Why it’s not always best to preach expository sermons

OK, I realise this depends upon how you define “expository”. If you mean that when you preach, every sermon should allow a text (or more than one) to set the agenda for what is said, then I’d have to agree that every sermon should be expository.

“Expository” defined as the opposite of “thought for the day” or “context-driven” has to be right because it reflects the Bible’s presentation of preaching as coming as words “from God” not just “from the preacher’s head”. Expository as “exposing the sense of a Bible text” is (for me) a non-negotiable. That is surely true whether preaching evangelistically or to edify believers. All sermons should (in my view) be not only Christ-centred and gospel-rich (good news) but Bible-driven and derived from the Bible text they are based upon.

My argument with expository sermons here is not that expository sermons can be boring, either, though they can. “Exposing” the text can become a dry lecture that fills the mind and doesn’t speak to the heart or will. But if I am boring, it is not the fault of the Bible or its logic – DM Lloyd-Jones called this kind of preaching “logic on fire”, and it should be! Others* have convincingly and rightly listed the benefits of “expository” preaching in the true sense of the word.

But if you define “expository” more narrowly than that – as “preaching from the same book of the Bible in sequential order” then I’d argue that is not always wise as the long-term diet of a church family. The main diet, yes, but not the only. To say this may alarm those not from traditions like the Anglican one, where our lectionaries and feast days encourage us to mix it up. What about Charles Simeon and D.M. Lloyd-Jones, you asked, who (it is said) just “preached the Bible in order” and let the Word do the work?

Here are three reasons I can see for not always preaching the Bible “in order”:

  1. Biblical: The Bible doesn’t always work that way. I’m not arguing the textual critic point – that texts are out of order compared to their original composition – here. But some books of the Bible just to not lend themselves to preaching every part of a text in order. Maybe the text is repetitive (Revelation from Chapter 4 onwards, for example) and mirroring that in a sermon series is not going to do justice to the meaning. Maybe the text was not designed to be read aloud in sequential order in the way it is printed in our Bibles today (the Psalms, for instance, seem to be a collection of liturgical and pastoral songs to be sung, and who would argue we have to preach 1-150 in order, with no omission or cherry-picking?) Maybe the text was designed to be read for impact in one sitting, but expository preachers so often pride ourselves upon taking an inordinately long time to preach through a book (Romans, or Hebrews, are two letters many take years over, but I would put in the category of “read fast for impact and overall message”). Maybe the text lends itself to being linked with other similar ones that are not found in immediate proximity in the Bible (a series on the Parables, for instance).
  2. Pastoral: The people of God need help constructing a doctrinal framework for life. A member of our staff team recently asked why we do so many sermon series that don’t just “go through a Bible book in order”. The answer I gave is that the people of God need the preacher of God to help them see what the whole Word of God says about the mind and works of God. We might do this by digressing on doctrinal points when a text invites it (the Puritan John Owen did this when preaching through Hebrews) but that simply makes my point that only preaching what a text says is not always enough. We might also do it by preaching every text of the Bible over (say) a ten-year period, but how many church members will hear every sermon, and make the connections between them all? But we can certainly do this by preaching sermon series that teach “systematically” the truths of the Bible about God and the world. Over my seventeen years in my church we have typically included one or two series each year on themes such as Creation, God’s Attributes, the Cross, the Holy Spirit, The Church, Prayer, Personal Evangelism, A Theology of the City, Church Planting, Service and Ministry, Stewardship/Giving, Spiritual Disciplines, Desiring God, Seven Deadly Sins, Biblical view of Humanity, Temptation/idolatry.
  3. Apologetic: Seekers in our congregations need help grappling with big questions. These are stumbling blocks to hearing the gospel unless we address them. Some preachers find this comes more naturally than others (Tim Keller is especially good at connecting with the seeker and sceptic in his sermon series) but we all, I would argue, need to try. The obvious way is to pick up the big questions in one series every couple of years: The Meaning of Life, The Existence and Knowability of God, the Issue of Science and Faith, the Challenges of Religious Exclusivism, Hypocrisy and Extremism, the Problem of Suffering. We’ve also tried to connect with the non-believing culture when a public moment demands or offers an opportunity: debunking the Da Vinci Code when it was published, responding to publications from new atheists like Dawkins, or events like 9/11 or natural disasters. Such moments are on open door for the gospel.

So there are three reasons why I don’t always preach sermon series through a section of the Bible in order. I could add that evangelistic sermons are better done from texts that clearly portray the heart of the gospel, and that even great preachers like Spurgeon did not preach from the same book of the Bible each week at all, though his sermons brilliantly expound the texts he chose.  

I am sure there are lots more reasons why preachers should stick to preaching through a text in sequence, and lots more why we should keep mixing it up. Let me know your thoughts.


  • eg Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching (IVP, 1996), Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centred Preaching (Baker, 1994), David Helm, Expositional Preaching (Crossway, 2014), William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Banner of Truth, 1996), John Stott, I Believe in Preaching (Hodder and Stoughton, 1983)

“Is it true?” is still the question

Questioning the truth

There were over 100 talkative students packed in to the marquee which had been set up in a prominent spot at the centre of the university campus, and the guest speakers for this week of gospel-sharing events were wrapping up the final sessions. What struck me was not only the level of spiritual interest within this supposedly post-Christian generation, but the topic: is the resurrection of Jesus “true”, and what does it mean for us today? The speakers did a great job of outlining in an attractive and compelling way both the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, and the implications of it for our life today.

I am used to hearing speakers enthuse about the “difference Jesus makes”, and even also the hope he to argue that the “post-modern” unconverted need to see that faith “works”, and are not asking “is it true?” The seekers that I meet want to know both, and they are smart enough to know that one (pragmatic relevance) rests upon the other (historical truthfulness). So what a joy to find that in 2017 spiritually interested undergraduates are hearing about the truth of the resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus is true?

One speaker rehearsed the historical probability of the gospel accounts being literally true when they speak of a tomb with no body in it, and of appearances to a number of disciples on different occasions. He had clearly read and spoken on this theme many times before.

He offered Karl Venturini’s  swoon theory, proposed early in the nineteenth century and later adopted in form by Friedrich Schleiermacher (and more recently, Michael Baigent and Barbara Thiering). According to this, Jesus fainted on the cross, and then revived in the tomb and was rescued by his followers. The experienced student evangelist pointed out the historical improbability of this theory, given the professionalism and effectiveness of Roman execution, and the powerful effect of Jesus post-resurrection on all who met him.

The theory that the women who were the first at the tomb on Sunday morning mistook an empty tomb for the grave of Jesus was rightly dismissed as not only sexist (!) but as poorly fitting the gospel accounts. These record that multiple visits were made to the tomb by followers of Jesus, who had noted his burial place carefully. Furthermore, if they got the wrong grave, why did the Jewish authorities not immediately point out the mistake?

The speaker then alluded to the idea that Jesus’ body had been stolen by the authorities, and pointed out that if this was the case, the corpse is very likely to have been revealed since, but it has not. The suggestion that the disciples were creating a hoax about Jesus’ resurrection to achieve public fame for themselves was shown to be equally unfit as historical theory, given the same absence of a body, and also that most of them soon willingly faced prison and execution for this claim.

Finally, the theory that the disciples and women who saw the risen Jesus according the first written sources were hallucinating was recounted, and against it, the evidence of eminent psychiatrists that the appearances in the accounts do not remotely fit the pattern of hallucinations.

The speaker finished by challenging his sceptical listeners to come up with a better theory that has not been thought-of in the last 2000 years, or to accept the truth of the resurrection.

Time and again, historians and lawyers (see further reading, below) have trawled through the historical evidence and concluded that the interpretation of the eyewitness authors of the gospels is the most likely: on Easter morning Jesus had left the tomb and was about to appear to numbers of people over the following days and weeks showing his victory over sin and death to be complete and commissioning his Church to tell the world this news.

Evidence for God?

There are other strong arguments for the existence of God:

The cosmological (the existence of material objects and causes point to the existence of an immaterial Being who was before creation and initiated change and motion)

The teleological (the order, design and purpose in material objects point to the existence of a final cause, or Being, who has sovereignly overseen their creation to his own glory)

The ontological (the fact that we can imagine a Being as perfect as God points to the existence of such a Being)

The existential (the presence throughout history of a sense of the divine in human culture, especially in the witness of Christians to a transcendent and personal encounter with God through Jesus Christ, points to the existence of God as the source of these experiences)

The moral (the universal sense of right and wrong in human culture points to a Creator whose moral goodness has left this spark of conscience in us)

The aesthetic (the presence and awareness of beauty in the cosmos, whether in the form of music, art or nature, points to the perfect beauty of its Creator, of whom these things are each a taste or scent)

The ecclesiological (in the 2000 years since Jesus’ incarnation, the Church has made mistakes, but its influence upon culture, education, art, compassion, community life, and upon our attitudes to the sick, the disabled, slavery, race, women, and children, has been overwhelmingly good)

Even if some of these evidences for God are arguably stronger than others, I personally, like many, find these evidences for God compelling when gathered together.

Historical evidence that it’s true

But for me the most compelling and reliable place to look for the existence of God, and even more important, for His knowledge, is in His self-revelation in the historical events of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which the historical accounts of the eyewitnesses provide testimony. One of Jesus’ first followers, the apostle Paul, writing within two decades of the events, underlines the centrality of the historical resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith”. The reliability of the gospel accounts, on which the truth of the resurrection largely rests, has endured more than a century of sceptical attack from those arguing that the stories are embellished or concocted, but most of this attack has been upon the records of Jesus’ words (not the resurrection accounts), most of it has been well refuted by Biblical scholars, and none of it has yet found a convincing means or reason by which the gospel writers could have invented the resurrection as an explanation for Jesus’ extraordinary influence.

Further reading

Frank Morrison, Who moved the stone? (Authentic Media, 2006)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998)

John Wenham, The Easter Enigma: are the resurrection accounts in conflict? (Wipf and Stock, 2005)

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK, 2003)







Revolution needed in ‘faith at work’ shibboleths

I’ve just read ‘Revolutionary Work’ by William Taylor available from  10ofThose.com . As you’d expect from William, this is a nourishing read which faithfully affirms the place of work in human life without rose-tinted specs. There is a thorough and clear Biblical overview of how Scripture paints a picture of work that is God-given, fractured by sin, yet to be done with integrity, as serving Christ (Ephesians 6:6-7).

Where this book is unusual is in the way William then boldly challenges some of the shibboleths of recent years which (he argues) go beyond Biblical teaching about vocation, excellence and purpose in this present creation. He points out that “calling” in Scripture is usually that to faith in Christ, and when the word (once) refers to station in life, in 1 Corinthians 7:17, it is to urge believers to faithful living where they are, whatever their current situation. He concludes that gospel-sharing ministry (and not therefore just “doing your job well as a Christian”) is the true “work of God” (John 4), whatever our employment. He challenges the (admittedly, comforting) notion that much (or some?) of our work done in this creation will appear in the next as, at best, unproven from Scripture, and at worst a distraction from telling our colleagues the gospel about Jesus.

As a pastor often told that churches “rarely if ever teach about work” I found this book a helpful pushback. The Bible does say a lot about work, at least in general terms as covered by this book, and there is indeed a need to push the ‘sacred’ across the sacred-secular divide and do all our work as “for the Lord”; but Scripture also claims less for secular work than some would have us believe.

Revolutionary Work would be great to give/recommend to workers, and not just those in 9-5 offices. Inevitably (having been preached first as sermons for St Helen’s in London) the book reads on the whole as especially good for office 9-5 (or is that 8-late?) types.It’s nice therefore that William has included an appendix, by musician Dave Bignell, for artists, whose understanding of the place of work may differ from those in the business or services world, but for whom the Bible teaching holds the same.

If you want to be helped to connect your faith with your work, read this book – but not if you don’t want to be challenged to think through what the work of the Lord really is!

Faith and reason: a long and painful divorce

Aristotle Oxford Mus Nat Sci
Aristotle – Oxford Museum of Natural History

You are probably familiar with the polemical rhetoric of church father Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It set the tone in the early Christian centuries for the rejection of philosophy (his target then being neoplatonism). His reason for doing so was a laudable desire to affirm the simplicity and availability of knowledge of God through faith, in contrast to pagan metaphysics and dialectics in the style of Athens’ Plato, and his successors. Tertullian’s key text in doing so was Paul in Colossians 2:8 saying, “see to it that noone takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ”.

He was not however the only voice in the church of the first three centuries, because other Christian theologians like Clement of Alexandria and Origen, schooled in the philosophical air of Alexandria, were much more aware of the vital need to connect faith and reason, Bible and philosophy, in order to convince educated pagans to become Christians. They recognised (as did Calvin later) that Paul’s target in Colossians quoted above was not philosophy per se but only philosophy that is incompatible with Christ as sufficient Saviour and sovereign Lord. Origen for instance quotes Plato and has been accused of adopting the “middle Platonism” of his day; yet he was first of all a Bible commentator, and always saw the Bible’s account of creation and the Fall as deeper and more accurate than that of Plato. There is bad philosophy, but there is also good philosophy.

The debate continued through the later church fathers. Athanasius and Augustine welcomed ideas drawn from prechristian philosophy, whilst recognising how Christ transforms its ideas about God, the soul and immortality. In the middle ages great thinkers like Anselm, and particularly Aquinas, recognised the validity of drawing upon reason, whilst relying upon faith, in the pursuit of knowledge of God and in finding ‘analagous’ language, however imperfect, to describe Him.

The Reformation and subsequent enlightenment periods saw an increasing separation of faith and reason, perhaps not helped by the failure of the Protestant theologians to engage in serious metaphysical analysis, and Luther’s description of the philosophy of men like Aristotle as “the devil’s whore”! The Church became (not entirely justifiably) suspicious of the influence of Aristotle, with his emphasis upon this-worldly knowledge. Then following Descartes, rationalist philosophy through David Hume and others appeared at least to disconnect what can be known by reason from the experience of faith.

The consequence was the separation of science as a discipline of objective “knowledge” from religion as an exercise of subjective “faith”. This has proven inaccurate as an understanding both of science and of religion, but it remains influential in public perception and policy.

This long painful divorce will be destructive for religion and for society. Faith is and needs to be reasonable, and seen as such. In a secular culture which is growing more and more hostile to faith, it is my guess that the separation will be held up as evidence that faith is “unreasonable” and worthy only of marginalisation and muting. A brave new world of human reason and devoid of faith is the future some wish for already, but cries of “freedom and equality” fail to recognise that enforcing one inevitably requires crushing the other.

Faithful Christian philosophers and thoughtful apologists are going to be needed.

Is prudence a virtue?


Is prudence a Biblical virtue?

In a previous post I argued that the notion of Christian virtue is a lost but powerful component of the Church’s call to “make disciples”, to help members of our churches to move from the early stages of faith towards maturity. This seems crucial both to fulfil the Great Commission in making disciples, not just converts, and in forming Christians who will “wear God” by clothing themselves in virtues which, unlike theological truths, the world around can see.

Cultivating virtue matters both to discipleship and evangelism in a post -Christian world.

Before we look at the key virtues of faith, hope and love, I want to explore whether Augustine and Thomas were right to claim for faith the four Greek “cardinal” virtues of prudence, self-control, courage and justice, especially prudence, which Aristotle saw as the key to all moral virtue.

Prudence (Latin prudentia , Greek phronesis or sophia, Hebrew hokmah or da’at) is not simply, despite its adoption in at least one insurance company name, caution with money. Prudence may save for a rainy day because it knows this is wise, and it may drive carefully because it is encouraged by French road signs (“soyez prudent!”) but it can equally be bold and take risks when needed. It learns from the past and plans for the future (symbolised in the classic image above by Piero del Pollaiuolo with looking glass and serpent-on-pole).

Prudence in Aristotle resembles the practical “wisdom” of Proverbs and James in the Scriptures. It is shrewdness in the tasks and decisions of life, what we might call common sense, and what Paul and Peter call “insight”. Jesus speaks of the “wisdom” of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:8, who uses material resources to insure against imminent punishment.

For Aristotle, prudence is key – each moral virtue relies upon prudence (you cannot be courageous until you are also prudent, for instance), and prudence demands each virtue:

“It is not possible to be good without prudence, or prudent without being good.” (Nichomachean Ethics VI 13).

The Biblical picture of “wisdom” or “prudence” goes deeper than Aristotle’s, however. It comes from knowing God, and is a gift of God (supremely granted to Solomon, 1 Kings 3:5-14). It links closely to knowledge of the Law in Proverbs (see eg 8:1-13; 9:10) just as its opposite, folly, goes along with a godless life. Hence Gabriel promises that John the Baptist will prepare people for the Messiah by “turning the hearts of many to the wisdom (phronesis) of the righteous” (Luke 1:17) – prudence is connected to righteous life. The boy Jesus astonishes the Nazerenes with his “wisdom” (sophia, Mark 6:2), and Luke 2 twice emphasises how Jesus grew in “wisdom” in his youth (40, 47).

Although his use of the word is rare, Jesus describes the man who builds his house on the rock as “wise” in a context which is clearly not just about common sense but spiritual insight and kingdom loyalty (Matthew 7:24). The same is true of the “wise” virgins and stewards of Matthew 24. Prudence in gospel terms is about radical decision to follow Christ.

Paul importantly critiques worldly “wisdom” for its pride, and argues that true knowledge lies in Christ, and in the “right thinking” (phronesis) of humility (Romans 12:3, Philippians 2:3). So prudence is about spiritual discernment, applying our minds to think about what is best or “virtuous” (Philippians 4:8, the only place where Paul uses the word arete or “virtue”). It is in this sense that prudence/wisdom is a key virtue in exercising others – it enables the person to know the best thing to do and to choose it. James urges his readers to pray for wisdom (1:5), and identifies true wisdom as the root of moral virtue (purity, peace, submissiveness, mercy, justice and sincerity, 3:17-18).

How does the gospel redefine “prudence”?

So on one hand, the gospel agrees that prudence is the key cardinal virtue because it enables us to learn and show the other virtues through discernment, working out what is best. One the other, the gospel radically transforms even the cardinal virtues such as prudence, by connecting them ruthlessly to God (the author of wisdom), to Christ (whose wisdom makes us all see ourselves in humility as we truly are), and to Christian faith, hope, and love (the theological virtues through which alone cardinal virtues are truly expressed).

Aquinas follows Scripture and agrees with Aristotle, that all moral virtues depend upon prudence and vice versa (Summa Theologica I-II, q.58, aa 4-5).

“All the virtues of the appetitive part of man, which are called the moral virtues, in so far as they are virtues are caused by prudence.” (Questiones disputatis de virtutibus in communi 6)

“Without prudence there cannot be discipline, or moderation, or any moral virtue.” (Quaestiones disputatae de veritate 14, 6)

He also takes the view that the cardinal virtues are “natural” and do not require faith or grace for a person to display them. This makes for an interesting debate about why, then, Paul and Peter both included “self-control” and “perseverance” in their lists of virtues to add to faith: for them, these are the fruit of the Spirit and grace, not of nature and humanity – did Aquinas get this wrong? Is wisdom/prudence  natural, nurtured, or supernatural?

Aquinas, however, disagrees with Aristotle that all humans have the capacity for moral virtue in the same way, regardless of belief. For Aquinas (from his reading of Scripture), unless directed to God through love, all moral virtues, including prudence, fall short. Perhaps this is the answer to the above question: for the Scriptural authors, prudence as “common sense” is possible for all people, but in the deeper and true sense, prudence as “wisdom” is only possible through faith in God.

“Prudence considers the ways by which we arrive at happiness; but wisdom considers the very object of happiness.” (Summa Theologica I-II 66, 5 ad 2)

So it is a consistent claim of Scripture that knowledge of God brings wisdom, and the reverse, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no god”.

How does a person cultivate prudence and wisdom today?

  • Pray for it – if Solomon did, and James tells us to, I’d be a “fool” not to
  • Study for it – knowledge of the will of God in Scripture brings the wisdom of God
  • Search for it – all wisdom is found in knowing Christ, so find Him, and you find prudence
  • Practise it – the habit of “thinking” about goodness, purity and beauty trains me to know and choose what is best

Gleanings from the news: Theory of Everything, Secularism, Ofsted, tweeting and touching


My wife and I went to see the Stephen Hawking film “The Theory of Everything” expecting that the amazing story of his relationship with his wife, Jane, would be forefronted ahead of the philosophical issues. Nonetheless it’s a moving story beautifully acted, and I came across this film review from Michael Wenham, who as a MND sufferer himself, writes on his “My Donkey Body” blog from real empathy with Hawking’s experience. His conclusion? That Stephen may have worked out a “theory of everything”, but that Jane was the one to work out its meaning.

January was a busy month for the “religion in society” debate but this article in “The Cambridge Student” argues that secular society is no place for a just and fair debate about “religion and secularism”.

The “religion is dangerous” meme is exercising its destructive force in education and the attempt to see that “British values” are enforced in schools. All church schools may now face illiberal and unbritish Ofsted intervention, as this Catholic Herald writer argues.

He’s probably being misunderstood on this too, but Justin Welby wrote last week about Jesus’ commandments in the area of conflict resolution (face to face and compassionate), and the way that twitter anger or trolling breaks them.

Virtues: the lost key to discipleship?

At a clergy conference last year, one of the speakers made a sharp comment about Church school leadership. He observed that the fashion in leadership has been for “values”, and pointed out that many schools and businesses print “our values” on the wall of their establishment, but noone actually follows them. He made the case for schools using the Christian idea of “virtues” instead, We’ve found a set of Christian “values” really…er… valuable at the school of which I am a governor, but I have a hunch the speaker was dead right.

So many modern church “vision statements” veer between giddy excitement and self-reliant business speak, and so many church leaders admit to talking a lot about “disciplemaking”, but not knowing how to do it. I believe that talking about – no, cultivating – the virtues is what we are missing.

The Virtues trampling the Vices – Strasbourg Cathedral

A recent sermon theme I was given – “Prudence” –  encouraged me to write about them more generally.

What are “virtues”?

“Virtues” are about character – that part of us that, like the word “Brighton” through a piece of seaside rock confectionery, runs inside us and is there at whatever point you look. Character is our innate way of acting and reacting in every circumstance and moment of choice, whether good or evil.

The word “virtue” came to us from the ancient Greeks ( the Greek is aretē or hexis, and the Latin virtus or habitus). Sometimes it is better translated as “excellence” or “strength”, especially in relation to what Aristotle called the intellectual virtues (see below). Virtues according to Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics are a state of character which chooses and performs acts “at the right time, with the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way”. For him, virtue is often a mean between two extremes: courage lies between fear and confidence; temperance/self-control lies between pleasures and pains.

Aristotle listed  “intellectual virtues” (science, art, reason, philosophy) as well as moral ones (liberality, magnificence, pride, friendliness). The four key or “cardinal” ones (cardo means “hinge”, the ones on which character turns) among the ancient Greeks were prudence (common sense), courage, self-control and justice. Much of the way he writes about these virtues is man-centred:  the goal of flourishing life (happiness or eudaimonia) is attained by cultivating virtues through practice and contemplation of them.

What does Christian theology make of the virtues?

Although some of them, such as pride, came to be seen by Christian tradition not as virtues but vices, there are great similarities to this Greek tradition in the New Testament.The apostle Paul writes about the ninefold fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. The fruit includes “self-control” (enkrateia),  the same virtue as in Socrates and Aristotle, and “patience” (hupomonē, also highlighted by Jesus in Luke 8:15 of the seed sown on good soil) resembles the habit of “perseverance” in Aristotle’s “courage”. Both are also referred to in 2 Peter 1:6.

Paul also prefaces his “household codes” (setting out behaviour in the church and family) with the call to the “new self” of virtue (Ephesians 4:20-5:20), speaking of kindness, compassion, wisdom and thanksgiving. “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…over all these virtues put on love which binds them together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12, 14).

So although it seems unlikely that Paul (a trained Jewish Pharisee) drew heavily on Aristotle, he knew of the idea of “virtues” and found similar lists of Christian spiritual “fruit” and “clothing” important in urging godly living on others.

How does the gospel renew the virtues?

Jesus and his disciples also transformed the idea of virtues. They added compassion, forgiveness, and especially, love. They also transformed the goal of virtue (living in conformity with the coming kingdom of God) and the means of cultivating it (see next article on virtue and, briefly, below). Paul’s image of the virtuous life is not an individual attaining moral perfection alone (as in Aristotle) but the life transformed through the mind being renewed. It is the new life of Christ in his people, the perfection of Humanity in Him, the dawning of new creation, the tasting of the glory of God by the Spirit of God.

Augustine is probably the early Church Father who wrote most about virtues. He was nervous of some of Aristotle’s man-centred language. He saw habit (virtue acquired by nature, through repetition, according to Aristotle) as a man-centred enemy of real virtue, which comes from grace. We do not cultivate the virtues in ourselves, God grows them in us through faith. So Augustine preferred to speak of consuetudo or “custom” instead of habitus or “habit”. To the cardinal virtues he added the “theological”ones of faith (fides), hope (spes) and love (caritas). All virtue, he said, comes from love of God, not human effort.

Thomas Aquinas  devoted a large section of his Summa theologica to the subject of Christian ethics and virtue (I-II q. 49-64 on habits and virtues). He borrowed extensively from Aristotle’s language of “habit”, and his list of virtues is similar in some ways, with the same four cardinal ones as the ancient Greeks. But he also disagreed with Aristotle about the definition of the most important moral virtues (love, faith and hope), the end or goal (God), and the means (grace).

Aristotle saw virtues as indelible habits which once gained, we exercise perfectly. Once a person has learnt courage they will instinctively be courageous in every situation . Aquinas disagreed, Because he saw virtue as connected first to will, not to reason, the person has an act of will, or choice, to make every time. Animals may be “creatures of habit” (lacking “will” to make moral choices) but we are the real experts at true “habit”, because true “habit” or “virtue” requires an act of will (I-II q.50 a3, ad 2)That means that virtue is a moral or spiritual matter, not (as in Aristotle and Plato) an intellectual one.

He also went further, and like Augustine before him, made a distinction between the “moral” or “cardinal” virtues above and the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and love. In this he was simply following Paul’s “these three remain” of 1 Corinthians 13.These three are for Aquinas the vital virtues which are only seen in Christians, and through which the Christian is able to express other virtues. So only Christians can be really virtuous.

Many Protestants assume that Aquinas favoured nature over grace, or nature and grace together,  in salvation and what many call “sanctification”. Instead we should hold to salvation “by grace alone”. He is thus accused of being “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian” (a reference to Augustine’s opponent who held these views). Yet  Aquinas was clear that spiritual virtues come from God, not man. So he also agreed with Augustine about grace and the Spirit, as opposed to nature and habit, being the way that we grow virtuous. We may be able to learn intellectual virtues such as science, but moral virtues are “infused” in us by God, not acquired by learning or practice. (I-II q.51 ad 4).  His definition of a virtue is clear whose work it is, A good quality of the mind, by which we live rightly, of which noone makes bad use, which God works in us without us” I-II q.55, a4

At this point medieval Aquinas is as Protestant as Reformation Calvin, “Seeing then that no good work proceeds from us unless insofar as we are regenerated – and our regeneration is wholly of God – there is no ground for claiming one iota in good works” (Institutes III 15 7).

Virtues are Spirit-enabled character traits which arise from faith and express our membership of and commitment to the kingdom of God. I think we need to cultivate and discuss them much more than most Protestants presently do.

A second article will ask why faith, hope and love are key “virtues” and how we cultivate them.