Dusting Off Virtue (part 1)

My last post got me thinking about a dimension of life that Thomas takes very seriously, but that’s discussed rarely in evangelical circles: the cultivation of virtue.

It’s natural for a medieval Catholic to make much of virtue – they saw one’s movement on the virtue-sin spectrum as affecting one’s eternal destiny, especially those who believed in purgatory. It may have been, for Thomas, a matter of life and death.

Evangelicals, and especially younger ones, seem to ignore or downplay the cultivation of virtue in the Christian life. By virtue, I mean the conscious and/or instinctive exercise of the will in accordance with moral beliefs. It’s not necessarily “wisdom,” or the ability to discern how to apply moral beliefs in a given situation; but rather the exercise of the will in accord with wisdom. Wisdom asks, “How can I best guard myself against sexual temptation?” Virtue asks whether or not I actually fought it.

There seem to be two [potentially] good reasons why young evangelicals talk little of virtue, and a handful of less-than-good ones. First, those reasons with merit:

1. A desire to prioritize faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection over human effort.

This is a wonderful desire. No one is saved by his own ethical effort; no one depends on his own righteousness for salvation. We are both saved and perfected by the Spirit, not the flesh (Galatians 3:3). This is one reason, and a good one, not to devote much time to teaching the cultivation of virtue.

2. Older generations tended to define “virtue” in narrow and legalistic categories.

Generally, most young Christians have in their head some idea of older people buzzing about certain “sins” – generally, drinking, smoking, tattoos, and gambling. In his essay “On American Morals,” Chesterton calls this definition of vice and virtue “a chaos of social and sentimental accidents and associations” – not a defined set of ethical principles, but rather a very specific list of taboos. There is wisdom in rejecting this definition of virtue; but, happily, this is far from a good definition, and has nothing to do with virtue rightly understood.

Unfortunately, I think there are three other, poorer reasons young evangelicals downplay talk of virtue.

1. We confuse knowledge with progress in Christlikeness.

One reason I think we downplay virtue is that we confuse knowing truth with acting on truth. We (I, at least) love knowledge: we want to learn, to find out what the Bible teaches and what our favorite pastors or theologians think about a subject. We value being able to speak intelligently and winsomely on sexuality, politics, or what have you.

But while knowledge is necessary for right action, knowledge doesn’t inevitably lead to right action. We’re not simple input/output machines; we have wills, and those wills unfortunately are suspect. Jesus praised, not the people who knew the Law, but those who kept it.

2. We tend to praise and pursue “visible” actions.

In short, you can’t Tweet virtue without sounding like a prig. Young evangelicals (probably all young people) seem drawn to virtue visibility: we want to participate in things that do visible, “proclaimable” good. And in one sense, the cultivation of virtue is metaphorically equivalent to training the will to do good. Pursuing concrete action is one thing: better to help a poor man than wish him well and float along.

But if visibility is our top priority, we’re at best missing out on a whole dimension of life God praises (see Matthew 6) and at worst living to flatter ourselves.

3. We downplay the importance of personal holiness.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve heard people semi-quote Luther: “sin boldly!” The healthy emphasis behind this idea is that the gospel should be greater than our sin. Jesus’ work absorbed the penalty for our sin; that is true, and it’s beautiful.

But to pull that phrase out of Luther’s letter and use it to downplay the call to personal holiness misses the point of Luther, the gospel, and [explicitly] Romans 6.The idea becomes, “We shouldn’t be obsessed with killing sin, because we’re already forgiven! Can’t we just remind ourselves of the atonement and get over it?”

Holiness is important, as writers like Kevin DeYoung are reminding us; and virtue, though distinct from holiness, is important as well. The Old and New Testament alike command us to devote ourselves to godliness and good works (Titus 3:14).

This post turned out longer than I thought. Next week, I’ll dig into what I’m learning about the practice of cultivating virtue.

Recent relevant books: The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin Deyoung; After You Believe, N.T. Wright.

Classic relevant books: The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis; Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence




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