The Rage of Virtue

This article popped up in the L.A. Times this morning, much to my surprise. That […]

This article popped up in the L.A. Times this morning, much to my surprise. That exploding ethnic tensions in China are just now hitting the news is testament to that particular government’s ability to (at least mostly) control the message coming out of the country. How amazing (tragic?)!
Anyway, the politics of the free society is not what I am interested in right now. What interests me are the ideas of virtue, ethnicity, culture, and what Christianity has to say about it.
Human beings are always trying to claim some sort of inherent virtue for purposes of self-justification. It doesn’t matter what country, society, or culture they are from. This, the Bible calls “sin” and it is universal. It transcends ethnicity, culture, skin pigment, social class, economic class, gender, position, and any criteria you care to mention. It includes both Western jingoism and Western self-loathing. African tribalism and Asian shame. Shiite Islamism and Shiite secular environmentalism. Everything is based on inherent virtue. I have it and you don’t. Therefore, you deserve justice and I deserve my reward. Aristotle is indeed the theologian of the natural man.
Take a second to read Romans 3:10-18 and see what St. Paul has to say about inherent virtue. Or Romans 7 (if you might be led to believe that a Christian is inherently better than a non-believer).

Listen to this excerpt from the article: “A giggling teenage girl carried a board with a rusty nail protruding from it.” How chilling. This could be a character from Dostoevsky. Or, even better, the character Vengeance from the Charles Dickens work A Tale of Two Cities. The wrath of human virtue mixed with the grievance and confusion of a little girl.

Just remember how that book ended, though. A man forgotten in the pages of the epic; a man of very little consequence in the eyes of the world; a man rejected… substituted himself for a condemned man (the one we most identify with in the book) and submitted himself to that wrath. A sublime picture of God’s denial of inherent human virtue and His purchase of us, regardless of our condition of needing self-justification at every moment.
ยท In another (but related) note, take a look at Mark Galli’s terrific opinion piece in Christianity Today. It is true fresh air in a cloudy era of Evangelical confusion over the Gospel. Read the comments, too, if you dare. It will give you an idea of where things stand right now.
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23 responses to “The Rage of Virtue”

  1. Sean Norris says:


    Fantastic post! Mark Galli's article was perfect, and the comments were truly horrifying. The fact that some called his article "sick and disgusting" just made my stomach fall to my feet. The old man does not like to be faced with its own bound state. We are a sorry lot if indeed Christianity is about our behavior.

    Anyhow, loved the post man!


  2. David Browder says:


    I saw at least one Thomist professor comment on the article negatively. I'm telling you, this Christianity/Aristotle potion is deadly. And it is roaring back into favor with all the ecumenism going on. Virtue ethics gone wild. Christianity is no longer distinctive from anything else.


  3. paul says:

    I think this post by Browder is terrific (Can he write a non-uplifting post? Don't think so.), and the Galli piece is too piercing for words.
    Thank you!

  4. Michael says:

    Only remember this: the self-righteous are operating out of bound wills just as much as the more "lovable" sinners. That sometimes helps me not to hate their guts, but not often.

  5. Joshua Corrigan says:

    Wonderful David. I've email the Galli piece to nearly everyone I know. Thanks

  6. Joshua Corrigan says:

    I couldn't resist sharing this comment from the Galli article from a "former evangelical". Sounds like he was burned by some misguided promises:

    @Bill "If Gali's message is our witness to the world, there is little reason for the world to want it." I absolutely agree with this sentiment, and as a former Evangelical I find this article to be highly revealing. I'm not here to bash or be smug, but I can say that my own de-conversion was highly influenced by the cycle described in this article. Believers try to live a holy life, fall short, pray for forgiveness, and repeat. There is nothing wrong with this, but claiming the moral high ground while admittedly "falling short of the glory of God" smacks of hypocrisy. "The Good News" just became an empty assertion to me after a while. I'm much happier now, but life is of course rarely easy.

    So telling…

  7. David Browder says:

    Josh, I read that comment and it was really insightful. Interesting that that guy is still reading Christianity Today, huh?

    Michael, I wasn't going after self-righteousness primarily. I was going after "virtue" as that by which we can present ourselves before God and man as worthy. It's the difference between "progress to the telos" and "The Telos" actually coming to us and giving Himself for us when we are paralyzed.

    Self-righteousness is just a by-product of the theology of the natural man. It cannot be helped. I'm not as mad (presently) with the self-righteous as I am with the theologians who thought Christianity and Aristotle's ethics could be synchronized.

  8. David Browder says:

    By the way, the consensus over at Christianity Today is that the Gospel gets 2 1/2 out of 5 stars. Ominous tidings.

  9. StampDawg says:

    OK, I have to admit that DB's last comment:

    "The consensus at Christianity Today is that the Gospel gets 2 1/2 out of 5 stars"

    is probably the funniest thing I have heard in a while.

  10. John Zahl says:

    Hey David, you wrote:

    "I wasn't going after self-righteousness primarily. I was going after "virtue" as that by which we can present ourselves before God and man as worthy. It's the difference between "progress to the telos" and "The Telos" actually coming to us and giving Himself for us when we are paralyzed.

    Self-righteousness is just a by-product of the theology of the natural man. It cannot be helped. I'm not as mad (presently) with the self-righteous as I am with the theologians who thought Christianity and Aristotle's ethics could be synchronized."

    I couldn't agree more. I think the Book of Common Prayer rephrases the same sentiment/dynamic more succinctly in the following words:

    "Not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses."

  11. David Browder says:

    That is about as succinct and sublime as it gets, John. Viva la Cranmer.

  12. Michael says:

    David, You write: "I wasn't going after self-righteousness primarily. I was going after "virtue" as that by which we can present ourselves before God and man as worthy."

    If thinking we can "present ourselves before God and man as worthy" is not "self-righteousness", then I guess I don't know what the word means.

  13. David Browder says:

    No, Michael. I was talking about pushing virtue forth as the law instead of the law. My point is that virtue ethics do great violence to the law which, in turn, does great violence to the Gospel.

    The outflow of virtue ethics is self-righteousness. It is the brain hemmorhage that causes the nosebleed.

  14. Michael says:

    David, My point is that those who push what you call "virtue ethics" are doing so because they are not free to do otherwise. They are operating with "bound wills" and "virtue ethics" or "self-righteousness" is simply how that bound will manifests itself in their lives, in the same way that, say, sleeping with teenage girls does with Woody Allen. Woody Allen needs a word of grace, not judgment; but so do the "self-righteous" or, "those who advocate virtue ethics." I see loads of grace around here for the Woody Allens of the world, the cool sinners, but I don't see any for the uncool, self-righteous sinners, who are equally in need of grace. All I see for them is judgment, judgment, judgment. I am all for grace, even for our fellow professing Christians.

  15. David Browder says:

    What I was trying to do is point out how much the natural man craves virtue ethics. I beat up on cool sinners, too. "Western self-loathing" and "Shiite environmentalism" (which I remembered from the South Park episode "Smug"). I didn't think I left anyone out or picked on anyone in particular.

    It wasn't a piece about grace toward sinners. It was a comparison of human anthropology and Christology, if you will. The assertion of the self via virtue vs. the emptying of the self/sacrifice of he self which results from embodying love (which, actually what the law is… except, in Him, it is not law, but His nature).

    Certainly, one then is led to understand that the self-sacrifice came for the former who were and are still trying to justify themselves by virtue. I don't think I discriminated on who benefitted from that.

    But that was not the main point. The main point was trying to understand the nature of human beings; a topic I'm trying to work out in my mind.

    Now, the CT article was just a freebie. Obviously, I agree with the author of that and some of the comments are quite disturbing. I encountered not a little of that in seminary and, well, I'll take my allies where I can find them.

  16. Michael says:

    David, My point is not that you failed to beat up on everyone, but that beating up on people does them no good, and does nothing to put them in contact with the grace of God that they so need. And no one needs that grace more than those Christians who have written those awful comments to the wonderful CT article you mention. But I don't have it in me to show those pricks ANY grace, I just want to say to hell with them all. But maybe in some tiny way Jesus can show his grace to them Through me, and IN SPITE OF me, and that I might whisper in some very flawed way, his word of grace from the cross… forgive them all, even the most self-deluded advocates of "virtue ethics."

  17. David Browder says:

    I imagine, when God speaks to someone, it'll have to be by more than just through me. I can talk about grace until I'm blue in the face and it'll only land in those who have been exposed by the law or some huge crisis that levels ethics.

    Certainly, there's a sense of virtue I have in understanding what I understand is the Gospel. I'm not blind to that at all (well, maybe a little…).

    In fact, I had an inane argument with a guy yesterday about sanctification when I was supposed to be helping a nice lady with a children's Sunday School lesson. The argument, in my mind, was all about me (of course) and I felt terrible afterward.

    I think one of the lost insights here is the inability of the adherents of virtue ethics to see their sin.

    You have read where Jesus both thunders against the Pharisees (I come not to call the righteous, but sinners… I come for the one lost sheep and not the 99 righteous) and yet laments (How I would have gathered you under my wings like chicks, but you would not…) over them. It seems that he almost casts them aside (remember the elder brother in Luke 15 never gets into the house, unlike the sheep, coin, and prodigal).

    He even explains the law to them and backs it up with miracles. They would not hear, so the Friend of Sinners went to go find some sinners. My point, here, being that virtue ethics are deadly in that the replace the law in the minds of the adherents and, thus, judge themselves favorably.

    How can you preach the Gospel when the law has been so thoroughly butchered and loopholed? What does the Gospel even mean then?That's the key to the whole thing. The law and the human bondage to dodging it.

  18. Michael says:

    But the final word of Jesus to the Pharisees was the word of grace and forgiveness from the cross. Jesus came to save even them, and Peter's first sermon in Acts was total unloopholed law and total forgiveness to those Pharisees who had just crucified the Lord of Glory out of pure self-righteous hatred. And that final word of grace from Jesus and from Peter was the break-through point for them. No one can see themselves for what they really are if they don't see that there is forgiveness and grace to cover who they really are, and that is particularly true for the person whose besetting sin is self-righteousness. So speaking a word of grace to the self-righteous that is real and true and comes out of real love I think can be a good thing. Maybe our words are close to nothing, but if we really thought that, why do we bother with this blog?

  19. David Browder says:

    No question the last word was forgiveness from the cross. They just didn't think they had anything to be forgiven for.

    And, if we're going chronologically, Paul was pretty rough on the Judaizers, Peter, and the followers of James for butchering the message. And pretty rough on the Galatians for buying into it, if I recall correctly.

  20. Michael says:

    Only one more thing and then I am finished: Just talking "about" grace to someone is a far, far different thing than talking to someone with grace and out of grace. One is just grace sermonizing, the other is love.

  21. David Browder says:

    No question. And I think if you saw the majority of folks here interacting with other Christians of all stripes, you would see just that.

    I wasn't attracted to the grace message just because it was intellectually coherent. To me, just going through life, taking my lumps and wondering what in the hell was going on was the only intellectually coherent thing I could think of.

    I was attracted to the grace message because I was shown the law and recognized it, by the grace of God. And I just don't see any problem with contending for it, theologically.

    And trying to understand why people/the church misunderstand the law and how that affects Christianity is a worthy pursuit, in my opinion.

    And, yes, a lot of my arguments come from a place of sin/self-assertion, like it did yesterday. I can't argue objectively, I admit. I can be harsh sometimes, I admit.

    But there is nothing I love seeing more than a deeply wounded person, prodigal or elder brother, visibly begin to understand the Gospel. I literally live for it. And when someone comes along and puts them back under karma/Aristotle/conditions, I get angry. As you do, I know. Because we know that love and freedom create love and freedom.

    It is then when I have no problem sticking a needle in the virtue balloon.

  22. Michael says:

    David, I lied, this is my last word: You, like moi, have a Scot-Irish bark, but, unlike me, you've got a heart of pure love.

  23. David Browder says:

    Michael, I don't know what to say. That's a great thing to hear from someone I respect and love.

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