By the Revd Dr Peter Sanlon
“Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue”
As we make our pilgrimage through this world we need to be alert to the ways our sense of what is good and right can be distorted by the complexity of our hearts.
The great American pastor-theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) wrote a dissertation which explored the ways we can be confused as to what is truly good and pleasing to Jesus.
Edwards’s ‘Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue’ was his most technical and philosophical writing — but it makes points very significant to daily life. Edwards asks what is the nature of true virtue? His answer is that ‘True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to Being in general.’ By this Edwards means a loving care, desire for the good of, and concern for others NOT for any good they do to us — but for whatever is good in themselves. Loving somebody merely for their goodness, requires us to be ‘of a like temper.’ Only those who are virtuous can love virtue. Only those who are selfless can love another without it being a form of manipulation or seeking of selfish return.
Since God is the most good and most fulsome being there is, true virtue will ultimately consist in loving God – not for what he can do for us — but for who he is in himself. This is a philosophical argument, that coheres with the Bible. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5).
All of this is very helpful to us as Edwards exposes the ways we can fool ourselves into thinking we are virtuous or godly. Much in the world that people mistakenly think is virtuous, Edwards says is actually self-love. ‘Self-love, I think, is generally defined as a man’s love of his own happiness.’ Edwards points out that people can project their love of self outwards upon their now family members. Doing good to them is actually, for many, a form of self-love. I want my wife to be happy because it makes my life easier. I want my child to do well at school because their achievements make me proud. I want my child to be well behaved because I fear what others would think of me. All of these are motivations that flow from self-love, and empower a person to take what look like ethical actions towards others.
Doing good from self-love is not actually all bad — Edwards points out that this is how God restrains the sin in the world. Many people are not as unkind as they could be, because they love themselves!
But here is the challenge for us. If our ‘virtue’ is built upon a love of ourselves — rather than a love to God — then it may look virtuous — but it will in reality be fragile and flimsy. As soon as it seems that it hurts me – I will stop doing what I thought was godly. If I go to church out of a form of self-love; I will give up when it no longer satisfies my felt needs. If I love my wife out of self-love — I will turn to another when they seem to offer more pleasure. If I love my kids out of self-love, I will be broken utterly if they ever disappoint.
If we are to live godly lives through all of our pilgrimage, we must be fuelled not by self love, but love to the God who made us and in Christ dies for us.
Rev. Dr. Peter Sanlon is rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church, Tunbridge Wells: www.emmanuelanglican.uk