Acton Institute Powerblog

Bridging Wesley’s Ditch

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Stanley Cohen, the Martin White Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, is quoted as saying that “good intentions become bad practices.”

In his critique of rather lame attempts to realize justice in the world (related to faulty definitions of justice), Herman Bianchi writes, “Even more dubious is another frame in which the formula is often couched: ‘Justice is the constant intention to give everyone his due.’ Never is it said, ‘See to it that everyone really gets his due!’ No, the constant intention apparently suffices; the result of the action is not worth mentioning. As Ovid suggests, ‘though strength may fail, intention should be praised.'” Bianchi concludes that there are many such examples of this kind of thinking in the modern world.

In searching out the source for the disconnect between intentions and consequences, Bianchi has provided us with one classical source (Ovid). I’d like to point to some others, particularly within the Christian tradition, as possible sources for this phenomenon.

One place to look, I think, for a source of the contemporary (typically liberal) valuation of intentions over outcomes is the perfectionist doctrine of John Wesley. One strategy for those who teach that perfect moral action or sinlessness is possible in this life is to restrict the notion of sin into some smaller category than it is generally taken. So, for instance, a literal interpretation of the Decalogue could allow the rich young ruler to claim that he had kept the law from his youth.

Jesus’ presentation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount radicalizes these commandments, to include not only the external aspects of the commandment, but the internal spiritual condition and intention as well. This is where Wesley’s strategy is the precise mirror of that of the legalistic ruler. Where the ruler focused only on the literal commandments, Wesley is concerned with interior intent.

So for Wesley, “Christian Perfection is that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin.” Sin is narrowly defined here to only include those acts of the will that spring from “envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper.” There is a separation here between the intellect and the will, however, so that a defect of the intellect is not to be considered sin, properly speaking. That is, perfect sinlessness consists in the Christian’s “one intention at all times and in all places…not to please himself, but him whom his soul loveth.”

But of course if there is an error in the intellect, but no defect in the will, it is still an evil, and Wesley acknowledges this: “Yet, where every word and action springs from love, such a mistake is not properly a sin. However, it cannot bear the rigour of God’s justice, but needs the atoning blood.” So there are deeds that are not considered sins but still need to be atoned for.

Clearly the great emphasis here is on the purity of intentions and the valuation of motives over consequences. In an extreme version, intention is completely disconnected with effect and consequence. This is what I’m calling Wesley’s ditch, although Wesley is not alone in the Christian tradition on this score. Compare, for instance, Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing is intrinsically immoral except ill-will and nothing intrinsically good except good will.”

You do not need to be a consequentialist in order to care about consequences. I submit that Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount, in radicalizing the nature of sin to include intentions, motives, and will, do not abandon concern with the intellect, consequences, or external effects. So, says Augustine, “there are two reasons why we sin, either because we do not see what we ought to do, or because we do not do what we know we ought to be done: the first of these evils comes from ignorance, the second from weakness.”

This is why the Heidelberg Catechism, in its description of what meets the qualification for Christian good, includes not only considerations of intentions or motives, but the external norm of God’s law. In answer to the question, “What do we do that is good?”, the Catechism answers: “Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition.”

Good intentions are not enough.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.

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