January 20, 2021

Christian Traditions 101: The Seven Cardinal Virtues, continued


In my last post I talked about the human virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  I pointed out that these are considered human virtues because all decent people recognize them as good things and in some way educate their children and design their laws to encourage them.  We can’t stop there, though.  We have to have the right motivations to be truly virtuous.  As Christians we are warned against virtue motivated by legalism or competitive superiority.  For us the reason to be virtuous is not to lord it over others less virtuous than we are.  It is not even to console ourselves, with a bleak, stoic honor, that even though everything around us is in ruins, we at least are true to ourselves.  The right motivation to be virtuous, as well as the antidote to legalism, pride, and despair, is provided by the three theological virtues:  faith, hope, and love.

These are in short supply today.  I began thinking about the Seven Cardinal Virtues recently when I was reading the reasons people in Oregon chose physician-assisted suicide.  I did not know those people personally and can’t and won’t judge their reasons for thinking what they did, but their statements betrayed a philosophy of utilitarianism that I think skews the thinking of all of us today.  They didn’t want to go on living if they couldn’t do the things that made life worthwhile to them, if they were going to be a burden on others, or (the smallest number said this) if they were going to suffer physical pain.  In saying these things they were on some level rejecting the virtues of fortitude, faith, hope, and love as well as the philosophy that the purpose of life is growth in virtue.  They defined themselves only by the things they could do and their independence – or isolation – in doing them and not by their character as formed by both training and grace.

I must stress here that God’s grace is the source of all virtue, natural or Christian.  We do not exist without God’s grace; we do not take a breath, make a movement, or eat a meal without God’s grace.  I could no more be brave or temper my appetites without God’s grace than I could fly.  Although the human virtues are recognized, admired, and taught by people who don’t know God, that doesn’t mean that they exist distinct from him – how could they?

The theological virtues, on the other hand, are not recognized or admired by non-Christian philosophies – we don’t see faith, hope, and love in Stoicism, Epicureanism, Confucianism, or Taoism, although we can find prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  So while it’s worthwhile anthropologically to study virtue in different cultures, we as Christians must acknowledge that only through God is our nature redeemed from death and sin and remade into the image of our Savior.  I don’t offer this study of the virtues as a self-help course, or even as a reason not to commit suicide, though that’s what started me thinking, but as an opportunity to praise and serve God according to the nature he gave us and the life he calls us to.

The Theological Virtues

We’re familiar with the theological virtues through 1 Corinthians 13:  faith, hope, and love, or charity. Unlike the human virtues, these three are not universally acclaimed because they require an understanding and acceptance of the Triune God.  Faith, hope, and charity are absurd if you remove God – as absurd as the shower curtains for sale nowadays that say Faith in curly letters or the dish towels with Hope embroidered on them.  Faith in what?  Hope for what?  Faith and hope without God are not virtuous; they are a stupid optimism, a blind effort to “feel” nicely faithful and hopeful without any foundation.   Sacrificial love is equally pointless without God, although again, through common grace, non-Christians  do achieve it from time to time.

Faith.  Through faith we believe in God.  Through faith we know, at least to some degree, God’s nature, our nature, and what is required of us.  Because of this knowledge we can listen to our consciences, honor God and creation rightly, face difficulties with courage, and moderate our desires.  So faith is a gift that underlies and enables the human virtues, but it also is a habit that requires action from us.  It is inextricably united to good works as we obey God and begin to live the new life that he is pouring into us.  It is the reason to share the good news of God’s love with everyone, and to share it cheerfully, not with wretched urgency, because we trust God’s sovereignty and his care for all of us.  Faith doesn’t need human reward or praise or to see immediate results.  Faith is peace and direction in the midst of the tumultuous world, a rock in the storm.

Hope.  Hope, like faith, takes us out of ourselves.  It reassures us that what we see around us is not everything, that time and death are not the ultimate boundaries.  It teaches us a proper distrust of our own capabilities and a joyful humility in expecting something better than we can imagine.  In fact, hope is the foundation of joy.  Hope is a gift of grace, but determination and perseverance are required to hold on to hope in the midst of the darkness of this life.  Because of hope we prepare for Christ’s coming and the Day of Judgment – the hopeful person keeps oil in her lamp even when it seems a waste to do so.  Hope is a beacon to a despairing world.

Love.  Life and this article are too short to deal with all the meanings of this word. I’d rather say charity, but that has also become degraded and nowadays means exactly the opposite of what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13.  Shame on us.  But Paul points out that the greatest of the theological virtues is this love that he is talking about.  One day, we will see God face to face and not need faith; our desires for God, heaven, peace, and justice will be satisfied and we will not need hope; but on that day we can truly begin to love.  Love is the virtue most contrary to human nature, since it calls for us to put others before ourselves and give up what we want and need for their sake.  Love is the opposite of the rock-hard unity of loneliness; it is relationship and community.  It is the reason we were created and our reason to create in turn.  Love is the only thing we can give back to God as our free gift; it turns us from slaves into children.  The theological virtues end with love because, as St. Augustine says, “Love is the fulfillment of all our works.  There is the goal; that is why we run:  we run toward it, and once we reach it, in it we shall find rest.”

I’ve had a hard time writing about the virtues because they are both gifts and actions.  “Virtue” means an inherent quality, such as the virtue of iron being its strength, but it also means specific deeds of goodness and the training to make them possible.  I think both meanings are important, and it’s a challenge to keep both of them spinning at the same time.  And our response to a call to virtue is equally complicated.  We can’t achieve or merit a gift, only accept it, but we can and must act in order to train ourselves into the habit of goodness.  The balance between the gift and the action, being and doing, grace and works, is a contentious subject, and I hope I’ve made my points plainly without offending or misleading anyone.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things (Philippians 4:8).




  1. This is an awesome couple of posts. Thanks so much!

  2. “Sacrificial love is equally pointless without God, although again, through common grace, non-Christians do achieve it from time to time.”

    Thank you for a new addition to my list of Utterly Condescending Bulls#!t Christians Say.

    • Larry has a point. Consider the earlier sentence. ” Faith, hope, and charity are absurd if you remove God… Faith and hope without God are not virtuous; they are a stupid optimism, a blind effort to “feel” nicely faithful and hopeful without any foundation.”

      I have a headached. I take a tylenol. I have faith that the tylenol is going to work. (Based on observed evidence.) And I have hope that I am going to get better. (Also based on observed evidence.)

      • Your faith in tylenol is not Christian faith. It’s more akin to knowledge, which is rooted in actual sight (observation). Christian faith is the substance of what is not seen. Similarly, Christian hope is not rooted in the temporal realm, but in the confidence that what we see is not all that there is.

        • I think you helped make my point Miguel. Faith, hope, and love without God, is not absurd. It is just not Christian faith, hope, or love.

          • I don’t think so. Faith is in something you can not see. You needn’t have any faith in Tylenol, you have first hand knowledge of it in a way that we do not of God. Hope and love, maybe. But faith presupposes a need for faith, i.e., something that has not been conclusively proven to you.

        • I would also add that faith is not some vacuous thing, it is based on what has been seen. Or in other words, “Because of how I have seen God act in history, and in my life, I have faith (and hope) for what he is going to do in the future.

          By the way, I think this is the first time I have ever used the word “vacuous” in any context! No idea why it popped into my head.

          • David Cornwell says


            hmm, what’s it mean? Is this an empty statement?

          • I was using vacuous to mean “without substance”.

          • David Cornwell says

            Yeah, I thought so, just kidding you.

          • …so you only believe in God because of supposed experiences you have observed/had with him? I propose that even such experiences are selectively interpreted, and apart from un-seeing faith, a skeptic could easily come up with numerous alternate explanations for what you call the activity of God.

          • Miguel,

            That is not what I wrote. I mentioned both God working in history (i.e. before my time) as well as God working in my life (and in the lives of those around me.)

            But I would agree that my own experiences have a huge impact on what I believe.. I could tell you story after story about how I have seen God at work. So many more than can be chalked up to coincidence. Without them would I be a person of faith? Probably not.

          • …so the difference between my paraphrase and what you wrote is…?
            “God acting in history” is your observation of his activity, and “God working in my life” is the experiences you have had. I don’t see where I’m misquoting you.

            The man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument. By your logic, I should be an atheist.

          • Miguel,

            I did not observe the resurrection, yet it provides a basis for my faith.

    • Apparently you are not an adherent to ethical egoism. I suggest all such persons are living in denial.

    • The point about sacrificial love, Larry, is that it doesn’t make sense in a materialist, survival-of-the-fittest world. People who are capable of it, Christians or others, care about something greater than the obvious “wisdom” of the world. Some of the greatest acts of sacrificial love I’ve received in my life have been from non-Christians — mostly Muslims — and some of the greatest nastiness I’ve had to cope with has come from Christians. I guess my point — and I should have made this clearer — is that the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 can’t be sufficiently explained or justified by worldly philosophy.

      • I know many humanists who would disagree. It may not make sense from your perspective, but it certainly makes sense to them. Is the only reason we love people is because Christ loved us? Maybe our world is not filled with “materialistic, survival-of-the-fittest” type people, but also includes other who help others because they see that others have dignity and worth.

        • “Is the only reason we love people is because Christ loved us?” Well, ultimately, yes, whether we know it or not. The only reason we exist and have any goodness in us at all is because Christ loved us. And it’s the fact that we are loved by Christ that gives us the dignity and worth that you mention — again, whether we recognize it or not.

        • but also includes other who help others because they see that others have dignity and worth.

          I doubt it. Man is terminally self-interested and ultimately incapable of altruism. Sure, everybody makes what he perceives to be a “sacrifice for the greater good,” but were they not convinced it was in their own best interest, you better believe they won’t. Everyone with a cause has an ulterior motive, whether they realize it or not.

      • cermak_rd says

        Actually survival of the fittest may explain why humans can feel empathy and therefore exhibit self-sacrificial love. Humans evolved to be social animals. Which means fittest in that context probably involved being able to experience empathy for others.

  3. These three virtues, based on 1 Corinthians 13:13, have been the foundation of Christian education and discipleship since ancient times. The early church developed different “Enchiridion,” handbooks of Christian piety, designed to instruct the faithful in a life of faith, hope, and love. At the time of the Reformation, these three virtues also formed the basis of Luther’s Small (and I’m sure other) Catechism. Love was taught through the 10 commandments, which serve as a good summary of loving behavior and guide towards right treatment of our neighbors, faith was summarized through the Apostles’ Creed, which told us what our faith was in, and hope was summarized in the Lord’s prayer, which taught us which things to trust in God for. I’m sure the decalogue, creed, and Our Father aren’t completely exhaustive treatises on the nature of faith, hope, and love, but they certainly do cover their most important substance, and serve as an excellent foundation and starting place for Christian discipleship. I find them worth meditating on daily in order that, even though I do not live, believe, and trust as I should, keeping them constantly before me gives light to my path.

  4. What if what the skeptic called psycho semantic was actual real life experiences with God? A man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument. I enjoy reading your conversations.

  5. Here is a satirical piece written about the virtues gained thru over-immersion in dumbed-down Churchianity.

    Perhaps the first virtue is NOT thankfulness…. but perspective… 😉 Or else…. humor…. 😉

    An Advanced Degree in Thinking
    By Robert Winkler Burke
    Book #4 of In That Day Teachings

    What I needed was a retarded,
    Oops! I mean, advanced degree in thinking,
    So I immersed myself in fantastic,
    Oops! I mean, enlightened Christian preaching.

    Me and tens of millions of deceived,
    Oops! I mean, Christians genius did this,
    So on elections we would be fooled,
    Oops! I mean, ruled without prejudice.

    We also learned when fleeced how to stop it,
    Oops! I mean, to not touch God’s own anointed,
    So when voting for US President our trance,
    Oops! I mean, our spirit picked the one appointed.

    I just thank God for my education from antichrist,
    Oops! I mean Christian broadcasting,
    I’m happy, no honored, to send money to them,
    Oops! I mean to Mandarins governing.

    People who don’t understand my compliance, I hate,
    Oops! I mean, I kindly, compassionately tolerate,
    Who cares? Our leaders from pulpit to capitol devour,
    Oops! I mean, have our best interests at stake.

    My pulpit and political leaders fly high in their hubris,
    Oops! I mean, wonderful executive jets,
    My pulpit and political leaders are selfish cannibals,
    Oops! I mean, selfless workers for my best!

    Christian Broadcast has made me profoundly un-American,
    Oops! I mean, the perfect patriot,
    When demagogues speak and do evil, I’m so deaf and blind,
    Oops! I mean, I’ll agree to hate not.

    My friends say my brain is full of twisted propaganda,
    Oops! I mean: so Christ-like and Christ-emanating,
    They see the doctrines I was immersed uncritically in,
    Oops! They’re now arrested, due for terminating.

    Behold, Jesus is now in my refined soul quickly coming!
    Oops! I mean: I’ll soon be raptured,
    I’m not lazy, but it’s fun to know evil is mind numbing!
    Oops! Which god has me captured?

  6. Christiane says


    thank you for sharing your reflections . . .

    I read what you wrote about ‘hope’ and it brought back memories of something I had written after the death of Elizabeth Edwards from cancer, in response to a Southern Baptist minister who was not that ‘into’ hope:

    ‘When Elizabeth Edwards was dying, she left a message to be shared with everyone, after she had gone on ahead:
    “And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human.
    But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious.”

    It was shared also at the funeral just how strong Elizabeth’s Christian hope was:
    that she saw her death as a way to possibly be able to see her son Wade again. He had died as a teenager in a car accident, and she had the faith that she might see him again after her death, God willing. She had visited his grave everyday for two years until she became pregnant again, so deeply was he loved by his mother.

    Maybe hope doesn’t seem very important until its the only thing that seems important.
    And if hope can give a dying woman the faith that she may be with her dead son again in the Kingdom of Our Lord, then her hope is stronger than fear, indeed it is written that perfect love has the power to cast out fear.
    I believe, in the way of my faith, that Elizabeth is with her son Wade, and that they are both at peace in the Presence of the Lord.’ I have very great reason for my hope.

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