Jordan Peterson: Heretic or Helpful Pagan?

Rachel Fulton Brown writes:

…I don’t think that Jordan has a Messiah complex. But I do think that he thinks that he is capable on the strength of his own will of saving the world. It is why he spends so much time speaking. Because he believes that through his speech he can save himself—and that by speaking in the way that he does, he can save everyone. Sure, Jordan uses Christian vocabulary, but he does not think like a Christian, nor does he claim to.* Rather, Jordan thinks like Nietzsche, as he shows clearly in his book.

She claims that Peterson is a Pelagian. That is, essentially, the Christian heresy that claims that we’re left to work to save ourselves and the world without the assistance of God’s grace. Further definition and explanation gets tricky and technical. But the point being, Peterson may well be exactly that. But I submit that he may not be a heretic at all, but perhaps a pagan or even a gnostic who finds Christian ideas to have remarkable psychological depth and therefore metaphorical truth value. I say this because he remains publicly agnostic as to the resurrection of Jesus.

I had taken Peterson’s claims to be a Christian in the past at face value, but when it comes to him, everything is pretty complicated. And that’s fine. Btw, my definition of Christian is not the same as the Bible’s definition of how somebody comes to be saved. People are saved by God’s mercy, full stop (Rom 9:18). A Christian is somebody who is a member of a church and believes Christian dogmas (Trinity, Incarnation, Salvation by Grace, etc). These are overlapping, but not coterminous groups. 

I tend to think of Peterson as somebody who articulates excellent natural(istic) rationales as well as how-to explanations of important Biblical ideas and instructions. He manages this even when he gets the metaphysics and theology incorrect. For instance, is there a sense in which we save ourselves and those who hear us by our speech? Yes:

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
(1 Timothy 4:16)

For Paul, of course, that speech is sharing the message of Christ carefully and appropriately. But Peterson articulates an explanation as to how this is true in natural circumstances that provides an analogy as to how it is true in spiritual ones. Speaking the truth does accomplish something that ultimately brings goodness into the world. But what Peterson misses, or at least doesn’t say, is that this not only justifies existence for those who practice it, but it does so precisely because the Father of Jesus Christ really is the cause of the world. 

Peterson is right that if everybody took full responsibility for their social self, then things would be better. Jesus says that Christians should be the ones who seek to reconcile to those they wrong as soon as they remember they did it. Jesus says Christians should rebuke those who sin. Jesus says that Christians should forgive those who repent as soon as they repent: See below:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 

(Matthew 5:23-24)

 

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
(Luke 17:3-4)

The question, of course, is salvation from what? For instance, the Stoics claim that philosophy can save you from internal disturbance. If that’s their definition of salvation, then yeah, Stoicism can do that. But Stoicism cannot offer the salvation Christ offers, but it does not claim to do so. So if Peterson’s claim is that true, precise speech can save us from sin, Satan, and death, then he’s wrong. But if he’s claiming that we need salvation from nihilism, social decay, and the potential dissolution of Western civilization, then maybe the hard road of rugged personal responsibility is the salve for our wounds. It doesn’t heal original sin, but it isn’t meant to. Of course, Satan, sin, and death are connected to the problems Peterson wants to solve. But I think that by articulating the truth, even improperly, one acts as though they have faith in Christ as the Logos/Word (John 1:1-18). And sense the Logos who orders the Cosmos is revealed to be none other than Jesus of Nazareth, one could say that Peterson’s efforts to get people to act in line with the Logos are things Jesus could use, just as Christ, through his church, used Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics to clarify the gospel in the first 1200 years of the church. 

And so there is a sense in which Peterson’s claim that salvation from nihilism and social destruction can occur if everybody takes ownership of their lives at every layer is right and perhaps even articulated in the Bible. As such, it is important stuff to say and many who try to teach the Bible understate or perhaps poorly state it.

But there is also a sense in which Peterson’s message is absolutely inadequate as an expression of the Bible’s full message. For instance, Peterson, in claiming to offer a sort of salvation (a good sort even) that is available in the Bible, leaves out the central narrative of salvation contained within the Bible (God sent his Son, they called him Jesus, he came to love, heal, and forgive. He lived and died, to buy my pardon…). In this sense he is, as a preacher of the gospel, utterly incompetent. But as a teacher of wisdom, even wisdom contained in, and perhaps necessary to fully appreciate the gospel, he does a pretty good job. The question is, what is he trying to do? If he isn’t trying to replace the teaching ministry of the church, then he probably isn’t a heretic, he’s like Marcus Aurelius or Musonius Rufus who explains his philosophy in terms of Christian symbols. If you know what he says, it’s foolish not to consider it and practice the best of it. It might even lead you to Christ. But in itself, it cannot save you in the full Christian sense.

But, it’s important to consider this side of it all: 

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. (Mark 9:38-41)

Hildebrand on The Power of an Orderly Life

In, Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand explains the power of an orderly life to help us transform ourselves:

 

To ordain our daily lives according to some definite rule constitutes a further method in the service of our inner transformation. Apart from the specific importance which the single provisions of that rule may possess for our progress in virtue, a certain wholesome effect proceeds from order as such. It pervades life with a certain rhythm of composure and continuity, which makes it easier for us to collect ourselves; it protects us from being absorbed by the succession of varying events and impressions, so apt to interfere with our concentration upon essentials.
An orderly regulation of our lives relieves us from the temptation to let our attention to prayer, contemplation, and work, our avoidance of peripheral concerns, depend on chance and circumstance; it enables us to provide systematically for the meaningfulness and depth of our existence. It makes it possible for us to acquire constancy without which all good endeavors are condemned to sterility.
Finally, an established outward order also raises us above our dependence on our own arbitrary whims and momentary dispositions; it commits us from the outset, and enduringly, to our direction towards God. The last-named advantage is more perfectly attained, of course, in the case of a rule followed—as in monastic life—from holy obedience, as contrasted to merely self-devised and self-imposed regulations.
In any event, however, we must keep aware of the fact that all technical regulation of life is but a means, not an end in itself; its observance must not be allowed to become a matter of rigid mechanical routine. We should not erect the rule into an absolute, nor abandon ourselves to its automatism as to a supreme law. Otherwise it may easily blunt, rather than sharpen, our perception of the call of God, and harden our hearts rather than open them to Christ.

Levels of Christian Discipleship

There are multiple ways to conceptualize Christian discipleship. Many are complementary and if explained properly, even synonymous. Here are three:

  1. Christian discipleship is to live in accordance with and in obedience to the teachings of Jesus. In this sense Jesus is king and ruler.
  2. Christian discipleship is to live in line with nature, discerned rationally. In this sense, the logos the source of order in the world and reason in the mind, is perpetually speaking to humanity through nature. This can be seen in Psalm 19, Romans 1:18-23, and John 1:1-18. In this sense, Jesus is a teacher, philosopher, and provocateur.
  3. Christian discipleship is living in submission to your personal concept of what is better for me. Now this is fraught with difficulty, but it carries with it several assumptions that help me make sense that I do not intend to go into here. In this sense, Jesus is the ultimate expression of the highest possibility of the individual self.

Any thoughts?

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practices and Positive Psychology by Christopher Kaczor

Introduction

I found out about this book from twitter, when James K.A. Smith mentioned anticipating it’s release. I had never heard of the author before, but he’s an ethics professor with his PhD from Notre Dame.

The aim of the book is stated on page 18:

In this book, I highlight the many ways in which positive psychology and Christian practice overlap. I point out empirical findings in positive psychology that point to the wisdom of many Christian practices and teachings. I also provide practical suggestions on how to become happier in everyday life and how to deepen Christian practice based on contemporary psychological insights. All of this points us toward deeper fulfillment in this life, and in the life to come. This is why I titled this book The Gospel of Happiness – because this is good news, very good news indeed (18).

The argument is fairly obvious from chapter to chapter. The chapter titles are:

  1. The Ways to Happiness
  2. The Way of Faith, Hope, and Love
  3. The Way of Prayer
  4. The Way of Gratitude
  5. The Way of Forgiveness
  6. The Way of Virtue
  7. The Way of Willpower

Dr. Kaczor looks at the relevant psychological research concerning each topic as well the Biblical and historical teachings of Christianity and shows their coherence and overlap. After he makes these comparisons he makes recommendations for personal practice.

The Bad
I really found very little objectionable in the book. Perhaps a more New Testament studies oriented definition of the word gospel would have been nice. The gospel is not merely, “good news” because it makes us happy. It is good news because it is an announcement about God’s kingdom. But this weakness is forgivable because the author isn’t a New Testament scholar. Also, it makes very little practical difference to the content of the rest of the book.

There are two formatting issues though: the book uses endnotes which are as annoying as having socks full of fire ants. Also, there is no index. An index would have been wonderful.

The Good
Where shall I begin? For starters, the book takes on Nietzsche’s notion that Christianity makes people weak, miserable, and stupid (183). Many Christians feel guilty about pursuing happiness, power, or success and I think that this comes from adopting a Nietzschean understanding of Christian ethics instead of Biblical one.

Another wonderful aspect of the book is the content of the endnotes. The amount of helpful literature cited is a great library builder.

More importantly though is the content of the book. As stated above the author means to show how positive psychology and Christian teaching over lap and offer practical advice for improving happiness. I’ll summarize the first chapter to show how the author does this so that you can see that he performs his objective admirably:

The Ways to Happiness
In this chapter, Kazcor uses Martin Seligman’s PERMA definition of happiness and shows how Christian teaching and practice, at its best, fulfills the requirements of each piece of the puzzle (21). It is important to recognize that Kaczor and Seligman define happiness as flourishing and well-being, not merely as positive emotion (as you’ll see). PERMA stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement (21). Here are summaries of Kaczor’s explanation of each.

  1. Positive Emotions
    Kaczor cites several lines of research that indicate that religious people generally have higher positive emotion than irreligious people (22-23). He does observe that Christians are “called to love God and neighbor regardless how they may be feeling at the moment” (24). He also observes that doing the right thing while experiencing negative emotions is harder. I would add that Kant would say that makes it even more moral. Essentially, Kazcor notes that since we know the our emotions impact others and how we make decisions, we are obligated to care about fostering positive emotions in ourselves in ways that are not contrary to the Christian life. In doing this, we are able to foster well-being and emotional happiness in others (26). What I wish he did observe here was that doing the right thing for our neighbor can lead to positive emotions (he does say this on pages 66-67).
  2. Engagement
    Engagement is our flow or activation of our strengths in order to accomplish some task. Kaczor reminds readers that in Genesis, man was made to “tend the garden.” With this in mind, he notes the importance of legitimate work as a way of experiencing unity with God (29). I’ve written about this  myself.
  3. Relationships
    Seligman’s taxonomy of happiness includes relationships as a “rock-bottom fundamental of human well-being” (30). Kaczor here writes about the obvious place of human relationships in the teachings of Jesus. His main focus here is Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:24). I would have added the importance of embedded personality in ancient thought is simply assumed in the Bible, so much so that while individuals are responsible for their actions, their identity is not merely related to achievements like in Proverbs, but it is linked integrally to their community associations (in Christ, the body of Christ, the church of God, etc).
  4. Meaning
    Kazcor notes that Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is better than the self” (32). Kaczor points to the subjective experience of Christian obedience in small things as a level of meaning added to people who aren’t famous for their contributions to the world (33). He also notes the objective question of whether or not anything actually has meaning and notes that Christianity claims to offer objective meaning to the life of the Christian and to explain the objective meaning of the cosmos and human existence in general. If Christianity is true, then meaning is provided for like Paul says, “your work in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
  5. Achievement
    Here Kaczor notes the importance of feeling successful for human happiness, but also notes the traps that Christian morality trains us to avoid: greed, vanity, and social comparison which are all things that positive psychology notes do not actually contribute to overall happiness (40). In my opinion, many Christians are so concerned to talk about God’s grace saving us from sin despite our failure to do good works that they fail to talk about the importance of tackling small and big tasks for God, neighbor, and self in order to be happy. But the Bible does say that with toil there is profit and with mere talk there is only poverty. Paul also approves of a certain measure of pleasure in spiritual growth (Gal 6:4).

Conclusion
Over all I find the book to be a wonderful clarification of the position of Christian theology and the Biblical witness on happiness, but it is not merely that. It also functions as a defense of Christianity because it shows that Christianity is actually good for you. Finally, the book is a great book for devotional reading or for pastors to read in order to help Christians in their pursuit of Christ and of earthly and eternal happiness. I highly recommend it.

Mike Bird, Evangelical Theology, and the Sermon on the Mount

There are a lot of things Christians “need to know.” For some it’s predestination, for others, the age of the earth, or the order of end times events. In reality, the core of theology is simpler than that.Mike Bird in his, Evangelical Theology reminds us of the test for Christian theology:

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5– 7) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) are good test cases for any theological system.

Contra some Reformed theologians, Jesus is not teaching people the law so they can see how they don’t measure up, wail for their sinful hearts, and realize their need for the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness. Contra some dispensational theologians, Jesus is not teaching what kind of law the Jews will keep in a post-rapture millennium. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ manifesto for the kingdom. It is the ethical vision for God’s people if they are to live out the covenantal righteousness that comes from experiencing the kingdom’s saving power. This is what the new Israel of the new age is supposed to look like. Not the elitist micropiety of Pharisaic leaders who claim their tradition represents the true measure of righteousness, nor the compromised Jewishness of the Herodians who dress up Hellenistic values in a Jewish garb. The sermon is about new law for the new age.

Bird, Michael F.; Bird, Michael F.. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Kindle Locations 8394-8401). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

 

Christian theology must accommodate the teachings of Jesus rather than circumvent them. If it cannot, it is not Christian.

Growth and Biblical Wisdom

Everybody has a self-theory, some hypothesis or doctrine about what/who they are. Some of these theories are simple sentences like, “I’m an athlete.” Others are more fundamental, like, “I’m worthless.” According to Carol Dweck and Daniel Molden, our self-theories lead directly to our self-esteem maintenance/repair strategies after we fail at a task or to reach a goal. (Dweck, 130-131). They have distilled the various self-theories into two helpful categories.

The Self Theories:

  1. Entity theory:
    Entity theory is the theory that all of your personal traits are fixed in place.
  2. Incremental Theory:
    The incremental theory of the self is the theory that no matter who you are, your qualities and abilities can be improved upon.

Two strategies of self-esteem repair:

  1. Fixed/Static View
    It is often found that those who hold to the entity theory, because of the assumption that change is impossible, also have a static view of self-esteem repair. These people repair their self-esteem by avoidance of activities that are difficult. Adherents to this self-theory also utilize comparison of their performance to examples who performed even more poorly than themselves to bolster their sense of worth/skill.
  2. Growth View
    Those who hold to the incremental self-theory, because of the assumption that change is possible, adopt a growth perspective on self-esteem repair. These individuals use strategies like examination of deficits and practicing unattained skills.  They are also more likely to utilize comparison of personal performance to those who performed even better to understand why they succeeded.

Can you guess which self-theory and which strategies tend to be associated with success? If you guessed, “the incremental theory and the growth view,” you guessed correctly.

In the book of Proverbs, the self-theory assumed by the author is the incremental theory. The author assumes that people can change:

Pro 8:1-5 ESV  Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?  (2)  On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;  (3)  beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:  (4)  “To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man.  (5)  O simple ones, learn prudence; O fools, learn sense.

And as one would expect from somebody who holds the incremental view, the author of Proverbs recommends responding to personal failures and challenges with a growth strategy:

  1. Pro 9:8b-9a Reprove a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man, and he will grow wiser.
  2. Pro 15:5  A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent.
  3. Pro 15:12  A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise.
  4. Pro 15:32  Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.

The whole book basically indicates that one of the main differences between the wise and the unwise is that the wise are willing to face correction and improve. They admit their flaws and errors. They do so whether the flaws pertain to morality, character, knowledge, skill, or anything else.

Conclusion

Learning to change our perspective on failures and internal shame is very difficult. We often feel painfully ashamed of failures, mistakes, and sins. This shame can paralyze us into being unable to admit fault. It can even force us into hiding our flaws and dwelling only on our positive traits and thus can prevent change. It is all the better to admit personal failures of morals, knowledge, and skill. Fessing up to oneself, to God, and to other people is a liberating experience. In so doing, shame can become the sort of sorrow that leads to repentance and personal transformation. One good article on the subject can be found here: Why I Like When Other Men Make Me Feel Bad About Myself.

Works Cited:

Andrew J Elliot and Carol S Dweck, Handbook of Competence and Motivation (New York: Guilford Press, 2005).

Appendix:

Though the author of Proverbs assumes that you and I can change, he is a realist. You and I have all known people that we worry about because they keep making bad decisions. The fear is that eventually it might be too late to change. Proverbs does notice that some people will want to change their habits at the last minute before a calamity. They procrastinate. They hope to perhaps utilizing a montage strategy. “Oh, I messed around all year and have to make a 100 on the final and only have 8 hours to study…wisdom come save me with clips of fun, hard work, and sweet music!” Kind of like in Rocky, Revenge of the Nerds, the Muppets Movie, and Mulan:

Wisdom, in the book of Proverbs, is personified as a cosmically powerful female prophet who represents the highest aspirations of human motherhood, the ultimate wife, and the most wise sister a young man could have. Young men typically love women, this is probably why the literary device is used. The book is written for young men, but it clearly applies to women as well. Anyway, here is what Lady Wisdom says after being ignored until the last minute before a disaster:

Pro 1:24-27  Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,  (25)  because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof,  (26)  I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when terror strikes you,  (27)  when terror strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you.

If you refuse to change your character long enough, you won’t be able to suddenly make the necessary repairs in order to succeed. I tried this in Hebrew as an undergrad. You cannot study at the last minute for Hebrew and succeed.

Jonathan Edward’s Resolutions

RESOLUTIONS OF JONATHAN EDWARDS[1]

“Being sensible that I am unable to do any thing without God’s help, I do humbly entreat him, by his grace, to enable me to keep these Resolutions, so far as they are agreeable to his will, for Christ’s sake. Remember to read over these Resolutions once a week.

1.   Resolved, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God, and my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration; without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved, to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved, so to do, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many soever, and how great soever.

2.  Resolved, To be continually endeavouring to find out some new contrivance and invention to promote the forementioned things.

3.  Resolved, If ever I shall fall and grow dull, so as to neglect to keep any part of these Resolutions, to repent of all I can remember, when I come to myself again.

4.  Resolved, Never to do any manner of thing, whether in soul or body, less or more, but what tends to the glory of God, nor be, nor suffer it, if I can possibly avoid it.

5.  Resolved, Never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.

6.  Resolved, To live with all my might, while I do live.

7.  Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.

8.  Resolved, To act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings, as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God. Vid. July 30.

9.   Resolved, To think much, on all occasions, of my dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.

10.  Resolved, When I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.

11.  Resolved, When I think of any theorem in divinity to be solved, immediately to do what I can towards solving it, if circumstances do not hinder.

12.  Resolved, If I take delight in it as a gratification of pride, or vanity, or on any such account, immediately to throw it by.

13.  Resolved, To be endeavouring to find out fit objects of liberality and charity.

14.  Resolved, Never to do any thing out of revenge.

15.  Resolved, Never to suffer the least motions of anger towards irrational beings.

16.  Resolved, Never to speak evil of any one, so that it shall tend to his dishonour, more or less, upon no account except for some real good.

17.  Resolved, That I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.

18. Resolved, To live so, at all times, as I think is best in my most devout frames, and when I have the clearest notions of the things of the gospel, and another world.

19. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do, if I expected it would not be above an hour before I should hear the last trump.

20. Resolved, To maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.

21.  Resolved, Never to do any thing, which if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise him for, or to think any way the ore meanly of him.

22.  Resolved, To endeavour to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigour, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.

23.  Resolved, Frequently to take some deliberate action, which seems most unlikely to be done, for the glory of God, and trace it back to the original intention, designs, and ends of it; and if I find it not to be for God’s glory, to repute it as a breach of the fourth Resolution.

24.  Resolved, Whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then, both carefully endeavour to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.

25.  Resolved, To examine carefully and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and so direct all my forces against it.

26.  Resolved, To cast away such things as I find do abate my assurance.

27.  Resolved, Never wilfully to omit any thing, except the omission be for the glory of God; and frequently to examine my omissions.

28.  Resolved, To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive, myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.

29.  Resolved, Never to count that a prayer, nor to let that pass as a prayer, nor that as a petition of a prayer, which is so made, that I cannot hope that God will answer it; nor that as a confession which I cannot hope God will accept.

30.  Resolved, To strive every week to be brought higher in religion, and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before.

31.  Resolved, Never to say any thing at all against any body, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of christian honour, and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility, and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule; often, when I have said any thing against any one, to bring it to, and try it strictly by, the test of this Resolution.

32.  Resolved, To be strictly and firmly faithful to my trust, that that, in Prov. 20:6. ‘A faithful man, who can find?’ may not be partly fulfilled in me.

33.  Resolved, To do always what I can towards making, maintaining, and preserving peace, when it can be done without an overbalancing detriment in other respects. Dec. 26, 1722.

34.  Resolved, In narrations, never to speak any thing but the pure and simple verity.

35.  Resolved, Whenever I so much question whether I have done my duty, as that my quiet and calm is thereby disturbed, to set it down, and also how the question was resolved. Dec. 18, 1722.

36.  Resolved, Never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call to it. Dec. 19, 1722.

37.  Resolved, To inquire every night, as I am going to bed, wherein I have been negligent,—what sin I have committed,—and wherein I have denied myself;—also, at the end of every week, month, and year. Dec. 22 and 26, 1722.

38.  Resolved, Never to utter any thing that is sportive, or matter of laughter, on a Lord’s day. Sabbath evening, Dec. 23, 1722.

39.  Resolved, Never to do any thing, of which I so much question the lawfulness, as that I intend, at the same time, to consider and examine afterwards, whether it be lawful or not; unless I as much question the lawfulness of the omission.

40.  Resolved, To inquire every night before I go to bed, whether I have acted in the best way I possibly could, with respect to eating and drinking. Jan. 7, 1723.

41.  Resolved, To ask myself, at the end of every day, week, month, and year, wherein I could possibly, in any respect, have done better. Jan. 11, 1723.

42.  Resolved, Frequently to renew the dedication of myself to God, which was made at my baptism, which I solemnly renewed when I was received into the communion of the church, and which I have solemnly re-made this 12th day of January, 1723.

43.  Resolved, Never, henceforward, till I die, to act as if I were any way my own, but entirely and altogether God’s; agreeably to what is to be found in Saturday, Jan. 12th. Jan. 12, 1723.

44.  Resolved, That no other end but religion shall have any influence at all on any of my actions; and that no action shall be, in the least circumstance, any otherwise than the religious end will carry it. Jan. 12, 1723.

45.  Resolved, Never to allow any pleasure or grief, joy or sorrow, nor any affection at all, nor any degree of affection, nor any circumstance relating to it, but what helps religion. Jan. 12 and 13, 1723.

46.  Resolved, Never to allow the least measure of any fretting or uneasiness at my father or mother. Resolved, to suffer no effects of it, so much as in the least alteration of speech, or motion of my eye; and to be especially careful of it with respect to any of our family.

47.  Resolved, To endeavour, to my utmost, to deny whatever is not most agreeable to a good and universally sweet and benevolent, quiet, peaceable, contented and easy, compassionate and generous, humble and meek, submissive and obliging, diligent and industrious, charitable and even, patient, moderate, forgiving, and sincere, temper; and to do, at all times, what such a temper would lead me to; and to examine strictly, at the end of every week, whether I have so done. Sabbath morning, May 5, 1723.

48.  Resolved, Constantly, with the utmost niceness and diligence, and the strictest scrutiny, to be looking into the state of my soul, that I may know whether I have truly an interest in Christ or not; that when I come to die, I may not have any negligence respecting this to repent of. May 26, 1723.

49.  Resolved, That this never shall be, if I can help it.

50.  Resolved, That I will act so, as I think I shall judge would have been best, and most prudent, when I come into the future world. July 5, 1723.

51.  Resolved, That I will act so, in every respect, as I think I shall wish I had done, if I should at last be damned. July 8, 1723.

52.  I frequently hear persons in old age say how they would live, if they were to live their lives over again: Resolved, That I will live just so as I can think I shall wish I had done, supposing I live to old age. July 8, 1723.

53.  Resolved, To improve every opportunity, when I am in the best and happiest frame of mind, to cast and venture my soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in him, and consecrate myself wholly to him; that from this I may have assurance of my safety, knowing that I confide in my Redeemer. July 8, 1723.

54.  Resolved, Whenever I hear anything spoken in commendation of any person, if I think it would be praise-worthy in me, that I will endeavour to imitate it. July 8, 1723.

55.  Resolved, To endeavour, to my utmost, so to act, as I can think I should do, if I had already seen the happiness of heaven and hell torments. July 8, 1723.

56.  Resolved, Never to give over, nor in the least to slacken, my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.

57.  Resolved, When I fear misfortunes and adversity, to examine whether I have done my duty, and resolve to do it, and let the event be just as Providence orders it. I will, as far as I can, be concerned about nothing but my duty and my sin. June 9, and July 13, 1723.

58.  Resolved, Not only to refrain from an air of dislike, fretfulness, and anger in conversation, but to exhibit an air of love, cheerfulness, and benignity. May 27, and July 13, 1723.

59.  Resolved, When I am most conscious of provocations to ill nature and anger, that I will strive most to feel and act good-naturedly; yea, at such times, to manifest good nature, though I think that in other respects it would be disadvantageous, and so as would be imprudent at other times. May 12, July 11, and July 13.

60.  Resolved, Whenever my feelings begin to appear in the least out of order, when I am conscious of the least uneasiness within, or the least irregularity without, I will then subject myself to the strictest examination. July 4 and 13, 1723.

61.  Resolved, That I will not give way to that listlessness which I find unbends and relaxes my mind from being fully and fixedly set on religion, whatever excuse I may have for it—that what my listlessness inclines me to do, is best to be done, &c. May 21, and July 13, 1723.

62.  Resolved, Never to do any thing but my duty, and then, according to Eph. 6:6–8. to do it willingly and cheerfully, as unto the Lord, and not to man: knowing that whatever good thing any man doth, the same shall he receive of the Lord. June 25, and July 13, 1723.

63.  On the supposition, that there never was to be but one individual in the world, at any one time, who was properly a complete Christian, in all respects of a right stamp, having Christianity always shining in its true lustre, and appearing excellent and lovely, from whatever part and under whatever character viewed: Resolved, To act just as I would do, if I strove with all my might to be that one, who should live in my time. Jan. 14, and July 13, 1723.

64.  Resolved, When I find those “groanings which cannot be uttered,” of which the apostle speaks, and those “breathings of soul for the longing it hath,” of which the psalmist speaks, Psalm 119:20. that I will promote them to the utmost of my power; and that I will not be weary of earnestly endeavouring to vent my desires, nor of the repetitions of such earnestness. July 23, and Aug. 10, 1723.

65.  Resolved, Very much to exercise myself in this, all my life long, viz. with the greatest openness of which I am capable, to declare my ways to God, and lay open my soul to him, all my sins, temptations, difficulties, sorrows, fears, hopes, desires, and every thing, and every circumstance, according to Dr. Manton’s Sermon on the cxix Psalm. July 26, and Aug. 10, 1723.

66.  Resolved, That I will endeavour always to keep a benign aspect, and air of acting and speaking, in all places, and in all companies, except it should so happen that duty requires otherwise.

67.  Resolved, After afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them; what good I have got by them; and, what I might have got by them.

68.  Resolved, To confess frankly to myself, all that which I find in myself, either infirmity or sin; and, if it be what concerns religion, also to confess the whole case to God, and implore needed help. July 23, and August 10, 1723.

69.  Resolved, Always to do that, which I shall wish I had done when I see others do it. Aug. 11, 1723.

70.  Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak. Aug. 17, 1723.”

 

[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), lxii–lxiv.

Virtue Lists in the New Testament

Virtue Lists?

In the Bible there are several famous virtue lists. A virtue list is exactly what is sounds like, a list of positive traits in sequence as a description of the good life.

As a part of Scripture, the New Testament virtue lists are easy to overlook and if you misunderstand God’s grace, they can seem overly moralistic.

Here are some examples:

  1. 2 Peter 1:5-7
  2. Galatians 5:22-23
  3. James 3:17-18

Helpful Theses:

I have some theses that might help us interpret the virtue lists in the New Testament.

  1. The virtue lists are meant to be over-interpreted
    There is a time and a place for lengthy ethical argument, and in several places the New Testament engages in this (with respect to items of ritual usually in Hebrews, Romans, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians). But usually, in the New Testament, general ethical principles are usually assumed rather than explained. This makes sense because the people to whom the New Testament was written would have been taught Christian ethics at length in other settings. The letters were meant to convince the audiences of particular ideas or at least to revive consciousness amongst the churches of the love the apostles had for them. Because the lists are examples of rhetoric and not dialectic (in Aristotle’s parlance), they are almost certainly meant to be “hooked-in” to more direct teaching about Christian character which happened orally. In other words: the virtue lists are meant to be over-interpreted, insofar as a minimal possible meaning is not sufficient for lists appearing in such a context.
  1. There are limits to this over interpretation or, look for part of the “why” this virtue appeared around the place it appeared.
    The virtue lists are limited in meaning by the context in which they appear and the apparent milieu of the author/original audience of the letter. But that doesn’t mean that the individual words are limited to one technical meaning.
  1. The lists are hooks for hanging Biblical festoons
    In early Christianity, there was a great deal of oral tradition at work. Think about it. There were Old Testament quotations, Jesus stories, Jesus sayings, apostolic sayings, second temple rabbinic sayings and so-on. If it is true that this was the case (it is) and that the teaching efforts of early Christian leaders were as in-depth as Acts 20:7-9 indicates, then it would appear that all of the above Biblical background is intentionally being called to mind with virtue lists of this sort. We cannot always know, with certainty, which stories, Proverbs, or extended themes are being called to mind. But the more familiar we are with the Old Testament, the Deuterocanonical books (they’re in the Old Testament if you’re not Protestant), and the four gospels, then the more the lists can do their duty by calling to mind moral exemplars and failures in the Bible.
  1. Mediterranean moralists matter
    Similarly, the background of some words in these lists is best found in the works of Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Marcus Aurelius, Cicero, Quintilian, and so-on. Such ancient moralists and rhetoricians often explained the virtues in exacting detail in terms of individual psychological states and social ramifications. While the apostles or their churches may not have been thinking explicitly in such terms, they were part of the culture that these writers were trying to describe and that these authors influenced.
  1. Such lists are hooks for contemporary application
    Finally, these lists are meant to be explained and recalled not only in terms of the fullness of their meaning, but in terms of their contemporary application. If somebody memorized the fruit of the Spirit, they would almost certainly have thought of that list in terms of the character of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus about love, the importance of being peaceable amongst brothers, and the cruciality of self-denial. But they also would have thought of the list in terms of how to behave today and tomorrow and how to plan ahead to have such character traits.

Example: Self-Control (Galatians 5:23)

  1. Paul encourages self-control to people who are confused about the nature of the Old Testament Law and its relationship to the gospel message. Ultimately, Paul says that the highest part of the Old Testament Law (love your neighbor) is a central part of gospel teaching and therefore Christians who do not obey the other Old Testament laws regarding food, ceremony, and civil jurisprudence still can be said to fulfill the law. So, Paul points out that one of the results of living in line with the gospel message (fruit of the Spirit) is self-control. Paul does this for two reasons:
    1. He really thinks that living in line with his teaching and with a group of believers will/does result in self-control.
    2. He wishes to remind them that self-control is worthy to be sought and obtained.
  2. In terms of the Old Testament and later traditions, self-control goes all the way back to the story of Cain and Abel, wherein the Lord tells Cain that he must master sin, lest it consume him. King David was both a paragon of self-control in his dealings with Saul and a failure in his dealings with Uriah and Bathsheba. Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and the later wisdom tradition all give encomiums to the self-controlled individual. Here is an example, “…greater is he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. (Proverbs 16:23)”
  3. It goes without saying that a great deal of Stoic writing was about the importance of self-control, the only source was one’s mind and will and the only goals were personal contentment and city-state harmony. For the Christian, the ground and goal are God, but this does not mean that the Stoic reflections have nothing instructive within them. In fact, Aristotle makes self-control itself the central trait for becoming a functional person.
  4. Next, when thinking through all of these angles, start thinking through the contemporary ramifications of having no self-control (look up statistics on hours spent watching Television, calories eaten, pornography watched, and so-on). One might also think of which Old Testament persona he or she wishes to emulate in the face of these temptations. Similarly, one might imagine a community in which everybody exhibited a behavior and ask whether or not that community would be pleasing to God’s Spirit. We might even then begin to think about which circumstances to avoid in order to prevent temptation due to weak self-control and what exercises of self-denial, prayer, and confession might help us to increase in this most central of virtues.

Conclusion:

The virtue lists serve a variety of rhetorical and dialectical functions, but their main function is to help Christians obtain Christ-likeness through the provision of abstract traits with multiple specific applications.

Don’t Pray When Tempted?

We all know that prayer is a great tool for spiritual growth and in some ways it is the method and even the goal of the Christian life. But is there ever a time in the Christian life in which prayer is not the go-to tool? In a book on Greek Orthodox spirituality, the author recounted a conversation that was shocked me:

“There is a detail we must keep in mind in reference to the repetition of the Prayer as a method of overcoming the logismoi, [word for spiritually disturbing thought]” Father Maximos said softly as we turned back to where the car was parked. “A person should not resort directly to the Prayer immediately after being assaulted by troublesome logismoi.” “Why not?” I asked puzzled. “I know that what I am about to say may sound paradoxical. But an automatic recourse to the Prayer could have the opposite effects. It may lead a person to extreme psychic turmoil and to a loss of self-mastery. Old Paisios used to tell us that when confronted with a logismos, whoever resorts to repeating the Prayer very rapidly resembles a terrified soldier in the heat of battle. He holds his rifle tight to his chest, paralyzed with fear. To reassure himself that he is not afraid he repeats ’Holy Virgin help me, Holy Virgin help me.’ And he shakes from head to toe, sitting there completely immobilized and unable to fight or even to breathe.” Father Maximos laughed. “That reminds me,” he mused, “of the dentist we had on Mount Athos. The moment he would take a look into our mouths he would sigh, start crossing himself, and begin lamenting. ’Holy Virgin! May you help us. May God place His hand here.’ “Before a person begins to pray, when confronted with a troublesome logismos, a rational mastery over the situation must be developed. Again, if at all possible, the best way is to employ the strategy of complete indifference.1

When I first read this I was taken aback. But then it hit me, Jesus says to pray for God to protect us from temptations when we go to pray (Matthew 6:9-13). But his instruction to his disciples when it comes to sin is to ‘deny yourself.’ Not only so, but St. Peter’s instruction to disciples is to “be sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). Later in the same letter, being sober-minded is connected with resisting Satan’s temptations! Sober-minded, rational mastery over temptation is what we do for our prayers.

It would seem that having rational mastery over your emotions, your deepest desires, and the things which tempt you to sin is precisely the remedy to temptation in the moment. And one of the chief strategies of overcoming self-defeating thoughts is to distract yourself. The same, it seems, applies sinful thoughts in general.

It makes sense. While we should pray for God’s help in all things, asking God to help us overcome a temptation when we’re not trying to remove ourselves from its presence, master its cause in our hearts, or arrange our lives to exclude sin is like praying for good health while eating donuts. It seems doubtful that the Lord would help us to do anything we don’t care to accomplish. Overcoming sin is no different, we cannot simply pray for repentance, we must obey the command to repent.

References

1. Markides, Kyriacos. The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality (p. 139). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Abba Joseph, Beetle Kings, and Jesus

This little piece from the desert Fathers helpfully illustrates Matthew 5:14-16:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my Little Office. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else am I to do?” “What else,” Abba Lot says, “can I do?” Then the old man stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Jesus, in the passage mentioned, challenges his disciples to be the light of the world. Abba Joseph above tells Abba Lot, “If you will [desire to be a light], you can become all flame.”

But to will the destruction of our most cherished unnatural impulses can be hard.

I want comfort. I want my way. I want my space to myself, my time to myself, my feelings to myself, my whatever.

But Jesus is already the light of the world. So, why not become all flame? Aaron Weiss from mewithoutYou asks that question in his song, “The King Beetle on the Coconut Estate.