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Picture 1N.T. Wright’s new book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters will be released in March 2010. This book rounds out the “trilogy” that began with Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope.

Right now, Wright is working on his fourth volume of the Christian Origins and the Question of God series. But he agreed to take some time out of his busy schedule to visit Kingdom People and answer a few questions regarding his new book on virtue.

My previous three interviews with Dr. Wright can be accessed herehere, and here.

Trevin Wax: After You Believe is a book about Christian virtue. In fact, the title of the UK version is Virtue Reborn. Why the difference in titles?

N.T. Wright: We had discussed the book as a book about virtue, following some work I’d done the previous year for a paper which ended up in Richard Hays’ Festschrift. The people at Harper Collins were excited about the concept but believed that the word “virtue” simply wouldn’t communicate its true content to an American Barnes-and-Noble type audience, which is what they have in mind (following Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope).

afteryoubelieveAt the same time, Harper realized that in America there is a well-known problem that involves the perception of new converts that, having “prayed the prayer” or “accepted Jesus” or whatever, and being assured of salvation after their death, there seems to be a vacant slot in the in-between bit.

So… what (other than personal evangelism to get more people into the same position) is one supposed to be doing? What happens, in other words, “after you believe”? I have met this pastorally, so I am aware of the problem, though I have to say it isn’t nearly as common or obvious a problem in the UK (we have other problems but not so often that one!).

The US and UK editions are slightly different in the introduction and first chapter, reflecting these different perspectives. By the end of the first chapter they are more or less the same! I hope the two books catch their intended audiences.

Trevin Wax: Why is it wrong to think of “virtue” as simply “good behavior”?

N.T. Wright: The point about the word “virtue” – if we can recapture it in its strong sense – is that it refers, not so much to “doing the right things”, but to the forming of habits and hence of moral character.

I remember Rowan Williams describing the difference between a soldier who has a stiff drink and charges off into battle waving a sword and shouting a battle-cry, and the soldier who calmly makes 1000 small decisions to place someone else’s safety ahead of his or her own and then, on the 1001st time, when it really is a life-or-death situation, “instinctively” making the right decision. That, rather than the first, is the virtue of “courage”.

In the book I use, as a “secular” example, the lifetime forming of habits exemplified by Chesley Sullenberger III, the pilot who, last January, brought the US Airbus down safely in the Hudson River after a flock of geese got into the engines after take-off from La Guardia. All his instincts had been trained so that when the moment came he didn’t have to stop to think what to do; it just “came naturally”.

Trevin Wax: For many people in the West, it seems that being “true to oneself” or “being authentic” is what should determine our behavior.

N.T. Wright: Yes, we modern westerners – and even more postmodern westerners – are trained by the media and public discourse to think that “letting it all out” and “doing what comes naturally” are the criteria for how to behave. There is a sense in which they are – but only when the character has been trained so that “what comes naturally” is the result of that habit-forming training.

The book’s main target is not the other major moral theories of deontology and consequentialism, but the ideas of “spontaneity” and “authenticity” which have a grain of truth (Christians really should act “from the heart”), but which screen out the reality of moral formation, of chosen and worked-at habit-forming prayer and moral reflection and action, which gradually over time form the Christian character in which “authentic” behavior is also truly Christian behavior, not simply “me living out my prejudices and random desires”.

The point about “virtue”, then, is that it flags up something which is central in the New Testament but marginal in much western Christian reflection, namely the fact that

  1. Behaviour is habit-forming,
  2. Christian behavior is supposed to be habit-forming and hence character-forming,
  3. There is a long and wise tradition of reflection on all this which most modern Protestants in particular simply don’t know,
  4. It isn’t, as has often been thought, a danger to the gospel of God’s free grace and love,
  5. It is therefore time for the whole notion of virtue, as the habit-forming strength of character, to be “reborn”,
  6. and that all this is what you need to grasp “after you believe”, to answer the big question of “what now”?

Trevin Wax: How does our eschatology form our idea of virtue?

N.T. Wright: The Christian vision of the ultimate future, the “end” or “goal” of our human vocation, takes the place within the New Testament’s scheme of thought which in Aristotle’s philosophical scheme (where the “virtue” language goes back to) is taken by his idea of the human telos, or goal. The way “virtue” works is that the “virtues” are the strengths of character you need to develop in the present so that you can be shaped for that ultimate goal.

This is where this new book is a genuine sequel to Surprised by Hope: once one has grasped that the ultimate goal of the Christian life is not going to heaven or something like that, but rather being God’s Royal Priesthood in the new heavens/new earth, the idea of the virtues can be reworked – reborn! – as the character-strengths we need in order to anticipate, in the present time, that ultimate vocation in the future. This is a Christian way of saying both “Yes, but…” and “No, but…” to Aristotle, and I think many thoughtful Christians will find this quite eye-opening – and, I naturally hope, character-transforming.

Trevin Wax: You write that “working on virtue is like learning a language.” How does this understanding of virtue help us rethink the concept of “rewards” in the new heavens and new earth?

N.T. Wright: When you learn a language, your brain literally changes: new connections are made, new possibilities emerge, new habits of mind, tongue, and even sometimes body language emerge and are formed. The result is not, though, that you can speak it for the fun of it, but that you can communicate with people in that language, and perhaps even be able to go and live in the country where that language is spoken, and feel at home there.

This illustration helps to explain one part at least of the well known problem about how “what we do here and now” is umbilically connected to “who we will be in God’s new world”.

The point is that in the new heavens and new earth there is an entire way of life awaiting us, and we have the chance to learn, here and now, the character-skills we shall need for that new way of life – particularly the great three which Paul says will “abide” into God’s future, namely faith, hope and especially love. (All this depends of course on the Spirit, and on the transformative renewal of the mind which Paul speaks about in Romans 12:1-2.)

There is a sense in which being able to live totally by love in God’s new world will be the “reward” for learning the painful lessons of love here and now, but the word “reward” is so often connected with very different kinds of transaction (say, a $1000 reward for information leading to the arrest of a criminal!) that the very word “reward”, though obviously used by Jesus himself, is sometimes hard for us to “hear” in its more positive sense.

Trevin Wax: Can someone be “virtuous” in behavior and yet still be on the wrong path? What is the difference between “virtue” in general and “Christian virtue” in particular?

N.T. Wright: All behavior is habit-forming. If we use the word “virtue” and “virtuous” simply to mean “behavior we have had to work at which has formed our character so that at last it becomes natural and spontaneous to live like that”, then obviously it is possible for all kinds of behaviors to be “virtuous” in that sense but not specifically Christian, or quite possibly actually anti-Christian.

A secret policeman in pre-1989 Eastern Europe may have had to work hard at squashing some humane instincts and developing Party-Comes-First instincts, so that eventually he was an excellent and “authentic” secret policeman but – in Christian terms and actually in human terms too – a seriously malformed human being. A big businessman who squashes humane sensitivity in the quest for yet more money goes the same route. . . you get the point.

But there are two other things to be said.

First, the point about “vice”, the opposite of “virtue”, is that, whereas virtue requires moral effort, all that has to happen for vice to take hold is for people to coast along in neutral: moral laziness leads directly to moral deformation (hence the insidious power of TV which constantly encourages effortless going-with-the-flow). The thing about virtue is that it requires Thought and Effort . . .

Second, the point about Christian virtue is that it claims, all the way back to the Adam-and-Abraham nexus in Genesis 12 and elsewhere and on to 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21-22, that to become part of God’s people is to become a genuinely human being. So many Christians suppose that “normal humanness” is one thing and that “Christian living” is a rather odd and perhaps distorted form of being human, whereas part of the point of being Christian is to be genuinely human.

Of course, it’s important to realize that there are many distorted ideas of what being “genuinely human” might consist of. But at this point, the Christian church ought to be able to look the wider world in the eye and say, Look: isn’t this what being human was supposed to be all about? The fact that that seems a long way off indicates how far the churches have sunk down from the New Testament’s ideal…

In particular, the biblical vision of being human is that of being God’s Image-bearers: which means being like an angled mirror, reflecting God’s wise, stewardly love into his creation. The Christian vision is of Jesus as the true image and of Jesus’ followers, shaped by his Spirit, being transformed “into the same image” (2 Cor. 3.18). Thus being truly Christian and being truly human ought to come to the same thing.

Trevin Wax: How does your understanding of justification by faith influence your understanding of Christian virtue?

N.T. Wright: Justification by grace through faith in the present time is absolutely basic. For Paul, that leads at once into the life of character-formation, as Romans 5:1-5 indicates: justified by faith…peace with God…rejoicing in hope…and in suffering which produces endurance which produces character which produces hope, because of the love of God in our hearts through the Spirit!

So much of Paul’s writing is about the formation of Christian character and the consequent production of Christian behavior – far more, actually, than is explicitly about justification by faith! – and the two obviously go intimately together.

I fear that the traditional Reformational fear of the “virtue” discourse altogether (Luther saw “virtue” as straightforwardly “hypocrisy”, which shows how far the genuine teaching of virtue had slipped in his day) has led most western Christians simply to ignore the entire world of discourse and to fail to see – what even the secular brain scientists will tell us – that thoughts and actions are habit- and character-forming, changing even the shape of the brain itself.

I would suggest that the primary point is the re-establishment of the Holy Spirit as the crucial factor. Sadly, the Spirit is often screened out of discussions of justification, and then it’s much harder to see how the question of “character” will fit in. Lots more to say about this but perhaps that’s enough for a start!

Trevin Wax: Where do you come down on the debates regarding virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology?

N.T. Wright: Well, I am not a professional ethicist, and no doubt those who are will spot the various holes in the argument.

I don’t think it’s a straight either/or. I do think that deontology (the quest for Rules or a Moral Law rooted in the Way Things Are) has a place within a creational theology, and especially within a new-creational theology. That’s the point of Oliver O’Donovans hugely important book Resurrection and Moral Order. A virtue ethic isn’t so much telling you the detailed rules as showing you

  • (a) THAT you need to develop the “strengths” of character to live appropriately as the natural outflowing of the person you have become, and
  • (b) HOW to develop those strengths.

The illustration I sometimes use is that when you learn to drive a car, the idea is that you will quickly come to do most of the things “automatically”, changing gear, using the brakes, etc., and that you will develop the “virtues” of a good driver, looking out for other road users, not allowing yourself to be distracted, etc.; but that the highways agencies construct crash barriers and so on so that even if you don’t drive appropriately damage is limited; and also those “rumble strips”, as we call them in the UK, which make a loud noise on the tire if you even drift to the edge of the roadway.

“Rules” and “the Moral Law” are like those crash barriers and rumble strips. Ideally you won’t need them because you will have learned the character-strengths and will drive down the moral highway appropriately. But the rules are there so that when you start to drift, you are at once alerted and can take appropriate action – particularly figuring out what strengths need more work to stop it happening again.

Consequentialism – Utilitarianism, etc – seems to me a less than satisfactory option (for all it’s one regularly appealed to today in public discourse, etc). Part of the difficulty is practical:

  • (a) it’s impossible to see how my actions are in fact going to affect the future happiness of all sorts of people and
  • (b) even if I could, it would take time to calculate it all out and many of life’s moral decisions have to be made quickly.

Think back to Sullenberger. He didn’t have time to look things up in the Book of Instructions (deontology), and he certainly didn’t have time to run a happiness-calculation (consequentialism). He had to act instinctively, and fortunately, those instincts had been trained by years of practice. Translate that up into a Spirit-led reborn virtue, set within the framework of grace and faith, and you have the ethic of Paul and Jesus . . . or so I argue in the book . . .

I come back to the point: for many in the West, all that matters is “doing what comes naturally”. That is an attempt to acquire instantly, without thought or effort, what Christian virtue offers as the fruit of the thought-out, Spirit-led, moral effort of putting to death one kind of behavior and painstakingly learning a different one. When the Spirit is at work, we become more human, not less – which means we have to think more, not less, have to make more moral effort, not less – and there has been a collusion between certain types of Christian teaching and certain types of post-Enlightenment moral teaching as a result of which many Christians are simply unaware of this challenge.

I hope the book will alert a new generation to the exciting and bracing prospect of a fully human and fully Christian life ‘after you believe’…

Trevin Wax: Thanks for giving us a glimpse of your new book.

N.T. Wright: Hope all this helps! Happy Christmas and New Year to all your readers.


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Comments:


28 thoughts on “The Rebirth of Virtue: An Interview with N.T. Wright”

  1. Josh Philpot says:

    Great interview, Trevin. I look forward to reading the book.

  2. Trevin Wax says:

    Thanks, Josh. I look forward to reading this one too. I have never reflected much on Christian virtue, so this book should prod me into some areas that I have never considered.

  3. Derek says:

    I look forward to reading it! Wright has transformed my understanding of “Heaven” and I like what I hear about the “In Between”.

    Great interview Trevin… great ministry you have, thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    I look forward to reading After You Believe. I already have it on order and will write a review on it. (I’m going to link to this interview)

  4. Nick says:

    He mentioned that a virtue ethic shows us how to develop those strengths. Do you know if he expands on that idea and goes into those practices in his book? I also wonder what he thinks about Alisdair MacIntyre’s approach to virtue ethics and if that’s been integrated into this book.

  5. Great interview, Trevin.

    I for one am REALLY excited that he is drawing on O’Donovan’s RMO. That is, I think, one of the most important books in ethics written in the last 50 years, yet few evangelicals have interacted with it (that I have seen).

    I’ll be curious to see how it is received in America. I hope his views on justification don’t cause people to not read it, as I would argue (probably against Wright) that the sorts of things he’s talking about here fit just as well with Piper’s take on justification.

    But I’ll save all that for the future. Great interview.

    Best,

    matt

  6. Thank you Trevin for taking the time to bring to us a glimpse of Wright’s forth coming book and in this way his thinking on virtue and specifically what a Christian Virtue is.

    Again, as always, Wright being immersed into the sacred texts and well researched in general, sheds light on a very much misunderstood topic. Thank you Tom Wright!!!

  7. Vincent says:

    Wright and Hauerwas seem to be on the same page insofar as they both emphasize character formation as fundamental to Christian life together. Hauerwas tends to emphasize the church more than the Holy Spirit in that activity, perhaps seeing the Spirit’s work mediated through other believers rather than always and only directly applied, but this is likely a gross generalization. In any event, they both see people being saved for God’s purposes here and now so that God’s people have a vocation of good deeds which would include but not entirely contain an evangelism that focuses on preaching or “sharing” the gospel. The whole life becomes a faithful witness to the resurrection of Jesus and his lordship, lived out in a community of believers.

  8. Paul says:

    Thanks, Trevin.
    Good stuff. Actually, very important stuff!!
    The books on order and has been since I first learned of it on Michael Bird’s blog.

  9. Jim Wait says:

    Thank you very much for this wonderful interview with N T Wright. N T Wright has given Christians the whole Bible through his writings in his (actually the Bible’s) awesome theme of the single-plan- of God- through Israel (Israel’s representative) for the world. Now he is filling in the details from being declared righteous and the ultimate salvation. N T Wright and R B Hays are the greatest gifts to Christians since Paul!!!

  10. JTPennington says:

    Trevin,
    What do you mean you’ve not reflected on VE?!? This is what I taught you in my Sermon on the Mount class!! :)
    Interestingly, just yesterday I lectured for a couple of hours in this year’s SM class on this very topic. Afterward a student sent me this link and it was amazing to see how similar the content! I’m excited to see the new book. Thanks for the interview.

    jtp

  11. Trevin Wax says:

    I do remember talking about virtue in the Sermon on the Mount class… but aside from Allison’s book, I haven’t read much on the subject. That’s what I meant when I said I hadn’t done too much reflection on VE. For me reflection = reading, so I need to beef up my reading on this, and Wright looks like a good place to start!

    By the way, the reason I asked him about the different ethics views is because I remembered our discussion of the different views in the Sermon on the Mount class from two years ago!

  12. Rob H says:

    Mark another copy “sold”.

  13. Beth says:

    I heard Wright use the Sullenberger illustration in a podcast from Fuller and was very struck by it. Glad to hear he’s expanding it, and delighted by this wonderfully rich interview.

  14. Bill Skelton says:

    Wow. I have been waiting a long time for a Christian leader to say something along these lines.

  15. Phillip says:

    I find it surprising that in an interview of this length on the subject of virtue that he never addresses the relationship of wisdom to virtue. It seems as if wisdom and virtue are closely linked in the Scriptures. Perhaps wisdom wasn’t addressed because of the nature of the questions asked, but it will be interesting to see if it is discussed in his book. It seems as if an emphasis on the biblical concept of wisdom would only strengthen his argument. So, why doesn’t he address it?

  16. Jason Finley says:

    Philllip,

    I don’t know about the book, but he has explored the link between Virtue and Wisdom.

    See here: http://www.intervarsity.org/audio/
    for Wright’s comments on the book of Colossians by focusing on the topic of Wisdom, Virtue and Glory.

  17. Jasen says:

    Trevin,

    Excellent interview! For several months now I have been chewing on this issue of where does the border lie between a Christian’s responsibility and the Holy Spirit’s responsibility for the sanctification of that saint. I understand more now about the importance of character transformation by praying and doing it, rather than praying that the Holy Spirit will transform me and waiting on Him to do it.

  18. John Palmer says:

    “Man fully alive is the glory of God”-Irenaeus. “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.Jn.10:10b I am sure that as N.T.W. leads us toward virtue it will reflect this vitality. I look forward to this read (and, God helping me, the Spirit-energized personal struggle that follows from it).!

  19. Steve S says:

    NT Wright meets Dallas Willard…

    I am looking forward to reading Wright on this subject, especially since my other favorite author has written so much on it…

  20. Sue says:

    Beginning with yesterday afternoon and going back through applied Christian history as it was dramatized on to the world stage, there is NO evidence whatsoever that except in rare cases, Christians are or were in any sense virtuous.

    Or are in any sense more virtuous in 2010 than any of the 4 billion human beings on this planet who are not Christian.

    Remember George W Bush.

    Most right wing Christians were over-joyed that “God’s” man was in the White House.

    Referring of course to the same inherently genocidal tribalistic “God” that told George to invade Iraq and initiate the never-ending global war on terror—whatever that could possibly be.

  21. Derek says:

    Hello Sue,

    your comment is interesting (goes against the grain of comments – including my own).

    Curious: “beginning with yesterday”?

    In any case, what Christians “are” and what Christians are called to “be” are not always the same.

    I wouldn’t blame God for the sins of his people.

    And if someone says God told Bush to do something, it doesn’t mean that God actually told Bush to do something.

    Jesus said that you (sue) will know them (Christians) by their love. So because someone calls themselves “Christian” doesn’t mean they forsure are.

  22. Jason Finley says:

    Sue,
    It seems you agree with the author for the need of a rebirth in virtue among Christians!

    While some of your points are akin to the latest wave of atheist authors, you may be surprised to be in agreement with many Christians to a degree. Some comments that I’ve tried to limit in scope to relating to the author and subject of this post…

    Christianity has much to apologize for, from the Crusades to the violent behavior toward homosexuals and abortionists, but this does not constitute having no evidence of virtuous behavior except in rare cases. I’ll limit examples to ones I have heard the author mention:
    • The observation of the early church from outsiders included care for not only their own poor, but also others, and philanthropy towards outsiders (see the emperor Julian and historian Eusebius).
    • The work of Christians during the second century in caring for those stricken by the plagues while others fled (see Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity,” which also includes a chapter on virtue).
    • The work of Christians in establishing hospitals (observe how many have names of Christian origin).
    • Pope John Paul II’s role in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
    • Dr. Martin Luther King’s work to end segregation
    • Bishop Desmond Tutu’s work in forgiveness and reconciliation on South Africa
    • The present work of Christians in the author’s own diocese: a day center for the elderly, furniture mending shop run by disabled Christians, etc.

    While there may be evidence for more than rare exceptions, there is still little difference statistically between “Christians” and others in America when counting divorce rate for instance, but the results are varying on different issues and complex in cause (see Barna’s research for example). But again, it is because of such poor display of virtue that its rebirth in the church is appropriate.

    Regarding politics, the author is a far cry from being a right-wing Christian – especially since he is British – and has leveled similar criticisms of Bush, the American Government and the “War on Terror” at the expense of criticism by many, while standing for issues of social justice, third-world debt and ecology at the expense of criticism from others. In fact, very much in the tradition of the biblical prophets (including John the Baptizer, Jesus and subsequently the early Christians) who called the ruling authorities to account, the author serves as a member in the House of Lords, offering a prophetic critique. (In this arena you might the books “Jesus For President,” “Myth of a Christian Nation,” or “God’s Politics” engaging and surprising. Not all of us confuse the USA with a “city on a hill” whose purpose is to “rid the world of evil,” nor claim Allah is the same as the Judeo-Christian God, nor do we all believe the Obama’s America is the “last, best hope of Earth” for that matter.)

    As far as an inherently genocidal, tribal “God,” I don’t think the author believes in that God either, but rather the God best explained by Jesus – a point at which once again the author has been criticized. It is precisely this Christ-shaped God the author proposes calls His followers to Christ-shaped living.

  23. david yates says:

    If we need to learn now how to live in the future kingdom, does that mean that those who haven’t learned much, maybe through laxity, maybe just because they were converted late in life, maybe because they died young etc, will be second class citizens? Then is no further learning possible in the kingdom, so that everybody can catch up? Of course we should be trying to develop our Christian character, but is how far we can get with that really an issue, as Wright seems to be saying?

  24. Trevin,

    Plenty of good stuff in this interview. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to the new book. Already pre-ordered it. He continues to deliver the goods. Enjoyed it.

    -Mig

  25. Mark says:

    Though I do not agree with his view on how Paul understands the law, I do agree with his understanding of Christian virtue (as opposed to “moral behavior”). Though I come from the Reformed tradition, I often find that even in solid Reformed churches there is this emphasis on doing things right rather than bearing the fruit of the Spirit. My point is that your attitude matters (probably more so than your external morals) when it comes to demonstrating the genuineness of your faith before the Lord on the Day of Judgment. Remember that in the vices that bar people from the Kingdom as found in Galatians 5:19-21 more than half of those listed were attitudinal sins. Think about it.

  26. david yates says:

    I’ve now read ‘Virtue Reborn’ Tom Wright. This is not a review, just questions that occurred to me while reading it. If I have misunderstood, I’d be grateful for comments).

    Wright thinks that Christians are God’s agents in transforming the world, with work to do now, but also even in the coming Kingdom: he thinks there will be things still needing to be put right even after Christ comes again (DY: so the Kingdom will not be perfect?).
    But, in the present world, Christians need to put effort in to be transformed themselves so that they will be able to do these tasks; they need to be complete human beings (DY: what about infants who die?).
    This means engaging in behaviours to change wrong brain patterns into right ones (DY: what about Christians with medical brain defects?).
    In the present world, they need to get involved in politics and call earthly rulers to account (DY: what sort of fuss are they to make when earthly rulers don’t do the right things?).
    Christians, unlike pagans and Jews, are able to do the things they should (DY: is this empirically true?).

    Christians receive different rewards for what their efforts achieve, though this reward is the natural result of their managing to be more transformed than other Christians; if some Christians start with more natural advantages (say, having been brought up to have a better character) this somehow doesn’t count, because only those choices we consciously make as Christians count (Chapter 6 Section 4. DY: I don’t know what Wright is saying here about what counts and what doesn’t and why. And, again, what about Christians with medical brain defects, and those with no chance to be transformed such as infants who die, or the thief on the cross who had no chance to change his brain patterns by years of practice? Also, will Christians who have not been as diligent as others or who have been lax to varying degrees be in different ‘castes’ in the Kingdom?).

  27. I learned a lot from this interview. I didn’t realize that the word “virtue” can be used without a theological connotation.

  28. Thanks for this interview, I read a lot about N.T. Wright, nice to find a interview with him

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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