Monday, December 01, 2014

Vices and Virtues

By an interesting coincidence Bradford Littlejohn has written a piece on virtue ethics. Not an historical piece, as my mini series on William Ames and the Westminster catechisms is, but a contemporary piece, expressing a concern with ethics in a world coming to terms with new technology. I’ll briefly summarise Littlejohn’s approach. You can read it in here for yourself, and there’s more besides this.

Littlejohn claims that Protestants have blind spots when it comes to ethics, though it’s not all Martin Luther’s fault, the trouble with his framework of the Law and the Gospel. We think using that framework that the moral life is in terms of what particular actions we ought to do and to avoid, and then we swing to the opposite by ‘emphasizing the good news that Christ has set us free and given us new hearts, From this standpoint, ethics is above all about having a right heart, and everything else will take care of itself.’

So the bind Protestants are in is that they veer between legalism (Luther) or ‘the good will of a new heart’. For if we do that have ‘sometimes left out the crucial middle ground, the well-developed medieval conception of virtue, which many leading Reformers were careful to retain’. Virtue gives us an emphasis not on rules but on habits, as the medieval taught us, and this gives us a route into thinking ethically, Littlejohn is concerned exclusively or firstly about the use of technology; but this is bye the bye. (Personally I cannot see what this fuss about technology is all about, but maybe we are going to be shown in the treatment of virtue and vice in later pieces. These are to be concerned, Littlejohn tells us, with the Seven Deadly Sins (which should actually be called the ‘seven deadly vices’).

The Littlejohn story

A Protestant today will or ought to wonder about this story of the helpfulness of the medieval church on the Reformers on the question of virtue, if only because they regarded the Roman Church, by and large, as a vicious organization with its own particular set of legalisms to boot. What was the source of this critique? It was that the Roman church was too like the pagans, the philosophers of Greece and Rome who

When they give exhortations to virtue, can only tell us to live agreeably to nature…who, in their commendation of virtue, never rise higher than the dignity of man. 

Calvin diagnoses their chief error as not having any doctrine of the fallenness of human nature.

Whether this appeal to the concept of virtue, or rather of vice or vices – the seven deadly sins or lusts - helps us ethically in a ‘technological age’ – is a question which does not concern us here. The question is whether the virtues or gifts of the Spirit – which doesn’t have prominence in Littlejohn’s account – take us to a more distinctive view of Christian ethics generally.

Ames would I think applaud the adoption of the language of virtue rather than that of law, though he by no means despises the law. Yet he would say that switching concepts from law to virtue by itself does not take us very far. To think of virtue in a distinctively biblical say – of Christian virtue -  one has to pay attention to both the source of Christian virtue, and the character of the virtues themselves, as given to us in the several lists of them that we have in the NT. 

So let us look at what Littlejohn says. About virtues he says this:

Moral habits, habits of the rational will, are the same, except that they require conscious cultivation and, to a greater or lesser extent, divine grace: they are learned patterns of behaviour which enable us to excel  at being the kind of creatures God made us to be, to act excellently  toward ourselves, our neighbors, and God. A virtuous person may still sin, and a vicious person may still make a right choice, but in both cases it will be harder to go against habit than with it.

Some of this is true. But there’s an optimism, a semi-perfectionism, that the New Testament teaching on habits lying at the base of virtue) does not have. Or to say that they have divine grace ‘to a greater or lesser extent’ does not do justice to the NT idea that Christian virtues are the fruit of the Spirit, born of regenerating grace. Of course naturally upheld virtues – of honest and fidelity say – are of social importance, but they are to be distinguished from the virtues of the Christian life, which have a different motivation and end.  Strange, in this connection, that Littlejohn does not mention the contrast between the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the natural virtues of honesty, courage and so on.
(I think incidentally that Luther’s gospel-law dialectic is much less important for the rise of legalism than Calvin’s and especially the Puritans ‘third’ use of the law.)

What would Ames say? 

He denies that virtue has only to inward religious dispositions, but it extends to actions. What actions? Those that respect only the life to come? No, religion respects not only the life to come, but  this life. Further, virtue does not respect only civil conduct. Nor has religion to do only with the inward but the outward as well.  (200) So Ames sees a (true) virtue to be a disposition of the will brought about by Spirit and word, ‘a gift of God and inspired by the holy Spirit’ (201) of a comprehensive nature. So, Prudence, called ‘spiritual understanding and wisdom’ (Col.1.9); Fortitude (boldness, perseverance and constancy); and Temperance, ‘sobriety, purity and sincerity’. (204) And in a virtuous person these four virtues are seen comprehensively across his character, and do not respect only one line of conduct. (206-7)

All these virtues do seem to be prescribed together, and almost by name. 2 Pet.1, 4 and 6. Add to Faith Virtue: that is Justice or an universal rectitude; to virtue knowledge, that is Prudence directing aright all your ways: to prudence, continence, that is, that temperance whereby ye may contained your selves from all allurement of pleasures, wherewith men use to be fleshed, and drawn away from the right way: to continence, patience, that is fortitude; whereby ye may endure any hardship for righteousness sake. But that which follows there of piety and charity doth contain a distribution of virtue, to be propounded in its proper place. 

We see that Ames’s view is very similar to Calvin’s. He also takes it that each virtue affects the others, making possible a 'distribution' of virtue.  Without taking into account and making central the ethical consequences of the Fall and its recovery through Christ’s Spirit in the giving of a ‘new man', the substitution of the language of law by the language of virtue is inconsequential by itself. We need an inner change. The emphasis on rule-following makes it possible that a decline to moralism and to legalism will occur - that Christian will not readily think that living  is a matter of following a list of do's and don'ts. The acquisition of true virtue. - though fitful and imperfect -  makes it much less likely that the Christian will respond to the commands of the law of God legalistically. But for  proper virtue we need the Spirit.