Are virtues splendid vices?

  Was Calvin Correct not to use Aristotle in his Institutes of the Christian Religion?

We are still on the Fallen image of God and the last paragraph page 147; Reformed Ethics; Herman Bavinck


At the same time, not only do we retain natural goods like eating, drinking, sleeping, and walking; some relative moral good also remains. We agree with Augustine that there can be no virtue without righteousness and no righteousness without faith, that the virtues of the pagans are but *splendid vices.” Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge gradations in evil even when pagans seek virtue to entertain themselves, to fulfil their desires, to exalt themselves in their own eyes. Acknowledging that certain pagan philosophers (Plato) said some sensible things about God and spiritual matters, Calvin judged that this only heightened their inexcusability; because they lacked faith, they also lacked true knowledge and true virtue.


What is this talk about splendid vices? As John Calvin says according to Bavinck that the Pagans did not have faith and they understood things about God and nature.  I remember a theologian from the USA say to me and a friend that there isn’t a lot of Aristotle in the Institutes of the Christian Religion.   I actually looked for references on Aristotle and I cannot remember if I saw any.  So Yes, Bavinck has done his homework.  I think epistemology is a very large and lively field (study of knowledge). 

I don’t agree with Bavinck, Calvin or Barth on writing the pagans off by the stroke of a pen.  The reason I say this is because science, ‘Scientia’, knowledge has to use the tools appropriate to its field.  The great T.F. Torrance in his theological science makes a point like that.  A lot of the questions we have about divinity were in a sense thrashed out by the Greek philosophers. The gods were found to be capricious and did things on a whim. 


Starting from a hypothesis and working to a conclusion is something we inherited from these Greek philosophers. These tools have been refined over the centuries, so we owe them something. When it comes to theology however and Christian theology; Is it appropriate to use the same tools as for example Aristotle and Plato used.

I think yes and no.   Some branches of the church have gone in full on and taken the Unmoved Mover in to its teachings.  Was this a good thing?  In some ways yes and in some ways no.  There is a relationship between the infinite and the finite.  Between God and the world.  This is a fact.


However, I think the content matter is found in the Bible and Theologians can come to it by faith and also using the natural faculties that God has given us by the Holy Spirit.  So as Christians I think we need to stick to the Biblical witnesses and use the tools of faith to come to conclusions.  I think Karl Barth’s idea of the infinite breaking into our time and space is one way forward.  What about natural theology?  I don’t have a problem with faith seeking understanding and find clues through the effects of creation, ‘Gods handprint’.  The problem I have is when theologians start by doubt like a good scientist in a laboratory.  This certainly does not work.  We need faith to seek understanding and the understanding is found in that loving relationship.  So, for me Calvin did the right thing to give Paganism the boot from his Institutes but at the same time it is a mistake not to interrogate the Pagans… We may grow and mature in our faith if we humble ourselves and realize that no one person has all the answers.

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