True versus Common Virtue

12 Jan

Tim Keller on Jonathan Edward’s distinction between true virtue and common virtue:

“There are two kinds of moral behavior: “common virtue” and “true virtue.”

Let’s take one virtue: honesty. “Common” honesty is developed two ways. 1) First it can be inspired by fear. There is the secular version–“be honest–it pays!” or “if you are not honest, society will not work”. There is also the religious version– “if you are not honest, God will punish you!” These are all versions of the same motive, namely, that it is impractical to be honest. 2) Second, it can be inspired by pride. There is the secular conservative version—“don’t be like those terrible dishonest people who hurt others have no virtue!” or the secular liberal version–“don’t be like these greedy people who don’t work for the common good”. There is also the religious version—“don’t be like these sinners, these bad people. Be a good godly person”. These are all versions of the same motive, namely, that I am better than these people who lie.

Edwards is by no means scornful of common virtue. Indeed, he believes in the ‘splendor of common morality’ (Paul Ramsay), which is the main way God restrains evil in the world. He does call it virtue and not sham. Nevertheless, there is a profound tension at the heart of common virtue. We just said that the main reason people are honest is due to fear and pride. But what is the main reason we are dishonest? Why do we lie? Almost always–it is our of fear or pride. So in common virtue, you have not done anything to root out the fundamental causes of evil. In ‘common honesty’ you have restrained the heart, but not changed the heart. You are doing an ingenious form of judo on yourself. (Judo depends on using the enemy’s forward motion against him.) You have ‘jury-rigged’ heart so that the basic causes of dishonesty are being used to make yourself honest. But this is quite a fragile condition. At some point you will find that honesty is not practical nor humiliating and you will do it. Then you will be shocked. You will say, “I was not raised to do such a thing”

But the reason you did, was that all your life, through the sermons and moral training you had, you were nurturing the roots of sin within your moral life. This is true whether you grow up in a liberal-moral environment or a conservative-moral environment. The roots of evil are alive and well and protected underneath your moral-behavior progress. And some day they erupt and show themselves and we are shocked.

So Edwards says–what is true virtue? It is when you are honest not because it profits you or makes you feel better, but only when you are smitten with the beauty of the God who is truth and sincerity and faithfulness! It is when you come to love truth telling not for your sake but for God’s sake and its own sake. But it particularly grows by a faith-sight of the glory of Christ and his salvation. How does ‘true honesty’ grow? It grows when I see him dying for me, keeping a promise he made despite the infinite suffering it brought him. Now that a) destroys pride on the one hand, because he had to do this for me–I am so lost! But that also b) destroys fear on the other hand, because if he’d do this for me while I’m an enemy, then he values me infinitely, and nothing I can do will wear out his love for me. Then my heart is not just restrained by changed. It’s fundamental orientation is transformed.”

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