Wisdom from Thomas a Kempis #1: esoteric words vs. virtuous life

Wisdom from Thomas a Kempis #1: esoteric words vs. virtuous life October 29, 2014

Thomas-a-KempisThomas a Kempis was a 15th century German monk who wrote The Imitation of Christ, a classic devotional book that was tremendously influential to John Wesley, the founder of United Methodism. I’ve flipped through this book many times, but I thought it would do both me and my readers good to go back to it and proceed more slowly through it to meditate upon the wisdom Thomas has to share with us. So I’m starting with the first chapter. I won’t necessarily cover every chapter since there are over a hundred, but I want to share my thoughts on the passages that really grab me.

So here is Thomas in his opening chapter talking about why a virtuous life is better than esoteric words:

Esoteric words neither make us holy nor righteous; only a virtuous life makes us beloved of God. I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it. If you knew the entire Bible inside out and all the maxims of the philosophers, what good would it do you if you were, at the same time, without God’s love and grace?

This is a tough one for me as a blogger who traffics in esoteric words, but it’s important to remember what this is all about. I think it’s particularly important for those of us who are Protestants to be challenged by this Catholic claim that “only a virtuous life makes us beloved of God.” My first instinct is to protest that we’re justified by faith alone, that God’s love for us is unconditional, and that no one really lives a virtuous life because we’re all sinners. How can someone say that God only loves us if we do good deeds? That’s the vain pursuit of “religion,” not Jesus.

The problem that the doctrine of “justification by faith” correctly recognizes is that living a virtuous life isn’t something that we can just willpower ourselves into doing. It is the organic byproduct of our posture of faith. If we do good deeds as a means of justifying ourselves instead of receiving our justification from Christ without merit, then our good deeds become the toxic source of narcissism and arrogance. They don’t bring us into deeper belovedness, but make us entitled and presumptuous in our attitude towards God.

God makes us genuinely virtuous the more we trust in God. A healthy desire to do good comes from a foundation of spiritual security in God’s love rather than an anxiety about whether or not God will accept us. What we believe about God matters, because it shapes how much we trust God. The more that we trust God, the more that we experience God’s love as we live a virtuous life. You can do good deeds without trusting God, but those good deeds will not do you any spiritual good unless you recognize their origin in God’s love. Whenever we do good, it is really God loving other people through us. That’s why Jesus says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” God is always finding ways to make love happen through people whether or not they know him. But it’s only when they know and trust him that they become “beloved” through channeling his love.

So it matters what we believe, but not because God is accepting or rejecting us on the basis of whether or not we have the correct doctrine. What we believe either interferes with or enhances our trust of God which is the foundation of our virtue. At the same time, many Christians whose articulated beliefs are partly heretical still manage to live virtuous lives in which they trust God and experience his awesome loving presence. And many Christians whose doctrine is supposedly pristine still manage to be ugly and unloving to others. Our heart-doctrine matters more than our head-doctrine. The head-doctrine is relevant to the degree that it impacts the heart-doctrine. As Thomas writes, what matters is that we have personally experienced repentance even if we don’t say all the right things in our definition of it.

Many Protestant Christians in particular have gotten detoured in our arguments over doctrine. Some of us obsess over the need to be absolutely correct. Some of us get overly scandalized by the ugly parts of the Bible’s presentation of God and let that derail the beauty that so much of the Bible has to offer us. The bottom line is God loves us and wants us to use our lives to share that love with other people. Every piece of doctrine we put into our heads has that basic transmission of love as its goal. That’s what a virtuous life is.

I agree with Thomas a Kempis that God is a pragmatist who wants his people to live virtuous lives even if they can’t articulate perfectly pristine doctrine about him. I also think that God is creative enough to work with us amidst our confused, tainted beliefs and carve out alternative paths for us to gain a right heart and a virtuous life, which is what ultimately matters. The question we should be asking about our beliefs is whether they are helping us to live like Jesus. If not, then we need to ask God to show us the way of thinking about him that can help us best imitate Christ with our lives. We don’t “earn” God’s love by imitating Jesus with our lives. God’s love is always there before we’ve done anything. Our problem is that we’re alienated from it. But when we live like Jesus, we become God’s beloved.


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  • Luke Breuer

    Our heart-doctrine matters more than our head-doctrine.

    Is this true? We’re told to love God with both heart and head; whence the precedence?

    I agree with Thomas a Kempis that God is a pragmatist who wants his people to live virtuous lives even if they can’t articulate perfectly pristine doctrine about him.

    This sounds weird; the analogous version of “perfectly pristine doctrine” would be “perfectly virtuous life”, and we generally say that only Jesus exhibited the latter.

    The question we should be asking about our beliefs is whether they are helping us to live like Jesus.

    In contrast to the above, I do agree with this. 🙂

    • Sure, we’re called to love God with our hearts and our head. But the head serves the heart. We will never be perfectly rational creatures. We are most fundamentally creatures of desire. It’s our desire that needs to be transformed.

      • Luke Breuer

        While I’m an Arminian, I agree with Calvin that we are totally depraved: not that we are as bad as we could be, but that every area is corrupt. Reason does not escape; it’s in the same sorry category as desire.

        As to your “We will never be perfectly rational creatures.”, again that makes no sense to me, unless you’re contrasting it against “perfectly virtuous life”. Both are corrupted, and both need sanctification together. I don’t think reason need be a slave to the passions; indeed, the sanctified person would seem to have neither be a slave to the other. Human’s relationship with himself/herself would be restored from the corruption it experienced during the Fall.

        BTW, denying the impact of desire on reason actually corrupts reason; three books on this matter: Hilary Putnam’s The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy, Douglas and Ney’s Missing Persons: A Critique of the Personhood in the Social Sciences, Bent Flyvbjerg’s Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice.

  • jwlung

    Is Kempis speaking of doctrine when he speaks of “esoteric words”?

    Since childhood I could quote John 3:16. Only since I received the realization that God so loved Jim Lung . . .have those words made a difference in my living.

    David implored God to create in David a clean heart and right spirit.

    • I think Kempis is speaking of the tendency to quibble over details in doctrine when he talks of esoteric words. Doctrine itself is tremendously important. We just need to understand why it’s important.

    • For God so loved the Cosmos. JN 3.16 And so did Carl Sagan.

      I like Carl’s more consistent vision better, because I cannot be brought to hate the cosmos, which is seemingly a requirement for a fabled eternal life: “anyone who hates their life in this (Cosmos) will keep it for eternal life” JN 12.25

  • summers-lad

    “At the same time, many Christians whose articulated beliefs are partly heretical …”
    That’s all of us, then.
    “… still manage to live virtuous lives in which they trust God and experience his awesome loving presence.”
    Scott Peck wrote that one of the things which convinced him of Christianity was what he called “non-computing experiences”. I prefer to call them “things that don’t add up.” One of them, for me, is that people who may hold to offensive or objectionable doctrines (fill in your choice of offensive doctrine here) can live lives of love and grace which clearly show the Spirit of Christ.

  • Father

    I keep re-reading this, trying to figure out if I’m understanding you correctly. I think that your premise might be backwards? I can’t tell if you think that the Thomas a Kempis quote is at odds with your understanding of faith vs. works or not.

    A virtuous life is not the same as a life of good deeds. Virtue is an inward quality, not an outward show of fruit.

    In the quote, “Esoteric words neither make us holy nor righteous; only a virtuous life makes us beloved of God.”, it is the esoteric words that are the outward attempt to show holiness — the deeds, whereas the virtuous quality of one’s life is their faith.

    • Thanks for making this point about virtue being inward. Yes, I do agree with Thomas’s quote. I was trying to see how it squared with the maxims I learned as an evangelical.

  • jwlung

    “The question we should be asking about our beliefs is whether they are
    helping us to live like Jesus. If not, then we need to ask God to show
    us the way of thinking about him that can help us best imitate Christ
    with our lives.”

    When I read the above, I hear “Suck it up and be like Jesus . . ” Liberal protestantism in all of its Abelardian death.

    We don’t become Christlike by finding a better way of thinking about Him. We become Him by eating Him.

    It’s Christ in us. Incarnational reality. When we believe Jesus died our death and was raised to reign it happens in us.

    • Well you’ve decided that I’m a liberal Protestant so it makes sense that you would project that onto me. I like what you said about becoming Christlike by eating him instead of finding a better way of thinking about him. I’m not sure that’s incompatible with saying that our doctrine is relevant insofar as it either enhances or detracts from our incarnational experience of Christ. Believing the right thing about Jesus matters insofar as it helps us to gain the trust that makes Christ real to us.

      • jwlung

        “Doctrine” is not the same as “finding a better way of thinking about (Christ[likeness]).” Orthodoxy (true teaching, right dogma) is the sine qua non of an incarnational experience of God in and through Christ. Worship of the one true God must be in “spirit and truth.”

        “(F)inding a better way of thinking about Christ(likeness)” is the last thing I would think of (??????) as a way of growing in union with Christ.

        Aquinas, and many Fathers (and Mothers) before him, understood (Biblical Anthropology here) the mind to have two complementary faculties, corresponding (surprise, surprise) to what we know about the cerebral hemispheres. The scholastics referred to ratio and intellectus to correspond to the rational mind, very good at breaking up what we know into its constituent elements, and the intuitive, poetic mind — the mind receptive to imagery and symbol.

        Karl Stern (FLIGHT FROM WOMAN) talks about the masculine way of knowing, which is to pierce through and break up, and the feminine way of knowing, which is knowledge gained through union with the object. Thus, in the OT, to “know” someone is to unite with them in sexual union.

        “Understanding” is better attained through the intellectus — the intuitive mind — than the ratio — the thinking mind.

        Modernity’s insistence on the sensate, the empirical, has produced minds incapable of processing information gained through intuition. Post-moderns tend to equate the intuitive with “spirituality” and subjectivity. The result is the loss of the good of reason.

        This is not an issue in the East. Florensky’s THE PILLAR AND GROUND OF TRUTH is the best and most difficult treatment of the subject.

        It’s your Blog, and I’m glad you haven’t trolled me yet. Isherwood Williams, absent a radical conversion, will never understand incarnational reality. The comment serves no purpose other than to demonstrate Isherwood’s cluelessness.

        Project what? You need to learn the difference between projection and transference. I respectfully and humbly suggest that the difference is worth knowing. Your “understanding” of evangelicalism and penal substitution is Exhibit 1 of “projection.” I’ve suggested that before, apparently to no effect.

        My observation, based upon the available evidence, is that there is very little difference between the “progressive evangelical” and the liberal protestant. Save and except, of course, liberal protestantism is a dead fad long past which contributed little or nothing to the life of the Church. The jury is still out on “progressive evangelicals.” I meant no offense, so please forgive me if my comment was out of place.

        Re-reading this, I hope I haven’t read more into your use talking about “better thinking” about Christ(likeness).

    • Eating Him makes for Fine Young Cannibal.

  • jwlung

    Morgan: Help me to understand what you mean when you say that a transgender person is “created” to be transgendered. This is the core of the turmoil the Church is experiencing in the debate about how we welcome the homosexual.

    I understand how and why some gender confused individuals come to believe that God created them transgender. I have trouble understanding how their perceived reality was given them by God.

    Is it because God created me to be a realist and Morgan to be a determinist?

    • Help me understand why you’re such a busybody about other people’s sexuality.