Recovering the Art of Christian Prudence

Wednesday, 01 Mar 2000

Prudence becomes essential where general rules leave off. Either-or solutions, leaving us to an easy antinomianism or an equally easy legalism, often stunt our moral growth.

To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding,
to receive the instruction of wisdom,
Justice, judgment, and equity;
To give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion ….
Proverbs 1:2-4

There is always a risk in writing on ethical topics, especially on a subject one has not mastered. But Christian prudence deserves our attention. Let me explain why I think it is such an important issue.

Legalism and Reverse Legalism

In Reformed circles, it’s often called the “cage phase”: that early period when young Calvinists ought to be held in a medium-security facility to ensure the safety of others and themselves. Not only is there the obvious theological revolution that occurs, generating excitement as well as a sense of disillusionment in one’s churched background; there is, for many of us who came from fundamentalist or evangelical circles, a newfound Christian liberty. The Gospel, we learn, is not only seen in a more revolutionary light but is experienced practically in a more revolutionary light. We realize that everyone we like and respect now generally appreciates certain simple and more refined pleasures of enjoying as well as glorifying God forever, pleasures that were previously associated with worldly compromise. For many of us, for example, the idea of having champagne at a wedding where we know we’ll see a lot of people from our former church kept us up the night before with dread. But before we know it, we’re practicing reverse legalism: the chief sign of one’s Reformed commitment is whether he or she enjoys a distilled beverage and dances at the wedding—and a cigar or two guarantees a credible profession of faith.

Often, brothers and sisters who don’t see things the way we do see what’s going on here better than do we: namely, that we are behaving selfishly and with an immature delight in offending others. Whereas the champagne is a “thing indifferent,” actively seeking to offend someone for the purposes of putting oneself on a pedestal is sinful—and, ironically, engages in the very self-righteousness that characterizes legalism.

On the other hand, there are those Christians who tend to think that the best way to ensure godly living is to find the correct rule and apply it rigorously. The infamous Pharisees of old were apparently so concerned about holy living (since obedience was thought to be the condition of the Messiah’s advent) that it was not enough to observe God’s commands. A parent with a two-year-old will not simply tell a child, “Don’t go into the pool!” but will put up a fence to make sure that the child does not get close enough to render that a possibility. Analogously, the idea was that if one could just be kept from tempting situations, one could be preserved (at least to a great extent) from sin. It is an easy way to live, at least for those who thought that righteousness is that simple.

Throughout church history, it’s been easier to be either an antinomian (see p. 31) or a legalist than to be a Christian. The ancient Gnostics (who considered matter evil) divided into these two extremes, just as the Colossians were under the influence of the “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” school while the Corinthians were having orgies at Communion. In our day, we are usually—at least in our circles—faced with more subtle extremes. Making rules for children is one thing, but in my ecclesiastical background these were not really regarded as questions of prudence—that was not even a category for me: They were questions of right and wrong. Dancing was a sin. When pressed for a biblical justification, defenders of these codes would often back down a bit and reply that although there isn’t a direct verse saying “thou shalt not dance,” the character of such events justified blanket prohibition. We didn’t have to check out each particular environment to discern whether it would be wise to dance in one but not in another. Just don’t dance!

The same routine occurred regarding a number of issues: reading secular literature, going to movies (although this is largely a nonissue now, even for youth groups), moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages, and so forth. It would be uncharitable and untrue to call these brothers and sisters pharisees. Nevertheless, parallels are discernable in certain respects. The approach to moral wisdom in both cases is to build up a hedge around God’s commands. If lust is sinful, one cannot read a novel in which the very presence of sexual misconduct is present, but this renders certain biblical narratives problematic. Just make a rule: That’s the approach. Years back, I saw the movie Fatal Attraction, one of the most disturbing stories I’ve seen in which the evil nature of adultery, and its insidious stages from seed to flower, left me with the distinct impression that this was a terrible thing to do. But I’ve seen other movies that are far less explicit and yet far more dangerous (if subtle) in their representation of such things as normal and natural. My wife’s conscience will not allow her to see certain movies or read certain books that I have no scruples taking in. In these circumstances, I would argue, there are no easy “black-and-white” answers. Truth comes in different forms and genres, some of them disturbing. Prudence becomes essential where general rules leave off. Either-or solutions, leaving us to an easy antinomianism or an equally easy legalism, often stunt our moral growth.

Prudence in “Worship Wars”

We see this polarization also in the “worship wars.” On one side, there are those who confuse their own idiosyncrasies with the regulative principle (see page 36) and allow no latitude in its application. And on the other, there are those who regard style and popular culture as neutral. If one can’t find a rule in Scripture for or against it, we have every reason to do it. Questions of prudence, which would require careful study of the rationales and practices of Christians in the past, understanding the specific pros and cons of our cultural context today, and thinking through the implications of sound theology for practice, become moot points. Thus, the same individual can exhort a fellow believer to refuse to join coworkers for a beer under the rubric of avoiding “the very appearance of evil,” while passionately embracing the worldliness of popular culture in worship and church growth strategies. And it can happen the other way around, too.

Just make a rule or just break a rule. I’ve been on both sides of that (and undoubtedly, still am more than I would like). Both relativists and antinomians on one end and absolutists and legalists on the other are more alike than either would like to admit. They have replaced prudence with their own will-worship, dispensing with the difficult, lifelong process of developing character—decision by decision in context after context. In the bargain, we have increasingly lost our ability to distinguish wise action from unwise action, opting instead for black-and-white, universal prescriptions. After all, isn’t the Bible a “handbook for life,” the “owner’s manual,” that provides the “rules of the road”? It’s easy, but it’s the “moral candy” that has left us malnourished in the face of particular ethical crises.

In the remaining space, I’d like to briefly sketch out the idea of prudence, its application in Calvin’s remarkable discussion of Christian liberty, and offer some concluding challenges for us.

“The Charioteer of All Virtues”

Not surprisingly, most of the references to prudence in Scripture are found in Proverbs. Prudence is distinguished from wisdom as a species from its genus. If wisdom is the general capacity for evaluating and following the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (which, Proverbs tells us, begins with theology—i.e., the fear of God), then prudence is that particular exercise of wisdom that involves discrimination. One does not need to exercise discretion in deciding whether to love God and one’s neighbor. One either does or doesn’t. But what about those “gray areas” where there is no explicit command? Here, where one is not necessarily bound to do—or refrain from doing—something, the next move is to assess the situation more particularly. Here, the specific context, not the general rule, guides moral reasoning: “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge and discretion” (Prov. 8:12). One not only is expected to do prudent things; rather, prudent things are done by a prudent person. The goal of character, Christian or otherwise, is to develop habits of picking up on both general biblical wisdom and particular, immediate contexts. We know a prudent person when we see one: “A fool’s wrath is known at once, but a prudent man covers shame” (Prov. 12:16). “The heart of the prudent acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (Prov. 18:15). If our only categories are “right” and “wrong,” we will miss the opportunities to develop a moral conscience, the character of a prudent person.

Plato called prudence “the charioteer of all virtues” (Phaedrus), but Aristotle developed this notion in a direction that many, including myself, regard as remarkably consistent with Scripture. (And why not? Aren’t we talking about civic righteousness and common grace?) In Book 2 of his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguished virtue as being of two kinds: intellectual, formed by teaching (experience plus time), and moral, formed by habit. In Greek, he points out, ethike “… is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).” People become builders by building, musicians by playing, and so forth. Aristotle emphasizes the fact that we are responsible not only for our actions, but for our lives—our character, who we are and who we become. (Again, we’re not in the realm here of redemption but of common grace.) Our culture today is starving for this sort of moral discourse, especially when the idea that we are passively shaped by our environment is so rife.

I think Aristotle would tell a mother who is worried about her children seeing any movies, reading any fiction, or hanging out with the wrong crowd, “Give them an alternative prize.” In other words, it is at least in part up to parents to provide an environment where truth, goodness, and beauty are known and experienced in depth. If children are gripped by the truth, they will less likely believe the latest lie. If they become intimate with that which is good, noble, and worthy of respect, they will be less inclined toward the shallow narcissism that feeds immorality in the first place. Familiar with lives of great men and women who were shaped by integrity and wisdom, they will at least have something to contrast with the trivial characters they see promoted in the culture. And they will only come to recognize the inferiority of that which is ugly by being familiar with that which is beautiful. Prudence is thereby molding character in such a manner that even where there is not a specific rule or defined expectation in a given situation, they will be able to size things up and make a mature decision. A rule-oriented existence usually stunts the moral growth of people and communities.

Granted, this approach is more difficult. It means that we need to invest a lot more in reflection on and actual participation in worthy pursuits that afford opportunities to appreciate truth, goodness, and beauty. C. S. Lewis talks about how we foolishly fool around with self-indulgent trivialities not because our passions are too great, but because they are too weak. We are like children making mud pies in the slums because we can’t even conceive of a holiday at the sea, he said. Once familiar with nobler things, we find ourselves becoming increasingly bored with error, evil, and ugliness. It’s not about saving ourselves but about cultivating character—something that Christians and non-Christians alike are capable of improving by God’s common grace.

Thomas Aquinas advanced Aristotle’s arguments in the high Middle Ages, distinguishing between Latin conscientia and Greek synderesis, the latter referring to that sense of right and wrong that cannot err (i.e., natural law), whereas the former refers to the faculty that must be developed and sometimes corrected. So it is because of synderesis that we can say that “one must avoid causing others pain,” but it is conscientia that evaluates whether in a particular case that general axiom is violated. The conscience (conscientia), then, is concerned with prudence. Medieval casuistry (the practice of coming up with “cases of conscience” in pastoral counseling) became a cottage industry, and although it was usually bound up with a moralistic scheme, this practice gave wide berth to the practice of evaluating the current situation. In fact, it revived the idea that “A prudent, understanding judge or agent can never treat universal laws or principles as absolute or invariable.” Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin explain:

There is always room for discretion in asking how far general rules, as they stand, apply to particular fresh cases, however marginal and ambiguous, and how far they should be waived or bent… to respect the exceptional character of novel situations…. Such a person possesses knowledge both of universal principle and of particular situations; is capable of drawing together memory of past experiences and foresight into future possibilities; and is able to recognize what is at issue in new and hitherto untried situations. The prudent person is aware that although the final end of human life is fixed by divine providence, the means to achieving that end are “of manifold variety according to the variety of persons and situations.” Thus one feature of prudent action is circumspectio, literally, “looking around.” (1)

It was particularly in the post-Reformation era that casuistry came into its own, however. Jesuits, ardent defenders of the pope, were masters at employing casuistry, although many people complained that their goal was to “rationalize” the ethical failures of important people. The English Puritans came up with a distinctive casuistry in which actual cases were raised that admitted no easy, black-and-white answer. Their goal was to educate the conscience, drawing on both the light of nature and the light of grace. Anglican and Puritan divine William Perkins’s Whole Treatise of Cases of Conscience (1606) represents a major contribution. In that book he begins by saying that such an exercise is essential since many Christians struggle with a heavy sense of guilt and “have either growne to phrensie and madness or els sorted unto themselves fearfull ends, some by hanging, some by drowning.” But, according to Jonsen and Toulmin, pietism and rationalism steadily diminished this practice with the triumph of legalism and the Enlightenment’s “universal morality.” (2)

Calvin on “Things Indifferent”

Despite its casuistry, medieval theology and pastoral practice were dominated by the penitential system in which moral life was largely rule-oriented. The reformers recovered the category of adiaphora, or “things indifferent.” Let me briefly highlight some of the points in Calvin’s helpful argument.

Calvin’s section on “Christian Liberty” follows his lengthy treatment of justification. Why treat a practical topic on the heels of such a lofty theological subject? Because liberty “is especially an appendage of justification and is of no little avail in understanding its power” (The Institutes of Christian Religion, 3.19.1). One cannot enjoy the “good news” and then live as if it isn’t true for him or her. Note how many times Calvin mentions the conscience: “[A]part from a knowledge of [Christian liberty] consciences dare undertake almost nothing without doubting; they hesitate and recoil from many things; they constantly waver and are afraid” (Institutes, 3.19.1). The legalism-license pendulum was familiar even in Calvin’s day:

For, as soon as Christian freedom is mentioned, either passions boil or wild tumults rise unless these wanton spirits are opposed in time, who otherwise most wickedly corrupt the best things…. Others disdain it, thinking that it takes away all moderation, order, and choice of things. What should we do here, hedged about with such perplexities? (Institutes, 3.19.1)

I know what many of my friends from my youth would say to this: with so many perplexities, don’t even open the can of worms. If it could cause anyone offense, don’t do it. So everyone ends up being enslaved to those who do not allow for liberty, since they are (wrongly) categorized as the “weaker brother.” But Calvin says this easy, rule-oriented piety comes at too high a price:

Shall we say good-by to Christian freedom, thus cutting off occasion for such dangers? But, as we have said, unless this freedom be comprehended, neither Christ nor gospel truth, nor inner peace of soul, can be rightly known. Rather, we must take care that so necessary a part of doctrine be not suppressed, yet at the same time that those absurd objections which are wont to arise be met (Institutes, 3.19.1).

After carefully delineating in what sense believers are even free from the law of God (viz., “before God’s judgment seat it has no place in their consciences” to condemn them), Calvin explains how freedom from “the severe requirement of the law” actually releases timid consciences to serve God and neighbor (Institutes, 3.19.5).

But there is a further freedom of the Christian, a liberty in “things indifferent”: these are things concerning which “we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently. And the knowledge of this freedom is very necessary for us, for if it is lacking, our consciences will have no repose and there will be no end to superstitions.” “Today,” he says, “we seem to many to be unreasonable because we stir up discussion” over medieval rules. Why not just go along with it all? Who’s getting hurt? “But when consciences once ensnare themselves, they enter a long and inextricable maze, not easy to get out of.” First, the sensitive person will say that one thing is wrong, then a further thing, until finally, his conscience will force him “to turn over in his mind” the most trivial matters. “To sum up, he will come to the point of considering it wrong to step upon a straw across his path, as the saying goes” (Institutes, 3.19.7).

The “weaker brother,” Calvin argues, is the one who questions his faith because of using or not using his liberty, not someone who questions the faith of others. Thus, many “weaker brothers” are actually pharisees, and for the sake of the liberty for which Christ died they must be resisted. Christians must not miss a single opportunity to “recognize (God’s) liberality toward us.” It isn’t a small matter then: “Its whole force consists in quieting frightened consciences before God….” (Institutes, 3.19.8-9). For that reason, one need not (must not) give up his or her liberty for the sake of the pharisee:

Here is no “given” offense, but those wicked interpreters baselessly so understand it. None but the weak is made to stumble by the first kind of offense, but the second gives offense to persons of bitter disposition and pharisaical pride. Accordingly, we shall call the one the offense of the weak, the other that of the Pharisees. Thus we shall so temper the use of our freedom as to allow for the ignorance of our weak brothers, but for the rigor of the Pharisees, not at all! (Institutes, 3.19.11)

As a side note here, we could observe Paul’s attack on the Judaizers who came to “spy out the liberty” that believers enjoyed. During the Reformation, open-air barbeques were held every Friday in Zurich, the day on which the medieval church had forbidden the eating of meat. Princeton theologian Archibald Alexander, though he personally did not like whiskey, felt obligated to imbibe on occasions when he was called upon to abstain by certain groups. Charles Hodge both reported and commended his mentor’s practice. But are these illustrations of a universal rule, an antilegalistic legalism, that would dictate our policy in each case? Not at all. These Christians exercised discretion, judgment, analysis of the particular situation and the various implications, including their weighing the priorities of both charity and the importance of this truth. At the same time that Paul warns of spying legalists, he adds, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Are we following such a general rule in our exercise of prudent application? The general rule is set in stone, but prudence is exercised by an educated conscience in particular circumstances that must be carefully evaluated.

So what’s the outcome of all of this? The monks tried to outrun each other in deprivation. But what’s our response, asks Calvin, “to outstrip his neighbors in all sorts of elegance …” under “the pretext of Christian liberty”?

They say that these things are things indifferent. I admit it, provided they are used indifferently. But when they are coveted too greedily, when they are proudly boasted of, when they are lavishly squandered, things that were of themselves otherwise lawful are certainly defiled by these vices…. We have never been forbidden to laugh, or to be filled, or to join new possessions to old or ancestral ones, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine. True, indeed. But where there is plenty, to wallow in delights, to gorge oneself, to intoxicate mind and heart with present pleasures and be always panting after new ones—such are very far removed from a lawful [i.e., prudent] use of God’s gifts (Institutes, 3.19.9).

Our point in this article is best summarized by the Apostle Paul: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12). You see, this is the hinge! The question in such matters is not whether they are lawful (and therefore, permissible for a Christian), but whether they are helpful. In some cases, they will be—no matter what rule-oriented folks may think. But in other cases, not.

Lazy consciences will cut this process off at the pass. So, in the “worship wars,” one group can end the conversation with the wielding of a rule (such as the regulative principle) that is confused with its application. Some believe that having musical instruments, for instance, is a denial of that biblical rule. But this confuses general command with prudent application in a particular case. Close evaluation of the regulative principle of worship, for instance, may lead some to the conclusion that the most prudent application is to do away with musical accompaniment, but proponents will have to go further than merely crying out, “Regulative principle!” That settles everything about as much as merely crying out against those who drink moderately, “Don’t be drunk with wine!” On the other side, there are those who think that if it isn’t forbidden, it’s acceptable. In both cases, more work is required. Both groups should concede that (a) the general rule does not necessarily rule out the category of “things indifferent” and that (b) that fact does not mean that everything permissible is necessarily helpful. So let’s talk about whether our particular practices in worship are “helpful,” conducive to the divinely prescribed goals, elements, and forms of worship. Surely by bringing both sides out of the legalism-license rule-orientation, we could begin a fruitful dialogue in prudence.

As we have seen, “circumspection” comes from the compound, “looking around.” We need to look around a lot more, at a lot of things, to pay attention to the theology that informs our action, the general rules that guide it, the historical ways in which our forebears have worked them out (for good and for ill), and to the world that both needs to be addressed and yet also seeks to make us in its image before we get around to challenging its assumptions. Don’t miss Paul’s point: “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” Reverse legalism keeps us slaves of the rule-oriented system of our past. If we are to be genuinely free in things indifferent, we must no more be expected to indulge than to abstain. That’s what genuine freedom is all about. And that’s where the re-formation of prudent character can begin. Luther states:

God has given poor consciences, which lie captive under the accusation and curse of the Law, the comfort of spiritual liberty. But the devil interprets this as liberty of the flesh and creates nothing but confusion and disorder. As a result, his dupes want to be free in everything, lords of all government, and rulers of everybody. In this way the devil sanctimoniously disguises himself under the semblance of the Gospel and Christian liberty and yet overthrows both the Gospel and Christian liberty (“Sermon on Matthew” 13:24-30, December 9, 1528).

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