Thursday, June 30, 2011

Christian Virtue

Juggling my writing commitments poorly...

Christian Virtue
Of the three main types of ethical theory--duty based, consequence based, and virtue based--we will not be surprised to find that the New Testament is primarily virtue oriented.  We are not surprised because, as we have seen, ancient ethics in general was primarily virtue based.  It is not that we do not find ethical duties in the New Testament--"Stay away from sexual immorality" (1 Thess. 4:3, CEB), for example.  It is not that we do not find interest in consequences--"Strive for the things that bring peace and the things that build each other up" (Rom. 14:19 CEB).  It is only that the primary ethical interest is in virtues like faith, hope, and love (e.g., 1 Cor. 13:13).

Accordingly, New Testament ethics tends to focus more on a person's character and motives than on his or her specific actions or the consequences of those actions.  To be sure, we find enough commands and prohibitions in the Bible that various currents within Christian tradition have focused from time to time more on duties than character.  For example, many Christian circles in the United States today focus heavily on exceptionless ethical absolutes and despise any thought of ethical relativisms.  By emphasizing such things, such currents tend more toward a duty-based approach to ethics than a virtue based one.

One interesting twist on a duty oriented Christian framework are those traditions that process the death of Jesus in primarily legal terms.  In one scenario, God's justice is understood in such duty-oriented terms that he could not possibly forgive any debt or wrong against him unless someone from the guilty party pays him in full.  Accordingly, Jesus must become human because a human must pay God back, and Jesus must suffer the full punishment of every single sin for which he atones.

This line of thinking takes one picture of God in the Bible--that of Judge--and fills in the philosophical picture of atonement (the means by which humanity is reconciled to God) with God as a duty-oriented ethicist.  Of course, such systems then flip the basis of God's judgment.  Because Jesus has paid the debt in full, believers are no longer judged at all on the basis of their actions.  God's legal judgment is based solely on his consideration of Jesus.  The basis of God's ethical assessment is still duty based.  It is just that Jesus is the one God legally assesses.

A more virtue based approach might focus on God's character as one of love, graciousness, and faithfulness. [1] It might invoke the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a better illustration of the character of God (Luke 15).  In this story, a father forgives his son of his recklessness and the insult of the son asking for his inheritance before his father had even died.  There is no legal exchange, no act of atonement.  The father simply forgives because of his love for the son.

Indeed, although there is clearly duty language within the New Testament, the primary orientation of Jesus and Paul seems around a person's heart and intentions.  In Mark 7:18-23, Jesus says, "'Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?' (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, 'It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.'" (NRSV).

This is a vice list, the opposite of a virtue list.  Jesus is basically saying that either virtue or vice flows out of a person's character.  To be clean or unclean is not so much a matter of external actions but a matter of what is inside a person.

Similarly, Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit being "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things (Gal. 5:22-23, NRSV).  This is a virtue list, and Paul says it flows naturally from God's Spirit being inside us.  When Paul comes close to defining sin, he says that "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23, NRSV).  His sense of what sin is for a believer is thus not primarily a matter of violating a law but of a life that does not reflect the right character.

The New Testament does encapsulate the entirety of human duty into two commands, as we said earlier in the chapter: Love God and love neighbor.  These two duties indicate the appropriate motivations of a Christian's character.  The heart of a Christian should be one that it oriented around helping and not hurting all others in every way.  In terms of God, the heart of a Christian should be one that does everything "for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31).

Here many will try to sneak back in a more duty-oriented framework.  Loving God, some might say, involves keeping this list of laws for their own sake.  Perhaps so, but some strong cautions are in order.  First, loving God never contradicts loving our neighbor or enemy.  It is not--"I must love my neighbor unless he is a homosexual, for love of God requires me to hate homosexuals."  The love of God does not work this way but reinforces the love of my neighbor and enemy.  It hopes for the redemption of my enemy even if my enemy is seeking to harm me.

However, love of God does contradict an inordinate focus on myself.  It requires me to shift from myself being the focus of all my actions to God and his desire for the greater good.  I cannot excuse selfishness or actions done in private simply because they do not harm my neighbor or enemy.  A heart oriented toward God is a heart that is not oriented toward myself.

[1] Recovering the Scandal of the Cross


Rick said...

"A heart oriented toward God is a heart that is not oriented toward myself."

And as we abide in Him, we are transformed, and the fruit (primarily love) is shown in/from us.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

For the Church to continue to have a reason to exist, there must be an affirmation of "virtue ethics". Why?

Because each person has an innate desire to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in political terms, and yet, "survival of the fittest" (an elite) is the reality, "Christians" must give up their desire for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", if there is to be virtue, which basically boils down to 1.) the Church authorities (the strong) determine who will give up their rights or 2.) the "strong" themselves choose to give up these rights for "the greater good". One is a paternalistic view, while the other is a libertarian view.

The first has to do with whether one agree that Church authority should have authority over individual lives.

The second has to do with "conflict of interests". Conflicts of interests are the realities of life. What "should" be the approach to such conflicts? Should humans chooses "out of the goodness of their heart"(virtue) forego negotiation, and the right of respect or mutual relationship to "do unto others"? This is the "moral model" form for the Church's benefit.

My take;
1.) Whether one chooses to affirm Church authority or not, is their personal right in our society. The First Amendement grants that right.

2.)Virtue has to do with balancing power, not negating power, unless one believes that "evil" should not be resisted (that has its own problems, as Hitler would have taken over the world!). Power "just is". Power is physical life, political liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Individuals are granted the "power" of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by good government. And good government allows for the right to dissent and to resist.

The practical questions are obvious;
America is the Superpower. Should America be a superpower, or balance power? Would this be what is required to be a "Christian nation"?

Or, are "American Christians" called to forego their life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for the sake of the 'greater good'? Should Americans give up their "way of life" for environmentalism, and the impoverished? Is a social welfare State more virtuous than a capitalistic one?

Or, are "American Christians" called to individually assess where they personally choose to forego "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and voluntarily choose to benefit the areas they find most important?

There is no "virtue" in government choosing such policy, as these bcome duties, not virtues. So the first and second are foregone conclusions.

The third option is about personal choice and how, where, when, and if such "good" will be chosen. The Church cannot demand it as a duty without subverting choice, and thus, "virtue" on the part of the individual.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

There is a professor at one of the Ivy League schools that proposes "suffering" as the answer for human rights, and justice.

This is a "social justice" model of "justice" and it sees society as an organism (as in biological systems), instead of a contract (as our Founders understood our Constitutional government).

I have problems with this model as it begins with society (or biology, or "the whole"), and not the individual and doing so, presumes much about goals, outcomes and purposes, leaving little room for diverse opinions/values, etc. Such a "collectivist" view ends with a Statist view of liberty at best and a tribal view at worst (which I think has underwritten our culture wars, today).

The 'suffering servant" is the Church's "moral model" and is the image of those that "perform" their virtue/duty, as a "rite of passage"/function within the Church, as social structures are defined as maintaining/restoring order (structuralist's view). This view would probably fit with N.T. Wright's view of Paul, and the "missiology of the Church", wouldn't it?

The view also affirms an empiricism, of "the suffering servant" (the example of "christian virtue") and the understandings of "the human" in the neurosciences as well as affirms behaviorism/act theory.

There is much danger in seeking after or trying to attain to a "collective justice", because of the nature of group and human behavior. Injustice, then becomes a means to 'justice"! And such "injustice" fulfills the scripture's representation of "Jesus' life" and the early Church's experience.

Islam is the only religion being given "special priviledges" in Ontario, regarding prayer in their public school cafeteria, Muslim boys and their Inmans, are a priviledged class. And such priviledge has also been granted by the U.N. under the Human Rights Declaration. Such "group" tolerance of intolerance ends up being an intolerant tolerance toward other Traditions that have "no special priviledge", as well as underming human rights itself!

And it is the absurdity of postmodernity and multiculturalism combined!!

FrGregACCA said...

Yes, indeed, Ken. Great post!

Regarding a couple of the comments above, humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. God is both uni-natural (one-natured) and multi-personal. So is humanity.

However, with the Fall, humanity's essential natural unity is compromised. In Christ, it is being restored through the Church He founded. In the meantime, it the job of the state, primarily, to see to it that the society over which it presides does not sink below a certain level of justice; the state is divinely mandated to establish and maintain the common good. Thus, neither strict libertarianism nor rigid collectivism is compatible with Christianity in any form, and, as it stands, neither is in fact sustainable historically.

Rick said...


Good thoughts.

The difficulty comes in when we try to find an agreement on the "level of justice" and the "common good".

Of course in the past the ruler determined those definitions. In our democracy (or democratic republic to be more accurate), everyone has a voice in that determination.

JohnM said...

FrGreg - "..neither strict libertarianism nor rigid collectivism is compatible with Christianity in any form.." This is because humanity, like God, is uni-natural and multipersonal? That would make sense to me. Does this mean both or either would still be wrong even if they did work (as you noted they do not)over the long haul?

FrGregACCA said...

JohnM, I strongly suspect that neither work over the long haul precisely because they are both incompatible with the way in which humanity is created.

Lack of sustainability, then, is an indicator of a basic problem. The truth may not be "what works," as a pure pragmatist might claim, but that which is true indeed works.

Rick, I think that democracy, in whatever form, is indeed a necessary part of the process of determining the common good, at least when a given society has reached a certain point in development. Again, I think sustainability, or the lack thereof, is always an important indicator.

For more specific guidelines, even though I am not RC, I for one refer to the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as being an authentic and well-developed expression of general Christian teaching concerning these matters.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Roman Catholicism adheres to Aristotle's "virtue ethics", what about those that believe that humans are much more than "God's iamge-bearers", meaning that each human has too much distinction to be categorized as "God's image-bearer". What does that mean, anyway?

Science is telling us that men choose what they are genetically predisposed to choose, and then seek to justify their choices. It seems that science is revealing a predetermination about morality that doesn't adhere to our raionality, upbringing, or bias. It's is an innate nature...that is expressed by genetic determination.

What and how should society then, affirm, or re-structure itself for accomadating such information? Or should society continue to adhere to "old principles" to protect "old values" just because they are traditionally accepted? Obviously, we still want to prevent chaos, and maintain a culture that affirms liberty is the best environment...

FrGregACCA said...

Angie, balancing humanity's duality as a community (a single species) and as a collection of individuals need not be grounded in a Christian vision but can simply be referred to that self-evident fact concerning humanity. Both sides of this particular equation must be ma

Maintaining order and avoiding chaos requires that we go beyond a libertarian account while at the same time recognizing that all humans have innate rights.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Finally, something we agree on, but I doubt we would agree on "how to get there".

Law must uphold our society's structure, and community without circumventing the individual's right of free association. Whenever we do not respect boundaries within a community, that community has ceased to be a "safe place" and becomes a cult, no matter what they think they do in the name of "good"!

You remember, I suppose, the experiment done within a prison scenario, where those in "power" kept increasing the "pain effect" upon those that were supposed "criminals" in the eyes of thier particular social norm/custom...horrible things can be done in the name of maintaining "right order"...

FrGregACCA said...

Angie, I am aware of that experiment. Not sure how it is relevant to normal Western society, or, especially, to the Church, since the Church is a voluntary organization.

Libertarianism usually embraces the no harm principle: that is good; however, virtually any action that one can take has the potential for harming others. This is especially true when it comes to economic activity.

What I think you are missing, as with most Westernerns, Christian or otherwise, is the fact that Rome does not define the Apostolic Tradition; what I mean is that, according to the Eastern iteration of same, the Church AS A WHOLE is infallible, not any one bishop or even, all of the bishops together. Consider Acts 15. Yes, the Apostles have a role, even the decisive role, but the final decision is a matter of consensus of the whole Church.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I do understand that the Eastern Church is more "democratic". But, beauty, justice and truth are ideals, that is defined by representation, (human language is such a "symbolic" way of understanding these "ideals" and cultures reflects them) , which might or might not be labeled as "God".

Humans define these "ideals" in different ways. This is why to live reasonably, one must depend on a civil government, and social contract, not "God" or some "ideal" to defend one's actions/choices of value, as to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Ideals can bring as much disunity, as unity. That is why it is best not to define them, but leave them as "ideals"....(if one is a politician).

Government, then, can protect from tribal conflicts that don't define these "ideals" in the same way. This is the reason for separation of Church and State.

Our government, unlike Rome, was not to have an emperor, or King. Therefore, "the people" were to choose their representatives....and those that define their "ideals"/values most closely with their own.

FrGregACCA said...

Speaking of the Stanford Prison Experiment: