Volume 41 - Issue 3

Fulfilling the Heroic Ideal: A Triperspectival Approach to Christian Moral Heroism

By Matthew Lillicrap


The Human fascination with the heroic is evident from ancient mythology to the heroic epics of modern cinema. Real-life heroes, those deemed morally heroic, are no less fascinating, but arouse unease. What does the heroic have to do with the ordinary? ‘Common sense’ morality defines heroism as beyond ordinary, with minimal moral authority. Meanwhile Christians also feel uneasy. Talk of heroes appears to risk marginalising Christ, the hero of Scripture and history. This essay engages these issues, utilising John Frame’s tri-perspectival approach to Christian ethics, to find that far from resisting the heroic, the gospel would have us both embrace Christ as hero and strive for the unexpected heroism he calls for.

From ancient tales told and retold at countless fire-sides to the legends of our age enthralling innumerable cinema-goers, humanity has been held spellbound by an enduring fascination with the heroic. From Achilles to The Avengers, from Hercules to Luke Skywalker, our best-loved stories are shaped by the heroic narrative, focussed on one endued with almost god-like power, a transcendent figure nonetheless immanently active in their world. From Homer to Marvel, Ovid to Lucas, storytellers enchant us with the hero’s complexities and triumphs.

With moral heroism, fascination collides with reality. ‘Moral heroism’ here is defined a morally noteworthy act understood to be ‘going above and beyond one’s duty’, thereby apparently transcending a deontological ‘ought’. The agent of moral heroism, the moral hero, becomes a focus for debate. How does their heroic act relate to ‘ordinary morality’? In answer, ethical theories tend to be dominated by a two-tier vision of morality, separating the ordinary and the hero. Evangelical ethics, however, has had little input. Undoubtedly this results from an awkwardness with heroic language, given the understanding of the human condition as helplessly bound in sin, unable to please God, and dependent on him for salvation. Who can be a hero? Nonetheless, given the human fascination with the heroic and the debate arising therefrom, should evangelicals remain aloof an opportunity to communicate the gospel will be lost.

Moreover, the heroic challenge may be closer than we admit. Jesus calls his followers to go the extra mile, to love neighbour and even enemy, to give up everything to follow him. Many of these exhortations are given as examples in debate, or even taken up by common parlance as synonymous with heroism. The hero, for example, is one who ‘goes the extra mile’ for others. An unthinking response may promote a Christianised two-tiered morality, applying Jesus’s commands only to ‘heroes’ while the ‘ordinary’ stand further off. Consequently, the Christian response to the many apparent heroes of scripture becomes muddled. We shrink from moralistic errors, calling people to ‘be a Daniel’ and treating the bible as a catalogue of heroes to emulate,1 yet both Jesus’s commands and these scriptural examples are designed to effect all. For example, Paul himself exhorts imitation of his imitation of Christ (1 Cor 11:1).2 The question posed by dominant theories of moral heroism is, how should this be understood? This study, therefore, engages both with our fascination for the heroic and the debate surrounding the moral hero. The call to moral heroism found in scripture will be examined following John Frame’s triperspectival approach to Christian ethics.3 Although Framian triperspectivalism has not been without critique,4 his argument that ethics involves ‘the application of a norm to a situation by a person’5 is compelling. From these features he draws three perspectives relating to his ‘lordship theology’. Thus, the normative arises from God’s authority as lord from whom lived norms flow, the existential from God’s role as covenant Lord, drawing near and transforming his people,6 and the situational from God’s lordship attribute of control, remembering both his sovereignty over every situation and his goal as the telos to which morality should conform.7 Furthermore, in his introduction to the normative, Frame is one evangelical theologian who has briefly discussed moral heroism.8 This study will expand this normative discussion and apply existential and situational perspectives. Doing so will demonstrate that the call of Jesus to know and follow him represents a normative ‘duty to go beyond the call of duty’, consummated in the existential call to become like him in everyday situational realities. In Christ, the ordinary is drawn into the heroic, both subverting and fulfilling the human fascination. Our heroic dreams are shattered by the unattainable vision of what the morally heroic represents in Christ, yet granted a Spirit-enabled transparency to Christ as believers become like him, to his glory.

1. The Hero and Me: A Fascination Born of Frustration

Joseph Campbell famously sought a meta-narrative lying behind centuries of heroic myth by arguing that ‘it has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.’9 According to Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces drives us onwards, inspiring maturity such that an encounter with the heroic presents a transformational challenge to our view of ourselves and others. The locus of this challenge lies in the tension between heroic transcendence and immanence. Campbell describes the hero’s common path, beginning with separation from their world of origin and engagement in a realm of supernatural wonder, followed by a triumphant return to the benefit of their fellows.10 Thus, the hero arises from the real world, subject to the human condition, yet simultaneously stands in the realm of the extraordinary.11 Although consistently transcending humanity, the hero remains immanently connected to the ordinary. The degree to which we sense this connectedness motivates emulation and gives the heroic its inspirational quality. Once the ordinary being relates to the hero, they begin to seek an every-day heroic ideal. Yet in this transcendent-immanent tension, discomfort germinates. We may attempt to emulate, yet the heroic remains unattainable. The hero is, by definition, different. Thus fascination grows, revealing a paradoxical unspoken frustration at our limitations.

In the moral sphere, this tension is accentuated, for we are no longer in the imaginary realm. Confronted with real-life figures whose actions surpass the bounds of the ordinary, we are no less fascinated, yet more personally challenged. In response, modern, ‘common-sense’ morality follows J. O. Urmson, who brought the moral hero to prominence in modern moral philosophy.12 Concerned that the bar of duty not be set so high as to cause the ordinary moral agent to despair of reaching it,13 he argued against the presuppositions behind the moral philosophies of his day which assumed any morally good deed to be obligatory by definition.14 Thus, he appealed to the moral hero, defined as an agent enacting their moral duty where most others would ordinarily not do so, or more pertinently, as going above and beyond duty, performing deeds which should never be understood as obligatory for the ordinary moral agent.15 Thus he brings us face-to-face with the soldier who throws himself on the live grenade in order to save his comrades, insisting that none could possibly argue that such a man merely ‘did his duty’ nor hold any soldier failing to do the same morally culpable. In his short essay Urmson laid the foundation for a theory which allows for a category of acts which are simultaneously morally good and ‘optional’. Upon this philosophers such as David Heyd build a secular theory of supererogation.16 Although a term better-known in religious contexts, supererogation is re-employed to describe that class of heroic act which goes beyond the call of duty.17 Supererogation, although not universally obligatory, remains morally valuable. Our frustrated fascination with moral heroism now wears philosophical clothes. Consequently, the bar of duty has been lowered. Ordinary moral agents need not feel despair at their inability to emulate the transcendent supererogatory acts of the moral hero. Yet the tension is not resolved. Urmson and Heyd’s arguments raise questions. Once an act is understood to transcend the ordinary, should ordinary agents consider it beyond reach? What motivation remains for the ordinary to seek ‘higher’ morality? Is the moral hero, lauded though they may be, left devoid of any moral authority?

The Urmsonian theory must answer, yes. We may watch the moral hero, but only from a distance. Consequently, in the paradox of the transcendent-yet-immanent moral hero, ordinary morality finds a defence of the moral status-quo. Our fascination remains, however the very figures we view as surpassing our limitations provide grounds for justification of those same limitations. Just as the heroes of legend remain different in substance, so common-sense morality, underpinned by Urmson and those following, argues that moral heroism be reserved for extraordinary moral agents different from ‘us’. We ordinary agents may perhaps be inspired on occasion, but ultimately must remain content with our lot. A hero is born as such, while ‘what makes someone morally ‘ordinary’ is precisely that one does not go above and beyond . . . it is considered praiseworthy for the morally ordinary person merely to avoid falling below the minimum.’18 Hence, in his efforts to keep the deontological bar attainably low, Urmson paved the way for a complete reconsideration of moral duty. The assumption became that any duty must imply any agent’s ability to perform it. Ought must equal can.Hence, for ethics on the street today, duty remains an important pillar. The goal of being an ordinary ‘good’ person is met in doing one’s duty, now defined well within the realms of ability, for the maxim ‘ought equals can’ must be universally applicable to be deontologically coherent. Moral exertion is admirable but unnecessary. Meanwhile, the moral hero, performing praiseworthy deeds with which the ordinary need not be concerned, becomes perplexing. Their motivations a mystery, any authority they may have had to inspire change is explained away because, in the final analysis, they are ‘different’ to us.

For the Christian faced with scripture’s many apparent heroes, the tension increases. The writer to the Hebrews provides an archetypal example in chapter 11. Figure after figure fills the so-called ‘hall of heroes’, exemplifying lives of single-minded faith and obedience, enabling wondrous deeds. Yet chapter 12 exhorts, ‘let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race set before us’ (Heb 12:1). These ‘heroes of faith’ are depicted to inspire our race, that we might live with similar single-mindedness for God. The implication is, ‘you can see these heroes of faith. You go and be a hero too.’ Perhaps with common-sense morality ringing in our ears, we may be tempted to discount their example. After all, they are not ‘ordinary’.This is not all, however. Further investigation of these ‘heroes’ reveals their ordinariness. Indeed, they are barely moral heroes at all. Abraham, who offered up Isaac when put to the test (Heb 11:17), lied repeatedly to save himself (Gen 12:10–20; 20:1–18). Moses, who considered abuse for the sake of Christ more valuable than Egypt’s riches (Heb 11:26), fled after murdering an Egyptian (Exod 2:11–15). The emphasis for the writer to the Hebrews appears to be precisely that these figures are ordinary. The more unpalatable parts of their back-stories are required to emphasise that their accomplishments are by faith in Christ.19 Could it be that imitation of these figures is possible after all, even encouraged?

This question is surely answered by Paul’s encouragement to ‘be imitators of me as I am of Christ’ (1 Cor 11:1). Yes, we are to look to figures who have gone before, even those who live around us, and emulate them. Yet it is not their deeds we imitate. Rather, there is one standing behind, both inspiring and enabling their heroism. This is the crux of the Christian relationship with moral heroism. Scripture and subsequent history abound with those who go above and beyond duty. Martyrs go to their deaths, others excel in compassion, resist oppression or stand for truth. Yet, although we may instinctively focus on the hero themselves, the Christian hero points beyond themselves to Christ.20 Thus, the key challenge for the Christian comes when we find ourselves face to face with Christ. Here is the one painted as the hero of Scripture. The one who is both ultimately transcendent as the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15) and perfectly immanent, Immanuel, God with us (Isa 7:14, Matt 1:23), the one who experienced the fullness of the human condition, was tempted in every way and yet transcended the imperfections of our humanity by remaining entirely without sin (Heb 4:15). From the Bible’s perspective there is no other true hero. Yet Christians are called to follow him by faith. As we listen to Jesus, what effect should his commands have on us, the ordinary?

2. Normative Moral Heroism: An Heroic Duty?

If one were to conduct a street-survey of scripture’s ‘moral heroes’, the Good Samaritan would surely feature high up the list of results. The question of whether ‘Good Samaritan’ acts are obligated is debated, however, whichever opinion one holds, at the basic level Jesus demonstrates that the Samaritan does what the priest and Levite were not prepared to do. Thus, whether he does his duty when others fail, or goes above and beyond, the Samaritan meets the Urmsonian definition of the moral hero.21 However, it is easily forgotten that Jesus does not tell his parable to inspire his hearers through an heroic example, but to illustrate the command to love one’s neighbour. Duty is necessarily implied, and as a result common-sense morality struggles. Bringing a normative structure into the realm of helping others appears to diminish the action. Far better a volitional act than an imposed duty, surely. But, as Wright argues, for Jesus the Samaritan’s actions entail no more than the law required,22 a demonstration of the duty to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Luke 10:25–37, especially vv. 27–29). Indeed, Jesus even exhorts his interlocutor, “‘you, go and do likewise’ (Luke 10:37).

From here the thoughtful Gospel reader may turn to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus encourages those who would follow him to perpetually greater acts of self-denial. Common parlance picks up his words as though synonymous with moral heroism. The hero is one who ‘turns the other cheek’ or ‘goes the extra mile’ (Matt 5:38–42). Urmson helps the ‘ordinary’ agent justify their moral status-quo once more by refuting Jesus. He remarks that this call simply cannot be obligated, since the command’s spirit entails that, after going a second mile, one goes a further two miles, such that ‘by repetition one could establish the need to go every time on an infinite journey.’23 Yet denying obligation here is simply an outright denial of the clear normative force of Jesus’s teaching. If we are to take Christ at his word, we must seek another explanation.

This is yet clearer in the next few verses with the command to love one’s enemies (Matt 5:43–48). Again, common-sense morality may object, “‘leave such outlandish love to the moral hero, it is not for the likes of us.’ The startling feature here is that in one sense, Jesus agrees. Enemy-love is not an ordinary action, yet this is precisely his justification for this command; ‘if you love those who love you, what reward do you have . . . and if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?’ (Matt 5:46–47a). Jesus is well-aware that the morality he commands transcends the ordinary. Hence, even after a brief overview of some of the more famous commands of scripture the conclusion is inescapable. According to Scripture, according to Jesus, that which Urmson and Heyd would define as moral heroism is obligatory.

In response we might simply seek to undo the work of Urmson and Heyd, reverting to high-bar deontology, dismissing moral heroism altogether. Perhaps the problem lies in the entire definition. Yet this would be inconsistent with scripture as a whole, for there are numerous further examples in its pages of acts which scripture itself defines as heroic in an Urmsonian sense, for they do go beyond duty. Frame argues thus in his own discussion of moral heroism,24 which forms part of the introduction to his normative perspective. This perspective seeks to answer the question, ‘what is my duty before God?’ by finding obligations or norms for living arising from God himself.25 He admits that one might expect to find such obligations by distilling the commands of scripture,26 and, as we have seen, even a brief consideration of scriptural commands does leave us confronted with the question of the morally heroic. Scripture has more to say, however, as Frame demonstrates through examples of David’s mighty men (2 Sam 23:13–17), the generous widow (Luke 21:1–4), and Barnabas (Acts 4:37). They are all commended for their deeds; however, in each case, their deeds are commendable but not obligatory. For example, Jesus commends the widow who gave all she had to live on, a morally heroic act above that obligated by the Jewish law of giving a tithe. Likewise, Barnabas is praised for selling his property for the sake of the church, an act which Peter tells Ananias is not obligatory for believers a few verses later (Acts 5:4). Frame’s question in response is the one we have been concerned with thus far; what motivated these morally heroic acts and how should we relate to them?

Citing the further example of Paul preaching without payment in Corinth, Frame argues that the Christian moral hero feels bound to act heroically. Paul admits that preachers have a right to receive payment (1 Cor 9:1–15), however, he renounces this right, declaring himself “‘under obligation’ as he does (1 Cor 9:16). What is this obligation? Frame answers by pointing to Paul’s language of “‘reward”’ and of “‘winning the prize’ in this passage.27 Elsewhere Paul makes this explicit. The ‘prize’ he strives for is that of knowing Jesus as intimately as possible by serving him as closely as possible.28 Thus Paul’s moral heroism, expressed here as preaching without payment, expressed elsewhere as a readiness to suffer and die for the sake of Christ, even a desire to ‘depart and be with Christ’ (Phil 1:23) is a manifestation of his deep passion to know Jesus. This is why he can call believers to imitate his imitation of Christ (Again, see 1 Cor 11:1). Just as Jesus manifested the desire to serve and know his Father, so the believer should show the same longing to know God in Christ.

Hence, the Bible does obligate believers towards moral heroism, for it is contingent on all of us to know Jesus as best we can.29 Frame points out that God commands his people to know him (Deut 7:9), and acts for the express purpose that people might “‘know that I am the LORD.’30 Indeed we may add that, as creatures made in his image, this relationship with God is what humans were created for,31 seen in the climax of the creation account in Genesis 1–2 with God’s rest, interpreted by Hebrews (and elsewhere) as God’s ultimate purpose in creation; right relationship between creator and creatures (Heb 3:7–4:14). As Jesus says himself, eternal life is to know him and the Father who sent him (John 17:3).

Further evidence may be added. This underlying duty to know God makes sense of Jesus’s assertion that obedience evidences love. Just as his own love for God is shown by his obedience (John 14:31), the obedience of those who follow him demonstrates their love for him (John 14:15). Such obedience is a fulfilling of obligations such as “‘going the extra mile’ out of a passion to know and love Christ as exemplified by Paul. Christ calls believers to this kind of heroism, manifesting obedience-shaped love for him by going beyond duty.

Thus, with Frame, we conclude that ‘God does expect some level of heroism from each of us.’32 However, if this obligation is viewed only normatively, as a duty to exceed duty, it is oxymoronic, bursting its own boundaries. Yet, as we have seen, scripture does call us to go beyond ‘mere duty’ as exemplified by the mighty men, the generous widow, Barnabas, Paul and others. This is because its call is ultimately to a heroism like that of Jesus, born from the underlying call to be like Jesus. Hence, we must examine Christian moral heroism through Frame’s second lens, the Existential Perspective.

3. Existential Moral Heroism: An Heroic Meta-Duty

Frame’s existential perspective examines Christian morality from the perspective of moral character. Doctrine of the Christian Life has been critiqued for lack of depth regarding this perspective, particularly regarding the sanctification of the believer by the indwelling of the Spirit.33 Frame admits as much,34 although he justifies the brevity of his final section examining the existential perspective by arguing that his three perspectives are not separate. Rather, they each function to provide a view of the other two. Regarding moral heroism, whereas the normative asks, ‘what is my duty before God?’, prompting an apparently oxymoronic duty to exceed duty, the existential asks, ‘how must I be changed if I am to please God?’, the emphasis falling on character rather than behaviour.35 The existential perspective, then, moves us towards virtue, shifting from an examination of heroic norms to the heroic character.

The work of ethicist Andrew Flescher is instructive.36 Working from virtue ethics, Flescher challenges Urmsonian supererogationists by arguing against a universally applicable definition of supererogation. Rather, Flescher asserts that different moral agents demonstrate differing capacities. Hence, a more developed character issues in an enlarged perception of duty or, put negatively, the realm of the supererogatory diminishes for a person of greater virtue. Flescher points to heroes such as the residents of Le Chambon, hiding Jews from the Nazis, and Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of the Rwandan genocide.37 Whereas an Urmsonian view would describe their deeds as supererogatory, Flescher points to their own frequent self-assessment of merely ‘doing their duty.’ The tension of the ordinary faced with the heroic arises once more. These ‘heroes’ do not recognise themselves as ‘different’. The Urmsonian defence is to deny the hero moral authority by arguing that such self-assessments arise from excessive modesty or defective moral outlook.38 However, Flescher contends that to make such accusations is contrary to the hero’s self-evident moral praiseworthiness. He recognises the vested interest of ordinary morality in dismissing the hero’s moral authority, for ‘if heroes . . . were moral authorities, then our way of seeing things would be in need of correction.’39 Instead he argues that their self-assessment demonstrates their virtue, which has expanded their concept of duty, driving their heroic deeds. ‘Heroes have different duties from the rest of us because of their especially virtuous character.’40

Were Flescher to halt his argument here, we would be left with a variation of the two-tiered moral theory. Urmsonian morality classifies acts on two tiers: duty and supererogation. Alternatively, Flescher suggests two tiers of agent with corresponding duty: the ordinary and the hero. However, Flescher makes a final, critical move by assuming an underlying obligation to moral development, resulting in a ‘developmentalist’ theory.41 Far from being ‘the lot’ of ordinary morality, an engrained satisfaction with ‘mere duty’ and failure to aim beyond reveals morally blameworthy character shortcomings.42 Put more positively, ‘the maxim to go beyond the call of duty is, in effect, a virtue-based imperative . . . which bids one to improve one’s character over time and thereby to re-conceive the nature and scope of one’s first-order moral obligations.’43 To paraphrase; we have a meta-duty to heroism, an obligation to reach beyond the scope of duty, thereby expanding our particular-duties to individual acts. Flescher, therefore, reconnects us with the moral hero, no longer transcendent other, but ‘persons who ascend to lofty heights without fully climbing out of the human situation.’44 Rather than standing far-off, he draws close to re-establish moral heroes as exemplifying the character to which the ‘ordinary’ ought to aspire.

However, Flescher only takes us so far. Problems arise when one asks why the ordinary agent embarks upon moral development. The argument becomes inevitably circular. What motivates change if the desire for change arises from a virtuous character in the first place? Flescher suggests a natural inclination to character improvement providing initial momentum.45 However this is inconsistent, for he has already asserted that ‘common-sense’ morality has the opposite inclination, to maintain the moral status-quo and avoid the heroic challenge. Furthermore, he suggests that a ‘moral beginner’ should inculcate attitudes leading towards independent development by trusting and imitating a hero.46 However, from where does this trust come, and since the qualification for identifying virtue is one’s own virtue, how may a moral beginner identify such figures?

Thus, Flescher’s moral ‘developmentalism’ is compelling, but lacks transformative power. To reach clarity we must view his arguments through the lens of scripture. His focus on character chimes with the biblical understanding that God is most concerned with the human heart – the seat of personality, emotion, and motivation. Paul teaches that the sinful heart turns away from God ‘to worship and serve created things’, sinking into depravity (Rom 1:25–32). Here is Flescher’s problem; the natural inclination of the human heart is not towards improvement. Enslavement to sin leaves humanity incapable of independent change.47 The Old Testament demonstrates this. God lays claim to his people’s hearts, urging and promising transformation by ““‘circumcision’ of the heart (Deut 30:6), or replacement of ““‘hearts of stone’ with ‘hearts of flesh’ (Ezek 36:26–27). In each of these passages, such transformation promises to undo the inability to obey God’s command to love him. To develop our normative conclusions, God’s transformational aim is not behaviouristic, but a development of character expressing passion for him, shown by obedience (Ps 40:6–8; Hosea 6:6). The paradox highlighting the weakness of moral developmentalism is that God calls his people to transformation of which they prove incapable, but which he promises to enable.

Into the New Testament, it becomes clear that Jesus is the centre of this transformational aim. As the hero of scripture, he is the only person in history able to meet God’s norms, and he calls those who would listen to follow. Paradoxically, however, rather than inspiring and challenging the ordinary to higher feats, here is a heroism which in the first instance resists imitation. Despite his calls to follow, despite scripture’s call to imitate those who imitate him, the uniqueness of Christ’s heroism must first be upheld. He alone left the glory he had with his Father, and humbled himself death on the cross (Phil 2:5–8). He alone took upon himself the just consequences of God’s wrath against the failures of ordinary believers to meet their normative obligations. This is a heroism so unattainable it seems almost alien to that which we have considered thus far. There are facets of Christ’s heroism into which we may not presume to step. Yet further examination with the heroic ringing in our ears discovers a reality simultaneously so familiar that all fantasies of the heroic ideal may be recognised as distorted echoes thereof. Thus, even as Christ’s life and death confronts the ordinary with their inabilities and limitations, it simultaneously offers to fulfil these unattainable obligations on their behalf. Thereafter, for those taking up the offer of obligations met by faith, the cross becomes source, motivation, and empowerment for change.48

The foundation for living the heroic life, then, becomes the humble confidence of the justified, the knowledge that one’s consistent failure has been absolved, and one’s status set as though morally perfect.49 Yet Christ calls justified believers to follow him. This can only be possible through Spirit-wrought transformation.50

The turn to Christ, therefore, is a renunciation of independency. Whereas the traditional hero is endowed with remarkable strength or virtue, the inability of the human heart to pursue independent transformation causes the Christian hero to despair of their strength. Thus, Christian heroism is unexpectedly transparent,51 displaying the shaping, informing, and empowering heroism of Christ and opposing proud fantasies of achievement as he is manifested by the faithful so that ‘it is not us but Christ in us, who secures the glory.’52 In order to be truly heroic we must repent of our heroism.

Existentially understood, therefore, we have a meta-duty to moral heroism. This obligation to become like Christ in his readiness to lay himself down for others,53 shapes a character ready to die to self and live for him.54 This is nothing less than the call to sanctification, since believers, those ‘predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ’ (Rom 8:29), are now being “‘transformed into the same image’ by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18), bearing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23). God’s transformational plan is to make people like Jesus by the Spirit’s power.

Therefore, as the Christian enacts their meta-duty to reach beyond the call of duty, they engage in the dynamic of sanctification, God working in them even as they “‘work out their salvation’ (Phil 2:12–13). It follows that, as each believer becomes more like Christ, the scope of particular-duty grows. The Christian bears increasing fruit. For example, a Christian growing in generosity may reach beyond duty by giving sacrificially, imitating a figure such as Barnabas in his own imitation of Christ, whether consciously or unconsciously. After some time, as their generosity increases in conformity to Christ, they may feel there is more scope to give generously, again reaching beyond duty. In this way they demonstrate morally heroic growth in generosity. Since sanctification is rightly understood as a process, it follows that what is morally heroic at one time for one may be ‘mere duty’ for another in whom God has formed deeper generosity. The first Christian should not be condemned by the second, nor should the second become conceited, for it is Christ in them on display. Rather, the heroism of the second can inspire the first. Similarly, in this arena the heroism of the generous widow or Barnabas does have moral authority, precisely because they share the ordinary tendency of the human heart to miserliness. Their generosity transparently reveals Christ’s work, inspiring imitation as they imitate him.55

Hence, the oxymoronic ‘duty to exceed duty’ of the normative perspective is explained by the meta-duty to Christlikeness in the existential. Christian heroism, founded upon and patterned after the cross, differs from traditional heroism by renouncing personal strength and relying wholly on another, scripture’s true hero. As this meta-duty to transformation is enacted, the scope of normative particular-duties expands. Growing conformity to Christ grants the transparent moral hero authority before those around them such that believers in Christ become mutually inspirational as they enact their meta-duty in the particular. A morally heroic act is, therefore, defined according to growth in an individual’s likeness and transparency to Christ. Consequently, the existential makes the heroic accessible to the ordinary, since God’s transformation project involves every Christian such that everyday decisions and actions, reflecting a growing conformity to Christ, take on this transparent heroic hue. To understand this further, we must turn to the Frame’s final lens, the situational perspective.

4. Situational Moral Heroism: An Heroic Duty Today

Frame’s situational perspective focusses on life as underpinned by God’s sovereignty. Thus, the focus falls upon relationship with God, relationship with others and individual calling and make-up, including abilities, sinful tendencies and God’s work in one’s life.56 Hence the situational collides with both normative, since relationship with God draws us back to norms flowing from him,57 and existential, since character is part of a person’s situation.58 A second element of the situational perspective arises from the goal of living which, Frame argues, should be to glorify God.59 Thus the question posed of the situational is, ‘how can we change the world to bring God glory?’60

Consequently, a situational perspective on moral heroism must draw on both the normative ‘duty to exceed duty’ and existential ‘meta-duty to seek expanding particular-duty’ by asking how the heroic impacts an individual in their particular situation. Furthermore, it recognises the goal of the transparent Christian moral hero as the demonstration of Christ in them to his glory. Thus, for the believer seeking to enact their meta-duty to reach beyond the call of duty in the particular, the ground-level question is, ‘how can I glorify God by serving him in imitation of Jesus in the circumstances given to me?’

Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan confirms this. Were he not on the Jericho road, he would not have had the opportunity to be morally heroic. We know intuitively that Jesus is not encouraging the same specific acts, as though we should repeatedly travel the Jericho road watching for victims of robbers. Rather, his encouragement to ‘go and do likewise’ (Luke 10:37) speaks of enacting similar deeds with the same readiness as the Samaritan in different situations. Indeed, the force of the situational flows through the story’s language. The lawyer asks, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, to which Jesus replies, ‘which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ (Luke 10:36). By telling the parable Jesus provides first a narrow definition of neighbour, the nearby person in need, and second the broadest possible definition, for once the Samaritan is understood to be neighbour by Jesus’s question, the definition becomes any nearby person in need, even a sworn enemy. Thus the heroism encouraged by Jesus here is normative, following the command to neighbour love, and existential, emulating the Samaritan’s readiness to obey, but it is also situational, looking for other situations in which such heroism may be enacted.

Viewed in such a way, therefore, moral heroism takes on myriad manifestations, dictated both by the composition of the agent’s character in likeness to Christ and their unique situation as given by God. Thus in the example of Paul’s moral heroism in preaching without payment although other apostles were paid, situational factors presumably played a part. It is possible that Paul’s mention of his singleness compared to other married apostles provides a glimpse of this (1 Cor 9:5).61 Irrespective of whether they joined Paul in this specific act, as Frame argues, other apostles ‘showed their passion for Christ in other ways’62 and, we might add, in other situations.

A second look at Hebrews 11 is also demonstrative. Closing the chapter, the writer depicts the variable faces of the hero. Some show victorious heroic faith as the dead are raised and battles won, others show enduring heroic faith through martyrdom and imprisonment (Heb 11:33–38). All acted differently and all faced different situations, but the situational perspective emphasises God’s sovereignty over all. Then comes the exhortation to emulate in ‘the race that is set before us’ – that is, in our daily, situational race, struggling with sin and striving to be like Jesus (Heb 12:1–2).

This being the case, we can argue that moral heroism is found in the ordinary, daily decisions made by followers of Jesus. As the ordinary believer lives up to the normative obligation of heroic passion for Christ, they develop an existential heroic transparency, expressed so that their everyday situations can be infused by the heroic. Picking up our example once more, while morally heroic generosity may be governed existentially by the growth of a Christian’s character, it is also situationally conditioned. Morally heroic generosity will look starkly different for a young single parent compared to a retired businessman.63 Again, the first should not be condemned by the second, nor should the second become conceited, but each may trust their Lord’s sovereignty over their situations and be inspired by the other as they glorify Christ through their imitation of his generosity. Thus, the situational perspective makes Frame’s definition of moral heroism, that manifestation of passion for Jesus, vitally attainable for the ordinary believer. As one preacher put it:

The courage of faith is within reach of all. The poorest and obscurest disciple of Christ can guide his steps by the same lofty motives as the most august and honoured. However oppressed with drudgery, however circumscribed his lot, he too can face life with a divine courage and if he does so, then for him as certainly as for the most glorious, the greatest promises shall be fulfilled in God’s kingdom here and hereafter.64

5. Conclusion: The Hero and Me, A Fascination Fulfilled

We began with our fascination with the heroic held in tension with perplexity at how we relate to those who seem to transcend the limits of our humanity even while remaining immanently active in the world. This fascination, born of frustration at our limitations, implies an underlying desire to overcome, a fantasy played out in playgrounds across the world as children pretend to be their favourite heroes. Thus, our captivation is often found not so much in longing for a hero as longing to be a hero, to burst the boundaries that hem us in, to reach for the extraordinary. As we draw our triperspectival examination together, we find Jesus as the shaft of light, both illuminating and splintering our dreams.

Our examination of moral heroism has drawn us towards Jesus as scripture’s true hero. Thus, our perplexity is met, our fascination fulfilled, by his transcendence as divine Son and his incarnate immanence. He alone is the ‘hero’. Yet, turning our fascination upon him sees him promising to enable our imitation. The evacuative nature of such imitation subverts our heroic dreams by revealing and confirming our inability to independently overcome our limitations. Jesus calls out, ‘you ought to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, love your enemies, for you ought to love me as passionately as possible.’ Hence, the call to follow Christ is a call to respond to the normative challenge posed by the heroic. Taken up, we find ourselves following a norm we are utterly incapable of following. Far from ‘ought implies can’ the human plight is that ought equals cannot. Yet, Christ’s call comes from the cross, where we find ourselves both forgiven and granted the heroic power of another. As we are drawn into his heroism, the obligatory heroism of the normative, enabled by the transparent heroism of the existential, becomes ‘the ‘ordinary’ heroism of the situational. Our longing, once subverted, is fulfilled.

Consequently, scripture’s heroic figures can be exemplars. The legitimate fears of moralising scriptural heroes are tempered by nuancing their heroism as God’s work in them. Their heroic obedience, fuelled by a passion to know God, can and should inspire such heroism in us. There is a sense in which we are encouraged to ‘be a Daniel’.65

The morally heroic, then, is open to all. Contrary to a culture which often hypes the life of faith into a frenzy of revolutionary extremes, Christian moral heroism, defined as the deep passion to love and be like Jesus, issues in transformed and transformative lives in small, every-day decisions.66 One may imagine a missionary in extreme circumstances as living a life beyond the call of duty for the sake of Christ, however, the triperspectival view articulated here expands this heroic category. Hence, the heroism of such a missionary should be celebrated in view of the existential, God’s sanctifying work in his life, as well as the gift of a situation that enables him to serve, even under physical danger. This does not diminish his heroism but looks more closely for God’s glory therein. However, we may also recognise the young mother with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and an over-worked husband enacting her obligation to be like Jesus in her situation by laying down her life for her family, struggling through another day and teaching her children the gospel. The glory of Christ is seen as she bears morally heroic fruit. Thus, these two believers may each be inspired by the heroism of the other. The moral authority of apparently heroic figures takes on an inspirational quality in the mundanity of life, while the lives of countless ‘ordinary’ believers take on unexpected heroic significance as they follow and glorify Christ. By following Christ, transparent discipleship follows his call to moral heroism, enabled by progressive transformation to his likeness such that our fascination and desire for the heroic is fulfilled in the every-day. The believer can be ‘the ordinary hero.’67

[1] How to teach children the Old Testament without resorting to ‘dare to be a Daniel’ moralism is a challenge for Sunday-schools across the church.

[2] In many ways this study could be viewed as an extended reflection on this verse, asking how Paul’s call to imitate his imitation of Christ finds purchase in the believer’s life.

[3] See generally, John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), and pp. 19–37 in particular.

[4] See, for example, Douglas J. Moo, “A Review of John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life” (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, New Orleans, LA, November 2009); Meredith Kline, “A Paper Pursuant to the Faculty Forum of February 28, 1986 at Westminster Theological Seminary in California” (Westminster Theological Seminary, 28 February 1986),

[5] Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 33.

[6] Ibid., 34.

[7] Ibid., 33.

[8] Ibid., 196–99.

[9] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, 3rd ed. (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012), 7. Campbell’s seminal work was hugely significant in birthing the ‘mono-myth’ theory of comparative mythology. As such he continues to influence the conception of the hero today. Indeed he influences even the creation of new heroic tales within popular culture. He has, of course, had a significant impact on the perception of Christianity for many, since mono-mythology folds religious ‘myth’, including, in Campbell’s view, that of Jesus Christ, together with heroic myth and legend. We can only refer to him in passing here, recognising that, while there is much that should prompt interaction from the Christian perspective (indeed there is scope for further study in this area) there is also much in Campbell’s work which is helpful for the purposes of this study in understanding the psychology of the human fascination with the heroic.

[10] Ibid., 23–25.

[11] Mike Alsford, Heroes and Villains (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006), 23.

[12] See generally, J. O. Urmson, “Saints and Heroes,” in Essays in Moral Philosophy, ed. A. I. Melden, new ed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967), 198–216. Although a relatively short essay, Urmson initiated something of a seismic shift in modern philosophical conceptions of deontic morality. This was his seminal work, and has found significance right down to ‘street-level’ ethics, as we shall see.

[13] Ibid., 212.

[14] Andrew Michael Flescher, Heroes, Saints and Ordinary Morality, Moral Traditions Series (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003), 36.

[15] Urmson, “Saints and Heroes,” 201–3. In particular, Urmson gives the example of a soldier throwing himself upon a grenade in order to protect his fellows. Had none done so, Urmson argues, one could not hold any morally blameworthy.

[16] See generally, David Heyd, Supererogation, Cambridge Studies in Philosophy, reprint ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Heyd’s work self-consciously builds upon that of Urmson. He was among the very first to apply the term ‘supererogation’ in this relatively alien secular context. See also, Gregory Mellema, Beyond the Call of Duty: Supererogation, Obligation, and Offence, SUNY Series in Ethical Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

[17] Ibid., 2.

[18] Flescher, Heroes, Saints and Ordinary Morality, 2.

[19] Michael S. Horton, Ordinary: Sustaining Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 152–54.

[20] Brian S. Hook and Russell R. Reno, Heroism and the Christian Life: Reclaiming Excellence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 1.

[21] Again, see Urmson, “Saints and Heroes,” 201–3.

[22] Christopher J. H. Wright, Human Rights: A Study in Biblical Themes, Grove Booklets on Ethics 31 (Bramcote: Grove, 1979), 11–12.

[23] Urmson, “Saints and Heroes,” 205.

[24] Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 196–99.

[25] Ibid., 131–7.

[26] Ibid., 196.

[27] Ibid., 198. See also 1 Cor 9:17–18 and 24–27.

[28] See, for example, 2 Cor 12:10, Phil 1:19–23 and 3:7–16.

[29] Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 198–99.

[30] Frame cites Deut 29:6. See also Exod 6:7, 7:5, 10:12, 16:12; Isa 45:6; 49:23; etc.

[31] As Bavinck so beautifully puts it: ‘From the beginning creation was arranged, and human nature was immediately so created that it was amenable to, and fit for, the highest degree of conformity to God and for the most intimate indwelling of God.’ Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 530.

[32] Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 199.

[33] See generally, Moo, “A Review of John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life.”

[34] Frame,The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 911–12.

[35] Ibid.,317.

[36] See generally, Flescher, Heroes, Saints and Ordinary Morality. Flescher is relatively unique among secular ethicists in his application of an ethical theory of virtue to the traditionally deontological issue of moral heroism. His thesis arises from a considered critique of the supererogatory theories of Urmson and Heyd, and is thus highly relevant for this study.

[37] Ibid.,141–44.

[38] See Urmson, “Saints and Heroes,” 203.

[39] Flescher, Heroes, Saints and Ordinary Morality, 49, italics original.

[40] Ibid., 148.

[41] This is Flescher’s own term.

[42] Flescher, Heroes, Saints and Ordinary Morality, 19.

[43] Ibid., 10.

[44] Ibid., 110.

[45] Ibid., 243.

[46] Ibid., 266.

[47] See, for example, Rom 6:1–23, Eph 2:1–4, and Jesus’s teaching on the human heart in Mark 7:21–23.

[48] 1 Peter 2:21–24 makes it abundantly clear that Christ’s sacrificial death functions as both inimitable substitutionary death (v. 24) and example for believers to follow (v. 21).

[49] Tim Chester, The Ordinary Hero: Living the Cross and Resurrection (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009), 15–46.

[50] Moo, “A Review of John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life,” 8.

[51] Hook and Reno,Heroism and the Christian Life, 121.

[52] Ibid.,209.

[53] Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 199.

[54] Ibid., 337.

[55] Again, see 1 Cor 11:1. Hook and Reno comment that ‘Paul’s own specific activity in his transparency to Christ is not the content of his exhortation to imitate him. It is not important for the Corinthians to do as Paul does, in any particular sequence of action, but to be transparent to Christ as he is.’ Heroism and the Christian life, 126.

[56] See in particular Frame’s exposition of the situational perspective in chapter 15, “Our Ethical Situation,” in The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 251–70.

[57] Ibid., 239–40.

[58] In learning to ‘live with ourselves’ (in our situation) Frame describes the ‘collision’ of situational and existential. Ibid., 261.

[59] See chapter 17, “Our Chief End,” in ibid., 298–313.

[60] Ibid., 239.

[61] This is not directly confirmed by Paul in the text of verse 5, but the referent to Peter and Barnabas taking wives is surely linked to the likelihood they were more likely to require payment for the support of their families.

[62] Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 199.

[63] This is, of course, the very point Jesus made when observing the generous widow (Luke 21:1–4).

[64] R. H. Charles, Courage, Truth, Purity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1931), 8.

[65] The careful nuancing of how this should be done in practice would be worthy of further investigation, beyond the scope of this study.

[66] Horton (Ordinary) effectively grapples with this significant point, of which this study provides an iceberg-tip.

[67] Chester, The Ordinary Hero.

Matthew Lillicrap

Matthew Lillicrap is a masters student at Oak Hill Theological College, London.

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