The Distinction Between Common Virtue & True Virtue – Moralism (1)

JEApparently Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) made a distinction between common virtue and true virtue, in his work, The Nature of True Virtue. I am not sure if he used those exact terms but the idea is in his works. Here I want to take some notes from some folks who have elaborated on it in their work. All emphases are mine.

(1) Notes From Tim Keller in Preaching In A Secular Culture

“Jonathan Edwards identified two kinds of moral behavior: ”common virtue” and “true virtue.”2  The“common virtue” of honesty may be developed out of fear, either societal (“If I lie I’ll be caught and exposed”) or religious (”If you are not honest, God will punish you”). It could also be cultivated by pride, which again could be cultural (“Don’t be like those terrible dishonest people”) or religious (“Don’t be like those sinners; be a decent and godly person”).

By no means does Edwards intend to be scornful of common virtue. Indeed, he believes in the “splendor of common morality” as the main way God restrains evil in the world.3  Nevertheless, there is a profound tension at the heart of common virtue, because if fear and pride are what motivate a person to be honest, but fear and pride are also at the root of lying and cheating, it is only a matter of time before such a thin moral foundation collapses. 

[Note that the societal, cultural, religious, etc. are external motivators to an action – not that using external means are bad. They are bad if they are the sole means. So you discipline a child but do not tell them the whats and whys of their wrongful actions. ~RR]

Thus, common virtue has not done anything to root out the fundamental causes of evil; it has restrained the heart but not changed the heart. And this “jury-rigging” of the heart creates quite a fragile condition. Indeed, through all the sermons and moral training you received throughout your life, you were actually nurturing the roots of sin within your moral life. This is true whether you grew up with either liberal or conservative values. The roots of evil were well protected beneath a veneer of moral progress.

So what is the mark of honesty as a “true virtue?” It is the commitment to truth and honesty not because it profits you or makes you feel better but because you are smitten with the beauty of the God who is truth and sincerity and faithfulness. It is when you come to love the truth, not for your sake but for God’s sake and for its own sake. True honesty grows when you see him dying for you, keeping a promise he made despite the infinite suffering it brought him. That kind of virtue destroys both pride (Jesus had to die for me!) and fear (Jesus values me infinitely, and nothing I can do will change his commitment to me). In this way my heart is not just restrained, but rather its fundamental orientation is transformed.”