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Western Orthopraxy


The debate about proper belief and proper practice began almost at the moment Christians became conscious of themselves as members of a new religion distinct from Judaism. The debate was framed as faith (Greek pistis, Latin fides) versus works (Greek erga, praxeis, Latin opera, facta), and it attracted virtually every prominent figure in the history of Catholic theology, as well as the founding fathers of Protestantism.

The apostle Paul set the terms of the debate. In the decades following the death of Jesus, Paul's mission was to consolidate and universalize the new Christian church, to establish the principle that Gentiles need not pass through a conversion to Judaism in order to join the church, and finally to formulate an explanation of the position that Judaism and its laws were to occupy in the church. The doctrine of justification by faith was perfect for Paul's purposes. It demonstrated that all were eligible to join the fledgling church since faith alone—not works or Pharisaic obedience to Jewish law—was necessary, and it assured new converts that obedience to the law and loyalty to the legacy of Abraham would follow naturally from a profession of faith in Christ. We find this doctrine in the Epistle to the Galatians (probably one of Paul's earlier letters, written between 52 and 55 C.E.). "We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners," he wrote, "yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law" (Galatians 2:15–16). Under this principle, the church becomes universal, as former distinctions among people disappear. At the same time, members of the church are implicitly incorporated into the traditions of Judaism: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:28–29).

In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul reintroduces justification and once again links it with the principle of universality: "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law" (Romans 3:28–31). He also introduces two related principles that will guide discussions of faith and works for centuries to come: predestination (from Greek proorizō, "predetermine," Latin praedestino) and election by grace (Greek eklogē kharitos, Latin electio gratiae). "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified" (Romans 8:29–30). "So too at the present time there is a remnant [of the Jews], chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened" (Romans 11:5–7).

What might well have begun as an effort to distinguish a new religious sect from Judaism quickly and lastingly came to be incorporated into the very core of Christian theology. The ultimate victory of Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.) in his long polemic with Pelagius, a theologian of the same era who had insisted that volition and action proceed from men themselves and not from Christ or God, established by the early fifth century C.E. the position that the Catholic Church would retain permanently: faith is a gift from God; our freedom of will both to believe and to act proceeds from God's grace; God predestines some, but not all, to faith; and the reasons for which some are elected while others are not is "inscrutable" (On the Predestination of Saints, 428 or 429 C.E.). "Predestination is a preparation for grace; grace itself, however, is a gift [ donatio ]." When it comes to faith and works, Augustine is unequivocal: "faith is given first." Faith takes precedence and is the sign of the new covenant: "As the law of works [ lex factorum ] is written on tablets of stone," he says, "so the law of faith is written in hearts." The rewards of the former are associated with the Old Testament, those of the latter with the New Testament (On the Spirit and the Letter, 412 C.E.).

In the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274), we find a shift in emphasis to the inwardness of the human will and the dominance of reason. But Thomas is careful to safeguard the divine origin of the human faculties that he exalted: "The movement of the will is from within, just like natural movement.… The cause of the will, however, can be nothing other than God, and for two reasons: first because the will is a power of the rational soul, which is caused by God through creation … and second because the will tends toward the universal good, from which it follows that nothing can be the cause of the will except God himself, who is the universal good" (Summa Theologica, 1265/1266–1273). To be sure, Thomas attributes to man a greater degree of autonomy than we find in Augustine and many other Christian theologians. For example, he distinguishes between two types of grace, under one of which, "operating grace" (gratia per operantem), God is our sole mover and under the other of which, "cooperating grace" (gratia per cooperantem), our actions stem from both God and our minds. But when it comes to judging actions, Thomas is quite clear: "our actions are meritorious in so far as they proceed from free choice, moved by God through grace" (emphasis added).

With the new emphasis on individual, subjective freedom that we find in Luther and the Protestant Reformation, we might expect to see man newly invested with the dignity of free choice in his actions. But for Martin Luther (1483–1546), John Calvin (1509–1564), and others, freedom meant freedom from the tyranny of the Catholic Church, not freedom in the sense of an autonomous volition that is the source of our actions. In Luther's view, faith and grace once again precede actions, and righteous actions by themselves do nothing to render righteous the individual who commits those actions: "Not he who works much [ multum operatur ] is just but rather he who without works [ sine opere ] believes much in Christ" (Heidelberg Disputation, 1518). Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will (1525) expressly to refute the existence of free will, on the strength of the argument that original sin deprives us of the freedom to choose. "God foreknows and foreordains [ praescit et praeordinat ] all things," he writes, thus only what God wills can take place, and "there can be no such thing as free choice [ liberum arbitrium ] in man or angel or any creature." "The Gospel," he writes in the preface to his German translation of the New Testament, "does not demand works of us, so that we might become devout and blessed [ frum und selig ] thereby; in fact, it condemns such works but demands only faith in Christ" (Preface to the New Testament, 1522).

By the end of Luther's life, John Calvin had completed his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). To the modern reader, Calvin's theology appears, as regards the issue of faith and works, to differ very little from that of Augustine. But for a sixteenth-century reformer extending the work of Luther, the doctrine of justification by faith served as a repudiation of the temporal authority of the pope and thus had a resonance different from what it had had for the bishop of Hippo. Faith for Calvin is a gift of God, as it was for Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Luther, and righteousness arises not from works but from faith. Works are not the cause of holiness but are, rather, gifts of God (Dei dona), signs of his calling (vocationis signa; Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536–1559). If Calvin's thought represents a departure from that of his predecessors, it is largely owing to his attitude toward life. Contempt for our present life (praesentis vitae contemptus) and the practice of abstinence, sobriety, frugality, and modesty in that life are the guides to proper conduct.

With the age of Enlightenment and its increasing tendency to ground moral issues in nature and humankind, we see the emphasis in Christianity shift increasingly from faith to the human arena. The nineteenth century produced a spate of books, in a variety of European languages, under the title The Life of Jesus, most prominently Das Leben Jesu (1835–1836), by David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) and La vie de Jésus (1863), by Ernest Renan (1823–1892). The kenotic tradition in nineteenth-century German Protestant theology emphasized the human dimension of Jesus ("kenotic" refers to the process, described in Philippians 2:7, by which Christ "emptied himself" [ ekenosen ] and became a man). French socialist theory in the first half of the nineteenth century modeled its conceptions of social justice on a vision of the early Christian church and the teachings of Jesus. In Le nouveau christianisme (1825; English trans. The New Christianity," 1834) by Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), the "new Christian" expresses what he sees as the "divine part" of Christianity: "men must conduct themselves as brothers with respect to one another.… They must make it their aim to ameliorate as promptly and as completely as possible the moral and physical existence of the most numerous class."

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced a spate of socially conscious Christian thinkers and activists, especially in the United States. The Social Gospel movement, from roughly 1870 to 1920, encouraged followers to devote themselves to social justice, in imitation of Christ. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), one of its leaders, went so far as to embrace communism as a Christian principle in his Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907). Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) helped define theological liberalism in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.

In the second half of the twentieth century, two developments steered the Catholic Church (or some of its members) increasingly in the direction of praxis. In 1965, Pope Paul VI issued, as one of the sixteen decrees of Vatican II, Gaudium et spes (Joy and hope; titled in English "Pastoral Constitution On the Church in the Modern World"), which affirmed the church's commitment to service in the human world: "What does the Church think of man? What needs to be recommended for the upbuilding of contemporary society? What is the ultimate significance of human activity throughout the world? People are waiting for an answer to these questions. From the answers it will be increasingly clear that the People of God and the human race in whose midst it lives render service to each other. Thus the mission of the Church will show its religious, and by that very fact, its supremely human character." The Society of Jesus (the Jesuit order) today has an Office of Social and International Ministries, whose purpose is to serve the "Social Apostolate (ministries addressing domestic and international social problems)." One Jesuit priest, Philip J. Rosato, has suggested that Karl Barth (1886–1968), the great twentieth-century Protestant theologian who became increasingly committed to social justice during his long career, helped, through dialogue with Catholics, to steer the post–Vatican II church toward orthopraxy in social affairs.

In 1968, a Peruvian priest named Gustavo Gutiérrez published Teología de la liberación (English trans. A Theology of Liberation, 1973), which served as the central text for the Catholic "liberation theology" movement in Latin America. Gutiérrez is explicit about the orthopraxy/orthodoxy relationship. Human history, says Gutiérrez, is an "opening to the future" (abertura al futuro), and this means an emphasis on action, or "doing the truth" (hacer la verdad). "Only by doing this truth will our faith veri-fy itself, speaking literally," he says. "Hence the recent use of the term orthopraxis, which might shock certain sensibilities. Nor should this be understood as denying the meaning of orthodoxy, understood as a proclamation and reflection of affirmations considered to be true." Liberation theology represents an odd amalgamation of Marxist theory (the last of Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach," 1845, reads, "The philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.") and Christian theology.

It would probably be safe to say that many branches of Christianity in the twentieth century have placed an increasing emphasis on orthopraxy at least in addition to, if not to the detriment of, orthodoxy. The praxis that has come to be favored is of the sort that takes place in the social and political world and not just of the sort that is directly connected with the rituals of a particular institution. Waging a struggle against poverty and waging a struggle against abortion rights can both be expressions of religious principle, but they are different in kind from practices like taking communion and confessing.


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Steven Cassedy

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