An egghead says “sorites”

Perhaps this isn’t the best time to profess my love, admiration, and (occasional) envy of academic elites. That kind of sentimentality could get you tarred and feathered in these days of fervent populism. But as Dave Shive said after being told that his eclectic theology would cripple his chances for fame and renown: What have I got to lose?

Admittedly, we are neither worse if we do not attain an academic degree, nor the better if we do. Even so, ignorance is no virtue for the Christian which is at least one reason why we need our egghead brothers and sisters. Their knowledge lends precision to our understanding and stokes our love for the Scriptures and, ultimately, God.

Consider 2 Pet 1:5-7 and its seemingly random list of Christian character traits:

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence,
[by] your faith supply moral excellence,
and [by] your moral excellence, knowledge,
and [by] your knowledge, self-control,
and [by] your self-control, perseverance,
and [by] your perseverance, godliness,
and [by] your godliness, brotherly kindness,
and [by] your brotherly kindness, love.{NAS}

Most of us probably read this passage and find ourselves unable to get beyond two related questions: (a) why these characteristics? (b) what, if any, logic lies behind the chain? Speaking for myself, I found that my inability to discern any meaningful significance beyond the bare text actually dissuaded me from lingering over the text.

Enter Richard Bauckham and his research in NT and early Christian literature. His expertise uncovered so many features of the text that I felt as if I had been granted access to a previously hidden venue for meditation:

  • on the structure — 2Pet 1:5-7 uses a literary device known as sorites, a set of statements that progress, step by step, to a climactic conclusion. Not only was it “widely used and recognized in the early Christian period” but “there is some evidence that a catalogue of virtues beginning with pistis (“faith”) and ending with agape (“love”) was an established Christian form.”
  • on the significance of faith being listed first — By occupying first place in the list, faith represents “the root of all the virtues.” [Me: I couldn’t help but notice that Peter already referred to our faith as something we have received (1:1), which means that even the root of our virtue has its origin outside of us.]
  • on the (dis)placement of knowledge — “. . . in the non-Christian lists [knowledge] was usually first or last in the list [i.e. the root or the climax of all the virtues]. In most Christian lists it has been displaced from these positions by “faith” and “love.”
  • on the significance of love being listed last  — “the last, climactic term of a sorites is not of equal weight with the others” which means that Peter has preserved “very faithfully the place of love in Jesus’ ethical teaching, as the virtue which encompasses, coordinates, and perfects the others.”
  • on similarities with non-Christian philosophy — Although some of the virtues are found in Stoicism, in Peter’s list they “are not only rooted in Christian faith but also encompassed by Christian love. The borrowings testify to the fact that Christian ethics cannot be totally discontinuous with the moral ideals of non-Christian society, but the new context in which they are set ensures that they are subordinated to and to be interpreted by reference to the central Christian ethical principle of love.”

So if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and befriend a Christian egghead even if vicariously through a book. Though shy and perhaps socially awkward, the best of them labor as technicians for the soul.

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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