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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

10 July 2005

And in This Corner ... Virtue!

First we examined the Seven Deadly Sins. Because of its use in the Bible, the number seven appears in many Christian writings, often with a special meaning. Who knows? Were we to try, we might compose a list of seventy times seven lists of seven.

One group of seven has a close relationship to the Deadly Sins. These are the Seven Virtues. Seven evil attitudes are answered with seven noble expressions. The Greek word we normally translate as “virtue” has “excellence” as its root meaning. Thus, a virtuous person is one who behaves excellently.

The philosopher Plato listed four main virtues. They were Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. These were later termed the Cardinal Virtues. “Cardinal” is from the Latin word for “hinge.” In other words, they are pivotal for human behavior in society. The Church (perhaps Saint Ambrose) added what are now called the three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, and Charity).

The Cardinal Virtues are displayed by many people in the world at large. However, the Church has traditionally held that only among the believers are the three Theological Virtues truly expressed. Christianity has also taught that only believers can truly observe the Cardinal Virtues.

We’ll examine the first four virtues in this post, then come back to the Theological Virtues in the next column. Even so, our examination will be brief. If you wish to know more, one of the best introductions to the virtuous Christian life is found in the section on Christian Behavior in Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. His books are easily ordered in both Christian and secular book stores.

PRUDENCE is what me might now call “common sense.” Truly, it means wisdom, but not some high and mysterious wisdom. Prudence makes the right decisions for the right reasons. Prudence does not waste effort or resources. It is practical, but not only for the short term. The prudent person considers the consequences of his actions. The Church has continued to support this virtue because it stands opposed to the folly which Scripture condemns. After all, Christ told his followers not only to be “innocent as doves,” but also “wise as serpents. (Mt 10:16)” As a Christian struggles with the faith, he or she will find that intellect and wisdom are challenged and sharpened, not worn, dulled, or discarded.

What was called FORTITUDE, we might also term “courage.” Yet this is not only the ability to “charge hell with a bucket of water,” but especially the strength to outlast the trials and temptations of everyday life. C. S. Lewis recommends “guts” as the best modern translation. Christianity is certainly not the place for sissies, for Christ challenges each believer to “Take up his cross and follow [Him]. (Mt 16:24)” Fortitude is the ability to lug that cross even when people laugh at us, when life is tripping us up, and when our strength is fast-fading. Fortitude is putting the other virtues into action, even when the consequences may be painful.

The next Cardinal Virtue is TEMPERANCE. Originally, this didn’t mean abstaining, but going “so far, and no farther.” It refers not only to drinking, but to all pleasures of the flesh. The temperate person recognizes that God has created us to experience many wonderful feelings, but that there is a time and a place and a correct amount of each stimulation. Included in this cardinal virtue is the “sub-virtue” of Chastity. Just as temperance generally means doing the right things in the right amount, so chastity recognizes sex as a gift of God — but only at the times and places appropriate. The chaste person is not a prude nor, necessarily, celibate. The temperate person honors chastity by confining sex to the marriage relationship created and blessed by God.

JUSTICE is the final Cardinal Virtue. It involves not only the punishment of sins and crimes, but generally acting fairly and honestly. Justice seeks to tell the truth, yet not to bring harm through gossip and the like. The pursuit of justice leads people to address societal ills such as hunger, disease, and homelessness, to take up for the underdog, and to keep promises.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.


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