Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Some thoughts on virtue, grace and character education (with a little help from John Owen)

John Owen (1616-1683)

“Education without values, as useful as it is,
 seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” 
C. S. Lewis
'Character education' is one of the Big Things in the world of schooling right now. In the private sector they've been at it for years. Former Master of Wellington College, Anthony Seldon is often regarded as the doyenne of character education. He famously introduced wellbeing or happiness classes during his time in charge of one of the UK's top private education establishments. Alongside forced (make that 'encouraged' in the light of the recent policy u-turn) academisation, character education is also a key aspect of Nicky Morgan's education policy. A lot of thought has been given to this in recent years. The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues, attached to Birmingham University is devoted to researching character education and has produced some useful material in the field, including its Framework for Character Education in Schools. A renewed interest in education as character formation has trickled down to the level of local schools, where you're as likely to hear headteachers speaking about the 'resilience' of their students as their Sats/GCSE/A-Level results. 

Character education goes beyond a school's 'values'; things like 'Creativity', 'Success' and 'Respect', and crosses into the territory of moral formation. The Jubilee Centre's core virtues include; Courage, Justice, Honesty, Compassion for others, Self-discipline, Gratitude and Humility. These help to give definition to what is sometimes called a 'sense of moral purpose'. I think the author C. S, Lewis, cited at the top of this post, would have approved. He was evidently worried that even in his day education was in danger of becoming a utilitarian value-free zone, where what mattered was a student's cleverness rather than his or her character. Saying that, the Jubilee Centre's work is not altogether free from utilitarian influences. They advocate a value-laded approach to education not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because it works,   'The research evidence is clear: schools that are values driven have high expectations and demonstrate academic, professional and social success.'

But what's good old John Owen got to do with it? Well, I'm currently reading through Volumes 13-16 of his collected works in preparation for contributing a paper to a 'Reading John Owen Conference' at the Evangelical Library to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth. Owen was a 17th century Puritan theologian. He is often regarded as one of England's greatest theological minds (although, as his surname suggests, he had Welsh roots). Owen found himself a marginalised Nonconformist after the Restoration of the Monarchy. He was a keen advocate of toleration for Nonconformists and argued against the imposition of Anglicanism by the State. It was in that context that Owen gave close attention to the relationship between moral virtue and grace that is of relevance here.

Of course, the Puritan theologian's religious context was very different to our own, and he was not out to address the issue of 'character education' as it is commonly understood today. There is always a danger of anachronism when we bring the views of a historical figure into dialogue with a contemporary issue. But with that qualifier duly in place, it struck me that what Owen had to say has a bearing on a the development of a distinctively Christian attitude towards character education in the 21st century.

In the late 17th century Owen engaged in controversy with Anglican apologist, Samuel Parker, penning, Truth and Innocence Vindicated: A Survey of A Discourse Concerning Ecclesiastical Polity, and the Authority of the Civil Magistrate Over the Consciences of Subjects in Matters of Religion (Works of John Owen, Volume 13, p. 343-506). Parker had argued that it was the duty of the magistrate (the civil authority) to uphold virtue. Virtue, he continued was a key aspect of Christian faith and worship. The magistrate therefore had the right to 'command anything in the worship of God that doth not tend to debauch men's practices or to disgrace the deity'. Further, that, all subordinate duties, both of morality and religious worship are equally subject to the determination of human authority.' (p. 410). 

Owen's aim was to show the Christian faith, life and worship are subject to the determination of the Lord Jesus and the rule of the Word of God, He does not deny that it was the duty of the civil authority to promote moral virtue in its citizens, but virtue is not the same as what he called 'graces'. According to Owen, Christian conduct and worship are graces, not simply virtues. Indeed, as he demonstrates, the language of 'moral virtue' used by Parker is foreign to Scripture, owing more to Aristotle than the Bible. While Owen would not ban it from Christian theology altogether, he much preferred Scriptural expressions such as 'repentance toward God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, or the fear of God, of holiness, righteousness, living to God, walking with God, and before him.' (p. 412-413). 

As far as 'moral virtues' are concerned, Owen understands them to be 'duties of the law'. That is 'the law of nature' or 'the law of our creation', to which Paul refers in Romans 2:14-15. This law is written on the hearts of all human beings and is summarised in the Ten Commandments. Moral virtues, then 'consist in the universal observance of the requisites and precepts of the law of our creation, and dependence upon God thereby' (p. 413). Owen acknowledges that these duties 'may be performed by men in their own strength' apart from the 'assistance of the Spirit or the sanctifying grace of Christ' (p. 414). These duties may indeed be regarded as 'virtues' and Owen does not belittle their worth, 'Good they are in themselves, useful to mankind, and seldom in the providence of God go without their reward in this world' (p. 414). 

To deny the reality of these moral virtues is to descend into a morass of moral relativism, 'Thus we grant moral virtue to have been in the heathens of old, for this is that alone whereby they were distinguished amongst themselves: and he that would exclude them all from any interest in moral virtue takes away all difference between Cato and Nero...and overthrows all natural difference between good and evil' (p. 414). But that is not to say that no distinction is to be made between moral virtue and grace, or that moral virtues performed apart from gracious assistance are accepted by God. For that would be tantamount to Pelagianism. 

The difference between moral virtue and graces is not to be understood in terms of what is right and wrong in itself. The 'law of creation' or the 'light of nature' is rooted in man's creation in the image of God. Grace does not destroy nature, but rather redeems and perfects it. Spiritual graces, however, are not the product of human effort, but are the result of "the effectual working of the Spirit of God in and upon the minds and souls of believers, thereby quickening them when they were 'dead in trespasses and sins,' regenerating them, creating a new heart in them, implanting his image upon them." (p. 415-416). In other words, graces are evangelical; an effect of the life-transforming gospel of Christ. 

While the state may rightly seek to promote virtuous conduct in line with the 'light of nature', it has no power to produce gospel graces. These graces are the fruit of the gospel and go way beyond general moral duties. They include repentance from sin, faith in Christ's atoning work, seeking forgiveness, wholehearted obedience to God, self-denial, taking up the cross and the mortification of sin. Owen concludes, 'To persuade us now unto a religion, as respects to God, without those duties which arise from the consideration of sin and a Redeemer, is to persuade us to throw away our Bibles.'  (p. 420-421). 

On the relationship between virtue and grace the divine was able to say, "It is granted that wherever grace is there is virtue; for grace will produce and effect all virtues in the soul whatever. But virtue, on the other side, may exist where there is no grace; which is sufficient to prove a distinction between them." (p. 426). Had he denied that grace produces virtue, Owen would have severed the link between nature and grace, creation and new creation. Such a denial would also have been tantamount to antinomianism, given his insistence upon the link between the 'law of nature' and the Decalogue. Not all virtue, however is evangelical virtue, which is the fruit of the gospel and receives its distinctive character from the sanctifying power of Christ in the believer.  The fruit of the Spirit, delineated in Galatians 5:22-23 are no mere 'moral virtues', then, but gospel 'graces'.

But that does not mean moral virtues should be disparaged. Owen would much rather a Cato to a Nero. Reformed theology has traditionally deployed the category of 'common grace' to describe God's work in restraining sin and promoting moral virtue through the civil authorities and cultural influences. In terms of 'Two Kingdoms' theology, this is the realm of the 'common kingdom' where believers work side by side with non-believers in pursuit of the common good. Christians may have a beneficial impact on the life of the common kingdom, where they act as 'salt and light' (Matthew 5:13-16). As such, Christians will be supportive of character education in state schools and want to include moral formation in their vision for 'common kingdom' education alongside the teaching of academic and vocational knowledge and skills.

This is one of the areas where the Christian faith does not confront the culture, so much as confirm and complete it. I say 'complete it', because what character education and moral formation is aiming at; producing people who will pursue the good life, comes into its own in the gospel. Christianity teaches the moral frailty of all human beings. That does not mean we are all as bad as can be, but that however commendable may be our outward conduct in many respects, we are all sinners and that makes us morally flawed people. The unfailingly honest may sometimes be cruelly blunt. More sensitive souls may be tempted to tell a so-called 'white lie' rather than confront someone with an unpalatable truth that they need to hear. The answer to these inconsistencies is not a little more moral teaching, but a radical change of heart. No amount of character education can do that.

As Jesus said to Nicodemus, a deeply religious and moral man; "Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Now we are no longer in the domain of the 'common kingdom', but the 'redemptive kingdom' of grace. It is by the work of the Spirit that the heart is made new and 'graces' produced that are not merely useful to men, but pleasing to God through Christ, Romans 6:22-23. Jesus has entrusted the task of proclaiming the life-transforming message of salvation to the church. She is called to echo the words of her Master, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel." (Mark 1:15).

Character education is an excellent product of common grace. Heart transformation is the amazing work of God's special grace in Christ and by the power of his Spirit. Here we are not in the realm of 'British Values', but Kingdom Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-10.  

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