In the first part of this little series, I suggested that even though Christians’ discussions of morality are important, equally important is articulating a distinctly Christian ethics. In this part, I will move towards that discussion, exploring the concept of character as in ethical terms and suggesting that Christian character ought at least to stand in analogy to a pressed character.
If that last sentence made no sense, read on: I ought to make it clearer in a bit.
Pressing the Wax
As I said at the outset, to assign singular meanings to words with histories (and all of the important ones have histories) is a mistake. That said, the English word character bears in its etymology an interesting object for reflection. The word is a transliterated Greek word for an instrument by which one makes a mark in or on a medium. As Wycliffe started to use it in English, it came to mean a symbolic mark pressed into a malleable substance by means of a signet or other tool. The English word held this primary meaning from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries; only after three hundred or so years did it become a term for the sum total of a person’s moral being.
The visual implications are obvious: whatever character is morally, it is analogous to a repeatable symbol, made by giving form to matter, designed to be distinctive. A pressed character tells the world, or at least whoever sees it, that a particular person, usually a ruler, has spoken, that whatever lies on the sealed document is the word of a lord.
If we Christians are indeed living epistles (2 Corinthians 3), and if the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah is the content of those epistles, then God’s character, the divine seal on that proclamation, is the sort of life we live as we, like sealed letters, travel among the nations. The metaphor continues to do work on this level: if the character impressed by God is visible, those who read ought to be more impressed (pun intended) with the proclamation.
The pun, of course, indicates that the proclamation and the character are not separate things, contrary to those who would emphasize “love” over “truth” by neglecting the particulars of Christian teaching. Rather the proclamation of Jesus’ victory over Sin and Death (that is to say, the Gospel of Jesus the Christ) and the character of those Christ-followers who bear the message (that is to say, those evangelical Christians) are parts of a whole, a history of redemption that together bring a life-spanning truth to a fallen world.
The Content of One’s Character
One problem that we evangelicals have is that we all want to be Paul. Now to be Paul is no crime; certainly those folks who experience and narrate sudden, life-shattering conversions from lives of destruction, who travel from place to place relying on the hospitality of the saints as they proclaim and teach, who face persecutions because of the disruptions they cause in the systems they invade, are legitimate and valuable servants of the Messiah and messengers of the Messiah’s tidings. But such figures always must rely on other Christians. Paul himself stayed with believers when he was not in jail, relied on overseers and elders to maintain faithfulness when he left cities, and taught a few fellow rabble-rousers to carry on his work after Rome had claimed his liberty. No man is an island, not even Paul.
My point regarding character is that the impress of God does not make put every Christian on the pointy end of things. As Paul himself tells us, some are indeed given to be sent (apostles), but others are given to teach, to encourage, to be hospitable to travelers, to be generous towards the poor. The common thread in all of this is the character, the impress. When we Christians live well together and live well with the world, the shapes of our common life bear the character of God. Such is not to say that those not yet called to be Christians never approximate Christian character; on the contrary, our own sins might dull the edges of the impress to the point that their counterfeit makes marks more like God’s seal than the corrupted mark still on the visible Church. But that does not negate the real connection between the revelation of God in Christ and the charactered life that the community of messiah-worshipers ought to live.
Ultimately a character points back to a lord, and Christian character should point back to Christ. We Christians did not invent such a character; it gives us what form we have. In the next part of this little series, I will talk about those human qualities (virtues) that mark the edges of that Christian character and attempt to explicate what differences might stand between those virtues and what modern ethics has called values.