Five Counterpoints to Hauerwas

About the Author
David Wagschal

I’ve decided that life is too short, and the days too beautiful, to engage in a lengthy refutation of Hauerwas.

I don’t mean this as a slight to Hauerwas. It’s just an acknowledgement that, for a Lutheran, Hauerwas is almost an anti-theologian.

In a nutshell, Hauerwas’  wants to:

  • blur, even erase, the division between justification and sanctification;
  • re-establish Christianity as a new law;
  • replace a Pauline and grace-centric reading of Scripture with a “whole narrative” reading;
  • restore the old Greco-Roman belief in salvation as divine transformation and growth in holiness (particularly via the re-appropriation of classical virtue ethics);
  • replace faith-as-trust with faith-as-obedience/subjection (“faithfulness”);
  • and above all, re-divinize or “re-enchant” the church as the key and exclusive locus of salvation and truth.

This is basically a program to roll-back the Lutheran Reformation.

And politics?

For Hauerwas – a Methodist, remember – visible holiness is an essential part of Christianity. For the Christian message to be true, it must have a measurable effect on people.

As a consequence, the Christian community must express itself as a visibly holy polity. This requires the creation of robust and distinct “Christian politics” (as revealed by Scripture). Christians by definition must be political and uphold the correct Christian political ideas. Christian politics is a necessary corollary of Christian holiness.

Since the church is called to be political, Christians must organize themselves into political communities distinct from other political communities. The church is in no ways a “spiritual” or invisible society, or a matter of the private conscience. Rather, the church is a kind of quasi-state – a modern-day continuation of ancient Israel – which exists alongside and in tension with other political structures in which Christians might participate. The church, however, claims Christians’ ultimate political obedience and allegiance.

In all of this, Hauerwas’ instincts are basically theocratic, and, in a neutral sense, sectarian. Influenced by Anabaptism, he believes that Christians are called to live a visibly distinct religio-political existence, under a (somewhat amorphous) independent Christian rule. Further, the church is the kingdom of God begun here and now – and so its rule and God’s rule are close to synonymous. The church on earth is not a merely human organization.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ve already seen refutations of most of these positions – and some discussion of why they are so dangerous. My recent essay on Yoder, of whom Hauerwas was a great proponent, is particularly relevant. So I don’t want to belabour these points too much.

But I want to take this opportunity to use Hauerwas’ views as a jumping-off point for developing an alternative, and I think healthier, perspective, on both church and politics. Hauerwas, and his fellow post-liberals, are very useful inasmuch as they bring to the surface with incredible clarity many of the most problematic instincts of contemporary Christianity.

So, inspired by Hauerwas – albeit not in a way he would like! – I would propose five areas where Christianity needs to develop some profoundly new instincts. All are direct counterpoints to Hauerwas.

1) We need to give up on coercion and control. Christians need to free the world, and each other, from our need to control and coerce. We need to reach an intellectual and emotional maturity where we can accept that people can come into our churches, or exit them, take it, or leave it, like it, or not, and we’re genuinely fine with this. Our faith is that God is completely in control, so we don’t need to be! The church, in its strictest sense, must be a place of complete freedom. This means we must first and foremost respect people’s individual freedom of choice – which means, among other things, that we must ensure that the church is a place people can freely walk away from. Anything else is a form of violence – and belies any other commitment to peace we may claim to have.

2) We need to forget about obedience and submission. I’m not sure that I have ever heard the words “obedience” and “submission” used (theologically) in a way that I don’t think is somehow a bit evil.

The Gospel is the message of God’s sheer gift of salvation without any reciprocity or merit expected on our part. “Obedience” or “submission” therefore have no place in our relationship with God. In fact, God’s Good News is exactly that he refuses to relate to us on these terms. We may require obedience and submission in our communities, but we can never claim these things in God’s name. (And should we rely on these, even on a human level, in the church?)

Sadly, the church’s traditional discourse is filled with language of obedience and submission – often sugar-coated with phrases like “obedience to love”, “submission to grace”, “falling under the sway of the Gospel”, etc. But these too turn theology into a discourse of violence.

3) We need to dump holiness. Theologically, holiness doesn’t matter. Let’s get over ourselves. Other humans may need our holiness – true enough – but God does not. So if we are demanding holiness in our church communities, let’s be clear that it is we who are demanding it, not God. Jesus’ holiness is good enough for God.

4) We need to get real about the church. The church is never anything more than us gathered to hear and try (and often fail) to live the Gospel. It’s just us. Sinful us. We must stop divinizing it, fantasizing about it, pretending we’re more than we are. The church is not divine, it’s not essential for salvation, and the church most certainly is not the Gospel. The church must always point beyond itself to fulfill its mission. That’s the church’s primary task.

Incidentally, there is an easy antidote to this type of “divine church” thinking. Whenever you start talking about “the church”, try replacing it with your name and those of a few of your friends (“David and His Friends Co.”) and see what happens. That’s much more honest. Or, for example, when reading Hauerwas, trying replacing every time he says “church” with “Stanley Hauerwas and his disciples”. This will give you a new perspective on things!

5) We need to chill about scripture. Scripture too is just us. It’s just our book. Yes, scripture is us at our most earnest, struggling to understand God and how God has acted in our world, but it’s still fundamentally our story about God, not God’s story. To exegete Scripture is to exegete us.

God’s story, by contrast, is the Gospel – and it’s very short, very sweet, and very simple: God has revealed himself on the cross, and in the resurrection, as the God who freely, by sheer grace, forgives, saves, and redeems the whole world. That’s it.

Scripture does not, therefore, provide us with a complex revealed or privileged narrative against which we are to read our lives. It’s simply a significant set of writings in which Christians have historically sought to understand the Gospel. But it can mislead as easily as it guides; it gets the Gospel wrong as often as it gets it right. It’s just us talking about God. So let’s chill.

Here too there is a simple way to test your doctrine of Scripture. Whenever you start getting too excited about Scripture, simply replace “Scripture” with “my recent ideas about God” – and you’ll restore a better perspective.

To summarize, if there is one thing Christian theology needs to remember as we move into the 21st century: it’s all about Christ. It’s not about us.

Luther perhaps understood this better than any theologian before him (Paul included). The theologian’s primary task is to keep drawing our attention away from us, and back to Christ. Whenever we’re speaking “religiously”, whenever we want to say something about God, Christians must remember to talk only about God, not about us. The true theologian is the one who understands this strict division between God and humanity, the Gospel and the Law, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth. Theology proper is only about the former.

So, when we’re talking about salvation, it’s not about what we do, it’s about what Christ did.

When we’re talking about holiness, it’s not about our holiness, it’s about Christ’s holiness.

When we’re talking about the cross, it’s not about our cross, it’s about Christ’s cross.

When we’re talking about obedience, it’s not about our obedience, but Christ’s obedience.

When we’re talking about theology, it’s not about us, our ethics (at all!), or our politics (at all!) – it’s about who God is and what he did.

When we’re talking about the Gospel, it’s not about our story, but God’s story.

The ancient, primeval human error is to constantly refer the theological conversation back to us. “The Gospel has no meaning unless we do it, unless we accept it, unless it has effect on us.” “Theology without ethics is impossible.” “The Gospel without our reception of it is meaningless.” “God’s work is only fulfilled in us.” “God’s kingdom is meaningless unless it is also becomes our kingdom, here, now.” “God’s narrative must become our narrative.” And so on.

Hauerwas’ work, unfortunately, is a sustained study in this fundamental error.

This does not mean that there is no place for ethics, the church, or holiness in Christian thought. Far from it. But the starting point for them all is the Good News that salvation, the Kingdom, all Good Things, are not about us, and are not dependent on us. They are simply given to us, without the slightest reciprocity required. This is the central aporia, the stunning “at-a-lossness”, or craziness, of all Christian theology. It’s ultimately a deeply humbling message: our Christian ethics, our Christian politics, our Christian church – all of our little “Christian” things – are entirely of this world. They are secular. They’re just us. And that’s ok.

Upcoming posts:

A Early Medievalist Reflects on Hauerwas — Hauerwas in (BIG) Context

Hauerwas’ Inner Constantine

Something’s Fishy About Hauerwas’ View of the Church

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Comments 3

  1. Hi David, I’m always glad to find a new blog post from you.

    I would ask one question–hopefully not too pointed. There’s quite a bit in this post about what Christians “need” to do. For example, “Christians need to free the world, and each other, from our need to control and coerce.” But why do we “need” to do so, if the Gospel is true? Christ on the Cross has accomplished everything needworthy. It is not required for our salvation that we free the world from anything, as Christ has already done so. Is this not then another form of Law?

    I’m hoping you can point out the error I’m making here.


    1. David Wagschal Post

      Hi Nicholas! Thanks for your comment/question.

      This is an important and perceptive point, and I’m very glad you raised it. Getting this distinction right is in many ways the crux of what I’m trying to say.

      So, as far as salvation goes, there is no law that needs to be fulfilled. So you don’t need to be coercive, non-coercive, non-non-coercive, whatever. What we’re doing simply doesn’t matter. That’s a very hard pill to swallow, but I think it’s the real cornerstone of Christian belief. (Actually, I’d say it’s impossible to swallow — we always re-create the connection between a law and salvation; it’s a function of our own structural sinfulness. Luther is very good on this point: we have to again and again keep coming back to the realization of salvation as totally free, unmerited — we are always, constantly losing track of this.)

      So when I’m talking about we “need” to do this or that, I’m not talking about what I think is necessary for salvation (again, probably there is a sinful, secret side of me that does want to talk this way, but that’s the flesh, the “old man”, the sin that clings so closely).

      I’m talking in a lower register: the level of our immediate human situation, of utility, of what I think we need to do here and now so that we can best communicate the Gospel of grace — which is our core Christian task (Was treibt Christum). And, as it happens, what I think we need to do now is almost exactly the opposite of what Hauerwas is proposing.


      1. Thank you for your response, David. I’m glad to know this is at the crux of things but I am still a little confused.

        You make a distinction between a “higher” and “lower” level of need. I guess what I’m still wondering is why we should care about the “lower” level if the “higher” level is already fulfilled. The “higher” level is infinite. Nothing that we can do, all added up, will even approach what Christ has done. I think you would agree with this.

        I can think of a couple ways to resolve this:

        1) These goods are lexicographic. Once the higher good is achieved (and it is), then the lower good kicks in and determines what we need to do.
        2) “Salvation” and “morality” are just two different incommensurable categories of things. We still have moral obligations, but they are not required for salvation. (I think this is what Capon says.)
        3) Somehow “accepting” or “living” the (higher level) Gospel of grace will naturally lead us to desire these “lower level” things, simply through a natural outpouring of love for neighbor. (Seems like more of a Greco-Roman answer.)
        4) No resolution–evangelization doesn’t matter, but we do it anyway, for no reason at all.

        I’m curious to know which way you would go, or with none of these.

        Thanks so much for this conversation,


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