Every year The Living Church‘s student essay contest draws several excellent submissions. The first-place essay will be published in the October issue of The Living Church magazine, but several other essays were of such quality that we have decided to publish them here on Covenant. 

By Jay B. Thomas

The eschatological status of non-Christians and their ability to interact with or participate in the “abundant life” (cf. John 10:10) of Christ is a perennially vexing question in Christian theology; the situation of those who lived before Christ or who have never heard the explicit gospel message is particularly so. Although the salvific implications of this question are outside the scope of this article, the problem remains present within moral and ethical realms. Since “every good and perfect gift is from [God]” (James 1:17), then any goodness, truth, or beauty within the world ought to be ascribed to God. However, as Paul teaches, those who do not know God (vis-à-vis the gospel proclamation) are not morally neutral  — quite the opposite actually — because “the wrath of God is revealed…against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Rom. 1:18-9). For most of us, though, this seems to push against our sensibilities. Living in a pluralistic environment, we interact with coworkers, friends, and relatives who, although not Christian, live apparently virtuous lives. In fact, we can probably name more than a few who seem to live better and more abundant lives than ourselves! This all seems to beg the question of whether a holistic virtue ethic can exist apart from the unique Christian revelation and the theological virtues. In a technical sense: can a pagan be truly virtuous?

At the root of this question is an underlying discussion about what constitutes a virtuous person. The Christian tradition has largely adopted the language of classical (and thereby, pagan) philosophers to lay the foundation of its virtue-ethic tradition. At the risk of stating the obvious, this borrowing within the classical tradition is what instigates this question in the first place. If the very root of our tradition of virtue is not of a Judeo-Christian origin, then how could we possibly claim that a pagan cannot be virtuous?

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The four virtues that come from the pagan traditions are what we now call cardinal virtues: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. Besides being simply ancient virtues that have stood the test of time — like valued relics in a museum lobby — as Jean Porter comments, these virtues are “perennial, yet always timely.”[1] Although Porter will go on to cast doubt about the perennial status of justice, its timelessness as a classical virtue is unquestioned by most.

To these cardinal virtues, the Christian tradition adds what are termed the theological virtues: “faith, hope, and love.”[2] From a biblical perspective, these virtues are the three things that will abide even unto the eschaton. Therefore, from a temporal context, they precede, and will ultimately outlast, the cardinal virtues. But the theological virtues do not stand in opposition to the cardinal; rather, they are mutually complementary. The cardinal virtues, you might say, are part of a secular framework that — similar to natural revelation — is available to all people, at all times, and in all places; the theological virtues are infused by the Holy Spirit through grace.[3] From a Christian perspective, therefore, the truly virtuous person is one whose life is governed by the naturally attainable cardinal virtues and graced by the infused theological virtues.

However, because the theological virtues can only be attained by the grace of God, we go back to our presenting issue: are “virtuous” pagans even a technical possibility? Can you be truly virtuous without the theological virtues? And if not, can you obtain the theological virtues as a pagan? In The City of God, Augustine contends that “the virtues which [an individual] seems to itself possess, and by which [that individual] restrains the body and the vices that [they] may obtain and keep what [they] desire, are rather vices than virtues so long as there is no reference to God in the matter” (XIX.25). Augustine seems to be working from a reading of the first chapter of Romans which holds that, due to natural revelation, fallen humanity is able to grasp at — and even potentially attain to — these naturally revealed virtues. And yet, because we are blinded by our own righteousness, we will never refer these virtues to God; in essence these virtues become merely “splendid vices.”[4]

However, I contend that Augustine’s framework in understanding the virtues in this way is fundamentally misconstrued. Augustine’s reading misses what Paul appears to allude to in his sermon in the Areopagus. In addressing the very Greeks who coined the cardinal virtues, Paul comments that God “made from one man every nation of mankind … that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26-7). In the possibility of these pagans finding God, I think we can hear his overtones of subtly affirming the classical virtue systems. However, since we can only truly find God through his own revelation to us, I think we have to ask the question, then, of whether this “finding God” is an attainment or culmination of the cardinal virtues, or if it is the infusion of theological virtues even in a pre-Christ dispensation.

In introducing us to the theological virtues, Josef Pieper writes:

Theological virtue is an ennobling of man’s nature that entirely surpasses what he ‘can be’ of himself. Theological virtue is the steadfast orientation toward a fulfillment and a beatitude that are not ‘owed’ to natural man. Theological virtue is the utmost degree of a supernatural potentiality for being.[5]

This supernatural potential must be infused by the Holy Spirit; however, this begs the question of whether that infused grace is what Paul already referred to in Acts: “God made … mankind … that they should seek God.” This is a supernatural predisposition; it is infused into humanity’s basic tendencies. In potentially finding God, can we possibly infer anything other than that they were infused with some aspect of faith, hope, and love? Pieper would go on to insist that “this supernatural potentiality for being is grounded in a real, grace-filled participation in the divine nature, which comes to man through Christ.”[6]

His concluding Christological emphasis therefore confines this supernatural potentiality to the impact of the Christ-act, which is a unique, historic, and temporal event. However, since Christ is the divine Word who was in the beginning giving light to everyone (cf. John 1:1 and 1:9) and through whom all things were created and hold together (cf. Colossians 1:15-7), I question whether we can confine the impact of the Christ-event to either the first century in Palestine or only to those — after that event — who heard and accepted the implications of the Christ-event.

Christ’s redemptive actions precede all other actions; to place them temporally is a necessity of the Incarnation, but to bound them temporally is to bind the actions of the God who is outside of time and who is the Creator of time itself. Therefore, although I concur with Pieper that the theological virtues, and subsequently the potentiality of a truly virtuous person, are derivative of a “participation in the divine nature, which comes to man through Christ,” I think we should be cautious of withholding this divine participation from those pagans who preceded Christ (or who may be totally unaware of Christ’s message).

Therefore, in line with the tradition which precedes me, I affirm that in order to be truly virtuous one must attain naturally to the cardinal virtues and be infused by the Holy Spirit with the theological virtues. I speculate, though, that even with that definition, a pagan can be considered virtuous. Those pagans who are inclined toward the cardinal, who are committed to a modicum of living courageously, temperately, justly, and prudently, are pagans feeling their way toward God. They are acting, not on their own devices, but are following the leading of the divine. As those created in the image of God, they are participating through that image with the one in whom “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Through this participation they have “[fastened their] will on the highest being”[7] and are exercising — possibly unbeknownst to them — an act of hope, a theological virtue.

For many, the rational conclusion of this discussion would be to continue this speculation in regards to its implications on a non-Christian’s salvific destiny. However, especially as we inhabit an increasingly pluralistic world,  it is important for us to be able to engage with our fellow humans at the level of virtue, while dealing theologically with our post-Reformation era that has trapped us in an inability to distinguish between a positive virtue-ethic and salvific righteousness. The solution to both of these issues is the Christ-act. In Christ, we participate in the fullness of the divine life which ultimately provides for our salvific destiny, and yet, also in Christ — the divine Word — we encounter the enabler of participation in the theological virtues. Therefore, without commenting upon the eschatological destiny of the virtuous pagan, I think we can affirm their ability to be truly virtuous, not as a function of the cardinal virtues alone, but as a participation by divine assistance — to some speculative extent — in the theological virtues as well.

The Rev. Jay Thomas (B.S., U.S. Naval Academy) is a senior at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He is a former Nuclear Surface Warfare Officer in the Navy, and now serves as a Chaplain Candidate in the Naval Reserve and Transitional Deacon in the Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy.


[1] Jean Porter, “Perennial and Timely Virtues,” Concilium: Revue Internationale de Theologie, No. 191 (June 1987), 61.

[2] Daniel Westberg, Renewing Moral Theology: Christian Ethics as Action, Character and Grace (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 156.

[3] William C. Mattison, Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 313.

[4] A phrase commonly attributed to Augustine because of his aforementioned quote in The City of God. Cf. Westberg, Renewing Moral Theology, 153.

[5] Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 99.

[6] Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 99.

[7] Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 99.

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C R SEITZ
1 month ago

Congratulations on this award. I guess the question is whether Acts 17 is headed in the direction you wish to give one verse of it. Verses 30-31 consist of Paul’s final admonition. Article 13 clearly lines up with Augustine, as well. “Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ; neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and… Read more »