Thursday, March 30, 2006

Christian Ethics: Stanley Holmgren vs. Karl Holl (two completely different modes of Christian thought?)


“The Christian moral life…involves many encounters with unknown places. We must frequently decide what to do in new and even confusing circumstances…We need Christian character that has been shaped through practice, and which is open to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Christian conscience involves each and every one of these things as we steer our course through life. We must both think and feel, we must both remember and plan, and we must both hear and act. Involving all of these aspects of ourselves, conscience is the process of bringing the fullness of the Christian vision to bear upon a single choice.” (from Ethics After Easter, p. 123)

Karl Holl:

"Luther – unlike Kant (and Holmgren - JZ), and in express opposition to Aristotle – did not think the highest goal is attained where rational deliberation makes the correct choice among various possibilities of action. Action is truly moral, truly free, only when the good has become so instinctive that the only thought that presents itself is the correct one and this is at once implemented." (from The Reconstruction of Morality, p. 94)

Remember "Simple Simon", the Mantronix jam from 1988? I'd like to dedicate it to one of the two ethicist listed above. -- JAZ

p.s., If you would like me to email you this song, please post your address in the comments, and I'll deliver it to you pronto, deleting your email address immediately thereafter.


Joshua Corrigan said...

I am using the Karl Holl bit in my thesis!

John Zahl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JDK said...

Wonderful . . just wonderful! Two quotes that get at the presenting issue of "what do we do now" that completely represent the two "opposing" viewpoints.

I don't think that there is any middle ground between these two and will be interested in how those reading this blog who seem to live in the mystical "both/and" will try and work these together!

much love,

John Zahl said...


I think you've misinterpreted the Holl comments. He is describing a Christian life that flows reflexively (as good works) from the heart, as the only response possible given exposure to the gospel, but it is creative, though still technically in line with the law, it finds no succor there, measuring itself not at all. He is boldly (and in a sense that is too rare) criticizing the notion of decision-making, stating it, to the extent that such is an option, to be far off the mark of that which defines the Christian life. I think Holmgren is for the birds! What planet is he living on? Not one that is honest about the darkly tinged anti-God mired human heart. For Holl, Grace is intervening (as it must be), for Holmgren, the Christian life is a kind of deliberative romantic, "well-balanced", level-headed humanism that I have no time for. No Gospel to be found there, just man's supposed ability to fulfill the law apart from Christ. There, I've said it.

love to you all, JZ

p.s., Here's to church in the renewed old school mode, taught currently only at TESM! I so look forward to becoming a product of that special brand of Christian ministry. It is practically another religion! Or am I the only Christian who feels like the Gospel that tells of God's love for sinners as found uniquely in Christ is as obscure as the music of Chas Jankel (my current fave)?

mike burton said...



And i hope to join you at TESM as the Lord makes a way.


Aaron Zimmerman said...

I mixed up Holmgren and Holl in my post. Corrected version follows:
Holmgren's comment, "We need Christian character that has been shaped through practice, and which is open to the voice of the Holy Spirit," implies that only "mature" Christians, those who have had chance to "be shaped" can make good decisions. This seems unfair and misaligned with experience. In addition, how does Holmgren treat the fact of innumerable mature Christians who daily make unbelievebly bad choices? His language is fine-sounding and seductive--and it seems like what he's saying should be true. But in real life, it's not.

Further, Holmgren's ethics seem mushy. Luther's (Holl's) view presupposes that there actually is an objective "good" (though he admits we can't choose it), while Holmgren's view is more of muddling through. He seems to live in a world where the good is never clear--so we need to bring the "fullness of the Christian vision" to bear to help us figure it out. While this may sometimes be the case, more often than not, we know what the good is. We just can't (or won't) do it.

Aaron Zimmerman said...

would you please remove my original incorrect post?

John Zahl said...

Aaron, it's done! I thought maybe you had mixed them up. Best, JZ

mattie said...

Jady -

I'll take up your challenge. I don't think that, based on these two quotations alone, Holl & Holmgren need to be viewed in such an oppositional light. What Holl is condemning is the idea that moral choices can be made on "rational deliberation" and I think that Holmgren would concur. Christian character is often "irrational" because the life and death of Jesus Christ, as we know, is "foolishness to those who are perishing" (1 Cor 1:18). Any "practice" that Holmgren is advocating is simply the process of deliberately allowing the person of Jesus Christ to mold and shape our character, through grace and truth, into the soul of a person capable of making such "instinctive" decisions. That is truly grace rather than law. Law offers a rubric of precise "moral" actions to perform given specific circumstances, but grace is acting out of love (be it caritas or agape) in any unpredictable and complex situation. I do think that we must "learn" to love and I think that is what Holmgren means by developing conscience.

A thinker who explicitly brings both of these positions into play is Stanley Hauerwas. I know you all probably think his anthropology is too high, but I find his work compelling precisely because he recognizes the real and central place of the fact that we are saved by grace through faith, but also because he finds a way to be faithful to the whole of the Gospel by reminding us that we are also called to "be perfect as" our "heavenly Father is perfect" and to be "imitators of Christ." This seeming contradiction of grace and works is reconciled through something similar to Holl's approach except that he throws out the idea that "truly free" is a criterion to moral choice. Christ compells us to "instinctively" (as Holl asserts) CHOOSE the good and ACT upon it as our "Christian character" (as Holmgren writes) is shaped not in the "good works" of Christ, but in the ability to be people of covenental forgiveness, which is the distinctively Christian component to his ethic.


Ethanasius said...


As much as a drowning man who reaches after a life-ring has a "choice" to do so, then I guess you're right!

simeon zahl said...

John's point that what we are talking about here is "practically another religion" has stuck with me. The difference is that radical. Any ounce of works, no matter how it is brought into the equation, fundamentally puts the matter on a completely different footing than what John, Holl, Dad, Galatians, etc. are talking about. And the two views' practical ramifications are just so utterly divergent. It really is like a whole different religion. Everything short of Holl's view is basically just what the World thinks, with a little compassion (grace) thrown in as a nod to reality. A whole religion of grace however, is just a completely different story.

And I love the fact that there is a place now, once again in history, where this is being taught! Go TESM.

PS- Hi Aaron!

mike burton said...


The difference once again is the anthropology.

I prefer the anology not of a drowning man who has a choice to grab the life ring, but rather of the man lying lifeless on the ocean floor who's only hope is that God reaches to the depths and breathes new life into his cold, dead body.


bpzahl said...

basically, some here think that the fruits of the spirit/ fruits in Christian life are prescriptive, and some think that they are descriptive.

I personally tend to think that it's descriptive. Just as much as a tree has no say about what sort of soil it is planted in, what sort of climate it is going to be living in, and even whether or not it will be chopped down to become something else, so it has no say about what sort of fruit it will bear. A tree in good soil and good climate cannot *not* bear good fruit, but not all trees are planted in rich soil with great climate. And those trees are not going to be able to move themselves to better climate or better soil, nor is it going to be able to nourish itself with fertilizers.

Jesus' call is full reliance on God - trusting him to plant us where he would, to fertilize us when he would, to send a drought or a wind storm when he would.

cjdm said...

hi kids:

holl is right, and more realistic. more spiritual too. you can't count on habits, and habits don't save. sometimes they make you more like to fail less in the short term...

the best thing on the relationship between radical lutheran justification theology and imitation of Christ is kierkegaard's "practice in christianity" and "judge for yourself." so good...check 'em out...


Anonymous said...

Hi All,

I'm at a bit of a loss as to what all this is about.

What is the problem with suggesting that:

1) "Action is truly moral, truly free, only when the good has become so instinctive that the only thought that presents itself is the correct one and this is at once implemented",


2)"conscience is the process of bringing the fullness of the Christian vision to bear upon a single choice"

are not mutually exclusive claims.

As usual, I can't see why you can't have both. Surely it is possible (and even necessary) to posit that rational and mental habits can be, by the grace of the Spirit, moved to the good in each single choice. Or is it that our rational capacities somehow remain outside God's transforming presence. No?

In that case the gifts of the Spirit are best understood as both prescriptive and descriptive of the Christian life.

But then, I'm not nearly as smart as y'all. Maybe I just don't see it.


mattie said...

Simeon -

Hebrews is just as canonical as Galatians. How does "radical Lutheran justification theology" account for the redeemed anthropology asserted in passages such as "The Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying: "This is the covenant I will establish with them after those days, says the Lord: 'I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them upon their minds,'" he also says: "Their sins and their evildoing I will remember no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer offering for sin. Therefore, brothers, since through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way he opened for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, and since we have "a great priest over the house of God," let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. Let us hold unwaveringly to our confession that gives us hope, for he who made the promise is trustworthy. We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. (Hebrews 10:15-24)

The new covenant allows for, or should I say, demands, a "reliance" on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that shapes a Christian conscience for we have the "law" of grace and love written on our hearts.

Moreover, the ethic and anthropology of Galatians is not as low as you would hope. Remember:

"For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."" (5:13-14)

"Now those who belong to Christ (Jesus) have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit." (5:24-25)

"Make no mistake: God is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the spirit will reap eternal life from the spirit. Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up." (6:7-9)

The "good works" that ethicists like Holmgren and Hauerwas assert are absolutely contingent on the saving power of Christ through Jesus' death and resurrection. It's just that this is about a covenental relationship in which we are called to be sons & daughters who do "good works" of the spirit. This is not because we think we can save ourselves if we just stop sinning (how many times can I say that!?).

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit (though which Christian conscience is developed) is definately NOT what the world thinks with a dash of grace. It is radical and transformative, as well as incredibly true to the scriptural record and the testimony of the early church.

Oh, and BFC - Thank you and Amen.


mike burton said...


I don't think anyone is saying that there is anything wrong with good works.

"The indwelling of the Holy Spirit (though which Christian conscience is developed) is definately NOT what the world thinks with a dash of grace."

- great comment - although I'd say the world has more of the attitude of work your ass off 'til you get what you want, look out for #1 because nobody really gives a shit about you and if you don't succeed, well, you just didn't work hard enough.

I'd say that "radical Lutheran justification theology" is fairly well in opposition to what the world thinks and does.

Jeff Dean said...


First off, let me say that I hate bitterly the particular direction of this conversation seems to be "ganging up" on you. If you don't feel that way, then nevermind. If you do, then please know my heart goes out to you.

That said: Emily Cox, whom some of you know, often teases my blocking group, saying that, for us, not being self-aware is the only sin. Don't analyze that bit, as its merely a lead in to my real point.

I think Holl is saying that any self-awareness makes the "good" automatically sinful, because the motivation for doing it is always "to be good", not to serve God.

If, on the other hand, one's motivation is to love God, then the action will ipso facto be "good".

I think a Catholic understanding fundamentally orders these categories to one another: to " be good" (perhaps better is to "do well") is categorically the same as to "love God".

Arguably, in a Catholic system, this is likely a beneficial use of Ockham's razor, for Catholic dogma defines precisely what moral behavior includes and excludes. Thus, one might argue that obeying this system of morality, deposited on earth by God's Holy Spirit, is the truest love of God.

Difficult arises, however, when doubt about the objective nature of "doing good" arises.

Is a suicide bomber "doing good" when he destroys a village market? Is a pacifict monk "doing good" when he self-immolates?

The answer to such questions depends on your pre-existant category of morality. That is, to answer the question of "is x good?(and therefore "does x show love to God?") you must have a system in place to differentiate right from wrong.

We arrive, then, at a prior question. Is the Magisterium of the Catholic Church the final word on earth regarding right and wrong?

If the answer to that question is "yes", then one may probably rightfully conclude that "doing good" is precisely the same as "showing love to God".

If the answer to that question is "no"--if God himself remains present on earth in an unbound way such that He is the standard of right and wrong and the judge of all --then one can never be sure that "doing good" is actually "good" or actually shows love to God.

At this point, the effort should not be to resolve the tension, but rather humble to admit the hopelessness of the situation and beg for mercy from the Judge to whom we must give an account of every stray word .

Jeff Dean said...

Incidentally, there is a hugely relevant post here:

Comments would be helpful.

bpzahl said...

Jeff Dean, you should see if you can get your hands on a book called "Theology and Psychology" by Fraser Watts. Chapter 9 discusses the idea of the fall, self-awareness and moral consciousness. Here, for example:
"The pre-Fall state seems an ambivalent one, innocent in the sense of not having enough awareness of the distinction between good and evil to sin deliberately, rather than being paradisal in the sense of perfectly good."

JDK said...

Mattie! I was hoping you'd take the bait haha:) As always, I'm SO thankful that people like you keep us from sitting around in a mutual-admiration-agreement society!

With that being said, I'm sure you know that I'll have to take exception to your post!

There are certainly counter-arguments to Holl and Holmgren, but that dosen't mean that these two statements are not diametrically opposed. Prooftexting Hebrews will not settle this argument. Luther and Holl both read Hebrews (and the rest of the bible) and have had to deal with the texts that both suppoort and refute their arguments. As a Catholic, I'm sure you can understand how a presuppositional confessional stance effects your interpretation of particular passages (cf. Mt. 16:18).
This is not a question of competing Biblical exegesis; rather, it's a perfect example of competing foundational theologies.

People have been trying to reconcile Paul with James since they were written; yet the two camps are still firmly represented by the RCC and the great protestant muddle. While some may be content to live in the middle, I think that it is "either/or".

Either what you do after salvation has no effect on your standing before God at at all , or there is some aspect that is contingent upon your behavior.

Either the parenesis in the epistiles is descriptive or it's prescriptive.

The sermon on the mount is either binding in its entirety or it's pointed hyperbole.

Anyway, just some thoughts. Thanks for the great discussion!
As ever,

JDK said...

You wrote:
what is the problem with suggesting that:
1) "Action is truly moral, truly free, only when the good has become so instinctive that the only thought that presents itself is the correct one and this is at once implemented",
2)"conscience is the process of bringing the fullness of the Christian vision to bear upon a single choice"
are not mutually exclusive claims.

The problem with your suggestion is the word "choice" w/in Holmgren's statement. Holl is positing that the new life is marked by a complete transformation of the will to the good (at least in specific instances.) This means that there is no "choice" to do good, one simply does the good w/out weighing the options at all.

The difficulty with this discussion is that the aspect of the heart is generally overlooked. When presented with the option of hitting someone or not, I am hard pressed to argue that there is not some sort of decision making, some "choice" that is exercised to keep me from swinging. Nonetheless, the real problem is that my actions are simply outworkings of my heart, and whether I chose to swing or not is merely the symptom of a deeper problem.

Holmgren would argue that when confronted with my desire to swing, I bring my Christian character to bear on the situation and control my actions. While this is certainly preferable in a worldly sense, Holl would argue that it misses the real radicality of what "new life" means.

Holl argues that even the existence of the choice indicates that I'm not operating in a truly ethical and Christian way. While I may be able to show compassion to others, it is a long way from genuinely having compassion. Now, there are certainly times in my life when I've genuinely shown compassion, but these times are gifts, fruit. . whatever. They are the result of the Holy Spirit.

Occasionally I'll see someone who is in some sort of sad situation of their own making and my initial thought will be one of compassion rather than judgement.

However, more often than not, I initally run through the reasons why they are getting what they deserve, then I think about how I haven't gotten what I deserve and then I show them compassion or at least think compassionately about them.

The former is what Holl is arguing, the latter Holmgren. Two different ways of operating and two diametrially opposed conceptions of the Christian ethical life.

mattie said...

Jady -

I think it is precisely that "either/or" approach that the church throughout the centuries has been careful to avoid.

God must either be one or three? Nope. God's both. (Councils of Nicea & Constantinople)

Jesus must either be God or man? Nope. He's both. (Councils of Ephesus & Chalcedon)

Fortunately, the very questions we are at odds about were also addressed in the early church, at the councils of Orange. "We must either have a high anthropology or a low anthropology!" No, the church insisted. There is no contradiction is saying that we are both completely dependent on God as well as capable of acting freely. Our corrupted will has been cleansed through baptism. So, our anthropology is redeemeed, neither low nor high.

Similarly, Christian ethicists like Holl & Holmgren can assert that moral action is both instinctive and deliberate and both can be right because we have the Holy Spirit in us inspiring our free choices. The difference is a point of emphasis, but neither is "less Christian" or "more true to the Gospel."

Living in and through these seeming contradictions is our call as Christians. We are saved by grace through faith, but called to act in love.

You wrote, "Either what you do after salvation has no effect on your standing before God at at all , or there is some aspect that is contingent upon your behavior." No! What you do "after salvation" both does and does not affect how God sees you. We are loved children, but God does get frustrated when continually reject His will through sin. Hence the persisting need for repentance and the corresponding outpouring of grace. Redemption is a process made possible through Christ's life and death that we access through baptism.

You wrote, "Either the parenesis in the epistiles is descriptive or it's prescriptive." It's both. A believer infused with the Holy Spirit will inevitably increase in loving acts, but it is by both Christ's compelling work and their free cooperation.

You wrote, "The sermon on the mount is either binding in its entirety or it's pointed hyperbole." It's both. It is our Christian vocation and our impossible standard. This needn't contradict - we must simply learn that our call as children of God is eternal and developmental.

There is no contradiction between Paul and James! There may be points of emphasis, but we are not called to pick a favorite or even strive for a synthesis. We are asked to dwell in that tension, in the mysteries of God's salvation given to us through Christ which both seem to assert that we should do nothing and that we should do everything. Living in that "both/and" grows us into both more holy and more humble people. As soon as we think we've got those "good works" down here comes Paul reminding us to stop patting ourselves on the back and rely wholly on God. As soon as we think our "personal relationship with Christ" is on track, here comes James to remind us to start acting like we actually love God by loving each other. The Christian life is about those very "contradictions" and that's a beautiful thing.

Jeff - Yeah, sometimes I do feel "ganged up on" and I want to quit posting. But it is then that God reminds me that my unique experiences and studies with these seemingly contradictory theologies has been His gift to me and I simply must engage. If I am called to be a theologian I must learn to dialogue with smart people who disagree with me or the pursuit of theology really does just become a sort of "mutual admiration society" in which no one really learns or grows. I am genuinely here to be corrected, and I hope that my critics will be open to whatever tiny kernel of truth in my posts can correct them. Theology, if it is to matter, must be "catholic," that is universal, relevant, and ecumenical.

Your sister,

mike burton said...

Hi Mattie,

That was a very thoughtful post.

This one could probably be thought out a little more, but, hey, I'll throw it out there anyway.

You said:

"No! What you do "after salvation" both does and does not affect how God sees you. We are loved children, but God does get frustrated when continually reject His will through sin."

Actually, aren't we redeemed by Christ and through HIS righteousness able to stand before God unblemished and worthy? Isn't He our only mediator between ourselves and God? I certainly believe this to be true. If that is so, what we do has no affect on how he feels about us one way or the other, good or bad. He accepts us because we are redeemed by Jesus. Period. I don't think He's really paying us much attention at all.

I'm sure I've gone a little far even for some of my Evangelical friends now, so I think I'll stop.


Charlie Vick said...


I actually don't get why you feel you "must engage". In other words, if you believe that what you say is true, why make the effort to defend/justify it...? Don't you run the risk of NOT validating the catholic stance on sanctification (aka as one who is on the proper path of sanctification, why would she take, for example, a certain tone during a discourse...) Unfortunately, I don't believe that all of the reformation-obsessed theologians posting on this blog run that same risk since they don't seem to be claiming that they can/are/do good of any kind... if anything, it seems, they are claiming the opposite. they aren't claiming that it is possible to have pure motivations- so when they post something with not exactly "holy" or good intentions, they are not contradicting him or herself.

just wondering (hope you don't feel attacked! honestly, just a question from a guy who just left the catholic church...i guess this question can also apply to Eric. feel free to respond!)

JDK said...

Thanks for the post and the thoughtful reply. . .
There is no question as to our disagreement now! (Incidentally, it is primarily the semi-Pelagian conclusions of the synodl of Orange (529) that keep me from embracing Catholicism:)

The main poin of my initial post was to simply point out that there are those who do and those who do not see the Christian life as "both/and." Consequently, I was happy to see that disagreement represented by these two quotes.

While you, and others, may find some sort of synthesis between the two positions, that does not actually affect the content of the two statements themselves.

John's initial post was helpful in showing two contradictory ideas. Your post was helpful in clarifying and further cementing the distinction.

I certainly do not think that I can or will change your mind via argumentation; nonetheless, I'm happy that the differences have been clarified.