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Sunday, August 20, 2017
Date Posted:

The Law of God - The Touchstone Of The Protestant Ethics - Part 3

By Professor W. Childs Robinson, D.D. Columbia Theological Seminary, An Address given at the Edinburgh Calvanistic Congress in 1938 IN FOUR PARTS
Professor W. Childs Robinson


(B) The Path of Virtue

In his Stones of Venice, John Ruskin has called attention to an interesting illustration of the levity with which the virtures were treated by the pagan spirit of the Renaissance.  Writing about the capitals of the facades on the Ducal Palace in Venice, he says: “The point I have here to notice is in the copy of the ninth capital, which was decorated … with the figures of the eight Virtures – Faith, Hope, Charity, Justice, Temperance, Humility (the Venetian antiquaries call it Humanity!), and Fortitude.  The Virtures of the fourteenth century are somewhat hard-featured; with vivid and living expression, and plain everyday clothes of the time.  Charity has her lap full of apples (perhaps loaves), and is giving one to a little child, who stretches his arm for it across a gap in the  leafage of the capital.  Fortitude tears open a lion’s jaw; Faith lays her hand on her breast, as she beholds the Cross; and Hope is praying, while above her a hand is seen emerging from sunbeams - the hand of God (according to that of Revela­tion, ‘The Lord giveth them light’); and the inscription above is, ‘Spes optima in Deo,’

“This design, then, is, rudely and with imperfect chiselling imitated by the fifteenth‑century workmen:  The Virtues have lost their hard features and living expression; they have now all got Roman noses, and have had their hair curled. Their actions and emblems are, however, preserved until we come to Hope: she is still praying, but she is praying to the sun only: The hand of God is gone.”


Modern paganism rejects the virtues inculcated by the Redeemer and substitutes might for right, success for justice, force for love, Mut for Demut.  Ancient paganism correlated the virtues with the soul and with society, but being unable to rise above the human plane found no unifying principle, no sanctifying  grace.  Aristotle's trichotomy and the three classes in Plato's Republic offered ready foundations for three primary virtues, one applicable to each soul and to each class in society, namely, temperance, courage and wisdom.  Then presiding over the whole is justice.  Other classical philosophers list truth, justice and benevolence as the cardinal virtues.  The Peripatetics and the Stoics realised the need for a unifying principle among the virtues, but were unable to find it.

That unity is only discovered when holiness, likeness to God, is made the foundation of virtue. The Bible presents the whole path of virtue in its brief admonition, Be ye holy for I am holy.  J. H. Thornwell pointed out that the Bible is distin­ guished from all other ethical  systems  by the prominence which it gives to the moral character of the object of worship.  The Scriptures stress the holiness of God as the fundamental nature of the Divine character. Consequently the holiness of God is the standard of right and the ground of virtue. The sacred writers point beyond conscience and ground our love of holiness in our love for the Holy One of Israel.  The light of the knowledge of the glory of God as it shines in the face of Jesus Christ is used by the Spirit to evoke our love, devotion, and praise.  In loving God we love what is right and good, we embrace in principle the whole plenitude of virtue. The very essence of a holy nature in man is love to God, sympathy with the Divine perfection, a state of soul which harmonises with the Divine character. And the effectual call of the Holy Spirit brings one into union and communion with God and so produces the new man which after God is created in righteousness and  true holiness (Eph. iv. 24). The everlasting contemplation of the Lord is used by the Spirit to motivate our wills and draw out our energies toward the good and the right.  The action and reaction of God's grace upon us and of our souls upon Him is thus the source of virture and the cause of blessedness.


In the Mediaeval Church the emphasis fell upon the Virtue of Knowledge, first as a means of  understanding the Virtue of Faith. But Knowledge was separated from Faith when Thomas Aquinas recognised two separate domains of Know ledge ‑ Divine and Secular.  Then the latter set up for itself over against the former as sufficient in itself, and so was born the humanistic spirit of modern philosophy. Thus separated from God, the Virtue of Knowledge was corrupted and terminated in humanism. However, Calvin destroyed the gap between Faith and Knowledge by defining Faith as Knowledge Revealed and so returned to the Augustinian view of God's Wisdom as the judge of the human mind.  Moreover, the Reformers regarded  the Divine Knowledge revealed in Scripture not as an end in itself, but as a means to the  other virtues. Reading, meditation, prayer and the preaching of the Word were in order to a pious life.  Knowledge is the instrumental, piety the generic, virtue.


Calvin wrote the Institutes to “lay down some elementary principles by which inquirers on the subject of religion might be instruced in the nature of true piety”. Therein the essence of piety is presented as the consecration of the whole self,  including the bodily appetites and desire to God (Rom. xii. 1‑2), which consecration involves “self‑denial” and “cross‑bear­ing.” The former does not mean the wanton denying of the blessings of life. We are to receive not only those good things which meet our needs, but also those that give us pleasure with thankful acknowledgment to God, the Giver thereof.   But when we are hindered in securing these  things we are likewise to see the guiding hand of the Heavenly Father and have patience in  pain and fortitude in disappointment.  Self­ denial is, thus, the acknowledgment of God rather than of   self in the whole area of our experience. It is living continually out of the Father‑hand of God.

The painful side of piety, “bearing one's cross,” is God's way of exhibiting in His children the several virtues which are manifestations of piety; somewhat as the First Epistle of Peter exhorts us not to regard sufferings as strange things, but as means which God uses to separate us from our sins. “But if God Himself acts justly, when, to prevent the virtues which He has conferred on believers from being concealed in obscurity and remaining useless and perishing, He furnishes an occasion for exciting them ‑ there is the best of reasons for the afflictions of the saints, without which they would have no patience.”  Similarly, Piety generates Obedience and Charity. “How extremely difficult it is for you to discharge your duty in seeking the advantage of your neighbour!  Unless you quit all selfish considerations, and as it were lay aside yourself, you will effect nothing in this duty.  For how can you perform those which Paul inculcates as works of charity, unless you renounce yourself and devote yourself wholly to serve others?”

Further, Courage or Fortitude results from Piety. “It is a source of peculiar consolation when we suffer persecution ‘for righteousness’ sake.’ For then we ought to reflect how greatly we are honoured by God, when He thus distinguishes us with the peculiar characteristic of His service.”


The certitude, which the very gift of faith coveyed, that God was eternally for the believer, and the realisation that God’s glory was the end of one’s being, supplied the dynamics of a fortitude which enabled Calvinists to organise churches in spite of civil persecution. To the handful of Protestants who gathered in the home of Stephan de la Farge, Calvin insisted that if God be for us none can be against us, and ere long the banner of the Reformation was lifted over the University of Paris by Nicholas Cop, and despite dungeon, fire and rack, continued to float over Huguenot, Dutch “Beggar” and Scottish Covenanter.  In the crucial tests of life the heart that is directed to the honour of God has more fortitude than one that is sustained by the desire for self‑glory.  As this is being written, the daily papers are recording the list of suicides in connection with a great turn‑over in a Central European power. The fortunes of the nation shifted, and when there seemed no place for the affirmation of self or the realisation of national aims many leading figures took their own lives, and in some cases the lives of members of their families.  But God implants a fortitude that supports His people when the fortunes of life have gone against them, so that His servant Job sings, Though He slay me yet will I trust Him.  “It is Gospel humility that makes the true patriot, the friend, the man who is superior to every form of physical and temporal ill.”  The day calls for men who can live as seeing Him that is invisible.  We need the Word of God as it was preached by Calvin that we may again have those who do not fear the face man.

In the portrait representing England, St. George is accompanied by Fortitude and Purity, carrying his armour and bearing his banner. The former of these Virtues we have just studied.  Accordingly we may close this survey of representative Virtues by pointing out the deeper reach of the God‑affirmation of Christianity than of the self‑affirmation or the self‑realisation of paganism in reference to the Virtue of Purity. As long as the eye of the world is on the natural man, pride prompts him to act properly; but the Word of the Lord reminds one that His Presence is in every place, in the house of Potiphar, in the mill and the counting‑house, as truly as in Bethel. Nay more, the Sermon on the Mount throws the searchlight of Heaven farther than any modern psycho‑analysis has ever gone into the darkest recesses and foulest corners of our souls.  The more one realises that one lives every moment under the eye of the Heavenly Father, the more the coram Deo makes for purity in life and word and thought.

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