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Pursuing Virtue is a Virtue

“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”

(Philippians 4:8)

Virtue is again one of these words we don’t hear a lot in our modern, western culture…perhaps apart from a phrase that no one really seems to take seriously: “Patience is a virtue.” Indeed, patience is a virtue but few people seem to want to work on practicing patience as they live out their lives. Everyone seems to want the things they want… “And we want them, NOW!”

Yet there is more to the idea of a virtue than just patience. The meaning of the term is to have “excellence of character.” Interestingly, this Greek term only shows up 4 times in the New Testament…in each case, commending us to live virtuous lives, but never giving us a detailed exposition of those traits that one might consider virtuous. Yet, as we study the Bible, we are not left to our own imaginations as to defining the term for virtue, because it is also used 6 times in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and in each case, the term is applied to the character of God. Thus, it is God’s character that defines what is virtuous and as we seek to model our lives after the example of Jesus Christ, we then seek virtue.

In historic Christian theology, virtue was often defined as “Faith, Hope, and Love,” reflecting Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 13. During the reign of King Louis IX (1226-1270 AD) in France, the notion of Christian virtue was nuanced slightly to become “faith, wisdom, and chivalry,” but again, embracing the notion of excellence in character. In the Roman Catholic Catechism, they present 7 virtues (to contrast with the “Seven Deadly Sins”) by combining the ancient Greek “Cardinal Virtues” of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage with the three “Theological Virtues” of faith, hope, and love.

However you construct or deconstruct these lists, the end result should be the same…we should emulate the character of God as we live our lives and in doing so, that produces virtue within us. God is the source and seat of all virtue, we will only find that virtue in emulating Him and His ways. Further, Peter reminds us that adding virtue to the faith God has given to us is not simply a virtuous thing to do, but it is commanded lest we remain “nearsighted to the point of blindness” (2 Peter 1:9).

Kalos and Kakos

“Jesus answered him, ‘If I spoke wickedly, testify as to the evil; but if nobly, then why did you beat me?’”

(John 18:23)

There is a certain irony in Jesus‘ choice of words. Some of our modern translations render Jesus as saying, “If I have spoken wrongly…” which gives the impression that Jesus is defending his own deportment with respect to the High Priest. Indeed, the man who struck Jesus did scold him for speaking to Annas in such a way, so it is natural that such an interpretation would be made. Yet, that is not what Jesus is saying. This is a false and unjust trial and the man to whom he is speaking is not really the High Priest anyhow. In such a context, what role does protocol have in the first place?

The subordinate struck Jesus for now begging before Annas. Jesus’ response is righteous, truthful, and contains a level of indignation that, were Annas and his cohorts really aware of the man to whom they spoke, should have reduced them to a quiver. Jesus is going like a lamb to the slaughter and soon will remain silent before his accusers, but here in the pre-trial, righteous anger is found to lie behind these words.

The irony in Jesus’ statement can be found in his choice of language before Annas — in two words to be specific: kako/ß (kakas) and kalw◊ß (kalos). The word kako/ß (kakas) refers to that which is evil, wicked, unwholesome, defiled, etc… In the Greek culture, it was the polar opposite of that which is kalw◊ß (kalos), which means noble, beautiful, morally upright, or done in a manner that is pleasing. When used together like this, the contrast is between that which is moral and that which is immoral, that which is virtuous and that which is foul. Jesus is essentially saying, “You who have acted unrighteously toward me, are you going to accuse me of unrighteousness?” Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, indeed.

Of course, this statement also frames all that will take place during these trials. From beginning to end, there is no legitimacy and all the testimonies of witnesses are staged. Often, as we live out our faith in this fallen world, it can seem as if unbelievers or unbelief in general is out to get us — Satan roaring like a lion looking to devour us if given the chance. Peter reminds us that this kind of behavior should not be that surprising to us for this is the way that Jesus was treated (1 Peter 2:21) — and if anyone can testify to that great truth it is Peter — Peter who on this night would deny his relationship with Jesus three times. John, who is also there that night, reminds us that we ought not be too surprised when the world hates us (1 John 3:13). The world hated Jesus first and we ought not be too surprised that we who are servants are treated in the same manner as our master (John 15:20). In fact, be of good cheer — for if the world does not listen to you it very well may be a sign that you are getting things right.

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.