Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified
Stanley Hauerwas. Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016, 276 pp. $32.99.
Reviewed by Matt Smith
Methodical, cleanly categorized, and systematized. This is often what one imagines when thinking of a person’s theology. This is not so for Stanley Hauerwas, however, whose work has been accused of being insufficiently theological. Rather, it looks like a “strange mixture of theology, ethics, social criticism, sermonic asides and illustrations, and polemics” carrying a signature Hauerwasian brand (3). In Sanctify Them in the Truth, Hauerwas addresses the invitation to do some “real theology” (1). Thus, the book is addressed to those requesting more “real theology” from him and to those who feel that if Hauerwas is pressed, he will provide a more explicitly systematic account of true Christian practice. By this “real theology,” Hauerwas supposes something like “theology not-by-example” is meant, which is too often dangerously divorced from Christian practice.
According to Hauerwas, the problem with this divide is that theology has become a discipline divorced from ethics (that is, from Christian practice). Historically, Christians saw no division between their belief and practice; in fact, to demarcate them was unthinkable. Hauerwas traces a historical line from the earliest Christian writings through the present, demonstrating how the Reformation’s emphasis on faith (over against works) had the unfortunate side effect of divorcing Christian belief from its lived practice.
In order to resist this dissociation, the remainder of Sanctify Them in the Truth is devoted to examinations of the Christian faith’s embodiment, focused on those who practice it. He uses lenses including truthful Christian speech, the ramifications of friendship for the Christian life, the experiences of differently-abled persons, the notion of Christian education, and a number of sermons. Each chapter meaningfully meanders through philosophy, homiletics, ethics, and doctrinal reflection to try to sketch out the meaning of the lived Christian life. He undergirds these explorations with rigorous attention to theological detail, creating in the reader a sense of the wonder of God by means of God’s presence in ostensibly unrelated scenes of Christian life. This is related to Hauerwas’s conception of holiness: rather than the “individualistic and pietistic displays” that often characterize the concept, Hauerwas emphasizes holiness as an aspect of living communally within the body of the church (10).
The reader is greeted by Hauerwas’s seemingly radical alternative theological propositions, which most have come to expect from him. His critical targets include the deification of unrestrained personal agency, accounts of sin and salvation that underwrite a Christian life devoid of repentance and forgiveness, and the use of Christianity to validate the political aims of modern societies, even to the detriment of the holy character of the Christian church.
Hauerwas is even more articulate and persuasive in this book than usual. He resists the expectation to provide theology “straight up” insofar as that demand entails abstracting the theological task from the concrete example of the church and the lives of those who constitute it (1). To this end, much of the book’s theology is exposited through stories, sermons, letters, and anecdotes intended to specify some facet of Christian life. These stories and expressions are laden with theological assumptions that Hauerwas then explicates.
One instantiation is his account of the deification of personal agency, or one’s ability to make one’s life whatever one desires. Much modern theology underwrites the idea that “we should have no story except the story we chose when we had no story” (252). Hauerwas calls this idea “a great terror,” because “nothing could be worse for us, at least as Christians, than to have such a fantasy fulfilled” (108). In contrast, he claims that Christians are part of a story they did not choose because they participate in the drama of “many narratives that constitute our lives [which] finally have the telos of making us God’s friends and, in the process, making us friends with one another and even friends with our own life” (110). To explain such a remark, he points to the Christian practice of marriage and its witness by the church. Would-be spouses are assumed to “know what they are doing” and thus are responsible for maintaining the commitment they make based on this information (109). This is assumed, Hauerwas claims, because Americans in particular are bred into the fantasy that they themselves are free to choose the outcome of their lives, which includes one’s decision to participate in the life of the church or to become a Christian in the first place. The difficulty with this assumption (and by extension the “self-made” attitude) is that our lives are constituted by many decisions that are not our own, including circumstances inherited by birth or by the decisions of others that affected us without our input. The Christian story, by contrast, is one wherein a person’s narrative is not self-determined but is part of many interconnected narratives aimed at making a faithful believer out of the person in question. Hauerwas’s stories and expressions are laden with conceptions of sin, forgiveness, penance, holiness, and truthfulness about one’s own life, all of which he consistently unpacks with sublime fervor.
There is much with which to disagree in Hauerwas’s account, particularly if one does not accept his premises. It is easy, for example, to think of alternatives to his views on sin, holiness, the moral law, or most of his other contentions. Hauerwas’s relentless criticism of American Protestant practice is sure to draw its share of ire, his unwavering commitment to pacifism lends itself to plenty of critique, and his treatment of the church as an alternative polis to any worldly state is ever unpopular amongst large swathes of readers. However, the arguments that Hauerwas presents are formidable, his conclusions are compelling, and his criticisms are unforgettably salient. The book excels at providing a fresh look at Christian holiness and the character of a people who wish to follow Christ. I recommend this book to any fellow Christian without reservation for the way it can reshape one’s theological outlook and for its vivid presentation of the divine life as embodied in the practices of God’s people.
Matt Smith, ThM Student, Princeton Theological Seminary