The Question of Theological Originations: A (Very) Critical Engagement with Nicholas Healy’s Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction

Myles Werntz
Hardin-Simmons University

Stanley Hauerwas’ work has been the subject of no small amount of criticism and exploration. In the years surrounding his recent retirement from Duke Divinity School, he has been the subject of both criticism and praise in numerous volumes.[1] Nicholas Healy’s book, Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction, is distinctly different from these, in that it proposes not to build upon the work of Hauerwas, but to explore the very foundations of the house that Hauerwas has built, testing it for structural weaknesses not only internally but with respect to Catholic tradition.[2] Ordered over the course of five chapters, Healy’s critique of Hauerwas’ theology proves to be as illuminating about Healy’s own presuppositions as it is about Hauerwas’ work.

Healy’s book operates with two tasks: 1) to explore the internal coherence of Hauerwas’ theology, and 2) to situate Hauerwas’ work with respect to broader streams of both Catholic theology and Protestant thought. It is perhaps the latter that is most important in understanding Healy’s book on Hauerwas, for the assumptions which Healy makes about Hauerwas’ work create some of the most incisive comments and some of the more contested reads of Hauerwas. Healy comes to writing this book after a long career of working on both ecclesiology and the thought of Thomas Aquinas, during which Healy has engaged frequently with the work of Karl Barth.

To illuminate this current work, let me draw our attention to Healy’s earlier  2003 essay “Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?” In that essay, Healy, commenting on the social practice emphasis in the work of Reinhard Hutter and Hauerwas, observes, “We need to recover the traditional notion that, while theology is indeed a thoroughly practical form of inquiry, it must proceed on the basis of contemplation.”[3] I mention this particular comment now, and will return to it shortly, because in this early discussion of Hauerwas, we find what I think is a helpful summation of the underlying commitment operative in Healy’s book on Hauerwas, a commitment which I believe both illuminates and distends certain aspects of Hauerwas.

Healy finds himself in agreement with respect to the overarching agenda of Hauerwas (the renewal and upbuilding of the church), while conceding at the onset that he finds Hauerwas’ particular agenda in need of “considerable revision” (9). Following the introductory chapter, Chapter Two, “The Church, the Center” exposits Hauerwas’ work in a systematic attempt to understand the architecture of Hauerwas’ theology. Healy notes that, unlike Barth or Aquinas, Hauerwas is self-consciously uninterested in this systematic mode of inquiry (19), but that this does not exempt Hauerwas from scrutiny on this count. Rather than being a systematic venture, theology is, for Hauerwas, “a kind of discourse that must…be embedded in the practices of actual lived communities” (21); for Hauerwas, this means that ecclesiology becomes the organizing doctrine for theology’s account of truthfulness, doctrinal coherence, ethics, and, ultimately, confessions about God. Explicating key Hauerwasian themes of the church as an embodied social ethic, and of the distinction between church and society, Healy deftly summarizes Hauerwas’ multi-decade corpus fairly and concisely.

Chapter Three, “An Ecclesiocentric Method,” begins the meat of Healy’s criticisms of Hauerwas, having explicated Hauerwas’ own position. Healy’s basic concern is that Hauerwas’ identification of theology as inextricably ecclesiological can tend toward “a distortion of Christianity consequent upon a reductive focus upon the church as the central and structuring locus for all theological inquiry” (40). Hauerwas’ own idiosyncratic style and refusal of anything like a foundationalist account of theology helps ameliorate the force of this charge, Healy notes, but what happens when the church becomes the center of theological inquiry? “Traditional theology,” encapsulated in the work of Thomas Aquinas, follows a different logic, Healy observes, by beginning with contemplation of the doctrine of God and letting ecclesiology come as a subsequent loci within inquiries of the processions and creations of God. Despite his rhetoric of retrieval, Healy contends that Hauerwas is much closer to Schleiermacher than the early church! Despite Hauerwas’ rejection of key aspects of Schleiermacher (including the value of self-conscious apprehensions of God, and of the church as symbiotically related to society), Healy notes five aspects which he takes to be similar between the two. Both build their ecclesiology upon social scientific grounds, and both distinguish what the church is by way of contrast to its social counterparts (nations, states, societies, etc.). Both of them are interested in how doctrine helps constitute the church’s social existence, using this as a non-traditional apologetic form, with both of them revising doctrine in terms of its practicality within church life.

Other problems emerge from this basic comparison, namely, the way in which Scripture does not have independent authority over against believers, and the authority which Hauerwas himself has to make prophetic claims about the church, if the church is so basic to theological inquiry. Healy’s basic critique here is that by putting doctrine in service to ethics, Hauerwas has unwittingly committed himself to the method of theological liberalism, despite his best intentions. If we only ever begin to speak about God from within the church, Hauerwas has not only committed to a form of theological pragmatism concerning God’s own person, but—if Hauerwas is also a product of the church—he has given himself no firm basis upon which to critique the church to embody God’s own life in a fashion better than the one which already exists.

With respect to the emplotment of Hauerwas in a Schleiermacher-esque trajectory, there are any number of things to say, particularly since one of Hauerwas’ most frequent interlocutors is Karl Barth. In recent Barth scholarship, the distance between Barth and Schleiermacher has come under scrutiny, most notably through the work of Bruce McCormack.[4] On this point, for Healy to posit that Schleiermacher and Hauerwas—whose affinity for Barth is well-documented[5]—is not as controversial as it would have been ten years ago; among Barth scholars, McCormack’s contention is gaining some ground, and with respect to Hauerwas and Schleiermacher having a common agenda—namely, the witness of the church to the world—there is certainly affinity. However, in the same way that Healy sees himself as interested in Hauerwas’ agenda but at the same time in deep divergence from the particulars of its execution, it seems that the same argument could be made for Hauerwas here: if Schleiermacher’s theology rests not ultimately upon ecclesiology, but the self-conscious and intuited experience of the believer, then the formal similarities between Hauerwas and Schleiermacher are just that: formal.

For Schleiermacher, the driving heart of his Glaubenshlere is not the strictures of the community of faith or its preaching; rather, both of these aspects of church must always reflect the intuited, felt sense of dependence upon God. It is this which forms the backbone of preaching, pastoral care, and witness for Schleiermacher—the fostering of this felt sense of dependence. While both he and Hauerwas may share formal concerns for the ways in which church life is shaped toward witness, I am unsure what good it does to articulate this genealogy other than to implicate Hauerwas in a theological tradition which effectively all modern Christianity has to wrestle with in one way or another—especially given the deep divide between the two as to what drives the gathering of the church (for Schleiermacher, the opportunity to share individual experiences in a corporate setting; for Hauerwas, the mutual formation of the members in character, irrespective of their individual narratives). The emplotment of Hauerwas within a Schleiermachian line serves, it seems, to distinguish Hauerwas from what Healy takes to be the traditional mode of theological work, namely, that we should begin with God and let all other doctrines (including ecclesiology) be derived from this fundamental confession. Healy’s commitments to Thomas Aquinas’ work return us to his 2003 essay and his comment that “theology is indeed a thoroughly practical form of inquiry, it must proceed on the basis of contemplation.”[6] What is meant by this comment, I believe, is echoed in his later book: for Healy (as with Thomas), theology must proceed from that which is immaterial (God) to that which is material (the church).

I bring this back up now because I think it is only at this point that we are in position to see both how Healy’s critique of Hauerwas is leveraged and the way in which Hauerwas’ work somewhat sidesteps Healy’s charge. Healy’s criticisms against Hauerwas’ work depend upon Thomas’ order of theological work, that our theology moves logically from the nature and work of God to the being of all creation. From this vantage, Hauerwas’ starting point with ecclesial life minimizes aspects of doctrine which cannot be practiced, collapsing our confessions about God into that which can be empirically named. The architecture of Healy’s critique is illuminating, as it draws out difficult questions for Hauerwas devotees, but it remains to be seen whether Healy has not over-read Hauerwas on this point. What I mean by this is the following: is it possible that Healy and Hauerwas are not as far apart as Healy takes them to be? Is Healy working with a deductive approach to theological inquiry (proceeding from an established doctrine of God, with the ecclesiological consequences flowing from this), while Hauerwas is operating with an inductive approach (proceeding from the life of the church and learning doctrine through its fragile practice over time)?  If so, it would appear that Hauerwas may not collapse church into God, or theology into ethics, in quite the fashion that Healy suggests.

Chapter Four, “The Empirical Church and Christian Identity,” will serve as a test case for the surmise I have just articulated, that Healy’s deductive approach simply works against the grain to Hauerwas’ own approach, illuminating some aspects of Hauerwas but speaking past other aspects. In this chapter, Healy builds off of his critique of the previous chapter, examining Hauerwas’ claim that church is (or should be) a lived, embodied expression of its confessions. For Healy, the demand of the church to be the lived embodiment of the Christian faith does not square with either anecdotal evidence or ethnographic assessments. The majority of churches do not embody the high bar of discipleship which Hauerwas envisions (80), and more problematically, each church is comprised of multitudinous theological beliefs (91ff). For Healy, these examinations of the church’s lived practice prove to be a major problem for Hauerwas, who places a great deal of weight on the church’s ability to display its doctrinal life. If, Healy says, Hauerwas had a more developed account of grace or the Holy Spirit, one which would account for a church’s growth in holiness (83), then the non-existence of “exemplary congregations” would be less problematic. But absent these aspects of ecclesiology, Hauerwas’ insistence on the formative power of the church fails to convince.

It is in this chapter, I think, the inductive approach of Hauerwas (beginning with the lived reality of the church) and the deductive approach of Healy (beginning with contemplation of God) are simply speaking past one another. Healy contends that, even with his MacIntyrian notion of “contested identity over time,” Hauerwas struggles to account for the plural ways in which congregations operate theologically, particularly if their theological unity (and thus, unity in the narrative of Jesus) is intrinsic to their social witness. For Hauerwas, however, theological plurality is simply the place in which the church is; ethnographic descriptions of where a church is in time are neither confirmations nor negations of the church’s witness, but they are snapshots of a moment within the church’s narrative arc. Put differently, present theological plurality is not a problem, for moral formation is a work over time. The grace of God to shape a church over time is not, for Hauerwas, that which emerges as an ad extra presupposition to account for a church’s failure in witness, but that which emerges from within the church’s life as the church confesses, reads, and lives. As Healy rightly notes, Hauerwas does not think that Christians know who God is except as they begin on the journey with God in the church; this journey, however, is comprised of many steps, and not all of them happen at the same time or in sync with other travelers. It is the case for Hauerwas—rightly or wrongly—that the immaterial is only ever encountered and known through the material life of the gathered church, in via, such that a church’s moral life and theological commitments are in fact changing and being changed, as is appropriate for any actor within a narrative performance.

Attending to this cross-wise approach, I think, deflates some of Healy’s criticisms, such as the imperfect nature of church communion and the absence of grace and the Holy Spirit. Attending to this, however, does not negate other difficulties which Healy raises concerning Hauerwas’ work, issues comprising the final chapter. In “Hauerwas’ Theology,” a host of issues are raised, ranging from the nature of a formative practice within the life of the church (building upon his 2003 essay), whether or not there is a place in Hauerwas’ theology for individual practices of devotion, whether communal virtues are the only kind of virtues needed theologically, and, ultimately, whether salvation can name only that which belongs to the community. Healy is right to raise all of these concerns, for Hauerwas’ ecclesiological focus often keeps him from attending to individual narratives, both with respect to individual piety and, occasionally, individual suffering.[7]

Healy’s book ends rather abruptly, however, without ultimately returning to the question which began the book: to what degree does Healy find himself, who is sympathetic to Hauerwas’ broad agenda—witness to the world—find himself in agreement with Hauerwas, having raised the manifold objections to Hauerwas’ theology that he has? In the final pages, Healy discusses the plurality of ecclesial formations which produce plural forms of holiness and virtue (in both “Constantinian” churches and non-Constantinian ones). Healy observes:

[I]ndependently of anything we do or are, we are brought to life with God solely in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit within the church. If so, it would follow that, if and when we Christians attempt to respond to the gospel by our manner of life, as of course we certainly should, we respond to what is truly God’s gift, freely given. (135)

It appears in this statement that Healy is confirming that, despite his manifold reservations to the core of Hauerwas’ program, God’s gift is operative in and through the Holy Spirit given to the church, whatever form that church might take. This ecumenical overture is one that, I think, Hauerwas would indeed confirm, though Hauerwas’ programmatic vision of how God works out that holiness (with respect to a proper reading of Scripture, communal life, and the church’s relation to the world) differs significantly from Healy’s. Healy is to be strongly commended for his incisive take on one of the most important figures in recent Christian ethics and theology, though some of his criticisms can arguably be put to the side.


[1] Brian Brock, Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (Edinburgh: Bloomsbury Books, 2017); Charlie Collier, ed. The Difference that Christ Makes: Celebrating the Life, Work and Friendship of Stanley Hauerwas (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015); Ariaan Baan, The Necessity of Witness: Stanley Hauerwas’ Contribution to Systematic Theology (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014); Samuel Wells, Transforming Fate into Destiny: The Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004). These are but a sampling of the recent titles.
[2] Nicholas M. Healy, Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014).
[3] Nicholas Healy, “Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 5 (2003), 301.
[4] See Bruce McCormack, Karl Barth: Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).
[5] See Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001).
[6] Healy, “Practices,” 301.
[7] I have written on this particular aspect of Hauerwas’ theology in “The Fellowship of Suffering: Reading Philippians with Stanley Hauerwas”, Review and Expositor 112 (2015): 144-150.