Science and Christian Virtue 1 (RJS)

Science and Christian Virtue 1 (RJS) September 29, 2009

Last week I posted on an article from Discover Magazine on the science of sin (Part One and Part Two). This article described a number of studies where the human brain was imaged as a function of external stimulus. These kinds of studies are in their infancy – so the results should be considered with interest and a dose of healthy skepticism.  The basic ideas are sound – but as the work progresses there will no doubt be refinements and changes in the understanding of human response.

There are key points here that we need to take seriously though. The first that strikes home is human embodiment. We cannot separate soul, spirit, mind and will from the human bodies that contain said soul, spirit, mind or will.  The second is that the human mind or will is malleable – research is demonstrating that the brain contains a conscious self-regulatory system. As one researcher said: “This network provides us with the evolutionarily unprecedented ability to control our own neural processing – a feat achieved by no other creature.

In the course of a few posts over the next several weeks I would like to think through some of the ramifications of these ideas in the light of Jesus and Paul, and in the context of Christian thought through the ages. I am not an expert in much of this, so I look forward to learning from the comments and conversation.

Let’s start off with a simple question.

Is there any role for human effort in the development of spiritual and ethical maturity (Christian virtue) or is it simply the power of the Spirit through the grace of God working within one’s life?

I don’t want to underplay the gospel of grace – or the power of the Spirit.  Romans 5-8 is a profound discussion of victory through Christ, through his life, death, and resurrection. Paul knows what he is talking about, he knows the struggles of human flesh. We rest on the grace of God and in the Spirit who helps our weakness and intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

But nowhere in the pages of the Bible – Old Testament or New Testament – is there an expectation that the role of God’s people in this process is to sit back, relax, and let the Spirit produce fruit. To quote Paul: What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.

Yet at times in our church it seems that there is such a fear of “self-effort Christianity” which, it is said, will result either in depression and burn-out in failure or in arrogance and pride in success, that the safest course is to do nothing and wait for divine intervention.  This is compounded by a society that expects effortless success.  Both winning a lottery and winning the World Series are attributed to luck.

Tom Wright has an excellent lecture on the theme of Christian Virtue delivered last February when he was visiting Fuller Theological Seminary.  He began the lecture by introducing the  concept of virtue and the discipline of thousands of small decisions that result in right actions coming naturally without conscious thought – the development of “second nature.” In developing his theme Wright used the example of the emergency landing of flight 1549 on the Hudson River last January 15th. Capt. Sullenberger was rightly hailed as a hero – and the incident termed a “miracle.”  But this miracle did not just happen – Sullenberger had been preparing for such events for decades with training and discipline. And when the time came, the right actions came naturally.

What has this to do with Christian virtue?  Wright continued:

Our culture prefers effortless spontaneity with occasional divine intervention in emergencies rather than working with God on developing the muscles that will meet those emergencies with a God given second nature which appears spontaneous, but is in fact the result of thinking and choosing and practicing. Now all this may sound fine at one level, but by now anyone standing in the Christian tradition ought to want to ask one or two rather sharp questions. … The very mention of virtue will make many Christians stiffen in alarm.  They have been rightly taught that we are not justified by our works but by our faith. They know that they are powerless to make themselves conform to any high and lofty moral code. … Isn’t virtue a way specifically of talking about a self help sort of moralism? Isn’t that the sort of thing that Paul in the first century and the reformers in the 16th taught us to be suspicious of? … And in any case doesn’t St. Paul talk about the fruits of the Spirit as the key to Christian living? Once we’ve got the Spirit won’t they all simply come naturally?

How might all this fit within what St. Paul calls the gospel of the grace of God?

It is not the case that God does the initial work of salvation and then stands back and we have to do the rest all by ourselves. But the logic of God’s grace goes deeper than the question imagines. God loves us as we are, as he finds us, which is more or less messy and muddy. But the grace which meets us where we are is not content to leave us as we are. The whole New Testament insists that what matters is not so much affirmation as transformation. A transformation shaped and energized by Jesus’ death and resurrection and by the work and power of the Spirit. That after all is what the New Testament insists on as the meaning of baptism, not accepting us as we are, but putting us to death and bringing us to new life. (Time in: 13:58 -19:13)

I will come back to more of Wright’s lecture in a future post – but here would like to move a bit further into consideration of the fruit of the Spirit. Is the human role passive or active?

Galatians 5 is the prototype list of fruit of the Spirit and works of the flesh.

The works of the flesh are  “immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these,

The fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control

Paul claims that those who practice the works of the flesh will not inherit the Kingdom of God – and ends with the plea: If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

In his commentary on Galatians Scot notes:

In general we see something fundamentally important here as to how Paul depicts the Christian life.  It is life in the Spirit, the life of a person who is surrendered to letting the Spirit have complete control. But we see here also that one does not gain this life by discipline or by mustering up the energy. One does not huddle with oneself in the morning, gather together his or her forces and charge onto the field of life full of self-determined direction. Rather, the Christian life is a life of consistent surrender to the Spirit. (p. 269)

Later in the section on Bridging Contexts Scot writes:

I pause here to admit discouragement. I do not know about you, but when I look through the list of virtues in the fruit of the Spirit, and when I examine such teachings on the Holy Spirit in the light of the whole letter, I become befuddled over the church. How can we confess Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit and live with so much tension in the Christian world? Why is the Christian church so torn and divided, here over theology, there over practice? Why do we know so much of personalities and so little of Christ? … Why is it that Christians claim to have the Spirit but show so little of his power and love? Why is it that Christians claim to live in the Spirit but spend so much of their time “out of step” with the Spirit? It is my prayer that God will renew his work of the Spirit and that this chapter will be used by God to that end. (p. 275)

Lets get real here. We expect airline pilots and crews to train and develop the discipline necessary to achieve the positive outcome seen with flight 1549.  We expect athletes to train and discipline their bodies to win the game or the race. It takes hours of practice to master the piano. We expect professors to study for decades, to prepare for class, and to approach their jobs as professionals.  Why is the Christian life any different? Why do we expect that God would zap moral muscles and the fruit of the Spirit into place?

Now we get back to the science. 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. We must train for virtue as an athlete must train for a race.

The Christian life is relationship and commitment. Christian virtue and life transformation demands that we work with God to develop the moral muscles to make the right decisions under pressure and to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. It seems to me that we do indeed develop such a life through intentional and consistent discipline. There is no life of consistent surrender to the Spirit that is not also a life of consistent discipline to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. We cannot do this without the grace of God and the power of the Spirit – but it will not happen unless we actively participate.

I rather expect that we will continue to have a Church that is torn and divided, with so much of personalities and so little of Christ, and Christians who claim to have the Spirit but show so little of his power and love, until we get this right.

Okay. Now I’ve really stepped into it.

What do you think? What is the role for human participation in the development of Christian Virtue and the cultivation of the fruit of the Spirit?

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

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