When I enrolled in the History of Ideas program at The College at Southeastern, I expected classes in apologetics against the “enemies” of the faith. The program is designed to introduce students to the texts of great thinkers and philosophers — from Homer, Plato and Aristotle to Mary Shelley and Locke. These texts introduced me to concepts I had never considered. And I was not prepared for what awaited me.
I was blindsided by the arguments presented by these texts, particularly those of virtue and vice. In The Iliad, virtue seemed to be subjective in humans, and even more so in the gods. Both humans and gods used vice as an advantage to conquer their enemies. If the gods behaved no better than humans, where could I find pure virtue? I began to question whether Yahweh resembled these gods. Was there vice behind His motives? Could I truly trust Him?
Nothing had ever shaken my faith as the History of Ideas program, which is the last thing you expect from a Christian college at a baptist seminary. If Yahweh was in fact like these other gods, was my hope an illusion? Was it all just a façade? As I desperately searched Scripture for answers, I was confronted with my own identity — pure vice. An unexpected identity crisis arose inside me. Where could I find perfect virtue? Each class I took seemed to diminish God as these thinkers’ questions probed my life.
The gods exhibited jealousy, revenge, anger and selfishness, while humanity often acted more virtuously than the gods. Who then could I believe? Man or god? Yahweh’s character continued to elude me.
Yet I searched Scripture for answers, and I found Yahweh to be in control of all and unchanging. Throughout Scripture I saw an absolute separation between Yahweh’s perfect virtuous character and that of man. So wide was this chasm that now I felt completely separated from God. He had taught me His perfect character but the possibility of acquiring this virtue for myself seemed nonexistent.
Bound by Darkness
As we studied the difference between the physical forms and the transcendent immutable ideals that shape us, I sought to find the “ideal” virtue form that I could follow. But as in Plato’s analogy of the cave, I too felt tied and bound to my own ideas, incapable of rising from my darkness. Freedom from my wretchedness seemed impossible. I found myself asking Paul’s question, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) How could I break my bonds? How could acquire this mysterious virtue?
Plato explains that our ascent from darkness is illuminated by the wisdom found outside of the cave. However, when we first step out of the cave the bright light of perfection makes us shy away and run back to the cave. To appropriate ourselves with pure virtue it is necessary to step out in to the light. We must give our eyes time to adjust to the strong glare. I found that my eyes would not adjust, preventing me from what I intensely desired. Simply meditating on the ideal forms of virtue alone did not make me ascend out of the cave.
Plato defined virtue’s perfection only to mock me by leaving it out of reach in the metaphysical realm. Knowing about it did nothing to build virtue within me. Plato became the fire in my own cave that projected doubts on God. I started to believe all God was doing was mocking my vile helplessness by leaving virtue out of reach.
Later, I studied Aristotle. He argued that these pure forms were in fact attainable by actively living each ideal form out until a perfect balance between virtue and vice is reached. He called it the Golden Mean. Was this potentially a way for me to achieve perfect virtue? Plato’s forms defined virtue. Aristotle’s Mean taught me how to potentially achieve it.
I compared my new findings with Scripture and found, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). It was necessary for me to “live” out my faith. Meditation on Scripture alone without obedience is like a house built on sand — it will fall. I had to live out the “ideals” of Scripture to change my character and be conformed to Christ.
The Triune God knew that there had to be an atonement sacrifice for sinners. Knowing this was not enough to redeem humans. Christ, in bodily form and in active obedience, had to die and be the atoning sacrifice to redeem humans. And in Him I found the upmost example of true virtue. This is who I had to emulate and strive to imitate. True perfect virtue, both in ideal form and in practice, was found in and through Christ alone.
True virtue is not derived from within us or the gods but in Christ, the embodiment of virtue itself.
Though I had the perfect example to mirror, achieving this perfection proved impossible. It was not enough to look virtuous because Scripture called me to become like Christ. There had to be a change in identity. But the vice of my sinful selfishness to glorify the self and de-throne God become a usurper of His authority. The true character of vice was staring right back when I looked in the mirror.
There seemed to be a monster inside me that did not let up and wanted to indulge in every selfish pleasure — much like the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This monster gazed on his reflection and saw his vileness. He could not change the monstrous form in which he was created. Neither could I change the monstrosity of sinfulness within that continued to pull me back down to the bondage of the cave.
Yet the monster continued to desire an intimate relationship where he could find mutual benevolence. Mary Shelley’s theme of relationships demonstrated that how others related to the Monster caused him either to go into outrage or love deeply. Even Dr. Frankenstein himself shied away from gazing upon the horrific work of his hands.
But God was different. He turned His gaze upon my vile life, showing benevolence to the work of His hands. Our creator “will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” Zephaniah 3:17. I could not change who I was, but the relationship initiated by the perfected loving Yahweh drew me nearer to Him.
That perfect ideal form of virtue was unreachable, but Emmanuel came. The logos of virtue became flesh. In the person of Jesus Christ humanity casts its eye on the utmost ideal form of virtue and action. He endows us with His perfection through His atoning sacrifice. Not only does He gaze upon us with “loud singing,” but He gives to us His very essence. No longer is He just our creator, but He becomes our Father. Dr. Frankenstein regretted his creation. God, however, saw our helplessness and He became monstrous by taking sin upon himself that we in turn may be clothed with majesty. By imputing upon us grace and forgiveness we receive the Holy Spirit. He, in and through us, enables us to achieve perfect virtue.
I had been brought from vice to ultimate perfection. The chasm had been bridged by His redemption. Perfect virtue was brought down to me so I could grasp it. I had found the embodiment of perfect virtue itself. The texts of The Iliad, Plato’s Cave, Aristotle’s Golden Mean and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein helped me see that true virtue is not derived from within us or from the pantheon of the gods but in Christ, the embodiment of virtue itself.
The thinkers from the History of Ideas program tore down my faith to give way to the perfect glorious light of Christ. But it was in and through their concepts that my faith was strengthened. The very same questions that probed my heart allowed me to find the answers in Christ. Christ became not only the God of my heart, but also the God of my mind.