A Christian Hierarchy of Values

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, argued that there was a hierarchy of values in terms of what was worthwhile for individuals and society to pursue.  For Aristotle, the highest value was the knowledge of truth for its own sake.  Of course, Aristotle was an Empiricist, which means that his real interest in “Truth” has to do with what one can observe with one’s senses or through the use of observational tools.  Some might be tempted to simply label this, “science,” but such a label would shortchange both science and Aristotle’s view.  Much of science is based on the use of reason built upon basic presuppositions and Aristotle recognized that observation could be applied to things outside of the realm of what we would typically classify as science (metaphysics, for example).

Aristotle’s second value was the discovery of practical knowledge—what Christians and Jews typically refer to as wisdom.  This is the kind of knowledge that can guide one to live a life well and skillfully.  For Aristotle, this was exemplified in the Four Cardinal Virtues of Greek thought: Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation.  Finally, the value at the bottom of Aristotle’s list was that of learning to be skilled in Technique—what we would refer to as technical or vocational skills.  These are the skills by which one would earn a trade.

I began to reflect on these ideas for two reasons.  First, I heard a contemporary philosopher argue that our modern culture has turned Aristotle’s hierarchy upside down—that those who our society values the most (based on their paychecks) are those who demonstrate a high degree of skill in technique and those who are valued the least are those whose life is dedicated to the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake.  Thus we live in a society where professional athletes, popular musicians and actors, and skillful doctors (again, technique with the surgical instruments) are the wealthiest class and preachers, teachers, and philosophers make up one of the poorest classes in society.  The second reason that I began reflecting on this idea is because I happened to be teaching on Augustine’s approach to the Four Cardinal Virtues of the Greeks.  Ultimately, Augustine affirmed these virtues as Christian virtues, but only when they were joined by faith, hope, and love—especially love.

Thus, I began asking the question, if I had to construct a hierarchy of values for the Christian life, how do I think that they would be reflected in the Christian life.  One might be tempted to begin, as Aristotle begins, with a knowledge of truth for its own sake.  Jesus said that his purpose in coming to dwell with men was to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37).  God, of course, is the God of truth (Isaiah 65:16) and those who reject God suppress the truth (Romans 1:18).  In addition, those who have no knowledge of God (as truth resides in God) destroy themselves (1 Corinthians 1:34).  Also, the implication of scripture is that it is the knowledge of God that allows his people to be faithful (Hosea 6:6) and when there is no faithfulness in the land, it is joined by a lack of the knowledge of God (Hosea 4:1).

Yet, it seems to me that a higher virtue sets the stage for the knowledge of the Lord.  When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the very Son of God, Jesus’ response is not to congratulate him on that knowledge, saying it was the highest virtue, but Jesus instead said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah” for this knowledge came from “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).  There are two things that need to be brought out from this verse in light of understanding Christian virtue.  First of all, the source of the knowledge of God is God himself, not something gained through a human pursuit—and if something has a source, or a precursor, it ought not be seen as the “highest” virtue.  Secondly, Jesus does not say, “virtuous are you,” but he says, “blessed are you.”  The Greek word for virtue, ajreth/ (arête), refers to one’s moral excellence or other attributes that make one praiseworthy.  Yet, blessedness, maka/rioß (makarios), has to do with one’s internal state as a result of their relationship to God.  Thus, Jesus can say, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name’s sake…”  Similarly, Peter’s blessedness does not come from anything he has done, but because of what has been done to him.

Now, we may be tempted to engage in a discussion of regeneration, but since the purpose of a hierarchy of virtue is to give us something of merit to pursue, such a discussion does not seem to have a place here as regeneration is something that God does in us which in turn precipitates a response of faith and repentance in the believer.  Our temptation, too, might be to jump immediately to the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and to Peter’s instructions on how to build up our faith (2 Peter 5-7), but again, these seem to have their source in a virtue that is more primary.

And that brings us to the question, what then does the Bible present as primary?  The logical answer seems to be that the highest virtue is the fear of the Lord.  We are told in scripture that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10) and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7).  The fear of the Lord gives life and health not only to the individual believer, but it is also a sign of a healthy church (Acts 9:31).  And then, out of the fear of the Lord proceeds the pursuit of the other Christian virtues.

2 Comments

  1. Jon Laughrey

    Every self-help book I’ve ever read says, “Change your mind and you change your life.” The most important change is to anchor our goals to our values, apart from which few goals are achievable (because most worthy goals require long-term commitment and much arduous labor). Therefore, people who want to achieve or change or become (like Christ), will have to take time to define their values (examine values). I’ve been thinking about and studying values (which is why I ended up at this page), and I’ve come to believe the pinnacle value is love (and had not considered that fear of the Lord might be in there somewhere).
    Before saying more, allow me to define love as briefly as possible: doing that which is in the best interest of another, motivated by compassion for them, and without undue regard for our own interests. Loving others not only fosters self-respect (self-love, self-esteem), but earns us that which we crave most, being loved in return. Love is the criteria (ought to be the criteria) by which we determine if our words and actions are right or wrong (moral or immoral; beneficial or harmful), which, when used as the determining factor, frees us from the law. We no longer need to be under the guidance of any law, because we judge all things rightly; if we have love and let it guide us.
    Being able to determine right from wrong is to overcome a huge obstacle. Many never get to that step before their tongue is talking and their hands are doing. Nevertheless, the next step is finding the power to do what we have determined is the correct thing, and this is where love as a value comes into play (e.g. what do I care about most?; the satisfaction of eating chocolate cake, or staying healthy so I can continue to provide for all the needs of my family?). Is my theory incorrect, even though it is based on the practical advice of hundreds or even thousands of high achievers? I have searched for the diagram or list of values that shows love at the pinnacle and have not found it, so perhaps it’s incorrect to say that love is the greatest value, upon which all other values hang.

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    1. preacherwin

      Jon, I would agree with you that love is meant to be one of the highest virtues to which we are to strive; such is the language that Peter employs in 1 Peter 1:7 — assuming you take 1 Peter 1:5-7 as a progressive list of virtues that one is to strive toward (as I understand the passage).

      The question, I would raise, though, is whether there is something even more fundamental, hence the language of the Fear of the Lord. Scripture teaches that it is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom both as well as the guide for a faithful life. Arguably, if you fear the Lord, you will love (1 John 4:7); if you fail to love you do not fear the Lord.

      Jesus echoes this in his summary of the moral law. When asked the greatest commandment, he says to Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength — arguably an expression of the fear of the Lord. The second commandment is love for neighbor (as self).

      I guess that if you are working to create a Christian hierarchy, something akin to Maslow’s pyramid, I would agree that agape love ought to be at the top of that pyramid, but I would argue (at least when it comes to virtues) that Fear of the Lord is the most basic element, the base of the pyramid, upon which everything else is built.

      The challenge for us is that we are being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ, and Christ, as God himself, has no degrees by which his perfection can be measured as they are infinite, nor can his perfections be divided from one another…they are all part of his infinite being. Thus for us to try and create a hierarchy is a bit forced because no such hierarchy adequately reflects the unity of perfections of Christ, toward which we are striving.

      I think that one of the reasons you won’t tend to see love listed at the top of the list for various models floating around the secular world is that love is a virtue that demands self-sacrifice. If we approach love as Paul defines it in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, then we are to love regardless of whether that love is reciprocated on the part of the beloved. That kind of love is costly and hard, but it was the love that Jesus demonstrated to us as he went to the cross. That is not the kind of love that a non-Christian would embrace as good because it is never self-serving. Self-service is pornea, not agape.

      Thanks for the comment and blessings as you continue to wrestle through and research what people are saying out there about hierarchies of value.

      Blessings in Christ,

      win

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