Liable to Error

All men are liable to error, and most men are in many points, by passion and interest, under temptation to it. If we could but see the secret motives that influenced the men of name and learning in the world, and the leaders of parties, we should not always find that it was the embracing of truth for its own sake, that made them espouse the doctrines they owned and maintained.

Let ever so much probability hang on one side of a covetous man’s reasoning, and money on the other; it is easy to forsee which will outweigh. Earthly minds, like mud walls resist the strongest batteries: and though, perhaps, sometimes the force of a clear argument may make some impression, yet they nevertheless stand firm, and keep out the enemy, truth, that would captivate or disturb them… Quod volumus, facile credimus; what suits our wishes, is forwardly believed.

~ John Locke, quoted in Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, by W. Jay Wood.

 

Pagan Virtue, Continued.

51W5H+JR4DL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an introductory post to present the issue of morality, Christianity, and other religions raised by sections of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I suppose I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’d like to think of my attempt to explore the question of pagan virtue as the musings of an enthusiastic inquirer rather than the sophomoric ramblings of yet another blogger. I’ll leave the decision of how I’m doing to you.

Pagan Virtue: A Tough Sell

The case for ‘pagan virtue’ looks bleak with the backdrop of the New Testament. Paul has no problem describing humanity as unrighteous and hostile to its creator. He also adds that mankind suppresses the knowledge of God that he’s been given. Quoting the psalmist, Paul adds that none do righteously, none seek after God. The case can easily be built further- the righteousness of man falls anemically short of the righteousness of God (Rom. 3) and, in one place Paul actually juxtaposes the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit, not human effort (Gal.5). I could exhaust you with a list of additional passages that affirm:

  1. Mankind resists obedience to God
  2. Mankind is unable to keep covenant with God
  3. Mankind (in his natural state) is unable to understand God

So, you might reasonably ask, why did I think it worthwhile to bring up the topic of pagan virtue at all? As I stated in my initial post, this question is foundational to any worldview and there are several pastoral considerations that warrant a thoughtful, prayerful, and humble wrestling with Scripture. I’ll consider those in the next post. For now, here are some reasons why I think the Bible sheds more light on the question than what I’ve presented above.

How wicked are we?

First, it’s important to note that no biblical author seemed to suggest that we are as wicked as we can be at all times. This point isn’t particularly hard to defend, especially when Scripture provides us with examples of what such a society might have looked like (cf. Gen. 6). I think that the theologians would have attributed this fact to the goodness of God- to a ‘common grace’ that we all experience. Man is depraved, but his depravity is not without its limits.

Justification by Moral Ability?

Secondly, we can build an interestingly un-Pauline train of thought when arguing against the possibility of pagan virtue. Some evangelicals sense that if it is granted that the Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or whomever is capable of choosing to consistently make morally correct choices, then that person must be in some sense exempted from God’s universal call to repentance. However, it can be argued that our virtue plays no role at all in our justification before God. It’s one thing to say that a pagan can be a decent sort of chap. It’s quite another to say that he has a righteousness he couldn’t provide -one that comes through faith in Christ.

A positive case can be made that people outside the Christian community understand and practice virtue. This will be more easily seen when we work out the practical extensions of our theology in the lives of people we know- not just the abstract pagan. I’d like to propose some of these threads of conversation in a final post. I think this area can and does affect our parenting, counseling, teaching, politics, apologetics, and more.

Pagan Virtue

C.S. Lewis is superb at generating thoughtful conversation on important matters. Though he died, he still speaks. A friend of mine has been teaching through sections of Mere Christianity in our church, and we’ve been discussing our way through the sections on virtue.  The first day, we bumped into a subject that seems to be continually asserting itself in my reading about virtue. Can a non-Christian be truly virtuous? The question can be controversial in some Christian communities, less so in others. Critics of Christianity also want to have a say. The question might be formed: Just how tightly is virtue linked to Christian faith?

51W5H+JR4DL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_These sorts of seemingly abstract questions need to be framed in the context of a constructive, action oriented conversation. ‘True virtue’ should be defined and explained. What could be more useless than a discussion of ethics in which we had no intention of commiserate action?

This leads me to the point that the discussion of how people become virtuous is foundational to any worldview. Our view of the nature of man will shape the way we vote, parent, and educate. It will inform the way we live with our spouses. It will influence the trust we place in our institutions.

So, for this initial post, I hope to explain that the problem under discussion is both practical and important. Ultimately, the question of natural man’s (to borrow an expression from Paul) ability to make morally correct choices is a matter of consistency in our worldview. What does the Christian faith have to say about Aristotle’s foundational work in virtue ethics? How about champions of the virtuous life from Socrates and Cicero to Benjamin Franklin?

The question obviously becomes theological quickly. In Pauline terms, what role does virtue play in our justification? How about afterwards? Is mankind fallen? If so, how is our morality affected? Finally, I hope that we will eventually be thinking less of an abstract problem and more about specific people making specific choices. The specifics will hopefully illustrate the pastoral implications of these views on our counseling, apologetics, and parenting.

I’ll probably link together my posts on this particular subject in a ‘series’ of sorts. In addition, below are a couple of links to previous interactions on the subject, including material on C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject as well. Our discussions at church have been fruitful and interesting. If you’d like to receive updates to this blog, simply subscribe by selecting the ‘Follow’ button.

Character Versus Habit? Introducing Lewis’ thinking on virtue as it relates to Christians.

Virtue and the Question of Your Hypocrisy Introducing N.T. Wright and the problem of learning virtue.

Thoughts on Faith

This post is by Rich Powell, pastor of Grace Bible Church in Winston Salem, NC. You can find out more about him here or hear his expositions of Scripture at gbcnc.org. Reprinted with the gracious permission of the author. 

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. Rom. 2:28-29

Circumcision, for the Jews (the “people of God”), was a ceremonial symbol of identification and distinction. But each one, personally and individually, had to place his faith in God. That is why the “real” Jew, according to the apostle, was not one who just carried the outward symbol but possessed a real inward distinction of surrendered trust in the Creator/Redeemer.

Now that Jesus Christ has fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law for all, we who are in Christ are the people of God by faith, meaning: in my heart and mind- at the level of thought and desire- I am set apart and devoted to Jesus Christ. That symbol of identification and distinction is “circumcision of the heart.”

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The apostle is driving home the difference between real fruit that grows naturally from within the tree, as opposed to aesthetic fruit that is superficially pinned to a dead branch. Externals, symbols, and group identifications do not put us in right standing with God and certainly do not fulfill His purposes.

Reconciliation to God through faith is not by identifying with a group or keeping a ritual, but by a personal surrender to Jesus Christ and singular trust in His sacrifice to redeem me to Himself.

God sees your heart. What is He finding?