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Cultivating Christlike Virtue in the Between Time

N. T. Wright’s excellent book focuses on sanctification during “all that time in between” the “now” of conversion and the “not yet” of the fully realized eschaton. A follow-up to the work Wright began in Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, this book would be ideal for college and seminary classrooms as well as small group study.

Wright starts with the tension between those who think of Christian discipleship as principled rule-following and those who think of worship and practice as genuine only if it feels natural to us. He responds that this is a false dichotomy–overcome if we understand sanctification as virtue formation, which fruitfully combines the necessity of rule-following behavior and authentic spirituality.

Wright compares sanctification to Aristotelian “habituation in virtue” aimed at the telos of perfected human nature, a process analogous to acquiring fluency in a new language. He is careful, however, to articulate the differences between the Greek model of virtue ethics and Christianity, most notably a startlingly radical list of new Christian virtues and the divine grace required to facilitate the transition from sinful habits to Christlike character (a process Paul discusses in, for example, Colossians 3). I wish, however, that the topic of grace had surfaced long before page 95; moreover, he addresses the “self-help” objection fully only at the end, starting on page 258.

Wright follows Augustine and others in taking the Sermon on the Mount as the central text for Christian ethics, beginning with a distinctively Christian articulation of the telos–perfection or “blessedness”–of those inaugurating God’s kingdom, and then framing the Christian life primarily in terms of the cultivation of Christlike character toward that end. “Virtue” is the philosophical term naming the “right fit” between our hearts and actions that Jesus commends in the rest of the sermon. Jesus’ negative examples (e.g., lust and adultery, wrath and murder) point to virtues like chastity and gentleness by contrast. Aquinas uses virtue-talk to describe the law being “written on our hearts” by the Spirit so that law-keeping gradually becomes natural to us as we are “sanctified through and through,” similar to the Heidelberg Catechism’s treatment of commandment-keeping as a response of Spirit-generated gratitude. Wright also addresses common objections to framing Christian ethics as virtue formation: for example, whether all this effort is opposed to claiming salvation as a free gift, and whether habituation is really just a form of hypocrisy–play-acting at being someone we’re not.

Wright’s achievement here is to refresh our awareness of the traditional view that our fundamental vocation is to imitate Christ–our model of the perfected imago dei. He shows how Jesus and those who follow him take up the roles of priest and king from Israel’s signal beginnings (the prophetic role is implied in Wright’s “outpost” language). All of scripture forms a unified story, a story Christians carry forward–individually and corporately, in the church and in the world–by clothing themselves with the virtues of Christ. Our character itself witnesses to the inaugurated kingdom, the work of the church as God’s “royal priesthood.” We do this corporately and communally, in contrast to the “self-centeredness” that virtue ethics is commonly criticized for. Wright’s scriptural anchor for virtue formation ties it to the church’s worship and mission while we anticipate the consummation of the kingdom.

More controversially, in his chapter “Transformed by the Renewal of the Mind,” Wright argues that Christian “love is…a thought-out habit of the heart” (emphasis added). Wright’s gripe here is with “the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think.” Without established practices of spiritual direction and the examination of conscience, however, it might be harder for Protestants to see what greater intentionality and reflection might look like. Nevertheless, by emphasizing that the mind is essential to Christian formation, Wright stands in a venerable tradition of integrating a religious life of spiritual practices and virtues with wisdom and intellectual pursuits.

The “Royal Priesthood” and “Virtuous Circle” chapters, meant to show how character formation is for mission (“to reflect God to the world”) and for worship (“to reflect the world back to God”) felt like the weakest link in the argument. Wright powerfully describes the various new virtues to which Christians are called but seems at a loss for the right virtue-related vocabulary–for example, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy–to articulate the practices that animate the church in service to the world.

Further, because Wright addresses those who are new to the cultivation of Christian virtue, he barely mentions the problem of long-standing practices becoming dully familiar formalities or hollow rituals. His example of Captain Sullenberger early in the book does make the point that “doing the drill,” however unexciting, prepares one for the right responses in times of crisis; nonetheless, Wright does not consider the hollow-ritual objection directly. That said, his call to witness through personal virtues is thoroughly bracing for complacent Christians today.

Any complaints I might have are exceedingly minor in light of Wright’s overall accomplishment. I highly recommend this rich and readable resource to any Christian interested in the scripturally grounded call to formation in Christlike virtues, cultivated by kingdom-inaugurators for their work and witness in the world.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and author of Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Brazos, 2009).