and cared for cannot help but look quite different from how the world understands what it means to be sick.

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