In my last post I talked about the human virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I pointed out that these are considered human virtues because all decent people recognize them as good things and in some way educate their children and design their laws to encourage them. We can’t stop there, though. We have to have the right motivations to be truly virtuous. As Christians we are warned against virtue motivated by legalism or competitive superiority. For us the reason to be virtuous is not to lord it over others less virtuous than we are. It is not even to console ourselves, with a bleak, stoic honor, that even though everything around us is in ruins, we at least are true to ourselves. The right motivation to be virtuous, as well as the antidote to legalism, pride, and despair, is provided by the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love.
These are in short supply today. I began thinking about the Seven Cardinal Virtues recently when I was reading the reasons people in Oregon chose physician-assisted suicide. I did not know those people personally and can’t and won’t judge their reasons for thinking what they did, but their statements betrayed a philosophy of utilitarianism that I think skews the thinking of all of us today. They didn’t want to go on living if they couldn’t do the things that made life worthwhile to them, if they were going to be a burden on others, or (the smallest number said this) if they were going to suffer physical pain. In saying these things they were on some level rejecting the virtues of fortitude, faith, hope, and love as well as the philosophy that the purpose of life is growth in virtue. They defined themselves only by the things they could do and their independence – or isolation – in doing them and not by their character as formed by both training and grace.
I must stress here that God’s grace is the source of all virtue, natural or Christian. We do not exist without God’s grace; we do not take a breath, make a movement, or eat a meal without God’s grace. I could no more be brave or temper my appetites without God’s grace than I could fly. Although the human virtues are recognized, admired, and taught by people who don’t know God, that doesn’t mean that they exist distinct from him – how could they?
The theological virtues, on the other hand, are not recognized or admired by non-Christian philosophies – we don’t see faith, hope, and love in Stoicism, Epicureanism, Confucianism, or Taoism, although we can find prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. So while it’s worthwhile anthropologically to study virtue in different cultures, we as Christians must acknowledge that only through God is our nature redeemed from death and sin and remade into the image of our Savior. I don’t offer this study of the virtues as a self-help course, or even as a reason not to commit suicide, though that’s what started me thinking, but as an opportunity to praise and serve God according to the nature he gave us and the life he calls us to.
The Theological Virtues
We’re familiar with the theological virtues through 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love, or charity. Unlike the human virtues, these three are not universally acclaimed because they require an understanding and acceptance of the Triune God. Faith, hope, and charity are absurd if you remove God – as absurd as the shower curtains for sale nowadays that say Faith in curly letters or the dish towels with Hope embroidered on them. Faith in what? Hope for what? Faith and hope without God are not virtuous; they are a stupid optimism, a blind effort to “feel” nicely faithful and hopeful without any foundation. Sacrificial love is equally pointless without God, although again, through common grace, non-Christians do achieve it from time to time.
Faith. Through faith we believe in God. Through faith we know, at least to some degree, God’s nature, our nature, and what is required of us. Because of this knowledge we can listen to our consciences, honor God and creation rightly, face difficulties with courage, and moderate our desires. So faith is a gift that underlies and enables the human virtues, but it also is a habit that requires action from us. It is inextricably united to good works as we obey God and begin to live the new life that he is pouring into us. It is the reason to share the good news of God’s love with everyone, and to share it cheerfully, not with wretched urgency, because we trust God’s sovereignty and his care for all of us. Faith doesn’t need human reward or praise or to see immediate results. Faith is peace and direction in the midst of the tumultuous world, a rock in the storm.
Hope. Hope, like faith, takes us out of ourselves. It reassures us that what we see around us is not everything, that time and death are not the ultimate boundaries. It teaches us a proper distrust of our own capabilities and a joyful humility in expecting something better than we can imagine. In fact, hope is the foundation of joy. Hope is a gift of grace, but determination and perseverance are required to hold on to hope in the midst of the darkness of this life. Because of hope we prepare for Christ’s coming and the Day of Judgment – the hopeful person keeps oil in her lamp even when it seems a waste to do so. Hope is a beacon to a despairing world.
Love. Life and this article are too short to deal with all the meanings of this word. I’d rather say charity, but that has also become degraded and nowadays means exactly the opposite of what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. Shame on us. But Paul points out that the greatest of the theological virtues is this love that he is talking about. One day, we will see God face to face and not need faith; our desires for God, heaven, peace, and justice will be satisfied and we will not need hope; but on that day we can truly begin to love. Love is the virtue most contrary to human nature, since it calls for us to put others before ourselves and give up what we want and need for their sake. Love is the opposite of the rock-hard unity of loneliness; it is relationship and community. It is the reason we were created and our reason to create in turn. Love is the only thing we can give back to God as our free gift; it turns us from slaves into children. The theological virtues end with love because, as St. Augustine says, “Love is the fulfillment of all our works. There is the goal; that is why we run: we run toward it, and once we reach it, in it we shall find rest.”
I’ve had a hard time writing about the virtues because they are both gifts and actions. “Virtue” means an inherent quality, such as the virtue of iron being its strength, but it also means specific deeds of goodness and the training to make them possible. I think both meanings are important, and it’s a challenge to keep both of them spinning at the same time. And our response to a call to virtue is equally complicated. We can’t achieve or merit a gift, only accept it, but we can and must act in order to train ourselves into the habit of goodness. The balance between the gift and the action, being and doing, grace and works, is a contentious subject, and I hope I’ve made my points plainly without offending or misleading anyone.
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things (Philippians 4:8).