This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Veritatis Splendor, surely one of the most significant encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. It offers a searching examination of the nature of the Christian life and Christian moral reflection. Although John Paul's focus in the encyclical is, unsurprisingly, on issues in Roman Catholic moral theology, the encyclical takes up questions that came to the fore at the time of the Reformation, that have not gone away, and that continue to puzzle. Among these is what the encyclical calls "fundamental choice" (or "option"), which in the Reformation perspective we might call "the problem of the relation of person and work." Reflecting upon it can take us to the heart of Christian ethics.
In order to sharpen our sense of the concerns of Veritatis Splendor, it will be useful to set alongside it another--to some extent, contrasting--theological perspective. For that purpose, I will use one of the most substantial works of Lutheran ethics from the twentieth century: Helmut Thielicke's Theological Ethics. Attending to how these two angles of vision both diverge and converge can, I think, help us see what is at stake in thinking about the relation of agent and act, person and work--who we are and what we do.
Veritatis Splendor distinguishes between a choice to act in some particular way and a more general determination of oneself for (or against) God. In itself, this distinction seems unproblematic, but it is radicalized in the notion of a fundamental option in which one's overall self-determination is not just distinguished from but seemingly separated from the particular choices and actions of the person. And if it is persons, not isolated actions, who are called to fellowship with God, then, as John Paul writes, we might begin to suppose that the person must be judged in terms of that fundamental self-determination, "prescinding in whole or in part from his choice of particular actions, of concrete kinds of behavior." Such a possibility Veritatis Splendor characterizes as a "radical revision of the relationship between person and acts."
We can also frame the issue in something more like the language of the New Testament, and the encyclical does so. Faith opens us freely and entirely to call God good. "There is no doubt," John Paul writes, "that Christian moral teaching, even in its Biblical roots, acknowledges the specific importance of a fundamental choice which qualifies the moral life and engages freedom on a radical level before God. It is a question of the decision of faith, of the obedience of faith (cf. Rom. 16:26) 'by which man makes a total and free self-commitment to God.'" Of this commitment, St. Paul writes that "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." At least in that sense, the character of the person determines the quality of the work.
But what follows from that? Could we also say that any action that proceeds from faith--anything done by one who has made a fundamental choice for God--must be God-pleasing rather than sinful? That hardly seems to follow, but it does make clear the difficulty of relating person and work. For if we hold, as Thielicke does, that the character of a person depends on whether he is or is not in right relation with God, and if we also say that the character of the person determines the moral quality of his works, then we might seem committed to thinking that the actions of anyone whose basic determination is that of faith must be God-pleasing actions.
Thielicke raises this issue very early in his Ethics, and he does so, interestingly enough, when discussing the story--so central to the discussion in Veritatis Splendor--of the rich young man who comes to Jesus inquiring about what is good. His reading of the exchange focuses on the "person" of the young man. While the encyclical characterizes the encounter as one in which Jesus directs the man toward "a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection," Thielicke suggests that Jesus aims to free the man from bondage to himself in order that he may be bound to God. Jesus does this through a "movement of concentration" in which imperatives are forms of the command to love God wholly and entirely, not requirements of particular actions.
Particular acts seem to disappear, faith in God occupies the entire moral field, and Thielicke himself sees the difficulty. "We must therefore put the question quite pointedly," he writes. "Does not all ethical reflection always involve an act whereby ethics really does away with itself by reducing the ethical question to a problem that is essentially dogmatic? ... In short, does not the solution of the ethical problem lie in the dissolution of ethics?" How we respond to this question will depend on how we understand the claim that a Christian is simul justus et peccator, simultaneously saint and sinner.
One way to understand this assertion--often thought to be the Lutheran way but in reality only one of several ways Lutherans have understood it--is to take it to mean that the believer is wholly and entirely saint and (simultaneously) wholly and entirely sinner. Viewed as one who trusts in the divine goodness and mercy revealed in Jesus, the believer is wholly saint. But viewed apart from that divine goodness, the believer is entirely sinner. The state of the...