A String of Words
Saint Peter’s second epistle opens with some fantastic claims about the Christian faith. We have been given “exceeding great and precious promises” by God in Christ, namely, that we can “be partakers of the divine nature”! We, human beings, are promised by God that we can share in God’s own nature. This is what all grace must be about. Grace, in any form that it might ever come to us, is a gift whereby God lifts us “up” to his own level, that is to say, makes us in some way on a par with him, so that (for instance) we can talk to each other, have communion with each other, even love each other.
Do not forget it: the promise is not just that God will preserve us from evil, or that he has delivered us from sin and death. It is those things, of course, but it is infinitely more. God wants us to share in his own being.
Having established that, Peter goes on to list a series of things that we should diligently seek. He exhorts us to “add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.” This is a list of terms that form a chain, each new term being added onto the one previous to it.
It’s a beautiful list. It’s also an opportunity to slow down in our reading and see if we can make sense of it.
The epistle suggest that there is a line that begins with faith and ends in love (“charity,” which is the love of God). How do we get from faith to love?
The sequence offered is this: from faith to virtue (or excellence), to knowledge, to temperance (self-control), to patience (steadfastness), to godliness, to brotherly kindness, to love. Some of these steps make sense to me.
The move from faith to virtue I take as the desire, which faith gives to me, that I be a good human being, that I have human virtues, that I practice human excellences. I do indeed want faith to make a difference to who I am and how I live.
But I can’t be better at living unless I have self-knowledge. I need to know what I need to be better at.
To have self-knowledge requires self-control. If my passions are running amok, I can’t have a clear picture of who I am, and I certainly can’t grow in virtue. Self-control is the first step in self-knowledge, which is the precondition for human excellence.
And I have to stick with it. It is so easy to be discouraged when one starts to see how one fails in life! So, right after self-control, we have patience (steadfastness). We need to be patient with ourselves and also be steadfast in our desire to be good.
None of this would be possible without God, who planted faith within us in the beginning. So these “human” virtues are actually discovered to be “godly” virtues, the “godliness” that is a foretaste of sharing in God’s being.
And the goal, the end of our faith, is to be able to live in friendship. This occurs in two forms. First is “brotherly affection,” friendship that we have with other people. And the end of it all is love, “charity,” which is friendship with God.
I am amazed at how wisely Saint Peter laid out these terms! May we all grow in our faith so that we become partakers of the divine nature, true friends of men and of God.
Out & About. I am teaching this Sunday on “the future of God,” which is the ultimate thing for which we are waiting. The class is at 10:20 a.m. in the Memorial Chapel of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. My previous classes can be found here.
Looking ahead. Yours truly is to teach the Christian ethics course at the Stanton Center this spring. The course meets on the third Saturday of each month from January through May, from 1 to 4 p.m., at the Stanton Center at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Dallas.
In the course we will cover some basic alternatives in Christian ethics before turning to an in-depth study of virtue ethics (also called the ethics of human excellence or flourishing). Special attention will be given to Christian anthropology, particularly as it stands in contrast to common secular assumptions of freedom, happiness, and the like. The course also is aimed to be helpful pastorally, both by the inclusion of fiction and children’s stories (Muriel Spark, Arnold Lobel) and by consideration of the topics of friendship and disability.
It would be great to see some of you in the course—for one thing, it will be a chance to develop a topic at greater length than is possible for the occasional Sunday class. And it will also be a chance for more extended conversation. The Stanton Center’s website, with registration information, is here.