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By Ryan Griffith — 3 months ago
We, body and spirit, have desires that are at odds with one another until Christ our Lord comes to help. He places the jewels of the virtues in their proper places — and in the place of sin, he builds the courts of his temple. He makes for the soul ornaments from its dark past to delight Wisdom as she reigns forever on her glorious throne. (Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, Psychomachia)
To those of us accustomed to a wide array of rich resources for discipleship, lists of vices and virtues might seem rudimentary. In fact, we tend to view lists that say “do this” or “don’t do that” as legalistic obstacles to spiritual formation. But dismissing the seven virtues and their related vices would be to abandon centuries of profound theological and pastoral reflection. To understand their history is to take a large step toward recovering their value.
From Martyrdom to Monasticism
The church underwent massive transformation as Christianity transitioned from a persecuted sect to the predominant religion of the Roman Empire.
For much of the first two centuries of the church’s existence, the Roman government regarded Christianity as an illegitimate religion. Professing faith in Christ, therefore, was a sober and serious commitment. Christians faced episodic persecution by the empire and were occasionally publicly executed as martyrs. Because of these dangers, candidates for membership in the early church were rigorously examined to ensure a clear understanding of the gospel and prepare them for the possibility of martyrdom.
The situation changed markedly under emperor Constantine the Great (reign 306–337), who declared tolerance of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in AD 313. As Christianity became more acceptable and the ranks of the church swelled with new converts, the task of discipleship became more difficult. The threat of death by martyrdom no longer protected the church from insincere professions. This resulted in assemblies that neglected basic Christian discipleship and biblical spirituality. In some cases, churches looked as decadent as the surrounding culture.
Men and women arrested by the call of Scripture to live in holiness and service to others found it increasingly difficult to do so in a church in cultural captivity. Many of them established new communities outside of urban centers where they committed themselves to generosity, Scripture memory, worship, and prayer. The monastic movement became the new martyrdom — committed believers gave up wealth and prestige to bear witness for Christ in lives of radical self-sacrifice and personal holiness.
It was in this setting of intense disciple-making that virtue and vice lists were freshly developed.
Diagnosing the Disease
In their decades of caring for members of monastic communities, leaders like Evagrius of Pontus (346–399) and his disciple, John Cassian (360–430), sought to understand the patterns in sin and temptation.1 The most enduring and comprehensive account of these patterns emerged with the teaching of Gregory the Great (540–604), the bishop of Rome. As a monk, Gregory traced the many permutations of sin to seven “heads” that branched from the root of pride:
For pride is the root of all evil, of which it is said, as Scripture bears witness: Pride is the beginning of all sin. But seven principal vices, as its first progeny, spring doubtless from this poisonous root; namely, vainglory, envy, anger, melancholy, avarice, gluttony, lust. For, because He grieved that we were held captive by these seven sins of pride, therefore our Redeemer came to the spiritual battle of our liberation, full of the spirit of sevenfold grace.2
“Understanding the seven ‘capital’ sins was critical to diagnosing disordered affections in the Christian life.”
Understanding the pathology of the seven “capital” (from Latin caput, “head”) sins — how all other sin branched from these heads — was critical to diagnosing disordered affections in the Christian life.3 But diagnosis of the disease only goes so far. Following the pattern of Scripture, the church also sought to find ways to capture the virtues that characterize new life in Christ.
Applying a Remedy
The term “virtue” comes from the Latin translation (virtus) of the Greek word meaning “moral excellence” (aretē). For centuries, Greek philosophy consistently identified four virtues as central to a life of moral excellence: prudence (wisdom), justice, temperance (self-control), and fortitude (courage).
These four virtues not only appeared in Aristotle’s (384–322 BC) Nicomachean Ethics and Plato’s (c. 427–347 BC) Republic, but also in intertestamental literature like The Wisdom of Solomon — a book that was included by Alexandrian Jews in first century BC editions of the Greek translation of the Old Testament.4 According to Wisdom 8:7, “If anyone loves righteousness, her labors are virtues (aretai); for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for men than these.”
Christian leaders like Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397) thought the four classical virtues reflected what the Scriptures taught as the “cardinal” excellencies upon which all other moral virtues in the Christian life hinged (Latin cardo means “hinge”).5 They added to these the three transcendent “theological” virtues identified by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13: “So faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Augustine (354–430) argued that the four cardinal virtues ultimately grew out of the greatest theological virtue, love:
. . . temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it. The object of this love is not anything, but only God, the chief good, the highest wisdom, the perfect harmony. So we may express the definition thus: that temperance is love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God; fortitude is love bearing everything readily for the sake of God; justice is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else, as subject to man; prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it.6
Foils for the Deadly Sins
Thus, a tension emerged between the seven deadly sins and the seven heavenly virtues. The virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and love) did not clearly oppose an opposite deadly sin (vainglory, envy, anger, melancholy, avarice, gluttony, and lust).
Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348–c. 410) recognized this tension and saw the pastoral benefit of assigning opposing virtues as foils for each of the deadly sins. In Psychomachia, a graphic poem in the style of Virgil’s (70–19 BC) Aeneid, Prudentius squares off each of Cassian’s vices with the personified biblical virtue that could defeat it in the Christian’s battle for holiness. In the poem, as in the life of the believer, vainglory is defeated by humility, lust by chastity, anger by patience, and so on. The idea sprang from biblical teaching: the command to put off sin is grounded in the call to put on Christ — to walk by his Spirit and so bear spiritual fruit (Galatians 3:27; 5:16–24). Christians fight the schemes of their adversary clothed in gospel armor and equipped with spiritual weaponry (Ephesians 6:10–20). Additionally, the New Testament almost always places the characteristics of true spirituality alongside the descriptions of the sins the believer is to flee.7
Nevertheless, despite the widespread influence of Prudentius’s poem in the medieval period, the seven heavenly virtues — not a list of opposing virtues to contrast the deadly sins — endured as a lasting framework for spiritual formation.
Framework for Spiritual Formation
Writing for the instruction of fellow Dominican monks, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) gave extensive attention to the nature of virtue and how it functioned in the life of the Christian. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas argued that virtues are habitual dispositions — patterns of mind and heart that bring about good actions, especially by preventing our impulsive desires from taking us to sin’s opposite extremes.8 The virtue of temperance, for example, guards the appetite against gluttony on the one hand and abstinence on the other. Similarly, fortitude fears neither danger nor labor.9
“Christians act in virtuous ways because of the regenerating power and sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit.”
Aquinas also argued that Christian virtue was more than the Greek philosophers’ quest for self-improvement. Christians are disposed to act in virtuous ways because of the regenerating power and sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit. But new dispositions also require habituation — intentional cultivation through a life of obedient dependence on Christ.10 Like Augustine, Aquinas argued that the theological virtues — connected to and comprehended in love — were the specific means of grace God used to deepen and mature all other virtue.11
The seven heavenly virtues, however, remain more foreign to contemporary readers than the more familiar seven deadly sins. The centuries-old tension Prudentius felt between the two lists, persists. Therefore, we shouldn’t abandon either approach to spiritual formation. Contrasting the deadly sins with their opposite virtue can be a valuable way to gain insight and mature in holiness (see Colossians 3:5–17). Humility poisons pride, chastity defangs lust, temperance bridles gluttony, charity overpowers greed, diligence overcomes sloth, patience outlasts envy, and kindness conquers anger.
Ultimately, cultivation of virtue is not the remedy for sin — justification and final salvation come through the atoning work of Christ, alone. But in the same way the seven capital sins provide a diagnostic for disordered affections, the seven heavenly virtues provide a framework for spiritual formation. Generations of faithful Christians have used the language of heavenly virtues and deadly vices as means for growing in grace. And by recovering these tools for the modern church, we are better equipped to present ourselves holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship (Romans 12:1).
By Leland Ryken — 4 weeks ago
As a small index to how much our society’s attitude to Christianity has changed in the past half-century, in 1941 a Princeton University English professor published a book with Princeton University Press addressed specifically to Christian ministers. I have referenced this book throughout my half-century career as a teacher and writer, even using adaptations of its title, Poetry as a Means of Grace, to good effect.
In his opening chapter, the author offered a piece of advice for ministers (and by implication all church leaders and literary laypeople) that makes total sense: we should claim one author as our own, specializing in that author the way a literary scholar might. I would extend this bit of practical advice to include the possibility of choosing a single masterwork for detailed attention over a lifetime (though I do not thereby discourage wide reading).
With this advice in mind, I commend Paradise Lost as a candidate for lifelong acquaintance. Having written my dissertation on Paradise Lost, having taught Paradise Lost as many as two hundred times, having written articles and books on Milton, and having attended and spoken at Milton conferences, I love Milton’s masterpiece more now than ever. And it is a love I wish to share.
From Pulpit to Poetry
Paradise Lost was written by John Milton in the middle of the seventeenth century. From childhood, Milton was theoretically destined to become a minister. In anticipation of that, Milton stayed on at Cambridge University to earn a master’s degree. But then an obstacle derailed his intended clerical calling.
Milton was a Puritan by conviction, and as such he was not welcome as a pastoral candidate in the state church. Milton himself spoke of having been “church outed by the prelates,” meaning rejected for parish ministry by the governing Anglican hierarchy.
Milton scholars have long debated the question of when Milton abandoned his intention to become a minister, and the best conclusion is that he never did abandon his ministerial calling. As Jameela Lares argues effectively in her book Milton and the Preaching Arts, he simply changed its venue from the pulpit to poetry. In a prose passage where Milton discusses this, he places the vocation of the Christian poet “beside the office of the pulpit.”
And he bore some fruit of the pulpit. Out of the mass of commentary on Milton that I have read, my favorite sentence comes from the testimony of someone joining Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia who began his testimony with the statement, “I was led to the Lord by John Milton.” Paradise Lost was the work that had been instrumental in this person’s conversion.
Higher Than Real Life
Before I discuss the content of Paradise Lost, I need to begin where C.S. Lewis began his landmark book A Preface to Paradise Lost. The necessary starting point is the genre to which the poem belongs. That genre is the epic.
Epic was considered the most important literary genre from antiquity through the seventeenth century. It was an exercise in grandeur — a long narrative poem having the stature of a book. Its aim was scope — so much so that literary scholar Northop Frye dubbed epic “the story of all things” (The Return of Eden, 3). Similarly, C.S. Lewis claimed that an epic sums up what a whole age wants to say (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), 339).
An epic tells a story (and in fact many stories), but its way of telling a story is different from what modern readers are accustomed to. The successor to the epic as a species of long narrative was the novel, and what was particularly new about the novel was its realism. The novel gives us a slice of life in the everyday world. Epic, by contrast, is myth — a story of supernatural characters, events, and places. So the first thing we need to expect as we come to read an epic is myth rather than realism.
One further way in which epic springs a surprise on us is that it is poetry. We expect long fictional stories to be written in everyday prose. In the history of literature, that is a recent development, coming on the scene with the rise of a middle-class reading public in the middle of the eighteenth century. Epic is a hybrid of poetry and story, and we need to give equal attention to both.
Milton’s Theological Story
In keeping with epic scope, the story that Milton tells is the entire span of history from eternity past to eternity future. The first main event is the war in heaven and the expulsion of Satan and his followers. This is followed by God’s creation of the world, Adam and Eve’s life in paradise, their fall from innocence, a survey of fallen human history, redemption in Christ as the means of reversing the destruction ushered in by the fall, and the eschaton. All of that looks familiar, of course, because it is the story of universal history as the Bible presents it.
“The story that Milton tells is the entire span of history from eternity past to eternity future.”
The first time I taught Paradise Lost, a student handed me a paperback copy of the Puritan Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in Its Fourfold State. He offered no explanation, apparently assuming that the relevance of Boston’s book would be evident to me. It was. Boston’s paradigm of human nature in its perfection, fallenness, redemption in Christ, and glorification in heaven gives shape to Milton’s story.
Milton famously said that he intended his epic to be “doctrinal and exemplary to a nation.” There is edification as well as enjoyment in reading Paradise Lost. The big ideas with which Milton’s imagination worked are as follows: the centrality and sovereignty of God; the great conflict between good and evil in both cosmic and human spheres; the necessity that all creatures choose between good and evil; humanity’s unavoidable dealings with God; obedience to God as the great requirement in life, with disobedience being the essential nature of sin; and the fact of human sinfulness and the atonement of Christ as the antidote to the fallen condition.
Those are the big ideas, but there are many localized ideas as well, such as the nature of the good life as pictured in Adam and Eve’s life in paradise.
Come and See
Many added helps for engaging this poem could be given.
I could tell you Paradise Lost is what literary scholars call an encyclopedic form — a collection of discrete units within a superstructure — and so it doesn’t need to be read straight through. Or, I could warn against discouragement from the poem’s abundant allusions to both the Bible and classical mythology, which the first-time reader may not (and need not) understand.
But my intention in this article has been to open a door and entice you to an in-depth encounter with Paradise Lost. And perhaps the final note to strike is that Paradise Lost is a world with beauty and horror to be seen.
“The literary impulse is to show rather than tell — to incarnate and embody rather than discuss abstractly.”
Milton’s epic deals with many theological ideas, as discussed above, but the literary impulse is to show rather than tell — to incarnate and embody rather than discuss abstractly. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr correctly claimed that “we are far more image-making and image-using creatures than we usually think ourselves to be, . . . and are guided and formed by images in our minds” (The Responsible Self, 151).
This is how we need to read Paradise Lost — not as a collection of ideas but as a story with characters, settings, and events, and as poetry comprised of images, symbols, and metaphors to be seen and enjoyed. He did not expect us to read his epic in the same way we read the more than twenty volumes of expository prose (including a systematic theology) that he wrote. There is a “value added” aesthetic element to literary writing, and we need to relish it.
So will you take the effort to read it? If you do, you may share the sentiment of the towering literary scholar Frank Kermode. He wrote some fifty books on the major movements and authors (including Shakespeare) of English literature, yet reserved his highest praise for Paradise Lost, calling it “the most perfect achievement of English poetry, perhaps the richest and most intricately beautiful poem in the world” (Romantic Image, 196).
By Vaneetha Rendall Risner — 1 month ago
In a season that focuses on gifts, I often overlook one of the most priceless ones. It’s a gift I’ve dreaded, refused, and longed to give back, but it has been invaluable in shaping me and drawing me to Jesus. It’s the unwelcome gift of suffering.
Suffering does not seem like a good gift. Job’s friends saw it as punishment for an unrighteous life. Most people, including me, avoid it whenever possible. Even thinking about it can fill me with a sense of fear.
Yet the Bible shows us that suffering is an intentional gift. Though we are never told to seek it out, we can know, if we are in Christ, that God gives us suffering for our good.
Comfort Can Make Us Forget
God used the wilderness to shape the wandering children of Israel, so they would learn to trust him for all their needs and live by his word (Deuteronomy 8:3). In the wilderness, God’s presence was unmistakable; his direction, clear. He provided for the Israelites what they could not provide for themselves and fulfilled all his promises to them (Joshua 23:14).
God wanted his people to remember how he delivered them in those difficult days — he knew how important the wilderness was to their faith. He wanted them to remember his tender care, and he knew that when they were prosperous, they would be tempted to forget him. They would assume they could provide for themselves and would turn away. So he says through Moses,
Take care lest you forget the Lord your God . . . lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God . . . who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:11–17)
In essence, God told them that in times of plenty and abundance, they needed to reflect on past times of struggle and remember how he met them in it. The great and terrifying wilderness with its fiery serpents and thirsty ground was the place they learned of his faithfulness and provision.
This is the opposite perspective of the world, which urges us to look back and focus on the good times and to work for future success and comfort. But God knows the gifts of success and comfort are temporal, only to be enjoyed while we have them. Apart from God, they don’t foster lasting joy and often lead to bitterness when they are taken away.
Where Great Prayers Were Prayed
God never promised to give us thriving ministries, perfect marriages, obedient children, healthy bodies, comfortable bank accounts, or protection from painful trials. But he has promised to be with us in trouble, which can be a greater blessing than the absence of trouble.
“God has promised to be with us in trouble, which is a far greater blessing than the absence of trouble.”
His presence feels nearer. His embrace tighter. And when the trial is removed, we have a deeper faith, rooted in God’s character and love. Just looking back at God’s faithfulness in trials anchors us. The memory of the presence of God in our pain is enough to make us love Jesus more, long for heaven, and fall to our knees in gratitude.
Joseph Parker, a British pastor in the mid-1800s, speaks of the value of the great and terrible wilderness. He says, “The ‘great and terrible wilderness’ was the place where our great prayers were prayed. . . . You do not know what you said in that long night of wilderness and solitude; the words were taken down; if you could read them now, you would be surprised at their depth, richness, and unction. You owe your very life to the wilderness which made you afraid” (The People’s Bible, 80).
Suffering Deepened My Faith
I owe the depth of my faith and my love for Christ to the wilderness that made me afraid. I learned to lament, to press into God, to depend on him completely in the wilderness. I don’t remember what I cried out to God in the dark, but I do remember that God answered with himself.
“I owe the depth of my faith and my love for Christ to the wilderness that made me afraid.”
Friends were around me, but no one could touch the deepest parts of my pain. I couldn’t even articulate how I felt. The emotions often seemed bigger than I was. It was in crying out, in throwing myself on his mercy, and in praying desperate prayers, that I met God most intimately. He knows that our experience of him and his unmistakable provision in suffering can mark and ground our faith. If we truly are comforted by God in our pain, we likely will never forget it.
That is why suffering is a gift. Not the suffering itself, but the turning to God in suffering, because that is where we encounter him. The greater the pain, the closer God comes. And the closer he comes, the more joy he offers. In his presence is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11), and he offers joy for those he chooses to bring near (Psalm 65:4). This otherworldly, counterintuitive, overflowing joy assures us that heaven is real, God is good, and glory awaits.
Tearing Wrapping Paper
I have come to see that this life is like wrapping paper and ribbons. We want our lives to look beautiful, and we spend most of our energy making sure they are. This wrapping is what we can see and touch and experience, both the tangible and the intangible. It includes our families, our friends, our homes, our accomplishments, our physical appearance, our money, our gifts — all the pursuits we spend time on, appreciate, and invest in. God wants us to enjoy these gifts which are from him, though none is permanent or indestructible.
Suffering tears that wrapping paper, and the process permanently changes us. Life as we knew it may never be restored, and we appropriately mourn what we’ve lost. We look at the torn paper longingly, wishing that we could at least tape it back together. We look at other people’s intact paper and shiny ribbons and wonder why only ours have been damaged, sometimes almost shredded. It doesn’t seem fair. We’re tempted to wonder what we’ve done wrong.
But as we sit with our torn paper, we begin to realize that the paper wasn’t an end in itself. It was only temporary, never meant to last forever, like our earthly tents, which are not our permanent dwellings. We know we will deal with pain and loss until our true home in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:1–4).
While the paper was once our focus, when it rips, we notice that there is something more. We see that the paper, whether beautiful or plain, was just there to enfold a gift. The gift is the item of supreme value, and the torn paper enables us, perhaps for the first time, to notice it. Even a glimpse of the gift is breathtaking. While the wrapping paper had an important purpose, it fades when we see the unparalleled beauty of the gift. The gift is God himself — the only treasure that will last.
Gift of Suffering
We’ll delight in Christ endlessly in heaven, and encountering his beauty and comfort on earth gives us a small foretaste of that eternal happiness. For me, experiencing God in my suffering is the closest I’ve come to pure joy.
Suffering has taken my eyes off the temporary and fixed them on the eternal. My faith is not theoretical, not a set of doctrines and principles that others have adopted; it is personal and real. As my outer nature is wasting away and my paper has ripped, I have glimpsed a weight of glory beyond all comparison.
So this Christmas, if your paper is ragged and torn, don’t despair. Look carefully to find the gift of supreme value, that can never be taken away and will last throughout eternity. It is the matchless gift of our Savior, who is Christ the Lord.