Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright
If ever there was a book whose time has come, this is it. Drawn against the backdrop of the banking crisis and the U.K. M.P.’s expenses scandal, the prodigious pen of Tom Wright presents a biblical case for the development of ‘virtue’ as one of the main tasks of the Christian believer during the course of a life lived in earth.
‘Virtue’ is an old-fashioned word and concept, not currently in favour anywhere along the theological or ethical spectrum. We may be used to legalism, where rules are deployed to govern the believer’s behaviour. We may be used to ‘going with the flow’ of the Spirit, in respect of behaviour. Tom Wright argues against both, and puts forward a case for something in-between, where ‘virtue’ is a quality both received by and to be developed in the believer. Wright refers to the ditching of Flight 1549 from La Guardia airport on 15 January 2009, when Captain Chesley Sullenberger III landed his aircraft in the Hudson river, saving all his passengers and crew. It was a moment when the training of a lifetime enabled him to make split-second decisions, aided by a steady nerve, to make the safe landing. Wright compares this with the development of virtue in the Christian – something that is developed with painstaking practice and discipline, but serves us well at the moment of crisis, when we need it.
Wright sets the case for ‘virtue’ on a broad biblical canvas, drawing on his characteristic historicism in which God’s plans for the world are understood against the specifically 1st century background of the New Testament. Here, the believer’s future is not one of being saved out of the world, to be transferred to a non-bodily spiritual dimension called heaven. Rather, the believer is being prepared through the many experiences of life this side of death, for a future on a renewed earth, in a renewed resurrection body.
The New Testament understanding of virtue critiques and contrasts with the concept of virtue as developed by Aristotle and the classical world. Wright argues that the New Testament authors, Paul in particular, were not unaware of classical philospophy, and that a New Testament vision of virtue, although not using the word, was significant and important to its content, and can be reconstructed using the classical arguments.
Virtue is the quality of character which needs to be developed for this continued earthly existence and its future responsibilities. Wright paints this future responsibility in terms of the biblical roles of priest and king which are also part of the believer’s role in the present.
The kingdom of God is another biblical concept which Wright draws on to develop his theme. The future goal of the gospel, according to Wright, is the kingdom of God, when heaven comes to earth at last. This goal has already arrived with the appearance of Jesus on earth. The followers of Jesus can begin to practise, in the present, the habits of heart and life which correspond to the way things are in the kingdom. This is the framework in which to understand the Sermon on the Mount, and the entire ethical teaching of the New Testament.
The Sermon on the Mount, and Paul’s ethical teaching in the letters, are not to be seen therefore as a new set of Christian commandments, rules to live our lives by. Wright insists that the life of the Spirit is indeed the routemap and roadway for our lives. Nevertheless, to provide signposts along the way, or like the steel barriers of the central reservation of motorways and the rumble-strip along the outer edge, the moral guidelines are provided to prevent us veering off the carriageway.
Wright then looks in detail at what it means to be ‘transformed by the renewing of the mind’, exploring in particular the threefold virtues of faith, hope and love as qualities we will need in this life and the life to come. He also explores the ninefold fruit of the Spirit, and the various exhortations to ‘put on’, or ‘clothe ourselves’ with the virtues of Christ. Finally, Wright provides for us a ‘virtuous circle’ of qualities and activities which can be used to create and maintain a life of virtue.
Nobody will find this book an easy read. Although the book is aimed at the popular market, Wright makes few concessions to populism. As in the development of virtue in life, the book requires disciplined reading, and benefits revisiting. Yet the significance of the book’s subject for today could hardly be overstated. One way or another, we all need to grapple with its central theme.