In this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast, Professor VanDrunen joins us again in a special follow-up episode to answer some of the questions that arose during the event. I hope that this discussion will be of good help to you as you continue to reflect on what it means to walk in the newness of life that we’ve been given in Jesus.
Links referred to:
- Virtue in an age of virtue signalling: Christian character in a characterless society:
- Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A biblical vision for Christianity and culture by David VanDrunen (Crossway, 2010)
- Podcast episode 049: Politics, elections and responsible Christian living with David VanDrunen
- Podcast episode 073: Jesus and the law with David VanDrunen
- 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: 30:06 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Chase Kuhn: Our most recent live event from our series on “A virtuous life” focused on true virtue in an age of virtue signalling. Our presenter was Professor David VanDrunen of Westminster Seminary California.
Today on the podcast, Professor VanDrunen joins us again in a special follow-up episode to answer some of the questions that came to us during the event. I hope that it will be of good help to you as you continue to reflect on what it means to walk in the newness of life that we’ve been given in Jesus.
CK: Hello and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Chase Kuhn and I’m coming to you from Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. Today on the podcast, my guest is Professor VanDrunen, who is the Robert B Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary in California. Dave’s been a guest here at Moore for the last three weeks, helping out with a number of events here at Moore College and elsewhere. I’m really glad to have you today, Dave. Thanks!
David VanDrunen: I’m happy to be here. Thanks, Chase!
CK: You’ve been on the podcast a number of times before and I’ve always enjoyed it. We’ve talked in the past about politics. We’ve talked about the law in the Christian life. But today, we’re following up on an event that you presented recently on virtue. You presented two events, in fact: one exploring virtue in contrast to virtue signalling, and one on humility.
Today what we’re doing is working through some of the questions that people have sent through that we weren’t able to get through at that event. So thanks for being willing to do this.
What is virtue?
CK: As we begin, I thought maybe we could start off by a brief recap about what virtue actually is. How do you define that—particularly as a Christian theologian?
DVD: Yes. I would say that virtue is a character trait. We might also say it’s a habit. As human beings, we are creatures of habit: we are inclined to think, feel and act in certain ways. When those dispositions or character traits are good, we call them “virtue”, and when they’re bad, we call them “vices”. So God has made us to be a certain sort of creature and to have the right sorts of inclinations and orientations, but as sinners, sadly, we are so often inclined to what is harmful and evil. So as we think about the Christian life—as we think about our sanctification by the Spirit—we recognise that one of the ways that God is at work in us is by stripping away those vices and recreating us as people of virtue—as people who are inclined to think, feel and act in ways that are pleasing to God.
CK: Yeah, that’s really great. Thank you!
How do we pursue virtue in practical terms?
CK: You’ve given us some helpful information at the event where you presented, and so much of what you’ve just said parallels so much of what we read in the New Testament. In particular, you think about that language of “putting off”/“putting on”, the “old self” vs the “new self”. One of the main features of the questions that came through were about cultivating virtue.
As we think about putting off the old self and putting on the new self, or keeping in step with the Spirit, for example, what are the kind of practical ways we’d pursue that? You mentioned a few at the event, but I thought we could probably start with there a bit.
DVD: Well, the first thing that I would want to emphasise is that ultimately, it’s the Holy Spirit who builds virtue in Christians. It’s true that non-Christians can have virtues in certain respects.
I think an example that we talked about a bit at the event was courage: I think that’s a good example of how non-Christians can have a real genuine kind of courage. We see that, for example, in soldiers or firefighters. That sort of virtue can be developed by persistence and hard work. I’ve never been in the military or gone through firefighter training, but part of what that would involve is learning how to face dangerous situations, and learning how to keep your cool and make good decisions, even when you’re afraid. Human beings, by repeated actions, can develop certain sorts of character traits.
But that’s not the same thing as Christian virtue—virtues that don’t just orient us to be able to accomplish some good things in this life, but actually orient us towards Christ and his kingdom to be able to live lives that are not just outwardly profitable in certain ways, but that are spiritually pleasing to God.
So the first thing I’d want to emphasise is it is the Spirit: it’s only the Spirit who can recreate us. We cannot, by our hard work, turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.
With that on the table, however, it is also very important to recognise that the Spirit ordinarily sanctifies us as we are striving. The Spirit works in us to strive for holiness against ungodliness. The Spirit uses that.
So the first thing I would point to, then, as we think about what sorts of things are we to do to cultivate virtue, I would say, “Put yourself under the means of grace.” Certainly different Christian traditions are going to define that in different ways. The Reformed tradition, of which I’m a part, would emphasise especially the word of God and the sacraments, and often would mention prayer as well. We need to be people of the word: hearing the word and meditating upon the word. We need to put ourselves under the sacramental ministry of the church. And we need to be a praying people. All of that is crucial: that is how the Spirit builds us up.
Another thing I would mention (and maybe for the sake of brevity, I’ll just mention one more thing now and we can talk more about these things as you wish): I think the fellowship of the saints is absolutely crucial. One of the things that even non-Christian moral philosophers have recognised is the power of example and the idea of seeing virtue embodied in other people.
One really important thing if we are to grow in virtue is that we have to get used to the Christian life—to the way of Christ. Because we’re sinners by nature, we’re not naturally accustomed to walking in Christ’s ways. We are naturally disinclined towards the ways of holiness. Christ’s kingdom is something foreign to us as sinners, and it takes time to get used to the ways of Christ. I think being in the fellowship of the saints, hearing how godly people talk, hearing how godly people respond to certain sorts of situations, getting a sense of how godly order their lives—I think that’s really crucial for growing in the faith and for developing good character.
I think we can understand this just from everyday life: if you’re going to learn the ways of any kind of community or culture, you have to be a part of it. You have to be immersed in it. If we are to be people of virtue—if the Spirit is going to do that work—he ordinarily does that in the community of God’s people.
CK: That’s great. Thank you for those reflections. Just to rewind a little bit to some of the earlier points you made, and then we’ll come back to community in a minute, it seems to me that what we receive from the Spirit and then what we actively put into practice parallels, again, so much of what Scripture is saying. I realise how much Scripture is behind what you’re telling us now, but I’m thinking even about the passage that we’ve anchored our series on the virtues in this year: 2 Peter 1:3: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness”. So there’s everything given to us: he’s given us all that we need, and he’s given it to us, furthermore—
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. (2 Pet 1:3-4)
There we’re now seeing everything given to us: a particular kind of knowledge, a particular understanding of transformation, and then a very active call: “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue …” (2 Pet 1:5). We then get into this virtue list in 2 Peter: “God’s given us everything. Now you, having been given everything, make every effort in that direction.” I love that balance: “Everything you need has been given to you. Now, live with it. Live according to those things that have been given to you. It seems to me, “Walk according to the calling of that which you’ve been called” is what Paul says in Ephesians 4. So there’s a lot there to be explored.
What are “Christian” virtues, as opposed to non-Christian virtues?
CK: I want to go back to your thinking about virtue, and the distinction between Christian and non-Christian virtue. I understand this is a very long conversation in terms of the history of ideas. But one of the things that you explored at the event was about our end: our telos in particular. What makes it a Christian virtue is, first of all, that the Spirit is turning our hearts God-ward—towards its right ends and purpose. I wonder if you could open that up a little bit more for us in bettering understanding what makes a virtue distinctly Christian in that way.
DVD: Yes. I think this whole idea of an “end” is crucial. If we go back for a moment to my example about courage and the firefighter and the soldier, the end that we’re talking about there—say in the case of the firefighter—is putting out a fire and rescuing people who are in danger. We would say that those are really good things. We want people like that in our societies, because we face dangers of fires.
But you can understand that without ultimate reference to the eschatological kingdom of Christ. This is the kind of thing that non-Christians can understand and recognise as good. I think we want to call those genuine: it’s a virtue if a person learns how to control his fear and face danger in certain ways. We want to be able to call that “courage” in a really genuine sense.
Yet we are called to so much more than just the goods of this present life. There are goods of this present life and we don’t want to underestimate those. But ultimately, we were made for the everlasting enjoyment and glory of God. Think about the Sermon on the Mount calling us to seek first the kingdom (Matt 6:33).
So if we’re thinking about distinctively Christian virtue—a virtue that comes only to those who have been justified, and then sanctified, by Christ, these are virtues that must, I would say, orient us toward that everlasting kingdom, the advancement of Christ’s church, the promulgation of the gospel, the edification of God’s people—all those things that are actually foretastes and preparations for that everlasting new creation life.
I think if we were to stick with the virtue of courage for a moment, yes, we can talk about a genuine courage in the things of this life, which both Christians and non-Christians can have. But there’s also the sort of courage that we need to face the particular dangers of confessing Christ. If you read the New Testament, it’s hard to miss the fact that it’s a dangerous thing in this world to confess Christ, because Christ told us on the day he died that “If they hate me, they’re going to hate you too”. We’ve been called to take up the cross, deny ourselves and follow him. People will hate us. People will curse us. We need to be ready to give up our lives, our property and our reputations for Christ, and that’s scary.
We’re sitting here having this conversation. We’re not afraid that someone’s going to come in and arrest us or kill us for the name of Christ in the next five minutes, so it might seem like a luxury to to talk about this. But it’s really true: everyone who confesses Christ has to be ready to die for Christ. That takes courage! You might say that it bears some resemblance to the courage you need to fight a fire. But it’s not the same. [Laughter]
This is just one example. There is, I think, a distinctive kind of Christian courage that enables us to face the dangers of confessing Christ and the fear of losing the things that we value in this life for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. I think this is where the whole idea of the end and seeking first the kingdom becomes so important, because what am I willing to give up my life for? What am I willing to give up my property for? It’s got to be something really important. It has to be something of everlasting value.
So to stick with the example of courage: Christian courage has to orient us towards Christ’s everlasting kingdom. If not, I don’t see any other way we’re really going to have the courage to face the loss that Christ calls us to in this life.
CK: That’s very helpful. Thank you. Just for those who are listening, one of the great contributions that Dave has made to our thinking about theology and ethics has been introducing, or reintroducing, people to a Reformed two kingdoms approach to how we think about our participation in culture. For those listening, I’ve commended many times, but I’ll commend again a book he wrote over ten years ago now called Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A biblical vision for Christianity and culture. In it, he looks at a biblical view of Christianity and culture, and helps us to see how things can be framed with reference to common goods, as well as to ultimate or kingdom goods. I really would commend that work to you again, and we’ll make sure we put that in the show notes once more.
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.
How much is true virtue derivative of God’s character?
CK: As we think about virtue, then, some people have tried to explore how that links into the character of God. How much can we say, then, that true virtue is, in one sense, derivative of God’s character, or in some way related to some kind of pure character that might be found in God himself?
DVD: That’s a good question. I think, on the one hand, it’s important to say that our virtue very much reflects God’s character. Of course, Scripture, in several different ways, calls us to be like our heavenly Father: we’re to be holy as he is holy, as both the Old and New Testaments tell us (e.g. Lev 11:44; 1 Pet 1:15-16). We’ve been made in God’s image and we’re being recreated in God’s image through Christ. So I think there are various ways in which we see this idea of our resemblance to our heavenly Father.
When I think of this in terms of the ideas of holiness, righteousness and purity, at the same time, it is important to recognise that we have very human virtues. You might say that a lot of the virtues that we speak of, we really can’t speak about God has having those virtues.
I hope your listeners don’t mind my coming back to courage over and over again, but since I was talking about courage, it might be interesting to think about this. Does God have courage? You think, “Well, no.” I don’t think we can really say God has courage, because courage really presumes that you’re in danger. It presumes that you have fear of something. We can’t say God’s ever in danger; God is never afraid. I think a virtue such as courage presumes that we’re small, that we’re vulnerable, that we’re fragile—things that we can’t say about God.
The virtue of temperance, one of the classical cardinal virtues, which is still important for us as Christians: temperance gets at this idea of—
DVD: Self-control. Having a kind of moderation with respect to good things. So there are a lot of good things in life that we can pursue and enjoy. But there’s great danger in overindulging in certain things, or enjoying good things in the wrong way. It’s things like food, drink and sex that often come up with this. It’s easy to see how these are good things, if used properly, and very dangerous things if used improperly.
But here, again, I think we would say, “Does God exercise moderation?” That doesn’t really make much sense, does it. I would say here again, a virtue such as temperance presumes our finite character—presumes that we are creatures of time and that we are creatures who can’t enjoy all good things all at once. God can enjoy all good things all at once. But we can’t. So I would say that all true virtue is going to reflect the character of God—the holiness of God—but not in a divine-like way, but in a human-like way. I think we need to be nuanced and careful as we consider a question like that.
CK: That’s very helpful. I guess, in one sense, there’s a helpful bridge for us, too, in that as the Son of God takes on flesh, there’s a real bridge to us in that way so that when we want to see not just true character in terms of divinity—when we want to see true character represented in humanity as the man—we can look at Jesus, who is the man. We can see the most excellent character in him, which is appropriate for us as human beings.
DVD: Yes! Yes! Thank you for bringing that up. In fact, I was thinking about that as I was answering the last question, but I never said anything about it. So thank you!
In Christ, we see one who was true God and true man. If the question is, “Did Christ have courage?”, the answer is, “Yes, absolutely he did.” Because he took on our human frailty and finitude, yes, he was vulnerable. You might say he was fragile—not in a sinful way, but he faced danger and had to face fear. So there’s nothing sinful about being afraid as a human. We can experience fear in a sinful way, but there’s nothing inherently sinful about feeling fear. Christ knew something of fear. [Laughter] That’s why we can seek help from him in the midst of our fear.
Did Christ exercise temperance? I would say, “Yes, he did.” Did he enjoy the good of food? Yes, he did. But he was never a glutton. He was accused of being a glutton. [Laughter] We know that from the Gospels (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). But he wasn’t a glutton. He knew something about all these very, very human virtues.
What virtues can we expect of non-Christians?
CK: As we think about true virtue being something that’s cultivated in us by the Spirit, what can we expect of our non-Christian neighbours? That is, what kinds of character ought we to be holding people to account for?
DVD: Well, I think if we’re dealing with our non-Christian neighbours as non-Christians, I don’t think we can have any expectation that they will have Christian virtue. That’s, by definition, something impossible for those who are not regenerated, justified and sanctified by the Spirit.
But at the same time, I do think we should have some interest in the kind of common or natural virtue that we were talking about earlier. We might, of course, look at our non-Christian neighbour and say, “That person might exercise true courage—might exercise, say, industriousness.” In fact, sometimes I think we can look at our non-Christian neighbour and say, “That person might have certain kinds of virtues in a better way than I do.” Some Christians might look at their non-Christian neighbour and say, “That person is more industrious than I am.” That might be a rebuke to us as Christians.
I think we can recognise that, in terms of those earthly ends—those natural ends we were talking about earlier—sometimes we see things that are very impressive in our non-Christian neighbours. I think it’s important to acknowledge that. I don’t think we have to be embarrassed by the fact that sometimes we find very impressive things in our non-Christian neighbours. Maybe we need to repent of our own failures when we see that; that could be true. But I think we can be thankful to God that he preserves this world. We’re thankful to God for his common grace—for the way that he sends the rain and sunshine, and preserves human societies. Our human communities are much more liveable, because there are non-Christians with courage, there are non-Christians with industriousness, and there are non-Christians who practise chastity with regards to their marriages. That’s good! So as we think about our lives in our neighbourhoods and our lives in a political sense, I think we can be appreciative of that and think about ways that we can promote that.
I certainly don’t think that we should denigrate that, because it’s not “true” Christian virtue. Well, no: it’s not true Christian virtue. But we want to have, I think, a respect and a gratitude for the degree to which God does restrain evil, in part, through the sort of natural common virtue that we see in others.
CK: That’s helpful. Thank you.
How do we match our intellect with our passion in our faith?
CK: Coming back, now, to the idea of community, then, there’s multiple questions that people have raised around how virtue is actually formed in community. You’ve given an example already of examples—that is, we look to others, we see an example of them in them, and it’s something to emulate. It’s something even to habituate, we might say, in our lives as we live together.
How do we get beyond that temptation—especially within Reformed circles—for us to be overly intellectual and to tap into the passions—the more emotional side—the kinds of things that actually drive the desires that would match the intellectual things we’re confessing?
DVD: Well, it’s true that the Reformed tradition is often accused of being, maybe, overly intellectual in its emphasis. I don’t know. That probably could be a temptation to fall into. I would certainly want to very much defend the interest in sound doctrine and of the right understanding of Scripture. I think that has to be very important for us, and I don’t think we can expect real maturity without some basic understanding of the truths of God and his word—not that everyone has to be a professional theologian, of course.
There also, I would want to say, the Reformed tradition, for the most part, has a high ecclesiology. To understand that even our intellectual life—even our doctrine—is something that we learn and study as a community—as a church. We’re not just a bunch of individual theologians thinking about things, but we come to understand things together.
When I say “a high ecclesiology”, what I’m really saying there is a view that the church is not a thing of secondary importance; the church is actually a thing of prime importance. This is what Christ founded: Christ said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). It’s a great promise. There’s nothing in the New Testament to indicate that any of us as Christians has some kind of option of going it alone—as if the church is an option or a luxury or something. No: it’s absolutely crucial. I think there are all sorts of reasons for that and ways we can appreciate that. But it is in that community that we not only learn to think (which, I guess, gets at the question of the intellectual emphasis), but it’s here that we learn how to pray. We learn how to sing. We learn how to serve. We learn how to have compassion. We learn how to be served in certain ways—how to be loved and how to show hospitality and receive hospitality.
This gets back to what I was saying earlier and I just want to re-emphasise it: you don’t learn these things just intellectually. If you want to become a praying person, it might help to read a book on prayer. But that’s not a substitute for praying. We’re not going to learn prayer except by praying. Furthermore, one of the ways, then, we pray is we pray with others. That’s how we learn.
There are so many more things we could discuss along these lines. I don’t know if you want to pursue it further.
CK: That’s great, Dave! No, I think that’s right. One of the things that always draws me back is thinking about something like 1 John 4, where that knowledge of God is so connected to love of neighbour. If you know God—if you’ve known God’s love—then you show God’s love forward to brothers and sisters in Christ. In one sense, that kind of affectional side of our hearts and our love towards God immediately cultivates itself in a particular kind of community being. In one sense, they mutually reinforce one another, so that as I love my Christian brothers and my Christian sisters, I am, in effect, loving God as I love them. Furthermore, as I experience love from them to me, I am, in one sense, experiencing the love of God to me. So there’s that cultivation of something deep and rich that is grounded in knowing, but also then met in being in a particular way.
I think that even with the call to patience, as you said before, you don’t know patience until you have to be patient with somebody. You know? That’s it. I think I’ve mentioned before many times—whether to you or others—but I often think that if I could get away from people and problems, I’d be stuck with myself, and in one sense, the challenge to being fully formed is being fully formed together where that maturity comes through life together.
DVD: Yeah, that’s right. I think just one other thing to mention: the whole idea of our faith is to come from the heart and we need to guard the heart. I think in Scripture, the heart is both intellectual and it has to do with the affections, volition. There’s something wholistic about the heart. The intellect is one important aspect of who we are as human beings. But we have a number different parts of us as human beings—aspects to us as human beings.
CK: Very helpful.
CK: Dave, I can’t thank you enough for what you presented to us on virtue, and especially that really stimulating lecture as well on humility and looking at the humility of Christ in Philippians 2. I hope people have listened to those events, and I hope they’ll go back to listen to them again. I look forward to another time when we’ll get you back on the podcast in the future. Thanks so much for serving us, Dave!
DVD: Sounds great. It’s good to be here.
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