In “Subjectivizing Morality,” Gregory takes a MacIntyrian approach to the modern displacement of virtue ethics, though with a subtle theological nuance. Rather than laying the blame solely at the feet of the Enlightenment’s rejection of Aristotle, Gregory turns his sights to the Protestant Reformation’s displacement of teleological Christian ethics in favor of justification by faith alone; the idea that salvation is “all at once” rather than the gift of perfection or theosis.

According to Gregory, the shift away from a teleological ethics resulted in a shift not only in soteriology and biblical exegesis, but more fundamentally, anthropology. Writes Gregory,

In sixteenth-century Lutheran and Reformed Protestant theology, salvation had nothing to do with the virtues because it had nothing to do with human freedom or the human will. Virtuous Christian behavior did not contribute to one’s eternal salvation but was a sanctifying consequence of salvation by faith through grace, effected wholly by God. Magisterial Protestant reformers rejected the Roman church’s view of human nature, convinced that it was based on a misreading of scripture adulterated by pagan philosophy (206-7).

Once rid of Aristotle, the “damned, arrogant, roguish heathen,” as Luther called him, the Reformers then created the conceptual space for total depravity, along with the anthropology this presupposes. “There was no positive remnant of the imago Dei,” writes Gregory about Calvin, “in the human will, no ‘there’ onto which God’s grace could be grafted, but only a bottomless cauldron gushing forth sin” (207). There is nothing therefore to habituate, nothing for supernatural grace to complete. As such, virtuous practices and ascesis made little sense to the Reformers. After all, “God’s grace came all at once, not in sacramentally dispensed dribs and drabs or through the ‘free’ exercise of acquired virtues. Indeed, exhortations to practice the virtues as part of the process of salvation were blasphemous: they amounted to covert calls for human beings to try to save themselves” (207).

This new anthropology was not solely a rejection of the Roman church as much as it was a rejection of a teleological account of Christian anthropology. And so, in the absence of teleological ethics, grace and creation were rent apart; creation rather than sin separates humanity from God. As Anthony Baker notes, the Patristic theology of perfection was cast aside in favor of modern soteriology – instant theosis.

In this chapter Gregory comes very close to resembling the arguments made by Ivan Illich and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. The modern era is a perpetual narrative of subordinating caritas – the substantive bond of community – to faith defined as interior ‘belief,’ which is a peculiar inversion of Paul’s theological virtues. When creation and God are rent asunder, humanity’s only way of relating to God is by way of obedience and interiority. This Reformation birthed something new, something that we might call moralism.  As Gregory notes, this “helps to explain why in the early twenty-first century many Christians understand ethics less as the pursuit of holiness linked to human flourishing as part of the imitation of Christ, than in legalistic terms as ‘following the rules’” (210). Concomitantly, our politics is limited to limiting violence rather than the positive construction of communities of peace.

Salvation by divine fiat or arriving “all at once,” is problematic, especially so for Pauline scholarship (cf. Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God). Thankfully, Archbishop Rowan Williams has also raised questions about the lingering problems of what might be labelled strict Protestant accounts of grace. In the spirit of Irenaeus, whereby salvation is linked with temporality and mediation, Williams writes, “the first ‘blaze’ of revelation compels, or should compel, in much the same sense as fire warms. But what it means, how it changes lives, can only be charted with the passage of time” (Anglican Identities, 121).

 

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