In The Reconstruction of Morality (1979 Augsburg edition, as cited last week), Holl brushes up fairly close to what later American theologians would call ‘situation-ethics’. What we came to know in the 1960s as ‘situation-ethics’, the effects of which are still with us, sounds a little like what Karl Holl is saying when he talks about the ‘creative’, ‘flexible’ ‘genius of the heart’. For myself, Karl Holl’s version reads true to life, while the contemporary version of ‘situation-ethics’ sounds more like a rationalization of evolving fashions in behavior.

This is what Holl says, on page 133. The emphases are Mockingbird’s.

“For Luther, part of the freedom of a Christian was the right to decide which course of action should be pursued at a particular moment… There is here in the context of everyday life a manifestation of that creative action which Luther pointed to as the epitome of morality, namely the art of sensing what the situation demands, according to the ‘genius of the heart’, and thus to replace rigidity with the flexibility of life.”


This is not ‘situation-ethics’ as I hear it, because ‘situation-ethics’ seems to be a rational sizing-up of situations, followed by a choice among possibilities of potential responses. Holl, on the other hand, credits Luther with crediting the Christian person, governed by his heart, with an ability to ‘sense what the situation demands’ and then act flexibly to deal with it.

There is much to be said about this ‘classic’ Holl passage. Where is the Holy Spirit? (I think the prompting presence of the Holy Spirit is implied.) Could not the ‘heart’ mislead and deceive? (Not the forgiven, conscience-stricken, humbled heart, I bet.) Is ‘continuing indwelling sin’, the simul iustus et peccator reality of every single person, including convinced Christians, being factored in here? There’s a lot to discuss.

See if you can get Holl’s book. It’s a masterpiece, a ‘book for all seasons.’ With Holl’s immense output, this six-part series has only touched the surface.

“We’ve only just begun” (The Carpenters).