Originally Published March 12, 2013
Continuing my series Christian Answers to Philosophical Questions, I will present a single, complex challenge this week with:
6. How can God be the epitome of Virtue when many Virtues are dependent upon a flaw or Vice?
I’ve heard this argument among deep thinkers of theoretical philosophy who, I believe, were more interested in finding consistent answers than in challenging Christianity. I include it here because it is indeed a substantial challenge that I had to think about for quite some time in order to answer sufficiently.
The typical Virtue that is used in this scenario is Courage. Think about it – How can God be courageous? Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s the conquering of fear. Thus, for courage to be present in a being, there had to be, at some point, subjection to fear. Yet God is not subject to fear. So how can He possibly be courageous? I found two approaches to answering this question.
(1) Quite simply, definitions can be key. I typically try to stay clear of etymological justifications except when there is clearly a misuse of terms. In this case, we must realize that virtues, especially the Cardinal Virtues, are something that certainly apply to humans, who are subject to vices. But can we say the same of God? We tend to think of God as if He were the great Greek Zeus or Norse Odin – gods who were men, who were mighty, who were intelligent, who were great in battle. This is not Jehovah of the Bible. Nowhere in scripture is He shown like this, yet we continue to impose our ideas on His attributes and character. Is God courageous? Not in the sense of mens’ courage. He is “fearless,” but it is because He is not subject to fear rather than because He has overcome it.
(2) The second answer came quite unexpectedly to me one evening as I was listening to my church’s collegiate pastor speak on something completely unrelated. But he read the following passage, which immediately resonated with my personal musings:
And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”
Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. ~ St Matthew 4.3-11 ESV
The temptation of Christ has often found my interest, but until that evening, I didn’t realize its profound implications toward Virtues and Vices. WIthout going into the complex details of Platonic and Aristotelian views of the human soul, I’ll just state that the ideas they held (and which I’ve found to be true) painted a picture of what they termed as the “tripartite soul of man,” or a three-part soul consisting of appetite, honor, and reason. They showed that human virtues and vices arise from how each individual serves each of these parts of his soul. Some seek to fill their appetites. Some seek recognition and glory. Some seek to satisfy their intellect and rationale. And they all can seek to serve their soul in the path of Virtue or Vice, depending upon the choices they make.
So how does this relate to the temptation of Christ? And why have I included it in my discussion of Virtue concerning the character of God?
[Christ] in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. ~ from Hebrews 4.15
God has overcome Vice – when He came to the world as a man. He was tempted to serve his appetite (“command these stones to become loaves of bread”). He was tempted to serve his reason (a test – “throw yourself down, for it is written…”). He was tempted to serve his sense of recognition and glory (“all the kingdoms of the world and their glory”). In every respect He was tempted, yet He chose to adhere to Virtue.
So in the person of God the Son, God has indeed shown Himself to be the epitome of Virtue.
My answer to this challenge is this: Human Virtue cannot possibly apply to God the Father or the Holy Spirit. And God the Son did indeed show that He is the epitome of Virtue by the record of His temptation.
This answer certainly carries some secularly challengeable points, most notably the assumption that Jesus was (and is) God in the flesh. Also, the “excuse” that God the Father is not human is weak because it merely shows what He is not rather than what He is, which can be interpreted as a “fairy tale” justification. But if the challenger is willing to entertain thoughts on the virtuous nature of God, he is compelled to consider God in the light in which He is portrayed in Scripture – as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.