Blamires: Lost Art of Christian Thinking

Harry Blamires. 2005. The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Orig Pub 1963) Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Loneliness is not having anyone who speaks your language. Christian intellectuals (13-14) are probably lonelier than garden variety intellectuals because in addition to being considered eccentric, they may be accused of having a six-foot invisible rabbit for a friend.[1] What do you do when you see the world in technicolor and those around you see only black and white?


In his book, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? Harry Blamires writes:

To this Christianly is to accept all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God… There is nothing in our experience, however trivial, worldly, or even evil, which cannot be thought about Christianly…The purpose of this book is not to judge [people], whatever their religious position, but to clarify a problem by defining states of mind.” (44-45, 144)

In my own writing, I describe this idea by saying that God is my denominator, the measure by which all things are measured. My own Christian frame of reference has been a source of complaint within my family so I have learned to translate my own thoughts into secular concepts. Blamires (70) observes:

“…the modern Christian, a schizophrenic type who hops in and out of his Christian mentality as the topic of conversation changes from the Bible to the day’s newspaper, or the field of action changes from Christian stewardship to commercial advertising, or the environment changes from the vestry to the office.”

The hardest translation in my experience is explaining why gave up a six-figure income working as an economist to go to seminary—instead of referring to my call from God I need to find some excuse like “I wanted to give back”or “I wanted to have more fixable work hours”or some other such silliness. Sadly, my sacrifice in attending seminary has often marked me as a kind of village idiot even with my ordination committee.

Background and Organization

Harry Blamires (1916−2017) graduated from Oxford University, where his tutor was C. S. Lewis, and he was an Anglican theologian, literary critic, and novelist.[2]He writes in eight chapters divided into two parts:

PART ONE: The Lack of a Christian Mind

  1. The Surrender to Secularism
  2. Thinking Christianly and Thinking Secularly

PART TWO: The Marks of the Christian Mind

  1. Its Supernatural Orientation
  2. Its Awareness of Evil
  3. Its Conception of Truth
  4. Its Acceptance of Authority
  5. Its Concern for the Person
  6. Its Sacramental Cast (v)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by a postscript.

Let me say a few words about each part.

The Lack of a Christian Mind

Blamires (3,15) believes that modern Christians have conceded the mind to secular thinking in what could be described as the triumph of romanticism. He writes:

“Christianity is emasculated of its intellectual relevance. It remains a vehicle of spirituality and morel guidance at the individual level perhaps; at the communal level it is little more than an expression of sentimentalized togetherness. The mental secularization of Christians means that nowadays (1963) we meet only as worshipping beings and as moral beings, not as thinking beings.” (16)

Writing as he does in the early 1963s, Blamires is commenting primarily on a modern problem of intellectual irrelevance because Billy Graham was still drawing crowds and hosting television interviews well into the 1970s. Still, one wonders whether the Christian intellectual suffers any worse than intellectuals more generally (19) as modernism started to give up the ghost already in the 1950s with severe criticism of the scientific method that started in the immediate aftermath of the World War II.

Blamires’ illustration of the Anglican church’s problem in selecting bishops highlights the problem that even within the church secular values dominated thinking. Unlike the Orthodox church that promotes bishops only from within the ranks of its monks, Anglican bishops are expected to be good administrators—thoroughly worldly individuals (54-59). It is hard to argue with his logic here as church administrators are often the most talented, but also the most cynical and manipulative of people. Blamires concludes:

“Since we refuse to think Christianly even about the office of bishop, it is scarcely surprising that we lose the habit of thinking Christianly about secular matters.” (59)

Blamires is even careful to distinguish Christian thinking from scholarly thinking (51).

The Marks of the Christian Mind

In this second part Blamires inventories areas where the Christian mind differs most dramatically from secular thinking, starting with metaphysics—the physical world is not all there is. 


Because God created heaven and earth, he must stand apart from them. He is eternal; we are not. It sounds quaint to talk about the supernatural only because so many people cannot think beyond the natural world (67).

Good and Evil

If God is good, then the antithesis of good is evil, another topic that moderns typically avoid. Denying evil or discounting it, however, gives it space to grow. Blamires goes on to show how it is considered sophisticated to discount sin in its portrayal in the media (96). He notes that “flowers grow best in manured soil” (97), as we have seen in recent years. He writes:

“Immoral literature is literature which recommends immoral behavior. If a play or a novel wins sympathy for adulterers, sodomites, dope addicts, or nymphomaniacs in the sense of making the audience or the reader feel that such people are right to indulge their vices and aberrations, then it is immoral.” (98-99)

His comments appear dated today as the film industry insists on checking all the boxes above in practically every film.


The idea of objective truth is grounded in faith in God (108). Measured against the eternal judgment of God, other truths lack appeal or pertinence. Blamires observes: “You cannot construct truth at all; you can only discover it.” (112) His anchoring in the modern era and rationality is clearly evident when he writes:

“Two opinions are rarely better than one. If A thinks rationally on a given matter and B thinks irrationally on the same matter, then neither A nor the world in general will benefit from having A’s view adulterated with B’s.” (113)

In this regard, Blamires seems to equate rationality with Christian thought.


If the Christian loves and respects God, God’s authority is obviously recognized. But what if the world around us rejects all forms of authority? Does God then become our buddy? Blamires obsevers that: “distaste for authority is unparalleled in history.” (132-133) The respect for the authority of God allows the Christian to in turn respect other authorities—parents, teachers, preachers, police, and government officials—in ways that are hard for secular people to emulate.

Blamires writes:

“For if the Christian faith is true, and the Christian church the authoritative vehicle of salvation in time, then it is the most urgent, inescapable need of the modern [and postmodern] world to adapt itself to the church [not the other way around]” (148) 

Obviously, it all forms of authority are questioned and ignored, then salvation is indeed an unlikely outcome of secular thinking.


Being created in the image of God confers a high regard for persons in Christian thinking that is only borrowed in secular discourse, which focuses more on material goods and mechanics (156-157). Blamires sees the secular notion of progress as imbedded in the acquisition of things (161) He writes that we are:

“… so engrossed in performing functions in contemporary society that they have neither the time nor the energy left for the business of merely being human.” (164)

He goes on to observe that: “The Christian will think in terms of persons and institutions; but modern secularism thinks in terms of units and mechanisms.” (166) Perhaps the worst of it is that no one actually forces us into this mold more than we ourselves when we get carried away with trying to provide for our families and achieving success.


Recognizing the sacredness of God and of life go hand in hand. The loss of the idea of these things is perhaps an example of the slippery slope that we have been on in recent years. Blamires writes: “There is no doubt that commercial interests actively stimulate youthful sexuality and self-indulgence” (173) making money by corrupting our youth.


Harry Blamires’ The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? is a thoughtful, assessible, and well-written book on the interface between Christian and modern culture before political correctness. Blamires documents that many of the problems of postmodern culture were already in view in the late modern period (1960s). While it is likely to be perceived by many as a period-piece, I found it helpful in identifying contemporary points where the Christian and secular mindsets deviate.


[1]This is an allusion to a movie called Harvey about a man who sees a six-foot, invisible rabbit and is committed to an insane asylum until others start seeing the rabbit for themselves. Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s play of the same name, directed by Henry Koster, and starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull (


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Chan’s Church: Small is Beautiful

Francis Chan.[1]2018. Letters to the Church. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is accepted wisdom among those who study ecclesiology that churches go through stages as they grow, which trigger a need to change their leadership style. The stages are roughly 0-100 members (small), 101 to 250 members (medium), and 251 members and up (large). 

In small churches, the pastor knows everyone and everyone seems engaged in some type of ministry. Medium sized churches oftentimes loses its sense of intimacy and many of its founding members as the pastor begins to delegate work to staff and committees. In a large church, the senior pastor is a manager of staff and specializes in preaching while the members are mostly consumers of Sunday morning services. Interestingly, even small churches today are bigger than most churches described in the New Testament that often described as house churches.


In his book, Letters to the Church,Francis Chan writes:

“While overseas [after leaving the mega-church he founded to travel to Asia], I had gotten to see a glimpse of what the church could be and the power it could have, and I felt like God wanted me to take that vision back…I wrote this book to point out areas where the Church is lacking”(19, 211)

His vision for the church includes three goals:

  1. “I wanted all of us to sing directly to God…
  2. I wanted all of us to really hear the Word of God…
  3. I wanted all of us to live holy lives.”(11-12)

Most of this book provides observations and wisdom that lie between these goals and this vision for the church.

Background and Organization

Francis Chan is a Chinese, American pastor and writer, educated at Master’s College (BA and MDiv). He founded and pastored Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California (founded 1994). He also founded and serves Eternity Bible College.

Chan writes in nine chapters:

  1. “The Departure
  2. Sacred
  3. The Order
  4. The Gang
  5. Servants
  6. Good Shepherds
  7. Crucified
  8. Unleashed
  9. Church Again”(v)

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments and followed by an afterword and notes.

Weaknesses of the Mega Church Model

The mega church model evolved out of the perceived needs of both the church and postmodern people. Larges churches have the resource base to offer members high-quality programs and services and to offer staff professional level salaries. Yet, Chan observes:

“When I looked at what went on in Cornerstone, I saw a few other people and me using our gifts, while thousands just came and sat in the sanctuary for an hour and a half and then went home. The way we had structured the church was stunting people’s growth.”(15)

In other words, the perceived problem of discipling members that is talked about extensively today is a direct consequence of the church’s basic structure—one does buy a ticket in a movie theater with the expectation of learning and practicing the profession of an actor or director. While this may sound like a brilliant statement of the obvious, many small group planners have essentially been designed with the expectation of snagging a few movie-goers on the way out of the lobby.

Spaghetti is not Steak

Chan offers several really interesting analogies. For example, Chan writes:

“Imagine you walked into a restaurant and ordered a steak. Twenty minutes later, the waiter comes back and puts a plate of spaghetti in front of you, claiming it’s the best spaghetti you’ll ever try. Would you be happy about it?…this is what we have done with the church. God gave us His ‘order’ for the church…”(45)

Chan later notes that “Paul was more zealous for the salvation of others than any of us.”(49).

Traps of Ministry

Chan observes that “Some of the expectations we place on leaders make their success nearly impossible.”(107) He lists these traps:

  1. “Avoiding Criticism.
  2. Fund-Raising.
  3. Comparison.
  4. Meeting Expectations.
  5. Popularity.
  6. Safety.
  7. Greed.
  8. Demonic Attack.”(107-108)

While his list is not particularly newsworthy, it is interesting seeing all of these issues laid out.

Chan observes that we all have a picture in our minds, thanks to cinema, of what a demonic possessed person looks like but what is our image of someone who is spirit-filled? (121) Chan cites: 

“be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  (Eph 5:18-21)

This is an interesting point because we find evil fascinating—otherwise movie ticket sales of the demonic pictures would be flat—but ignore evidence of God’s goodness in our lives every day. Do we look for or even tolerate a pastor who is truly spirit-filled? Would we be willing to vote for our pastor to spend an hour daily in prayer on the church’s dime?

Five Pillars of the House Church Movement

Chan observes that Jesus asked an awful lot more of his followers than the typical church. Jesus said:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”(Luke 14:26-27)

How many new member’s classes read those verses? Apparently, in China and other parts of the world where it is dangerous to be a Christian, those verses get more attention. Concern the five pillars of the House Church Movement that Chan cites:

“The first one is based on a deep, deep commitment to prayer. The second is commitment to the Word of God…The third was being committed to the sharing of the Gospel…The fourth was a regular expectation of miracles…The fifth pillar was we embraced suffering for glory of Christ.”(135)

The embracing of suffering is perhaps the most startling from the perspective of the American church where the numerous New Testament references to suffering are routinely edited out. 

My personal favorite is Romans 8:36:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom 8:35-37)

Romans 8:36 falls in the middle of two other verses routinely cherished by millions, but how many want to be reminded that we are “as sheep to be slaughtered”? Persecution is not something that Americans identify with; we prefer to be referred to as conquerors.


Francis Chan’s Letters to the Churchis a wonderful reflection on the state of the American church. Chan’s language is forever fresh and his observations come across like that hilarious joke that, after laughing out loud, you realize comes very close to home. Who, for example, wants to be reminded that the American church shares a lot in common with the zoo animals in the movie Madagascar? (That is, powerful, but too tame to survive in the wild? 151) Chan is very readable and of obvious interest to church leaders of all stripes.



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Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

James W. Thompson. 2011. Moral Formation according to Paul. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Being created in the image of Holy God poses a special problem for Christians because of original sin. Sin not only mucks up the workings our lives like molasses poured into a car’s gas tank, it stinks up the place polluting our emotions and minds much like molasses as it burns. We love the wrong things like an addict lusting after drugs and think like criminals avoiding the sunlight that might expose their crimes. In the midst of our fallen state, Christ redeems us and the church aids in our formation as Christians. But how?


In his book, Moral Formation according to Paul, James Thompson begins with this goal:

“Although I hope that this book has contemporary relevance, my primary task is not to ask the hermeneutical questions about the many moral questions that now confront us, but to grasp the specific shape and inner logic of Paul’s moral instructions.”(ix)

Thompson observes that Paul never uses the word, ethics, and only once uses the common Greek term, virtue. (2-3, 59, 107) Instead, Paul stands alone among ancient writers in arguing for the concept of original sin (Rom 3:10; 155, 208) and focusing on sexual immorality in his vice lists. (17) Unlike the Greeks, he did not advocate that sin could be overcome through human effort. (148) Like other Diaspora Jews (those outside of Israel), Paul turned to the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26) for guidance (133).

Paul Focuses on Formation

Paul’s teaching stands out from most ancient writers. Thomson writes:

“Paul’s major challenge as a missionary and planter of churches was to ensure the moral transformation of his communities. His task was not only to make converts, but to re-socialize them and provide a common ethos and shared practices.”(207)

Rather than emphasize the static view of Rudolf Bultmann (before and after faith), Thompson sees Paul teaches that we stand between conversion and the return of Christ (the end), an emphasis on the journey of faith (1, 61). Thompson writes: “Paul does not speak of ethics as such, but of how to walk, the primary term for ethical conduct.” (61) This suggests that telos, not identity or duty, drives Pauline ethics.

Summary of Paul’s Teaching

Thompson views 1 Thessalonians as a window into the content of Paul’s teaching, which he refers to as catechesis (preparation for baptism). He makes three points:

  1. “This catechesis involved first the memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus (Thes 4:14) …
  2. Second, Paul consistently places the story of Jesus and the readers’ own experience within the narrative of Israel, providing a symbolic world and an identity (e.g. 1 Thes 4:5) …
  3. Third, Paul appeals not only to the story of Jesus to shape the moral conduct of his communities, but also to the Torah. (207-208)

Paul stands alone among ancient writers in arguing for the concept of original sin. (Rom 3:10; 208)

Holiness as a Pauline Distinctive

While the Jewish community set itself apart from gentile communities through its dietary laws and Sabbath practices, Pauline communities distinguished themselves through holiness. Thompson writes:

“Having provided the community with an identity as God’s elect and holy people, Paul extends the sphere of holiness from the cult to matters of sexuality, distinguishing the holy people from the gentiles.”(76)

Paul’s use fo the term, saints, and referring to the church as the called out ones (ekkesia) furthermore distinguishes Christians a the holy ones and identifies them with ancient Israel (54-55). 

Background and Organization

James W. Thompson received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University, teaches at at the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, and is the author of numerous books. He writes in eight chapters:

  1. “Ethics in Hellenistic Judaism: Maintaining Jewish Identity in the Diaspora.
  2. Shaping an Identity: Moral Instruction and Community Formation.
  3. From Catechesis to Correspondence: Ethos and Ethics in 1 Thessalonians.
  4. Pauline Catechesis and the Lists of Vices and Virtues.
  5. Paul, the Law, and Moral Instruction.
  6. Paul, the Passions, and the Law.
  7. Putting Love into Practice.
  8. Ethics and the Disputed Letters of Paul. (vii)

These chapters are proceeded by a preface, abbreviations, and an introduction. They are followed by a conclusion, works cited, and several indices.


James Thompson’s Moral Formation according to Paul is a scholarly assessment of Paul’s ethics. It is well-written and documented resource for pastors, seminary students, and scholars of Paul’s work.

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Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 2

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 1976. Ethics(Orig pub 1955) Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Translated by Neville Horton Smith. New York: MacMillan Publishers Company, Inc.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, writing, and death during the era of National Socialism (Nazi) in Germany gave him a uncanny ability to speak to our own postmodern, increasingly tribal, era. 

Why? Nazi Germany is sometimes described as the first postmodern state for two reasons. First, both the Nazis and post-moderns are heavily influenced by the writings of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s “will to power”ideology directly informed the Nazi leadership model (Der Führer) and also informs the deconstructionism (also called the politics of suspicion) recently so prevalent in public discourse. 

Second, with the collapse of faith, people have to believe in something and they frequently turn to “barbaric brotherhoods” like the Nazis and other tribal affiliations to rob non-brothers, something predicted by Nietzsche himself (McGrath 2004, 262). Those that classify Nazism as a modern phenomenon focus on the German obsession with efficiency or technological preeminence rather than its philosophical underpinnings (Roseman).

In part one of my review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Ethics, I described his background, the organization of his book, and opening comments In part two of this review, I will look in more depth at Bonhoeffer’s ethical concepts.

God’s Will

Bonhoeffer has a high view of God’s sovereignty and the special role of Jesus Christ. He (1976, 38) writes:

“The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for that reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be.”

Depending on your Christology, this statement is either terribly obvious or comes as criticism. After the attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life failed, Hitler ironically felt a special calling from God in his work.


Bonhoeffer’s (1976, 32) focus on God’s will directly impacts his ethics, writing: “the only appropriate conduct of men before God is the doing of His will.” The problem with the Pharisees, from his perspective, was that they knew the will of God (or at least knew how to figure it out), but failed to act on it. Complicating the matter, the Pharisees did the opposite of acting—judging.


Bonhoeffer would have been critical of the current tendency to define God as love, but then to offer a licentious definition of love. He writes (1976, 50-51):

“No one knows God unless he reveals Himself to him. And so no one knows what love is except in the self-revelation of God. Love, then, is the revelation of God. And the revelation of God is Jesus Christ.”

This definition of love as revelation through Jesus Christ is neither alone a licentious interpretation of love or any other revelation not based on Christology. Obviously, the only way to get a licentious interpretation is through a licentious Christology.

Ethics as Formation

Bonhoeffer’s special understanding of Jesus Christ is again made obvious in his discussion of discipling/formation. He (1976, 84) writes:

“The only formation is formation by and into the form of Jesus Christ. The point of departure for Christian ethics is the body of Christ [the church], the form of Christ in the form of the church, and formation of the Church in conformity with the form of Christ.”

Obviously, Bonhoeffer sees no possibility of seeing “Lone Ranger” Christians, as some envision today

Peril of the Void

When Bono and U2 sing about being stuck in a moment,[1]they could have been citing Bonhoeffer, where he talks about the peril of the void and relating it to the coming last days. He writes (1997, 105-107):

“With the loss of past and future, life fluctuates between the most bestial enjoyment of the moment and an adventurous game of chance. An abrupt end is put to any kind of inner self-development and to any gradual attainment of personal or vocational maturity. There is no personal destiny, and consequently there is no personal dignity.” 

Again, Bonhoeffer was writing from Nazi Germany, which some have referred to as the first postmodern society.


Bonhoeffer (1997, 125) observes that God’s grace is the ultimate word that we receive as believers. Grace is a gift but it is never cheap; faith is required. He describes the path that we come to faith as critique and entirely unique to each individual. He calls this process of coming to faith as the penultimate. Bonhoeffer (1997, 127) writes:

“Everything must go to the judgment. There are only two categories: for Christ and against him. He that is not with me is against me (Matt 12:30). Everything penultimate in human behavior is sin and denial.”

What is interesting about this concept of penultimate is that it only has meaning in view of the ultimate and no one is prepared to make a faith commitment—faith is a gift. Bonhoeffer (1997, 143) therefore concludes:

“But it will be more Christian to claim precisely that man as a Christian who would himself no longer dare to call himself a Christian, and then with much patience to help him to the profession of faith.”

In other words, being a Christian is an identity that we must live into; something that we cannot do on our own.

A similar concept in economics is called a full-employment budget. In order for the economy to grow at full potential, the government must budget as if we have full-employment, even if it is currently demonstrating weakness. To budget for the weakness would invariably make it impossible to obtain full-employment. Consequently, a full-employment budget is almost always aspirational.

And so it is with us before we come to faith.

Innocent Life

Bonhoeffer understands the intrinsic value of life that God gives us in creating us in the divine image (Gen 1:27) and loving us as his children. The value of life does not go up and down with circumstance. Bonhoeffer (1997, 163) writes:

“The right to live is a matter of the essence and not of any values. In the sight of God there is no life that is not worth living; for life itself is valued by God.”

The fact that we are weak, ill, or unborn does not hinder our intrinsic value as human beings in God’s eyes, which is the basis of all human rights as we know them.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics provides a series of essays on ethical topics that he wrote during the last days of his life in Germany during the Second World War. The book is surprisingly well written for a book rendered only in a series of drafts. Ethics offers a foundation for Christian ethics and is a must read for pastors and seminary professors.


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: DoubleDay.

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile versus the Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Roseman, Mark. 2011. “National Socialism and the End of Modernity”

American Historical Review Vol. 116, No. 3 (June), pp. 688-701.


[1] Adam Clayton / Dave Evans / Larry Mullen / Paul Hewson. Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 2

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Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, EthicsDietrich Bonhoeffer. 1976. Ethics (Orig pub 1955) Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Translated by Neville Horton Smith. New York: MacMillan Publishers Company, Inc.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Vietnam created tension between my desire to become a career military pilot and my Christian faith. What is a just war? Why was the war in Vietnam unjust? Before I even graduated high school, I developed a passion for ethics.

The problem of war and peace also motivated Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s interest in ethics. In the editor’s preface to his book, Ethics, Eberhard Bethge writes:

“The manuscripts which are now before were written between 1940 and 1943 in Berlin, at the monastery of Ettal and at Kieckhow.”(7)

Because Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Bonhoeffer’s Ethics was written during the Second World War at the time of Adolf Hitler’s greatest battlefield successes (Metaxas 2010, 363). Although Bonhoeffer never gives a name to his successful man, the context is clear:

“When a successful figure becomes especially prominent and conspicuous, the majority give way to the idolization of success. They become blind to right and wrong, truth and untruth, fair play and foul play. They have eyes only for the deed, for the successful result.”(76)

Bonhoeffer’s characterization of Hitler as the “successful man” makes him an archetype whose appeal—even today—would not be limited to fanatics, making Hitler a much scarier figure than villainous caricature usually assigned him.

Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from an aristocratic family and was himself extraordinarily talented. His father was the leading psychiatrist in Germany at the time and his own brother was a noted physicist. Neither were professing Christians and the family did not attend church on a regular basis. His mother was his most significant religious influence. Dietrich declared his intention to become a theologian at age 14 before he had even been confirmed; he received his doctorate at age 21. Metaxas pictures Dietrich becoming a committed Christian, much like John Wesley, only after he was already working as a theologian. After Bonhoeffer had made a visit to New York in 1936, Metaxas asks:  What had happened that Bonhoeffer [the brilliant young theologian] should suddenly take attending church so seriously? (Metaxas 2010, 124)


Bonhoeffer is the author of a number of influential books, especially the Cost of Discipleship, and, along with Swiss theologian Karl Barth (one of the authors of the Barmen Declaration[1]), is credited with starting the neo-orthodox school of thought.  Bonhoeffer laid out important principles of his thinking already in 1928 (age 22) in Barcelona in three points:

  1. …Christianity is not a religion at all, but about the person of Christ…religion was a dead, man-made thing, and at the heart of Christianity was something else entirely—God himself, alive.
  2. He differentiated between Christianity…which attempt but failed to make an ethical way for man to climb to heaven…and following Christ, who demands everything. and
  3. He identified ‘the Greek spirit’ or ‘humanism’ as ‘the most severe enemy that Christianity ever had…dualism, the idea that the body is at war with the soul (Metaxas 2010, 83-85).

In other words, Christians must only follow Christ; we cannot approach God, only God can reveal Himself to us; in our faith heart and mind cannot be separated.

Military Intelligence

Bonhoeffer, the seminary professor and spy, worked with military intelligence (Abwehr). Weeks before the war is over (April 1945), Bonhoeffer is hung for treason, having assisted in the smuggling of Jews out of Germany and assisting those who conspired to assassinate Hitler and bring the war to an end (Metaxas 2010, 423-431). Because Bonhoeffer did not survive the war, his student and confidant, Eberhard Bethge, assembled, edited, and published his notes after the war.

Organization of the Book

Eberhard Bethge organized Bonhoeffer’s Ethicsin two parts composed of twelve chapters:


  1. The Love of God and the Decay of the World
  2. The Church and the World
  3. Ethics as Formation
  4. The Last Things and the Things Before the Last
  5. Christ, Reality and God (Christ, the Church and the World
  6. History and Good
  7. The Ethical and the Christian as a Theme


  1. The Doctrine of the Primus Usus Legis According to the Lutheran Symbolic Writings
  2. Personal and Real Ethos
  3. State and Church
  4. On the Possibility of the Word of the Church to the World
  5. What is Meant by Telling the Truth(3-6)

These chapters are preceded by two prefaces and are followed by a series of indexes. The second preface summarizes where the parts originated and the reasoning behind the current organization of the book.

 Origin of the Ethical Problem

Bonhoeffer begins his study of ethics with a most enigmatic statement:

“The know of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.”(17)

If only God knows good and evil, then ethical knowledge shows separation from God (17-19). Thus, this knowledge is the source of human shame (20). Conscience is no help, being more a measure of the gap among people (24-25).

In the New Testament, the Pharisee becomes an archetype of the man of conscience, which is of no help with the ethical problem—knowing good and evil, but not from God’s perspective—judgment. In reconciling us with God, Jesus allows us to return to know God and God alone. Jesus’ problem with judging (and with Pharisees) is precisely a consequence of original sin—knowledge of good and evil—the original apostacy from God (30-33).


In part one of this review, I have introduced Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the organization of his book, and the opening of the book. In part two of this review, I will look in more depth at Bonhoeffer’s ethical concepts.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics provides a series of essays on ethical topics that he wrote during the last days of his life in Germany during the Second World War. The book is surprisingly well written for a book rendered only in a series of drafts. Ethicsoffers a foundation for Christian ethics and is a must read for pastors and seminary professors.




 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book

Metaxas, Eric. 2010.  Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile versus the Third Reich.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson.

Bonhoeffer Introduces Christian Ethics, Part 1

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Vaughn Argues a Clear Case for Writers

Lewis Vaughn, Writing PhilosophyLewis Vaughn. 2018. Writing Philosophy: A Student’s Guide to Reading and Writing Philosophy Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As an author, my eyes are always open for good writing books, especial those addressing the needs of nonfiction writers. I am not alone in this interest in writing books. The single, most popular post on this blog in 2013 and 2014 featured a writing book, How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark, of special interest to bloggers.


On the back cover of his book, Writing Philosophy, Lewis Vaughn out lines his objectives:

“[This book] is a concise, self-guided manual that covers how to read philosophy and the basics of argumentative essay writing.”

Never having taken a philosophy course, other than philosophy of science as a PhD candidate, I found both objectives instructive. If a philosophy essay is all about the quality of the premises and the conclusions that follow from them, then other departments ought to send their students over to the philosophy department to learn how to write because understanding good argument structure can improve most essays.


According to Google Books,[1]Lewis Vaughn is an independent author living in Amherst, New York. He writes in eight chapters divided into two parts:


  1. How to Read Philosophy
  2. How to Read an Argument
  3. Rules of Style and Content for Philosophical Writing
  4. Defending a Thesis in an Argumentative Essay
  5. Avoiding Fallacious Reasoning
  6. Using, Quoting, and Citing Sources


  1. Writing Effective Sentences
  2. Choosing the Right Words (v-vii)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by four appendices.

Three aspects of this book proved most helpful to me: reading philosophy, how to read an argument, and avoiding fallacies. Let me focus on each in turn.

Reading Philosophy

Philosophy means the love of knowledge. Vaughn writes:

“[Philosophy] is concerned with the examination of beliefs of the most fundamental kind—beliefs that structure our lives, shape our worldviews, and underpin all academic disciplines.”(3)

This focus on argumentation is important so Vaughn offers some key definitions:

“In philosophy, an argument is a statement, or claim, coupled with other statements that are meant to support that statement. The statement being supported is the conclusion, and the statements support the conclusions are the premises.”(5)

He goes on to define the divisions of philosophy (6) as: metaphysics (the study of reality), axiology (the study of value, including ethics, which is moral value), epistemology (the study of knowledge), and logic (the study of correct reasoning).

A fundamental skill for philosophers is the ability to summarize or paraphrase an argument, outlining its premises and conclusions. He writes: “A summary must accurately capture a text’s main ideas in just a few words.”(15) This advice may sound trivial, but summarizing my own books often proves to be an anxiety-producing event.

How to Read an Argument

Vaughn notes that a good premise is either true or false, while a conclusion is a belief that you are trying to support (21-22). He notes that certain “indicator words” flag which is which in an argument. Indications of a conclusion are words like: “consequently, thus, therefore, it follows that, as a result, hence, so, which means that.” Indicators of a premise might be: “in view of the fact, because, due to the fact that, the reason being, assuming that, since, for, given that.”(26)

Vaughn offers interesting definitions of deductive and inductive reasoning, two typically confusing ideas. A dedicative argument offers logically conclusive for conclusions, while inductive arguments offer only probable support for conclusions. Because of the difference in the veracity of these arguments, good deductive arguments are considered valid while good inductive arguments are strong. (27-29) True premises make a deductive argument sound while true premises make an inductive argument cogent. (30)

Worth the price of admission is Vaughn’s treatment of valid and invalid argument forms, what we might describe as logical syllogisms. He outlines four valid forms and two invalid forms. (32-33)


 Affirming the Antecedents (modus ponens)

 If p, then q     (premise 1)

p                    (premise 2)

Therefore, q. (conclusion)

Denying the Consequent (modus tollens)

If p, then q           (premise 1)

Not q                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)

Hypothetical Syllogism

If p, then q                  (premise 1)

If q, then r                   (premise 2)

Therefore, if p, then r. (conclusion)

Reductio Ad Absurdum

 p                         (premise 1)

If p, then q          (premise 2)

Not q                   (premise 3)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)


 Denying the Antecedent

If p, then q          (premise 1)

Not p                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not q. (conclusion)

Affirming the Consequent

If p, then q     (premise 1)

q                    (premise 2)

Therefore, p. (conclusion)

For valid premises, these forms lead to logical conclusions. Consequently, Vaughn advises students to memorize these forms so as to recognize them as they arise in arguments.

Avoiding Fallacies

Vaughn cites two common fallacies that bear repeating: the straw man argument and the ad hominem attack (appeal to the person). The straw man argument is an unfair characterization of an opponent’s argument designed to facilitate criticism while the ad hominem attack is to defeat an argument not by criticizing its weaknesses, but by attacking the person advancing the argument. (89) These fallacies are weak arguments that we hear daily in political discourse and in uncivil discussions.

Other weak arguments that Vaughn (90-98) cites are: appeal to popularity, appeal to tradition, the generic fallacy (attacking the source, not the premises), equivocation (unfair comparisons), appeal to ignorance, false dilemma (comparing two non-exclusive outcomes), begging the question (using a conclusion as a premise to support it), hasty generalizations (generalizing from too small a sample), slippery slope arguments, composition (generalizing from a part of a composite), division (taking a composite to generalize about a part)


Lewis Vaughn’s Writing Philosophy is a wonderful writing book that I wish that I had been given years ago. It is concise, helpful, and interesting. Writers in many fields and at many points in their career could benefit from his insights.




Clark, Roy Peter. 2013. How To Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.

Vaughn Argues a Clear Case for Writers

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RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 3

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1]2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One observation that I find myself repeating since seminary is the importance of finding the right words to talk about a given subject. Coming from a Dutch background, the words to express emotion that I learned in seminary were new to me. Although I did not immediately become a spontaneous and chatty person, the new vocabulary opened me up to grow my faith along an unexplored path, like I had been given the first map of an uncharted territory.


In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes in three parts: The Good Life, Normative Ethics (doing the right thing), and Metaethics (the status of morality). In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL presents. In part two of my review, I commented on arguments in part 1 and began part 2. In Part three of this review, I finish RSL’s parts two and three.

Normative Ethics—Doing the Right Thing—Continued

Doctrine of Doing and Allowing

RSL presents an interesting dilemma that makes a distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission. He calls it the doctrine of doing and allowing: “It is always morally worse to do harm than to allow the same harm to occur.”(233)

For example, he tells the story of a soldier whose colleague is wounded—is it better to put him out of his pain, knowing he will die, or to leave him to die on the battlefield? This doctrine suggests just leaving him to die is morally superior (235) I am not sure that I would agree.

Virtue Ethics

RSL writes:

“According to virtue ethicists, actions aren’t right because of their results [e.g. consequentialism] or because they follow from some hard-and-fast rule [e.g. utilitarianism]. Rather, they are right because they would be done by someone of true virtue. This person is a moral exemplar.”(257)

Virtue ethics has a long history that is attributed to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The focus here is on practical wisdom, emotional maturity, and sound judgment rather than hard and fast rules. As such, moral training, experience, and practice are required (258-261).

Virtue ethics has long been considered a Christian approach to raising children and developing leadership skills.

Feminist Ethics

RSL sees two ways that:

“philosophers have shortchanged the lives of women. The first is to make false and damaging claims about them. The second is to ignore female experiences and perspectives.”(277)

RSL sees feminists making four central claims:

  1. Women are the moral equals of men; views that justify the subordination of women or downplay their interests are thus mistaken on that account.
  2. The experiences of women deserve our respect and are vital to a full and accurate understanding of morality…
  3. Traits that have been traditionally been associated with women—empathy, sympathy, caring, altruism, mercy, compassion—are at least as morally important as traditionally masculine traits, such as competitiveness, independence, demanding one’s fair share, a readiness to resort to violence, and the insistence on personal honor.
  4. Traditionally feminine ways of moral reasoning, nes that emphasize cooperation, flexibility, openness to competing ideas, and a connectedness to family and friends, are often superior to traditionally masculine ways of reasoning that emphasize impartiality, abstraction, and strict adherence to rules.“ (277)

 These observations suggest that what is unique about the female perspective is tied to their particular role in society. Does what is unique about their perspective disappear when women take on roles traditionally associated with men?

 Metaethics—The Status of Morality

Are moral truths objectively true? If this is true, then some truths are better than others and not all cultures are equally good. Moral progress is accordingly possible.


In this textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.



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RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 2

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1]2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

During my career as an economist I frequently borrowed analysis and conclusions from other fields, such psychology, sociology, and history. The more widely I read, the more obvious it became that different fields approach similar questions differently, use different terminology for the same issues, and not necessarily aware of findings outside their specialty. Problem is especially prevalent among practitioners not familiar to scholarly research techniques.


In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes in three parts: The Good Life, Normative Ethics (doing the right thing), and Metaethics (the status of morality). In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL presents. Here In part two of my review, I will organize my comments about his more important arguments in parts one and two. In Part three of this review, I will finish RSL’s parts two and three.

The Good Life

RSL begins his discussion of the good life by talking about welfare and what improves. He defines “instrumental goods”that are“valuable because of the good things they bring about.” Those things are“intrinsically valuable” or“valuable in their own right.” Instrumental goods help us acquire things that are intrinsically valuable. (23)

RSL goes on to define hedonism, which is a philosophy focused almost exclusively on what makes us happy—the only thing that is intrinsically good. Hedonists distinguish physical pleasure from attitudinal pleasure. Hedonism in the West began with the Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341-270 BC; 24-25).

RSL offers a wide range of criticism of hedonism in the form of arguments why pursuing happiness is not logical.  An example is the “Paradox of Hedonism Argument:

  1. If happiness is the only that directly makes us better off, then it is rational to single-mindedly pursue it.
  2. It isn’t ration to do that.
  3. Therefore, happiness isn’t the only thing that directly make us better off.”(33)

RSL sees both premises (1, 2) are true, therefore the conclusion (3) must be true. He gives the example of a professional golfer who wants to improve her swing, but focusing on it makes it harder to do so. (33)

Other arguments against hedonism include the problem of people who enjoy doing evil things to other people and of people are equally happy but one person’s happiness is based on false beliefs (I will win the lottery tomorrow) while another is based on true beliefs (I just got my paycheck; 36-37). In like manner, RSL handicaps self-interest as a goal and other desires.

Normative Ethics—Doing the Right Thing

 Part two of the books is by far the longest involving 13 chapters and roughly 260 pages. Several arguments are worth highlighting.

Morality and Morality

In chapter 5, RSL highlights divine command theory citing a dialogue between Plato and a fellow by the name of Euthyphro who says that “piety is whatever the gods love.” To this, Plato asks:“Do the gods love actions because they are pious, or are actions pious because the gods love them?” (67) If the former, then the pious reasons are sufficient; if the latter, then the gods are acting arbitrarily.

As Christians, we believe that God is a god of truth, not arbitrary fiat, so we mostly argue the reasons rather than divine command. Still, we normally believe that the Bible summarizes truth making the search for reasons a secondary concern.

Natural Law

In chapter 6, RSL introduces natural law theory which:

“tells us that actions are right just because they are natural, and wrong just because they are unnatural. And people are good or bad to the extent that they fulfill their true nature—the more they fulfill their true nature, the better they are.”(77)

This argument is frequently cited to oppose suicide, contraception, and homosexual activity as immoral. (86) RSL finds this argument unconvincing in the case of abortion (a fetus is a human being, killing humans is immoral, therefore abortion is immoral) and homosexuality (marriage is for procreation, procreation requires a man and woman, therefore other sex is immoral) because the morality argument is primarily based on an arbitrary definition (86-89).


In Chapter 9, RSL describes consequentialism as “an action is morally required just because it produces the best overall results.” (122) Utilitarianism, which stands behind many economic theories, is a form of consequentialism. (123) This theory is attributed to John Wesley and Methodist social activism owe much to this theory. (120) Potential problems with consequentialism arise because of measurement problem and because maximizing benefits sometimes leads to cases of injustice—RSL cites the cases of vicarious and exemplary punishment. (151)

Social Contract Theory

In chapter 13, RSL outlines social contract theory that argues that moral rules are objective and based on the benefits of cooperation, given free choice and rational behavior. The alternative is a state of nature where everyone is at war with everyone else (199). Given the horrors of war, cooperation enforced by an impartial, professional police force is worth the limits placed on individual freedom.

What rules would evolve from such a social contract? RSL writes:

“prohibitions of killing, rape, battery, theft, and fraud, and rules require keeping one’s word, returning what one owes, and being respectful of others.”(201)

The laws would reflect the rules that a free and equal people would accept. (205) Protests against particular unfair laws would be accepted provided that protestors could demonstrate that they tried to change the law and worked primarily within in the system (206).

Problems with social contract theory arise when some people refuse to pay their fair share (free rider problem; 209) or when fundamental values are in conflict, such as in decisions of war and peace and the care to be given to the poor (215). The scope of the moral community—who has rights?—is also a hot button issue. (216) The current discussion over allowing felony criminals the right to vote is such a hot button issue.


In this textbook, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.



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RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 1

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1] 2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

How things get done has always been interesting to me. As a kid, when we traveled and spotted an interesting manufacturing plant along the highway, my dad would stop and we would inquire as to whether they offered plant tours. During my dissertation work I must have visited a dozen or more meat packing plants from Detroit to. Most people don’t know it, but economics (my first career) is a field closely related to ethics, its cousin in the philosophy department.


In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes:

“In the pages to come, I present and evaluate a lot of arguments. These are the ones at the heart of morality, the ones that try to offer answers to the deepest questions of ethics. As we will see, no fundamental theory—about the good life, our moral duties, or the status of morality—has earned anything like unanimous support among philosophers.”(17-18)

While this might seem like the failure of philosophy, knowing the basic arguments and counterarguments is extremely useful. Think about how zoologists classify animals allows the zoologist to recognize species and subspecies almost immediately. In the same way, knowing the key questions in philosophy and the arguments pro and con for those questions allows one to quickly survey an entire field of inquiry because the same questions and arguments have floated around since antiquity, albeit in different contexts.


RSL teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He is a graduate of Brown University and received his doctorate at the University of Arizona. He is the founder and editor of the periodical Oxford Studies in Metaethics and the author of numerous books.[2]


RSL writes this textbook in twenty-one chapters divided into three parts, preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by references, suggestions for further reading, glossary, and index. The chapters are:


Part One: The Good Life

  1. Hedonism: Its Powerful Appeal
  2. Is Happiness All that Matters?
  3. Getting What You Want
  4. Problems for the Desire Theory

Part Two: Normative Ethics: Doing the Right Thing

  1. Morality and Religion
  2. Natural Law
  3. Psychological Egoism
  4. Ethical Egoism
  5. Consequentialism: Its Nature
  • Consequentialism: Its Difficulties
  • The Kantian Perspective: Fairness and Justice
  • The Kantian Perspective: Autonomy and Respect
  • The Social Contract Tradition: The Theory and Its Attractions
  • The Social Contract Tradition: Problems and Prospects
  • Ethical Pluralism and Absolute Moral Rules
  • Ethical Pluralism: Prima Facie Duties and Ethical Particularism
  • Virtue Ethics
  • Feminist Ethics

Part Three: Metaethics: The Status of Morality

  • Ethical Realism
  • Moral Nihilism
  • Eleven Arguments Against Moral Objectivity”(vii-xiv)

Part one focuses on what makes a good life or what RSL refers to as value theory. In part two he talks about normative ethics, who is in and out of our moral universe and the roles of virtue, self-interest, and justice. In part three, he discusses metaethics and the sources of moral authority (2). Clearly, RSL covers a lot of material in 342 pages plus front and back matter.


While skeptics argue that moral thinking is arbitrary, RSL lays out a list of parameters that guide any moral quest. These are not meant to be exhaustive:

  1. “Neither the law nor tradition is immune from moral criticism…
  2. Everyone is morally fallible…
  3. Friendship is valuable…
  4. We are not obligated to do the impossible…
  5. Children bear less moral responsibility than adults…
  6. Justices is a very important moral good…
  7. Deliberately hurting other people requires justification…
  8. Equals ought to be treated equally…
  9. Self-interest isn’t the only ethical consideration…
  10. Agony is bad…
  11. Might doesn’t make right…
  12. Free and informed requests prevent rights violations.”(6-7)

Poor beginnings can also be articulated. He writes: “A morality that celebrates genocide, torture, treachery, sadism, hostility, and slavery is…either no morality at all or a deeply failed one.”(7) Because we can all name cultures that embrace such practices, clearly not all cultures are created equal.

What is morality? RSL sees no widely agreed upon definition. (8) What is moral reasoning? RSL sees a set of reasons (premises) and a conclusion that they support. (9) The validity of an argument depends on how well the premises of an argument support its conclusion. (12)


In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL present. In parts two and three, I will examine some of his more important arguments.

In this textbook,The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.




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Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 2

David Wells, Losing Our VirtueDavid Wells. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Wall Street has many proverbs that describe rookie investor mistakes. Famous last words of a rookie, for example, might be: “this time is different.” Or, for the rookie day trader: “trees don’t grow to the sky.” Or, one that might have saved a few tech fortunes that I know in the mid-1990s:“don’t confuse luck with smarts.” Each of these statements of Wall Street wisdom could easily apply also to the subject of human morality.

In part one of this review of David Wells’ book, Losing Our Virtue, I focused on summarizing Wells’ basic argument. In part two I examine his arguments in more depth.

Classical and Postmodern Spirituality

Addressing primarily an evangelical audience, Wells identifies two distinct contemporary spiritualities that both claim an evangelical heritage (belief in the Trinity, divinity of Christ, the resurrection, inspiration of scripture, and other core doctrines). In that sense, neither is generationally defined, but they differ in their response to postmodernism. In particular, in classical spiritualty, what is moral is central and in postmodern spirituality, it is not (34). The postmodern churches are counterculture being more therapeutic, more individualistic, and more anti-establishment (32).

Wells sees an additional distinction in the way that these two spiritualities experience moral questions. The classical church experience moral through guilt while the postmodern church experiences it through shame. (34) Here Wells sees of this shame:

“[There is] very little of which people are ashamed should they get caught or be exposed. It is, rather, the same of being naked within one’s self. It is shame experienced as inner emptiness, deprivation, loss, and disorientation. It is shame that is more psychological in nature than moral.”(35)

Citing Lewis Smedes, Wells observes that we “feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.”(130)

Nothing here in the postmodern spirituality suggests being stricken by the moral presence of God (41), as we read:

 “O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!  If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”(Ps 130:2-3)

Where the classical spirituality focuses on God’s truth, the postmodern spirituality centers on God’s power; where the classical spirituality experiences God’s present through believing in his word and trusting in Christ’s work, the postmodern experiences God’s presence through the emotions and bodily actions—hands raised, swaying to the music, and release of pent up emotions (43). The postmodern piety has a mystical nature where God’s transcendent holiness cannot be experienced and parables, like the prodigal son, that presume the truth of sin seem almost inconceivable (45-49).

Character Versus Personality

Wells makes an important distinction between character, which arises from our inner life and virtues, and personality, which focuses on outward appearances. He writes:

“Today, we cultivate personality (a word almost unknown before the twentieth century) far more than we do character, and this is simply the concomitant to the way in which values have come to replace the older sense of virtue…Character is good or bad, while personality is attractive, forceful, or magnetic.”(96-97)

In some sense, the “hollowing out of the self” began with this emphasis on exterior characteristics and is exemplified by the rise of celebrities over heroes. Wells notes, citing Daniel Boorstin:

“The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media.”(100)

Neglect of the inner life is akin to devaluing our experience of God. Wells observes:

“If the narcissist classically has a shrunken, fragmentary self, our culture has similarly become hollowed out and lost its core. If the narcissist covers up the emptiness by exaggerated self-importance and fantasies of power, our culture is covering up its hollowness by fads and fashions, ceaseless consuming, and the constant excitement of fresh sexual conquest.”(108)

While someone of strong moral character has no need of “buzz,” personality addicts live for public approval. Pastors are not the ones often guilty of being people pleasers. In Washington, the joke is that most dangerous place to stand is between a particular congressional representative (or senator or president) and the television cameras.

Shame and Guilt

Wells observes that Americans are often subject to crippling shame, but we do not belong to the same kind of honor and shame society that we read about in the Bible because of our individualism. For most part, we do not feel guilty about much—people go on television and tell the most intimate details of their lives. We hold group identities so lightly that we do not feel guilty in letting them down the way ancients and non-western people might feel guilt. Wells writes:

“In a narcissistic culture, Donald Capps sums up, people ‘do not experience guilt to any significant degree’ in the sense of having failed objective moral norms, and yet, despite this fact, they still do not feel whole and happy. They are, instead, burdened by ‘a deep, chronic, and often inexplicable sense of shame. It is this, rather than guilt, that makes them feel ‘that something is seriously wrong with them.’ This sense, though, is internalized. It is psychological, not social. This is what makes us different from traditional ‘shame cultures’”(167)

This sense of shame accordingly comes across as been unworthy, unwanted, unclean, or just unlovable, and it masks the ability of many people to experience God’s grace.

Recovering our Moral Vision

Wells sees the church needing to undertake two things in recovering its moral vision. The first thing is:

 “it will have to become courageous enough to say that much that is taken as normative in the postmodern world is actually sinful and it will have to exercise new ingenuity in learning how to speak about sin to a generation for whom sin has become an impossibility.”(179)

In the twenty years since Wells penned these words, little evidence can be cited to suggest that the church has taken up this first challenge. The second thing is:

“the church itself is going to have to become more authentically morally, for the greatness of the Gospel is now seen to have become quite trivial and inconsequential in its life.” (180)

Again, there is little evidence that the church has taken up this second challenge. As a general rule, the church has not staked out morally as a field that it even attempts to play on. If anything, it has run away from teaching morality which is often associated with the folk ways of the builder and boomer generations rather than a challenge facing every generation equally.


David Wells’ Losing Our Virtuefocuses on the question of Christian morality in the postmodern period better known for its sexual obsessions and liberality. As leaders in all aspects of society, from our politicians to our academics to entertainment to the church, crash and burn in moral failures in daily news accounts, Wells’ stark assessment of postmodern morality rings ever truer. This book desires another look from today’s academics and frontline pastors.


Boorstin, Daniel J. 1962. The Image; or, What Happened to the American Dream. New York: Athemneum.

Capps, Donald. 1993. The Depleted Self: Sin in a Narcissistic Age. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Smedes, Lewis B. 1993. Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve.New York: HarperCollins.

Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 2

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