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:
- Mankind resists obedience to God
- Mankind is unable to keep covenant with God
- 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.