Learning from your betters: Ancestors

Currently, the way justice is routinely spoken of is about social fairness or government intervention or institutional transformation. I have no doubt that justice is often related to these concepts. But classically, justice was a personal virtue a habit of action and thought with reference to giving what is due to others. It is a personal virtue that is outwardly focused. Currently, I think justice is used to refer to a self-focused virtue to be demanded of external circumstances. When Fredrich Hayek talked about it in this video:

He said:

“Justice is an attribute of individual action. I can be just or unjust towards my fellow men. But the conception of a social justice; to expect from an impersonal process – which nobody can control – to bring about a just result is not only a meaningless conception, it’s completely impossible.”

I disagree with him about the idea that social justice is purely impossible. Societies can have institutional injustices (people organized around principles that lead to individual acts of injustice). His point is still powerful.

When Menander wrote about justice around the end of the third century, he described it like this:

“The parts of justice are piety, fair dealing and reverence: piety toward the gods, fair dealing towards men, reverence toward the departed. Piety to the gods consists of two elements: being god-loved and god-loving. The former means being loved by the gods and receiving many blessings from them, the latter consists of loving the gods and having a relationship of friendship with them.[1]

I’m most interested in the bold aspect.

I think that justice is rarely conceived of with reference to one’s ancestors or even with reference to one’s still living relatives. But I think that living in a way that is designed to learn from one’s predecessors in a positive way (and rejecting the bad) is a form of justice because one owes them the work of spreading their genes and building upon the progress they made.

A great example of this can be found in Aurelius’ meditations. In the first section he names the debts and lessons he’s learned from various great people in his life. The first four are family:[2]

    Character and self-control.
    Integrity and manliness.
    Her reverence for the divine, her generosity, her inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it. And the simple way she lived— not in the least like the rich.
    To avoid the public schools, to hire good private teachers, and to accept the resulting costs as money well-spent.

In my own life, to follow the exact examples above (except that I was blessed with many long lived grandfathers and great-grandfathers so I’ll collapse the lessons I’ve learned for the sake of not revealing information about my family tree, I’ve learned:

    From my grandfather I learned several things. The first is don’t stop. If you have work to do, do it until you’re finished no matter how boring, trivial, or demeaning. Second, read widely and often. His bookshelf is filled with philosophy, law, archaeology, fiction, history, and how-to books. Third, to change the world, change where you’re from. Fourth, if you can fix it yourself, fix it. Fifth, control your mornings. Sixth, choose the higher standard (this is from a man who told me that Army boot camp was too easy and that it made him fat and lazy).
    The first is be prepared. Know what you’re getting into before you go. Second, never blame others for your lot. Just own that you have to take responsibility and do it because nobody else will. Third, my dad taught me to respect the elderly. I still hold doors for them when I see them walking into restaurants. Fourth, to respect people who work for a living, I won’t even vote for politicians who haven’t worked in the free-market.
    My mother taught me to approach problems with reason instead of emotions and to be generous.
    First, to make everyplace I go better than it was when I arrived. Second, to read between the lines. The rest of my family I think made fun of this idea, but the media is usually trying to get viewers not tell the truth and things are rarely as they seem. Every phenomena requires investigation.


What have you learned from your betters who’ve come before you? How can you do them justice?


[1] Menander Rhetor I.361.17-25 Link Here

[2] Aurelius, Marcus (2002-05-14). Meditations: A New Translation (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 811-816). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Positional and Progressive Elements of the Christian Life


In an exercise science class in my early college days, I had a professor try to tell me that since the triceps muscles functioned to extend the forearm, one only needed to do bicep curls to exercise the whole arm. Her reasoning was that lowering the weight extended the forearm, and thus exercised the triceps. She had taken a basic fact and misapplied it because she neglected to account for simple facts like gravity being the force that lowers the weight as the lifter slowly relaxes his biceps.

Similarly, in the Christian life, we can easily misapply things. This is especially so in the case of the Bible’s language regarding Christian growth and God’s grace. For instance, some see the passages about justification by grace through faith is the ultimate or only expression of the Christian life. In so doing, they can actually believe/explain a version of faith that does not lead to good works or obedience in Christ.

On the other hand, some look at the passages in Scripture about spiritual growth and the need for obedience and see these as the ultimate or only expressions of the Christian life. The danger here is teaching that one is saved by one’s efforts and not God’s grace and the progress is always obvious and linear.

But one can see two aspects of the Christian life in Scripture. These aspects are often called the gospel/law, justification/sanctification/ and indicative/imperative distinctions. While I grasp all of those, I think that they can confuse certain issues. For instance, in Scripture the gospel includes commands, indicatives result from imperatives, and sanctification is not always about growth and obedience.

My preferred language is to distinguish the positional and progressive elements of the Christian life. I’m sure somebody came up with the language before me, but I haven’t seen it anywhere and it popped into my mind when I was teaching a class about the gospel/law and justification/sanctification distinction.

Positional Elements

These are aspects of the Christian life concerning one’s identity in Christ. They are gifts of grace to be claimed as a certain possession by the faithful. Biblical examples include but are not limited to:

  1. Justification by faith (Romans 4:24-5:10)
  2. Adoption (Ephesians 1:3-23)
  3. Sanctification/being called saints (Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:29-31)
  4. Being beloved by God (all over the Bible)

The importance of the positional aspects of the Christian life appears is that they give us individual and communal identity, they are dependent ultimately upon God, and they are not dependent upon our progress (justification by faith is true for anybody who has faith).

Progressive Elements

These are elements of the Christian life in which growth and progress can be made. The confusing thing is that sometimes the Bible uses the same words for progressive and positional categories (sanctification, grace, live like children of God, etc). Biblical examples include but are not limited to:

  1. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God. Being a son of God here is a designation based on character, not a declaration based on grace received through faith.
  2. Matthew 6:33 (seek first the kingdom of God and it’s righteousness). Righteousness is not a declaration but a virtue to be pursued.
  3. Hebrews 12:14 say to strive for the holiness/sanctification necessary to see the Lord.
  4. Abiding in God’s love (1 John 3, John 14-26)

The importance of these aspects of the Christian life is that they speak of the goals toward which faith strives. While one does not have to be a perfect peacemaker to be justified by faith, one should have a faith of the sort that will lead to peacemaking. These aspects of the Christian life also speak of how one experiences life with God and approaches true happiness and Christian virtue.


When one properly grasps the difference between these two modes of Christian discourse it becomes significantly easier to understand how one can be justified by faith but still be commanded to strive for “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).” The faith that justifies is faith that seeks holiness (the holiness doesn’t justify). Similarly, the state of justification is a hope and comfort specifically for those who live in faith.