Friday, February 25, 2011

Virtue Reborn - an introduction

TN Wright is a heavyweight evangelical theologian. Among some evangelicals he is in bad odour for being associated with something called the New Perspective. He himself strenuously denies being aligned with this movement. Although he sees some value in some of its insights, he finds more to disagree with than assent to. I shall say no more about this, but a search of the web will reveal both the pros and cons of his position.

The book, Virtue Reborn, which I have been reading for the past month begins with the assumption that the death and resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of the new creation. We tend to steer away from eschatology (study of the last things) and often accept that when we die we will go to heaven if we meet certain conditions. The general public seems to think that everyone (except perhaps Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussain) will go to heaven while others think it depends on having led a good life. Evangelicals think the condition is to have put their trust in Jesus, while other evangelicals insist that it is not enough to give verbal assent to such an idea; it must have made a beneficial change in their lives.

What 'heaven' implies is not clear. The popular picture of sitting on clouds in a frilly nightshirt with a harp has no Biblical basis. The Bible talks about a new heaven and a new earth and Wright insists that this new creation has already started 2000 years ago. This has implications for how we should behave as Christians. Many evangelicals will answer the question of how we should behave with one word - evangelize. However, when St Paul talks about the gifts of the Spirit it is clear that some (not all) are given to be evangelists, just as some are given to be pastors and teachers. What are the rest of us to do?

Wright's answer is that we are to develop a Christian character. He wants us to concentrate on the idea of 'virtue'. Much of what I have written recently is about rejecting the idea that you become a Christian by following a set of rules. The Law never saved anyone. The Law merely demonstrates to us how far short we fall of God's standards. "We don't become Christians by struggling with great moral effort to make ourselves good enough for God, but by the work of the Holy Spirit, bringing us to a faith which looks away from ourselves and trusts, instead, in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ." I quote from the preface of the book.

In some circles this 'developing a Christian character' is known as sanctification and it is clearly seen as a work of the Holy Spirit. But let us be clear. Although we may be viewed as 'spotless' by God the moment we are pardoned or justified or washed clean by His blood or whatever metaphor you prefer for that miraculous event of salvation and in that moment were we to die we would be immediately in his presence in 'paradise', those of us still on earth in this present world still have a lot of changing to do. Many Christians are disappointed that after their conversion experience - which may be spectacular - they are still subject to temptation and still liable to succumb to it. Even Christians of many years standing will find that they still tell lies, cheat at cards, gossip, covet next-door's kitchen, indulge in Internet porn, boast, say cruel things, blaspheme, drive their cars aggressively, lose their temper, and in a million ways fall short of perfection. I know these sins are instantly wiped away - if we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness - but we will still sin again. Just think of the Apostle Peter refusing to eat with the Gentile Galatians, even after that miraculous vision of unclean beasts and after that wonderful speech to the Council at Jerusalem.

Virtue comes from the Latin 'Vir' - a man - and it is the cultivation of a perfect manly character (as in the perfect man created in God's image and placed in the Garden) that is desired. Tom Wright had an Oxford education in philosophy and it is therefore not surprising that he goes back to Aristotle for the idea of virtue. It is this aspect of the book that some might find intimidating, but I would recommend persevering with it. Eventually he has something important to say.


Michael J. Kerrigan said...

Thank you for your review on Virtue Reborn. As a Roman Catholic, I will look in reading Virtue Reborn for the reasons your review outlined but also to see whether concepts such as purgatory fit into Wright's thinking.

You and your readers might enjoy, Ryan Patrick Hanley's, Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue. Not only was A.S. Oxford educated but he had the good sense to follow not only Christian thinkers but also our old friend, Aristotle.

This Irishman has much to thank the Brits for great minds such as A.S. G.K Chesterton, Belloc, C.S. Lewis et al

Terry Hamblin said...

I think CS Lewis was acually Irsih as well as British.