Today, when the subject of ethics and morality is brought up, our tendency is to associate these concepts with rules governing behavior. We think of right and wrong in terms of dos and don’ts pertaining to particular acts.
While rules of behavior are an important part of ethics, they are not the only part. Nor are they necessarily the most important. The terms “ethics” and “morality” are derived from the Greek and Latin words meaning “habit” or “custom”, terms which refer to regular patterns of behavior. People naturally form regular patterns of behavior over time, which shape the qualities that make up their character. If those qualities are positive and beneficial for the individual person and the society to which he belongs, they are considered virtues. If they are negative and detrimental, however, they are considered to be vices.
Homer, in his epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey did not analyze virtues the way the Athenian philosophers would later do. Instead, he told stories that illustrated the virtues the Greeks thought appropriate for heroes – strength and bravery, friendship, loyalty and honour. Socrates, at least as he appears in the dialogues of Plato, made the qualities considered virtues by the ancient Athenians the subject of his inquiries. This was a major development in philosophy, as the various pre-Socratic schools of philosophy, such as the Milesians and Eleatics, had focused instead upon questions about the nature of the universe. Socrates, as Plato depicts him, engaged people in conversations about the definition of particular virtues. In the Laches, for example, Laches and Nicias (1) go to Socrates when they find that they are not in agreement about whether the value of being trained to fight in armour, and this leads into a dialogue in which Socrates interrogates them about the meaning of courage or bravery. Aristotle would later make the systematic study of virtue the subject of his works on Ethics, both the shorter Eudemean and longer Nicomachean versions.
The Christian Church has inherited much from the Greeks as it has from the Jews. Contrary to the assertions of some, that the “Hellenization” of Christianity led the Church astray, the New Testament writers themselves, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, incorporate Greek ideas into their explanation of the Christian faith. Christian ethics has both Jewish and Greek components. The most obvious example of the former are the Ten Commandments, the famous rules given to the Israelites through Moses on Mt. Sinai.
What about the Greek component?
The Christian Church, from the Patristic era through the Middle Ages, identified and emphasized seven virtues. These are divided into two categories, the theological and the cardinal. The theological virtues are those mentioned by St. Paul in the last verse of the thirteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Church in Corinth:
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
The cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude were originally the chief virtues of Greek thought. Their inclusion in Christian thought is not to be attributed solely to neo-Platonic influence in the early Church, however. They are also found in a Scriptural text, in the seventh verse of the eighth chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon:
And if a man love righteousness her labours are virtues: for she teacheth temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude: which are such things, as men can have nothing more profitable in their life. (2)
The Wisdom of Solomon is a deuterocanonical book, a book which is found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament but not in the Hebrew Old Testament as it has come down to us. I do not wish to sidetrack this essay by discussing the canonicity of such writings here, suffice it to say that they were part of the writings recognized as Old Testament Scripture by the Greek-speaking Church from the first century on.
The cardinal virtues are also called the moral virtues. The distinction the early Church Fathers made between the theological and cardinal/moral virtues is that the latter are strictly moral and as such, can be displayed by a pagan. The theological virtues can only be present in a person’s life through the working of God’s grace.
The Cardinal Virtues
As with the names of many of these virtues, prudence is a word we do not use very often today, although the adjectival form “prudent” is still common. Many people may only be familiar with the word as an archaic proper name found in literature dating back to the era in which it was common for people to be named after Biblical people or theological/moral concepts.(3)
Prudence is not quite the same thing as common sense, although the two are similar. Discernment and discretion are also similar in meaning to prudence. Prudence is a form of wisdom applied to everyday living. The Greek word translated prudence in Wisdom of Solomon 8:7 is phronesis. This word occurs only twice in the New Testament (4) but it is common in classical Greek philosophical texts. Aristotle divided the virtues into two basic categories – virtues of character, and virtues of the intellect. He wrapped up the virtues of the character with justice in Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics, then turns to the virtues of the intellect in Book VI. Phronesis, which connects the intellectual virtues to the moral virtues, occupies the bulk of this Book (5) In Aristotle’s description, this is the virtue lies in the capacity to deliberate correctly about what is good for oneself and for others, and is the virtue required to properly administer the affairs of a household or a state. It is the ability to make good and wise decisions for oneself and for those under one’s authority.
Thus, when we speak of a person as being prudent, we usually are talking about someone who makes his decisions cautiously and carefully after having considered their possible ramifications, and weighed their long-term consequences against the short-term. It might surprise some that prudence is considered to be a Christian virtue, as it obviously includes the concepts of calculation and self-interest. The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon, in the verse prior to the verse listing the cardinal virtues writes:
And if prudence work; who of all that are, is a more cunning workman than she?
Self-interest and calculation, however, are not intrinsically anti-Christian. They only become so when they are not moderated and balanced by the self-giving love that is Christian charity. Prudence is more than mere cunningness or craftiness. A person who possesses the latter, is good at discerning the path of self-preservation and following it. A person who possesses prudence, is able to discern when the way of self-preservation is not in fact the best way to act, and acts accordingly.
Prudence is not highly valued in modern Western societies. Cunningness is still valued highly, perhaps more than ever before as the notion that it is always “stupid” to do something against one’s own immediate self-interest has become popular. Discernment, however, is thought poorly of in societies that have made discrimination into the highest of vices. A person who cannot distinguish between types of people (which is all the word “discrimination” means – it does not necessarily include the sense of acting unfairly to one type) will not be capable of distinguishing between types of actions.
Our current lack of prudence is perhaps most evident in the way we handle our finances. It has always been considered prudent to save a portion of one’s income for the future. To spend all of one’s substance, and then borrow more to keep on spending, is not ordinarily considered to be wise. Indeed, it is generally considered to be an indicator of extreme folly. Today, however, everybody from the government down is doing this.
There are three reasons to save money. The first is as insurance against old age and/or future disability or unemployment. The second reason is that if you save your money, and allow it collect interest it will grow and you will have more to spend in the long run if you save than if you don’t. The third reason, is the possibility that your money will be worth more per unit at a future date than it is today, which is what happens when there is a general growth in production with little to no inflation.
The first reason is always valid. It never changes, and for that reason it is always prudent to save. Inflation, however, can undermine the last two reasons to save. The term inflation refers to an increase in the money supply which causes the value of your money per unit to drop. If the value of your money per unit is constantly decreasing, then it makes more sense to spend it today than tomorrow, and more sense to spend it tomorrow than ten years down the road. Inflation also cancels out the benefit of collecting interest if the larger total amount that you end up with will actually be worth less than if you spend it as you get it.
People generally only complain about inflation when they see the prices of goods and services go up. This is when inflation is most visible. That does not mean that inflation is only present when prices are going up. If the production of other commodities is increased, their value per unit will go down. Therefore, if you increase the money supply and production at the same time, the inflation will not be visible to you in the prices of the commodities whose production levels have gone up.
The way the present economic system works in the West, companies try to keep prices low by growth in production, while governments and their central banks inflate the money supply. The former lowers the value of commodities per unit, the latter the value of money per unit. Doing the latter, encourages people to spend their money in the present and even to borrow, because the value of money is constantly decreasing. This kind of spending is also, conveniently but not coincidentally, the only way to keep an economy that depends upon constant growth running.
It should be obvious to anyone that this system is unsustainable on any kind of a long-term basis. It is therefore most imprudent to persist in it. Moreover, the behavior it encourages and reinforces in us as individual persons is imprudent as well, although we cannot excuse ourselves by pointing the finger at the government and the banks. It is still wiser and more prudent to save your money than to spend it all, and always will be.
This is just one of many ways in which we have abandoned the traditional virtue of prudence and in abandoning the traditional for the modern have demonstrated how much we still need the former.
If prudence is a virtue which is very much out of sync with the spirit of the present age, how much more so is temperance. It too is not a word we use often these days. The Authorized Version lists it as one of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. There it translates the Greek word egkrateia. More recent translations tend to render this as “self-control”, a meaning which is apparent when the word is broken down into its components, the first person pronoun ego and the word kratos meaning power or dominion (6). This is not the word that is found in Wisdom of Solomon 8:7, however. That word is sophrosyne.
Like phronesis, this word is not common in the New Testament (7), but was an important word in classical philosophy. It is the virtue discussed by Socrates and Charmides in Plato’s dialogue named after the latter. This word has given translators headaches for centuries, as its definition gave Socrates and Charmides headaches in Plato. It is formed by combining the root of the word for “salvation”, “soundness” or “health” with the word phren which means “mind” or “brain” (and which is also the root of phronesis). This would suggest that it has the meaning of “being in one’s right mind” or “being sound of mind”. The word was not quite used the way we would use those phrases in English, however. Aristotle, who saw every virtue as a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency, placed sophrosyne between the opposite vices of over –indulgence and under-indulgence in the pleasures of everyday life. This would suggest the meaning of “moderation” which is a closely related concept to “self-control”. This is why sophrosyne is traditionally rendered temperance in Latin and English, for that word means to moderate, to qualify, to, well, temper.
Temperance then, is the virtue of moderation, or more specifically the virtue of keeping one’s desires, impulses, and passions under control and not indulging in them to excess.
The virtue of temperance is incompatible with modern materialistic consumerism. Materialistic consumerism is the underlying basis of both capitalism (8) and socialism. The capitalist system, which requires constant growth in material production to maintain a high level of reward for both capital and labour, must be supported by aggressive advertising aimed at convincing people that items which were formerly considered to be luxuries are now indispensable, and that last year’s model of a particular good, should be replaced with this year’s, even though there is nothing wrong with it, because this year’s is “newer and better”. While some socialists criticize these aspects of capitalism, the system they promote is no different. Socialism’s complaint against capitalism, is not that it reduces the purpose of human existence to material consumption, but that some people are able to consume at far higher levels than others. Socialism is a democratic rather than a liberal movement – it purports to speak for “the people” rather than “the individual” – and like all democratic movements depends upon the generation of envy among the many against the “privileged few” for its strength. If the deadly sin of the capitalist is greed or avarice, then, as Dorothy Sayers pointed out, the deadly sin of the socialist is envy (9). In the 20th Century, socialism in most Western countries moved from its original goal of eliminating private ownership of productive property in favour of public ownership to the goal of establishing a “floor” – a standard of living, below which nobody would be allowed to fall, paid for out of the public purse. Capitalist countries were generally willing to implement this, and socialism’s activities since have generally been aimed at raising the level of the floor. We see in this, that the difference between capitalism and socialism is not as big as the advocates of either system make it out to be. The belief that material consumption is the path to happiness, and that human beings are therefore homo oeconomi, who exist in order to consume, is inherent to both systems.
On the other side of the virtue of temperance, there is a heresy in the Church that goes to the opposite extreme. This heresy demands complete abstinence rather than moderation, as the appropriate Christian approach to most earthly pleasures. Those who hold to this heresy would not tell the tobacco smoker, for example, that it is wrong to allow himself to be enslaved to tobacco and to damage his health in his bondage. Instead they would say “it is a sin to smoke”, a position that has no Scriptural justification (10) and which does not allow for the suggestion that smoking moderate amounts of tobacco, in less-harmful and less-addictive forms than cigarettes, like a tobacco pipe or cigars is morally acceptable. The latter suggestion, however, is more consistent with the concept of temperance. The heresy substitutes the Islamic doctrine regarding the consumption alcohol (that it is always prohibited) for the traditional doctrine of Judaism and Christianity (that is acceptable in moderation but that drunkenness is sinful). Since this heresy generally pops up only in Protestant circles, its supporters might say “we don’t care about tradition, all that matters is what the Bible says”. Their doctrine, however, does tremendous violence to the plain meaning of Scripture in which wine is spoken of a blessing from God, was miraculously produced by the Son of God Himself, and is one of the elements of the Lord’s Supper. It is rather ironic that social reform organizations in the Progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, who wished to see a total prohibition on alcohol enforced by the laws of the land, called themselves “temperance” societies, when it is hardly the practice of moderation that they were promoting.
Between the hedonistic consumerism of modern capitalism and socialism on the one hand, and the excessive asceticism of puritanical (11) elements of the Church, lies the classical and Christian virtue of temperance, in which the blessings of God are to be enjoyed by man in moderation rather than excess and in which men are to rule their passions rather than to be ruled by them.
In the Wisdom of Solomon the word translated “justice” is dikaiosyne, the same word which figures prominently in Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics. This word is generally translated “righteousness” in the New Testament, both in the Authorized Version and in more contemporary versions. It is helpful, in understanding the meaning of these words to know, that where English has two sets of words built upon the stems “just” and “right”, the corresponding meanings in Greek are expressed by a single family of words built upon the root dik-, the basic meaning of which is to “show” or “point”. Thus “righteousness” and “justice” are the same thing.
Or, they are not. Aristotle in his Ethics distinguishes between a dikaiosyne which is synonymous with virtue itself, embracing all virtues within itself, and a dikaiosyne which is more limited in meaning and which is a particular virtue. We could identify the former with “righteousness” and the latter with “justice” in the way the two words are generally used in English. Aristotle’s translators don’t do this because it would unnecessarily add confusion to the text if two different words were used when Aristotle is distinguishing between two uses of the same word.
If we acknowledge this distinction, the question becomes which of these meanings is intended in the Wisdom of Solomon. Which is the cardinal virtue?
Since phronesis or prudence has typically considered to be the chief of the cardinal virtues from the early Church onwards, it stands to reason that the cardinal virtue of dikaiosyne is the specialized virtue and not the virtue that embraces all others. What is the meaning of this kind of dikaiosyne? What is “justice”?
We know, from the way the word is used legally and politically, that it involves making right decisions. The Authorized Version, reflecting an older English usage that is in this case illuminating, frequently uses the word “judgment” as a synonym for “justice”. When two parties disagree and a third party is called in to judge their case if he makes the right decision it is called “justice”. Let us say the disagreement was between two neighbors over their property. One man claims that the dividing line between his property and his neighbor’s is the line between two trees. His neighbor, however, claims that both trees are on his property and that the boundary is actually at a rock pile closer to the first man’s house. The person who can judge correctly – who can show or point out the real boundary, thus assigning to each man what is properly his own – is the man who can provide justice in this case.
This is the classical way in which justice is defined – to give to each person that which he has a right to, that which is his own (12). This, of course, pertains to more than just material goods. If we are arguing against another person’s point of view, we often acknowledge a point in our opponents favour by saying “to be just…” This reflects our understanding that the other person is entitled to have his case heard. This is why our legal system is set up so that people cannot be convicted of a crime without an opportunity to plead their side of the story. Everyone is entitled to his day in court and if we condemn a person without allowing them this opportunity we have done an injustice. This basic principle of the English system of justice, is not a product of rationalism, “The Enlightenment” or liberalism. Its roots lie in the classical and Christian understanding of justice.
There are two Greek words which can be translated “man”. One of these can also have the meaning of “human being” . The other can also have the meaning of “husband”. The first is anthropos the second is aner (13). The word andreia, which is the word for “fortitude” in the Wisdom of Solomon, is derived from the word for “man, husband”. This would suggest that the word means “manliness” (14) and it is used in classical writings to mean “bravery” or “courage”, especially on the battle field.
It might seem, at first glance, that here we have an instance where the Christian use of the term drastically departs from the classical use of the term. Surely, we might conclude, the Christian concept of courage or bravery as a virtue, understands a spiritual or moral courage or bravery, rather than a literal martial courage. Does not St. Paul use imagery from war to describe the Christian’s spiritual struggle with sin and the forces of evil?
While the Bible does use martial imagery in this fashion that does not mean that fortitude in its literal sense cannot be conceived of as a Christian virtue. If we reflect upon the experience of the early Church it will become obvious how literal fortitude can be a Christian virtue.
Why is it that many people have a mental reservation about thinking about a martial virtue as a Christian virtue? It is because a soldier’s job is to kill for his country. Even those of us who do not agree with the radicals who believe that the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount condemns capital punishment and fighting for one’s country in war (15) might question raising a quality associated with killing others, no matter how justifiable, to the level of one of the seven most praiseworthy traits in Christian ethics. After all, did Jesus not go quietly “like a lamb to the slaughter” when they arrested, tried, beat, and crucified Him?
What is the quality, however, which a society looks for in its defenders that it calls by the name “bravery” or “courage”? Is it the ability to kill without compunction?
No, it is the willingness to face potential death without backing down.
Just like Jesus did when He went to the Cross to redeem the world from sin.
Just as Stephen did, when stoned by the Sanhedrin for his faith in Jesus. Just as St. Peter did, when, having been sentenced to die, he asked only that he be crucified upside down because he was unworthy to be crucified in the same way as his Lord.
In the early centuries of the Church Christians experienced persecution and martyrdom for their faith as they have done from time to time ever since and still do in some parts of the world today. It takes the virtue of fortitude to be a martyr.
The Theological Virtues
The three theological virtues (or heavenly graces) are distinguished from the cardinal virtues in that they go beyond mere morality and display the working of grace in the Christian life. This does not mean that unbelievers do not possess faith, hope, or love in any sense of these words. It means rather that specifically Christian faith, hope, and love are different from generic faith, hope, and love, that they are qualities which take on a new dimension and meaning, because of the working of God’s Spirit in the life and heart of the believer.
Faith, in the New Testament, is multifaceted. It is the response in the heart of the sinner to the Gospel, awakened in the heart by the Holy Spirit through the life-giving seed of the Word, and the instrument through which the grace of God communicated in the Gospel is received. St. Paul also includes it among the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. This is an interesting paradox. Faith is the means by which a believer walks by the Spirit. It is when the believer walks by the Spirit that the Spirit produces the fruit. Faith is also part of the fruit. In this we see that faith has many dimensions.
Two additional dimensions are found in 1 Corinthians. In chapter twelve, verse nine, faith is identified as a gift of the Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are not identical to the fruit of the Spirit. St. Paul does not speak of fruits of the Spirit in Galatians, but of the fruit of the Spirit in the singular. This indicates that the Spirit works to produce everything that is called His fruit in the lives of believers as they walk by faith. The gifts of the Spirit, however, are distributed differently. They are distributed among all believers, but not each gift to each believer. The entire point of the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians would be lost if this were not the case. The point of that chapter is that the Church, being the body of Christ, is one body made up of many parts, and that each of the parts has its own unique role to play, its own contribution to make, and should not envy the others. The diversity of the gifts should not be allowed to threaten the unity of the body.
This leads naturally into the thirteenth chapter, where faith appears again. Here, however, it is clearly not the gift given to some spoken of previously. It is classified rather with hope and charity. The purpose of the thirteenth chapter is to demonstrate how it is better to have charity or love, than to have all of the gifts of the Spirit. The latter are said to be meaningless and worthless apart from Christian love. From this contrast we see that the love of which St. Paul speaks, is not merely the best of the gifts, but in a category apart from the gifts. To this category, faith and hope also belong. St. Paul does not use the word “virtue” but the way in which he describes love as a superior way of living, justifies the early Church’s decision to apply that word to faith, hope, and love.
To call faith a virtue goes very much against the grain of the modern age. In the so-called “Enlightenment” which began the modern age, reason and science were exalted as the paths that would lead mankind to a new golden era. Faith was condemned by the new rationalists as being the enemy of reason. This has led to a number of misconceptions as to the nature of faith. Among those influenced by the “Enlightenment” rationalist view of faith, there is the idea that “faith” means believing something with little to no evidence, or in spite of abundant evidence to the contrary. This is not what faith means.
The Greek word pistis, like its English translation “faith”, simply means “belief” or “trust”. When you or I believe that Sir John A. MacDonald was the first Prime Minister of Canada or trust that our best friend will keep his promise to return the book we loaned him we are exercising pistis, or faith. Everybody, even the most hardened religious skeptic, uses faith every day of his life.
The difference between faith in general and Christian faith in particular, is not that the latter lacks evidence or is possessed in the face of evidence to the contrary. The difference is in the content of the faith (what is believed) and the object of the faith (Who is believed). The content of Christian faith is God’s self-revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ and the object of Christian faith is God Himself, as revealed in Jesus Christ. There is only one other difference between Christian faith and generic faith and that is that the Holy Spirit, Who causes God’s word to bring forth Christian faith in our hearts, uses this faith as a vehicle to transform our lives. The many dimensions of faith that we have seen – as the instrument of receiving God’s grace, the fruit of the Spirit, the gift of the Spirit, and finally the Christian virtue, are examples of this last difference, showing how the intervention of God’s grace can take something everyday, like our capacity for trusting someone, and work wonders with it.
The Christian faith is hardly irrational. Faith is always rational when it is placed in someone with the ability to keep his word and the disposition to do so. The God Christians believe in, exists outside of the universe of time and space, and is it’s Creator and Sovereign Lord. As such, He is not bound by its limitations. This means that He is able to do whatever He promises. What about His character? Skeptics frequently try to impugn the character of God by saying that if He really possessed the power the Christian faith attributes to Him, and really was just and loving, He would not allow the evil and suffering in the world. Thus, the argument runs, God can be all-powerful or just and loving, but not both. God’s own answer to that, throughout Scripture, is that He will not allow His creatures to dictate terms to Him. He is Sovereign and does not answer to man. He has revealed, both His justice and His love, by coming down to earth, sharing our condition, becoming one of us, and suffering at our hands, in order to save us – ultimately from ourselves. That is the character of Someone Who is worthy of being trusted
The virtue of faith, however, does not lie in its reasonableness but in its ability to make a man that which he should be. Aristotle defined the “good” of a subject in terms of its function. A knife is a good knife if it can cut well. The same holds true for men, Aristotle argued, and therefore the chief good of man is man’s ability to fulfill the chief end of man, i.e., the purpose of his existence. This is man’s virtue, and lesser virtues are virtues in that they contribute to it as lesser ends or goods, serve the chief good of man.
The end or purpose of man, the Christian faith teaches, is to be found in God. God is our Creator, and our purpose for existing is not something we determine for ourselves but that for which He created us. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord”, St. Augustine wrote, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”. Or, as the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith beautifully put it “Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.”
If our chief good lies in God, the virtue of faith lies in the fact that it is what connects us to God, and is thus an indispensable means to our chief and highest end. “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6) Faith is not, however, the chief theological virtue. That honour belongs to charity, or Christian love.
The three theological virtues are closely related to each other. Hope, or elpis as it is called in the Greek, is an extension of faith. If faith is our confidence in God as revealed in Christ, hope is the expectation that His promises bring to the hearts of all those who trust in Him. “I may not know what the future holds” as the saying goes, “but I know Who holds the future”.
Today, we use the word “hope” to express our desires, what we want to happen in the future, regardless of whether we have any real expectation that it will happen or not. “I hope it will be cooler tomorrow” we say in the midst of a heat wave that is predicted to last until the end of the month.
The Greek word elpis, originally had a meaning that was rather the opposite of this. It was used to express what one expected to happen, regardless of whether one wanted it to happen or not. “I expect to die a grizzly death at the hands of an axe-murderer” is a morbidly pessimistic thought that could be expressed with the word elpis just as well as the thought “I expect to inherit a fortune and live in the lap of luxury for the rest of my life”.
Both the English hope and the Greek elpis, however, have another sense, one which combines expectation and desire. This is the meaning of hope as a theological virtue. We look forward, with a certain expectation, to that which is the desire of our hearts, the return of the Son of God to receive us unto Himself eternally. This attitude of expectation, is that of the Bride of Christ, anticipating the arrival of the Bridegroom. This hope is founded upon faith, and flows out of faith like a river flows from a spring. It is the believer’s comfort in the moment of bereavement (1 Thess. 4:13). St. Paul goes so far as to say that we are saved by hope (Rom. 8:24) which produces perseverance and patience within us.
That hope, in the sense of combined expectation and desire, is essential for a healthy mind and moral life, was understood by the ancients. In the story the 8th Century BC poet Hesiod told in Works and Days of Pandora, Greek mythology’s equivalent of Eve, Hope was also in the jar containing all the evils of the world which she unwittingly opened. Hope remained trapped in the jar after all the evils were unleashed upon the world. This being a tale of divine judgment the meaning would seem to be that all of the suffering in the world is even worse in the absence of hope. There was little hope in the pre-Christian religion in which there was no anticipated resurrection and everybody, righteous and wicked alike, were doomed to the gloomy, darkness of Hades. It was only in the redemption and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and His promise to return to take us to a place in His Father’s house that He will prepare for us, that a foundation was truly lain for the hope the pagan Greeks sensed the need for. Thus, just as Christian faith is only produced in the heart by the Word and Spirit of God, (Rom 10:17), Christian hope is only produced in the heart on the grounds of Christian faith. It is through the last, and greatest, of the theological virtues, however, that faith is connected to Christian living, for faith “worketh by love”.
The Authorized Version of the Bible of 1611 translates the Greek word agape as “charity” in 1 Corinthians 13. This was done to make a theological statement. The love which St. Paul is talking about in this chapter is not just any love, but Christian love, the kind of love which was manifested in Christ and which can only be present in the human soul by God’s grace through the union of the believer with Jesus Christ. Charity, is the technical theological term for this kind of love. It also has the more common meaning of “giving to the needy” which does not truly do justice to the meaning of agape. For this reason more recent versions generally use the word “love”. This is not necessarily an improvement. Whereas the meaning of charity has become too narrow the meaning of love has become too broad. We use it today to speak of feelings of romantic attachment and of intense sexual passion. We also use it flippantly to refer to our preference for particular brands of material goods. The philosophy expressed in contemporary popular culture elegizes love as the highest possible good, the only thing people need, with little to no reflection upon what this “love” actually is. Little is gained, in the way of clarity, by translating agape love rather than charity.
The theological virtues are greater than the cardinal virtues because they are produced in the soul by the grace of God. Charity, is clearly identified by St. Paul as the greatest of the theological virtues. It is therefore the greatest virtue of all – the “greatest thing in the world” as Henry Drummond called it. We see this throughout the New Testament. When asked what the greatest commandment was Jesus answered, not by quoting one of the famous Ten, but by quoting “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind and strength”. He added that the second greatest commandment was similar to the first “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”. All the Law and the Prophets, He said, are summed up in these two commandments.
Later, on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus gave His disciples a new commandment. “That ye love one another as I have loved you.”. This is a commandment with a double meaning. It means both that we are to love each other because Christ loved us, and that we are to love each other in the way Christ loved us. In the words that followed, Jesus made it clear what that involved: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Love was God’s motivation in giving His only Son to save the fallen world (Jn. 3:16) and it was out of love that Jesus endured the Cross for us. It is only because God loved us in this way that we are able to love with Christian agape love (1 Jn. 4:19). Love is the very nature of God Himself (1 Jn 4:8).
There is no way of describing or defining Christian love of charity that can improve upon the description given by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. It is one of the most familiar passages in the Bible. Modern translations of it are frequently read out in wedding ceremonies. This is an appropriate use because the Scriptures liken the relationship between Christ and His Church to that of a husband and a wife. In Ephesians, husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. It is therefore appropriate, that on the day a man and woman marry, and the man commits to loving his wife as Christ loved the Church, that they be reminded of what exactly that love looks like. It must be remembered, however, that the passage is talking about the virtue of Christian love and not about romantic love.
St. Paul writes:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
(1) These were Athenian generals in the Peloponnesian War. This conflict between Athens and Sparta lasted 30 years, and ended in Athens’ defeat a few years before Socrates’ trial and condemnation. Laches and Nicias had negotiated the famous “Peace of Nicias” in 421 BC which ended the first phase of the war. When the fighting resumed, however, both men were killed in famous Athenian defeats. Laches was killed first, in the Battle of Mantinea in 418 BC. Then Nicias was appointed one of the generals in charge of the Sicilian invasion of 415 BC which ended disasterously for Athens. He was captured and executed by the Spartans, after losing all of his forces at the siege of Syracuse. Thus makes Plato’s choice of them as interlocutors with Socrates on the subject of the virtue of bravery rather interesting.
(2) As with other Scriptural passages, I have followed my custom of quoting the Authorised Version of 1611. In the Authorized Version, the deuterocanonical writings such as the Wisdom of Solomon, are placed between the Old and New Testament under the heading “The Apocrypha”.
(3) There are more recent examples of this, but one can be found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the Canterbury Tales, an assorted group of people, including Chaucer himself, gathered together in a tavern and set out the next day on a trip to Canterbury, guided by the host of their inn. They agreed to take part in a competition, along the way, to see who could tell the best story. When it got to Chaucer’s own turn, he started out with “The Tale of Sir Topas” a poem that is never finished because the host interrupts Chaucer, complaining that his poem had caused his ears to ache, that rhymes of this sort can go to the devil, and that his “rymyng is nat worth a toord”. He tells Chaucer to tell a story in prose, and Chaucer complies with “The Tale of Melibee” a story, in which a wealthy man, whose home had been invaded and the female members of his household beaten, planned a war of revenge against his enemies, but was persuaded against it by his wife. Most of the story is a long, tedious, debate between the two of them. His wife’s name was Dame Prudence.
(4) Luke 1:17 and Ephesians 1:8. The Authorized Version renders it as “wisdom” in Luke and “prudence” in Ephesians.
(5) The translations of Aristotle that I have consulted generally translate phronesis with “practical wisdom” or “practical judgment” rather than prudence.
(6) The “crat” in words like “democrat” and “autocrat” comes from kratos.
(7) It is found all of three times, and is rendered by “sobriety” and “soberness” in the Authorized Version.
(8) As always, when I speak critically of capitalism, I do not mean either the private ownership of property or the freedom to sell one’s product in the market. Both of these have been around since the beginning of history. I refer instead to the modern economy as a whole.
(9) “The Other Six Deadly Sins”, found in Dorothy L. Sayers, The Whimsical Christian: 18 Essays, (New York: MacMillan, 1978).
(10) 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and 6:18-20 don’t apply. In the first passage the second person plural is used, which tells us that the Temple referred to is the believers collectively, i.e. the Church. The second passage is a bit more complicated, because in the larger context starting with verse 15, St. Paul uses the second personal plural possessive pronoun hymon with both the plural somata (verse 15) and the singular soma (verse 19). The first verse must be referring to literal, physical bodies, the second would seem to be referring to the Church again. Let us suppose, however, that verse 19 is talking about the physical body of the particular believer, as verse 15 is, and then jump backwards in the text and use this verse to identify the body –Temple in the third chapter with the believer’s physical body. The larger context in chapter six is talking about fornication, and if we are to allow chapter six to interpret chapter three in this way, the defiling (or destroying) in verse 17 would have to be a reference to fornication as well. If someone were to argue that fornication is what St. Paul had specifically in mind, but that there is a broader application that includes tobacco smoking, the obvious rebuttal of this would be to refer to Matthew 15:11, 17-20. For it is just as valid to lump tobacco smoking, which is not mentioned in Scripture, in with eating with unwashed hands as it does to lump it in with fornication, in a “broader application” of a passage.
(11) The heresy does not really have a name, although it is often called “Puritanism”. This is rather unfair to the historical Puritans, however, whose error was of an entirely different nature. The Reformation had started as a reaction against theological and moral corruption in the Church. The Puritans, were English Calvinistic Reformers who took things too far. They took the position that unless a traditional, Church practice could be shown to be explicitly given a warrant in Scripture, the practice should be done away with as “unscriptural”, meaning “anti-scriptural”. This brought them into conflict with the establishment of the English Church who took the position that everything in the Catholic tradition that could not be shown to be explicitly contrary to Scripture should be retained. A number of preachers have been considered, and considered themselves, to be heirs of the Puritans. Perhaps the best 19th Century example was Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the Baptist pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. Mr. Spurgeon was a noted cigar smoker. http://www.spurgeon.org/misc/cigars.htm
(12) Hence the long segment in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics about “distributive justice”, i.e., justly distributing the profits of a joint enterprise, or of goods owned collectively by the community.
(13) This is a third declension noun and as such its stem cannot be found from the nominative singular, because a stem letter is frequently dropped before the case ending is applied, but rather the genitive singular andros. Such English words as “misandry” (hatred of men) and “polyandry” (having many husbands) are derived from this word.
(14) This term, because of the phenomenon commonly known as “political correctness”, has been marked by the left-wing, self-appointed guardians of the public’s mental hygiene for obsolescence. Harvey C. Mansfield, however, has defended the word and the concept in a recent volume Manliness, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006)the writing and publishing of which displayed great fortitude.
(15) The Sermon on the Mount cannot honestly be interpreted as forbidding capital punishment or serving one’s country in war (or swearing oaths in court for that matter). To arrive at that interpretation, one has to strip verses 17-19 of
Matthew 5 of all meaning.
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