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No. 67: The Gospel and the Virtues

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 67
November, 1994
Copyright 1994, Biblical Horizons

Reading the earliest Christian apologists is like watching a movie in which the hero has the means to demolish his opponents in his grasp but never realizes it. The apologists come across as men not altogether aware of the radical character of the gospel they defend. In response to charges of atheism and sedition, they consistently protested that the Church posed no threat to Rome. Since Christians believed that God would someday judge all their actions, Justin argued, they were "more than all other men" Rome’s "helpers and allies in promoting peace" (First Apology, 12). Specifically, he pointed out, Christians were more ready to pay taxes than anyone else (First Apology, 17). Similarly, Athenagoras told Rome’s leaders that Christians "are of all men most piously and righteously disposed towards the deity and towards your government" (Plea for Christians, 1).

Now, at one level, this defense was perfectly accurate. The early Christians were not revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the powers that be. Justin pleaded that charges be investigated before sentences were passed and that no one should be condemned simply for accepting the name "Christian," both commonsensical appeals to basic justice. At the same time, it is clear in retrospect that the Church’s uncompromising assault on pagan mythologies, philosophies, and religious practices attacked the foundations of Greco-Roman civilization. In this respect, the Church’s enemies such as Celsus were better sociologists than their Christian adversaries. Pagan apologists perceived that widespread success for Christianity meant the end of Rome as they knew it.

The Christian gospel is subversive of even the most virtuous and just societies. Dutch New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos has pointed out that the gospel brings civic righteousness – on which, we are consistently led to believe, orderly society depends for its existence – into radical judgment. According to Ridderbos, Paul insisted that even "the insight of man into the hopelessness of his condition, into his `being worthy of death’ (cf. Rom. 1:32), in no respect whatever introduces change into his existence, but rather must be reckoned a part of this dying." Paul did not teach that the gospel is ultimately antinomian; far from it. By insisting that only an alien righteousness makes sinners acceptable to God, however, the apostolic gospel does reveal the ultimate worthlessness of those very virtues that we think must be encouraged in order preserve even a minimum of social stability.

It seems, then, that the Christian must choose either to attack the moral underpinnings of existing social order or to tame the radical force of the gospel. The dilemma is an intensely practical one. If I tell my neighbor that his faithfulness to his wife, his diligent care of his children, and the disciplined pursuit of his career are ultimately nothing but hay and stubble that will be consumed in the judgment, am I not encouraging adultery, negligence, and sloth? Conversely, if I encourage him in his godless virtue, am I not showing him a way to gain the world – or at least to salvage his family and career – while he loses his own soul?

In modern Christianity, the typical response to this dilemma has been to mute or deny the New Testament’s exclusive claim that Jesus is the only name "under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." This has often been done with one form or another of universalism. If everyone – perhaps, as Barth suggested, even Judas Iscariot – is already in Christ, the dilemma evaporates. Most forms of universalism, such as the contemporary Roman Catholic variety, are less extreme, suggesting that those who are innocently ignorant of the gospel, but who seek God with a pure conscience, may achieve salvation. In either form, such efforts to resolve the dilemma constitute an unacceptable capitulation to the forces of gnostic modernity. Jacob Neusner has it right: Whatever its merits politically and socially, tolerance is not a theological virtue. Neusner’s dictum is, moreover, not an extraneous tenet of an obsolete formulation of Christian faith, but a direct implication of serving a God whose Name is Jealous.

Evangelicals have generally resisted universalism, but often in favor of other methods of domesticating the gospel. Historically, moralism has been the most common substitute the gospel of grace and judgment among evangelical Protestants. The temptation to reduce the gospel to moral exhortation is especially powerful in situations of cultural disintegration and social chaos, when Christians fear that too radical a gospel will unleash antinomian elements, further fraying the social fabric. According to Anglican bishop C. FitzSimons Allison in his book, The Rise of Moralism, Anglican theologians after the Stuart Restoration of 1660 replaced the Reformation insistence that sinners are made acceptable to God by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ with the teaching that sinners make themselves acceptable by a meritorious work of faith or by their own sincere endeavors. This profound modification of the Reformation doctrine of justification arose, Allison argues, because the Caroline theologians feared the social consequences of preaching a gospel of free grace.

Moralism also becomes attractive in situations of theological pluralism. During the Reformation and after, contests over the interpretation of the gospel more often than not ended in blood. Given this potential for violence, it seemed only reasonable to mute theological differences and strive for common moral and social goals. Contemporary appeals to generalized "virtue" and "family values" indicate that these dynamics are at work in the midst of our culture wars. The combination of cultural disintegration and theological pluralism in our time thus provides a double pressure on evangelicals to exchange the gospel for moralism.

The dilemma, in my judgment, must be resolved in favor of maintaining an undiluted gospel, however socially irresponsible it may appear to those who would defend the existing order of things. In fact, if the New Testament is to be believed, what the gospel subverts are the fortresses raised up against the knowledge of Christ (2 Cor. 10:1-6). What it destroys are the socio-cultural chains and prisons that sinful men construct for themselves and their fellows. What seem to be the virtues that enable humane society to flourish are, in the light of the gospel, the cultural crystallization of human rebellion. Augustine’s claim that pagan virtues are, in the final analysis, splendid vices reflects the New Testament’s view. The church does not exist to buttress such virtues, but to expose them to the unrelenting light of the Word of God.

Paradoxical as it may seem, the gospel, because it lays bare the rotten foundations of the fallen City of Man, is the only foundation for true and lasting, that is to say, Christian, social order. This may seem an unbearably bigoted conclusion. If, however, the gospel is, as the current Pope continually assures us, the truth about man, his relation to God, and the way of life in this world and beyond; if it is, indeed, the truth about the Truth; and if a truly human society must be founded on Truth – then it is difficult to see how a Christian could say anything else.