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Where Is the Final List of Christian Virtues?

Updated: May 8

I teach Christian ethics, among other subjects, and I have found that trying to properly introduce the virtues is always an unsatisfying experience. Why?


The Church in the Middle Ages eventually arrived at a consensus regarding the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. And considerable good in spiritual and moral direction can be accomplished using such a list.

The parallel construction of a similar list of virtues, however, seems elusive. The late antique/early medieval church put together the so-called cardinal virtues, inherited from Greco-Roman culture, with the so-called theological ones, coming up with temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude along with faith, hope, and love.


But this combination took a lot of explaining to make it sound thoroughly Christian—even for Augustine, at one end of the Middle Ages, and Dante, at the other. They just don’t seem to be seven elements of the same sort of thing, as the sins are.


Another popular Christian list from this era—chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility—abandons the synthetic project and instead provides counterparts to the seven deadly sins. But defining virtue by starting with vice seems inherently problematic.


Worse, both lists leave out gratitude and joy, which surely are fundamental to the Christian life. So how can a teacher teach a good, clear lesson in the elements of Christian virtue?


The problem—if problem there be—goes right back to the New Testament itself. And I must say that I have always found Paul disappointing in this regard.


I jest, of course. Who am I to find the Apostle disappointing! But, honestly, it has always perplexed, and even vexed, me when Paul starts to apply theology to life in his several letters and he never, ever provides the Single, Comprehensive List. Not in Galatians 5, not in Ephesians 4, not in Romans 12—not anywhere.


Why doesn’t he? Why didn’t the Spirit of God inspire this great author to set out such a table of excellence, a code of conduct—a new law, as it were?


And there, I think, we have it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns sharply of the attractiveness of the moral code, the checklist of good qualities and good deeds by which we can conduct our ethical lives—and so congratulate ourselves at the end of the day on a job well done as we gaze at all those nicely ticked boxes.


Instead of listening to the voice of our Lord and Saviour to guide our doings, instead of trying each moment to keep in step with the Spirit, we look to the list. We thus can readily disregard the actual effects of our actions, contenting ourselves instead with following the rules.


This Christian Pharisaism (“Nailed all 613 commandments this year again!”) both calcifies the heart in self-righteousness and allows us to ignore weightier matters—such as, say, rescuing Jews targeted by the Third Reich while we are studiously observing the item on the list about obeying worldly authorities.


Paul, as usual, has it right. (I am confident that in the world to come that great theologian will thrill to know that I have thought so.)


Who could list all the ways we can and should be good, be Spiritual? Paul rightly doesn’t try. Instead, he wisely offers only examples, implications of the great truths of the gospel that occur to him at that moment, in that context: his personal circumstances, the situation and needs of his audience, and the literary flow of the particular letter he is dictating.


Again, any comprehensive list would tempt us to self-serving virtue-checking rather than being inspired by these several lists to listen to what the Spirit is saying to this church, and this individual disciple, at this time.


I imagine Paul saying something simple like this to me, a highly educated simpleton:


“Be good. Be righteous. Be holy. Be mature and complete. And how?


“Be all you can and need to be—here and now—as you heed what the Spirit tells you. The Spirit knows what you can handle, both theologically and ethically, both conceptually and practically. So just listen, learn, and live.


“And here are some examples of what that will look like, especially in your case...”


 

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