Christian theology makes a vital distinction between special and general revelation. Special revelation refers to those moments when God has communicated directly with the creatures he made. For Christians these moments include the inspiring of the Old and New Testament, the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses, the various theophanies when God manifested his presence on earth (the burning bush, Jacob’s ladder, the one “like a son of God” who stood beside Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego, etc.), and, supremely, in the incarnation of Christ.
General revelation, in contrast, refers to those moments in which God has made his presence known in less direct ways. God displays his glory and power through nature, shows his compassion by providing rain for the harvest, writes his moral and ethical laws upon our conscience, and speaks (dimly) of the need for sacrifice and atonement in the highest myths and rituals of the pagan nations.
And in one other way. Though the full Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love were not revealed until the coming of Christ and the New Testament, the more enlightened pagans of Greece and Rome—most notably, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil—were able to grasp, through God’s general revelation, what Christians call the classical (or cardinal) virtues: wisdom (or prudence), temperance, justice, and courage.
In Book III of Mere Christianity, Lewis devotes a chapter to the cardinal virtues, and most of what he says in that chapter is derived as much from the Bible as from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Though Christianity makes it clear that we are all sinners and that we cannot earn our salvation by righteous works, the fact remains that those who lack special revelation from God are nevertheless capable of practicing real virtues. Of the four, courage is perhaps the most vital and essential, for, as Lewis explains in Mere Christianity, you cannot practice the other three virtues successfully if you do not possess courage.
In Screwtape Letters (#29), Lewis theorizes that one of the reasons that God created a dangerous world is to force the humans he made to make moral decisions. And to make a moral decision very often means to choose between courage and cowardice. Courage, writes Lewis, “is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point . . . A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”
In our modern age, we tend to identify courage with soldiers who stand firm on the battlefield when the bullets are flying over their head. But it takes just as much courage to stand firm against the myriad temptations we encounter in our everyday lives. To remain chaste in the face of the sexualized media blitz with which we are daily assaulted takes courage. To remain honest when it would be so easy to plagiarize a paper or change a few numbers on a balance sheet takes courage. To remain merciful in a society where most social and political issues have become polarized takes courage.
If the virtuous pagans of ancient Greece and Rome could practice the cardinal virtue of courage in a world that lacked the gospel, then it is not asking much for Christians to do the same!