Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

David Wells, Losing Our VirtueDavid Wells. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Goto Part 2 after November 13)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most difficult things that I have done in my life was to work with integrity as an economist in financial regulation and actually measure and report on the risk being taken by the institutions under our supervision. I likened my job as being a lifeguard hired to watch people drown. The better my team got at actually doing our jobs, the more trouble we found ourselves getting into. When I threw up my hands and left my well-paid career to enter seminary, I discovered that much the same environment engulfed the pastors that I worked with.


In David Well’s Losing Out Virtue, he writes:

“In the language we use to understand ourselves and our world is not simply a matter of words. It is the result of the interactions of many other factors…In this engagement, I shall argue that is now framing life in such a way that the most important part of self-understanding—that we are moral beings—has been removed from the equation. That is the beguilingly simple thesis I shall be pursuing: functionally, we are not morally disengaged, adrift and alienated; we are morally obliterated. We are, in practice, not only morally illiterate; we have become morally vacant.”(13)

Well’s goes on to observe:

“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues. First Plato and then Aristotle talked about the cardinal, or foundational, virtues. These were justice (or rectitude), wisdom, courage (or fortitude), and moderation (or self-control) …. The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that moral conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived.”(14)

Obviously, having morals in the classical sense meant much more than simply being able to keep one’s pants on. In a world where virtually every adult male served in the military (as is true in small counties today), hand-to-hand combat quickly tested at least one’s courage and other virtues. Following this train of thought, Hauerwas and WIllimon (2014, 35) write: “States, particularly liberal democracies, are heavily depend on wars for moral coherence.”

What Makes the Postmodern Era Different?

Wells observes four distinctives of the postmodern period:

  1. “We are seeing on an unprecedented scale the birth of a world civilization…
  2. Ours is the first major civilization to be building itself deliberately and self-consciously without religious foundations…
  3. Our experience of modernity is intense to an unparalleled extent…
  4. As a result of these factors that are unique to our time, we are seeing on an unprecedented sale, a mass experimentation with new values.” (23-27)

Note that Wells is using the term, modernity, to apply primarily to what I would call the postmodern period. Changes that might have taken generations during the modern period (1800 through 1960) have been compressed into just a few years during the postmodern period (since 1960).

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.


Dr. David Wells is a Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Wells is a graduate of University of London with a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a doctorate from Manchester University, England. He is the author of numerous books.[1]

As a GCTS graduate myself, Wells taught one of my New Testament courses and I read this book before taking the class to acquaint myself with his work, as was my custom in seminary.


Wells writes in these chapters:

  1. A Tale of Two Spiritualities
  2. The Playground of Desire
  3. On Saving Ourselves
  4. The Bonfire of the Self
  5. Contradictions
  6. Faith of the Ages

These chapters are preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.


In part one of this review, I have focused on summarizing Wells’ basic argument. In part two I will examine his arguments in more depth.

David Wells’ Losing Our Virtue focuses 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 is a book desiring of more attention from academics to frontline pastors.




Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon.2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Wells Exercises Moral Vision, Part 1

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Wells: Character and Personality Differ—We Should Care Why

Virtue_review_04302015David Wells. 1998.  Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most painful lessons that I learned as a parent was that I could not assume that what I taught my kids would be reinforced by lessons in church, school, and other forums, like multi-media. While some might say that I was simply naive, my role as a father providing for the family was distracting enough.  Many of my peers failed to keep up financially with their parents—even after sending their wife out to work—in the face of stagnating and falling family incomes [1].

Some of the costs of this fight in our generation to defend living standards have been increased divorce, stressed out parents, and a lack of consciousness on how to deal with it.  In this context, moral training mostly fell through the cracks because, like other forms of education, moral training requires  time, money,  effort, and good role models in the community.  Meanwhile, multimedia provided scores of really bad role models and the internet provided a haven for care and feeding of some rather dysfunctional youth subcultures [2].  It is accordingly not surprising in a social and economic sense that we have seen a rapid decline in morality during this generation.

In his book, Losing Our Virtue:  Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, David Wells documents this decline in morality from a theological perspective.  Wells writes:

“In this engagement, I shall argue, that is now framing life in such a way that the most important part of self-understanding—that we are moral beings—has been removed from the equation.  That is the beguilingly simple thesis I shall be pursuing:  functionally, we not morally disengaged, adrift, and alienated; we are morally obliterated…In our schools…we shifted from teaching character formation to values clarification…Our children are not only more lawless in school…but are too often without any apparent moral consciousness regarding their actions.” (13)

In order to experience a decline in morality, one needs to articulate a standard for behavior.  Wells writes:

“For over two thousand years, moral conduct was discussed under the language of virtues.  First Plato and then Aristole talked about the cardinal, or foundational, virtues.  These were justice (or rectitude), wisdom, courage (or fortitude), and moderation (or self-control)…The importance of the classical view of the virtues was that moral conduct was seen to be the outcome of character, and it was considered entirely futile to divorce inward moral reality from its exercise in the society or community in which a person lived…The character of which we speak here is not simply the cultivation of natural virtue but the intensely conscious sense of living morally before God.” (14-16)

Wells provides a whirlwind review of the past 2,000 years of moral development.  However, most of the real change is very recent and revolves around the postmodern assault on the existence of objective truth.  If there is no one truth, then there can be no one set of virtues and no one ideal character type.  Wells observes that “postmodern critics oppose Christianity not because of its particulars, but simply because it claims to be true.” (19).

David F. Wells[3] is the Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Historical and Systemic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA and one of my own professors[4].  He writes Losing Our Virtues in 6 chapters proceeded by a preface and introduction and followed by a bibliography and index.  The 6 chapters are:

  1. A Tale of Two Spiritualties,
  2. The Playground of Desire,
  3. On Saving Ourselves,
  4. The Bonfire of the Self,
  5. Contradictions, and
  6. Faith of the Ages (viii-ix).

Wells is author of a number of books, including: No Place for Truth (1994), God in the Wasteland (1995), and Above All Earthly Powers (2005).

An important insight that Wells offers is also one difficult to understand fully.  He writes:

“…I shall develop the argument that this difference [between classical morality and postmodern morality] has produced a shift in the way that the moral is experienced.  It is a shift from guilt in the classical stream to shame in the postmodern.  However, it is shame in a uniquely contemporary way. It is not shame of being exposed before others because our individualism gives us permission to do whatever we like and whatever gratifies us provided that it…is legal.  There is, as a result, very little of which people are ashamed should they get caught or be exposed.  It is, rather, the shame of being naked within one’s self. It is shame experienced as inner emptiness, deprivation, loss, and disorientation.  It is shame that is far more psychological in nature than moral.” (34-35)

Wells sees guilt as “normally the emotional response to our violation of a moral norm” and shame is “our disappointment with ourselves that we are not other than what we are” (130).  Citing Dick Keyes, Wells writes:

“our inability to deal with shame and guilt right at the heart of our problems in identity. Identity is a matter of knowing who we are, both as human beings and as individuals, and through this understanding arriving at some internal cohesion and coherence.” (131)

If we do not know who we are, then we cannot say who we are not.  The identity problem accordingly spills over into our actions through an obvious lack of boundaries—as people do what feels good without guidance, an incredible number of crimes (abuse, corruption, drug use, mass murder…) and perversions (pedophilia, suicide, gender confusion…) come into view at rates unprecedented in recent history.  This is not just a measurement problem [5].  Historically, our morality lined us up with God’s immutable (unchanging) character—but if we cannot line such things up internally today, then how is it possible to act coherently in the external world? [6]  And what exactly does the church itself teach about morality today?

When I think about David Well’s Losing Our Virtue, I remember his distinction between character (internally defined and evidenced) and personality (externally defined and evidenced; 96-105)—television shows today mostly ignore the former and extol the latter.  Knowing the difference is one reason why David Well’s Losing Our Virtue is a book deserving of a deep read.


[1] Rather than upward mobility, this generation has mostly faced downward mobility both financially and socially.

[2]  For example, the goth subculture is probably the best known (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goth_subculture).   The emo subculture glories suicide ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emo).  For a list of subcultures in the United States, see: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_subcultures).

[3] http://bit.ly/1DF8i0q

[4] My pastor and I are both students of Dr. Wells, though about 30 years removed. I will always remember Dr. Wells for gently disavowing me of the notion that theology begins and ends with the double love command (Matt 22: 36-40).

[5] Before the advent of co-educational dormitories on university campuses, for example, women and men did not live in the same building and access was tightly restricted.  The ability to misbehave in any way was much less likely.  The number of date rapes was accordingly not substantially underestimated in those years—it was variance around a much lower base.  The rise in the number of rapes is accordingly due to cultural changes, not measurement error.

[6] Making things worse, postmoderns do not believe in one objective truth.  In effect, they deny that a single line up with God is even possible.  Therefore, morality is inconsistent with their worldview.

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Cross and Guyer ID Behavioral Traps


Cross and Guyer ID Behavioral Traps

John G. Cross and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is morality?  Why engage in conversation about moral behavior?  Why are some people unable to cope with the normal challenges of life while others avoid self-destructive behavior?  In their book, Social Traps, John Cross and Melvin Guyer suggest that many aspects of morality arise from weaknesses in the behavioral decision processes that we all normally employ.

Cross and Guyer write:

“The central thesis of this book is that a wide variety of recognized social problems can be regarded from a third view [Not stupidity; not corruption]. Drug use, air pollution, and international conflict are all instances of what we have called ‘social traps’.  Put simply, a social trap is a situation characterized by multiple but conflicting rewards.  Just as an ordinary trap entices its prey with the offer of an attractive bait and then punishes it by capture…’social traps’ draw their victims into certain patterns of behavior with promises of immediate rewards and then confront them with [longer term] consequences that the victim would rather avoid.” (3-4)

In other words, the normal learning process—do more of what feels good; do less of what feels bad—breaks down. Obvious examples of this problem include smoking, drug use, and sexual immorality.  Cross and Guyer want to know what causes these deviations from rationality (7).  Why do rational people engage in silly habits? (v)

At the time of this writing, John Cross was an economist and Melvin was a social psychologist who worked at the Mental Heal Research Institute at the University of Michigan.  Their book is written in 8 chapters, including:

  1. Introduction;
  2. Taxonomy of Traps;
  3. Time-Delay Traps;
  4. Ignorance Traps;
  5. Sliding Reinforcers;
  6. Who Got My Reinforcer;
  7. Stampedes; and
  8. Judicial and Legislative Escapes (vii).

These chapters are preceded by a brief preface and followed with a bibliography.

The example of smoking is instructive. Cross and Guyer write:

“The pleasures associated with smoking have a physical presence and immediacy that is entirely absent in the case of its other consequences.  Moreover, any avoidance which might be induced through threats of future punishment is further reduced by the fact that the punishment by no means occurs with certainty, making it possible for the smoker to avoid even the anticipation of pain with the rationalization that that sort of thing only happens to other people.” (4)

Here we witness a breakdown in incentives to smoke or avoid smoking because the rewards and punishments of smoking are separated in time. The reward is immediate while the punishment is in the distance future (19)[1]. Consequently, if a behavioral decision process is employed—do more of what feels good and do less of what feels bad—people will decide to smoke and to suffer the consequences later.

Cross and Guyer see warnings of future problems less effective than structuring incentives—rewards and punishments—to fit the behavioral decision process (14).  The heavy excise taxes on cigarettes are an example of this principle in practice because prospective smokers will be less likely to smoke if they have to pain a heavy tax today when purchasing the cigarettes. In an ideal world, the excise tax could be raised to the level of the present value of future social costs incurred through elevated lung cancer deaths (50).

Moral behavior starts with rational thinking and requires avoiding behavioral responses where short-term incentives lead to long-term negative outcomes [2].  Morality is accordingly a sign-post that warns the individual of future consequences of choices in the present that carry uncertain risks. Removing present penalties for immoral choices (for example, removing excise taxes on cigarettes) simply raises the probability that errors in judgment will occur.

A socially-significant example of this breakdown in behavioral decision-making occurred in the recent housing crisis. In the 1990s and early millennial period, longstanding lending laws and regulations prohibiting lenders from making sub-prime home mortgages were relaxed. This change in law and regulation allowed lenders to earn high fees for selling mortgages to poor and minority individuals who had a high probability of not being able to repay the loans [3].  The present incentive to do these deals was high for both borrower and lender. Yet, the prospect for future financial problems was also high.

Cross and Guyer’s analysis suggests that  such risky lending choices should be limited because of the breakdown in normal incentives to behave prudently in making decisions about mortgages.  This was the law before the changes and it became the law again after the financial crisis.  Unfortunately, many people lost their life savings and many financial institutions were bankrupted during the crisis.  For observers in the finance industry, the crisis was expected—the only uncertainty was when it would happen.

Traditional morality concerning drug  use and human sexuality work much the same way.  Drug users get hooked on the highs; later, they overdose trying to maintain the highs.  Premarital sex or having multiple partners is fun short-term, but the result longer term can be unwanted pregnancy, social diseases, and bad choices in relationships.  In a permissive society, the costs of poor decision-making are borne by those who lack discipline and fall into such traps.  Unfortunately, others are hurt by their bad choices.   What child wants to be borne with birth defects or without a father?

Traditional mortality is time tested—is 2,000 years enough of a test?—which is why it has not gone away in spite of the many attempts at technical fixes, like unnecessary medical interventions.  Is it any wonder that Jesus warned against false teaching: “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin [that is, encourage people fall into social traps for the sake of their own personal freedom, money or political gain], it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matt 18:6 ESV)

Still, traditional morality and Christian morality overlap, but do not contain one another.  Traditional morality, for example, includes revenge—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth—but Christian morality does not.  Christian morality recognizes that pain is not limited to the body or even the mind.  Our relationship with Christ is for us the tree of life—anything that cuts us off from Christ is a threat to our salvation.  Social traps are not the only traps.  Therefore, Christian morality is not necessarily subject to redefinition with changes in medical advances or social convention.

John Cross and Melvin Guyer’s book, Social Traps, changed my attitude about the question of moral instruction and the role of institutions, like the government and the church, in guiding society through difficult decisions.  It is good read and well worth the time.  The life you save may be your own.

[1]“…lengthy time lags may prevent learning altogether.” (19)

[2] If a plus (+) is a benefit and a negative (-) is a cost, the structure of incentives over time for social trap can be illustrated as:  ++++++++———-.  The benefits convince one to get involved even if the costs are illusive or occur in the distant future.  Debt works this way which is why a prudent borrower will focus borrowing on investments, not consumption.  Borrowing to buy a house or to get an education (investments) within your means is prudent; living day to day off a credit card (consumption) is not prudent.

[3] After the Great Depression and other experiences, federal and state laws and regulations forbid the sale of  sub-prime mortgages to borrowers if their financial capability to repay the loans was weak.

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