Paul, the virtues, and theological conflict

I. Virtue: a brief introduction

In my previous post, I briefly noted the threefold grace that Paul unfolds in Titus 2.11-14: (1) "saving grace," which flows from God's free mercy toward sinners in the redeeming death of Jesus Christ, (2) "training grace," wherein the church becomes a school of virtue, and (3) "hope-inspiring grace," which births in our hearts hope for the beatific vision. In the present post, I want to focus a bit more extensively on the second dimension of grace, and specifically upon the promise of virtue for Christian ministry. 

Virtue has not been an especially prominent topic in modern Protestant thought. Reasons for this are fairly easy to identify: a one-sided emphasis on justification to the neglect of other aspects of soteriology (e.g., sanctification, glorification), worry about moralism and salvation by works, and a generalized sense that virtue is a topic of Catholic rather than Protestant concern. The relative neglect of virtue in modern Protestant thought nevertheless constitutes a departure from earlier Reformed theology and, more importantly, from New Testament teaching. 

Consider, for example, the place of virtue in the Pastoral Epistles. There Paul numbers the virtues among the manifold graces that flow to us in Jesus Christ and that are to be exercised and strengthened through communion with Jesus Christ in the context of the church (1 Tim 1.14; 4.7-10; Titus 2.11-12). 

These gracious virtues not only include "faith" (1 Tim 1.2, 4, 5, 14, 19; 2.7, 15; 3.9, 13; 4.1, 6, 12; 5.8, 12; 6.10, 11, 12, 21; 2 Tim 1.5, 13; 2.18, 22; 3.8, 10, 15; 4.7; Titus 1.1, 13; 2.2, 10; 3.15), "hope" (1 Tim 1.1; 4.10; 5.5; 6.17; Titus 1.2; 2.13; 3.7), and "love" (1 Tim 1.5, 14, 2.15; 4.12; 6.11; 2 Tim 1.7, 13; 2.22; 3.10; Titus 2.2). They also include "sound-mindedness" or "self-control" (1 Tim 2.9, 15; 2 Tim 1.7; Titus 2.12), "gentleness" (1 Tim 6.11; 2 Tim 2.25; Titus 3.2), "peaceableness" or an "uncontentious" spirit (Titus 3.2), "sobriety" (1 Tim 3.2, 11; Titus 2.2), "justice" or "righteousness" (1 Tim 6.11; Titus 2.12), "strength" (2 Tim 1.7), "patience" (1 Tim 1.16; 2 Tim 3.10; 4.2), "endurance" (1 Tim 6.11; 2 Tim 3.10; Titus 2.2), "godliness" (1 Tim 2.2, 16; 4.7, 8; 6.3, 5, 6, 22; 2 Tim 1.10; 3.5, 12; Titus 1.1; 2.12), "contentment" (1 Tim 6.6), "generosity" (1 Tim 6.17-18), and "hospitality," literally, "love of strangers" (1 Tim 3.2; Titus 1.8). Based upon Paul's other letters, it is probably correct to conclude with Augustine that, except for faith and hope, the preceding panoply of virtues are but various forms of "love" (1 Cor 13.4-7; Gal 5.22-23), the pinnacle of Christian virtue and the goal of Paul's instruction (1 Cor 13.13; 1 Tim 1.5).

The virtues, biblically understood, are not merely subjective attitudes or emotions. They constitute subjective dispositions or qualities of character that rightly orient us toward objective realities, namely, God and all things in God. Faith perceives, receives, and rests upon God as he offers himself to us in the gospel. Hope eagerly anticipates and patiently awaits the fulfillment of God's promises in Christ. And love, stepping onto the path opened up for us by faith and hope, delights in the manifold goods that God presents to us in and through Christ and orders our steps in appropriate relations to these manifold goods: rendering worship and thanksgiving to God, demonstrating love and concern toward our neighbors and their needs, and moderating our use and enjoyment of creation's goods. The virtues are dispositional requisites of moral excellence that flow from the gospel, by which we are reformed and renewed in the image of God, for lives that glorify God and benefit our neighbors. 

II. The virtue of virtue in theological conflict

Virtue is profitable in many ways (1 Tim 4.8). To give one example, we may better appreciate the virtue of virtue by considering how it equips us to engage theological conflict outside the church. 

In a couple of articles posted earlier this summer (see here and here), Todd Pruitt discussed a common temptation that churches face in attempting to take a welcoming posture toward unbelievers who hold doctrinal and moral views contrary to biblical teaching. The temptation, briefly stated, is to relativize the difference between morality and sin and between truth and falsity in the name of presenting a hospitable invitation to outsiders. 

The problems with such an approach to evangelism are many. I mention two. 

(1) Fundamentally, this approach fails to perceive the internal logic that informs the twofold apostolic charge to preserve (1 Tim 6.14; 2 Tim 1.13-14) and promote the gospel (2 Tim 4.2, 5). We are not commanded merely to preserve the gospel. Nor are we commanded merely to promote the gospel. Either activity, taken by itself, constitutes unfaithfulness to the gospel and to the gospel's God. 

Why is this the case? Because of what the gospel is: "the pattern of healthy words" (2 Tim 1.13). The gospel is God's merciful cure for sin-sick creatures, the medicine of immortality (2 Tim 1.10). The gospel's status as the medicine of immortality constitutes the reason why it has to be preserved and promoted if it is to be effective. The only way the gospel can function as a remedy for sin-sick creatures is if its message is preserved pure of corruption: spoiled medicine cannot heal anyone. Moreover, the only way the gospel can function as a remedy for sin-sick creatures is if its message is communicated to those who need it: medicine that remains in the pharmacy cannot heal anyone either. 

(2) Such an approach also fails to perceive the nature and necessity of repentance. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis: Repentance is not something that sinners must do before they can be welcomed back by God. Repentance just is what it means for sinners to return to the welcoming arms that God holds open to us in the gospel. There is no returning to God without it (so WCF 15.3). 

The New Testament does not condone watering down or degrading the message of the gospel when facing theological conflict outside the church. For such situations, the New Testament commends virtue:

The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim 2.24-25). 

We must "fight the good fight" in seeking to promote and preserve the gospel in the world (1 Tim 6.12; 2 Tim 4.7). But we must fight in a manner characterized by the virtues of peaceableness, kindness, patience, and gentleness. These too (along with the virtues of hospitality, etc.) are the weapons of our warfare for tearing down the strongholds of unbelief (2 Cor 10.4; compare with 2 Cor 10.1). 

When faced with theological conflict and opposition outside the church, the solution is not to dilute our message. The solution, according to Paul, is to clothe ourselves with virtue. In doing so, we imitate our redeemer, who displayed "perfect patience" in extending the merciful cure of the gospel to us (1 Tim 1.16), and we honor the one "who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light" (1 Tim 6.16).