In the information age and the advent of cancel culture, public morality has taken an interesting turn. Virtue is signalled by what we approve publicly or cancel publicly. The deep irony is that this virtue signalling is most often not backed by true virtue. This is seen in the fierce and cutting remarks too common on social media.
The danger for Christians is that they follow the culture and become no better than whitewashed tombs. At this cultural moment, it’s all the more pertinent for Christians to cultivate true virtue. The Bible often encourages believers that their character is to match their calling.
In this special edition of our podcast, we bring you the audio from our recent live event from our 2023 series on “A virtuous life”. In this episode, we hear from Professor David VanDrunen about “Virtue in an age of virtue signalling: Christian culture in a characterless society”.
Links referred to:
- Watch: Virtue in an age of virtue signalling: Christian character in a characterless society
- Event handout
- Event slides
- Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A biblical vision for Christianity and culture by David VanDrunen (Crossway, 2010)
- Our August 2023 event: Self-control in an era of self-actualisation with David Höhne
- Support the work of the Centre
- Contact the Centre about your ethical questions
Runtime: 59:20 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Chase Kuhn: In the information age and the advent of cancel culture, public morality has taken an interesting turn. Virtue is signalled by what we approve publicly or cancel publicly. The deep irony is that this virtue signalling is most often not backed by true virtue. This is seen in the fierce and cutting remarks too common on social media.
The danger for Christians is that they follow the culture and become no better than whitewashed tombs. At this cultural moment, it’s all the more pertinent for Christians to cultivate true virtue. The Bible often encourages believers that their character is to match their calling.
In this special edition of our podcast, we bring you the audio from our recent live event from our 2023 series on “A virtuous life”. In this episode, we hear from Professor David VanDrunen about “Virtue in an age of virtue signalling”.
As with other podcasts from our events, we’ve included the first two sections, leaving off the question and answer time. If you’d like to participate in the Q&A in the future, we’d love to have you attend our event.
I hope that you’ll enjoy what you hear and find it beneficial to your Christian life.
Introduction to the event
CK: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to Moore College. My name’s Chase Kuhn. I have the privilege of teaching here at Moore, as well as directing the Centre for Christian Living. I’m very glad to have you tonight for our second event of the evening in our series that we’re continuing this year on virtue. In particular, we’re thinking about a virtuous life—that great life of character that we’ve been called to as we walk in the newness of life by the Spirit.
Tonight, we’re considering “Virtue in an age of virtue signalling”. As you came in, I hope you would have received a program for the evening. If not, we have some going around. For those who are joining us online, you’re most welcome. We’re really glad to not see you, but to have you with us. You have a handout that is available for download on the website.
The inspiration for our series this year on “A virtuous life” is anchored in 2 Peter 1 and the charge that Peter gives us. Before I introduce our speaker for the evening, I’d like to read to you from this chapter:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:2-8)
In response to what I’ve just read and in hopes of what we’re going to hear this evening, I ask you to join me in prayer.
We’re so thankful for the grace that you’ve shown to us in Jesus, for the promises that you’ve given to us, and for the knowledge that you’ve delivered to us in your word.
Now, Lord, we pray that, having been freed from sin, you would help us to make every effort to supplement our faith with virtue. We pray, Lord, that you would help us to be increasing in and growing in the qualities that we’ve just read about in order that we might be effective and fruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We want to honour him. It’s in his name we pray. Amen.
Again, I just want to extend a welcome to you all for joining us. Those of you who are here in person and on livestream: we’re very glad to have you here. You are most welcome.
Tonight’s speaker is someone who I really respect. I respect his work. I respect him personally as well. His name is Professor David VanDrunen. He is the Robert B Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. He’s the author of many books and articles, and his main focus over the past few decades has been retrieving natural law in the Reformed tradition.
I have frequently encouraged Christians, whether at academic levels or at more popular levels, to read Dave’s work. I tell them, “It’s disgustingly clear. [Laughter] I wish I could write like he does.” It’s really clear! He has a real gift for clarity. But his work is also unabashedly biblical: he loves the Bible, he believes in it, and he wants to write and speak from it. I really, really admire that he operates from deep conviction.
The book that I often tell people to start with is a book he wrote a number of years ago. It’s a popular introduction to his engagement with Christianity and culture: Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. Again, it’s very accessible, it’s wonderfully biblical, and I think it will stretch you to think about living as a Christian. I commend it to you this evening as I’ve commended it to so many others in the past.
Before we hear from David—or “Dave” as we prefer to call him; he said, “I don’t have to be so formal.” He goes by “Dave”. So before we hear from Dave, I just want to say our plan for this session is as follows: first of all, some of you were here earlier and got to hear a great lecture on the virtue of humility, where Dave really helped us to explore a biblical vision for humility, particularly looking at the humility of Christ and what that means for us as a challenge in our own Christian lives, looking through Philippians 2.
He did say things were in reverse order. In one sense, that’s my fault: it’s because we run these events now for our most popular audiences. That is, we want to serve churches in these evenings, and we know that many Bible study groups meet later in the evenings after work. We have quite a few people joining us online, and I suspect many of them will be in Bible study groups. Some of you are here with your Bible study groups. We’re really glad that you came together.
Our plan is that we will hear a presentation from Dave on our topic. Afterwards, I’ll have a conversation with him that will explore some of the practicalities of what he speaks about. He’ll speak to some principles to begin, and then we’ll sort of tease out what that means for our lives. Then afterwards, we’ll have a time for Q&A, and I’m going to try to guard a good amount of time for that. Last session, we had so many great questions, we didn’t get to all of them. But we’ll try to make good use of those in the future, and the same will be true for this session.
I think that’s all that I have to say to you before we begin. I’m really looking forward to this session. Please join me in welcoming Professor David VanDrunen.
Part 1: Virtue in an age of virtue signalling
David VanDrunen: Good evening. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m really honoured by the invitation. It’s been delightful to be here in the Moore community for a little over a week now. I’m very grateful for all that we share in common and happy to talk with you this evening about virtue.
I saw all these advertisements for this with this fellow with the angel wings, and I wondered, since you don’t know me, how many of you thought that that was actually a picture of me. [Laughter] Now you can see that was not me.
1. What virtue is
The idea of virtue is a very, very old one in the Christian tradition. Early church patristic theologians spoke about virtue. Medieval theologians spoke about virtue. Reformation and post-Reformation theologians spoke about virtue.
But the topic of virtue—the whole idea of virtue—fell on some hard times in relatively recent years, particularly in the twentieth century. In the later twentieth century, there was a revival of interest in virtue. That was the case in moral philosophy. That was also the case in Roman Catholic moral theology. Protestants were a little bit later to the game than many others were. But there has been a sort of Renaissance among many Protestant theologians in thinking about virtue in recent years. I think that’s a very exciting thing: it is not only recapturing an important part of our Christian tradition, but it’s also recapturing something very important to Scripture. So it’s great that we are here tonight, while many others are thinking about this topic again in serious ways.
It is interesting, however, that we are doing so in our present cultural moment. This lecture is entitled, “Virtue in an age of virtue signalling”. I know I did not make up that title. I know that because I would never be clever enough to think of something like that. It was obviously someone at the Centre who came up with that. But since that is the title, I should probably somehow tie in virtue signalling to my lecture. So let me just do that right now. [Laughter]
There are some things in our present culture that make the idea of virtue very, very difficult to understand. That’s not just because a lot of people are not Christians. Ancient classical pagan philosophers talked a lot about virtue. I think they did that not in ways that we as Christians would completely agree with, but they did that in some rather coherent ways. They could do that in coherent ways because they believed that there was a thing called human nature—that we are a certain sort of creature with a certain sort of nature, and not only that, but we have a certain sort of purpose or meaning for being in this world.
I would say those things are really crucial for having any kind of a coherent conception of virtue. You think about our present moment and human nature: well, there’s an awful lot of confusion about whether there really is a thing called “human nature”. Human nature, if there is such a thing, is kind of flexible and malleable. It’s something you can sort of choose what it is. The idea that there is a purpose or a meaning in this universe, and that somehow we as human beings fit into that in some way, well, that’s a hard case to make to a lot of people in broader society.
It’s interesting: this whole concept of virtue signalling—the whole idea of virtue signalling, as I understand it—is about show. It’s all about appearances. You say certain things or you do certain things that send a message that you’re on the right side of history, or that you’re one of the good guys. It doesn’t mean anything, other than somehow bolstering your own reputation. It’s a very cynical use of the term “virtue”. It’s not real virtue; it’s all show.
We Christians—and others—are thinking seriously about virtue again, but we’re doing it in a challenging cultural moment. Yet it’s all the more important for us to do it at a time when many of these things—like human nature and human purpose—can’t be taken for granted any longer.
I would like to begin this evening by talking to you first about what virtue is. That seems like a good place to start. I have five things to say about what virtue is.
a) Virtue is a habit (or character trait)
The first thing is that virtue is a habit or, you might say, a character trait. The Latin term “habitus”, from which we derive the English word “habit”, is a common word used in Reformation theology and medieval theology. It describes a kind of character trait or some sort of state of the soul that disposes a person, orients a person or inclines a person to think, feel and act in certain ways. It offers a certain direction. There’s something that resides in the soul that directs us in a certain way.
We’re all familiar with the idea of a “habit”. It’s a common word we use, and the way we use it has some similarities to what we’re talking about when we’re considering virtue. The way I might describe them is that there are non-moral habits. An illustration: for a great many of us, there are certain places where we’re used to turning when driving. When you drive home from work, you’re used to making a left turn at this intersection. It’s become so ingrained, you don’t even think about it any longer. In fact, there are times when you don’t want to go straight home because you need to stop and pick up milk, but what do you do? You drive and turn right where you usually turn, and then you realise, “Oh, I’m stupid. I forgot to pick up the milk!” You do that because you have a habit and you’re inclined to do something. You’re disposed to act in a certain way.
There are non-moral habits: there’s nothing morally good or bad about making a left-hand turn at a particular intersection. It just makes life a little bit easier if you have certain sorts of habits. But there are also moral habits: we call those “virtues”. There are also bad moral habits: we call those “vices”. Virtues are habits that direct us or dispose us to think, feel and act in good, moral ways. These habits, or these virtues (or vices!) characterise the kind of person that you are. This is your character.
That’s first: virtue is a habit. Now I’d like to work through some of the details of what I just said with regard to virtue as a habit.
b) Virtue directs the intellect toward proper thinking and understanding
Secondly, virtue directs the intellect toward proper thinking and understanding. We have rational minds: that is something that distinguishes us as human beings from other sorts of animals. Certainly in the broader Christian tradition, theologians have long believed that having intellect—being rational—is one of the things that characterises the image of God. It’s not the only thing, but one of the things that makes us the image of God is that we are rational, thinking creatures.
One of the problems with that is that sin extends into our minds. Sin permeates all parts of who we are, and that includes our minds. We have become disposed as sinners to think in bad ways—to think in ways that embrace lies—to think in ways that promote darkness. Thus we perceive the world in inaccurate ways. This inevitably corrupts everything we do. If we think poorly, we certainly cannot do other things well.
Therefore, one thing that we need as fallen creatures—as Christians—are virtues—indeed, what we might call “intellectual virtues”. This is a term that has often been used historically: “intellectual” virtues—virtues that have gone by names such as “prudence”, “wisdom”, “shrewdness” or “circumspection”. I won’t go into what all of those things are.
What virtues do—and what intellectual virtues do—is reorient our minds so that we can think well. If we are to think well, we must have the right kind of mind. This is what intellectual virtues do: they enable us to understand the world rightly, to understand ourselves rightly and to understand God rightly.
c) Virtue directs passions to proper objects
Here is the third thing virtue is, or what virtue does: virtue directs passions to proper objects. I’m using this term “passions”. If I’d used the term “emotions”, that would probably be a little bit more familiar. I like this older term “passions”, but you can substitute in your own mind “emotions” if you like. “Passions” refer to these strong feelings that come upon us or are narrowly unwished for—strong feelings such as anger, happiness, sorrow or fear. As human beings, we are struck with these passions.
Passions are simply part of what it is to be human. They’re part of human nature. There have been people throughout history who have thought that what we need to do is suppress or get rid of our passions somehow. But that can’t be right: as human beings, we are passionate creatures. Some of us just seem more passionate than others. [Laughter] But we’re all passionate. We all have passions.
The problem is we can experience passions in very bad ways. But we can also experience passions in good ways. God made us with passions. It’s possible, therefore, to experience them rightly.
So here is another thing virtue does: virtue directs passions in proper directions—towards proper objects. It’s not good or bad that you feel angry. It’s not good or bad that you get afraid. But are you angry about the right things in the right way? Are you afraid of the right things, and do you respond to that in proper ways? Virtue enables us and disposes us to experience passions in the right manner.
Here’s one brief example of this: fear is a very common passion we all know something about. One very famous virtue is courage. What is courage? One way we can understand courage is that it enables us—directs us—to respond properly to fear. Without fear, there’s no point to courage: you don’t need courage when you’re not facing any danger. What does the virtue of courage does is enable you to experience fear and respond to it in the right way.
d) Virtue disposes to proper actions
Let me turn now to the fourth thing that we could say about virtue to understand what it does: virtue disposes a person towards proper actions. We are thinking creatures. We are passionate creatures. But we are also doing creatures. The way God has made us is that the way we think and the way we feel leads towards acting in certain ways. We tend to act according to how we think and feel. As virtues direct our minds and direct our passions in proper ways, it will naturally, organically lead also to orienting our conduct in such a way that we do things that are proper.
One way you might think of this is that having virtues makes doing the right thing so much easier than it would otherwise be. It makes doing the right thing natural—a kind of second nature—in a way that it would not ordinarily be. The way some earlier theologians put it, which is very interesting, is that virtue makes doing good things enjoyable: often in our sinful state, we tend to think of doing the right thing as not very enjoyable; the enjoyable thing is the sinful thing. Virtue enables us to experience doing good as enjoyable in a way that it would not otherwise be.
e) Virtue disposes toward actions that promote the achievement/enjoyment of good ends
That leads me now to the fifth of these things that we can say about virtue to describe what virtue is: virtue disposes towards actions that promote the achievement and enjoyment of good ends. By “ends”, I mean something along the lines of “goal” or “purpose”. Another thing that makes us human is that we have a certain direction: we have a certain goal set before us. There’s a certain meaning or purpose towards which we ought to go.
I’ve been using this language of “disposing” and “direction”: virtue directs us in certain ways. Think about this for a moment: direction presupposes that you have an end. If I asked you for directions, you would just look at me and say, “Directions to where?” If I said, “Well, the Opera House” (I’m just trying to think of a Sydney landmark that almost everyone knows—at least a Sydney landmark that I know so I don’t look dumb), you’d say, “Okay, well, that makes sense!” You can give me directions once you know where I’m supposed to go. This is part of the reason why, in our present age, virtue is so difficult to talk about: without a conception that we human beings are here for a purpose—that there is some sort of end towards which we ought to be moving—how is virtue supposed to direct us anywhere?
Another example: one virtue is chastity. The way we often think about chastity is that it directs our sexual nature—our sexual thoughts and actions—in the right direction. Another way we might think about chastity is that it orients us towards marital faithfulness. But to understand this, you need to understand something about what marriage is. You don’t really want to think about chastity simply as directing you against adultery; that’s fine; that’s good; but there’s something even more important, which is a good, productive, healthy marriage relationship. If we know something about the end of our sexual nature, then it makes so much more sense that we seek to cultivate the virtue of chastity: it has an end towards which it is pointing us.
One last point about this particular idea: for us Christians, it is very important that we don’t just recognise earthly ends—earthly purposes, present purposes—but that we have an eschatological end. We were made not just for the things of this world, but we were made for the things of the age to come. We were meant to glorify and enjoy God forever in his new creation. So as we think about virtue as Christians, we must think about those things that point us, ultimately, to that intimate, everlasting fellowship with God, which is the highest purpose for which we were made.
2. The importance of virtue
That is a kind of summary of what virtue is. Let’s turn now a little more briefly to the importance of virtue. I hope some of the things I’ve said have already indicated why it’s important, but just let me bring three things in particular to your attention: why is virtue important?
a) God cares not just about what we do, but also about the kind of people we are
The first reason I would suggest is that God cares not just about what we do, but about the kind of people we are. Of course God cares about what we do. But he also cares—and, in some sense, even more deeply—about the kind of people we are.
You can see this in the Old Testament: the Book of Proverbs illustrates this wonderfully. You read the Book of Proverbs and you’ll read a lot about particular conduct—particular things that people do or don’t do. One of the fascinating thing about reading Proverbs is all the kinds of people you meet: the wise man and the fool; the simple and the glutton; the sluggard (he’s probably the most entertaining!); the stingy; the treacherous and the faithful. All sorts of people. We recognise the truth of this: there are all kinds of people; there aren’t just actions that people do.
When we turn to the New Testament, this also is very clear: one text that puts it crisply is 2 Peter 3:11 (which comes after 2 Peter 1 and the theme of these talks). This occurs right in the midst of Peter discussing Christ’s second coming and the imminent cosmic judgement in the new heavens and the new earth. Peter says, “What sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?” What sort of people ought you to be in light of the shortness of the time—in the light of Christ’s imminent coming? What sort of people ought we to be, not just what sorts of things ought you to do with your checklist.
You also see this in a number of virtue lists in the New Testament. We heard one of these in 2 Peter 1, but another that I imagine almost everyone is familiar with is Galatians 5:22-23, which we refer to as “the fruits of the Spirit”. The fruits of the Spirit are not a list of actions to be done; the fruits of the Spirit are a list of virtues that the Spirit brings forth in us. You find similar lists in Colossians 3:12-14.
Just to put this in a bigger theological context for a moment, in Reformation theology, we sometimes speak about the great twofold blessing we have through our salvation in Christ: justification and sanctification. By justification, God decrees and declares that we stand righteous before him because of the righteousness of Christ. That is a judicial, legal decree of God. But sanctification, following from justification, involves the transformation of our hearts. It’s not just that our legal status has changed, but also our moral character is changed.
I’m bringing this up because what do we believe sanctification is? What exactly is it? It is not God, every so often, zapping you with momentary power to do some good act: God zaps you to do something nice, and then five minutes later, God zaps you to do something courageous. That’s not what sanctification is: sanctification is the ongoing, lifelong work of the Spirit to change our hearts, to put to death the old man, and to bring to life the new—to put aside what is unholy and to bring forth what is holy. Sanctification involves building virtue and taking away vices—building character in the people of God.
b) We aren’t the sort of creatures who can easily (if at all) do things we’re not disposed to do
Here’s a second thing that gets at the importance of virtue: we are not the sort of creatures who can easily (if at all) do things we’re not disposed to do. As many people have noted, we are creatures of habit. We can’t get away from that. This is just part of who we are as human beings. We will have habits. They might be good; they might be bad. But we will have habits.
One way to describe habits (which I alluded to earlier) is that habits are a kind of second nature. They’re not our prime nature, but they are kind of a second nature that enables us to do things more easily—even instinctively. It is often possible to act against one of your habits. But it’s hard: it takes deliberate effort, and it’s often not very enjoyable.
We know this from our personal experience: certain habits are ingrained in us. I am a guest in your country. One of the things that means is that I have to be extra cautious when I cross the street. It’s not because Australians are worse drivers than Americans, but because you drive on a different side of the road. You have a habit of doing that: it’s natural and instinctive to you. But if I tried to drive (which I promise you I am not going to do while I’m here), I would have to fight every instinct that I have in driving. It’s possible that I could do it; other people do it, and I’m sure many of you have travelled to places and driven on the right side of the street.1 But even if I don’t want to drive, it can be dangerous to try to cross the street when you are used to looking for cars coming from a direction they’re not coming from. If I lived here long enough, my habits would change. But a week is not long enough to change that sort of habit. It’s difficult to act against our habits.
Think about the people you know: we interact with others based on the habits we think they have. You don’t deal with every individual in the same way. Or if you do, your life is strange. Your social interaction is very strange. For your social interaction to work, you have to interact with different people in different ways, depending on the kind of character they have. Some people you know as patient people: you expect patience from them and you interact with them in that way. Some people you know as impatient people and you deal with them accordingly. But sometimes your patient friend acts impatiently, and that catches you off-guard. It surprises you. You say, “Well, he’s acting out of character.” It’s vice versa when you see the impatient person displaying patience. As you see, we are creatures of habits.
This is why we don’t stop being creatures of habit when we become Christians. Our basic human nature doesn’t change. So we better give our attention to virtue if we are to live the kind of lives that Christ calls us to live.
c) Human life is complicated
Here is the third and final thing I suggest about the importance of virtue: human life is complicated. Every one of us faces unanticipated circumstances on a regular basis. None of us wakes up in the morning and experiences a day exactly the way we expect to. Sometimes very, very unexpected things confront us. We encounter various individuals on any different day, and we need to deal with different people in different ways. We may find ourselves in bad circumstances, and we have to make the best of it.
Life is complicated. One of the things that means is that life defies any simple attempt to construct a neat little series of rules that are going to tell you how to conduct yourself in every possible circumstance. Most circumstances in life are not like that: you will never be able to construct a set of rules to have at hand that will tell you what to do in every single circumstance in life. So what are we to do?
3. Growing in virtue
Well, here is where being a virtuous person provides so many advantages. The person who has the virtue of kindness simply knows how to be kind in various situations in ways that an unkind person does not. A person who is patient simply knows how to respond to a stressful situation in ways that an impatient person does not. A courageous person simply knows how to respond to a frightening situation that suddenly comes upon him in a way that a cowardly person simply does not. A virtuous person is apt to respond well to whatever life throws his or her way.
This morning, I read a nice little quote that reinforces this point. It’s from Jeremiah Burroughs, who was a 17th century preacher and theologian. (The irony of this has not escaped me: here I am, a Presbyterian, speaking at an Anglican school and about to quote an English independent. In the spirit of good Protestant ecumenicity, here is the quote.) Jeremiah Burroughs said, “All the rules and helps in the world will do us little good unless we get a good temper within our hearts”.2 I think that’s really true: if we are not remade by the Holy Spirit—if our hearts are not cleansed by his sanctifying work—all the rules and external helps we get will not ultimately do us much good as we seek to live a Christian life.
Thank you: I look forward to our time of interaction.
CK: As we take a break from our program, I’d like to bring to your attention a few bits of news from the Centre for Christian Living. First, we’re starting a new initiative in our podcast where we want to hear from and interact with listeners like you. Many of you have burning ethical questions or scenarios that you’d like advice about. We’d love to hear from you. Send us your issues and listen out for an answer in our upcoming episodes, where we’ll begin to feature a short segment on your ethical challenges. You can send them to us through our contact page on our website.
Second, our next event in our series on “A virtuous life” is coming up on 30 August. In an age when authenticity, personal potential and the fulfilment of that potential is so highly valued, the virtue of self-control seems counterintuitive. In contrast to the world, the Bible tells us that the good life is not located in unbounded self-expression, but in purposeful self-restraint. Why is self-control so necessary to the Christian life? What does the Bible have to say about it, and how can we cultivate it within ourselves? Come and hear more from Moore College lecturer David Höhne as he speaks on the virtue of self-control. All the details and how to register are available on our website, and as always, the event is free.
Now let’s get back to our program.
Part 2: Discussing practicalities
CK: I’m going to have Dave stay up here. Before we have our Q&A time, which we will have in a few moments, and I’ll invite you to continue to submit questions, if you’d like, through Sli.do, or if you’re in the room, raise your hand.
What Dave and I are going to do now is have a conversation to try and open up a bit more of the practicalities of how what he’s just taught us reaches us in our daily lives together.
Virtue signalling in the Christian life
CK: I thought we’d start where you started: talking about virtue signalling. In some ways, it seems to me that in trying to signal something, on the surface, you’re actually, in one sense, contradicting true virtue. It’s just a false presentation, in one regard. How do you see that threat featured in contemporary Christian life? I tend to think about it in the online world—the ways in which we signal things on social media, or whatever it may be. How do you see virtue signalling threatening us or being potentially problematic for us as Christians?
DVD: Yeah. One thing that comes to mind immediately is that there’s a lot of pressure for so many of us to “be on the right side of history”—especially if we’re trying to live peacefully with our neighbours, or if we’re trying to get along at work and we work in some sort of secular environment. These days, I think we as Christians are definitely more sensitive to the fact that we don’t quite belong the way we, perhaps, felt like we used to. I think there’s a real temptation to want to try to fit in.
Now, I think trying to live peacefully with our neighbours is a good thing that we ought to do. But I also think we’re tempted to try to fit in in ways in which we want to let people know that we’re good people. It’s not always enough for us to be good people and to fulfil our responsibilities; we try to send messages that we’re okay. So even if we’re not like the celebrities or the CEOs who are virtue signalling, I think we need to be careful about the way we do it to co-workers or neighbours.
Furthermore, this is not just true of individuals; I think that as churches, we can be inclined to send signals and messages that we’re for good things. Of course, we do want to communicate our message truthfully. But I think that’s very different from trying to send the right messages.
CK: Yeah, that’s really great. I find the sense of belonging a real draw and a real appeal for people these days.
Confidence in the goodness of God’s ways
CK: I wonder if one of these things comes back to the fact that Christians are losing confidence in the goodness of what God has told us about being. In other words, there’s a certain way of being that God has called us to, but I’m not sure that a lot of Christian men and women that I speak to are still confident that that is a truly good way of being. We want to somehow meet the culture to show we belong in a good way, but in doing so, in one sense, we’re forsaking a better way. Is that accurate?
DVD: I think that is accurate. If I’m following what you’re saying, I think I profoundly agree with that. One of the things that’s struck me more and more over the years (and this relates to some of my work on natural law, which you mentioned) is the fact that we need to grasp—and those of us who are preachers or teachers, we need to be teaching people; we need to be teaching our children—not just to follow the right rules. I mean, teaching people the Ten Commandments and the other things—of course we need to be doing that. But I think we need to be showing the people in our churches, our students, our children that this is actually good for us—that we don’t just follow the rules of sexual morality because God told us to do it, but actually, we do these things because God has made us in a certain way, and it’s going to be good for us in the long-run. Living in this way is the route to true joy and true fulfilment.
That doesn’t mean that things are always going to go well in this world, but this is actually the path of blessing. So I hope that’s getting to what you’re saying. I think we really want to communicate that we’re not just following rules—that we are actually being the sort of creature that God made us to be, and it’s for our good that we live this way.
CK: Imagine if the people in our churches were actually, in their guts, persuaded by that. I actually find that such a compelling witness to the world that’s watching. If I stand confidently saying, “I don’t need to go where you’re going, because I think this is better”, I find that really upsets systems of people’s thinking—to think, “What? How? Why would you do that? I’m surprised you’re not going with us on this. Why?”
DVD: Well, yeah. I think it’s fair to say that for many people in our predominant culture, it’s okay to make different lifestyle choices. If you want to do it, that’s fine. But what is really objectionable is the idea that, actually, this is good—this is better—that there’s some sort of reality that we’re trying to tap into. That’s not really the best way to put it, but that there is actually moral truth in this world, and that if we are going to be the kind of preachers who live according to this reality, there’s a certain way we need to live.
Drivers of the broader culture
CK: One of the things that I think has made this space pretty fraught in our culture (and I think maybe has produced a lot of anxiety among people wanting to fit in) is that it feels like the goal posts are always moving: what we’ve identified as something good is shifting year to year, or month to month, or media post to media post. What do you think is steering the broader culture right now as people are lacking that end—that real, overarching vision for life under a creator? What would you say is actually governing their decision-making right now?
DVD: Well, I’ve never put myself forward as an expert on modern culture, so I can’t answer with too much confidence. Maybe part of the answer is I don’t think there really is anything that’s directing. It’s like a rudderless ship, really.
I don’t think it’s so much that our modern culture has just rejected Christianity or something else for an alternative—a very clearly defined alternative. I think this is why the goal posts are changing, because there really isn’t another clearly defined goal or system of thought, or something like that that’s out there. So that’s why I think there is this constant seeing if we can push boundaries a little further. I think this seems to be what we see.
People do this in the United States: ten years before our Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, for example, the overwhelming majority in the US opposed gay marriage. Then you have that switch. But when that happened, the transgender thing was just sort of a fringe thing. Now, less than 10 years later, that’s front and centre. So I think we can see this pushing of boundaries further as trying to find something—some sort of meaning and purpose—in what is regarded as a meaningless world.
I think we can see (and this gets back to my earlier point) just in some ways how destructive this is. I don’t know what the statistics are in Australia. I imagine they’re probably not that much different from the US. But the number of teenagers in the US who say that they’re depressed has just skyrocketed. It’s a really frightening thing. And yet, think about this: it’s hard to be a teenager. It’s just hard to be a teenager.
CK: There are a few here tonight who can probably testify to that! [Laughter]
DVD: But you tell a teenager … Well, okay, let me back up. It’s hard to be a teenager because you don’t know. You don’t know what you want to study. You don’t know what a career would be. You don’t know who you’re supposed to marry. It’s tough not to know those things.
But then you start telling people, well, you can be any gender you want to be. You can have any sexual expression you want to have. You start opening up that up, and talk about the anxiety! How much more I’ve got to try to figure out!
It’s actually a blessing to live within a world that has reality—that has moral truth. It’s a blessing to have a nature in which I don’t have to decide every single thing about who I am. I think this gets right at the virtue discussion, because it’s saying, “Okay, what are the traits that match who we are as human beings?”
CK: Yeah. That’s really helpful. For those of you who have been watching the news, I’ve been finding it a fascinating discussion about America: for example, recently, two major corporations have struggled because they’ve pushed a strong LGBTQ agenda and have faced a backlash from their consumers, and therefore they have had to pull those promotional campaigns, because it’s cost them billions of dollars.
Interestingly, it was a move towards an ideology and a morality seeking to try to embrace the culture of the day. Yet they immediately pulled it because the bottom line is hit. In one sense, you would think that if they were standing in it for virtuous reasons, because they really believe in something and want to stand with it, they’d stay the course. But as soon as that part is impacted most, they withdraw altogether and revert on their messaging. I think that adds to that level of confusion and wondering about acceptance, because, again, something pushes, pushes, pushes until it doesn’t and flips back again, and now nobody knows what’s right anymore. And that means nobody knows where they fit anymore in the status quo. It’s really anxiety-producing.
The work of the Spirit
CK: How, then, do we cultivate joy in a virtuous life? You mentioned this. You talked about the habituation of life—that we don’t necessarily do things we don’t want to do, but we’re supposed to be cultivating virtues that lead us towards better ends. How do we as Christians do that in a way that produces that joy in our hearts?
DVD: Yeah. The whole idea of how we attain virtue is an important question and one that’s difficult to answer briefly. When you think about ordinary life and the habits of ordinary life, how do you gain new habits? The answer is “By doing”: by doing over and over and over again. If I wanted to learn how to drive on the left-hand side of the road, I could do it. But I couldn’t do it by just thinking about it. I couldn’t do it by reading a lot of books about the glories of driving on the left-hand side. I would actually have to get in the car and do it. It would be scary at first, but it wouldn’t take that long before I’d get the hang of it. We as human creatures are creatures who gain habits by the doing.
Now that raises an interesting question: is that the Christian life: we just work hard and do it? That doesn’t sound right. At least, it doesn’t sound right to our kind of Christian.
CK: No, that’s right. “Just change, man.”
DVD: Yeah, that’s right. “Just work a little harder.” No, that’s not it. We want to say that the work of the Holy Spirit is absolutely indispensable. The Holy Spirit must produce true virtue in us. Non-Christians can certainly gain certain virtues: someone who’s training to be a firefighter is going to have to learn the virtue of courage by facing dangerous situations. That can have a good purpose in this world. But for true Christian virtue, it must be created by the Holy Spirit.
And yet, I would also want to argue that the Spirit does not do that apart from our own experience. How does the Spirit work virtues? You mentioned joy. We’ll get there in just a moment. But it’s … There are so many things I would like to say here. I’m trying to think of how to say this briefly.
I’m going to use the idea of acquired taste for a moment. For most people, the first time they try coffee, they don’t like it. They try wine, they don’t like it. But a lot of those people who don’t like it initially, learn to like it—maybe learn to really appreciate it—and maybe even become a connoisseur. We say that things like coffee are an acquired taste; I would say that Christianity is an acquired taste. By nature, Christianity is like coffee to us: We don’t like it when we first try it, because we’re sinners. Only the Spirit working in us can make us appreciate Christianity—for it to become something that we find joy in.
But that’s not going to happen apart from the experience of the Christian life. The Spirit is going to build character in us—build virtue in us—build joy in us. Just as you’re not going to learn to appreciate coffee if you don’t drink coffee, you’re not going to learn to live the Christian life—you’re not going to become a virtuous Christian—except by living the Christian life. So that means we are immersed in the Christian community. That means we worship. It means we pray. We read God’s word. We hear God’s word preached. We look at more mature Christians and we see how they speak. We see how they respond. It is through that process that the Spirit works virtue in us and creates that sort of joy.
CK: Yeah. There’s something to be said about that community dynamic that you just mentioned. You teach at a residential Christian seminary, just like we do here at Moore College: there is something about sharing life together that actually inspires, but also corrects, rebukes and reproofs as we sit under the word of God together.
One of the attractive things about coffee drinking, if we want to run with that analogy, is that you’re socialising and going out with your friends who drink coffee, and they say, “This is good.” You think, “How in the world do you think that’s good when it tastes so bitter initially?” Bad coffee obviously tastes really bitter; good coffee doesn’t. But as you begin to be with your friends, you start thinking, “Yeah, I think I can see what you see here.” But more so in Christian community, you begin to see those beautiful, wonderful characteristics shining through in mature believers that somehow are so compelling to you, inviting you, almost, into that way of life that is so rich.
I find in a society like ours today, which is more and more isolated and more and more virtual, people are desperate for community, and I think they’re desperate for depth, but they don’t know what that looks like, and are increasingly coming up against the shallow and superficial. I think we have something very special in Christian community—namely, Christ, of course, that we share.
How actions impact character
CK: As we think about this, there’s one more thing I just want to ask you before we turn over to questions and answers. You mentioned about the doing: how do our actions and virtue interact? You’ve said we have to almost practice these things. But you said to us that characteristics of us are not necessarily actions in the first; they’re actually something about who we are. So I want to know: we often thing that our actions flow out of our character. But how do our actions actually impact our character? I don’t think I’m a liar, but as soon as I start lying, I probably become a liar, if you know what I mean. How do we think about that?
DVD: Right. What do you say? In some ways, it’s sort of a chicken-and-egg kind of thing. There’s a reciprocity here: virtues dispose us to act in certain ways. They don’t compel us to act in certain ways. It is possible to act against a virtue. This is getting at what you’re saying here: by the doing, we become accustomed to what we do. I think maybe that’s the way to put it.
Again, if I could just use the personal analogy of being in a foreign country, there’s something about being in a foreign country that is—I’m not fully used to it. It’s obviously easier for an American to come to Australia than it is to go to most other places in the world. But still, there are still things that are different. I’m not accustomed to it. But the longer I’m here, the more I become accustomed to the way people talk, to the way that people interact, to all sorts of things. As you’re here—as you participate in it—if I just sat in my room all day, I wouldn’t get accustomed to it. I have to be out. As I participate in that life, it shapes me.
I think this is what we’re talking about with virtue: as we are in the Christian community—as we are with others, as we’re instructed by others, as we begin the doing of it—then it becomes, by the Spirit’s work, part of our nature. But it can also go the other way: we can start doing things that we ought not to. That also shapes us.
I hope that gets at your question.
CK: Yeah, it’s the significance, again, of that community and a community underneath the word of God, constantly listening to the word of God, being shaped by it, but also the modelling of the truths of the word of God to one another. Yeah.
CK: Thanks, Dave, so much for answering our questions. Would you please join me in thanking Professor David VanDrunen.
Thank you for coming out on a weeknight. It’s a big ask, I know, but we’re really grateful for you being here. I hope it’s been a blessing to you.
I also want to say thank you to Mark Thompson, our Principal, who kindly extended the invitation for David to come from America and spend time with us here. It’s a real privilege for me to be working somewhere that supports this kind of work, and is really behind it. So thank you, Mark!
I want to pray now as we conclude our time together, so please join me.
Thank you. Thank you for your goodness. Thank you for the goodness that you’ve made known to us in your Son Jesus, and thank you for the goodness you’ve enabled us to walk in in the power of your Spirit.
We are praying, Lord, that you would help us to cultivate a virtuous life—that you’d be transforming our hearts and our minds in a way that we are no longer conformed to this world. Now that we are being transformed in the newness of life that we’ve been given, so much so that we might be able to give approval to your will—what is good and right and pleasing to you.
So please, Lord, work in us. Do that as we stand together as brothers and sisters in Christ, and as we listen to your word. Do this, Lord, so that we might honour Jesus, our king.
It’s in his name we pray. Amen.
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Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 I don’t meant “correct” side; I mean right (as opposed to left) side.
2 Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (London: Peter Cole, 1650), 195.