What does holiness look like?

The Protestant account of vocation smooths out the hierarchies of office (the priesthood of all believers) and of holy living (monastic life is no "better" than life working a farm). From one point of view, this is a good thing: no special religious caste; it flattens out "quality" of life: God calls each to his or her own station in life; holiness is democratized. From another point of view, this is a problem: it treats everything and everyone "the same," thus losing all differentiation; it lacks honesty, since in fact church ministry or serving the poor are, and will be treated as, more important than, say, working as a notary or drilling for oil; and worst of all, it loses the eschatological dimension of Christ's call, draining it of radical disorientation through the cross and resurrection and replacing it with the simple pleasures of local, family, and/or bourgeois life.

One way to frame the disjunction is to ask the question: Is the good life—that is, the faithful life of discipleship to Christ—taught by and embodied in a particular church tradition best exemplified by (1) the philosophy of Aristotle, (2) the Book of Proverbs, or (3) the Sermon on the Mount?

It seems to me that there is a problem if the answer, more or less full-stop, is (2).

My older, more Anabaptist self thought the answer, more or less full-stop, should be (3). And that's still true, in one sense.

But I find myself increasingly drawn to the long-standing catholic answer, which I would formulate this way: In terms of what we may reasonably expect and ordinarily teach, the common good ought to be ordered to (1); the average believer ought to be ordered (at a minimum) to (2); while the church as such, particularly in the form of its saints and martyrs (past), ordained and religious (present), ought to be ordered to (3). So that, even if those grouped in (2) never move from natural sapience to supernatural Chokmah—from the way of things to the Way of Wisdom Incarnate—the latter is held before their eyes as their eventual destination, not only the Way but the End, where all roads lead: to Christ, crucified, risen, glorified, and his Kingdom of little Christs. And in the process, perhaps those of us lesser saints, baptized as we are, will in fact move beyond our bourgeois comforts to the higher paths of harder, but better, living.

I'm mostly thinking out loud. And thinking in the midst of having my mind changed, or realizing it has changed. What I am convinced about is that, e.g., the moral vision of Wendell Berry is both good and beautiful and not sufficiently converted to the gospel. And if some forms of Christian political theology don't recognize that, then so much the worse for them.


  1. Brad, this is profound. Would you please explore this more? I'm fascinated and have lots of questions. For starters: can a Protestant vision of holiness incorporate these three views in their proper succession? More: is there an ordo amoris hagia? A proper order to the love of holiness? How normative is this taxonomy? What weight is given to historical theology and the history of Roman Catholic sainthood over, or including, Pauline ethics? This post is simply fascinating, and incredibly practical at the same time.


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