Apologetics Christian Philosophy Early Church Fathers Moral Theology Politics & Social Issues Spiritual Formation

Being Good Without God: A Recipe for Fools

In his Dialogue with Trypho, the 2nd century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, summarizes the Christian life:

And we who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons,–our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage,–and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified; and sitting each under his vine, i.e., each man possessing his own married wife. For you are aware that the prophetic word says, ‘And his wife shall be like a fruitful vine.’ Now it is evident that no one can terrify or subdue us who have believed in Jesus over all the world. For it is plain that, though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but the more such things happen, the more do others and in larger numbers become faithful, and worshippers of God through the name of Jesus.

For Justin and the earliest Christians, several things about their newfound, and newly founded, faith were still obscure, e.g. the nature of the Trinity, the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus, the role of the Holy Spirit, etc. However, other things were crystal clear, e.g., that Jesus was God (somehow), that He rose from the dead, and that any virtue that could be attained by man, was attainable only by the grace of God, who was crucified for mankind. “Piety, righteousness, philanthropy” and even “faith, and hope” are all “from the Father Himself” through Christ. The virtues of man are not generated by man’s own powers, nor do they emerge from some inherent goodness in him. Also, because of God’s grace it was possible not only for men to become moral creatures, but it was God’s grace which also allowed them to live freely, to be truly liberated from the powers of supernatural oppression (Ephesians 6:12ff) and the oppressive weight of sin. In this freedom, the Christian had no fear of losing his head (literally), being thrown to wild beasts, put in chains, crucified, burned alive or otherwise tortured. God’s grace provided the path both to virtue and to victory over death.

There was no place for victimization in the thinking of the early Christians. Their oppression was God’s glory, and in spite of every torture and malice of the Roman “system” in which they lived, a system that was objectively oppressive, they saw themselves everywhere free. Nothing and no one in the early church believed in the need to overturn the system in order to be truly liberated. Liberation had already occurred, and the rest was the charitable outworking of that reality.

A New Vision of Man

Fast forward roughly 1600 years to early-modern Switzerland (“Helveticus” in Justin’s day). A philosopher named Jean-Jacques Rousseau says famously, “Man is born free, yet everywhere finds himself in chains.” For Rousseau, and the multitude of disciples who followed his theory of man, man is not “filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness” at birth, the way Justin and the early martyrs believed. Rather, it was the imperfections in man’s government, in man-made systems, that corrupted and oppressed the otherwise “free” and moral individual. Other men followed in this interpretation of human nature, men of great historical influence like John Stuart Mill, Condorcet, and Robespierre. For these there was nothing inherent in man that prevented him from being virtuous in his own power; man could attain virtue unaided by any divine or extra-mundane force. Rationality and reason alone, and human effort, could generate virtue—the kind of virtue needed to perfect government and its institutions, and most especially its laws. All that was required on this vision was an intellectual elite that could put the institutional pieces together in the right way, and, upon doing so, set free the inherently good will of “the people.”

Thomas Sowell in his book, A Conflict of Visions, contrasts this “unconstrained” view of man proposed by Rousseau and his intellectual successors, with that of others like Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, who saw man “constrained” by an inherently flawed nature. On the constrained view, this human nature would inevitably produce evil in any system it built or constructed. An evil that could at best be extenuated or curbed through social institutions and processes, but that could not be eliminated or excised completely from the individual or the institutions he creates. On the unconstrained view man was perfectible and only the right solutions had to be developed to solve our societal ills. On the constrained view, there was no perfection that could be attained by man alone, and therefore social and economic trade-offs had to be made to prevent the worst from happening. The unconstrained view sought political and economic answers to man’s human condition, the constrained view sought best practices in light of that condition. Sowell describes the constrained view of Adam Smith this way:

The moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular, were neither lamented by Smith nor regarded as things to be changed. They were treated as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in his vision. The fundamental moral and social challenge was to make the best of the possibilities which existed within that constraint, rather than dissipate energies in an attempt to change human nature—an attempt that Smith treated as both vain and pointless.

For those of the “unconstrained” party, however, this was just negative thinking, archaic pessimism grounded in atavistic religious dogma. It was this cumbersome inclusion of past knowledge, of unenlightened thought, that hindered man from becoming the kind of exceedingly rational and virtuous creature he otherwise is by nature. The progressive vision of man becoming fully authentic and actualizing all of his potentials, thus entailed the renunciation of any notion of an inherently flawed nature, and, consequently, any need for some kind of divine influence to aid that nature. We could, if we just tried hard enough, really do it ourselves.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

In every generation the unconstrained impulse, the impulse of man to believe in his own righteousness, and to act upon that belief, rears its head. Today we see it in the radical Leftist agenda in America, an agenda fueled by ambiguous intellectual movements like Critical Race Theory, which seeks not just to find flaws in the system and continue to slowly rework areas that can be reworked, but cries out for the system’s total destruction— to “tear the whole thing down!” The forces of those who hold to the unconstrained vision, who reject any need for divine aid or help, and who really believe, and always will believe, that a new revolution can solve the problem, are once again at work. Trade-offs are unacceptable for the advocate of the unconstrained view, only total solutions are acceptable. Perfection is within our grasp, if we would only reach out and grab it. But perfection is a high bar, and any identifiable flaw in the fabric of society must inevitably spur on the next revolution.

The problem of course with this view, a view that Justin and the early church Fathers would have roundly decried as heretical, is that it does away with what it sees as the most detestable doctrines of the Christian faith: original sin and man’s desperate need for grace. Conversely, it was these doctrines that the classical conservatives like Smith and Burke maintained in their political and economic thinking, regardless of their understanding of the doctrines source. Man, apart from God’s grace, was sinner, not saint. To fail to recognize this double problem of man, i.e., our own inherent corruption and the need for God’s saving and sanctifying grace, is to fundamentally mis-analyze the human condition. It is in this manner that Smith and Burke were far closer to Justin, and St. Paul (Romans 5:12), than Rousseau, Condorcet, or later legal philosophers like Ronald Dworkin.1 see Sowell, A Conflict of Visions, chapter 5: Summary and Implications.

For Justin, then, three things are clear: 1) man before Christ is sinner, prone to war and wickedness and “mutual slaughter,” 2) any virtue in man is a gift from God, and 3) it is in our cultivation of these gifts that we are liberated from the world’s system, and that to the point of even welcoming our own persecution, which is God’s glory and the glory of His Church.

The alternative to this anthropology is that of the progressive minded man, who believes with all sincerity that he has the capacity “in himself” to be perfecter of his own nature and of the society in which he lives. Which of these comes first, however, he hardly bothers to contemplate. But, if one were to guess, one would guess the latter, for to point to the external problems of “the system” will always act as a way to relieve oneself of personal responsibility and one’s own sense of moral guilt. If only we could change the system, then we ourselves would be changed. Indeed we would return back to the Eden of our youth, frolicking in our original sinlessness!

Of the unconstrained view and its perennial attempts to fundamentally transform society, Roger Daltrey put it best in one of the greatest rock anthems of all time,

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again…

Meet the New Boss
Same as the Old Boss

The Who, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

Are we praying that “we won’t get fooled again?” If not, perhaps we should start.

  • 1
    see Sowell, A Conflict of Visions, chapter 5: Summary and Implications.

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