The Virtues and Vices of N.T. Wright’s After You Believe

Apparently, the original title of N.T. Wright’s After You Believe was Virtue Reborn, changed for […]

Will McDavid / 7.24.13

virtuerebornApparently, the original title of N.T. Wright’s After You Believe was Virtue Reborn, changed for marketing purposes in the US. It’s difficult to understand this change, except perhaps that the American Church tends toward being sanctification-heavy, and purpose-driven, and the promise of a ‘Step 2’ to follow the ‘Step 1’ of belief must be attractive to us. A danger here is that the US marketing pressures almost presupposes a tendency of this audience to misinterpret the book as a how-to; this is, to a degree, how it’s being sold. But, with that out of the way, we’ll consider the book (hopefully) on its own merits.

Rudolf Bultmann, in his critique of German Liberalism, views it first as a type of historical fundamentalism. The new “liberal” theologians were searching history for the more authentic basis for their faith in the historical Jesus. The problem, for Bultmann (following Barth), is that whenever God’s revelation becomes confined to any field readily accessible/investigable to humans, we become the final arbiters of its truth ourselves. Thus fundamentalism (historical, biblical, etc) is always a hair’s breadth from relativism. The development of German Liberal theology bears this out.

What is the field of God’s revelation for the contemporary church? It’s still unmediated spiritual experience for Pentecostals, still the Bible (viewed mathematically) for many Evangelical non-denominational churches, but the world of virtue is fast on the rise as a Christian fixation. Meaning, what virtues must one develop to flourish personally? How does this personal flourishing contribute to the life of the city? How do you be a kingdom-dweller in the here and now? How do you be an “image-bearer”? Generally, dry rule-keeping legalism is pitted against unbridled antinomianism as alternatives in the life of faith, and the third way becomes the development of virtue. N.T. Wright’s After You Believe represents the modern virtue preoccupation at, or near, its very best, i.e. best-articulated and most tightly developed.

But it’s difficult to see the new virtue thought-system as anything but a closed-off science of its own — that is to say, a purely immanent field of thought which humans may master. To evaluate this, we’ll have to go back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the seminal work in Greek virtue thought, as well as one of Wright’s principle sources.

Aristotle first put to writing the famous formulation that actions produce habits, and habits produce character traits. This could seem but a science of self-improvement were it not for two things – one temporal, the other less so. First, that the Ethics has a strongly political bent, and its concern with laws and right governance makes it difficult to view it as a how-to manual for developing virtue in yourself. Second, and more importantly, the Ethics is deeply concerned with man’s telos, which is not (as Wright says) “a fully flourishing human being.” Or at least it’s not that simple. Wright and Aristotle would agree that the telos of the Ethics is eudaemonia, or happiness/flourishing. But for Aristotle, this happiness is of a very particular type: it is contemplation (Greek theoria) of Truth, and thus always outward-directed (NE, X, 7-9). Though the virtue of wisdom (which is admittedly intertwined with the others) is required for contemplation, contemplation is an end in and of itself.

folk_941_imageWright misses this, and there would be nothing wrong with the omission were theoria not such a crucial part of the Christian tradition. Wright is not the first Christian author to deal with Aristotle, and his “virtue” book is taking a very different line from that of the tradition in taking Aristotle’s ultimate aim to be a certain state of character (as opposed to theoria, which Aristotle is quite clear is his goal), and in taking the Christian’s ultimate aim to be the same. Orthodox iconography, Catholic sacraments, and Luther’s “hearing” have one thing in common: a receptive experience of God which instantiates and foreshadows our ultimate aim, the contemplation of God. The conclusion of the New Testament’s eschatological vision (Revelation 21-22:5) makes this clear. Wright’s misinterpretation of Aristotle and concomitant disregard for the Aristotelian tradition within Christianity lead to a human-centered view in which (ontic) virtue becomes absolute.  His eschatology helps make sense of this move.

One of Wright’s best contributions has been his advocacy of embodied eschatology, over-against the pie-in-the-sky, disembodied, ethereal bliss that has predominated Western evangelicalism recently: “God has promised to give the entire world, the whole created order, a complete makeover[…] We will be given new bodies in which to live in delight and power in God’s new world” (31, see also Surprised by Hope). This is a good position to advocate as a counterbalance to disembodied eschatology, but it risks serious anthropomorphism. Orthodox theology has generally agreed with Wright’s view of the resurrection, with qualifiers.

In the Protestant tradition, to simplify a bit, an apophatic reluctance to speak about the final resurrection acts as a break on anthropomorphism. Calvin said that the excellence of this resurrection is something about which “scarcely the minutest part can be described by all that human tongues can say […] the things meant by those words remain most remote from sense, and as it were involved in enigma, until the day arrive on which he will manifest his glory to us face to face” (Institutes III, 25, 10, trans. Beveridge). Similarly, Barth’s eschatology focuses on the in-breaking of a word wholly beyond our words; eschatology itself is the ultimate ‘No’ to any of humanity’s theological words.


Catholicism has scarcely more to say about eschatology, but inasmuch as it speaks, it has often placed the emphasis precisely on seeing God face-to-face. Heaven is contemplative; in seeing God we will be made like Him and we will exist in a continual state of being drawn outside of ourselves (ecstasy) by His glory. Thus, whatever human activity may look like in the new creation (or more properly, renewal of creation), the contemplation of God will always be the prime joy.

Wright’s more anthropomorphic interpreters have sometimes made it look like glorified arts ‘n crafts. Virtue Reborn itself says that the vision of Revelation 5 is one of “the heavenly dimension of present earthly reality”. As if earthly life is the norm, or measure, for “what we will be”, which even the New Testament author admits “has not yet been revealed” (1 Jn 3:2)! The extrapolation of earthly culture into heaven in nothing less than Babel, and Revelation’s New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven, is a clear juxtaposition to our efforts, our culture-making. It is to remake earth in the image of an unrevealed heaven, not vice-versa.

So what do we know of heaven, according to 1 John 3? Verse 2 continues, “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” The vision of God – this is the only source for any real transformation. And indeed, his failure in interpreting Aristotle is under-developing contemplation. As noted above, this contemplation is actually a keystone of the Ethics and, appropriately, a keystone of many Christian theologians who have appropriated Aristotle. Without contemplation, however, virtue becomes a science for its own sake; the end, that is, is in ourselves. If it isn’t in ourselves, then the end may be human flourishing during the new creation, or preparedness for it, in which case Wright falls theologically more liberal than even Bultmann, who still affirmed that all speech about God (and especially about eschatology) is sin, and that we cannot presume too much insight into that world. Wright’s eschatology is a partial truth; without the contemplative aspect, eschatology (the ultimate check on anthropomorphism) becomes exactly what Feuerbach believed it to be.

But what does it mean to say that virtue is a science? Only that, lacking Aristotle’s ecstatic element, it tends toward becoming something wholly immanent – which, of course, it is. In being scientific, it is peculiarly modern, and tends toward liberal theology (see eschatology above). Without contemplation, virtue becomes a technique fully available for human investigation: in the new science of virtue, we perhaps have “a pseudo-eternity of mere spatial permanence which, unlike genuine eternity, is exhaustively available to the human gaze […] things which are preservable and manageable as finite, and therefore as ‘dead’” (C. Pickstock). Anything without openness to change, without contemplation – that is, without Christianity’s necessary aesthetic dimension – is a closed circle and, as closed, it is dead.


“The Spirit blows where it will” (John 4). Any attempt to codify virtue, explain how we develop it by choosing, and to extrapolate its use into eternity tends to evacuate the Spirit, the agent of spontaneity and genuine love.

Finally, there’s a more fundamental and more serious issue at stake, which is whether or not virtue can be developed, or whether it’s burdensome and un-pastoral and, indeed, supremely impractical to urge it on another person. Wright’s “new perspective on Paul” allows him to answer with a resounding ‘yes.’ The Law is ethnically abrogated and (as far as I can tell) abrogated somewhat with respect to justification. For the life of believer, it is still very much in effect.

So the march of virtue continues on, actions forming habits and habits character, and (again, as far as I can tell) the Holy Spirit remains a supremely useful accessory. Now we see dimly as in a mirror, but not too dimly if theological aesthetics are confined largely to the beauty of Christ-mimicking virtue development within the human world and its flourishing. Between Wright’s eschatology, his new look at Paul, his justification by faith and (sort of) works too, and his somewhat circumscribed account of virtue, the theology is remarkably cogent and, biblically speaking at least, very tenable. The surprise is how eagerly Calvinists, Lutherans, or Catholics are to take it up, with presuppositions that, in places, depart from their own traditions radically.

The effort to revive Greek virtue ethics as a decisive element of Christianity is an admirable one but, for me at least, there’s too few checks on or questionings of virtue to prevent it from becoming a wonderful Step 2, to be taken after you (conclusively) believe (Mk 9:24, 1 Cor 13:12).

Belief is always partial, however, and the mirror we see through is impenetrably dim. Virtue is real – Christians must affirm this – and good habits, if undertaken for the right reasons, will reinforce (or even build) something akin to virtue. But our good habits always fall woefully short, and to ignore this is to put an intolerable burden on the Christian believer. Our anthropology, as with the Church, has become way too high, and this is a reason many are leaving.


For Plato and, to an extent, Aristotle, virtue comes from knowing the good, from seeing truth and understanding it, participating in it. And Christianity has always affirmed that love is an act of vision: the vision of an incarnate Christ, coming to our side of the mirror and opening his arms in full acceptance and love of an irrevocably un-virtuous people.

Do we ever change for the better? Become more virtuous? Certainly, but it is always under the sign of struggle, of the Cross. Augustine’s memoir of his life’s journey, Flaubert’s St. Julian, Tolstoy’s Father Sergius, Dostoevsky’s Idiot or Dmitri, Shakespeare’s penitent Lear, the innumerable testimonies of Alcoholics Anonymous – the religious world is full of true examples of positive virtue, but only as the fruit of guilt and grace, suffering and realized limitation, confession and repentance, and those rare, incoercible moments of knowing you are known and loved, sinner and righteous, fallen and redeemed.

As the love of Christ is the starting-point, so it is also the end. Virtue itself is good, but virtue development is self-conscious and therefore disingenuous. Like Daphne, it turns still and lifeless the moment you try to grasp it. In practice, focusing on your own ‘character’ tends to undermine the realities of bound wills and spiritual frustrations that must always be the starting points of grace. And though virtue may persist into the new creation, there is only one that Christ himself says will not be taken away: the “one needful thing” (Lk 10:42) – to know oneself to be justified and loved as sinner by God himself and, God-willing, to “see his face.”


*  [side note] It’s great that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a prominent source for the book, but Hamlet was (a) depressed/suicidal and (b) a character, and thus can’t be taken as Shakespeare’s own mouthpiece in the virtue debate. He didn’t treat Ophelia particularly well either, and it’s quite possible that his obsession with morality and blindness to his defects is a reason why his noble (!) mind becomes “o’erthrown.” There were wise fools and blinded men and prophetesses for Shakespeare to use as mouthpieces when he wanted – Hamlet’s speech is inseparable from his character, context, and eventual fall. On the subject, though, virtue advice is satirized in the long-winded and frankly unbearable Polonius, whose speeches of life advice are completely ineffectual to the play’s tragic course of events and are laughably self-indulgent. And Hamlet himself is destroyed by his moral idealism and self-expectation as much as by circumstance. Hamlet does work very well as an exploration of virtue’s limitations and the realities of the compromised will.