Saturday, January 5, 2013

"The Quintessential Protestant Error"

I contend Jesus was not a virtue ethicist. - Scot McKnight

In a follow-up comment, McKnight goes on to say:

Virtue ethics, by definition, is the formation of character through the practice of habits. It is a conscious moral theory — and I don’t see “habits” as the way character is formed, nor all that much about the explicit category of “character” in the NT. Instead, and I have spoken privately with Dallas Willard about this and I’m not sure he’d see his stuff as virtue ethics per se, but something beyond it — back now to “Instead”: the NT sees transformation through grace and the Spirit etc. Not habit, but God’s gracious work in us. That’s not the same as virtue ethics. 
Sitting at my publisher is a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, the Intro to which is a critique of ethical theories in the light of how Jesus “does” ethics. So, Chris, is the love command virtue ethics? I’d say No. It is following Jesus not practicing habits. It’s an eschatological ethic.

Far be it from me to assume the role of apologist for Virtue Ethics, but there is a fundamental and catastrophic theological/ethical error at work here when McKnight says "Not habit, but God's gracious work in us." James K.A. Smith calls McKnight out on this:

To think it is EITHER grace OR habit formation is the quintessential Protestant error.

This either/or between God's grace and our effort is based on a particular reading of Paul that doesn't stack up. The way I see it -- and here's my own either/or -- either Paul didn't practice what he preached, or what he preached wasn't exactly what we think he preached. I don't know anyone who contends for the former, but the "New perspective on Paul" is a relatively recent scholarly movement that contends for the latter, and quite convincingly. If I'm not mistaken, McKnight did his PhD under one of its chief exponents -- James Dunn -- which makes his comment doubly odd (not that you have to agree with your PhD supervisor, of course). It would take a while (and a better mind) to go into the details, but this passage from 1 Corinthians is as good a place as any to start when thinking about the relationship between grace, character, and habits. It is one of the most underrated and provocative passages in all of Scripture:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 

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