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The Roman road to virtue

Excerpt from 'Character and Virtue in Theological Educaition' (p. 211-216, Oxenham)

A holy sacrifice

One way to understand the book of Romans is to start from the end. The latter part of Romans is, in fact, a comparatively straightforward invitation to character and virtue. The invitation is based on the exhortation in chapter 12 to be transformed and renewed in our minds, and, as we read on, we find that our “holy sacrifice” requires the virtues of humility, civility, generosity, diligence, mercy, love, zeal, hope, patience, faith, solidarity, magnanimity, compassion, civility, equity, justice, patience, tolerance, peacefulness, benevolence and constancy. Through these virtues, Paul paints a vision of the church in which the extraordinary effects of salvation are expressed in a life of character. The time has come, claims Paul, to put aside the deeds of vice and darkness and to put on the armour of light and good character.

The ‘therefore’ hinge

Let us now return to the beginning of the letter. What is the hinge on which the “therefore” in chapter 12:1 revolves? What is the connection between the ethical list in the last part of the letter and the doctrines in the first part, in particular with the doctrine of the atonement? The hypothesis is that, whereas the second part of Romans deals with the aims and outcomes of virtue and character, the first part presents the gospel road to achieve them. Concerning the aims and outcomes, there is substantial agreement between Paul, Plato and Aristotle, but when it comes to how to achieve these outcomes, Paul takes a radically new route. In doing so, he grounds moral education in theological understanding. There are several points to be made here.

First of all, Paul clarifies the source of sin/vice. It the outcome of judgment on mankind. It is not simply the lack of education or the result of poor philosophy. It is not just an issue of the untamed will or lack of self-control. There is something deeply wrong in the nature of man who has not only lost his telos and is no longer what he should be, but who has also lost the will and the ability to be righteous/virtuous. This is in stark contrast with much of the contemporary literature on virtue education that ignores innate vice and builds on the conviction that human beings are intrinsically able to be good. This is not a secondary matter, and the doctrine of the fall and of original sin must seriously weigh into our educational philosophy.

Second, Paul makes a point concerning human ability. Whereas Plato and Aristotle suggest that the path to virtue is found through a combination of human knowledge, education, community and individual willpower, Paul states that knowledge of what is good alone cannot make us virtuous in God’s sight. We are, in fact, in a condition of slavery to vice, and are not controlled by righteousness.19 There are sinful passions that are working in us, and our mind is bound and governed by the flesh. So, whereas the classical and humanistic traditions tend to focus on human ability to flourish, Christianity looks to the grace of God.

Incidentally, this issue of human agency was sharply debated in the early modern period, most notably by Luther. Could the pagans truly acquire virtue through education? Did schooling in goodness not simply give rise to the vices of pride and vanity? Was true goodness possible outside of “a dramatic displacement of human agency”? Luther believed not and denied that external practice could lead to interior transformation. For him, Aristotle and Paul were in direct antithesis and “the honest sinner is closer to righteousness than the aspirant to virtue.”23 Whereas Luther might have been right in questioning the capability of fallen humanity to be virtuous,24 his view might be too pessimistic. Erasmus offered a more balanced view, claiming that the pagans were capable of imitating true virtue and that, even though their progress would never constitute piety, it could foster piety. Although human effort might not lead to perfect virtue, it could contribute to self-improvement and represent genuine “fruits of repentance.”

The third point of distinction concerns divine intervention. None of the great classical writers looked to the gods to become virtuous. It was an entirely human affair. Christianity, instead, looks to the work of Jesus on the cross to find the grace to be righteous. The message of Romans is that the will is simply not enough. There is something that stands between our will to do good and our ability to be good. That is why we need a gospel. The good news of Romans is that, in Christ, we receive the ability to be the virtuous people we would like to be.

This, of course, is foundational for Pauline thinking and for Christian theology. The gift of righteousness/virtue is imputed through Jesus and received by faith. This gift allows us to reign in a flourishing life, to be freed from the slavery to sin/vice and to reap the benefits that lead to holiness. Since the power to be virtuous is not in us, the Spirit has put to death the misdeeds of the body, has aligned our minds with right desires and has given us a new life of righteousness.

Seen in this way, the gospel is the solution to the weaknesses of moral philosophy, and it is what is needed for human flourishing. In his wonderful little booklet After You Believe, N. T. Wright claims that Christian behaviour and human flourishing are the same thing. Christianity takes the best of ancient wisdom and brings it to a new level, putting it into a framework that becomes possible through grace. In Christ Jesus, human beings are not only called to become what they were always meant to be, but they are also empowered to do so.

Theologically speaking, this is known as the recapitulation view of the atonement.35 The re-reading of Romans through the lens of character and virtue that we’ve considered suggests that the effects of the atonement are not just to save the lost from eternal damnation, but also to reset humanity on its intended path. If the fall has made us lose arête, redemption makes it possible to restore the image of God and for us to become flourishing humans. While this model does not exclude the forensic model of the atonement and its future effects, it spotlights the transformation of our current condition.

Romans 6 weighs in here as a central text that speaks of slavery to sin/ vice. It makes it clear that we are born into a natural condition of impotence in which righteousness/virtue has no control over us. This misery is powerfully expressed in Romans 7, where Paul hates himself for not being able to do the good that he wanted to do and for doing the evil that he did not wish to do.37 Before the Damascus road, Paul was like Aristotle and all the rest, desperately wanting to be virtuous, but unable to be so and condemning himself for it. But, thanks to the gospel of the atonement, Paul claims that we are free from sin/ vice. Sin is no longer our master and we have become slaves of righteousness/ virtue. The benefit of this new freedom is holiness and a new-found possibility to reach the otherwise impossible standards of character and virtue described in Romans 12–15. Because of the work of the atonement, our “living sacrifice” becomes possible. We can say “no” to sin; we can live a new life of virtue and righteousness; we can choose not to obey the desires of sin; and we can offer ourselves as instruments of righteousness. Although sin is still a possible choice and we are admonished not to offer any part of ourselves to sin as an instrument of wickedness, there is now the possibility of winning that struggle. When temptation comes knocking, we can say “no.”

This is a gospel of transformation and not just of forgiveness; of freedom from present condemnation and not just of salvation from future damnation. It is a gospel of getting the kingdom back into humanity and not just of getting humanity back into the kingdom. It is a gospel of anthropological hope and not just of eschatological hope. It is a gospel of hard work, but also a gospel of supernatural help. It is a gospel where we look to Jesus not only as a good example to imitate, but as the one who accomplishes our redemption. It is a gospel where goodness is actually fulfilled, not only imputed. It is, in brief, a gospel of being restored to the image of God.

On these theological foundations we can proceed to design character and virtue education projects for Christian students of theology. While we endorse the secular efforts in character education, we believe that there is special potential in those who have experienced the atoning work of Christ.


(note: to simplify online reading, the footnote apparatus has been omitted – see full published text for acknowldgements and references)

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