Virtues: the lost key to discipleship?

At a clergy conference last year, one of the speakers made a sharp comment about Church school leadership. He observed that the fashion in leadership has been for “values”, and pointed out that many schools and businesses print “our values” on the wall of their establishment, but noone actually follows them. He made the case for schools using the Christian idea of “virtues” instead, We’ve found a set of Christian “values” really…er… valuable at the school of which I am a governor, but I have a hunch the speaker was dead right.

So many modern church “vision statements” veer between giddy excitement and self-reliant business speak, and so many church leaders admit to talking a lot about “disciplemaking”, but not knowing how to do it. I believe that talking about – no, cultivating – the virtues is what we are missing.

The Virtues trampling the Vices – Strasbourg Cathedral

A recent sermon theme I was given – “Prudence” –  encouraged me to write about them more generally.

What are “virtues”?

“Virtues” are about character – that part of us that, like the word “Brighton” through a piece of seaside rock confectionery, runs inside us and is there at whatever point you look. Character is our innate way of acting and reacting in every circumstance and moment of choice, whether good or evil.

The word “virtue” came to us from the ancient Greeks ( the Greek is aretē or hexis, and the Latin virtus or habitus). Sometimes it is better translated as “excellence” or “strength”, especially in relation to what Aristotle called the intellectual virtues (see below). Virtues according to Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics are a state of character which chooses and performs acts “at the right time, with the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way”. For him, virtue is often a mean between two extremes: courage lies between fear and confidence; temperance/self-control lies between pleasures and pains.

Aristotle listed  “intellectual virtues” (science, art, reason, philosophy) as well as moral ones (liberality, magnificence, pride, friendliness). The four key or “cardinal” ones (cardo means “hinge”, the ones on which character turns) among the ancient Greeks were prudence (common sense), courage, self-control and justice. Much of the way he writes about these virtues is man-centred:  the goal of flourishing life (happiness or eudaimonia) is attained by cultivating virtues through practice and contemplation of them.

What does Christian theology make of the virtues?

Although some of them, such as pride, came to be seen by Christian tradition not as virtues but vices, there are great similarities to this Greek tradition in the New Testament.The apostle Paul writes about the ninefold fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. The fruit includes “self-control” (enkrateia),  the same virtue as in Socrates and Aristotle, and “patience” (hupomonē, also highlighted by Jesus in Luke 8:15 of the seed sown on good soil) resembles the habit of “perseverance” in Aristotle’s “courage”. Both are also referred to in 2 Peter 1:6.

Paul also prefaces his “household codes” (setting out behaviour in the church and family) with the call to the “new self” of virtue (Ephesians 4:20-5:20), speaking of kindness, compassion, wisdom and thanksgiving. “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…over all these virtues put on love which binds them together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12, 14).

So although it seems unlikely that Paul (a trained Jewish Pharisee) drew heavily on Aristotle, he knew of the idea of “virtues” and found similar lists of Christian spiritual “fruit” and “clothing” important in urging godly living on others.

How does the gospel renew the virtues?

Jesus and his disciples also transformed the idea of virtues. They added compassion, forgiveness, and especially, love. They also transformed the goal of virtue (living in conformity with the coming kingdom of God) and the means of cultivating it (see next article on virtue and, briefly, below). Paul’s image of the virtuous life is not an individual attaining moral perfection alone (as in Aristotle) but the life transformed through the mind being renewed. It is the new life of Christ in his people, the perfection of Humanity in Him, the dawning of new creation, the tasting of the glory of God by the Spirit of God.

Augustine is probably the early Church Father who wrote most about virtues. He was nervous of some of Aristotle’s man-centred language. He saw habit (virtue acquired by nature, through repetition, according to Aristotle) as a man-centred enemy of real virtue, which comes from grace. We do not cultivate the virtues in ourselves, God grows them in us through faith. So Augustine preferred to speak of consuetudo or “custom” instead of habitus or “habit”. To the cardinal virtues he added the “theological”ones of faith (fides), hope (spes) and love (caritas). All virtue, he said, comes from love of God, not human effort.

Thomas Aquinas  devoted a large section of his Summa theologica to the subject of Christian ethics and virtue (I-II q. 49-64 on habits and virtues). He borrowed extensively from Aristotle’s language of “habit”, and his list of virtues is similar in some ways, with the same four cardinal ones as the ancient Greeks. But he also disagreed with Aristotle about the definition of the most important moral virtues (love, faith and hope), the end or goal (God), and the means (grace).

Aristotle saw virtues as indelible habits which once gained, we exercise perfectly. Once a person has learnt courage they will instinctively be courageous in every situation . Aquinas disagreed, Because he saw virtue as connected first to will, not to reason, the person has an act of will, or choice, to make every time. Animals may be “creatures of habit” (lacking “will” to make moral choices) but we are the real experts at true “habit”, because true “habit” or “virtue” requires an act of will (I-II q.50 a3, ad 2)That means that virtue is a moral or spiritual matter, not (as in Aristotle and Plato) an intellectual one.

He also went further, and like Augustine before him, made a distinction between the “moral” or “cardinal” virtues above and the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and love. In this he was simply following Paul’s “these three remain” of 1 Corinthians 13.These three are for Aquinas the vital virtues which are only seen in Christians, and through which the Christian is able to express other virtues. So only Christians can be really virtuous.

Many Protestants assume that Aquinas favoured nature over grace, or nature and grace together,  in salvation and what many call “sanctification”. Instead we should hold to salvation “by grace alone”. He is thus accused of being “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian” (a reference to Augustine’s opponent who held these views). Yet  Aquinas was clear that spiritual virtues come from God, not man. So he also agreed with Augustine about grace and the Spirit, as opposed to nature and habit, being the way that we grow virtuous. We may be able to learn intellectual virtues such as science, but moral virtues are “infused” in us by God, not acquired by learning or practice. (I-II q.51 ad 4).  His definition of a virtue is clear whose work it is, A good quality of the mind, by which we live rightly, of which noone makes bad use, which God works in us without us” I-II q.55, a4

At this point medieval Aquinas is as Protestant as Reformation Calvin, “Seeing then that no good work proceeds from us unless insofar as we are regenerated – and our regeneration is wholly of God – there is no ground for claiming one iota in good works” (Institutes III 15 7).

Virtues are Spirit-enabled character traits which arise from faith and express our membership of and commitment to the kingdom of God. I think we need to cultivate and discuss them much more than most Protestants presently do.

A second article will ask why faith, hope and love are key “virtues” and how we cultivate them.


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Rector of Holy Trinity, Norwich, since Sept 2017, writing on pastoring, preaching, resourcing discipleship, and apologetics/philosophy.

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