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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.