Vicar Matt Doebler
Matins Devotion: February 3, 2023
I’m not sure if Dante coined the term “virtuous pagan” but he certainly popularized the concept. The term itself is meant to describe those great thinkers—philosophers, mathematicians, and poets—who were by no means Christian but who, by their life’s work and conduct, seemed to ascend to the highest heights of human virtue. When Dante wrote his Inferno, which depicts his imaginative journey through nine circles of hell, he even placed the “virtuous pagans”—men like Homer, Socrates, and Plato—in a place called Limbo—which was supposed to be the easiest circle of Hell. Dante’s logic was that such men—men who many consider to be the intellectual and artistic giants of western civilization would surely not deserve as severe a degree of eternal punishment in light of their high standard of human virtue.
The apostle Paul would almost certainly take issue with the term “virtuous pagan” as well as Dante’s logic. Here in his letter to Titus, he describes the unregenerated human condition as anything but virtuous:
For we too were once foolish, disobedient, misled, enslaved to various passions and desires, spending our lives in evil and envy, hateful and hating one another. (3:3)
Paul describes the true state of the unregenerate man as depraved, deceived, disobedient, and destructive. It’s a harsh reminder that, from God’s perspective, even our best works—our most virtuous accomplishments—are nothing but filthy rags if they are done apart from faith. The notion of a virtuous pagan is a myth. On account of our sinful human nature we have no innate goodness that God might regard with favor.
And that’s why Paul points us to the blessed epiphany:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit...(3:4)
Christ's epiphany is good news. He appeared--not for the virtuous--but he manifested himself to show God’s kindness to depraved, deceived, disobedient and destructive sinners. He revealed the full measure of God’s mercy by being hung on a cross. He appeared to his disciples to show them that death could not keep him in the grave. And now, in baptism, we receive the righteousness that could never come through our works. In baptism, the unregenerated are regenerated. The unvirtuous are made virtuous. The pagans are made saints.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.