Science and Christian Virtue 2 (RJS)

I put up a short series of posts just about a year ago that dealt with the science of sin, Christian virtue, and the importance of viewing ourselves as fully embodied persons. You can find the posts here: Science and Sin 1, Science and Sin 2, Science and Christian Virtue 1, and Science, Worship, and Fasting.  Now, just about a year later, I would like to come back to the thoughts I was developing in these posts – and especially the thoughts in the third, Science and Christian Virtue 1.

There are several key ideas that we need to take seriously. The most important is human embodiment … we cannot separate soul, spirit, mind and will from the human bodies that contain said soul, spirit, mind or will. Scot’s book on fasting is a wonderful biblically based commentary on one of the consequences of our embodiment.

The second important idea is that the human mind or will is malleable – assuming that we believe in some level of free will (and I do) there is research that demonstrates that the human brain contains a conscious self-regulatory system.  One of the researchers quoted in the article from Discover Magazine forming the basis for the first two posts on Science and Sin said: “This network provides us with the evolutionarily unprecedented ability to control our own neural processing – a feat achieved by no other creature.

N. T. Wright’s book After You Believe develops his ideas on Christian virtue – and this development (although he does not get into science) is rooted in the biblical view of humans as fully embodied creatures. I was brought back to this book and these ideas by a recent video posted on BioLogos, the next installment of the video conversation between Tom Wright and Peter Enns.

As we look at the video and consider again the idea of Christian virtue, I would like to think about the question I posed in the post last year:

What is the role for human participation in the development of Christian Virtue and the cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit? Does it matter?

In this video Wright responds to a question about his reasons for writing the book and a question from Enns about the role of Christian virtue in making us truly human or truly Christian.

YouTube Preview Image

Wright grounds his view of Christian character on faith, hope, and love and morality in a context of Christian eschatology. He comments that it is a mistake to look to rules, algorithms, or authenticity when we consider moral behavior and how we should live and respond. Rules don’t lead to maturity, algorithms – such as a situational calculation of the greatest happiness for the most people – don’t lead to moral behavior, and a quest to be true to self and live authentically also fails. Rather, we need to learn to embody and respond in the spirit of the Christian love.  We need to develop virtue – exercise body and mind – so that the thinking is done up front. In this way we will develop the Christian character; we will, in time of crisis or peace, be able to respond without having to think about it, or look it up .  This develops transformed lives and Christian character.

When asked if Christian virtue makes us truly human or truly Christian Wright responds both – we need to be transformed by a renewing of our minds.  All of this is rooted in Romans 5 among other passages.

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (NASB)

And now we get back to the science and my point from the first post in this series (last year): One thing that the science teaches us is that mind and body are not separable entities.  We are organic unities. But the science also shows that effort and discipline can train the mind and and, to a certain extent, the will. As a baseball player must train and practice, as a musician must train and practice, so to must a disciple of Christ train and practice for Christian virtue. It may occasionally “just happen” as a gift and answer to prayer. But this isn’t the normal route any more than prayer alone makes a Christian athlete a great runner. If we do not train for Christian virtue, both individually and corporately as the church, we should not be surprised when we fail both often and badly.

What do you think? Does Christian character, Christian virtue, demand effort? Is Wright onto something or off base?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

You can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • tsgIII

    The key words you use here are effort and discipline. There is a paradox lurking here. The need is for a conjunctive approach. To hold on to the doing and the restraining simultaneously.
    Hate the sin, love the sinner; love your life, be willing to lose your life; Embrace purity, abstain from lusts; work ethic, budgeting time; confronting fear, refraining from despair.
    This balancing act, striving to unify opposites, understanding of the paradoxical nature of truth leads one to a conserving and cultivating mindset. The signatures of maturity.

  • Rick

    Good post, and not an easy answer.

    So often, one can get a mindset of focusing just on effort out of one’s own strength.

    However, that totally disregards the emphasis Jesus put on “abiding” in Him, and from that will come fruit. We can do nothing apart from Him, and that “abiding” will develop (or at least inititate and help develop) the fruit. Our main focus cannot be on the virtue, it must remain on Christ.

    I am not saying there is no role for Christian responsibility (obedience), but is the idea to strive for virtue, or to focus and submit to Christ and the Holy Spirit- who then develop the fruit?

  • Jason Lee

    Yes, yes. Moral judgment/intuition may largely get into us through our bodies over time. Think of the image of an elephant with a rider on top. The elephant is a person’s deep-seated (embodied) dispositions and intuitions. The rider is a person’s rationalizations. The elephant largely goes where it will go based on previous conditioning and training. The rider on top may rationalize and say things in the moment, but has relatively little control over where the elephant goes. The rider can however train and feed (and control who else trains/feeds) the elephant over time so that it goes in more virtuous directions in the future.

    This image of the rider and elephant is based on research in cognitive science that finds dual-processing. There is a rational level that gives justifications. Then there is a largely subrational level that provides motivations and judgments that are hot and fast…almost like tastes for food. This subrational-gut level is largely what guides our moral judgments…revulsion or attraction. To be clear, this is more that Skinnerian behaviorism. This is about how cultural(including theological) moral worldviews might actually get into people and actually affect their behavior consistently. Sound like spiritual disciplines?…sure does to me. Interestingly, Dallas Willard briefly refers to this kind of embodied moral action in “Knowing Christ Today,” although he doesn’t do a whole lot with it.

    To read more about this research from a nontheological viewpoint:

    -in sociology see

    -in psychology see

  • Jeff Doles

    I am currently reading Wright’s “After You Believe” and I am in agreement with it. Yes, there is an effort required, but it is a different sort of effort. I think of it in terms of daily repentance ~ choosing anew each day to yield to God and the work of the Holy Spirit in me. There are spiritual “disciplines,” but the real point of them, and what makes them effective, is that they make room for God to come and do His work in us and through us.

    The fruit of the Spirit is not something that we can muster up ourselves, as if we could do it in our own strength. That would be like trying to clip the fruit onto the tree. But fruit come forth from the life of the tree. The life that is in us is the life of Jesus the Messiah and the vibrancy of the Holy Spirit. Mere outward conformity will not do; what we need is the inward transformation that brings with it a corresponding outward change ~ and then we yield to that transformation and that change.

    So, yes, there is an effort, but it is not the effort of trying to work a system. The author of Hebrews tells us to “labor” to enter into he “rest” God has for us. That labor and that rest are all about faith.

  • T

    I apologize in advance for this. But every time I see this side-by-side picture of Wright and Enns, Enns’ picture makes me want to write some silly caption. It’s as if Enns is flabbergasted by whatever Wright’s saying.

    Wright: “You really should try some mouthwash before these interviews”
    Enns: ” . . . .”, as he just slightly leans away

    Wright: “And that’s when I knew the Pentacostals were right all along”
    Enns: ” . . . .”, as he just slightly leans away

    Sorry, please resume the discussion of virtue, which I obviously need help with! :D

  • rjs


    I constructed it capturing two different frames from one of the videos and putting them side-by-side. Perhaps I’ll try again and see if I can inspire some new captions. (I expect that this could move in a positive or negative direction…).

  • Wesley Walker

    I think the Bible is clear that humans are involved in their post-conversion sanctification. We are to add to our lives certain virtues (2 Peter 1). We are to present ourselves holy. We have to practice self-control. At the same time Christians also remember that God is working within them (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

  • phil_style

    Virtue is so often ignored by our culture, as an ends/means of “morality”. It goes beyond pragmatism, and also shines a light on human responsibility. Jason Lee’s elephant rider metaphor above is a nice way to look at this. I might not be responsible for who I am now (conditioned by my environment) but, provided I have been given information regarding the means, I can do something about for the disciplines/habits I try to foster, thus making myself responsible for the person I am becoming.

    Herein also, I think, lies part of the key to defeating the Euthyphro dilemma. . .

  • Dana Ames

    Wright points out, and I agree, that we are so fearful of the idea that anything must be “added to” the sufficiency of Christ alone for salvation that we somehow believe we must not have to do anything at all, lest we call that sufficiency into question.

    I have a friend who is a pear farmer. It is very seldom that he “does nothing” with his pear trees. Even during the winter when the trees themselves are dormant, he his pruning or fertilizing or doing something with them. A good yield of fruit doesn’t “just happen”. The analogy falls short in that it could be said that this sort of thing is what God alone can do, and the trees are pretty passive. But God does not do anything to us without our consent on some level.

    I believe the process of becoming like Jesus is very much one of synergy: we are to work out our salvation/healing *with* God who is at work in us as well. In the Gospels, Jesus actually tells us to do things. Problem is, like the elephant rider above, we can’t just tell our “elephant” to snap out of it and expect him to take us where we want. Training is needed. As Willard says, Grace is opposed to Earning, not to Effort.


  • Bob

    Maybe life in the Spirit is like floating down a river on your back. As long as you don’t look up to see where you are going or thrash around trying to stay a float you’ll be fine. There is a small amount of effort to stay in the middle to avoid brush and branches on the sides; for the most part life in the Sprit is more of willingness not willfulness. We can’t take charge of our growth in God by grabbing hold of the reins.

  • rjs


    That is an interesting question – and the one I would like to discuss a bit. Is life in the Spirit more akin to running a race or floating down a river?

    Are we supposed to exert more than nominal effort – and more importantly should we “train” and expect to grow?

  • DRT

    I’m pretty sure I am stepping over a line here but…

    TW – And I wear the bishop hat around the house for fun.
    RE – …….

  • DRT

    I am reading Mere Christianity and it seems that Lewis has a lot to say about this. He goes through an extensive riff on pretending to be like Christ and through that process developing the actual behaviors and instincts. Similar to children playing grown up and developing the ability to grow up.

    He also talks about how Christ wants all of us. That we should not aim low, but as Jesus said to be perfect as his father is perfect.

    On the one hand Jesus would say that the camel has a hard time walking through the narrow path (I like bible humor) and on the other hand also say his yoke is light and burden small. It is all of these things.

    A bible study teacher I had always looked at the difficult side of the equation and would say things like it is so difficult to follow Jesus and it is terribly hard to do and it leads to suffering. I would always shoot back that it is natural to follow Jesus and he must be doing it the wrong way because it is fulfilling, not suffering.

  • Rick

    Bob and RJS-

    More like a river or a race? I contend it is more like the river, but not just on our back, but rather in a raft. Our training is to become more focused on remaining/abiding in that raft (Christ). Only from there, as John 15 indicates, can we produce fruit (or as Bob idicated, a “willingness” for virtue).
    Likewise, when considering the “race” aspect, even the author of Hebrews writes we are indeed running a race, but are to keep in mind our faith and our focus on Jesus. It is that focus that transforms our mind, and actions.

  • Jason Lee

    How is “beat my body and make it my slave” like floating down a river (unless a dangerous river)? I get more of a sense of a “race” from the Bible and experience. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” may mean something akin to the fact that it’s easier to feed and tend the elephant over time than straining to make the elephant be virtuous in the moment. We all know that the latter is virtually impossible at times. The former seems quite possible. Another commenter here aptly quoted Willard’s “grace is opposed to earning not effort,” which seems clarifying.

  • Jason Lee

    Bob (#10), you seem to be placing intentional effort under the category of “taking charge.” Why not intentional significant effort while living with willingness in the Spirit, hmmm? We can also be willfully passive to things other than the Spirit, no?

  • Ted M. Gossard

    Yes. I really liked the book and would do well to reread it soon. It did come across to me with such a heavy emphasis on our doing part, that I thought it lacking somewhat in any emphasis on abiding in Jesus (as someone says above). I think Wright is very right, but I also think somehow this sense of something beyond us dependent on Another is a vital emphasis. It could have been me in my reading of it where I miss the balance he may have achieved in the book, between God’s part and ours.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    That said I still think it’s a great book. Just giving the impression I had when reading it. But a good emphasis in it on our full humanity and how mind and body somehow mesh in how we live, mind making a difference, and the renewing of the mind at that.

  • rjs


    I think the heavy emphasis on “our doing” is a bit of a misinterpretation of what I hear Wright saying.

    I am teaching a graduate level class this term. It is a class in which I performed miserably when I took it as a graduate student, and a subject which I have not studied in the subsequent years… I was a bit nervous about teaching the course.

    But the course has been fun to teach — and what I’ve realized is that I have learned to think about hard problems with a level of maturity and approach that I just did not have 25 years ago. I didn’t sit down one day and decide I was going to learn this in short order – it is the accumulation of years of working on different problems. I think this may be reflected in my approach to issues when I write on this blog as well.

    What does this have to do with my post? I think that “after we believe” we should be actively pursuing Christian character and Christian virtue. The changes may be minuscule on a day-to-day even year-to-year basis, but looking back over decades the progress will be evident. Failing, even miserably, at one time is just a step in the process. We are not called to succeed – just to be heading in the right direction.

    Yes, we rest in the assurance of the Spirit, but it isn’t a passive resting – it is an active resting that removes fear of failure and reliance on own strength (brute force will) from the equation. And we have to listen to the calling of the Spirit – as we don’t all follow identical paths or have identical gifts or abilities.

    Rules don’t cut it. Passive hope doesn’t cut it. “We” develop Christian character by resting in the Spirit and intentionally setting our path forward – taking steps, meandering perhaps, but still onward. The goal is an automatic “instinctual” Christ-like response to each new situation. (I fail miserably here at times – most notably when I am driving in to work…)

  • Darren King

    I lean heavily towards Dallas Willard’s teaching in this area. That being that discipline is the activity we can take on in order to (eventually) accomplish that which we couldn’t accomplish through direct effort alone. But this activity should be taken on with the aid of the Spirit.

    Regarding the “race” vs “river” question, I’d like to suggest what might come across as provocative or surprising. Perhaps the best analogy depends on the person and the circumstance. As a general rule, someone recovering from addiction is going to have to take a much more racelike approach. Now, that said, I have heard many trustworthy testimonies of deliverance. So this is not an absolute rule, just a generalization.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    Yes, thanks RJS. I agree completely. And what you say brings out the emphasis of what Wright is saying in the book. When we read the element of subjectivity colored by our experience can cause us to misunderstand the author. I certainly am not in favor of some passive Christianity, nor a mere following of rules. It comes over much time, and definitely involves a process in God’s work of grace in our lives through Jesus.